Peter M. Dunn
Colonel Harry G. Summers's critical analysis of American strategy (or lack of it) during the Vietnam War was a timely and desperately needed examination of the United States' first clear defeat in war. He has done what no governmental institution has been able to bring itself to do. There are absolutely vital lessons to be learned from On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.
Colonel Summers's thesis may be roughly summed up as follows: It is by using as a yardstick the theories of the Prussian General Karl von Clausewitz, whose life spanned the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that the conduct of the United States in the Vietnam War can be measured and progress evaluated. Certain inhibiting factors—called friction by Clausewitz for want of a better word—in the American culture impeded the efficient prosecution of the war. These included the people, their elected political representatives, potentially unacceptable political and military risks, and faulty military doctrines and beliefs. In addition, an incorrect assessment of the true nature of the war, coupled with a departure from certain general principles of war, contributed to the American failure. Ultimately, all of these ills evolved from the shallowness of the top political and military leaders in the United States.
More specifically, the analysis in On Strategy is divided into two parts: “The Environment” and the conduct of the war, “The Engagement.” The following theses are manifested in the Environment section: U.S. military leaders failed to emphasize the horrors of war to their civilian leaders; the Army should not have been committed to a long war without arousing the American people; and American leaders chose to avoid mobilizing the people in order to avoid a nuclear war with the large socialist countries (the Soviet Union and China). Colonel Summers sees the Korean Conflict—where the United Nations forces were smashed on the Yalu River and thrown back to the South Korean border—as a precedent in what is now called “limited war.” 1 He also recognizes the brittleness of American society—if Americans do not win their wars in a weekend, they