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    Long after the war was over, after the fighting had ended, after Bunker was dead, and Abrams too,
    after the boat people and all the other sad detritus of a lost cause, the eldest of General Abram's
    three sons, all Army officers, was on the faculty of the Command & General Staff College at Fort
    Leavenworth.  There someone reminded him of what Robert Shaplen had once said, that his
    father deserved a better war.  'He didn't see it that way,' young Creighton responded at once.  'He
    thought the Vietnamese were worth it.'
           -A Better War

There is no greater analytical tool than Occam's Razor, but if I had to pick one worthwhile rival, it is to approach every problem in politics and history with the following mindset : the conventional wisdom is always wrong.  This is, of course, far too sweeping a generalization, but it is shocking how often it turns out to be true, and even when it isn't, it is always helpful to approach a seemingly settled problem skeptically.  Just in the past few years there have been several really good history texts which have taken this approach--Hitler's Willing Executioners, The First World War, The Pity of War--and though they've produced predictable howls of outrage, the very controversy they've stirred up has forced those who defend the conventional wisdom to do so with far greater rigor, and that's all to the good.  Lewis Sorley's A Better War challenges the accepted view of Vietnam, does so with great authority, and will hopefully thereby foster a significant re-examination of this sorest spot in the national psyche.

The basic premise of the book is that late in 1970 or early in 1971 the United States had essentially won the Vietnam War.  That is to say, we had defeated the Viet Cong in the field, returned effective control of most of the population to the South Vietnamese and created a situation where the South Vietnamese armed forces could continue the war on their own, so long as we provided them with adequate supplies and intelligence, and carried through on our promise to bomb the North if they violated peace agreements.  This situation had been brought about by the changes in strategy and tactics which were implemented by Army General Creighton Abrams when he replaced William Westmoreland in 1968, after the military triumph but public relations disaster of the Tet Offensive.  Where Westmoreland had treated the War as simply a military exercise, Abrams understood its political dimensions.  Abrams, who had worked on developing a new war plan at the Pentagon, ended Westmoreland's emphasis on body counts and destroying the enemy and switched the focus to regaining control of villages.  He understood that eventual victory required civilian support for the South Vietnamese government and this support required the government to provide villagers with physical security from the Viet Cong.

Abrams was accompanied in implementing this new approach by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and by William Colby, the new CIA chief in Saigon, who provided greatly improved intelligence reports and oversaw the pacification program.  Together they managed to salvage the wreckage that Westmoreland had left behind and they retrieved the situation even as Washington was drawing down troop levels.  In 1972, with the Viet Cong essentially eliminated as an effective fighting force, the North Vietnamese mounted a massive Easter offensive, but this too was decisively defeated.

Having failed to achieve their aims militarily, the North Vietnamese turned their attention to the Paris Peace Talks.  They were extraordinarily fortunate to be dealing with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, two opportunists of the worst sort, who were willing to negotiate a deal which left the North with troops in South Vietnam.  When President Thieu balked at this and threatened to scuttle the talks, the North backed off of the whole deal and Nixon ordered the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi.  For eleven days, waves of B-52's, each carrying 108 500-pound and 750-pound bombs, pummeled the North.  For perhaps the only time during the entire War, the North was subjected to total war, and they were forced to return to the negotiating table.  Sorley cites Sir Robert Thompson's assessment that :

    In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area,
    you had won the war.  It was over.

At that point, the Viet Cong had been destroyed, we had definitely won the insurgency phase of the War.  Additionally, the North had been defeated in the initial phase of conventional warfare, and had finally had the War brought home to them in a significant way.  Though the overall War was certainly not over, it was sitting there, just waiting to be won.

So what happened ?  Sorley has identified several problem areas that led to the eventual demise of the South.  First was the really disgraceful way in which the U. S. bugged out.  Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal--the January 27, 1973 Paris Peace Accord--which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam.  At the time they were some 160,000 in number (as compared to the 27,000 that we were down to by then).  Then, despite innumerable assurances, Nixon refused to resume bombing in order to enforce the accords.  This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South.  Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South.  At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed.  It was South Vietnam's bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally.  Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life's blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm.  Sorley, properly, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.

