Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Carl von Clausewitz, the CIA, and General Loan

Like I said in the beginning of this series of posts; there is a lot I don't know about the Vietnam war, a lot I should have known at the time, a lot the public should have known, and especially my parents who, for them, I would have done my duty as asked of me by my country, should have known as a means of helping me decide what I might have gotten myself into.  I turned 18 in 1975, so I missed all the fun by just a couple years.

Carl von Clausewitz, the guy who wrote the book "On War," talks about the concept of "Absolute War" explained as follows:
"[A]bsolute war is a philosophical abstraction--a "logical fantasy"--that is impossible in practice because it is not directed or constrained by political motives or concerns, nor limited by the practical constraints of time or space. He called warfare constrained by these moderating real-world influences real war."
When you read all the comments regarding the Eddie Adams photo (example), you start to understand that most people see a situation in the most abstract, and fail to connect all the different parts in play.  What they cannot grasp is how things that run the gambit from ego, to pride, to faith, to superstition, to history, to culture, to logistics - all the way down the basic laws of physics - mold, shape, and confine a war.  All of these things, plus more, interconnect and places constraints on our ability to perform, as it did with Vietnam.

Such is the truth about what took place during the Vietnam war as well as what General Loan did that day on February 1st, 1968.  The outcome - the reality - was the result of all sorts of things in play before and during.  Anything else brought into the conversation about the how and why that is not factual or interconnected is a logical fantasy perpetuated by those that cannot accept the truth as it really is.

"He was one of us," Eddie Adams said.  We were there for for him and he for us. Simple!  And that's why it's a logical fantasy to think of it in such an absolute way.  We must have been there for a reason, if General Loan was one of us.  That assumes that there must have been a "them" in order for there to be an "us."  The "them" was the communist north.  If  you can remember the time before the Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and China became capitalists, communism was a big scary boogieman for the US.  You cannot look at it with 21st century eyes, you need to see it with eyes that viewed the world in the 50's and 60's.

Fighting communism was the main political motive that directed our involvement over there.  That's what gave us an enemy...a "them."  Now let's look at that enemy from a grounding in truth (assuming that declassified CIA documents are truthful).  What did we know about our enemy eight months before Tet?

From: The Vietnam Situation: The Vietnam Situation: An Analysis and Estimate - May 23, 1967, Central Intelligence Agency Collection.
"The situation thereafter will largely depend, as it has in the past, on the question of the will to persist of  either side rather than on the attainment of an overwhelming military victory."
That was the conclusion, derived from this:
"Although the enemy hopes to overrun a number of allied field positions, his principal aim is to inflict maximum attrition on our forces at whatever cost to his own, and to check the momentum of the pacification effort."
Here is what Walter Cronkite would say on February 27, 1968, for which he took a lot of flak and was accused of losing the war for us by turning public opinion away from one of support.
"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion."
What does Carl von Clausewitz had to say about war:
"Therefore, war in its most natural manner would involve each state continually reciprocating each other's use of force (plus some) to maintain a superiority, until both were using violence to its utmost extent." [first reciprocal action]
And in 1967, what did the US understand the situation in Vietnam to be?

The Vietnam Situation: An Analysis and Estimate
And what does Carl von Clausewitz have to say about this type of knowledge that was known to the CIA?:
[T]he use of power involves two factors. The first is the strength of available means, which may be measured somewhat by numbers (although not entirely). The second factor is the strength of the will which can not be specifically measured (only estimated) as it is intangible.  Once a state has gained an approximation of the enemy's strength of resistance it can review its own means and adjust them upwards accordingly in an effort to gain the advantage. As the enemy will also be doing this, it too becomes reciprocal. [third reciprocal action]
Why all this lecture on the theory of war?  How does this relate to General Loan?  Lets look at this particular sentence from the Wikipedia page on "Absolute War."
Absolute war can be seen to be an act of violence without compromise, in which states fight to war's natural extremes; it is a war without the 'grafted' political and moral moderations.
What does an act of violence without compromise entail?  Is it collateral damage?  Is it torture?  Is it killing woman and children in  My Lai?  Raping women in Nanking? Or was it executing a bound man who was part of an invasion force into your city?  In other words, what does an act of violence without compromise allow?  Surely it cannot allow for everything, or do we allow it to because it is war?

War brings forward certain truths, like it or not.  War will always move towards more and more extreme actions.  War will always require two factors; strength of available means and the strength of the will behind the effort.  If we can assume this premise to be true, what General Loan did that day on February 1st 1968 was simply an absolute.  Without any other considerations taken into account, what he did was no more or less extreme than any other act committed that day, if the premise is true that war is an act of violence without compromise. 

Then why is he singled out?  Quite simply, it is because we cannot accept the Carl von Clausewitz premise and call ourselves human, compassionate, or Christian.  What we saw in the photo and the film was the reality in play when one group wants to make another group comply with its will.  That's what war is all about.  What the US, General Loan, and Nguyen Van Lem were doing that day was fulfilling war's ultimate purpose: trying to force the other into a position from which it cannot resist the other's will.

This does not justify - nor condemn - General Loan's actions that day.  It only helps explain it.  And for those who believe that the photo and Walter Cronkite lost the war because it changed public opinion, that places blame for our lack of a "victory" on those who did not accept the cost in blood and treasure for the purpose of forcing the opposing group to accept our will.

And if Carl von Clausewitz and the CIA in May of 1967 were correct, the extreme that this conflict was going to let lose was going to be bloody, long, and severe, a point Walter Cronkite made succinctly in 1968 after Tet:
For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
It would take five more years and 58.209 US deaths for our strength of will to stop reciprocating and put an end to the war's natural extremes. Had we continued, had we deemed this effort to continue whatever the costs, what might those extremes be?  Anything and everything, including nuclear weapons and countless more deaths, hence Cronkite's logical conclusion - which is sound based on Carl von Clausewitz's first reciprocal action: "...each state continually reciprocating each other's use of force (plus some) to maintain a superiority, until both were using violence to its utmost extent."

What General Loan showed us February 1st, 1968 was the ugly face of what war is really all about.

Next post: Why the lies, misstatements, half-truths, and downright disgust....


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