This book, like many war books, is more interesting as an artifact of historiography than it is as actual history. It's important to read it, only because so many other people have read it and it exerts a large influence on the literature. That said, its not a particularly good book. Its analysis is simplistic and seems a bit under-researched.
Calling it a work of history is a bit misleading. 'On Strategy' does live up to the title of critically analyzing the Vietnam conflict, but it mostly assumes the reader is familiar with the main events of the war. If you're new to studying the conflict, you might want to start with a more generic book to give you the context and chronology that Summers explores here.
The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with issues relating to the American people, morale, protest, etc. The second deals directly with military operational questions. Through both of these sections, Summers analyses the war in the context of Clausewitz's famous work, 'On War.' Essentially Summers argues that America forgot how to properly wage war in a Clausewitzian sense, and if only we had correctly adhered to his principles, we could have won the war.
Summers points to several problems, the two main ones he identifies as a failure to galvanize public support for the war, and a failure to recognize the true nature of the conflict. By this, he means that the insurgency in the south, the guerilla-style war which is so synonymous with the Vietnam, was essentially a smoke-screen, blinding us from the true nature of the conflict, which was a traditional military engagement. He notes that South Vietnam was not defeated by an insurgency, but by a 12-division, highly organized, highly mechanized military force. Thus, America was fighting the wrong war in the wrong place.
This analysis has some truth to it to be sure, but using Clausewitz in this way is problematic. 'On War' is a very philosophical work, which can be easily bent to support a wide variety of points, which is exactly what Summers does here. One could probably easily use other Clausewitz quotes to disprove some of Summers' points. More problematic is the sense that 'On Strategy' as a whole seems to be an attempt to save face, showing that there were a few simple steps that could have been taken for America to win the war. Summers thus saves, or atleast excuses, the reputation of the American military.
However, it's easy to say that we could have won the war by taking an all-out military approach. But what would have been the consequences of that? How would the North Vietnamese have responded? How would the Soviets have responded? Where would China be in all of this? If America increased its resources and commitment in the area, the game would have changed completely, in a way thats impossible to predict.
The book is still a good read, and worth the time. It's also short and goes quick—it's engaging and very readable. It's also such a cornerstone for literature on the Vietnam conflict that it should probably be read by anyone interested in studying the conflict. This is a book that everyone read at the time, and had a large influence on writers that came after. However, it should be taken with a handful of salt. Something as messy as war doesn't always fit into the box that Summers makes for it.
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