"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it," is a statement supposedly uttered by a U.S. military spokesman about the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive in 1968, as reported by Peter Arnett. Whether anyone ever said any such thing is questionable, as Arnett never revealed his source and his journalistic integrity has been the subject of much deserved criticism. Nevertheless, the quote seemed to do such a good job of summarizing much of what was wrong with U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War that it has a deserved place in our memory of that war, even if an apocryphal one.
American strategy in Vietnam was split into two parts which were inter-related, but which were nevertheless often referred to as separate "wars". There was the "big-unit war", the maneuvering of large formations of troops and their attempts to engage large formations of the enemy in combat. Even though we remember Vietnam as a guerrilla war, the big-unit war was far from insignificant - witness the Tet Offensive. The second was called the "other war", the counterinsurgency campaign to pacify the South Vietnamese countryside, drive away the guerrillas operating on a small-unit scale and bring security and economic growth to Vietnamese peasants to persaude them to side with the South's government. Both of these "wars" required different methods, and what our titular quote gets to the heart of is the way that the methods of one was often incompatible with the goals of another.
Had Vietnam been merely a big-unit war, a conventional conflict between two large armies who were seeking to destroy each other, it might have made perfect sense to destroy Ben Tre in order to "save it" from control by the North Vietnamese. The destruction of an objective to prevent your enemy controlling it to his own advantage is as old as warfare itself, and immediately calls to mind (as just one example) the destruction of settlements athwart strategic roadways by both sides in the Israeli War of Independence. Lacking the manpower to occupy villages that might otherwise be used to launch attacks on their supply lines, the combatants razed them to the ground, denying their enemy defensible positions. This might not be pleasant, but it made strategic sense and, under rules of warfare less stringent than those we practice now, was not an uncommon practice.
But Vietnam was not solely a big-unit, conventional war. The U.S. in Vietnam was not engaged just in a large-scale battle with an opposing military force, but also in the "other war": helping to usher into existence a South Vietnam which was independent, able to defend itself, and popular among its own citizens (all three goals being, of course, related). The "other war" was necessary because U.S. strategy never held out the prospect of a total defeat of the threat from North Vietnam, merely its containment and deterrence - the big-unit war could never achieve final victory because unless the U.S. invaded the North and physically took its capacity to make war apart, it was highly unlikely the Vietnamese Communists would ever give up their goal of national unification.
For this reason, American forces could not simply rampage around South Vietnam destroying everything in sight in order to "save it" from enemy control, because this had disastrous consequences for the "other war", not least by alienating South Vietnamese from their government and its American protectors. And it was the "other war" in which victory, in the final analysis, really mattered; the big-unit war, in a sense, was only designed to buy time until South Vietnam was able to defend itself, which required it be a cohesive country whose citizens were willing to fight and die for it. Destroying Ben Tre in order to save it might make sense if it bought time for the "other war" to proceed, but destroy too many Ben Tres and you ended up with a war-weary nation, swarming with refugees, distrustful of their government, with its physical infrastructure wrecked, and its morale shattered. Some called it "the paradox of construction and destruction" - what the counterinsurgency campaign built, the big-unit campaign destroyed.
That, at least, is what this quote seemed to illustrate. The debate rages to this day over whether this was the key dynamic which undermined the U.S. effort in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland, a key architect of this effort, maintained that the big-unit war always had to be the main concern because the "other war" would have been lost anyway with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers wandering about the place in thousand-strong formations. He had a point. It's also true that much of the high-intensity fighting took place away from large urban areas where civilians might be killed in high numbers. But much of it didn't, and bringing widespread violence to the urban areas was one of the main achivements of the Communists in the Tet Offensive. For as long as they could do that, and hence make it necessary to destroy the village in order to save it, they were always going to win.