My Battle Is Bigger Than Yours

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I
go back and re-visit Vietnam each year via maps, movies, and computer
games. The war was so complex that there's some new focus with each
review. One recurring theme is that our nation didn't learn any
public policy lesson from Vietnam. We still hold the military in
blind esteem, we still trust politicians, and we still travel to
Oz looking for things that were in our own backyard all the time.

We
tend to forget now, but Vietnam was the only war that the United
States lost outright. The War of 1812, Korea, and Gulf War I might
be argued as draws, but in Vietnam our allies were overrun and the
remaining Americans in-country were forced to flee. It was quite
a contrast to the World War II hoopla of Studs Terkel.

The
American military in Southeast Asia was unequalled in the world
at that time. We Were Soldiers gives a good look at the 1965 Army,
before it was first corrupted and then destroyed. Even in something
as anti-war as Oliver Stone's Platoon, the fire missions got called
in, rations were delivered on time, and all of the other military
stuff happened the same way it did in World War I, II, and Korea.
In any pitched battle, we would always win with the firepower, organization,
and technology.

However,
the battles from 1965 to 1975 were exceptions and distortions. Our
movies and popular culture define Vietnam in terms of set-piece
engagements like Ia Drang, Hamburger Hill, and Tet. Mel Gibson and
Charlie Sheen give us neat dramatic lessons, like a TV crime drama,
with a beginning, middle, and end wrapped up in 84 minutes. Indeed,
the US Army loved the infrequent pitched battles as showcases for
their new toys. That's why they still say they really "won"
the biggest battle of them all, Tet.

But
Vietnam wasn't about Gettysburg-like encounters that would fit into
the news hole or after-action reports. The rule in Vietnam was a
daily grinder that used up highly-trained men, fragile morale, and
expensive materiel. It was the senselessness of being on point in
the last month of your tour, or getting stray shots from a tree
line and watching massive artillery and air strikes make the jungle
bounce.

After
World War I, the first German staff study was why Germany had lost
the war. After Vietnam, the military and politicians pointed fingers.
So our preoccupation with big, newsworthy battles is being repeated
these days. We had the "drive for Baghdad" leading to
Mission Accomplished. Now the Army is engaged in Operation Iron
Hammer – another quest for the big battle to settle things once and
for all.

If
the rag-tag enemy using borrowed weapons accommodates us by fighting
out in the open against our tanks and planes, then maybe we can
do Mission Accomplished II. Otherwise, we'll have a second national
defeat awaiting analysis.

November
15, 2003

Nick
Schuessler [send him mail]
was with the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle near
Phu Bai in 1968–69. He resides in Phoenix, AZ.


        
        

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