Vietnam: it’s always there. Looming in the past, informing American futures.
A 50-year-old war, once labeled the longest in our history, is still alive and well and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command. And almost half a century later, they’re still losing it and blaming others for doing so.
Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it’s well that they did. The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country’s artificial border. In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong.
More than two decades of involvement and, at the war’s peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam’s military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.
There’s just one thing. Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the “orthodox” school) subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not. Instead, they’re still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.
The Big Re-Write
In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War. It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus’s impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war. Though he did observe that Vietnam had “cost the military dearly” and that “the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services,” his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called “low-intensity conflicts” and are now known as counterinsurgencies. His takeaway: what the country needed wasn’t less Vietnams but better-fought ones. The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.
Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq, he and a whole generation of COINdinistas (like-minded officers devoted to his favored counterinsurgency approach to modern warfare) embraced those very conclusions to win the war on terror. The names of some of them — H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, for instance — should ring a bell or two these days. In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his acolytes would get their chance to translate theory into practice. Americans — and much of the rest of the planet — still live with the results.
Like Petraeus, an entire generation of senior military leaders, commissioned in the years after the Vietnam War and now atop the defense behemoth, remain fixated on that ancient conflict. After all these decades, such “thinking” generals and “soldier-scholars” continue to draw all the wrong lessons from what, thanks in part to them, has now become America’s secondlongest war.
Historian Gary Hess identifies two main schools of revisionist thinking. There are the “Clausewitzians” (named after the nineteenth century Prussian military theorist) who insist that Washington never sufficiently attacked the enemy's true center of gravity in North Vietnam. Beneath the academic language, they essentially agree on one key thing: the U.S. military should have bombed the North into a parking lot.
The second school, including Petraeus, Hess labeled the “hearts-and-minders.” As COINdinistas, they felt the war effort never focused clearly enough on isolating the Vietcong, protecting local villages in the South, building schools, and handing out candy — everything, in short, that might have won (in the phrase of that era) Vietnamese hearts and minds.
Both schools, however, agreed on something basic: that the U.S. military should have won in Vietnam.
The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century. Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington. The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now.
The Go-Big Option
The leading voice of the Clausewitzian school was U.S. Army Colonel and Korean War/Vietnam War vet Harry Summers, whose 1982 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, became an instant classic within the military. It’s easy enough to understand why. Summers argued that civilian policymakers — not the military rank-and-file — had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than on the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. More troops, more aggressiveness, even full-scale invasions of communist safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, would have led to victory.
Summers had a deep emotional investment in his topic. Later, he would argue that the source of post-war pessimistic analyses of the conflict lay in “draft dodgers and war evaders still [struggling] with their consciences.” In his own work, Summers marginalized all Vietnamese actors (as would so many later military historians), failed to adequately deal with the potential consequences, nuclear or otherwise, of the sorts of escalation he advocated, and didn’t even bother to ask whether Vietnam was a core national security interest of the United States.
Perhaps he would have done well to reconsider a famous post-war encounterhe had with a North Vietnamese officer, a Colonel Tu, whom he assured that “you know you never beat us on the battlefield.”
“That may be so,” replied his former enemy, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Whatever its limitations, his work remains influential in military circles to this day. (I was assigned the book as a West Point cadet!)
A more sophisticated Clausewitzian analysis came from current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in a highly acclaimed 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty. He argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in failing to give President Lyndon Johnson an honest appraisal of what it would take to win, which meant that “the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice.” He concluded that the war was lost not in the field or by the media or even on antiwar college campuses, but in Washington, D.C., through a failure of nerve by the Pentagon’s generals, which led civilian officials to opt for a deficient strategy.
McMaster is a genuine scholar and a gifted writer, but he still suggested that the Joint Chiefs should have advocated for a more aggressive offensive strategy — a full ground invasion of the North or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country. In this sense, he was just another “go-big” Clausewitzian who, as historian Ronald Spector pointed out recently, ignored Vietnamese views and failed to acknowledge — an observation of historian Edward Miller — that “the Vietnam War was a Vietnamese war.”
