The second constant in Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, Heaven, signifies the broader environment of a conflict. Not only is it necessary to have the advantage in military strength before entering the conflict, you also must take into account the environment in which that conflict will be taking place, especially when it comes to conditions that will give advantage to the enemy. Take the Nazi invasion of Russia as an example.
Because of over confidence acquired during his easy tromp through Western Europe Adolph Hitler took no account of winter conditions in Russia when he invaded her on 22 June 1941. He figured his march to Moscow would be over by the time winter appeared and subsequently shot himself in his own foot by not having his troops prepared for a long winter campaign. In spite of overwhelming strength this fact alone would lead to his defeat in Russia, and ultimately the rest of Europe.
In Vietnam the fact that a lot of the fighting there took place in a jungle environment meant that the largest and most powerful nation the world has ever known was literally stopped in their tracks by conditions in the field. We tried to fight a conventional war while the VC were utilizing gorilla tactics.
Subsequently we ended up fighting small unit battles that rarely went beyond company/platoon sized units. Even when we attacked an area in battalion strength or larger, it was no different. The enemy picked an advantageous time and place, ambushed a smaller unit and disappeared before reinforcements could arrive.
Because of home field advantage and the experience obtained while fighting the French before us this put the VC and the NVA on an even footing with the American. We often claimed victory in battle, but actually, lots of times the NVA had merely gathered their dead and broke contact. On the whole Westmoreland, though a top notch commander in WW2 never got the picture and spent his entire tour swatting flies with a baseball bat.
Giap, who planned his fighting tactics according to the teachings of Sun Tzu can say he defeated us in Indochina, but in reality it was the environment and our inability to adapt to gorilla warfare as much as anything else. Those like Col. David Hackworth, who did adapt, did quite well for themselves and many times beat the VC at their own game. There just weren’t enough free thinking commanders to turn the tide and by 1975 we’d had enough and left Vietnam.
Today as we attack the huge mountain barriers in Afghanistan this new war is every bit as dangerous, perhaps even more so, than Vietnam was. I can’t help but think we have not learned anything of substance from that previous conflict at all.