Recent developments in Vietnam have drawn public attention away from the battlefield and focussed it on two questions that are not so much military as political and moral:
(1) What are we fighting for in Vietnam?
(2) Can we achieve our objective by a continuing build-up of American forces when our South Vietnamese ally is torn by internal political strife combined with a growing war weariness, if not a growing resentment against the United States? What kind of society are we fighting to preserve, and what sort of an end to our own military commitment are we prepared to accept?
Ordinary warfare has its own military logic geared to a military objective—destruction of the enemy’s capacity to fight. This is not the case in Vietnam. The Vietcong has no hope of destroying our capacity to fight, and short of turning North and South Vietnam into a wasteland, we have no chance of destroying their capacity to fight. It is as though an elephant and a hornet were engaged in combat.
In Vietnam, both sides are trying to destroy the opponent’s will. This fact tends to result in a vicious circle: Neither side can be physically defeated, but to withdraw from the conflict appears to be a loss of face. We and the Vietcong, as well as Hanoi, have shown every symptom of this phenomenon in the last year. Escalation, for both sides, has a momentum of its own. The only hope of escape from this vicious circle is the recognition by one side or the other of a change in the circumstances which first drew them into the conflict. I believe that recent events have highlighted a change of this sort for us in South Vietnam.
There are many answers given to the question: “Why are we fighting in Vietnam?” One answer is “to preserve democracy.” This answer is paradoxical for two reasons: First, there never has been real democracy in South Vietnam; and second, it is impossible to achieve a democratic society while the fighting escalates. It might be more reasonable to say: “We are fighting to give democracy a chance.” How true is this? The Geneva Accords provided vaguely for “general elections which will bring about the unification of Vietnam” by July 1956. At that time, the only grass-roots political force in the South was the residual presence of the Vietminh, controlled by the Vietnamese Workers Party which had governed North Vietnam since 1951 and which by the time of the Geneva Accords had moved into the first stages of a Communist agrarian revolution. Elections at that stage might very well have extended Communism to the South; so we decided to support a supposedly benevolent nationalist regime instead. This is the commitment that brought us into conflict with the Vietcong, both during the Diem regime and more directly in the chaos which followed. But even to say. “We are fighting to give democracy a chance” is paradoxical when the only way we have been able …