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Vietnam: Mirage and Fitful Dream

ISSUE:  Spring 1985

The experience of war can never be fully communicated. War has a broken, furtive character that prevents a full expression of its reality. Beyond the difficulty with reporting its objective manifestations, battles won and lost, planes shot down, towns seized and farms ransacked, ground lost or advanced upon, there is a subjective dimension having to do with the perceptions, emotions, and feelings of those involved that is often totally uncapturable, or if captured, which can only be indicated or given scant notation. Relating the objective and the subjective dimensions to each other is difficult if not impossible at the time the events occur and emotions are felt. For this reason, our understanding of armed conflict usually becomes better over time. As war recedes, its reality comes clearer.

In all the American experience with war, the Vietnam conflict offers the most horrible example of gross misperception, contemporaneous with the event. The blurred vision, the cataracts of various hues from rose to gray, were not monopolized by any one party to the conflict. The American vision was, of course, badly flawed. But the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese, and the insurgents all possessed astigmatisms of their own.

The only perceptions for which we are ultimately responsible before the face of history, however, are our own, and at this point, ten years after the fall of Saigon, American misperceptions are the only ones that are relevant for us as we hastily attempt to understand history to avoid its repetition. Misperceptions in armed conflict lead to what Von Clausewitz termed the “frictions of war.” It is these frictions that cause the reality of conflict to deviate from plans and projections. If the frictions become great enough, and the deviation between plan and reality becomes great enough, defeat may result. This is particularly true when military leadership is not flexible and refuses to alter its perceptions to meet new realities.

In large part America lost the war in Vietnam because its senior political and military leadership never knew the reality it faced. This lack of accurate vision was not due to a shortage of signals. There were abundant indicators that the American perception was flawed. Some signals were to be found on the battlefield. Other indicators were not directly related to combat, but they were reflective of the context in which the fighting took place; and they were probably more important in many respects because they were related to people and policies that controlled events on the battlefield.


The colonel was overweight, not seriously but enough that he puffed and grunted as he settled into the back seat of his battered ‘66 Chevrolet sedan staff car. It was a cloudy, unusually cool April day in Saigon. There was a fine mist in the air, hinting at the spring monsoon. Mr. Kanh, the colonel’s driver, nosed the car past the sentry gate and out of the U.S.compound headed for BOQ 1.The colonel took lunch at the BOQ every day, precisely at noon. Although the University of Virginia had made the colonel a lawyer, West Point had made him a soldier, and the first imprint predominated. He had no trouble with the question of whether he was first an officer or a judge advocate. In his mind, he was an officer who also happened to be a lawyer.

A young Army captain sat next to the colonel. He was new in the country and was convinced that every venture forth was a cavalier invitation to assasination.

The colonel turned to the captain. “Gray and chilly today. Reminds me of France in ‘44. It was on a day just like this I killed my German.” The colonel smiled.”It was damp and cool, and my glasses kept getting fogged up so I had trouble lining up my sights. But I got him.” Nostalgia.

The colonel was not alone. He was representative of an entire generation of U.S.military leadership that had trained for two decades to fight tank battles with massed infantry on the plains of Northern Europe. Now he and his peers were called upon to lead small unit combat in rice paddies and thatched hamlets. The disillusionment was profound. Expectations, however, cried out to be fulfilled regardless of external realities, and so the U.S.military worked for a decade to apply an irrelevant tactical solution to the problem at hand.

The logistics of the war were reminiscent of earlier, largescale American conventional wars. The troops carried too much gear; there was too much tail and too little tooth; the units were too large; the command and control systems too inflexible and the staffs overly elaborate. There was a reliance on conventional strategic bombing out of proportion to the enemy being sought.

In hindsight this has been realized and said. At the time, this was not the case. The large-scale approach to combat was the standard wisdom. A wisdom inherited from Grant and the Union Army in the Civil War in which employment of overwhelming material resources over time and slow attrition of the enemy to achieve victory became standard American military doctrine. The military imagination born of necessity by a Stuart or the three-dimensional thinking of a Jackson had proved inadequate to the purposes of the Civil War; they and the approach they represented had been disparaged and rejected for a century.

When, toward the end of the Vietnam adventure, the real nature of the conflict was at last understood by those empowered to influence events, the realization came too late. Having spent their opportunity fighting a mini-World War II for the Vietnamese, the U.S.military leadership found itself without time or residual enthusiasm to make an effective change in tactical approach. Indeed, even the change represented by Vietnamization in the early Seventies retained elements of the earlier vision: while the fighting of the war was at long last turned over to the Vietnamese (from whom it should never have been taken away), they, too, were in turn reequipped in the final hours to fight a European war.

The military sedan pulled under the porte-cochere of the BOQ.In the French days, the building had been a popular restaurant. Now, with its stucco chipped, white paint peeling, and crimson shutters hanging akimbo, it had more the appearance of a dilapidated, Depression-era motel on U.S.301 than of a former haunt of elegant colons. Still in all, the air conditioning usually worked, and the kitchen was within a tolerable range of approximating basic American fare—hamburgers, cheeseburgers, ham sandwiches, salad bar.

The colonel, the captain following, took a table in the senior officer’s section in the BOQ 1 dining room. The colonel brushed aside the mimeographed menu. The petite Vietnamese waitress hovered attentively.

“Hamburger,” he said gruffly, shortly, “French fries,” he paused, fixed a beady stare at the girl.”Tell chef fry bun,” he said slowly, evenly.

“Yes, sir,” she replied. After taking the captain’s order, which was a duplicate of the colonel’s with no requirement that the bun be fried, she scurried off to the kitchen.

“You see, captain,” the colonel began, “the war is a strange mix. On the way here we passed the chopper pad for the Third Field Hospital, They were off-loading casualties, men that had been hit less than an hour ago. And yet, here we are, about to drink beer and eat lunch in air conditioning.”

“Saigon,” said the captain, “seems crowded, the air has a musty, foul quality to it, except just after the evening rain, the beggars, the poor. . . .

“It was beautiful once. Just three or four years ago it had a rare elegance,” the colonel said.”It’s only been recently with the flood of refugees, first from the relocation programs aimed at getting the peasants beyond Viet Cong control and then with the dislocation caused by the Tet offensive, that the city changed. Only after Tet did the sandbags and barbed wire appear.”

The waitress placed lunch before the officers. The colonel poked at his bun.

“Bun not fried,” he growled. “You take back, tell chef fry bun,” he said, an edge in his voice. The waitress took the offending plate and returned through the swinging doors to the kitchen.

“As I said,” the colonel continued, “much of the change is relatively recent. But there is still a lot to enjoy. The Mayfair, Le Admiral, both still have good French cooking, although the wine is from Algiers, and don’t question too closely about the source of the steak—its either old water buffalo or highjacked beef from Aussie stores, depending on which day you’re there. You can still get a good drink, expensive but good, at the bar at the Majestic hotel. You look out over the river and the city, the place looks like the set for an old Bogart-Greenstreet movie.”

The waitress returned with the much-traveled burger. The colonel poked again.

“Bun still not fried,” he groused. The waitress flashed a perky smile. “Chef say no need fry bun, bun fresh!”

The captain had finished his lunch. The colonel began, resignedly, to dine.


Colonel Due rose in his crisp tan fatigues to greet the junior naval officer in his rumpled whites. The senior Vietnamese Army judge advocate looked out across the dimly lit highceilinged room from beneath hooded eyes. He was a young and fit 50, but he moved from behind his heavy desk with the deliberation of an older man. The as yet unheated quiet of the early morning was broken only by the muted ka-whump, ka-whump of ceiling fans and the muffled sound of Saigon rush-hour traffic along the quayside below the shuttered, floor-to-ceiling windows.

“Good day, lieutenant. I was told you would call, that you are the new technical advisor to the directorate of military justice.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied, “the colonel asked me to come over and introduce myself. He was concerned whether there had been any gap in meeting your requirements between the departure of my predecessor and my arrival.”

“Ah yes, Captain Koritizinsky, a most esteemed officer. We shall miss him.” The colonel motioned to chairs beside the round glass-topped coffee table.”To answer your question, no, things seem to arrive on schedule. Of course, the projections of last year are not adequate to meet our current needs. We must have more concrete, cement block, and roofing tin than we originally projected. The court-martial rate, especially for desertion, is much higher, and our courtroom capacity is not adequate. We need more space to hold courtmartials.”

The colonel gestured to the tray of drinks and snacks before him, “A drink—cognac or Seigi soda perhaps—a pastry?” “Brandy will do fine.” The colonel poured generous portions in highball glasses.

“We miss Captain Koritizinsky. He understood our problems, a superb advisor. He went to Paris on R&R.I gave him the names of some old friends at the Sorbonne and the names of some good restaurants run by my countrymen. I think he had a good time.” “He told me his trip was memorable.” A smile crossed the colonel’s round and creased features.

“You will have to understand,” he said, “that our methods are necessarily more direct than yours, we do not have the luxury of endless appeals. Our determinations must have a swift finality. Of course, we are in a civil war, and the free South is fighting for survival. Our soldiers are less sophisticated than yours. A direct approach, clear answers, satisfy their expectations, and ours for fighting the war. We have not many lawyers, perhaps 200, in all of the Republic.”

The colonel and the young American who was his “advisor”counterpart sat quietly, beneath the fan, the lines between them drawn, the one experienced and intransigent; the other helpless to influence events and hopelessly miscast.

And so it was with American-Vietnamese relationships. They were not without cordiality, often there was real affection on a personal level. But there was also an unspoken agreement to disagree and a denial of roles. The South Vietnamese had fought their war for 30 years, and the prospect of unending conflict lay before them as an endless pilgrimage. If the Americans could end it with a quick fix— money, men, smart bombs—well and good. But they doubted at the gut level such fixes would work, and they knew that in the long term it was their lot to fight the war to victory or what was more likely—and more Vietnamese—an accommodation.

The lieutenant knew this, just as he knew of the allegations that the cement, the concrete block, and the roofing tin would go for Colonel Due’s relatives’ houses and his rental properties in Saigon’s slums. His chances of offering effective advice to the worldly-wise Duc or of influencing the course of Vietnamese military justice were nil.

The fragility of the veneer the Americans were trying to impose came home to him later in the year when, as part of his nation-building mission, he taught at the University of Saigon Law School. The law faculty had originally functioned as a junior college of public administration, founded under French rule to train low-level civil servants to support the colonial regime. By 1968 the law school, with more than 10,000 students, was a massive draft evasion opportunity for the sons of well-off or well-placed Vietnamese. Teaching at the law school was done on Continental lines, with lectures fed back on true-false exams rather than through the free-wheeling class discussions and end-of-term essays that characterize American legal education. The lieutenant taught in the American tradition, and the cultural shock was, at first, considerable. Silence greeted his efforts to stimulate classroom debate. But after a few sessions, the students began to enjoy the chance to participate. Three particularly vocal students who sat together in the front row especially caught the teacher’s eye. He looked forward to the challenge they posed.

The course was Constitutional Law. The Republic had a new constitution (provided, wags said, by USAID lawyers, who had drafted the document during a long evening over a bottle of good bourbon), and the lieutenant thought a course in comparative constitutional law, contrasting the French and American approach to national organic law, might prove interesting and useful. For some weeks the class moved forward in a lively fashion, but one morning, the three students were not present. Since many pupils had jobs and other demands on their time, this did not at first seem ominous. But as the absences multiplied and stretched over days, the lieutenant became concerned. At last, he asked a known friend of the students to account for the absence of the three stars.

“Professor,” the student nervously replied, “it is very dangerous for law students to be political. They have been arrested.”

That afternoon as he sat on the terrace of his billet in the damp chill of a monsoon evening, an item on an inside page of the Saigon Daily News caught the lieutenant’s eye. Headlined “Law Students Fate,” the article stated, “Three law students at the University of Saigon were arrested today on charges of subversion. As the students disappeared into the Ministry of Interior Building under guard, an official when asked the law students’ fate replied: ‘They go somewhere.”

The lieutenant never saw them again. The class lapsed back into lectures with docile students writing down every word. The lieutenant’s closing lecture on Jefferson, Adams, and constitutional theory sounded hollow in his ears. He was glad to be done, glad another advisor would assume the podium in the fall. The applause at the end of the last hour, followed by the fervent pleas of students for passing grades to fend off the army did nothing to ease the lieutenant’s sense of hopelessness.”Let them all pass,” he thought.”Due process be hanged.”


The three who disappeared into the dark halls of the Interior Ministry were not so different, in many ways, from the 14 who went home. The members of both groups were young and idealistic and natural leaders. The major difference between the three and the 14 was one of focused purpose.

The 14 were North Vietnamese sailors who had crewed the torpedo boats that allegedly attacked the U.S.destroyers Maddox and C.Turner Joy.This incident provided the causas belli that led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. On their second run at the destroyers, their torpedo boat had been blown out of the water by cannon fire and the 14, rescued from the sea, had fallen into American hands. For more than two years they were held in a special section of the Marine Brig outside Da Nang.(Under the Geneva Convention prisoners of war may not be commingled with ordinary criminal prisoners.)

During their internment, they maintained strict unit discipline and carried out individual programs of self-improvement (calisthenics, reading, endless chess games, and political education). Now, in 1968, they were to become bargaining chips in an effort to establish a dialogue on POW matters between the United States and North Vietnam.

On the level of international politics, the North Vietnamese had made it clear they desired no discussion of prisoner release or exchange at any level. Still, senior U.S.officials decided that perhaps a de facto relationship on POW matters could be made to evolve as a result of events. It was decided to release the 14, hoping that such action on the U. S. side would stimulate similar action by the North Vietnamese.

Under the Geneva Convention and in accordance with longstanding U.S.policy developed during the Korean War, there can be no forced repatriation of prisoners held in U.S. custody (the 14 were among the few POW’s under U.S. control. The U.S.had learned in Korea that running POW camps was a losing proposition and ordinarily turned over troops captured by its forces to the South Vietnamese). Before any prisoner release, it was necessary for the 14 to be interviewed at least twice by State Department officials and representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross to insure that their desire to return was voluntary and genuine.

The young man from the embassy wore a gray cord suit, and his Red Cross colleague from Switzerland wore the relaxed clothes Europeans wear on holiday—sport shirt (a bit formal) and tan slacks. They sat kneecap-to-kneecap on the small twin engine Piper flying north from Saigon.

At 15,000 feet they were comfortably above the threat of groundfire. But as the evil-seeming green jungle slipped below, running from the inland mountains to the thin, harshwhite sliver of coast, the stunning realization came once again to the young man that somewhere down there were people who would kill him if they could. People who would kill him not because of any personal affront or wrong, but simply because of his round eyes, white face, and the passport he carried. At times such as these, he wanted desperately to believe airplane designers and manufacturers employed effective zero defect systems, that the mechanics had not partied too late or drunk or doped too much the night before, and that the pilot wanted to get down in one piece and at the right place as badly as did he.

The Piper swept in low past Monkey Mountain and made a sharp turn to the left for its approach to Da Nang, then one of the busiest airfields in the world (but so unlike O’Hare). The drive from the airport up into the hills where the brig was located was first through Da Nang’s busy streets of urban slum and squalor, then the road passed through a ruined countryside of small farms littered with the refuse of war. Burned-out trucks and armored personnel carriers, discarded ammo boxes, and miscellaneous pieces of metal and wood, ration cans, and items of clothing, all spoke of those who had passed that way and fought, repeatedly and without finality.

The brig consisted of a dozen low, wooden, tin-roofed buildings. It shimmered in the waves of heat. The stillness and pervasive menace of the place combined the qualities of fitful dream and mirage.

The interviews were arranged with each man individually, beginning with the commanding officer, Captain Bau. The captain was in his mid-twenties, dignified, composed, precise in his answers, which were translated by a local Marineemployed Vietnamese interpreter.(The young man always wondered what would become of these Vietnamese employees if the Americans were to leave—no one seemed to have an answer. It was an uncomfortable question that left his seniors at the embassy looking away from him at 15-degree angles, appearing to notice something of sudden and profound interest in a Diffenbachia or a picture or a wall just off his shoulder.)

Captain Bau sat across the camp table and listened intently to the questions put to him by the Swiss representative. “Do you wish to return to North Vietnam?” “Yes.” “You do not wish to stay in South Vietnam?” “No.”

“Do you wish us to try to repatriate you to a neutral country?” “No.”

“Do you fear persecution when you go North? After all, your mission was a failure, your boat was destroyed, and you and your men were captured.”

“It is possible. But I am willing to go back and see what happens. So are my men. Our families are there,”

“It is then, your firm desire to be repatriated to North Vietnam and this choice is freely made by you?” “Yes.”

“Sign this please,” said the Swiss observer, pushing a mimeographed statement across the table which committed the individual executing it to return to his own side.

The captain signed with a government-issue black ballpoint pen. He rose, bowed slightly to the young man and the Swiss, and turned to go. As he reached the screened door of the hut, he turned and said, “We have been well treated, but I and my men will be glad to be going home. Good-bye.”

The other 13 were interviewed one-by-one. These interviews, like that with the captain, revealed a universal desire to return. There was a remarkable freedom from fear. Their ideological grasp appeared limited, they were not long on revolutionary theory or rhetoric, but there was no doubt in their minds about the rightness of what they had attempted to do, nor was the stolid stoicism with which they had borne two years of captivity feigned.

Although their basic endowments were similar, the 14 were also different from their contemporaries in the South. They presented a serious, mature face to the world, with an awareness of what it was to commit oneself to a life of political action with all the risks and dangers that might entail. They had sorted through what was important to them, and they had a capacity for making altruistic decisions on behalf of their cause. The 14 appeared unified in their experience. For them the war was the drama of their generation.

When they were released, the North Vietnamese sailors piloted their small craft to the mouth of a river near the port of Vinh. The admiral commanding the U.S.Navy task force which oversaw their release watched them disappear on his flagship’s radar.

“Add one motor whaleboat to the North Vietnamese navy’s Order of Battle,” he said.

Their contemporaries in the South largely viewed life differently. In the South, the lucky ones lounged about Saigon’s cafes and the university, or took some post in the civil government or the military that offered maximum safety with minimum deprivation. The unlucky became soldiers and fought until they were killed or became maimed beggers on Tu Do Street. The luck was largely a matter of money and class, both huge distinguishers of persons.

The dichotomy must have held true for the preceding generation as well. One can only imagine what a contrast there must have been between Captain Bau’s father and Colonel Duc.


Every morning in Saigon at 0800 the doors opened to the briefing theater at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. The senior officers filed in, taking preassigned places in the rising tiers of comfortably upholstered, push-back seats. The briefing officer, collapsible pointer at the ready, stood by to begin. He was a thin, deeply tanned Army lieutenant colonel. At 0805 the lights went down, and the tan curtains parted to reveal a silver screen. For the next half hour the briefer toured the country reporting in his authoratative, unemotional “briefer’s voice” on the action in the war of the previous 24 hours. Across the screen flashed maps, figures, and slides of battle action.

“Light resistance was encountered by three MAF Marines . . . an A-4 fighter off the Constellation was downed. . . RF-PF forces near Na Trang turned back a night attack. . . Hamlet Evaluation System reports an increase of 223 hamlets classified as ‘relatively secure’. . . .”