A second problem, one for which the military itself must bear more blame than Sorley acknowledges, is that the American press, and through them the public, had lost faith in the War.  It had dragged on much longer than American attention spans could tolerate.  Political and military leaders had repeatedly misled the public about the prospects of winning the War.  The Peace Movement had shaken domestic support for continuance of the effort.  Events like the My Lai massacre and systemic problems like drug use, many of them exacerbated by the politically mandated transition to an all volunteer armed service, had undermined the morale of the troops and of the broader public.  Like the boy who cried wolf, when the news they carried was finally true, that victory in the War was finally within our grasp, the military could not find anyone to believe them.

Third was the failure to ever stop the North from using the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos as supply lines and sanctuaries, and the related failure to carry the ground War into North Vietnam itself.  By effectively agreeing to make South Vietnam the battlefield, the U. S. ensured that the War was always being fought, at least to some degree, on North Vietnam's terms.  The modern equivalent would be something akin to issuing rules of engagement, known to everyone, for the Gulf war, which only allowed U. S. troops to fight the Iraqis in Kuwait, never to follow them into Iraq itself, never envisioning an ultimate assault on Iraq itself.  Luckily, this seems to have been one of the lessons that the military learned in Vietnam.  Never again can U. S. forces be sent into combat with rules so favorable to the enemy.

Finally, and most importantly to South Vietnam itself, even after all the years and dollars, the U. S. had not succeeded in creating a viable South Vietnamese officer corps to take over command of the situation as we pulled out.  There were many dedicated and courageous men, even a few good commanders, as Sorley shows during the fighting in the final North Vietnamese offensive in 1975, but not enough.  Moreover, the military, indeed the entire society, was so riddled with corruption that the citizenry generally distrusted them.  This, combined with the demoralizing effect of watching us turn tail, left the South poorly prepared psychologically to continue the War.

And so, when the final push came, all of these factors came together and created the environment in which the resistance of the South utterly collapsed.  Sorley writes movingly about Brigadier General Le Minh Dao, commanding the 18th Infantry Division ARVN, and the valiant resistance he mounted at Xuan Loc.  Attacked by first three and then four divisions, the 18th held out for a month, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions before succumbing.  The American advisor, Colonel Ray Battreall, said of this action :

    That magnificent last stand deserves to live on in military history, if we can overcome the bias,
    even in our own ranks, that ARVN was never capable of doing anything right.

But, of course, we've long forgotten this valiant stand, as we've forgotten so much else about the War, a War that officially ended with the South's surrender at 10:25 on April 30, 1975.

One book can not change peoples' minds about a matter as contentious as the Vietnam War.  In fact, the intellectual classes and the Baby Boom Generation have so much of themselves invested in the idea that the War was wrong and unwinnable that it's unlikely that any number of books could change their minds.  But as the years go by and as new generations take a fresh look at the War, it is important that they approach it with an open mind.  They, and we, may still conclude that we should never have been there or that there was never a chance that we could win, but those conclusions should be arrived at after examining all the evidence and considering the different possibilities.  No one undertaking this task should fail to read A Better War; it is historical revision of the very best kind, thoughtful and thought provoking.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Lewis Sorley Links:
    -About The Author - Lewis Sorley (
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of A Better War by Lewis Sorley
    -ESSAY : Courage and Blood: South Vietnam's Repulse of the 1972 Easter Invasion (LEWIS SORLEY, Parameters)
    -ESSAY : Roundout Brigades and the Gulf War: A Commentary (Lewis Sorley, National Guard Magazine)
    -ESSAY : General Harold K. Johnson and the  Crisis in Civil-Military Relations During the Vietnam War (Lewis Sorley, MIT Securities Studies Program)
    -REVIEW : of A BETTER WAR The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. By Lewis Sorley  (Jeffrey Record, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (Arnold R. Isaacs, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. By Lewis Sorley (Colonel Stuart A. Herrington, USA Ret, Parameters)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (Mackubin Thomas Owens,
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (Richard Halloran, Far Eastern Economic Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (Matthew Debord, FEED)
    -REVIEW : of A Better War (William Duiker, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of THUNDERBOLT General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times. By Lewis Sorley (David Murray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. By Lewis Sorley (Colonel Adolf Carlson, USA Ret, Parameters)
    -REVIEW : of Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. By Lewis Sorley (William Head, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. By Lewis Sorley  ( Jon Guttman , History Net)
    -AWARD : for Honorable Warrior : Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Book Award


