30 August 2010

Vietnam: A Narrative History

A.J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 766 pages.

As a journalist in Vietnam from 1964 to 1970, A.J. Langguth was one of the architects of the way the Vietnam War was perceived in America. The news he produced for the New York Times, first as a reporter and then as the Saigon bureau chief, was a fundamental building block of what eventually became the common American understanding of the war. In Our Vietnam, A.J. Langguth goes one step further, attempting to capture the entirety of that common understanding in one text. The book, which begins with the closing days of the Eisenhower administration and ends with the unceremonious closure of the American embassy in Saigon, is only about America’s experience in Vietnam. The book dedicates less than ten pages to the thousand year history of Vietnamese resistance before or the painful years of communist totalitarianism after the American War in Vietnam.

Langguth’s Vietnam War was a tragedy caused by “America’s leaders, [who] for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States” (p. 668). Truman and Eisenhower saw Vietnam as a way to keep France, a Cold War ally, strong. Their successors--Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon--saw South Vietnam as a bulwark against the expansion of communism into Southeast Asia. Moreover, Langguth writes, “One reason for [these] three American presidents to wage war in Vietnam had been to ensure a second term, a term that none of the three was destined to complete” (p. 637). At the Pentagon, the “Never Again Club” (p. 124) demanded ever more forceful measures to fight the war, while successive presidents tried to placate the public and prevent the entry of the Chinese into the conflict by limiting the war’s scale. All of them, Langguth argues in Our Vietnam, missed the true nature of the war, a nationalist struggle to unify Vietnam and sweep away a puppet regime. Langguth concludes, “North Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to lose” (p. 668).

Our Vietnam is light on history and heavy on opinion. As an eye-witness to the American escalation and withdrawal from Vietnam, Langguth can certainly be forgiven having an opinion. But A.J. Langguth frequently substitutes direct observation or commonly held belief for historical proof. In that respect, Our Vietnam is more a collection of commonly held beliefs about the Vietnam War than a history. Furthermore, with the exception of a few anecdotes from North Vietnamese leaders and gut-wrenching stories of the suffering of the Vietnamese on both sides, there is little analysis of the Vietnamese perspective on the conflict. Our Vietnam is a great introduction to the war for those with no background in the conflict, but refuses to question any of the popular assumptions that have become the national narrative about America’s Vietnam War.

21 August 2010

Screenshots and After Action Reviews from "March to Baghdad"

JC, over at the Real and Simulated Wars Blog posted a couple of great rundowns on March to Baghdad. You can see the two blog posts here:

"Free New Wargame: 'March to Baghdad: Decision at Tallil Air Base'"

"Now What, Lt. Colonel? (fun with ProSim's 'March to Baghdad')"

My wargaming company, ProSIM Company, built this exclusive mini-game in cooperation with Armchair General Magazine to accompany an article I wrote for the November 2009 issue. To see a excerpt from that article, click here.

The game was designed by Curt Pangracs, who also was project lead for Raging Tiger and The Star and the Crescent, and was part of the design team for Air Assault Task Force.

16 August 2010

The General Offensive/General Uprising

Ronnie E. Ford, Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise. New York: Frank Cass, 1995, 194 pages.

The Tet Offensive is perhaps the most examined period of the Vietnam War. That is not surprising since it is nearly universally acknowledged as a turning point in the war, the “high-water mark” of the American effort in Vietnam. Yet the history of this climatic campaign has been written by the West, through Western eyes. In most treatments of the offensive, North Vietnamese and Vietcong motives are as obscure as they were to the American military at the time. Enter Tet 1968 by Ronnie E. Ford. This book is both a fascinating examination of the motives and decisions behind the Tet Offensive from Hanoi’s perspective and a reflection on the indicators the West had and why they were missed. Ford has gathered an impressive array of sources, from North Vietnamese strategy documents to interviews with key American and South Vietnamese intelligence figures, who were looking at the same evidence on the eve of the Tet Offensive.

Ronnie Ford portrays the Tet Offensive (or General Offensive/General Uprising as it was called by the communists) as a uniquely Vietnamese answer to the strategic stalemate that had developed in South Vietnam in 1967. In Hanoi’s estimation, the Americans had reached the apex of their capability and were still unable to dislodge the Southern insurgency. The time had arrived to shift from simply fighting to “fighting while negotiating” in order to achieve a settlement favorable to the North. To negotiate from a position of strength, Hanoi needed to generate a “General Uprising”--a mythic goal deeply rooted in the Vietnamese identity of perpetual resistance to foreign interference--in which the entire nation would rise up against the foreign invaders. Ultimately, Ford concludes, “MACV was fully aware that there had been a change in Communist strategy, and that Hanoi was planning something big,” but because of the West’s inability to understand this uniquely Vietnamese concept, the “actual intent and limited objectives were misinterpreted” (p. 194).

Tet 1968 is a fresh, intriguing take on the Tet Offensive. It departs so drastically from the well-worn path of other books, such as the focus on the dramatic media coverage and on Washington’s disastrous attempts at damage control, that one almost forgets that Ford is talking about the same campaign that has been so scrutinized over the past forty years. And herein lies the only complaint with the book. Perhaps the most central debate of the Tet Offensive is over its target: did the North Vietnamese intend to shock the leaders in Washington or, as actually happened, the American people? Ford’s Tet 1968 ventures so far afield from the commonly examined sources and questions that he never actually addresses this question. One might guess he would conclude that the actual target of the Tet Offensive was the South Vietnamese people, but Ford never provides the reader with an answer. This missed opportunity aside, Tet 1968 is an essential read for any Vietnam historian.