Robert Thompson’s Clear, Hold, and Destroy: Pacification in Phy Yen and the American War in Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 330 pp. $39.95, hardcover: $29.95, Kindle) is, above all, about the Vietnam War’s U.S. pacification effort and how it failed. The question addressed by Thompson is: Why is it important that we understand this failure?
As I read this book, I wondered why Thompson’s case study of events that took place fifty years ago would be relevant today. It would seem more natural to look at the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Vietnam experience and analyze similar philosophical and operational errors to understand why we have repeated the same flawed philosophy. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Thompson’s study of the pacification program in the Vietnam War examines the effort in Phu Yen Province south of Qui Nhon. His goal is to show how Americans advanced pacification and why the program ultimately did not work. He grapples with the impact of conventional warfare on pacification during a war by looking at the North Vietnamese Army, along with the Viet Cong, who were primarily fighting an insurgent war with the goal of winning over the South Vietnamese people.
The tragedy for the Vietnamese sandwiched in the middle was that the American search-and-destroy strategy was all but inseparable from U.S. pacification programs. At the same time, the often ruthless methods of the Viet Cong to control the population were no less harmful. However, it was not lost on the people that the Viet Cong would always come back after being forced away and reassert themselves.
Thompson, a historian with the Films Team at the Army University Press, argues that the ultimate objective of pacification during the Cold War was the defeat of communism, a goal not quite consistent with the traditional definition of “pacification,” which is to establish peace.
Therefore a dichotomy existed in the inconsistent and confusing use of the term and, more importantly, its consequences in actual practice. It has been said that pacification is about power—ultimately control over a population while isolating it from insurgents. In other words, it requires a major military component.
In the 1960s the Field Manual 31-22 Counterinsurgency Forces’ definition was “to destroy the insurgent’s ability to use the population for support.” That has proven, because of the destructive nature of war, to be a fundamental contradiction. Witness how incredibly destructive the war in Vietnam was for the Vietnamese people when airstrikes and artillery were used to blast hamlets and repeatedly dislocate those who lived there.
In an apparent effort to make the mission appear more benign to the public, a cascade of names was used for the program such as nation building, rural reconstruction, revolutionary development, winning hearts and minds, and civic action. Yet, in the end, pacification in the Vietnam War was never free from violence and destruction.
hompson could have looked at the American pacification of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and in the 19th century Indian wars in the West to illustrate the consequences of pacification. This summer, in his speech announcing the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Biden said it was the end of the era of “nation-building.” That reference reflects how much the concept has become associated with wrong-headed policies.
Thompson should be applauded for his excellent scholarship in approaching a very difficult subject and accurately describing the reality of pacification programs in the Vietnam War. His book is perceptively written, informative, and well worth reading. His website is drrobthompson.co,