Columnist:Technology Alone Can't Win War

Each evening, just before sunset, we would make our pilgrimage to the restaurant atop a dump known as the Majestic Hotel, on the banks of the Mekong River, to watch science and technology at work in the war in Vietnam.

I wasn't much more than a kid at the time, sent off to that tragic land to help the readers of a San Diego newspaper learn to love a "new kind of war," as it was described so often in those days.

As darkness approached, the helicopter gunships streaked out of the sky, sending rockets into the dense foliage across the river, bringing hell to the elusive Viet Cong. Tracers zipped across the darkening sky as explosives lit up the ground, and it all seemed surreal as we sipped our drinks and safely watched the war from an incredibly short distance.

Matter of Control

The immense technological advantages we had at our disposal in those days made the war seem more entertaining than dangerous, at least some of the time. This was a war that would be fought largely with science and technology, the press was told often during the daily military briefing in Saigon, known among reporters as the "5 o'clock follies."

In the end, we would win, we were told often, because no backward little country could stand up to the military might of the United States. Our technological prowess would save lives, keeping our troops out of battle until the enemy was neutralized, military spokesmen told us so many times.

They were wrong, of course. We lost that war, and not because our science and technology wasn't good enough. And a lot of young men came home from Vietnam in body bags.

There are many reasons why we lost, but near the top of the list is the simple fact that the kind of war we fought in Vietnam really wasn't all that new. In fact, it stands as a stunning reminder that although the tools of war have changed over the decades, war itself hasn't.

In the end, wars are won because one side is able to acquire and control the land. That means that despite all the science that may be on one side, victory rests ultimately in the hands of the foot soldier, the poor devil who has to slog through the streets and claim the territory.

Impressions Matter

And here's another fundamental fact that our national leaders either misunderstood or ignored during the darkest days of Vietnam:

The success of the foot soldier depends less on how well he is equipped, and more on whether the people who live there consider him, or her these days, a friend or an enemy.

Those of us who spent time in the remote villages of South Vietnam during the war learned early on that we were not always regarded as welcome guests. The Vietnamese people had lived through various occupations by foreign powers, and to many of them, we were no different.

Bored with a war that seemed to be going nowhere, some of our own troops contributed to that attitude.

I remember a trip down the Mekong River on a small Navy boat that carried about as much artillery as a destroyer in previous wars. As we approached a small village, one of the crewmen tossed an explosive over the side of the boat, and moments later a water column shot upward.

Within seconds fish that were vital to the villagers as a source of food floated up to the surface and began drifting down the river. It was all just good clean fun, the guys on the boat said, and they watched as the people in the village stood mystified on the bank as the mutilated fish floated by.

This Time Around

We didn't lose the war because of those fish, of course, and I'm not suggesting that American troops failed to fight valiantly for a cause that our political leaders insisted was in the national interest. But what bothers me to this day about Vietnam is we really didn't understand what was going wrong until it was too late. Our vast superiority in science and technology wasn't enough to win the war.

We lost because we lost the people of South Vietnam.

Now, all these decades later, we stand on the brink of another war. And boy, have we got the other side outgunned. We've got smart bombs and satellite imaging and night vision and even live coverage on television.

As we saw years ago in Desert Storm, those fantastic tools will do most of the work for us, wiping out enemy weapons before the first soldiers have to go in. It should be a lot easier now than it was during Vietnam, when our science and technology was good, but still in the middle ages compared to what we have today.

Or so we are told.

But if there is one lesson we should have learned from Vietnam it is this:

Don't place too much confidence in your science and technology when it comes to conquering another country.

In the end, it's the foot soldier who has to do the job. And if the people of Iraq aren't happy to see him, no new gadgets are going to get it done.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.