COIN: A Small (Forever) War
Another Vietnam veteran, retired Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Krepinevich, fired the opening salvo for the hearts-and-minders. In The Army and Vietnam, published in 1986, he argued that the NLF, not the North Vietnamese Army, was the enemy’s chief center of gravity and that the American military’s failure to emphasize counterinsurgency principles over conventional concepts of war sealed its fate. While such arguments were, in reality, no more impressive than those of the Clausewitzians, they have remained popular with military audiences, as historian Dale Andrade points out, because they offer a “simple explanation for the defeat in Vietnam.”
Krepinevich would write an influential 2005 Foreign Affairs piece, “How to Win in Iraq,” in which he applied his Vietnam conclusions to a new strategy of prolonged counterinsurgency in the Middle East, quickly winning over the New York Times’s resident conservative columnist, David Brooks, and generating “discussion in the Pentagon, CIA, American Embassy in Baghdad, and the office of the vice president.”
In 1999, retired army officer and Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley penned the definitive hearts-and-minds tract, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Sorley boldly asserted that, by the spring of 1970, “the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.” According to his comforting tale, the real explanation for failure lay with the “big-war” strategy of U.S. commander General William Westmoreland. The counterinsurgency strategy of his successor, General Creighton Abrams — Sorley’s knight in shining armor — was (or at least should have been) a war winner.
Critics noted that Sorley overemphasized the marginal differences between the two generals’ strategies and produced a remarkably counterfactual work. It didn’t matter, however. By 2005, just as the situation in Iraq, a country then locked in a sectarian civil war amid an American occupation, went from bad to worse, Sorley’s book found its way into the hands of the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow. By then, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, it could also “be found on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad.”
Another influential hearts-and-minds devotee was Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. (He even made it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.) His Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam followed Krepinevich in claiming that “if [Creighton] Abrams had gotten the call to lead the American effort at the start of the war, America might very well have won it.” In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker “so liked [Nagl’s] book that he made it required reading for all four-star generals,” while the Iraq War commander of that moment, General George Casey, gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a copy during a visit to Baghdad.
David Petraeus and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, co-authors in 2006 of FM 3-24, the first (New York Times-reviewed) military field manual for counterinsurgency since Vietnam, must also be considered among the pantheon of hearts-and-minders. Nagl wrote a foreword for their manual, while Krepinevich provided a glowing back-cover endorsement.
Such revisionist interpretations would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps.
Reading All the Wrong Books
In 2009, when former West Point history professor Colonel Gregory Daddis was deployed to Iraq as the command historian for the Multinational Corps — the military’s primary tactical headquarters — he noted that corps commander Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby had assigned a professional reading list to his principal subordinates. To his disappointment, Daddis also discovered that the only Vietnam War book included was Sorley’s A Better War. This should have surprised no one, since his argument — that American soldiers in Vietnam were denied an impending victory by civilian policymakers, a liberal media, and antiwar protestors — was still resonant among the officer corps in year six of the Iraq quagmire. It wasn’t the military’s fault!
Officers have long distributed professional reading lists for subordinates, intellectual guideposts to the complex challenges ahead. Indeed, there’s much to be admired in the concept, but also potential dangers in such lists as they inevitably influence the thinking of an entire generation of future leaders. In the case of Vietnam, the perils are obvious. The generals have been assigning and reading problematic books for years, works that were essentially meant to reinforce professional pride in the midst of a series of unsuccessful and unending wars.
Just after 9/11, for instance, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers — who spoke at my West Point graduation — included Summers’s On Strategyon his list. A few years later, then-Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker added McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty. The trend continues today. Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller has kept McMaster and added Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger (he of the illegal bombing of both Laos and Cambodia and war criminal fame). Current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley kept Kissinger and added good old Lewis Sorley. To top it all off, Secretary of Defense Mattis has included yet another Kissinger book and, in a different list, Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam.
Just as important as which books made the lists is what’s missing from them: none of these senior commanders include newer scholarship, novels, or journalistic accounts which might raise thorny, uncomfortable questions about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable, or incorporate local voices that might highlight the limits of American influence and power.
