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Summers doesn't even bother to examine the customary, bubble-gum explanations for the US failure in Vietnam (media backstab, anti-war movement, reliance on conventional tactics to deal with a guerilla enemy) that the general public has come to accept. Instead, he uses his experience in the military and his mastery of Clausewitzian war theory to explain, precisely, how our political and military leadership mismanaged the war. That's what the book is, really: a Clausewitzian indictment of the US political and military leadership. It's also what Summers finds most alarming about the US performance in Vietnam--we failed to abide by rules that we should have had committed to memory by 1965, and in ignoring them, we actually found the North Vietnamese beating us at our own game.
To my mind, the colonel hit on two themes that I found interesting and edifying as I tried to come to my own conclusions about why we lost in Vietnam. These are themes that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere, which is why I will cite them here.
First, Summers begins his book trying to convince his audience that the "National Will" to fight the war was impaired from the beginning. It's not that Americans didn't support the war at first--they did, but only as an afterthought (keep in mind that Vietnam was not front and center in 1965). But out of fear of losing his Great Society programs and possible re-election in 1968, Johnson made a deliberate decision not to mobilize the passions of the American people. A national will was never built. There was never a formal declaration of war. As a nation, we never announced our intentions to go to war.Read more ›
Summers recounts an exchange between himself and a former NVA officer some years after the war. It went something like this Summers: "You never defeated us in the field." NVA Officer: "That is true. It is also irrelevant." I recently saw this bumper sticker on a Vietnam veteran's car: "I don't know what happened. When I left we were winning." To find out what happened, read this book. Summers gives an insightful critique of the strategic failure using the Nine Principles of War and the doctrine of Clausewitz. I read this book a few years before the Gulf War, and as I watched that war unfold, I kept "On Strategy's" teachings in mind. It seemed to me at the time that those charged with the conduct of the Gulf War effort were applying "On Strategy's" doctrine chapter and verse. Read the book and review the Gulf War effort, and see if you don't agree.
One of the enduring ironies of military history--and the history of military thought--is that the most profound analysis, clearest insights, and most enduring illumination of the principles and practice of warfare has been accomplished by military professionals of relatively modest rank. To the distinguished list of Colonel Clausewitz, Captain Mahan, and Captain Hart, add Colonel Harry Summers. ON STRATEGY is certainly the most important book on military theory to appear since WWII and is perhaps the most important work of this century. Potential purchasers need have no fear that this book will be out-of-print for the foreseeable future; the presses will keep running because ON STRATEGY will be required reading in every military academy in the world for many decades. ON STRATEGY is "about" the Vietnam War in much the same way that Clausewitz is "about" the Napoloenic Wars or that Mahan is "about" 18th-century naval struggles between France and England. That is, Summers uses the Vietnam War as a vehicle for analysis and illustration of principles of war that apply universally. Aside from the clarity of his thought, Summers' most remarkable achievement is his writing style: For all of its subtlety, this book is accessible and valuable for readers who may have little background in military affairs. At the end of WW II, the United States created special five-star ranks to honor it most senior commanders for their contributions to victory. A book review is a poor substitute for a richly-deserved star to reward extraordinary service to the nation. But for his brilliant analysis and articulate writing, pin Five Stars on Harry Summars' collar. - - - - - - - - - The reviewer is a former military intelligence analyst.
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This is the best and primary work on what went wrong with the U.S. military effort in Vietnam. Its biggest shortcoming is that it does not indicate clearly its origin and importance. This was the U.S. Army War College's commissioned study of what lessons should be learned from the Vietnam conflict. It became the standard text, and the basis for the course, on the subject, not only at the War College but also at its Navy and Air Force counterparts. These are the institutions where those selected as prospective generals and admirals are trained in the principles of flag-level command. (The book's history and importance are described at some length in Summers' sequel, _On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War_.) Following Clausewitz' classic overview, Summers meticulously shows how the U.S. failed to follow established principles of warfare and how these failures led to the bad result. The book's history as a War College study also explains some biases and omissions. U.S. doctrine emphasized the defeat of the enemy's military, as Clausewitz did; Summers had no choice but to follow Clausewitz and dismiss or ignore such writers as Sun Tzu and B. H. Liddell Hart, who argued for winning by attacking the enemy's will to fight. Yet his opening quote from the NVA colonel, and his selective use of Clausewitz (he quotes Clausewitz extensively on matching goals to available means, but not on defeating the main body of the enemy), put the real message there plainly enough, if between the lines: the U.S. paid too little attention to the aspects of war that take place off the battlefield. This book will repay careful study. It certainly did for the U.S. military, as the Gulf War attests.
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