In the bipolar world of the Cold War period, the security and power of the United States of America (USA) was threatened by the spread of communism, and the focus of grand strategy was shifted to stop this from continuing. According to the introduction by Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley, “On Strategy”, the formulation of this strategy can be attributed to several factors including the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s, and therefore communism’s, proximity to Eurasian states. This resulted in the Truman doctrine and the associated policy of containment, which was put into practice in Vietnam. In a study of American counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War, there are several major issues that need to be addressed. As well as considering theories of international relations to explain US action, it is necessary to examine how the happenings in Vietnam fit within the various theories of asymmetric conflict, such as the work of Ivan Arreguin-Toft3 and Gil Merom, who both detail important aspects of counterinsurgency such as the necessity for brutality and the importance of the social dimension; and thence the broader dimensions of strategy presented by Michael Howard, to consider why the US failed in its counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam.
Application of the Liberal Paradigm: A Theoretical Approach The nature of US military intervention can be characterised according to the realist paradigm of international relations, which suggests that states are motivated by relative power gains, the preservation of security and the survival of the state.6 According to US grand strategy it was imperative that communism be contained in order to preserve national security and international power. However there are problems with using realism here. Realist political theory relies on the instrument of power; the implication being that the greatest power always wins. Liberal internationalism, as defined by Michael Doyle,7 sets out the reasons for US involvement in Vietnam more effectively. The assumption within the liberal internationalism paradigm is that “a separate peace exists among” liberal states, but they remain hostile in their relations with non-liberal states.8 This “separate peace” was first identified by Immanuel Kant. His “second definitive article” requires each nation-state to demand of others to enter into the “pacific union” of liberal states.9 In the case of Vietnam, this theory was extended to include the preservation of existing democratic governments, particularly that of South Vietnam.
Vietnam As an Asymmetric Conflict At this point, it is necessary to demonstrate the asymmetry of the conflict in Vietnam. US military intervention in Vietnam occurred in 1965. The USA had a population of about 194 million, more than 10 times that of North Vietnam, about 19 million. There was a similar discrepancy in military forces: US numbering 2.5 million to the North Vietnamese 256 000. Even considering that the United States did not devote its entire population and armed forces to the conflict, it is undeniable that the conflict was asymmetric, favouring the US.10 Brutality and the Dimensions of Strategy Both Merom and Toft agree that brutality is a key component of counterinsurgency that works to coerce counterinsurgents into surrender. Both theorists also agree however, that Howard’s social dimension11 becomes an important consideration with the use of brutality, as it acts to monitor and control to an extent, conflict. Howard outlines the significance of the social dimension by stating that without the support of the public, waging war becomes near impossible. Merom elaborates on Howard’s assertion by breaking up the social dimension into two categories: instrumental dependence and normative alignment.
For the counterinsurgents in Vietnam, the instrumental dependence, that is, the dependence on society to provide the manpower needed for war, was huge; the guerrilla units were almost entirely made up of ordinary citizens. The US relied on conscription to provide manpower for the war in a similar way. It is evident that both sides had extensive instrumental dependence, and to allow for this, normative alignment was essential. That is, the “degree of agreement between the state’s authorities and society over the legitimacy of the objectives, the methods and the cost of the war”, was of utmost importance. History speaks for itself here: for the US, the normative gap grew uncontrollably and caused their withdrawal from the conflict. Howard’s operational dimension12 is given heavy emphasis by Merom, as he highlights four key areas: annihilation, isolation, eradication and decapitation that are effective operational means of counterinsurgency. Annihilation was used in Vietnam. For US counterinsurgency efforts, it was difficult to identify the enemy, as the guerrillas were ordinary citizens who had taken up arms.
To counter this, US forces resorted to indiscriminate violence, but ultimately lost out, due to public opinion in the US and extreme Vietnamese nationalism that was only further inspired by this form of brutality. The effect of the social dimension is evident here even in the wake of extreme military superiority. Operationally, annihilation as a strategy can be regarded as successful, but only if unchecked and unrestrained by external forces such as international and public opinion. Merom asserts that insurrection can be effectively responded to by targeting the link between guerrillas and the population. The US strategic hamlets were an example of this type of isolation. This strategy involved forcing South Vietnamese villagers from their homes and relocating them into fortified hamlets. Considering the operational dimension, the strategic hamlets were a failure, as they were not implemented effectively. Corrupt officials failed to deliver supplies and funds to the villages to help them function as communities.
