North Vietnamese SAM (anti-aircraft missile) crew in front of SA-2 launcher. U.S. Air Force photo.
North Vietnamese SAM (anti-aircraft missile) crew in front of SA-2 launcher. U.S. Air Force photo.

Idealism and the Western Way of War

By Joel Kindrick

The “Western Way of War” is a term that describes various theories that have been bandied about by historians as to why Western culture has so dominated the field of battle. The West, it can be argued, is the most brutal, yet most effective, military culture in the world. In the wake of its success have come non-Western societies that have either adapted, become irrelevant, or become extinct. The West may have started in what is now known as Europe, but its dominance has continued to this very day, in regard to the world’s politics, fashion, music, and language – penetrating every corner of the globe – and, yes, even military cultures and theory.

In its simplicity, the term “Western Way of War” has come to mean a way of fighting that has given soldiers and the powers behind each soldier the discipline, organization, and ferocity to win. The Western Way of War is an ideal. It is an ideal that is looked on by some cultures as arrogant. It is the belief that one group has something better to offer another group. It is the belief that an “inferior” culture must learn the ways of the “superior” – or the “wayward” society must learn from the “progressive.”

Other societies began to catch on

The twentieth century saw non-Western societies increase their technology, discipline, and organization, and develop prosperous economies. The outcome of battles between Western and non-Western countries became less certain. In the early and most militarily lopsided years of Western expansion, the outcome was more certain, given superior technology, discipline, organization, and a prosperous economy.

By the twentieth century, the Western Way of War was as much of an import to the non-Western world as hip hop and fast food are to the non-Western world today. As the colonial powers built up economies in Asia, those Asian cultures came to understand the importance of trade and building up an economy for their own survival. Japan made great strides modernizing in Western ways during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They even decided to conquer the rest of Asia, believing that they were superior, and had superior ideals and methods.

Realizing the importance of ideals

Following the example set by Imperial Japan, as well as other Asian examples of higher ideals set by Chairman Mao Tse-tung of China and the North Korean Communists, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam began to train his people with military technology and with ideals that pertained to a higher sense of community. Although these ideals went directly against the viewpoints of the West, particularly the United States, the result of the spread of the Western Way of War once again directly confronted America.

For Americans, however, there was the same sense of purpose for defending democracy in Asia that there had been in World War II and Korea, especially after the Korean War had stalemated.

That higher ideal for America was defended and accepted when President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the nation with his domino theory on April 7, 1954. The theory was that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, then all of the other surrounding countries would follow – like a row of standing dominoes. “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Losing focus and forgetting the ideals

But America’s Western Way of War, did not prevail in Vietnam. Why? Because when a side loses focus of its higher ideal, and forgets the purpose as to why it is fighting – and when the other side has not lost its focus – the outcome is the story of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

America’s ideal was of democracy and freedom, and the fear that communism would spread. America had all the components of superior technology, discipline, organization, and a prosperous economy. The cement that held these variables together at the beginning of this conflict was idealism. As the body count rose, and as the war dragged on, America lost sight of its ideal, and soon decided to retreat. Conversely, the North Vietnamese Army had not lost sight of its ideal.

Within a few years the advisors that President John F. Kennedy had sent in to help the South Vietnamese had become a large escalation of fighting troops, and the sense of purpose and a higher ideal was lost. Soldiers did not know why they were fighting. Some soldiers were simply fighting to put in their conscripted tour of duty, and to survive.

As described in various sources, American soldiers have put into words their feelings stemming from our country’s loss of ideals during the Vietnam War: Warrant Officer John H. Pohlman wrote a letter to a close friend on April 15, 1970. “[A]s terrible as the war may be for you to contemplate, it is far more difficult, for me, to live with…that is my own very selfish compulsive interest right now. Survival.” Other soldiers, like Dominick Yezzo, voiced their feelings more bluntly. “I’m really depressed with the Army. I can’t stand the loss of identity I have here.” He goes on to say, “Vietnam and this war have hurt me deeply, and made me bitter.” Another soldier commented that, “They [the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong] were fighting for home, which was something I wasn’t doing.” Sergeant Edward Murphy summed it up when writing his brother Tom. “Vietnam is one of our mistakes, and our generation will unfortunately be linked with this mistake …” This was written on June 5, 1968, and the war would continue for several more years. Even the politicians had lost sense of the ideal. The sense of that loss was epitomized when the commander-in-chief, President Lyndon B. Johnson, announced on March 31, 1968 that, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” America went down in defeat because the idealism of the Western Way of War had been lost.

NVA kept to their ideals and purpose

The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong understood their purpose and fought for their ideal. Ho Chi Minh believed strongly in the rights of the working class, and that they should be in control of their own destiny. The ideal of freedom from colonial rule and rule by elite capitalists inspired thousands of soldiers to continue fighting and dying to see the ideal of working-class rule become a reality. Ho Chi Minh outlined several reasons why Vietnam needed to rid itself from French rule that later translated also into America’s involvement. He said, “We are strong thanks to the justice of our cause, the unity of our people from the North to the South, our traditions of undaunted struggle, and the sympathy and support of the fraternal socialist countries and progressive people all over the world.”

Nguyen Hung, when remembering the strength and will of his people in fighting the Americans, recalled that, “It is truly a national mobilization, in that old people, men and women, young children took part in the national war effort.” Ho Chi Minh and his people fought for what they believed in, and did not waver in their struggle for over three decades until their persistence, fueled by their ideal, paid off.

Export and import

The Western Way of War was spread by the Europeans, imported to the Americas, and adopted in Asia. Wars cannot be fought devastatingly or effectively without the variables of superior technology, discipline, organization, and a prosperous economy – but it is idealism that cements those variables, and gives the soldier a reason to fight and a reason to win. America had all these variables in place, but it had lost its idealism. North Vietnam, on the other hand, although inferior in each of the variables, did not lose its idealism. Without idealism there is no long-lasting purpose for fighting. Without idealism a war cannot be won. The Western Way of War was used against the Americans in Vietnam, and this way of war became another successful Western import.

Sources

Geoffrey Parker, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Andrew Carroll, ed., Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

Dominick Yezzo, A GI’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself, ed. Ellen Cooney (New York: iUniverse Inc., 2006).

Truman Springer, The Century: America’s Time with Peter Jennings: Volume 5: The ’70s VHS (New York: ABC News, 1999).

Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985)..

 

 

Joel KindrickJoel Kindrick has an M.A. in military history from Norwich University, and has been an instructor of history, government, and language on the campuses of Pepperdine University, California Lutheran University, and Pacific Union College. He has done extensive interviewing and researching of veterans of American wars.

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