Burning History: Preparing the Battlefield; Preparing the Viewer’s Mind
Story creates self-image, and cultural story creates cultural self-image. Behavior is consistent with self-image. If you can control the story, you can control behavior.
By John M. Del Vecchio
When a typhoon hit the northern part of South Vietnam in late 1970 many of the combat operations in western I Corps were suspended while troops from the 101st Airborne Division aided villagers in the lowlands. Photo by the author.
Let’s jump right in to the anomalies of Episode 5, This Is What We Do (July 67-Dec 67) . Then we’ll look at how this is being used to set up Episode 6, Things Fall Apart (Jan 68-May 69). Errors of omission are immense; interpretation of the limited story told is erroneous.
The reason for leaving a hill or a battlefield after the battle is over, is not “to give” the hill back to the enemy. The declaring that abandonment of the terrain makes the combat losses in vain shows zero understanding of the dynamics of the conflict. NOTE: The NVA also left virtually all these battlefields after the battle was over. It would have been virtually impossible for allied troops, even with ten times their numbers, to maintain a presence on all territory. Again, this is also true of the NVA.
Think of it this way: In a high-crime urban area do police forces continually cover every house and every business establishment, or do they patrol areas in the hopes of deterring crime by their intermittent presence or stopping violence if they can reach it as it occurs? In Vietnam, particularly in the border regions, we patrolled. This, or course, became necessary when LBJ and McNamara rejected Westmoreland’s Op York strategy (see previous blog) and force ARVN and allied troops to interdict only after enemy troops infiltrated into South Vietnam.
We did not have a Maginot Line; we policed the neighborhood. We did not occupy all spaces at all times. The criticism [we’ll see it repeated for Dong Ap Bai, Ripcord and other battles] about leaving a hill after a battle, and claiming the battle thusly being in vain is invalid. Criticizing the strategy that forced these tactics is valid.
In Episode 5 we were told that Le Duan’s strategy of late ’67 and going into ‘68 was to have the NVA instigate a series of border battles to lure Americans away from the cities, thereby leaving the populated area vulnerable to attack. This indeed is the proper set up for what’s coming at Tet ’68. Not said, however, is that this is the repeat of the strategy used in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. The part of that strategy not explained in Episode 1 is that coupled with pulling French troops to that remote outpost, the communists then instigated hundreds of terrorist incidents in the population centers of the North. General Giap referred to this part of his op plan as a “gnat swarm” technique designed to drive government officials and citizens mad. The Tet Offensive (Jan-Feb 68) and the Mini-Tet Offensive (May 68) both follow this pattern. Khe Sanh was to be the Tet Dien Bien Phu; and Kham Duc the same for mini-Tet.
One major difference that North Vietnamese planners did not fully appreciate was that American mobility was far superior to French mobility. That does not mean that the battles were not fierce. It means the Northern strategy, not adjusted for new realities, was flawed.
Significant resultants of the flawed NVA strategy—overlooked by many historians—are that the attacks caused adjustments in American military strategy, moving it a step closer to what Westmoreland conceived. From mid-68 forward American forces were more heavily concentrated in the northern provinces south of the DMZ and along the Laotian border, in order to more effectively interdict troops and materiel coming from North Vietnam. When Abrams takes over for Westmoreland he continues and expands this strategy. This disposition of forces allowed for greater use of South Vietnamese Regional and Provincial forces to secure lowland population centers, and lead to the most peaceful period in South Vietnam. There are still nasty battles to come, but both better American strategy and the continued development of the ARVN, produce conditions unfavorable to the North and cause the North to question its commitment to continuing the war. The American political atmosphere and Soviet and Chinese pressure keep them going.
Let’s take a quick look at how Burns portrays American vs. communist troops. In battle, in defensive positions or pinned down while patrolling, Americans are seen crouching in foxholes or bunkers or depressions in the ground. They are the bait the command has used to attract an attack in which enemy forces can be destroyed by artillery or air power. The picture is grim. American troops are embittered. Certainly there were times when this was accurate. Being shot at or bombarded with artillery is scary. But note how NVA soldiers are portrayed as they prepare a battlefield to lure Americans to attack their temporary position (as said, they didn’t hold territory either), or while the battle is in progress. They also hunker down, but they’re eager to engage the fight. They are not bait used by their commanders, but are courageous.
First, know that all film from North Vietnamese sources was taken by NVA “armed propaganda teams” not by members of a free press. Secondly, realize that these NVA soldiers were very often scared, that they often felt forced to be where they were, that many were disheartened, and that very many disliked their command--particularly hating the political officers which were attached to all NVA units. [Kind of sounds like troops in any war, huh?] During the war some 20,000 northern troops defected to the south. That is a very significant number and should tell the reader more about NVA morale than Burns projection of happy patriots willingly and eagerly entering the maw. As to insurgents indigenous to South Vietnam (the VC), so disenchanted with the communist side, and so convinced the allied side was winning, some 180,000 defected to the South! American defections to the North are single digit; and ARVN defection to the communist side are minor (although, it was a problem for the ARVN that troops left their units to “go home” where they often served with either local Regional or Popular force units.)
Why, Mr. Burns, have you not shown this? To portray NVA soldiers, Asian boys, as happily and willingly giving their lives for “the cause,” as if Asians don’t value life in the same way Americans do, is subtly racist.
The first week is complete, the second week is about to start. It feels like we’ve had a semester break (and personally I’d like to get back out climbing). Episode 5 has been the set-up for where we’re going—the Tet Offensive, The Paris Peace Talks. Will we see the realities of what happened on the ground in Vietnam, or will we see Vietnam mostly through the eyes of U.S. and world politicians, and the anti-war movement?
Things do fall apart in 1968, but militarily they fall apart far more for the NVA and VC than they do for the ARVN, Americans and allies.
Please forward and share this essay. For more on this, and for the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.