Oddly, and in contrast to my colleagues, there’ll be relatively little reading happening for me this summer. Largely because the summer recess that I do get (i.e. August) will be spent writing. Consequently, most of my summer reading has already been done. And very illuminating it has been, I must say.
Research for my next book has necessitated delving into a number of subject areas that I was previously unfamiliar with, one of which over the past couple of months has been the Vietnam War. Specifically, the so-called ‘Village War’, i.e. the vast US backed pacification campaign mounted throughout South Vietnam from the early 60’s in an effort to weaken and dislocate Communist influence in that country. And it has to be said that my eyes have been opened to one of the most interesting campaigns I could possibly imagine. Even though still a relative newcomer to the war, it’s become obvious to me that this should be a compulsory field of study for anyone interested in the fundamental complexity of engineering satisfactory political outcomes at distance through the medium of military power. And the pacification campaign, in and of itself, has revealed such a panoply of theories, assumptions, judgements and practices that consistently crumpled in the face of the unrealistic expectations underpinning their employment in Vietnam that it makes one genuinely wonder why any US policymaker or academic contemplating similar escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan could possibly have thought they could get away with it.
First up in gaining a sort of bird’s eye appreciation of the pacification campaign was Gregory Daddis’ Westmoreland’s War; Reasessing American Strategy in Vietnam (OUP, 2017), who does an excellent job of situating it within the broader narrative of the Vietnam war as a whole. From there, briefly, to Douglas Porch’s Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (CUP 2013), specifically his chapter on Vietnam, in which he assaults Pacification’s theoretical credentials as a sophisticated civil-military effort characterised by largely non-violent political, social and economic initiatives. Openly dismissive in its assessment of the intellectual coherence underpinning the US pacification strategy, it still provides a coherent assessment of precisely why this was the case. Lastly there was Nils Gilman’s Mandarins of the Future; Modernization Theory in Cold War America, (Johns Hopkins University Press 2004), an interesting and highly relevant dissection of the theoretical foundations for the entire COIN/Pacification effort in Vietnam.
Digging down into the subject of pacification in detail, then, brings us to five superb pieces of work which have done much to shape my understanding of the ebb and flow of the US/GVN campaign 1964-1972. The first of these is Daddis’s second work on my list, No Sure Victory: Measuring US Army effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (OUP, 2011), which is a broader assessment of the difficulty of measuring effect/success in irregular warfare, and which does a superb job in highlighting many of the inherent problems facing US policymakers, commanders and civilian advisers as they sought to craft a suitably multifaceted pacification effort in response to the North’s exceptionally skilled social/political/military campaign against the government of South Vietnam. From there to Richard J. Hunt’s Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Westview, 1995), a hugely detailed account of the village war, certainly, but one which sheds much light on the complex interaction between pacification and wider, strategic evolutions of the war during that period between Tet 1968 and the North’s spring offensive of spring 1972 in particular. A leap now to Eric Bergerud’s superb account of pacification in action in The Dynamics of Defeat: The Vietnam war in Hau Nhgia Province (Westview 1993) in which he gives a superb operational history of the combined civil-military attempt to quell communist insurrection in that single province during the period 1965-1967. And then a similarly detailed inspection of a rival effort by the Australian Army in Thomas Richardson’s Destroy and Build: Pacification in Phuoc Tuy 1966-72 (CUP, 2017) in which, similar to Bergerud’s worm’s eye view of events from the perspective of a single area of operations, and thus the day-to-day problems faced by outsiders in trying to help engineer some sort of meaningful relationship between a rural Vietnamese population and their own (largely despised) government. The last on the list is Martin Clemis’ The Control War; The Struggle for South Vietnam 1968-1975 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), a hugely thoughtful and highly intellectual deconstruction of pacification from the perspective of its interaction not only with matters of policy and strategy and the campaign against communist infiltration, but also of its implementation set against the highly reactive social and environmental context of rural South Vietnam.
All in all a profitable few weeks. Can’t believe I haven’t got to grips with the Vietnam war in any meaningful sense before this. And it has simply reinforced that which I already knew. Namely that if an academic isn’t writing and researching, it’s unlikely that they’re thinking and learning. I’d like to compare us to sharks in that respect, in the sense of always needing to move to stay alive. But I suppose until I find an overweight, absent-minded shark with leather elbow patches, I’ll have to lay off the comparisons.
Image: U.S. Army soldiers on patrol in rice paddies outside of a rural Vietnamese village, during the Vietnam War, via Wikimedia.