The Digital Journalist
Pencils Don't Win Wars
January 2007

by Ron Steinman

Note: This column is a reaction to several e-mails I received about my December piece, "Tet and Iraq: A Corrective." I want to thank those who wrote, particularly those who, in a variety of ways, stated, "The media lost the war in Vietnam, not the military or our government." If, and when, we leave Iraq, I believe that same criticism will prevail. Instead of answering each e-mail individually, it made me think a public answer would be better. I strongly differ with the revisionists who cannot put the Vietnam War behind them because there are those who believe if only we persevered, we would have won.

Pencils (read computers for today, and further read journalists) do not win or lose wars. Governments and armies win and lose. War may be lost in conference rooms or presidential suites. We win or lose wars on the battlefield. We lose wars when the will to win vanishes.

The gun wins wars, not the pencil. Wars often start with a pencil. They sometimes end with a signature on a piece of paper, but not always. The Korean War, still labeled a conflict, is not officially over. Other wars, especially civil wars, usually end in exhaustion. There is little exhilaration in victory or defeat when two sides, fighting for years in the same country, end their battle in a quiet ceremony as the North and South did in America's Civil War.

Vietnam is another case altogether. Revisionism about Vietnam is currently running rampant. Public and private think tanks replete with academics, retired generals, callow researchers, PhD candidates, and the usual true believers are producing volumes of data based only on data and not reality. I hate to put it this way, but all the so-called facts, and all the deep research is meaningless. The number crunchers using field action reports just don't get it. Their belief is that given time, the United States would have won the war. More than 10 years in Vietnam and more than a half-million men could not change the outcome. General Westmoreland was probably right when he asked for an additional 200,0000 men but even that many more troops might not have made a difference to how the war ended. President Lyndon Johnson was equally right, mainly for political reasons, when he turned him down.

The drain on America's young through an unpopular draft had become more than people were willing to endure. The politicians and the military understood that. They, in effect, told Westmoreland, do what you can with what you have. He tried, but he failed. It was not enough. It was also not enough for subsequent commanders, his successors. And, yes, with America never really losing a major battle, one might be inclined to believe victory was in sight when we pulled out in 1975. America had grown tired of the war, lives wasted, the money spent. I have no problem if anyone wants to blame the press for reporting those attitudes and for creating a public dialogue. That is the role of the media.

You had to be there to understand the war, the Vietnamese people, and the will to victory the North had over the South. For every battle won during daylight, American troops rarely held the night. Darkness was the property of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Territory acquired during the day reverted to the enemy at dusk. You cannot win a war without accumulating territory. That did not happen in Vietnam. America did not gather in territory. After a battle - usually successful, except when an ambush occurred - American troops went to the nearest fortified base they could find. Our troops licked their wounds, refurbished their equipment, and had a good meal if available. Then they made ready to fight another day. Journalists reported all that without prejudice, but with skill and understanding.

Enter, again, these newly anointed pesky researchers with their countless tools and academic models. These people look at personnel depth charts, battle orders and after-action reports, never at reality. Lately they are using their antiquated slide rules to come up with data in favor of the South Vietnamese military, a monumental stretch for anyone who covered the war. In their minds, there is growing evidence, these many years later, about the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN, and how it had become a formidable fighting force in the last years of the war. According to recent studies -- here we go again -- it was a good army, never a bad army and it was getting better. Forget the poor leadership. Forget the corruption. Forget inflated personnel rolls filled with "ghost soldiers." Forget the high number of desertions. Forget the lack of desire to fight their cousins from the North and at times, their relatives in the South.

When, as bureau chief for NBC News in Saigon, I sent a crew to cover a story with the ARVN - not often, I may add - I did it with my hopes high, my teeth clinched, my stomach churning. Some of the new reasoning goes that because Congress drastically reduced aid to Saigon, the ARVN, and all the South Vietnamese fighting forces, were unable to stand and fight the so-called "ill-equipped and ill-trained" soldiers battling for Hanoi. The press did not create the inefficiencies of the ARVN; we reported those as we saw them. No matter how many advisors the United States provided, the South Vietnamese army failed on its own. Is there a lesson here for Iraq, or even a hint of things to come? Only time will tell.

If Nguyen Van Thieu's army possessed the will to fight, it would have put up a battle – any kind of battle – against the North when it swept over South Vietnam in March and April 1975. Instead, except for small pockets of resistance – such as at Xuan Loc in the final moments of the war – the bulk of the ARVN fled. Soldiers threw away their weapons. They stripped off their uniforms and they never looked back. Saigon fell, and the war ended in ignominy. It was not the press's fault that the ARVN failed in its mission, lack of equipment or not. If the Vietnamese Army cared, and if the people had not become as weary as they did, perhaps the outcome would have been different. As press, we simply reported what we observed.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for our government as we helplessly stand by and watch Iraq go up in flames. Try to heed what we report. Do not blame the press for our government's missteps and errors.

To repeat, journalists do not win or lose wars. Would that we could.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.