I wasn't sure what I could write here that was worthy of who David Halberstam was, but now that I have gathered my thoughts, perhaps this will help people who didn't read his dispatches out of Viet Nam. He understood what we were really doing there.
The only reason were were in Viet Nam at all is that the French pulled out, partitioned the nation, and set a national referendum to take place on reunification for 1956. This was the very height of the Red Scare from Anti-Communist American Conservatives and John Birchers, so Ike could not permit the referendum to occur. The South would approve reunification, and Ike would have to face the screams of "Who Lost Viet Nam" from the same people who were still yelling "Who Lost China." The American conservatives were convinced that Communism was a unitary ideology, and that all Communists were focused on destroying America as the center of Capitalism. This was a major element of the Domino Theory that was used to justify American involvement in Viet Nam after the French wised up and got out.
In hindsight it is now clear that the fiction of a unitary Communist front concealed the many and very powerful splits among Communist nations, not the least being that Ho Chi Minh was not going to let Chinese Communists dominate Viet Nam any more than he was gong to let the French, Japanese or Americans. In fact, the Chinese were the first, great enemy. The Vietnamese had been fighting them for over a thousand years.
Based on the Domino Theory and the fiction of a unitary Communist Front as an explanation for how we Americans were involved, President Eisenhower prevented the Referendum from occurring and sent in large numbers of military advisers to try to develop an effective South Vietnamese Army to support and legitimize the government of the Republic of Viet Nam. Then in 1961 Ike handed this can of worms off to Kennedy. David Halberstam was sent by the New York Times around that time to write about those worms and make sense of what was happening.
Halberstam later said that he expected to find that we were the good guys, that we were in a good fight, and that as the Generals kept telling us, we were winning. It would just take time. What he found when he compared what the guys on the ground said to what the Generals were saying was quite different.
Halberstam later wrote that the Vietnamese were willing to send every single Vietnamese in the country to their death to defeat the occupying America, just as they had been to defeat the Japanese and the French before us. The only way for America to win in Viet Nam was for us to kill everyone there. We weren't willing to do that, particularly since they were no real threat to us.
The only other way for America to win in Viet Nam was to so demoralize those who were fighting us that they would give up and at the same time create a nation in South Viet Nam with a legitimate government that had broad acceptance. That was never going to happen, particularly since the government of RVN was controlled largely by Catholics. The South Vietnamese were not going to somehow accept a government imposed on them by foreigners, no matter who the foreigners were.
Tet was proof that we couldn't win the war. In January 1968 we won Tet militarily, hands down. We destroyed the Viet Cong command structure. So the North Vietnamese stepped in and replaced it, then the Vietnamese kept on fighting. It was the worst defeat we could impose on the insurgents, and they simply absorbed it and kept fighting.
Halberstam got that. He saw how the U.S. military command was fooling itself with its little wins into thinking that the war could be won, but it couldn't. [Read "We were soldiers once, ... and young." or watch the movie and pay close attention to the epilogue. The battle for Ia Drang was November 1965.]
Halberstam figured out the lay of the land early on. The American Right-wingers don't have it yet. The 'wingers are still blaming others for the defeat in Viet Nam, when the truth was and remains that Vietnamese nationalism defeated American militarism.
The 'Wingers are even today blind people complaining because someone with functioning eyes told them to avoid the chasm. The 'wingers then went into the chasm anyway in spite of warnings. Now they want to blame the seeing people for stabbing them in the back. They don't like Halberstam because he warned them.
I don't blame the 'wingers too much. I'm a Viet Nam era vet, pre-baby boomer, and until the late 70's I blamed the press (especially TV) for our "loss" in Viet Nam. So I tried to figure out how we could have won. David was right. We couldn't have. Not without killing most Vietnamese. And we would have won --- nothing. The only way to win in Viet Nam was for us to get out. But that does not match the 'wingers definition of winning. To them "leaving" is "losing."
The basic importance of the fight is less important than the fight itself. That makes quitting the fight the same as losing. As long as the fight goes on, we have not lost, and all the American dead and wounded are heroes.
We are faced with much the same decisions and attitudes today in Iraq. Our methods of mass killing of opposing armies are ineffective against insurgents operating in small groups without uniforms and we don’t have enough trustworthy troops to literally blanket the country. We can’t break their will to fight through overpowering, demoralizing destruction. We can't create an acceptable government and impose it on them, and any efforts we make to prop up the Iraqi government are seen as imposing a foreign government on the Iraqi nation.
We also can’t outlast the insurgents because they frankly don’t have anything we want that bad. The insurgents understand that, and they prove how serious they are every time they send a suicide bomber to kill our troops or other Iraqis. If they were likely to run out of suicide bombers, maybe we could outlast them. I see no indication that they will run out of suicide bombers. In fact our very methods of warfare alienate the population and create ever more committed insurgents and suicide bombers. That is a prescription by which we can win every battle and still lose the war.
If it really mattered, like defeating the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland mattered to the British or defeating the Basque terrorists matter to the Spanish government, we could outlast them. But the Spaniards and British are not foreigners imposing a foreign regime on a nationalist country as we are in Iraq. There is nothing to be won by us in Iraq for which my grandchildren should still be fighting there twenty years from now, just as there was nothing to be won in Viet Nam.
If we get out now, perhaps in a generation we can get a relationship with the new Iraq (or Iraq nations) that is as good as we now have with Viet Nam. Maybe. Depends on the Iraqi people more than on us.
The alternative is that we will still be killing and our troops dying there in a generation.
Note: none of this has anything to do with the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. To them, Iraq is a side issue, but it is a place they can send or support a few combatants while bleeding the American military of both the ability and the will to fight. At the same time and at a very low price to our real enemies, the Americans are being forced to lose credibility world wide while al Qaeda gains credibility. Our government has become a group of self-centered incompetent corrupt fools out for their own gain, and totally unresponsive to what the American population wants. Conservatives have lost all credibility with most of the American population. The war in Iraq has brought all this about at a very small cost to the terrorists who have been trying to stoke up the sectarian warfare in Iraq.
David Halberstam was one who recognized this pattern of conservatives in the Viet Nam War. The conservatives refused then to recognize what Halberstam wrote. So now we are living thorough it again, brought in large part to us by retreads from the Nixon administration who refused to recognize the real cost/benefit calculus of the Viet Nam War. Same pattern. Different enemy. Different part of the world. But it's the fight that matters to the 'wingers. They'll keep sending soldiers to kill and die just so they can keep on bragging "We're number one!!" and they'll continue to define getting out of Iraq as defeat.
The conservatives won't forgive Halberstam for being correct.