How Can You Win Every Battle But Lose the War?

America sent troops to Vietnam to halt the spread of communism from China and North Vietnam to the rest of Southeast Asia. By every traditional measure, the United States “won” the Vietnam War. U.S. troops moved with impunity and held the field of battle after almost every engagement. Casualty rates were extremely lopsided in America’s favor. Yet, by 1976, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were communist.

How did this happen?

The United States won almost all of its battles against the Viet Cong, but the communists still won the war. As Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary “The Vietnam War” continues its PBS premiere, Rewire’s resident historian offers an explanation of this paradox.

A flawed strategy

The most basic explanation is that none of those things matter in guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla armies win every battle they survive, and while American military personnel, on average, did their part during the Vietnam War, America’s political and military leaders were not up to the task.

U.S. strategy often did not go beyond the basic idea that there were a finite number of communists and that the U.S. could defeat them by whittling down their numbers and will to fight. Unfortunately for the United States, this plan was built on faulty assumptions.

First, the United States misunderstood the Viet Cong. Because the U.S. saw Vietnam as part of the Cold War, it assumed the Viet Cong would give up with enough military pressure. The Viet Cong, however, saw the United States as the latest in a long line of colonial oppressors. The Viet Cong would not surrender short of victory.

Losing hearts and minds

Next, U.S. leaders ignored that the Viet Cong could add to their ranks throughout the war. The United States planned to defeat the Viet Cong using search-and-destroy missions. U.S. troops would leave base, engage the Viet Cong where they found them, and then return to base.

But these search-and-destroy missions put everyone in an impossible position. Vietnamese villagers had to choose between U.S. soldiers who threatened to burn down their village if they helped the Viet Cong or the Viet Cong who threatened to burn down the village if they didn’t. American soldiers had to determine on the fly if weapons they found belonged to the villagers or the Viet Cong.

As Vietnam veteran Barry Romo said, “Your morality wears down. Your patience wears down. After a while, people started blaming the Vietnamese for our casualties–all of the Vietnamese–and there’s a genuine dehumanization of the people we were supposedly there to help.”

Every civilian casualty at the hands of U.S. troops encouraged villagers to join the Viet Cong’s numbers.

The body count

The U.S. was never as close to victory as its leaders thought.

The United States determined success through causality counts; however, in the height of battle, numbers were often rounded up, and any civilians killed were usually included in the total.

Overoptimistic promises of victory were fed to the American public, setting the Viet Cong up for a huge political victory in the Tet Offensive.

Too little too late

America’s struggles in Vietnam inspired a new look at an old doctrine, counterinsurgency, or COIN. Instead of brute military force, counterinsurgency relies on winning hearts and minds. Form relationships with the people, win their trust and cut them off from the guerrillas, who can’t survive without the assistance of the population.

The U.S. found some success with this strategy later in Vietnam, but by then it was too late. The U.S. has also tried to apply COIN principles to Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror.

Two sides of the COIN

Foreign policy experts agree on the challenges posed by guerrilla war, but disagree about what those difficulties mean.

Some strategists, led by David Kilcullen, believe COIN is difficult, but it can be successful if done correctly. A country “only” has to win the trust of the people, provide security and economic opportunity and set up a political system that can endure once U.S. troops leave.

For others, most notably Gian Gentile, the lesson is that even world superpowers can’t do anything they want whenever they want. Powerful nations throughout history have failed to defeat numerically and technologically inferior guerrillas. In their mind, it’s not the application of COIN strategy that’s flawed; the flaw is the strategy itself.

The Vietnam War has much to teach us, not only about the mediapolitics and law, but foreign policy as well. Some of the war’s lessons are unclear and contradictory, but watching the PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” is a pretty good place to start.

Other stories in our series on Vietnam War history:

How Today’s Laws Were Shaped by the Vietnam War

Why Are U.S. Citizens So Divided by Politics?

How the Media Shapes Public Opinion of War

The Telling Project Helps Veterans Break the Ice

Jacob Hillesheim

Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator who has taught courses in American history, world history, military history, government and criminal justice and law. He holds master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history. He has never—never—said “no” to ice cream.