Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam

By Christian G. Appy | Go to book overview
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5
The Terms of Battle

"We're fighting Charlie in his own backyard." This was how American soldiers summarized the difficulty of warring against Vietnamese revolutionaries. How can you defeat an enemy who knows the land intimately, who has every reason to regard it as his own backyard, and who has fought for decades, even centuries, to rid it of foreign invaders -- the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and finally the Americans? U.S. troops were haunted by this question. Few were aware of the long history that shaped Vietnamese aspirations for a unified nation free of foreign domination, but the daily realities of warfare continually raised the nagging prospect that perhaps no military effort, however bloody or sustained, could remove "Charlie" from the land, dampen the fervor of his struggle, or undermine the support he received throughout the country.

We could not defeat a people who carried ammunition on poles and who build bridges by hand. . . . The nation which put men on the moon was defeated by a nation where deputy ministers use outdoor privies. -- William Broyles, Jr., Brothers in Arms

Yet a conflicting voice posed a different question: how could the United States possibly lose? It had never happened before. Yes, the South did lose the Civil War, and there was the ambiguous stalemate of Korea, but never an outright national defeat. What is more, this tradition of victory enshrined a military ethic that made it intolerable even to imagine that some wars might be unwinnable. As George C. Scott proclaimed at the beginning of Patton,

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