McCain’s Better War

It was interesting, though not really surprising, to learn from Matt Bai’s piece that John McCain is a big fan of Lewis Sorley’s book, A Better War. The nickel version of Sorley’s argument is that after the Tet Offensive and the revelation that the past several years’ worth of U.S. policy in Vietnam had been built on a tissue of lies caused domestic support for the war to collapse, the country adopted new and more awesomely effective tactics that were winning the war before public opinion and congress pulled the plug.

One problem with this analysis is that it’s wrong:

”The Sorley analysis is wrong,” writes David Elliott, author of the exhaustive and widely lauded ”The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-75.”

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would think [clear and hold] was a success in Vietnam,” writes William Turley, author of ”The Second Indochina War, 1954-1975.”

”Lewis Sorley is completely wrong,” concurred retired General Le Ngoc Hien in a recent interview. As deputy chief of staff for operations in the North Vietnamese Army, Hien was responsible for compiling the overall military strategies for both the army and the Viet Cong. [. . .]

It is hard to know what to make of the claim that South Vietnam, after fighting a horrendously bloody and interminable guerrilla and conventional war against Communist foes within and without for two decades, finally succumbed because of the refusal of a supplemental appropriations bill by the US Congress in the spring of 1975. Of half a dozen experts on the war queried via e-mail-including Elliott, Turley, Clemson’s Edwin Moise, and several others-none besides Sorley thought South Vietnam could have held out for long. Its army was plagued by corruption and factionalism; it had never established firm popular support. ”There is no way that the RVN could have repulsed the Communist offensive of 1975,” responded Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Studies Forum.

But in some ways a more interesting point is simply the fact that hawks are so invested in this revisionist take. If you zoomed back in time to 1963 or 1969 it would be taken for granted that the purpose of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam wasn’t just to “win” in some abstract sense. After all, who cares about South Vietnam? Why should hundreds of thousands of Americans go around the world to fight for South Vietnam? Because, of course, the war wasn’t about South Vietnam. The theory behind the war was that if a Communist takeover of South Vietnam happened, that Communism would sweep across Asia in a way that was massively detrimental to American interests.

And since South Vietnam did fall to the Communists, we can say truly and definitively and without recourse to any hypotheticals that the hawks were totally wrong. South Vietnam went Communist and . . . we were fine. There was no red tide sweeping across Asia. India and Japan and Australia were never threatened. But to John McCain, the mere fact that staying in Vietnam forever wouldn’t have accomplished anything doesn’t change matters. He likes “victory” so he thinks we should have stayed forever. And, similarly, he wants us to stay forever in Iraq. Not because the benefits will be worth the costs or because he has any vision of Americna strategy. But just because.