Serving in the Shadow of Vietnam
Most of the generals leading the war on terror just missed service in the Vietnam War. They graduated from various colleges or West Point in the years immediately following the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops or thereafter: Petraeus in 1974, future Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal in 1976, and present National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in 1984. Secretary of Defense Mattis finished ROTC and graduated from Central Washington University in 1971, while Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War, receiving his commission in 1976.
In other words, the generation of officers now overseeing the still-spreading war on terror entered military service at the end of or after the tragic war in Southeast Asia. That meant they narrowly escaped combat duty in the bloodiest American conflict since World War II and so the professional credibility that went with it. They were mentored and taught by academy tactical officers, ROTC instructors, and commanders who had cut their teeth on that conflict. Vietnam literally dominated the discourse of their era — and it’s never ended.
Petraeus, Mattis, McMaster, and the others entered service when military prestige had reached a nadir or was just rebounding. And those reading lists taught the young officers where to lay the blame for that — on civilians in Washington (or in the nation’s streets) or on a military high command too weak to assert its authority effectively. They would serve in Vietnam’s shadow, the shadow of defeat, and the conclusions they would draw from it would only lead to twenty-first-century disasters.
From Vietnam to the War on Terror to Generational War
All of this misremembering, all of those Vietnam “lessons” inform the U.S. military’s ongoing “surges” and “advise-and-assist” approaches to its wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Representatives of both Vietnam revisionist schools now guide the development of the Trump administration’s version of global strategy. President Trump’s in-house Clausewitzians clamor for — and receive — ever more delegated authority to do their damnedest and what retired General (and Vietnam vet) Edward Meyer called for back in 1983: “a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam.” In other words, more bombs, more troops, and carte blanche to escalate such conflicts to their hearts’ content.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s hearts-and-minds faction consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to approximately 70% of the world’s nations. Furthermore, they’ve recently fought for and been granted a new “mini-surge” in Afghanistan intended to — in disturbingly Vietnam-esque language — “break the deadlock,” “reverse the decline,” and “end the stalemate” there. Never mind that neither 100,000 U.S. troops (when I was there in 2011) nor 16 full years of combat could, in the term of the trade, “stabilize” Afghanistan. The can-do, revisionist believers atop the national security state have convinced Trump that — despite his original instincts — 4,000 or 5,000 (or 6,000 or 7,000) more troops (and yet more drones, planes, and other equipment) will do the trick. This represents tragedy bordering on farce.
The hearts and minders and Clausewitzians atop the military establishment since 9/11 are never likely to stop citing their versions of the Vietnam War as the key to victory today; that is, they will never stop focusing on a war that was always unwinnable and never worth fighting. None of today’s acclaimed military personalities seems willing to consider that Washington couldn’t have won in Vietnam because, as former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak (who flew 269 combat missions over that country) noted in the recent Ken Burns documentary series, “we were fighting on the wrong side.”
Today’s leaders don’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end. In an interview last June, Petraeus — still considered a sagacious guru of the Defense establishment — disturbingly described the Afghan conflict as “generational.” Eerily enough, to cite a Vietnam-era precedent, General Creighton Abrams predicted something similar. speaking to the White House as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down. Even as President Richard Nixon slowly withdrew U.S. forces, handing over their duties to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) — a process known then as “Vietnamization” — the general warned that, despite ARVN improvements, continued U.S. support “would be required indefinitely to maintain an effective force.” Vietnam, too, had its “generational” side (until, of course, it didn’t).
That war and its ill-fated lessons will undoubtedly continue to influence U.S. commanders until a new set of myths, explaining away a new set of failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, take over, possibly thanks to books by veterans of these conflicts about how Washington could have won the war on terror.
It’s not that our generals don’t read. They do. They just doggedly continue to read the wrong books.
In 1986, General Petraeus ended his influential Parameters article with a quote from historian George Herring: “Each historical situation is unique and the use of analogy is at best misleading, at worst, dangerous.” When it comes to Vietnam and a cohort of officers shaped in its shadow (and even now convinced it could have been won), "dangerous" hardly describes the results. They’ve helped bring us generational war and, for today’s young soldiers, ceaseless tragedy.
Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast Fortress on a Hill.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
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