Small World: Learning and relearning the lessons of war

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I hope many of you watched the PBS program on the last days and evacuation of Americans from South Vietnam in 1975. It was a story of scant planning, panic and, on the part of the ambassador, Graham Martin, refusal to accept the reality of defeat. Almost until the last helicopter had taken off, he held staunchly to his idea that disaster could be dodged. No one on the ground could persuade him otherwise; no one in Washington even tried to inject rationality. Meanwhile, lower ranking Americans and Vietnamese went on with the urgent business of getting ready for the worst.

Could the ambassador have been right? Was there hope that America’s fortunes might be reversed — or even turned a little bit around and the North Vietnamese brought to a face-saving settlement?

Not if you are aware of the facts of our defeat: fighting a conventional war against more flexible, highly-motivated forces, deceptive civilian and military leadership on the American side and loss of civilian support in the United States. There was no realistic basis for the ambassador’s and Washington’s fading hopes of turning back the nationalist Vietnam onslaught.

Even had U.S. forces pulled off a miracle and inflicted serious defeats on their Asian enemy, might the outcome have been really different from what happened? Vietnam is a busy small Asian exporter with Chinese-style toleration for political freedoms and an authoritarian governing apparatus hardly threatening to its neighbors. That acceptable outcome might have been achieved without 58,000 American dead, millions of Vietnamese casualties and trillions of dollars wasted.

With that (perhaps debatable) background, let’s examine other wars that might have been avoided or mitigated rather than fought to a bitter and costly end. We start with the Civil War and its two causes — preserving the Union and, later, ending slavery. In my judgment, feelings were so intense leading up to the conflict that neither objective could have been attained without combat.

But combat to the bitter end? Were the human costs inflicted necessary in the longer scheme of things? Suppose Lincoln at some early stage had said, “Very well, go in peace, southern brothers. Keep your slavery and your proclaimed independence and make the best of them. We, in the North, don’t think you will succeed.” Would he have been right over time?

The South was a single-crop economy — cotton — dependent on slave labor. Could that institution have continued into the later 19th century when pressures from the North and from European markets demanded freedom for Blacks? I don’t think so. As manufacturing prospered in the North, would Southerners have been content to fall farther and farther behind economically, culturally and in terms of potential power? I think the ultimate result would have been a rejoining of the divided nation and the substitution of Jim Crow laws for slavery — just as the United States experienced after the unnecessary total victory in 1865.

Let’s examine another “unnecessary” war, World War I. Suppose President Wilson had resisted the call to aid the Allies, despite German submarine warfare, and forced the war to end without either side the victor? After all, the war was a balance of power struggle between rival states seeking exclusive nationalist advantage. It was not about the extension of democracy or communism or Nazism, but that is what it became when prolonged into the renewed conflict of World War II.

Might not there have been a better, fairer outcome at a peace conference if held when all the fighting powers were undefeated and all were required to compromise? Rather than impose terms on those who for nationalist or strategic reasons would resist them, might it not have been a more peaceful and lasting approach to recognize realities and work around them? As the sole world power operating from a neutral position would not the United States have been in a stronger position to lead and avoid future tragedies? Not in all cases, certainly, but in some disputes that could with wisdom and foresight have been averted — e.g., the dismemberment of Germany, the recognition of the demands of colonized people for freedom.

Vietnam presented us with a multi-volume textbook of lessons on how to and how not to conduct ourselves internationally. We don’t seem to have learned any more from that tutorial than we did from the even more dramatic teachings of other wars.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: