Is Winning Military Battles the Appropriate Tool to Judge Winning the Vietnam War
Many people believe that the way to win a war is by winning military battles. However, one needs to consider the purpose and the goals a war seeks to achieve. Killing more of the enemies than they kill yours does not always mean winning the way if the main goal is not achieved. In addition, a war cannot be won until the enemy is not willing to continue fighting, which means the spirit to go one plays a significant role. In one case where this is evident is the Vietnam War in which the American army believed to have won. In terms of fatalities and casualties, the Americans won considering they killed many of the North Vietnamese soldiers while only thousands of them died. However, the main goal was not achieved, which was to prevent the North Vietnamese from entering South Vietnam and ruling it using communism. Immediately the American soldiers left, the north entered and concurred the south, meaning winning most of the battles did not deter the enemy. Therefore, winning battles, inflicting a large number of casualties and destroying the enemy’s resistance power do not win a war but rather reduces the will of the enemy to resist.
Having won many military battles is not the right way to judge whether United States won the Vietnam War. What matters is stopping the opponents from achieving his or her goals completely. In this case, although Americans won majority of the battles, they did not deter the will of the North Vietnamese in achieving their goal. The enemy was willing to lose even more soldiers just to achieve the goal. During the battle, American soldiers measured success in terms of the number of Viet Cong soldiers they killed. They believed that killing more of the soldiers would see them surrendering (Tilford n.d). Its tactic then, was to search and destroy the enemy, which became a prominent term. The soldiers focused on destroying the enemy’s ability to resist with one of the tactics being to drive out the enemy from their hiding places and killing them. It also involved destroying their equipments and ability to supply weapons and other amenities.
The American soldiers were promoted depending on the number of body counts (Tilford n.d). This saw many of the soldiers seek to kill as many as they could. Additionally, many could raise the number of body counts in order to earn the promotion. Some doubled the number, meaning the body count that people know could have been wrong. This further saw a competition between the American army units, where each sought to surpass the other in order to gain the promotion, considering body count was the main indicator of success. This also resulted in fraud (Tilford n.d).
Despite the number of Viet Cong soldiers who died, the northern side did not stop advancing. Their determination was so great that majority of the soldiers did not mind dying on the barbed wires so that others would step on them to reach their target. It also happened that unites states had undermined their ability in the quest to destroy as many as they could. Focusing on this goal blinded them from concentrating on the main purpose of the war, which was to protect the South Vietnamese government and its people. In so doing, they did not focus on the will of the enemy to fight.
According to Grossman, many soldiers will measure the success of war using body count and other quantifiable means because it indicates victory through something one can physically see, making it more preferable than the psychological aspect. He further cites that, “But somewhere in the back of our minds, a still, small voice reminds us that ultimately, the paths of victory run not through machinery and material, but through the hearts and minds of human beings,” (Grossman 1). Therefore, it is clear that defeating an enemy’s capacity to fight is not the end of war. This is further highlighted in the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The United States was able to destroy his ability to fight and went ahead to capture him. This destroyed the ability of Saddam’s followers to fight as an army. However, this did not stop their will to fight. This will saw the rise of insurgence groups, led by individual people. They started attacking American convoys and disappearing. Everyone thought that the defeat of Saddam would finally free the Iraq people. As it turned out, winning the battle did not deter hundreds of soldiers from fighting again. According to McCallion, “It became clear that United States had won the conventional force-on-force fight, and now the war had developed into a counterinsurgency fight,” (1).
In the Vietnam War, the United States had killed so many as aforementioned before finally signing the French Accord. They decided to withdraw from the war, leaving South Vietnam government without any help. Just before the French accord was signed, the United States air force had conducted several strategic bombing aimed at making the Viet Cong soldiers to surrender. Many reckon that they were near surrender before this agreement, which could have meant winning the war. Immediately after the Americans left, the Viet Cong were able to overpower South Vietnam, where they imposed communism rule.
At this time, Americans viewed war as a game in which there are two opponents and only one can win. In a game, there has to be a winner and a loser. For instance, a boxing game has to have a winner, which is determined by the number of times you hit your opponent. However, if one manages to knock his opponent out within the first round, a winner is already determined. Unlike a boxing match, war takes on the example of a street fight, where one could beat an opponent today, but he lives to fight again tomorrow. The next time such an opponent comes to fight again, he or she will use a different approach, which could turn the odds in his or her favor.
Therefore, just because someone won a battle today does not mean the war has won. If this were the case, then there would be no need of winning several battles because the first one would mean defeat. On to the contrary, many battles are fought in the course of one war, which means the enemy has to concede defeat. This is presented in the examples of World War II when Germany and Japan conceded defeat (Beschloss 68). The fact that several battles have to be won, is an indicator that until the enemy has lost the will to continue fighting, upon which he declares defeat, a war is not over no matter the number of enemies killed (McCallion 3).
Some wars take decades before they are over or won. This happens when an opponent retreats after a defeat in a battle, to come back later. Many countries have been at war every now and then, fighting over the same reasons because none of the opponents is ready to concede defeat. Such countries, especially those that lose a battle go back to the drawing board to change their strategies. This can be considered a time out in a game, where the teams take a break before embarking on another duel or battle. Therefore, the number of soldiers that die in battle does not measure success in a war until the enemy drops intentions of fighting the war again.
In the Vietnam War, this did not happen. When United States withdrew, the war was still on (Tilford n.d). The period it takes to win a war is determined by the will of both rivals and their allies to continue. Several reasons can also determine whether a war will continue or not. One of them is the economic costs. When the opponent has no more means of fighting, it is possible to concede defeat and stop the war. Nevertheless, if the opponent still wants to fight, other sources of finance to fund the war could be sought.
In addition, the reason wars are fought is that someone is willing to enter into war. For instance, if two people had an argument and one is willing to fight, he or she could start attacking the opponent. In this case, the opponent can choose to fight back or concede to the demands of his or her rival. This is the same for national wars where one country attacks another to enter into war. If there is no will, a war will not start. The same way, its ending is highly determined by the will of the enemy to continue. When the will or urge to continue fighting is over, the opponent does not take arms anymore, which indicates a war has been won.
Although it is now understandable
that stopping the capacity of an opponent to resist does not amount to winning
a war, it has a great significance in reducing the will of the rival. Many
countries or enemies will concede defeat when they suffer too much loss. In
case they do not win battles, they could realize there is no chance of winning,
which would result in losing morale and the will to continue. Therefore,
winning battles is the first determinant to winning a war. Reducing the will to
continue should be the measure of winning a war. This means that winning a war
requires both winning battles and eliminating the will of the opponent to
continue fighting. Therefore, winning military battles alone is not an
appropriate tool for judging whether Americans won the war, considering South Vietnam
did not stop fighting until it achieved its goal.
Beschloss, Michael. The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945. New York, N.Y: Simon and Schuster, 2002. Print.
Grossman, David, A. Defeating the Enemy’s Will: The Psychological Foundations of Maneuver Warfare. killology.com, N.D. Web, May 16, 2014.
McCallion, Joseph. Achieving Total War Goals with a Limited War Force: Convincing the Enemy to Accept Defeat. School of Advanced Military Studies, 2005. Print.
Tilford, H. Earl. Who Won the Vietnam War and why it Matters. Grove City College, vietnam.ttu.edu, N.D. Web. May 16, 2014.
Zinni, Anthony C. Understanding What Victory Is. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 2003,129 (October): 32-33.