Thursday, January 20, 2011

The False Lure and Lessons of Technology And How It Shaped US Strategy In Vietnam

In all of the wars the United States participated in, technology especially cutting edge technology has been part of the common thread that ensured American victory. Whether it was the rifle of Revolutionary Marksmen, howitzers in the Civil War, or a nuclear bomb to end World War II, technology was crucial to American success. A tradition was established, and reached an apex in the arms race of the Cold War. American technology would be a key determinant in America’s Cold War strategy. Strategy and technology became inextricably linked. What was not grasped by American officials in charge of the Vietnam war was technology plays its most prominent role in the realm of tactics, and is not a driving force behind strategy. Thus America was doomed to failure in Vietnam due to a flawed overall strategy that fundamentally did not understand the role of technology in war nor the implications of its use.

The lesson America took from World War II and applied to Vietnam was that mass production won wars. Under President Eisenhower the US policy to send military advisers and aid to South Vietnam began. Since the French-Indochina war, America had been propping up the French with financial aid and military materiel. America was able to do so because in World War II America had established itself as the industrial superpower. America developed new and more efficient techniques to speed up production. Through Taylorism, America was able to out produce it’s enemies in World War II. Such mass production overwhelmed the enemy. Thus America believed in war it could grind down its opponents with overwhelming quantities of war materiel.

After the French defeat, the American military failed to reform it’s technology driven strategy. French failures were overlooked. The Eisenhower administration ignored French local failures and instead viewed the war through the geopolitical lens of the domino theory.# Eisenhower’s administration believed they could arm ARVN with vast quantities of weaponry to ensure victory. This course was chosen because American strategy operated under the assumption that conventional warfare tactics could win the war. Although the Americans provided huge sums of armaments to the South Vietnamese military, these weapons were meant for a conventional war. What the Vietminh had proved though in the French-Indochina War was that victory was secured through a strategy of unconventional warfare. Since America failed to adjust their strategy based on French defeat, America’s strategy for arming ARVN was fundamentally flawed.

The American military’s belief in the absolute power of technology prevented it from understanding how to defeat the fomenting insurgency in South Vietnam. America’s strategy was to make ARVN a NATO style military organization. The Military Assistance and Advisory Group, later MACV, believed NATO styled firepower was superior to the weaponry of locals. As a result military advisers felt they could win every battle against insurgents. This assumption was wrong. America could not see there was more to warfare than overwhelming brute force. The nature of the South Vietnamese insurgency was that the insurgents were highly motivated. This was in contradistinction to the ARVN who had many reasons to be disillusioned with the Diem government they were supposed to be protecting. Corruption, failure to land reform,# and removal of tribal power, isolated ARVN and the Diem government. MAAG was blinded to the fact that in order to succeed in Vietnam, they needed South Vietnam to succeed. To do this people needed to believe and support the South Vietnamese government. America did not realize that ARVN could not win by annihilating every enemy, but could only win by securing the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people.

Kennedy’s approach was to have a limited partnership with the Diem regime. He did not want to commit US ground troops to a conflict he viewed as an insurgency. Kennedy increased the number of advisers in Vietnam. He also sent a large amount of helicopters and other cutting edge technology. Kennedy brought the United States into a secret war that could only be facilitated by the new technology at America’s disposal. American pilots flew transport planes and helicopters for ARVN units. The administration believed the loss of the conflict could be prevented through such technology and support roles of US troops.

The Kennedy Administration changed the strategy of the Vietnam War. The new strategy shifted to counterinsurgency. Kennedy did not want to over commit and draw the Chinese or Soviets into the Vietnam War by pounding away at the North Vietnamese. The Untied States advised ARVN to take the war to the guerillas with new technology. Kennedy allowed the use of and M-113 armored personnel carriers for ARVN. The Kennedy administration believed such technology would intimidate the guerillas. Unfortunately for ARVN and MACV, the technology did not give an absolute advantage to ARVN. Guerillas sometimes captured the feared M-113. Guerillas became emboldened when they learned some of the new weapons of war could be easily destroyed . Guerillas realized helicopters could be shot down with their personal weapons. Technology was not creating a gap between ARVN and guerillas. Instead the guerillas adapted to the technology while ARVN and MACV continued to put false hopes in success through technology.

Johnson’s administration took the doctrine of using overwhelming firepower to end the Vietnam War to a new level. Escalation of the war was gradual under Johnson. Each step up the path of escalation pointed to America fighting a war of attrition. Johnson believed the US military’s superior firepower could overwhelm the insurgency and the North Vietnamese army. MACV promoted the strategy of crossover. Crossover occurred when enough opposing Vietnamese forces were killed that combat troops could not be re-supplied or reinforced. Crossover was a crucial failure in the US’s approach to the war. It fundamentally linked technology and tactics while blurring the line of achieving tactical goals and strategic goals.

Operation Rolling Thunder was a key example of trying to achieve strategic goals through
technology and tactics. Rolling Thunder was a reaction to the Gulf Of Tonkin incident. Many in Johnson’s cabinet, like Robert McNamara pushed for a heavy bombing campaign of North Vietnam to pound the country into submission. Opponents like George Ball understood that strategic bombing would not have the desired effect. North Vietnam had nothing of value to bomb. It was being supplied by China and since China was not a belligerent, it could not be attacked. Thus as Ball learned from WWII, the heavy bombing on homes and backyards of many North Vietnamese brought the war home for them. The bombing increased North Vietnamese determination while achieving almost no success for preventing the re-supply of guerrillas in the South. The bombing also did not shore up support of the Saigon government among locals. Thus South Vietnam was still very weak, while its enemies were furious and emboldened.

When the Johnson Administration approved the use of ground forces in Vietnam they were still hamstrung by an over reliance on technology instead of having a solid strategy. MACV believed the maneuverability helicopters provided for infantryman would ensure success in the battlefield. The MACV failed to understand the pitfalls of such technology. Helicopters did improve maneuverability but often increased vulnerability. Helicopters could be shot down before landing. After dropping terrain clearing daisy bombs, helicopter landing zones became easy targets for guerrillas. Landing zones often became ambush sites for guerrillas. Yet Johnson’s administration over looked these pitfalls. In their eyes the war was going to be won by such support vehicles destroying a drawn out enemy. The infantry were supposed to be the tools to draw out the enemy. This was the crux of the crossover strategy. Infantry would draw out the enemy, and support vehicles like helicopters and planes would bomb where the enemy was spotted. Because the Johnson administration was so tied to the idea of technology and tactics winning the war, it could not see how they were failing the war effort and endangering American soldiers.

The United States’ strategy in Vietnam was a non-strategy. Rather it relied on superior technology and tactics to win the war. The war could not be won on the hope technology and tactics would bleed the enemy into surrendering. As North Vietnam proved, an active and concerted strategy was the way to success. From 1956-1967 technology proved time and again it alone could not win the war in Vietnam.