"The people just do not understand the war"

No, that’s not a quote from The Ranter’s close friends Dubya or Rummy. That’s from David Maraniss’ book They Marched Into Sunlight (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Maraniss follows two parallel stories, that of a battle in Vietnam and that of a student protest in Madison, Wisconsin. The two stories converge on October 19, 1967, when they appear side by side on the front page of the paper. For Maraniss, that was the beginning of the real slide in public opinion in favor of the war. Why bring this up now? Because the administration’s assessment of the situation in Vietnam in 1967 appears chillingly like the current administration’s assessment of Iraq today.

A few quick quotes from the book speak volumes.

We are losing support in this country. The people just do not understand the war.

   — Lyndon Johnson (p. 187).

[The embassy has developed a plan to] demonstrate to the press and the public that we are making solid progress and are not in a stalemate… [T]he enemy is losing control of the people for his side. His recruitment has dropped off sharply…

   — Eugene Locke, deputy ambassador to South Vietnam (p. 187).

If we don’t stop them in Vietnam, we are going to be fighting them in the streets of Lodi [a town near Madison].

   — Bob Hope (p. 315).

We should shoot them if necessary. I would. I would. Because it’s insurrection.

   — WI Senator Leland McParland regarding student protesters (p. 397).

In October 1967, General Westmoreland, President Johnson and the hawks in the administration still believed not only that the war was winnable, but that we were actually winning. Westmoreland felt that if he just had more troops, he could turn the tide. His strategy was one of attrition: if he could kill enemy soldiers faster than the enemy could replace them, he woudl eventually win. Westmoreland demonstrated that victory was at hand with the most specious of statistics. In the book’s main battle, the Americans get ambushed and kill 22 to 25 enemy soldiers. Westmoreland and Hay, general of the First Division, insist despite all evidence that there was no ambush and that the enemy lost 103 men. Not only was this not born out by the men in the field or the military investigator sent in to do the followup to the battle, Maraniss also managed to track down two of the commanders from the other side, who confirm that Westmoreland’s analysis and body count were tragically wrong.

In fact, the drop off in enemy activity was due to reasons that Westmoreland could not even suspect: they were gathering strength for the major Tet offensive. The only reason that the North Vietnamese did not stay put to wipe out the entire US battalion, was that they were being counted on for another battle and were in a hurry to get to their appointed rendez-vous. The vicious battle that caught up Delta Company and the Black Lions was just a shape of things to come.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, students in Madison had decided that 1967 was the year to get serious about stopping the war. Dick and Lynne Cheney, though they were on campus, were not among the protesters, but Dick was happy to stay in grad school on military deferment while he supported sending other young men off to fight, which seems to be a deeply ingrained MO for Cheney. In 1967, the protests in Madison transitioned from peaceful to violent, setting the campus on the trajectory that would end in the bombing of the Army Math Research Center which killed a grad student working there.

I don’t believe that history repeats itself, so there are only so many lessons one can take from Vietnam, but the clear one from Maraniss is that the generals on the ground and the president in the White House can be foolishly optimistic about their war effort.

This is, by the way, a fun read. Maraniss does a great job of introducing you to the cast of characters and getting you attached to men you know will die (or go on to be mayor of Madison, as the case may be). At times the book drags and feels like it was written by a historian, rather than a journalist, but the “action scenes” (the battle in Vietnam and the battle in the Commerce building) are gripping and well worth the read.

2 Responses to “"The people just do not understand the war"”

  1. “In October 1967, General Westmoreland, President Johnson and the hawks in the administration still believed not only that the war was winnable, but that we were actually winning.”

    In 2005, there are still people who believe the Vietnam war was not militarily lost. If with more than 30 years of hindsight, they cannot accept that fact, I am not too optimistic about their understanding of Iraq.

  2. TheRanter

    It’s funny, because Maraniss talks about how even the North Vietnamese government recognized that it was not purely a military conflict. Westmoreland and Maxwell Taylor (Air Force) did give completely fictional accounts of war, the body counts, US success in the field and in the bombing campaign and those who think that the US did not lose militarily tend to take Westmoreland and Taylor at their word, even 30 years later. So, yes, one has to believe that Bush administration spin will hold sway over many Americans into the middle of the century.

    It is clear in retrospect, now that we have information about what really was going on in Vietnam, that the bombing of Hanoi was completely ineffectual, hardening Vietnamese resistance just as the bombing of civilian targets in the Blitz hardened British resistance. We also know that, despite Westmoreland and Taylor’s fictions, there was never a point in the war when the US was winnning and could finish it with just a few more troops. Quite the contrary, the best intelligence the military had suggested the exact opposite as early as 1967, despite Westmoreland’s emphatic denial of that intelligence. More parallels to the present?

    That said, Maraniss does a good job of showing how the protests in the US were seen by the North Vietnamese leaadership to be fundamentally important both for sapping the political will of the US and for bolstering the moral of the Vietnamese. One positive effect is that, at least in the upper levels of the Vietnamese leadership, there was a belief that they were fighting the American government who was not backed by the American people. Though I have not been to Vietnam myself, friends have reported very little hostility, in fact great friendliness, from Vietnamese towards Americans. It makes me wonder if part of the reason is the knowledge that many Americans never supported the war. America got into Vietnam without the general populace having any idea why.

    Unfortunately, that is different from Iraq. We started with tremendous support and, no matter whether or not Bush lied, there is no doubt that Americans were more gung ho for Iraq than Vietnam, so I suspect that the lingering consequences will last much longer and will be much more damaging.

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