The Blemish of Conquest
Moshe Dayan questioned American goals in Vietnam. What would he say about Iraq?
February 1, 2005
Feb 1, 2005
22 Min read time
Moshe Dayan questioned American goals in Vietnam. What would he say about Iraq?
In 1966, Israel’s leading newspaper, Maariv, invited the legendary military commander Moshe Dayan to be its war correspondent in Vietnam. Dayan, then 51 years old, jumped at the chance. He had been working in politics since 1959, eventually serving as minister of agriculture under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, but he had left his post in 1964 when Ben-Gurion fell out with the new prime minister, Levi Eshkol. He had been casting about for a new project.
Although he knew nothing about Vietnam, Dayan—whose brilliance and ruthlessness as a strategist against Arab hostilities had led to his elevation to chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces in the early years of independence—did what came naturally: he prepared himself.
First he flew to France, where he had many acquaintances from the time of the Israeli–French alliance of the mid-1950s; some of them had served in, and helped lose, the First Indochina War. In his first meeting a retired air-force general named Loission blamed the situation in Vietnam on the American public for not giving the war its full support (even though, at the beginning, that support had been overwhelming). He thought the war could be easily won if only the American public would approve the bombing of North Vietnam back into the stone age. As he saw it, Viet Cong propaganda had prevented the world, including the South Vietnamese themselves, from seeing how righteous the American cause was; he even believed that, had free elections been held, the Vietnamese might have wanted the French back. He asked that his ideas be kept secret. Dayan, who did not think those ideas constituted “a ray of light to an embarrassed world,” readily agreed.
Dayan’s other French contact was a General Niceault. For his role in the 1961 attempt to overthrow the Fifth Republic, Niceault had just spent five years in jail. As so often happens, jail provided an opportunity to think and learn. Niceault explained that the Americans were using the wrong forces against the wrong targets. Their intelligence was simply not good enough, and most of their bombs hit nothing but empty jungle. He thought the solution was to use small groups of five to seven men who would shadow the Viet Cong and act as guides, calling in air power or artillery when contact was made. He also claimed that American attempts to prevent the North Vietnamese from infiltrating South Vietnam across the demilitarized zone were not working; each time a path was blocked, another one opened. Perhaps the war could be won by sending in a million-man army and killing all male Vietnamese, but the days in which such things were possible had gone. Besides, he thought, there was no point in going to Vietnam—the Israeli guest would see nothing. Dayan answered that he would go nevertheless. Even if he did not see the enemy or the war, he would see that he could not see; that, too, would be enlightening.
Next, in England, he met Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of Alamein. The old gentleman was blunt: the Americans’ biggest problem was that they did not have a clear objective. He himself had tried to get an answer on that subject from no less than former vice president Richard Nixon. In response he had been treated to a 20-minute lecture that left him as much in the dark as he had been at the beginning.
To Montgomery the Americans’ lack of a clear overall policy meant that field commanders were calling the shots. They did what they knew best, screaming for more and more troops, locking up entire populations in what were euphemistically called “strategic hamlets,” and bombing and shelling without giving a thought to what, if anything, they were achieving. Montgomery asked Dayan to tell the Americans, in his name, that they were “insane.” Again Dayan did not disagree, though perhaps this time for different reasons.
* * *
From Britain, Dayan flew to the United States. Eighteen years had passed since he first visited there. Like many others, he was impressed by its tremendous power. It was a society racing into the 21st century, with the rest of the world barely keeping pace.
At his first meeting at the Pentagon three colonels briefed him. He noted that, while they humbly called him “the glorious General Dayan,” they seemed to want to provide not only answers, but the questions he was to ask. He was subjected to a flood of statistics—so-and-so many enemies killed, so-and-so many captured—meant to prove that the situation was well under control and that large parts of the territory of South Vietnam, as well as its population, were now safe against terrorist attack. As he noted, though, even a few elementary questions revealed that things were far from simple. Later he was to discover how right he had been in this; in the whole of South Vietnam there was not a single road that was really safe against the Viet Cong. Nor was there anything to prevent the enemy from returning even to those places that had been most thoroughly “cleansed” and “pacified.” In particular, he wondered why, given the four-to-one superiority that the Americans and their South Vietnamese Allies enjoyed over the Viet Cong, General Westmoreland would not give the latter a chance to concentrate and attack so that he himself could smash them to pieces. The answer he received—that Westmoreland thought doing so was too risky—he considered unconvincing.
The three most important figures he met during his visit to the United States were Walt Rostow, the deputy head of the National Security Council; Maxwell Taylor, the former chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then acting as special adviser to President Johnson; and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rostow, a Harvard economist, had published a famous book in which he explained how the developing world would catch up with the developed one in four clearly defined stages. Now he told Dayan that the desire for economic growth would drive the peoples of Asia closer to the United States. Dayan, who had observed how determined Israel’s Arab neighbors had been to get rid of their Western overlords even at heavy economic cost, doubted it.
Rostow also believed, or pretended to believe, that the forthcoming elections in South Vietnam would be free and democratic and would thus strengthen the government in waging the war. Still, he was the first American to admit to Dayan that the American objective was not just to help South Vietnam but to set up a permanent military presence in southeast Asia to counterbalance China’s growing power.
Taylor was the first American who offered a comprehensive plan for winning the war. It consisted of four elements: improving U.S. Army operations on the ground; making full use of the U.S. Air Force to bomb North Vietnam; strengthening the economy of South Vietnam; and reaching an “honorable” peace with Ho Chi Minh. Yet Taylor could not produce any convincing evidence that the United States was making progress toward these goals. As the Americans themselves admitted, in spite of the heavy casualties being inflicted on the Viet Cong—Taylor estimated 1,000 a week—their operations kept growing more extensive and more dangerous. Nor could Taylor point to any clear progress as a result of the air campaign. He did, however, believe that the bombing constituted a “heavy burden” on North Vietnam; sooner or later, the enemy would break.
Dayan was pleasantly surprised when Robert McNamara’s reputation for being hard to approach turned out to be unjustified. At a small dinner party with Margot McNamara (Robert’s wife), Walt Rostow, and several journalists, the secretary of defense did his best to answer Dayan’s questions. He admitted that many of the figures being floated by the Pentagon—particularly the percentages of the country and population “secured”—were meaningless. No more than anybody else could he explain how the Americans meant to end the war. What set him apart was that he was prepared to admit it, albeit only in a half-hearted way; as we now know, he already had his own doubts, which would lead to his resignation the next year. At the time he consoled himself by saying that the war was not hurting the American economy.
Flying to Vietnam by way of Honolulu and Tokyo, Dayan summed up his impressions so far. Everywhere he was received courteously. Everywhere the people he encountered were committed and extremely hard-working. Intensely patriotic, they seemed proud of what they were doing, yet they lacked a critical perspective. Asking whether they had changed their methods since they first went to Vietnam. Dayan was told that they did not have to: everything worked much better than expected. That day he noted in his journal that the U.S. military never made any mistakes. Yet no one could tell him how they were going to win the war. Most could not even give a convincing reason why the United States was in Vietnam in the first place; at least one told him that, had President Johnson been presented with a way to get out, he would have jumped at it and withdrawn his troops.
What struck Dayan most was that any attempt to question the American motives infuriated them. As far as they were concerned their cause was noble and just. For them, it was unfortunate but understandable that the communist states supported the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. What puzzled them was the strong criticism voiced by their European allies. These Europeans supposedly shared America’s liberal-democratic values. At a loss to explain the problem, the Americans attributed it to cowardice, envy, and the resentment that arose from Europe’s own recent failure in waging “imperialist” war. Dayan, on his part, believed that in ignoring European opinion the Americans were making a big mistake.
Stranger still, to Dayan, was the American decisionmakers’ extreme sensitivity to the views of their own electorate. At that time, polls said that 75 percent of Americans were in favor of bombing North Vietnam—just as in April 2004 a majority of Americans still believed that the war in Iraq was worthwhile. For Dayan, permitting public opinion to determine such issues seemed a strange way to run a war, and one he thought was likely to have grave consequences for the future.
* * *
On July 25, 1966, Dayan arrived in Saigon. He spent two days being “processed.” He was issued an American uniform, a rucksack, water bottles, and a helmet; as he wrote, had it been up to the soldiers in charge he would also have received a gun and hand grenades.
In his spare time he met with a Vietnamese professor of nuclear physics to whom he had been referred by an Israeli friend. The professor told him—in strict confidence, since saying anything contrary to the official line was dangerous—that the Viet Cong were much stronger than the Americans knew, or wanted to know. He also met with the South Vietnamese deputy prime minister and minister of defense, General Nguyen Van Thieu, as well as the chief of the general staff of the army of the Republic of Vietnam. Both owed their positions to the Americans who had conspired in Diem’s assassination. Both, he thought, were highly intelligent men. Both, interestingly enough, reserved their greatest admiration not for an American commander but for the North-Vietnamese General Giap. Giap had been the hero of the struggle against the French. Now they hoped he might force Hanoi to make peace.
On July 28 Dayan boarded the USS Constellation, the largest aircraft carrier then cruising off the Vietnamese coast. He was a professional military man and had heard about such ships, but what he saw made a “breath-taking impression.” The vessel constituted five acres of sovereign American territory that was protected, Dayan wrote, “from the air, the sea, the ground, outer space, and under water.” If Dayan was being ironic—after all, the enemy consisted of little brown men wearing straw hats—he did not say so. What he could not help noting was the fact that, every 90 minutes, amid a numbing outburst of fire and noise, flights of combat aircraft took off to strike at targets in Vietnam; but when he asked his hosts about the precise nature of those targets they evaded his questions. At the end of the day Dayan wrote that the Americans were “not fighting against infiltration to South [Vietnam], or against guerrillas, or against North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire world. Their real aim was to show everybody—including Britain, France, and the USSR—their power and determination so as to pass this message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible.”
Dayan spent most of August visiting various units throughout South Vietnam. First he joined a Marine company patrolling only about a mile south of the Demilitarized Zone to prevent infiltration from the north. Led by First Lieutenant Charles Krulak, they stomped up and down hills for two nights and three days. They waded through streams, at times coming close to drowning in them; at one point Dayan lost his footing and had to be pulled out. Yet the only target they fired on was an unidentified animal, whose cries then kept the unit awake all night. Thirty-five years later the retired General Krulak, ex-commandant of the Marine Corps, told me that, as they set up camp one evening, Dayan had asked them what they were doing there. He then offered his opinion that the American strategy was wrong. They should be “where the people are,” not vainly trying to chase the Viet Cong in the mountains, where they were not.
A few days later Dayan’s wish was granted. Near Da Nang, he visited another Marine unit engaged in pacification. The Marines were responsible for security—he noted their excellent discipline—but most of the actual work was done by civilians. Once again, he found the Americans on the spot committed and immensely proud of what they were doing. Once again, he left the district clear in his own mind that much remained to be done; so much so that it was doubtful whether the Americans were making any progress at all. Nor was he impressed with the attempts to help the South Vietnamese peasants improve their standard of living by introducing new agricultural methods, better livestock, and so on. One is reminded of the statistics coming out of Iraq concerning schools and clinics reopened, doctors’ pay raised, and other “improvements.”
Back in Paris Niceault had told him that the “battle for hearts and minds” would fail, because the Vietnamese had their own cultural traditions. Dayan had some experience with this. During his term as minister of agriculture (from 1959 to 1963) he used American funds to send Israeli experts to carry out agrarian reforms in various Asian and African countries. He had visited some of those countries in person, only to find out how hard it was to change long-standing traditions. Clearly doing so in the midst of a war, when every achievement was under threat from Viet Cong terrorists, was much harder still.
* * *
But perhaps the most telling encounter during Dayan’s trip was the visit he paid to the 1st Air Cavalry Division. Organized only a few years before, it was the most up-to-date fighting force in the world. Operating under conditions of absolute air superiority, the division did exactly as it pleased. It required no more than four hours’ warning to land an entire battalion at any location within its helicopters’ range. As it turned out, though, four hours were often four hours too many. On arrival at a selected spot, the troops would often find that the enemy had gone.
It must have been during his stay with 1st Cavalry that the following incident took place. Dayan wanted to visit the front, as was his custom. In the case of Vietnam this meant going on patrol. His hosts reluctantly agreed, and fearing that something might happen to the celebrity for whom they were responsible, they selected a route supposedly free of Viet Cong. As often happened, their information proved wrong. They came under fire and were pinned down. Looking around from where he was lying, the American captain in charge discovered that Dayan had disappeared. He finally found Dayan; the middle-aged visitor from Israel was sitting comfortably on top of a grassy knoll. With great effort, the captain crawled toward him and asked what he was doing. “What are you doing?” Dayan answered. “Get your — up here and see what this battle is all about.”
To Dayan, the problem was intelligence. As he wrote in his journal:
According to [the commanding officer’s] information, there was a Viet Cong division in this highland area. It was not concentrated in a single base but split into several battalions, each about 350 men strong. It was Norton’s plan to land a battalion . . . in the Viet Cong divisional area and then, in accordance with the developments of the battle, to rush in additional ‘reaction troops’ to reinforce, seal off, and carry out flank attacks. All this was fine, except for one small item missing in the plan: the exact location of the Viet Cong battalions was not known. Air photos and air reconnaissance had failed to pick out their encampments, entrenched, bunkered and camouflaged with the jungle vegetation. The U.S. intelligence sources were largely technical—air photos and decoded radio intercepts, for Viet Cong units from battalion strength and up used transmitters. Only scanty information could be gleaned from POWs. Many of the latter spat in the Americans’ face and swore to die rather than talk.
Contrary to what had been written about the enormous logistical requirements of the American troops—from iced beer to go-go girls—he was impressed by the spartan nature of the arrangements. The Americans knew how to improvise—throw a flak jacket into the helicopter, hop in, and off you go. The entire division was “a huge force, fast and efficient. It used its weapons—including artillery support and tactical and strategic air support—very effectively indeed.” In Dayan’s view, it was as superior to other forces as the German tanks had been to their enemies at the beginning of World War II. “[Its] battle procedures operated like an assembly belt. First came the shelling of the landing zones by ground artillery. Then came aerial bombardment. And the landings themselves were covered by ‘gunships,’ [i.e., armed helicopters] firing their rockets and machine guns almost at our feet.” It was an amazing operation, “but where was the war?... Where were the Viet Cong? And where was the battle?” As it turned out the Viet Cong were there, a few hundred yards away. And the battle Dayan could not see came half an hour later when the company, which had landed 300 yards to the south, ran into an ambush after it had started moving off. Within minutes the company was shot to pieces, suffering 25 dead and some 50 wounded, including the commander. Calling in their firepower, the 1st Cavalry gave pursuit. When they met resistance they would radio for the B-52s bombers; to what effect, it was not clear.
Throughout Dayan’s visit he reported that American officers were committed, very hard-working, and as frank as circumstances permitted. Many of them enjoyed the war; which, at this time, was still in its “forward” phase. He found General Westmoreland pleasant and informal, if lacking the “astute expression” that Dayan found in some other senior commanders. Still, there could be no question of American officers being incompetent oafs who delighted in setting alight Vietnamese huts and were fragged by their own men; that image only rose after the war. But the officers did have one problem—the need to get their names mentioned in the media to advance their careers. This, Dayan thought, did not turn them into better persons or, what was more important, better commanders.
Dayan admired the American rank and file, particularly the Marines and the Green Berets. They were physically fit, very well trained, and—this being 1966—still did their jobs willingly. They were, in his words, “golden guys”; the fact that they were being rotated in and out of the country too fast to learn its ways and become really effective soldiers was scarcely their fault. He was even more impressed by the tremendous military-industrial muscle that enabled 1,700 helicopters to be deployed in a single theater of war.
