The American affection for the operational art vis-à-vis warfighting became obvious during the Vietnam War. Without the strategic character of the conflict rightly defined, military planners – as well as policy makers – tended to confuse the strategic dimensions of ways, means, and ends. In his book on the conflict, Harry G. Summers Jr. analyzes the initial assumptive error, as well as the corresponding strategic confusion which followed.
“Instead of orienting on North Vietnam – the source of war – we turned our attention to the symptom – the guerrilla war in the south. Our new ‘strategy’ of counterinsurgency blinded us to the fact that the guerrilla war was tactical and not strategic.
“Basic to the success of a strategic defensive in pursuit of the negative aim, therefore, is the assumption that time is on your side. But the longer the war progressed the more obvious it became that time was not on our side.
“Because it did not focus on the political aim to be achieved – containment of North Vietnamese expansion – our so-called strategy was never a strategy at all. At best it could be called a kind of grand tactics.
“Since the insurgency itself was a tactical screen masking North Vietnam’s real objectives (the conquest of South Vietnam), our counterinsurgency operations could only be tactical, no matter what we called them.
“Our failure as military professionals to judge the true nature of the Vietnam war had a profound effect. It resulted in confusion throughout the national security establishment over tactics, grand tactics and strategy, a confusion that continues to this day.
*All excerpts have been taken from On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio Press.
The Confusion Between Tactics and Strategy in Vietnam – Harry G. Summers Jr.