    -TRIBUTE : After You've Gone: True Believer : William Colby, liberal (JACOB HEILBRUNN , New Republic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Studying the Vietnam War Online
    -Vietnam War Internet Project
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Vietnam Today: A Different War (New York Times)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Vietnam 25 Years Later (Salon)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: Recalling the Vietnam War (Globetrotter Research Galleries: Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: The Fall of Saigon 25 Years Later (AP)
    -RETROSPECTIVE: No Hard Feelings? (The Atlantic)
    -Virtual Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
    -Viet Nam War Documents (Vassar College)
    -TRIBUTE : A Salute to Thieu : He was on the side of freedom. He deserved better from America (SETH LIPSKY , October 3, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -Conservative Perspectives on Vietnam (Pacific University)
    -REVIEW : of Vietnam, The Necessary War by Michael Lind (Eric Alterman, dissent)
    -REVIEW :  Vietnam: The Necessary War, by Michael Lind (Ronnie Dugger, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Were the Hawks Right About Vietnam (John Lewis Gaddis, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Was it Worth It?  A new book shatters many myths about Vietnam, but misses the larger point (Gregg Easterbrook, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: An unnecessary crock:  Michael Lind's "Vietnam: The Necessary War" For some thinkers, that ol' international communist conspiracy will never die. (Judith Coburn, Salon)
    -ETEXT: AFTER VIETNAM: Legacies of a Lost War  Charles E. Neu
    -ESSAY: Henry G. Gole, "Don't Kill the Messenger: Vietnam War Reporting in Context." (US Army War College Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: CJR - A War of Their Own, reviews by Raymond A. Schroth
    -REVIEW : of THE ARMY AND VIETNAM By Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. (William L. Hauser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN ARMY U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973. By Shelby L. Stanton (Eliot A. Cohen, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  Jonathan Mirsky: The Never-Ending War
       Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy by Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, Robert K. Brigham, Thomas J. Biersteker, and Herbert Y. Schandler
       Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969; Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 two volumes
       American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War by David Kaiser
       Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF's Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War by Robert K. Brigham
       Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall
       Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese by Henry Kamm
       The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy's and Johnson's Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam by
       Richard H. Shultz, Jr.
       In the Jaws of History by Bui Diem and with David Chanoff
       A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley
       Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict by Michael Lind
       America's War in Vietnam: A Short Narrative History by Larry H. Addington
       Memories of a Pure Spring by Duong Thu Huong, translated from the Vietnamese by Nina McPherson, and Phan Huy Duong
    -REVIEW: Jonathan Mirsky: Reconsidering Vietnam
       Vietnam: Citizens Detained for Peaceful Expression
       A Vietnam Reader by Walter Capps
       The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam War in Hau Nghia Province by Eric M. Bergerud
       Strange Ground: An Oral History of Americans in Vietnam, 1945-1975 by Harry Maurer
       The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 by Marilyn B. Young
       War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam 1954-60 by Carlyle A. Thayer
       Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975 by Phillip B. Davidson
       Romancing Vietnam: Inside the Boat Country by Justin Wintle
       Remembering Heaven's Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam by John Balaban
    -ESSAY: How Vietnam Could Happen: by James C. Thomson, Jr., The Atlantic 1968)
    -ESSAY: The Fight for the President's Mind--and the Men Who Won It: Who got us into Vietnam? There is no way to say  fairly now, for the responsibility is shared. (Townsend Hoopes, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Three New Revelations about LBJ: The author of an about-to-be-published biography of Lyndon Johnson shares some of what he has learned (Robert Dallek, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Anti-communist Credentials: Ostensibly in response to a North Vietnamese Navy attack, the Tonkin Gulf  Resolution was really about American domestic politics. (Blaine Taylor, History Net)
    -REVIEW : of A Grand Delusion : America's Descent into Vietnam by Robert Mann (Alan Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of A Grand Delusion by Robert Mann
    -REVIEW : of Why We Were in Vietnam by Norman Podhoretz (James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly)