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Technology or Strategy?


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Posted

In first world countries, we are spoiled rotten, and lose all sense of proportion. Hardly a brush with death, we go years, decades even without the slightest inkling of death's sting. Time feels endless, and we feel invincible - if a problem arises, all we gotta do is try harder. Right? A couple of workshops and a few PDFs and we're ready. Technology is bliss.

On the flip side, this lifestyle doesn't help prepare for reality at all. It leads to decadence - constantly bored shitless, on the lookout for the next distraction, the next shock to remind us of being alive.

The military leader who faced the French and the Americans was General Vo Nguyen Giap. He was always the underdog, fighting against an enemy with unlimited resources, firepower and superior training. What the hell did he have? A bunch of peasants - though they had deep-seated morale, not much else. No trucks to carry supplies, and quite antiquated communication systems. A different general would've tried to compete with the French and the Americans by catching up to their level of technology. Giap was offered trucks, radios, weapons, and training from China, but he rejected them all. Why? He knew they would only turn the North Vietnamese into a weak version of their enemy. So, he decided to turn his army's weaknesses into virtues.

First of all, Americans could spot trucks from the air, and bomb them. Americans couldn't bomb supply lines they couldn't see - so Giap used a huge network of peasants to carry supplies on their back, use rope bridges that hung below water level to cross rivers. Americans never figured out how the North Vietnamese supplied their soldiers in the field until after the war.

Giap also developed hit & run guerrilla tactics that disrupted American supply lines. In order to fight and move troops and supplies, Americans used helicopters. Very mobile, but the war was won on the ground, so Giap used the jungle to neutralize American air superiority, discombobulate their soldiers and hide his soldiers. Of course, his men couldn't withstand a trench war, match bullet for bullet against that superior firepower, so he focused only on symbolic and demoralizing attacks that would send the war home on American TV.

With minimum supplies, Giap enacted maximum effect.

The logic?

Armies that have more money and resources and firepower have a fatal flaw. They always become predictable, cuz they only rely on their equipment instead of knowledge and strategy. thus they grow mentally lazy. Whenever they encounter problems, their solution is to acquire more of what they have ($$$, resources, firepower). That doesn't bring victory - only how they use it. Those that have less resources, money and firepower are naturally more creative, more inventive. Creativity always has an edge over anyone dependent on technology. They learn faster, adapt quicker, and outsmart the tech-dependent junkie.

Having less than the enemy doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion. By using great economy, the situation can be turned around. If you and the enemy are equals, then you're better off using what you have better than the other guy, instead of trying to grab more weapons. If you have more than the other guy, then fight economically.

Pablo Picasso said it best:

Even if you are wealthy, act poor.

The poor are more creative, and have more fun because they value what they have and know their limits. Sure, if you have the superior technology, you ought exploit it -- see how the US military succeeded in the 1991 war against Iraq. They didn't just depend on superior technology (though that got them air control) they learned from their screwjob in Vietnam, and employed maneuvers and feints and mobility much like a smaller, guerrilla force. Advanced technology with creative strategy = devastation.

More later.

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Posted (edited)

I think this is an interesting, subtle subject.

A couple of initial points: You’re certainly right about how the Cong and the North Viets used the jungle to their advantage to hide and transport supplies, etc., but it’s also true that the North was heavily armed and supplied by both the Soviets and China. The U.S. certainly did know about the jungle supply routes, as well as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is why for ten years beginning in the early 60s it dropped Agent Orange on the jungle in an effort to defoliate it.

The North and the Cong defeated the U.S. and the South Vietnam army. But it’s important, as I think you understand, to specify exactly what we mean by “defeat.” If the claim is that the North, employing superior strategy while possessing inferior technology, militarily defeated the U.S., this claim is not accurate. What IS true, as you point out, but which I think must be stressed, is that the North politically stymied the U.S. by, as you say, focusing on “symbolic and demoralizing attacks that would send the war home on American TV.”

So I think it’s worth noting that the U.S. did not actually lose any major battles militarily during that war. Even the Tet Offensive in 1968 ended in total defeat of the Cong and the North, while imposing huge losses on them. But while it was a military defeat for the North, it was a political defeat, nay a political disaster, for the U.S. Why?

Prior to Tet, President LeBron James, also known as LBJ, and colloquially referred to as President Lyin’ B. Johnson, had adopted a strategy of lying to the American public on the war’s progress. He repeatedly assured everyone that everything was under control. The Tet Offensive exposed this lie, ended LeBron’s political career, and soured the mainstream public, not just the protesters, on the war. So this was brilliant strategy by the North, in helping this to come about, but Tet was still not a military defeat for the U.S. Quite the opposite.

Later, of course, LBJ redeemed himself somewhat by going on to carve out a great career in the NBA.

I’m just trying to point out this: one can make the more narrow and focused claim (which I thought was being made in your chat discussion with Dave last night) that superior strategy but inferior material can militarilly defeat superior material allied to inferior strategy. This is true, in some cases, but this narrow-scope claim cannot hold in the case of Vietnam, since the U.S. was not militarily defeated, but politically defeated. It was also defeated by a paralyzing strategy adopted of its own making, and of necessity: From the beginning, invading and occupying the North was off the table. It was thought, no doubt correctly, that if the U.S. were to do this, it would draw the Soviets and China into open war with the U.S., leading to World War III. Indeed, in Korea some years earlier, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded North Korea, it drew China into the war, and very nearly led to a nuclear exchange. So invading North Vietnam was off the table.

But imagine if this strategy had been adopted in World War II. Imagine if, from the outset, the U.S. had decided it would not invade either Germany or Japan. Had it made that decision, it could not have won the war. So too with Vietnam. But this self-paralyzing strategy had nothing to do with anything strategically employed by the Cong or the regular North Vietnam Army. BTW, I’m not retroactively advocating that the U.S. should have taken the risk of invading the North. I’m retroactively advocating that it should never have sent a single soldier to Vietnam in the first place.

If you wanted to find a case in which superior strategy coupled with inferior technology militarily defeated a foe that had superior technology but inferior strategy, perhaps a better case could be made with regard to the first Indochina War: specifically, the military defeat of the French Army by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu, which drove the French out of Indochina and cost them their empire there. However, the Dien Bien Phu case does not bear scrutiny, because in point of fact the Vietminh defeated the French because it was the French who had the inferior technology and position, about which more in a future post.

Edited by davidm
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Posted (edited)

Good post, Davidm!

Allow me to retort in detail:

The essence of my OP was that strategy is superior to technology because it's never what you have - only how you use what you have. If you have inferior technology but the right strategy, you will always prevail over superior technology.

Now you mention another aspect to strategy I always found fascinating: the Grand Strategy, where the goal lies beyond the immediate battle, and calculation are devoted to that goal, which means the political ramifications & long term consequences are absolutely necessary for the last laugh.

Back to Vietnam, in 1967, the US military actually thought they were making progress (a series of operations that sought & destroyed the VC who had infiltrated south Vietnam and controlled the countryside). Sure, those guerrilla fighters were tricky but the Americans finally inflicted serious damage that year. The South Vietnamese government, erected by the US, seemed stable and capable of gaining approval from the Vietnamese. Back home, although there were serious antiwar demonstrations, polls showed most Americans were in favor for the war and the end was near.

Since the VC and the North Vietnamese army weren't much in pitched battle against the American military & technology, the idea was to trap them into a major engagement. By the end of 1967, US intelligence indicated that the North Vietnamese were about to walk into this trap cuz Giap was actually planning a major offensive against the US marine post at Khe Sanh. This seemed plausible cuz Giap had pulled off a similar victory in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where he forced the French out forever.

Khe Sanh was a excellent location - just 14 miles from the demilitarized zone btw North and South Vietnam, and 6 miles from the Laos border, also the site of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the VC supply route to the south.

General Westmoreland, the US commander, decided to use Khe Sanh to monitor enemy activity to the north and west. Where Dien Bien Phu served the same function for the French, and Giap succeeded in isolating and destroying it, Westmoreland was prepared: protected airstrips that would employ helicopters to control the air. The general also imported troops from the south to the Khe Sanh area, and an extra six thousand marines to reinforce the area. He was hoping to expose the enemy there.

Everyone watched Khe Sanh - the White House and the US media was convinced that was the war's Custer's Last Stand. On January 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese did indeed launch an attack, and both sides dug in.

But at the same time, the Vietnamese were celebrating their holiday, the lunar New Year called Tet. Traditionally, they call a truce, so both sides agreed to suspend hostilities during the holiday. On Jan 31st, every single major town and city and the American bases were under VC attack. Parts of Saigon was overrun by enemy soldiers, who did blow their way through the wall of the US embassy - the symbol of American presence in Vietnam. Marines did regain control of the embassy, but this was broadcast on TV. The VC also busted the city's radio station, the presidential palace and Westmoreland's own compound at the air base. It was a bunch of street fighting and pure chaos! Other cities came under siege and the North Vietnamese captured the ancient capital, Hue.

The attack on Khe Sanh continued, anyway. General Westmoreland couldn't tell where the main target was, whether the battles to the south were meant to draw forces away from Khe Sanh, or vice versa? The Americans regained control of South Vietnam in a few weeks, including Saigon and their air bases. The sieges at Khe Sanh and Hue took longer, but massive artillery and air bombardment finally destroyed the insurgents.

After the "Tet Offensive" was over, General Westmoreland dismissed it as the Battle of the Bulge, where near the end of WWII the Germans surprised the Allied forces by counterattacking into east France with rapid advances that caused panic. But the Allies recovered and pushed back. That was the German military's death knell. Therefore, the North Vietnamese and the VC had their last shot - ended up with far more casualties, and their infrastructure was eradicated. No chance they would ever recover. They exposed themselves and got incinerated.

It seemed a tactical disaster at first - but then the news hit home. All that drama kept Americans riveted to TV. They saw all that destruction, all contrariwise to what they were told. War was winnable, winding down? All that havoc on TV said otherwise. What were they doing in Vietnam in the first place? How can South Vietnam resist this omnipresent enemy? How could a clear and distinct victory even be possible?

Opinion polls took a nose-dive, and anti-war demonstrations got a second wind allover the country. LBJ's own advisors, who were telling him the same BS that South Vietnam was under control, suddenly shifted gears. LBJ got his ass handed to him in the New Hampshire Democratic primary by McCarthy who was the antiwar candidate. He slowly disengaged American forces from Vietnam and left office later that year in 1968.

Now my point? The American strategists thought the war depended entirely on their military. Superior weaponry that kills as many VC as possible and gain control of the countryside was enough to guarantee the South Vietnamese government's stability. Once the South was on its feet, the North would slink off, tail tucked between its legs.

However, the North Vietnamese saw the war differently. Essentially and practically, they saw the war in larger terms. They noticed the political situation in the South where Americans' search & destroy missions alienated the Vietnamese peasants. The NV did everything to win those peasants over and gained a silent, invisible army of millions. The Americans failed to secure the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese worker. The NV also looked at the political scene back home, where 1968 was a new presidential election. They also checked the cultural scene, where the support for war was wide, but hardly deep. The Vietnam war was unique: it was the first televised war in history. While the military tried to control information, the images on TV contradicted them.

This study led the NV to hit on the brilliant strategy of the Tet Offensive. They used the silent sympathizers in the South and infiltrate everywhere, smuggling arms and supplies under the pretense of the Tet holiday. The target they hit wasn't just military but also televisual: Saigon, American media, and symbolic (embassies, palaces, airfields). On TV this created the dramatic and deceptive impression that the VC was everywhere while the Americans' bombing raids did piddly-poo. Therefore the goal of the Tet Offensive wasn't a military target, but the American public in front of the TV set. Americans lost faith and in an election year, the war was over. The NV didn't have to win ONE SINGLE BATTLE.

They never did.

By looking past the battlefield, towards the larger picture of the politics, they won the war.

The Grand Strategy isn't something new. It's as old as the hills:

  • Alexander's conquest of Persia.
  • Roman & Byzantine empire controlling vast territories with small armies.
  • utterly disciplined campaigns of the Mongols.
  • Queen Elizabeth's destruction of the Spanish Armada.
  • Duke of Marlborough's campaigns vs the Hapsburgs.

Edited by The Heretic
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Posted

Yes, great post, this is a great analysis of what happened in the fateful year 1968. Incidentally, General Giap died just a few weeks ago at a ripe old age of 102. He never made it to the NBA like LBJ, but still.

Here's the Times obit, highly recommended: http://www.nytimes.c...-giap-dies.html

From the obit:

He was charming and volatile, an erudite military historian and an intense nationalist who used his personal magnetism to motivate his troops and fire their devotion to their country. His admirers put him in the company of MacArthur, Rommel and other great military leaders of the 20th century.

But his critics said that his victories had been rooted in a profligate disregard for the lives of his soldiers. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 until 1968, said, “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.”

General Giap understood something that his adversaries did not, however. Early on, he learned that the loyalty of Vietnam’s peasants was more crucial than controlling the land on which they lived. Like Ho Chi Minh, he believed devoutly that the Vietnamese would be willing to bear any burden to free their land from foreign armies.

He knew something else as well, and profited from it: that waging war in the television age depended as much on propaganda as it did on success in the field.

These lessons were driven home in the Tet offensive of 1968, when North Vietnamese regulars and Communist guerrillas, the Vietcong, attacked scores of military targets and provincial capitals throughout South Vietnam, only to be thrown back with overwhelming losses. General Giap had expected the offensive to set off uprisings and show the Vietnamese that the Americans were vulnerable.

Militarily, it was a failure. But the offensive came as opposition to the war was growing in the United States, and the televised savagery of the fighting fueled another wave of protests. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been contemplating retirement months before Tet, decided not to seek re-election, and with the election of Richard M. Nixon in November, the long withdrawal of American forces began.

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After the "Tet Offensive" was over, General Westmoreland dismissed it as the Battle of the Bulge, where near the end of WWII the Germans surprised the Allied forces by counterattacking into east France with rapid advances that caused panic. But the Allies recovered and pushed back. That was the German military's death knell. Therefore, the North Vietnamese and the VC had their last shot - ended up with far more casualties, and their infrastructure was eradicated. No chance they would ever recover. They exposed themselves and got incinerated.

One wonders how Westmoreland could have failed to notice how completely stupid his analogy was. Perhaps he was just in advanced denial.

Did he forget that once the Bulge was choked off, the allies proceeded to relentlessly advance on Germany from two separate directions? But as I indicated earlier, imagine that the allies in World War II had a policy that invading Germany proper was off the table for some reason. In that case, destroying the Bulge would have had little or no meaning. If the militarily failed Tet offensive was the equivalent of the World War II Battle of the Bulge, logic dictates that the U.S. would have then invaded North Vietnam. But of course that was off the table, for reasons already given.

The second big reason the analogy is stupid is that South Vietnam had silent millions in allegiance with the idea of evicting for foreign armies, as Heretic said, whereas it's safe to say there were scant few Nazi or German sympathizers in France in 1944.

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Posted

The Battle of the Bulge was a failure thanks to both technology and strategy in a way.

The Nazis made a huge mistake by pulling forces away from the Eastern front to face the Western allies at the Bulge. All that did was slow down the West while allowing the Russian army to advance faster. Considering the feelings of the Russians towards the Germans after what the Nazis did to Russia -Antony Beevor's Berlin goes into detail on just how terrible the Red revenge was on both the soldiers and civilians of Germany's capital city- along with the facts that the Russian army was much bigger and more formidable than the armies of the West, and that it was lead by Zhukov, arguably one of the greatest military leaders in history, if not the greatest leader of any nation during the war, Hitler's strategy of pulling men from the eastern front to face the West was, in a word, idiotic.

One of the reasons the Nazis lost the Battle of the Bulge was that their tanks ran out of fuel. German tank numbers were greatly reduced not due to the superior strategy of the Americans, but by a failure of logistics and supply. (This is also a major reason why the Japanese were forced back in the battle for Australia - when it came to the Battle of Milne Bay, they had advanced too fast for their supplies to keep up.) In short, when the Americans turned the tide of the battle, they had tanks, the Germans did not (besides, perhaps, a pitiful number). When two armies are facing each other on the ground, one with tanks, the other without, the former army has the advantage.

As the Vietnam war (along with Napoleon's occupation of Spain, and the Nazi occupation of France), a superior force can lose battles and numbers to guerrilla tactics. Indeed, conventional warfare on the ground, even with superior numbers and firepower, can be quite ineffective against the unconventional tactics used by the guerrillas; however history has so far failed to show an example of how guerrilla warfare can be sustained for long without support from either a supply line (as in Vietnam) or another military presence (as in the Peninsular War), or how such strategies can win a war when the only way to win is to invade and conquer the enemy's country, even if that country is right next door and accessible by land. The Spanish guerrillas gave Napoleon a bloody nose, but it was the conventional armies of the British et al who marched into France to Toulouse, and it was the conventional armies of Russia that marched into Paris in 1813.

Had the Northern army of Vietnam had to invade America to win that war, and if the domestic situation in America (caused as much by the way American soldiers were representing themselves, what with war crimes and all, as by how well their enemies were fighting) hadn't caused American politicians to have to pull the troops out, the Vietnamese war would have been long, bloody, but ultimately futile for America's opponents.

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Posted

This is mostly speculation, but with respect to Hitler pulling forces from the Eastern front to fight on the West, Hitler was (to say the least) a strange guy, and he seemed to have contempt for America and the West in general, while having gained a grudging admiration for Stalin, who was a man after his own heart, after all. He may have thought he could have quickly KO'd the Americans in the West with the Bulge, and then rushed the forces back to fight Stalin's Red Army. Alternatively, he may have known the war was lost, and preferred to be conquered by Stalin rather than by the Western forces, because of his grudging admiration for Stalin. Toward the end of the war he made a remark about how the Soviets had proved themselves superior to the Germans, and would hence rule the world. Also, Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy not only for the countries he had occupied, as he was forced to withdraw from them, but for Germany itself. He said that Germany did not deserve to survive at all. Many among the allies agreed with HItler, and there was a serious move, fortunately never consummated, to deindustrialize Germany after the war and force the German people to subsist solely on farming.

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Here's a note on the predictability of more advanced/disciplined armies. Santos Gonzales was a good friend of my father and was a WWII vet who fought in Europe. The OP reminds me of a story he told of his experience. I don't remember if he was fighting in France or where exactly, but he said his “outfit” stayed in a perpetual state of being lost. They were unfamiliar with the territory and couldn't ever seem to find where they were supposed to be.

His “outfit” was eventually put in charge of a makeshift prison camp after a large group of Germans soldiers were captured. Santos was on guard duty one time when an English speaking German soldier told him that the Germans had good intelligence on American troop movements, and they could have defeated them, but the Americans were never where they were supposed to be. The Germans would mobilize their army to be in place for an ambush, but it was never fruitful and in fact turned out to be detrimental for them, because they wasted so much time and resources to eventually be captured themselves by stumbling onto a group of American soldiers in a place they didn't expect to see them.

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