What did the US military and government do right in Vietnam?
not coming up with anything. I know some things they did wrong, though.
They didn't have a clue about guerrilla warfare, instead following traditional WWII methods. We sent tanks, which promptly got mired in rice paddies. Rifles, too, had to be redesigned to withstand the humidity of the country.
We told each soldier that their time in Vietnam would be one year exactly. So each soldier/infantryman knew their date of departure. When they arrived, they were newbies and thus a danger to themselves and others. When they got close to their date of departure, they became overly cautious.
We rotated individuals in and out of platoons (infantry). That made it almost impossible to develop unit cohesion. Someone was always leaving or arriving.....and that is in addition to those being shipped out as wounded or dead.
We couldn't see the enemy due to the dense jungle, so we used napalm and white phosphorus to destroy the foliage. And it burned through the skin of anyone it touched, like civilians. We added Agent Orange and caused enduring damage to our soldiers, anyone touched by it in Vietnam, and the natural habitat. Agent Orange caused innumerable birth defects and continues to poison the countryside.
We sent our soldiers to gain territory--Hamburger Hill, Khe Sanh, many other hills, towns, encampments. Then we abandoned the territory. We didn't need or want it, apparently.
Since we couldn't count success via territory, we used Body Count. A platoon encounters enemy fire, fires back, has no idea if anyone was killed or how many were killed but to look good, they report a few deaths. The next commander wants to look good, too, so he adds a few more. By the time it is officially recorded, it could be in the 20s or more. Now we tell the American people how successful the war is--look at how many enemy fighters have been killed! But the battles continue and we don't seem to be gaining ground....so the people begin to distrust the government.
We couldn't distinguish between civilian and enemy soldier so we tried to move all the "friendlies" to locations we deemed safe. Then we called the previous area a "free fire zone", ie, shoot at anyone and everyone because all the good guys have left. Of course they hadn't....and those who had been forcibly removed from their homes went back.
So public opinion in Vietnam turned against the USA....We failed to understand the people's beliefs and religion, a part of which is ancestor worship. Ancestors are buried close to home, and their graves are visited and honored regularly. To move a family away from its ancestors was stupid; of course they will return home to care for the graves. And now they're living in a free fire zone.....
We underestimated the Northern Vietnamese Army (NVA), well trained, well equipped, and lethal.
We sent bombers over Hanoi to bomb strategic locations. Unfortunately there weren't all that many to bomb. So we sent bombers to the same locations, over and over. So the NVA had no trouble aiming their anti-aircraft defenses at our bombers (and we still sent them to the same targets!). This is how John McCain's plane was shot down, he was captured, and spent years in the Hanoi Hilton, as the prison was called (btw POWs could read scratches in the wall dating from when the French were held as POWs).
Our government followed a new-ish theory, the Domino Theory. We were in the midst of the Cold War, competing with the Soviet Union to gather up proxies. McNamara asserted that if Vietnam fell under the influence of the USSR, Cambodia would be next. Then Thailand....Laos....and so on. Was there any evidence to support the theory? No, but it drove our policy there, making Vietnam a place we couldn't afford to lose. The government also wanted to win in order to "contain" China.
and actually....the Pentagon Papers, as they were nicknamed, were leaked and revealed that fully four administrations had systematically lied to the American public about the scope of the war (we were bombing Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam), the goals of the war (which included protecting our reputation as a military power), announced intentions of limiting involvement and not sending American soldiers was shown to be a lie, and the history itself was used as if it were fact, rather than a collection of information gathered from a limited number of sources.
We didn't anticipate the frustration of soldiers unable to do what they'd be trained to do because it was so hard to find and identify enemy combatants. This led to grotesque abuses, the most famous of which is My Lai, where a village of 347 (per the army) was slaughtered by US soldiers. There were a few who refused to participate but most of the platoon willingly shot men, women, children, and animals in a disgraceful shooting spree.
For this entry, I'll finish up with a couple of issues. First, due to better medical resources and due to putting these out in the field with the soldiers, many more were saved but had serious wounds--amputations, paralysis, head injuries, and so on. When they returned, they had to face a very different existence.
Secondly, many came home to be diagnosed, eventually, with PTSD (different blog post). Unrecognized early in the war, and unappreciated for some time after, PTSD was a severe but largely hidden wound that interfered with returning to normal civilian life. And it took time before ways of helping developed--the better anti-depressants (SSRIs), talk therapy, and so on. Sadly, their experiences have informed us on those returning from wars started since Vietnam....