The Vietnam War was one of the most unpopular wars ever fought by the United States. It cost a lot of lives. It cost a lot of money. It ended unsatisfactorily. It never should have happened as it did. And while it might seem strange to point to Vietnam as a case study for mission in contemporary America, I think it’s apropos. The Vietnam War demonstrates what happens when leaders confuse tactical change with adaptive change. That is to say, the war in Vietnam turned out the way it did because its military leaders (with the prodding of their political leaders) tried over and over again to what they already knew how to do, only harder. If the church attempts simply to do what it’s already doing, only harder, don’t be surprised if the outcome is similar.

General William Westmoreland
General William Westmoreland

According to Thomas Ricks in his magnificent book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012) the strategic failure in Vietnam took place because the senior military leader, Army General William “Westy” Westmoreland, had neither the intelligence nor the imagination to understand the type of war that he should have been fighting. 

He failed to grasp that anything other than the force on force warfare of World War II and, to a lesser extent, Korea could be effective in achieving the strategic aims of the United States in Vietnam. In his defense, it seems that successive administrations had failed to successfully define those aims.

KrulakImage7
Marine General Victor Krulak

 

At the same time a different branch of the armed forces, the Marine Corps, was employing a remarkably different strategy. By the late sixties the Marine Corps had determined that a counter-insurgency strategy was the only option that would provide anything other than minimal results with a high price tag. They had learned this lesson both from French forces who fought in Indo China and the British campaign in Malaya. Writing in 1967 Marine Lt. General Victor Krulak wrote, “The Vietnamese people are the prize” rather than simply taking possession of territory or killing a certain number enemy combatants.

Westmoreland and other senior Army leaders failed to consult the French or the British in their planning. They derided the Marine Corps as avoiding the fight. As (Army) Maj General Harry Kinnard put it, “I did everything I could to drag them out and get them to fight….They wouldn’t play.”

The Army strategy in Vietnam was to envision it as a continuation of World War II only in a different place. This view is nicely summarized by one of Westmoreland’s commanders who said, “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm…till the other side cracks and gives up.” The other side never cracked.

If the church insists that all we need to do is keep doing what we have been doing for the last fifty years, but harder or with better style, we will miss the great opportunity this present moment is giving us to move mission from the periphery of the life of the church to its very core.

Some authors who write on this topic suggest that almost all of our current ways of understanding and practicing being the church must be redefined or rejected. Sunday worship? Church buildings? Ordained clergy? All can be done away with according to these writers. The church can become a diffuse organic network of related Christ-followers spread throughout a city and living their lives in mission. This is a wonderful part of the story of being the church, but its just that–only a part of the story. 

We have the chance to rediscover the many resources and ways of worshipping practiced by the ancient (pre-modern) church that will prove to be indispensable as we navigate into our postmodern world.