Some Thoughts on the Lessons of Vietnam and the General Who “Lost” the War

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by Tim Widowfield

A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)

I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?

Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.

We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.

I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.

An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.

Some of these myths took hold naturally, as veterans told their personal stories, relating with frustration how the body counts didn’t seem to matter, that the V.C. would return again and again, that the stupid war of attrition didn’t work, and what’s more, nobody seemed to give a damn that it wasn’t working. That much was true.
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Hanoi and UN

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve had a lucky chance to be in Hanoi right now. (The observant might have noticed my last 3 posts all scheduled in advance to appear at same time each day.) it’s nice to see the United Nations honoured here — as it is also in Cambodia — with national and UN flags together adjacent images of handshakes and doves.

The UN has had a rough trot since the Security Council has become the plaything of just one superpower. It’s like old times seeing nations like Vietnam and Cambodia still hoping for something of worth through the UN.

What would it take to have a system where the General Assembly had the real power over war and peace instead of the inSecurity Council? Too daunting for me to think about realistically.

But something has gone wrong somewhere when one sees the UN so often ignored or rejected or criticised in a rich exploitative nation which is my own nation, and honoured in countries we used to see as alien.


Vietnam National Day Military Concert

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

It’s not ballet, not rap, not aerobics, not quite marching, maybe a little of each, but it is certainly martial stirring stuff for the audience of Vietnamese military. It took place in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City so the public was also able to share the experience. Unfortunately I could not capture all of the matching film footage behind the singers/”dancers”(?) showing dramatic snippets of army training action, Ho Chi Minh, and other captivating visuals of Vietnam’s historical and moments of special public display moments.

The show concludes with the “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh” song.


Excuse the wobbly bit about a minute into the video when I was attempting to find a better filming position.

Several Vietnamese I met were keen to know what I thought of their country. I had to reply that, like Cambodia which I have also seen a little of, it is clear they had been cruelly ruined and are still struggling to recover from thirty-five years of war for liberation against one occupying power after another. They have a right to feel proud. Met some wonderful people there. After having been robbed in the street on my first night there, it took me a little effort to open up to the friendship and smiles of most of the locals I met. One hawker who makes his living walking the streets with a bamboo pole over his shoulder to carry his wares (cocoanuts) even came up to me to give me a free one as a gesture of good-will. A visitor needs a gesture like that after a very unlucky start.

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