The Navy commander listened with bemusement, his chin resting on his hand. Last week he had asked colleagues on the staff Long-Range Planning Task Force just what was meant by “relative security.” There was a consensus among his colleagues that if the enemy wasn’t coming over the wire every night things were relatively secure. He wondered how that standard compared to the situation in the cities back home he had seen aflame on the Armed Forces television evening news after Martin Luther King’s death. The States— the World—seemed so far away. From the window of his paneled office he watched the Pan Am “freedom birds” at Tan Son Hut, waiting for takeoff in the late afternoon sun, knowing they would not cross the California coast until the dawn of yesterday—and yet sometimes the news from the States seemed so immediate.

The briefing drew to a close. The commander decided to ask one of his questions. He had become somewhat noted for asking the question no one wanted to hear at the morning briefings.

“Colonel,” the commander said, “what is going to happen tomorrow?” “How do you mean, Commander?”

“The briefing always tells us what has happened. You never get into what is planned, what is going to happen.”

“Thank you very much, Commander. This ends the briefing.” A quick snap of the collapsible briefing pointer gave finality to the colonel’s statement and was the signal for a massive, seemingly unanimous exodus.

The commander pushed his way through the exiting brass to the podium to press his point with the colonel, who seeing the commander approach out of the corner of his eye, was hastily gathering his notes to make good his escape.

“I was serious Colonel, it seems to me you could tell us something.”

“This is not an operational briefing Commander, you have no need to know.”

“Perhaps in a strict sense, yes. But I do long-range planning for the staff, and knowing as much as I can about what’s going on now would certainly help me plan for the future.”

“Well, access is not my department. You’ll have to see somebody else about that.”

The commander turned away, frustrated and a little angry. He could not know now that his maverick reputation would precede him back to the States and that upon his return, despite his training at the Naval War College and his deep selection for commander at 36, his career would be at an end. He would return to San Diego with his wife and, after a bitter terminal tour in a backwater job at the naval station, pass his middle age in Chula Vista running a convenience food store while drawing his half-pay retirement check.

The commander was not alone. The list of professional casualties Vietnam engendered is hard to measure. The definition of casualty is difficult. Does a cashiered major with tenure on a university faculty, a returned naval captain practicing law in Houston at a $100,000 a year or an Army captain who never made major and took up bartending in Santa Fe constitute a casualty? Perhaps all that can be said is there are literally thousands of men and women who were deemed to have failed or to have behaved unsatisfactorily in what for many was the most dramatic period of their lives because of acting upon intelligently and honestly held views. Others suffered a more subtle form of damage, tailoring their opinions to fit the moment’s fashion. There was a company view in Vietnam, and one departed from it at one’s peril. The sanctions ranged from transfers to dangerous duty, with possible death or injury, to professional death, to the lowered self-esteem that comes from self-compromise.


In Vietnam, the nature of the war was misperceived. The people for whom we fought the war and their goals were not understood. We did not understand the nature of our relationship with our allies. We did not know our enemy, his motivation, his strengths as well as weaknesses. When, from time to time, (and far more frequently than one might think), truth tugged at the system’s elbow through clear-eyed observers, they were turned away and often punished for their trouble.

The disparity between America’s vision of the war and the reality, grew, and the frictions of the war increased to the point where it was no longer possible to continue. In the end, at home, there was no longer a sufficiently coherent vision of the war to engender the political support necessary to its continuation.

It even took a long time for the participants to come to terms with what to call the end when it came.

In 1984 the lieutenant, long since home from the war, long since past the trauma of reentry, was broiling a steak on the grill of his suburban terrace. The night was soft, cool, early June, and his eight-year-old nephew played on the lawn, falling down on his belly yelling: “Here they come, here they come!”

The boy—fresh and appealingly innocent—called to his uncle from where he lay on the ground. “Is this the way you do when the planes come?” he asked. “Sometimes—you’ve got it down pretty well.” “Were you ever in a war?” the boy asked. “Yes,” said the lieutenant. “Did you win?” “No, we lost,” the chef replied, “it was called Vietnam.”

“Oh,” said the boy, his tone reflecting disappointment and disgust.

The lieutenant wished he could have given the boy a different answer.

It was somehow demeaning, even after all this time, to have to admit he was not on the winning side. But he called it as he saw it.


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