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Measuring the Metrics Problem in Vietnam

Author Gregory Daddis is a history professor and colonel in the U.S. Army. One of his research projects at West Point involved an examination of American and French counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam. The purpose of the research was to inform current military operations in Iraq. Daddis’ group was asked to provide information on measuring progress in a counterinsurgency environment. This proved to be a task of immense complexity. The difficulty of, and need for, accurate measurements of progress and effectiveness by the U.S. Army in Vietnam is the subject of Daddis’ engaging new book, No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War.

In World War II, capturing territory and killing enemy soldiers led to victory. These metrics allowed the allies to gauge their progress. In Vietnam, assessing progress and effectiveness proved much more challenging. Substitute measures were devised, but the core problem remained: How could we know if we were winning? At the beginning, our political goals were to increase the number of South Vietnamese living in secure areas, and enlarge the areas denied to the Communists in the South.

Our strategy was to “attrit”—to kill—Communist soldiers at a rate as high as they could be replaced. This led to a reliance on “kill ratios” as a measure of progress. However, killing a satisfying number of enemy soldiers did not necessarily expand the influence of the South Vietnamese government, or reduce the influence of the Communists in South Vietnam. For the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), various questions arose, including how could the United States know if a village was effectively pacified? How could the United States know if the enemy was unable to fight because of their losses, as opposed to choosing not to fight until more favorable circumstances presented themselves? In conventional war, progress was usually self-evident. In the counterinsurgency environment, it was usually not.

Daddis takes the reader through a concise military and political history of the war from beginning to end. The theme throughout is MACV’s ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to develop effective “assessment metrics” for counterinsurgency operations. The Army was aware of the need for these metrics. However, it tended to measure factors that lent themselves to measure (body count, operations conducted, artillery shells fired, ambushes set), even if they were not applicable measures of progress. Collecting statistics became a substitute for a fuller understanding of the conflict’s political and military problems. While MACV had data that showed the United States was winning the war militarily, Hanoi seemed to be winning the war politically. Daddis points out that “progress” and “effectiveness” are not the same thing; combat effectiveness, such as positive kill ratios and high body counts, did not necessarily translate into progress (e.g., increased South Vietnamese government control of its national territory).

As the war continued, U.S. goals changed from achieving military victory to achieving an honorable peace. Pacification replaced the big-unit war as Vietnamization replaced Americanization. Measuring the war continued, but measuring the success of Vietnamization proved difficult; more South Vietnamese soldiers with better weapons was easy to measure, but these factors alone would not achieve the goals of Vietnamization. The U.S. Army produced 14,000 pounds of reports daily, an amount impossible to effectively analyze. The desire to sell progress trumped the ability to accurately measure progress.

This measurement problem was never solved. “In the end, a disenchanted U.S. Army left Southeast Asia still unable to measure objectively whether it had succeeded.” Did this matter? Daddis concludes that the United States failed in Vietnam in part because its metrics for success masked important operational and organizational deficiencies.

Daddis has written a provocative and well-researched book. It contains an extensive bibliography and a whopping 773 footnotes. It will be of value to both students and historians of the Vietnam War, in addition to military professionals interested in contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

Oxford University Press, 2011

This review originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Vietnam magazine.