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Academic book review: Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. The Army and Vietnam

17 Jun

The Army and Vietnam

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1986. 318.

In The Army and Vietnam, a 1987 Furniss Award winner for Dr. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., the author closes the debate forever on just how the United States failed in its attempt to win the Vietnam War. Largely a US Army-led conflict, Krepinevich cites the Army’s inability to adapt to a non-conventional war against an insurgent enemy. Mired in Cold War uncertainty, US military planners were entrenched in a “War in Europe” mindset – an inevitable event with the Soviet Union, one that would be fought in a conventional manner. Known as the “Army Concept” of war, it was this “focus on mid-intensity, or conventional, war and a reliance on high volumes of firepower to minimize casualties – in effect, the substitution of material costs at every available opportunity to avoid payment in blood” which Krepinevich offers proved ineffective Vietnam. [1] The Army and Vietnam highlights two new concepts of warfare to Vietnam for the United States: The introduction of “Air Mobile” and the US Army’s Special Forces or “Green Berets”. The latter concept was seen as the army’s answer to counter-insurgency.

Krepinevich asks the question, “How could the army of the most powerful nation on Earth, materially supported on a scale unprecedented in history, equipped with the most sophisticated technology in an age when technology had assumed the role of a god of war, fail to emerge victorious against a numerically inferior force of lightly armed irregulars?” [2] This becomes the thesis for The Army and Vietnam. The author explores US Army doctrine which while successful in the Second World War proved woefully inadequate against a “hidden enemy” – one both hidden in the jungle and in out the open among an indigenous population. The Army and Vietnam is an important historical work. It details the aftermath of French struggle to maintain power in Vietnam following the country’s relinquished control from Japan in 1946. Vietnam was the last “unanswered question” remaining from World War II and saw American involvement at different levels from 1950 onward.

Krepinevich cites personnel policy for the failure of a successful counter-insurgency policy. Top Army brass limited enlisted tours-of-duty to just twelve months and field-grade and higher to a mere six-month tour of duty. Longer tours and time in-country was needed by both officers and enlisted to effectuate a successful pacification program as noted by the author: “… the shortness of tours invariably retarded the service’s ability to learn how to cope effectively with insurgency. As John Paul Vann noted, ‘The United States has not been in Vietnam for nine years, but for one year nine times.” [3]

The US Army failed to embrace the success realized by the US Marine Corps’ concepts for counter-insurgency. The marines had success with placing infantry squads or small units in individual hamlets for security and to engage the enemy “from sundown to sunup”. [4] “GOLDEN FLEECE” was another successful program employed by the marines. This program ensured the security of farmers to harvest their crops free from VC intervention – thus reducing the amount of food to the North Vietnamese enemy. [5]The great success by the US Marine’s “Combined Action Platoons”, or CAPs, was ultimately disregarded by US Army General William Westmoreland as unfeasible due to lack of troop-strength, a fact disputed by Krepinevich. [6]

Krepinevich notes that the “Army Concept” of war ran counter to the “pacification” efforts by US soldiers in the field. The expenditure of large amounts of artillery shellfire and defoliants dropped by air resulted in the exorbitant loss of civilian lives. The notion of attrition as a vital component of this “Army Concept”, Krepinevich points out that the reliance on indiscriminate bombing often had ancillary effects: “As under the strategy of attrition, firepower was liberally applied. While the operation was a military success, it was a political disaster: over 300 civilians were killed, nearly 400 were wounded, and over 3,000 homes were severely damaged.” [7]

The author fills a much-needed gap in the literature surrounding the US failures in Vietnam. In the vast realm of composition that has been written on war in general, less is dedicated to examining failure. If the Vietnam War was a period in American history which its citizens would rather forget, then The Army and Vietnam is a successful effort to explain what went wrong – enabling its veterans and citizens the chance to ease any lingering torment or anguish.

Krepinevich concludes The Army and Vietnam with a chilling bit of prophecy for us today – from 1986:

For in spite of its anguish in Vietnam, the Army has learned little of value… [policymakers] have endorsed the service’s misperceptions derived from the war while contemplating an increased U.S. role in Third World low-intensity conflicts. This represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional enemy. [8]

Author Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., Ph.D., was a career US Army officer and United States Military Academy (West Point) graduate. His twenty-one years in a leadership role for the United States Army make him infinitely qualified to write The Army and Vietnam and gives the theories and observations contained therein legitimacy and credence.

Bibliography
Krepinevich, Andrew F. Jr. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Endnotes
[1] Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) 5.

[2] Ibid., 4.
[3] Ibid., 206.
[4] Ibid., 172.
[5] Ibid., 174.
[6] Ibid., 175.
[7] Ibid., 256.
[8] Ibid., 275.
 
 

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