Where implemented properly however, strategic hamlets had a disastrous effect on Vietcong (VC) intelligence and supply networks. The social dimension again proved decisive, in terms of social support for the US within Vietnam and US public opinion. Many of the South Vietnamese villagers, forced to leave their homes and then abandoned, began to support the VC, while the US public did not approve of the mistreatment of innocent civilians. Where harm to civilians was involved, US public tolerance would waver. Therefore, US counterinsurgency efforts turned to targeting the guerrillas themselves, through eradication and decapitation: the elimination of guerrilla soldiers and their leaders respectively. The “search and destroy” missions that consisted of regular army units acting on intelligence that had located enemy units, would make contact with the enemy and eliminate them. This exercise proved costly in terms of man power and time.15 Socially, this strategy was more acceptable, as only combatants from either side were lost, and civilians spared. However the operational and logistical drawbacks proved too difficult to sustain.
The Phoenix program was later installed to target and destroy guerrilla leadership via special intelligence. This strategy proved successful in damaging the VC command infrastructure and was an operational success, but involved killing non-combatants and was unacceptable in the social dimension. Howard differentiates the maintenance of armed forces from their use.16 This maintenance comprises the logistical dimension. Within the social dimension, the logistical relies on society’s tolerance of the cost of war which directly affected the capacity of the US to produce manpower. The US failure to win continued political support for the war meant a finite amount of manpower available. On the other hand, Merom evaluates violence as a form of cost management. Following the strategic hamlets’ establishment, indiscriminate killing followed of those suspected to be part of the resistance. This helped reduce the cost of eliminating insurgents, as the US would lose time and men, as well as other resources in the planning involved in increasing the selectivity of the process. Indiscriminate violence is the most efficient methods of counterinsurgency producing a psychological hard line but this is balanced by the social monitor.
The more selective methods of eliminating insurgents detailed above, which were much more popular with the public put a huge strain on the US logistical dimension. In his analysis of counterinsurgency, Merom does not touch on the importance of the technological dimension.18 Howard writes that this dimension of strategy is becoming more important. However in Vietnam, two ends of the spectrum. On one hand, we have the USA, arguably the most technologically advanced state since the end of World War II; and on the other, the VC, who used very primitive weapons in their resistance, but relied upon their natural surroundings to give them the advantage of surprise and render the USA’s technological superiority ineffective. To avoid the obvious consequences of close combat with the Vietnamese guerrillas, the US was forced to use their technological advantage in the form of long-range brutality; tactical air strikes and artillery fire against non-combat targets.19 This awarded the US with a logistical advantage but fuelled public outrage in the USA. Conclusion After the assessment of American counterinsurgency in Vietnam using the dimensions of strategy of Michael Howard, it becomes clear that superiority or advantage in one dimension, means crushing defeat in another.
From the outset, the US military had limits on its objectives in Vietnam: they had to eliminate the communist threat in the south – that is, ‘contain’ it – without going as far as destroying it in the north, for fear of Chinese or Soviet involvement and inevitable escalation. This limit was exaggerated by the political vulnerability of the US in that there was a huge reliance on the social dimension that imposed a lot of limitations of its own, while in Vietnam unshakeable support was prevalent for the Vietcong. A Learning Experience? Since the Vietnam conflict, we have seen the USA take on the role that Toft calls the “leader of the free world”. This self-imagined role has led the US to take unwarranted military action against Iraq.
This coupled with the ‘War on Terror’, is developing an ideological war between Western states and extreme Islamic bodies. This ideological conflict should be ringing alarm bells in the ears of US policy makers and compelling them to take a different approach this time. Instead of communism being the driving force, it is Islam; and rather than the Vietnamese theatre to present the struggle, we have Iraq. Once again, US operational and technological superiority have prevailed in the early days of the conflict, but the logistical and social strains that the long, drawn- out conflict this is turning out to be will produce will prove far too burdensome for the Bush administration to handle. The constant small-scale attacks on US forces will encourage more brutality, as we have seen in the pictorial evidence of the mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners, which will only fuel Islamic fundamentalism and encourage outrage in Western society.