Gen. Frederick Weyand, our last Vietnam War field commander who died a few days ago, had some advice that President Obama should follow if he wants the American people and their hired hands in Congress to stick with him as he expands his topsy-turvy war in Afghanistan.
"Vietnam was a reaffirmation of the peculiar relationship between the American Army and the American people," Weyand said in a farewell message to his beloved Army in 1976. "The American Army really is a people's Army in the sense that it belongs to the American people, who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement," the far-seeing general continued.
"When the Army is committed, the American people are committed. When the American people lose their commitment, it is futile to try to keep the Army committed. When the American people lost their commitment after the Tet offensive of 1968 [in South Vietnam], for all intents and purposes the war was lost," Weyand said, even though most post-audits have concluded that, militarily, the Tet offensive broke the back of the Viet Cong attackers.
Weyand's message, one Obama must heed if he is to be successful in his escalated Afghan war, is that the psychological support of the American people for such hard-to-explain wars in distant countries like South Vietnam and Afghanistan is far more important than troops, guns, bombers and tanks. Weyand elaborated in an interview with the late Col. Harry Summers in 1998.
"The fundamental reason" we lost the Vietnam War "was the lack of clear-cut and understandable political and military objectives," Weyand said. "That was true from top to bottom. When Clark Clifford took over as [President Lyndon Johnson's] secretary of Defense after Tet 1968, he found that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no concept of victory and no plan to end the war. And that was the case in Saigon as well.
"In 1974 Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard did a survey and found that almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the [Vietnam] war were uncertain of its objectives," Weyand continued. Kinnard concluded that "'mirrors a deep-seated strategic failure: the failure of policymakers to frame tangible, obtainable goals.' It was this lack of a sense of purpose that finally turned the American people against the war."
I heard the frustration about that lack of clarity while on the ground in South Vietnam for The Washington Post in 1968. An Army lieutenant colonel who commanded a battalion in South Vietnam's rice bowl in the Delta bitterly said to me after a frustrating day of chasing the Viet Cong: "Maybe if we can't explain this war, we shouldn't be here."
I was also sitting across the table from Clifford in a Post luncheon in 1968 when he told us he and others in the Johnson administration "are in a struggle for the president's mind. I told the president that 'your generals are leading you down the primrose path. They couldn't tell me how they plan to win in Vietnam no matter how many more men we send them.'"
Lamented Weyand to Summers: "It was this lack of a sense of our purpose that finally turned the American people against the [Vietnam War]. It was the fall of 1967 when polls showed that for the first time more Americans were against the war than in support of it. And I think that shift took place because of public suspicion that the government didn't know what it was doing."
Weyand said he told his North Vietnamese counterpart in peace negotiations in Hanoi shortly before Saigon fell in 1975.
"'You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.' He pondered that remark a moment and then replied: 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'"
Yes, Obama spent weeks quizzing his generals and admirals on not only how to prevail in Afghanistan but also how to get out of there. He explained on national television why he was going to put almost 100,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan to help the Afghan army and police force neutralize the Taliban, pacify the country and build schools and clinics.
But it's not enough to explain the strategy just once in while. His fellow countrymen lead lives in which Afghanistan is out of sight, out of mind most of the time. But mounting casualties in Afghanistan, bloody deeds of the Taliban televised into American living rooms, exposes on the defections and corruption of Afghan allies our sons and daughters are risking their lives to help will push the Vietnam era question to the fore of the public mind: Why the hell are we still there?
Obama is the best communicator since Franklin Roosevelt warmed the American people with his Fireside Chats. Why not take Weyand's advice and explain at least once a month in updated Fireside Chats what is happening in Afghanistan and why we are there? Otherwise, he runs the risk of Weyand's fate in Vietnam: win every battle militarily but lose the war psychologically because the American people deserted him.
This article appears in the February 27, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.