Still, nothing could make up for the lack of accurate and timely tactical intelligence. Its absence was due in part to cultural obstacles. Wherever he went, translators were scarce; the few who were available said exactly what they pleased. It was also due to the physical conditions of the country and the nature of the war itself. In Dayan’s words, the information available to the Americans was limited to “1. What they could photograph; 2. What they could intercept . . .; and 3. What they could glean from low-ranking prisoners.” As a result, most of the time they were using sledgehammers to knock holes in empty air.
Even if the Americans did succeed militarily, he thought, it was hard to see how the South Vietnamese would be able to set up a viable government in the shadow of the gigantic machine that “protected” them; whether that machine would ever be withdrawn was anybody’s guess. And as to what he was told of the war’s objectives, such as defending democracy and helping the South Vietnamese people, he considered it “childish” propaganda. If many of the Americans he met believed in them, clearly nobody else did.
Over a year before the Tet Offensive proved that something was very, very wrong, Dayan left Vietnam with the definite impression that things were not going well. “The Americans are winning everything,” he wrote, “except the war.” Perhaps this was one reason why, instead of flying home by way of the United States as both Taylor and McNamara had asked him to do, he chose the other route.
* * *
Today comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are fashionable. Some people emphasize the differences between the two, claiming that the former was essentially a conventional war. I disagree. Based on Dayan’s account, I would argue that the similarities are more important than the differences.
First, according to Dayan, the most significant operational problem the American forces were facing in Vietnam was lack of intelligence—the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. Had intelligence been available, the Americans’ enormous superiority in every kind of military hardware would have enabled them to win the war. In its absence, most of the blows they delivered—including no fewer than six million tons of bombs—missed their targets. Their only effect was to disperse the enemy into the civilian population. Worst of all, lack of accurate intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the sight of relatives and friends being killed.
Second, as Dayan saw clearly, the campaign for hearts and minds was a failure. Many of the figures published about the progress of the war turned out to be bogus, designed to ease the minds of the folks at home. In other cases any progress made laboriously over a period of months was undone in a matter of minutes as the Viet Cong attacked, destroying property and killing “collaborators.” Above all, the idea that the Vietnamese people wanted to become Americanized was an illusion. The vast majority wanted only to be left alone.
The third of Dayan’s observations, and the most relevant to a comparison with the current war in Iraq, is that the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position of beating down the weak. As Dayan wrote, “Any comparison between the two armies was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops], who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate.”
That, of course, was precisely the problem. In private life, an adult who keeps beating down a five-year-old—even one who had originally attacked him with a knife—will be accused of committing a crime; he will lose the support of bystanders and end up being arrested, tried, and convicted. On the world stage, an armed force that keeps beating down a weaker opponent will be seen as committing a series of crimes; therefore it will end up losing the support of its allies, its own people, and its own troops. Depending on the character of the forces (whether they are draftees or professionals), the effectiveness of the propaganda machine, the nature of the political process, and so on, this outcome may come about more or less quickly. But it is always the same. He who does not understand this does not understand anything about war—or, indeed, about human nature.
In other words, he who fights against the weak—note, in this connection, that the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed—and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins, also loses. To kill a much weaker opponent is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force, however rich, however powerful, however advanced, or however well motivated, is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat; if American troops in Iraq have not yet started fragging their officers, the suicide rate among them is already exceptionally high. That is why the present adventure will almost certainly end as the previous one did—with the last American troops fleeing the country while hanging onto their helicopters’ skids.
As for Dayan, in late August of 1966 he returned to Israel. His journal served him as the basis for a series of articles that were published in Maariv as well as the British and French press. In 1977, by which time he was serving as foreign minister under Menahem Begin and engaged in peace talks with Egypt, the Hebrew-language material was collected in book form and published. In the preface Dayan explains that it was too long to be included in the memoirs he had published a year earlier; perhaps his real aim was to warn Israelis of the consequences that might ultimately follow if they did not get rid of what he called “the blemish of conquest.” If so, unfortunately he did not succeed.
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February 01, 2005
22 Min read time