Retired U.S. Army Col. William C. Haponski presents his interpretation of the outcome of the Vietnam War in Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam (Casemate, 336 pp. $32.95). “The Vietnam War,” he says, “was lost before French expeditionary corps or American combat units came ashore. Said another way, there was never a war there which could be won. The reasons lie in the history of Vietnam and the character of its people going back more than 3,000 years.”
Haponksi makes his case with a tight package of facts based on extensive research, supplemented by his experiences as a 1968-69 Vietnam War commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1/4 of the 1st Infantry Division.
Haponski is the author of three other Vietnam War books: One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam, Danger’s Dragoon: The Armored Cavalry Task Force of the Big Red One in Vietnam, 1969, and An Idea and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam.
Col. Jerry J. Burcham, a retired Vietnam War brigade commander, worked with Haponski on Autopsy.
In the book’s three parts, Haponski analyzes what he calls the French War, the American War, and the Vietnamese War stretching from 1945-75. He contends that independence and unification were virtually the lifeblood of the Vietnamese people during that time. “Events show that neither the French nor the Americans nor the South Vietnamese governments and militaries could ever have won a war in Vietnam regardless of who led the efforts,” he writes.
His analysis of the French War focuses on leadership. Continuity of command greatly benefited the Viet Minh, he says. From 1945-56, Ho Ch Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the North politically and militarily, while France practiced revolving-door leadership. At times, his account of French activities resembles a novel of international intrigue—except no fiction writer could have imagined the trickery he reveals.
Haponski emphasizes Ho’s opposition to colonialism by tracing his communist affiliation back to World War I. Haponski notes that Ho “was particularly enamored of Lenin,” and recognized the necessity for “revolutionary violence.”
The book’s account of the American War could be titled “Good Intentions, Poor Execution.” Haponski analyses each stage of U.S. involvement: Advisory, Search-and-Destroy, Big Unit Warfare, and Vietnamization. He describes operations written about by many other authors.
The historic value here comes from descriptions of difficulties he encountered as a commander. Problems compounded: new clear-and-hold plans reverted to search-and-destroy operations; Americans tortured prisoners during interrogations; a Vietnamese district chief refused to cooperate; American soldiers shot civilians; strategic hamlets failed to materialize; the Pacification program failed; and the MACV commander fell asleep while Haponski briefed him.
The final third of the book covers the ultimate encounter between North and South—NVA versus ARVN. Haponski describes the struggle in a fresh and straightforward style. He emphasizes that the North’s communism “was uniquely Vietnamese” and followed no monolithic control from Moscow. Yet, after the communist victory, Haponski says, a dedicated cadre of doctrinaire believers ruled the nation while “lower down” motivation was mostly patriotism produced by compulsion.
Although the book is flawlessly organized and a pleasure to read, I cannot agree with Bill Haponski’s conclusion that the North’s victory was based on a long Vietnamese desire for independence. To me, the communist takeover of the nation boiled down to another twentieth-century dictator’s success. Ho Chi Minh followed the paths of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Today the Vietnamese people live under ideas formulated by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century—not ones based on their three-thousand-year-old temperament.
Haponski says he presents “as succinctly as possible the essence of the contest itself inside the political and social framework that constrained and guided it on both sides—that is, within Vietnam,” and he leaves it “to the reader to discern what lessons could have been learned.” In that manner, he ignores the violent communist re-education of Southerners that followed the North’s victory.
A book of this magnitude should offer guidance for the future—at least a warning to wake up members of Congress. Otherwise, America could become entangled in another misdirected war, one lasting perhaps as long as nineteen years.
Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam provides a challenging thesis that stirs the mind.