Harry G. Summers, Jr.
There is a famous Jules Feiffer cartoon in which one of the characters, having just made what he believes to be the telling point of a long and involved argument, is devastated by the riposte “Now let us define your terms.” To avoid such a fate, it is best to define your terms in advance, and for this particular argument the main term to be defined is strategic, for there is a fundamental difference between strategic perceptions of the Vietnam War and historical perceptions of that conflict.
Military strategy is officially defined as “the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force, or the threat of force.” 1 Strategic appraisal of the Vietnam War, therefore, would properly involve an examination of that war through the application of theoretical principles to both the military means employed and the political ends that were to be achieved, not only to account for success or failure but also to revalidate the principles themselves. Karl von Clausewitz, that master theoretician on the nature and conduct of war, labeled this process “critical analysis, ” a procedure that involves three different intellectual activities.
The first of these is “the discovery and interpretation of equivocal facts... historical research proper.” Then there is “the tracing of effects back to their causes.” Up to this point, historical and strategic analysis travel the same path, for most military historians would agree that these first two intellectual activities accurately describe the nature of their profession. But with the next intellectual activity the paths diverge. The third process is “the investigation and evaluation of means employed, ” and Clausewitz went on to say that “critical analysis is not only an evaluation of the means employed, but of all possible means…
Reprinted with the permission of Colonel Summers and Parameters. Originally published in Parameters, June 1983, Volume XIII, No. 2, pp. 41-46.