Vietnam: Why men fought so well
If ever the history of a war was like nine blind men trying to describe an Elephant and each coming up with a different description, then the Vietnam War is it. For those who spent all their time out in the “boonies,” the war was about as sweaty, grimy and dangerous as war can be. For those who lived and worked in the larger base camps or in Saigon, life was relatively comfortable and far less dangerous.
Those who served only with U.S. Forces, have one view of the war. Those who served as advisors to the South Vietnamese have another. But, in both cases, the quality of the experience depended on the leadership available to the soldiers.
This observer had occasion to spend two years in southeast Asia and the honor to serve with the 1st Air Cavalry Division as an infantry company commander, and later, as a battalion and a division operations officer. Sometimes, I ask myself: How did we compare with those who fought in World War II and Korea?
Well, for one thing, there is not one recorded instance of an American unit surrendering to the enemy. This was not the case in World War II and Korea. In nine years of fighting not one American platoon ever surrendered. On those rare occasions when an American unit was overrun, the men chose to fight to the death rather than surrender.
Today, the North Vietnamese generals talk and write openly of what the war was like from their perspective. A theme that runs throughout their memories is the “fanaticism” with which the Americans fought. But communists are trained to see the world in political terms. Our troops fought and fought well, but it was not due to “fanaticism.”
Thanks to the helicopter, we never had a sense of being “cut-off.” While bad weather and bad visibility might delay the arrival of the “cavalry” to save us, we knew they would eventually come. It was just a matter of holding on. Moreover, we always had tons of indirect-fire support from tube artillery, aerial-rocket artillery, helicopter gunships, the U.S. Air Force and, depending on our location, even naval gunfire.
We never wanted for food or water or medical evacuation, weather and enemy fire permitting. During the dry season, my company ran out of potable water one day when we were in a position where helicopters couldn’t land. But I was able, via radio, to “flag down” a passing cargo helicopter. It was carrying a pallet of beer originally destined for some rear-area Post Exchange. Obligingly, the pilot dropped the pallet. Many of the cans burst open; however, we were able to salvage enough liquid to keep from going mad with thirst. And, they say: War is hell.
Yet, despite these logistical and fire-power advantages, the main reason our troops fought so well had to do with good leadership, training and equipment and the miracle ingredient: unit cohesion. In the heat of combat, men do not fight for some political system, be it democracy or communism. They fight because of their buddies to the left and right of them. They fight because of a sense of duty and of obligation to those around them and to their unit.
They obtain this sense of duty and obligation from the way they were raised, from good leaders who set the proper example, from learning their unit’s history and traditions, from drill and ceremonies, from martial music, and yes, from military chaplains. Pride may be one of the seven deadly sins, but unit and individual pride played an enormous role in the exemplary combat record of our troops in Vietnam.
This has to be the answer because we sure weren’t fighting to thank President Johnson and Secretary McNamara for keeping us from winning a war that was eminently winnable.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.