Posted on Feb 19, 2013
By Gerard DeGroot
The weakest part of this otherwise shrewd book is its analysis of the Vietnam War. This is unfortunate, given that conflict’s centrality to the American experience. Boot is, to an extent, a victim of the myopia he attempts to expose. Like many authors with only a cursory knowledge of the war, he sees Vietnam as a manifestation of communist plans for worldwide revolution during the Cold War. That was what Americans thought at the time, and it partially explains their defeat.
Vietnam was, in fact, a nationalist struggle, a civil war between two sides with competing visions of their nation. For most of the war, the real enemy of the United States was not communists from the North, but indigenous Southern insurgents who rejected the government in Saigon precisely because it was affiliated with the United States. They were formidable because of their genius at infiltrating the peasantry through land reform, education, social welfare and, yes, intimidation. The average Vietcong cadre spent less than 10 percent of his time in combat, concentrating instead on political work.
American soldiers could not compete with this effort at indoctrination, partly because they were not trained for it, but mainly because they were American. An outsider, no matter how noble his intent, could not hope to attain the legitimacy that was a prerequisite to victory. Stated simply, Americans did not belong in that war.
Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present
By Max Boot
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 750 pages
In 1961, Lt. Col. George Eblen was chatting with Col. Nguyen Van Mau, his Vietnamese liaison. Mau asked why the Americans were in Vietnam. Eblen replied that the United States wanted to help the Vietnamese defeat communism, and to show them how democracy would bring economic prosperity. Mau paused, then remarked, “Yes, I understand what you are saying, but why are you really here?” Eblen repeated, “We are here to help you.” Mau interjected, “No, be honest, why are you really here?” The gulf could not be breached. Mau’s frame of reference was French imperialism; he could understand an exploitative mentality, but not one that claimed to be altruistic. He felt more comfortable with the French, whose mission was more transparent. Since he could not accept that the Americans merely wanted to help, he concluded that they must be even more devious than the French.
Boot recognizes the importance of legitimacy (it is one of his 12 lessons) but fails to give it due emphasis in analyzing America’s repeated failures. Yet legitimacy, or rather the lack of it, surely explains why Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan did not go as planned. Americans thought they were defending freedom, but their adversaries saw instead neo-colonial interlopers. Failure arose from this gulf in perception.
Pessimism is, therefore, perhaps more appropriate than Boot realizes. He’s a big fan of Petraeus, whom he presents as a shining example of how Americans can achieve success against the guerrilla. But there’s a big difference between battlefield success and long-term political victory. No counterinsurgent, no matter how talented, will win if he lacks legitimacy. He must prove to the people on the ground that his interests are valid and his presence appropriate. Lose that argument and lose the war.
Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews and author of “Noble Cause: America in the Vietnam War.”
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