LESSONS LEARNED AND THE LEGACY OF THE VIETNAM WAR TO AMERICANS

LEGACY OF THE VIETNAM WAR TO AMERICANS

Many Americans are too young to have a direct memory of the war, which ended in 1975 and killed an estimated 58,000 Americans. But the war's legacy persists in the minds of combat veterans who live with the events and traumas they witnessed in their youth. Sen John McCain wrote in the forward of David Halberstam’s book The Best and The Brightest: "It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone."

Henry Kissinger wrote: "One of the most important casualties of the war was the tradition of American "exceptionalism." The once near-universal faith in our values—and their relevance around the world—gave way to intense divisions over the very validity of those values and the lengths we should go to promote and defend them." And those schism have had a profound impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy ever since." Kissinger went on to argue that trauma inflicted by the Vietnam War in many ways has prevented the United States from implementing a coherent foreign policy. The clear-sighted, unquestioned policy of the age of "exceptionalism" has been replaced by one that is confused and applied differently— often hypocritically—depending on the circumstances.

Troubled by his years in Vietnam, Colin Powell as a high level general created a doctrine that the United States would only engage in a war that it could win with decisive force and American interests were clearly at stake. America’s next war in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s fit this criteria.

On how he has applied what he learned in Vietnam to life since, Chuck Hagel said: "There’s not a day goes by that you don’t pull back on at least some little thing — life’s not about big things every day — and you don’t recall in some way an experience you had in the service, in Vietnam, a tolerance, an understanding, reaching beyond, trying to understand more than the obvious underneath. And probably most fundamental for me as a United States senator, when we talk of going to war again Iraq or against anyone, we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical and the diplomatic and the economic consequences — and those are important. But at least for me, this old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968, United States senators making decisions that affected my life and a lot of people who lost their lives, that they didn’t have — I didn’t have anything to say about. Someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it’s the little guys who come back in the body bags. [Source: Mark Thompson, Time January 16, 2013 =^=]

Lessons Learned from the Vietnam War

Robert G. Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post, "What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice — and Vietnam and Iraq both qualify — define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you really understand the society you propose to transform. And never gamble that the political solution to such an adventure will somehow materialize after the military operation has begun. Without a plausible political plan and strong local support at the outset, military operations alone are unlikely to produce success. [Source: Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, January 14, 2007]

Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek: 1) When the president is asked to consider going to war, he must be presented, above all, with an analysis of the global strategic situation on which the recommendation is based. 2) The purpose of war is victory. Stalemate is a last resort, not a desirable strategic objective. 3) Victory needs to be defined as an outcome achievable in a time period sustainable by american public opinion. 4) War has to be presented to the president a sustainable diplomatic framework. 5) Diplomacy and strategy must be treated as a whole, not as successive phases of policy. 6) Authority for diplomacy and strategy must be clearly assigned. 7) the administration as well as critics should conduct their debates with the restraint imposed by the knowledge that the unity of our society has been the hope of the world. [Source: Henry Kissinger, Newsweek, October 24, 2008 *+*]

Before Vietnam the conventional view of the Truman-Eisenhower- Kennedy era, Kissinger wrote, was that "force should be applied in minimum increments, that strategy and diplomacy were separate spheres to be conducted consecutively, that American principles applied in an undifferentiated manner globally were established maxims of a successful policy. These principles were implemented in Vietnam in the early 1960s by the best, not the worst, of their generation. If the policymakers lacked perspective, their critics lacked compassion. *+*

"Throughout history, every problem America had recognized had proved soluble by the application of resources and idealism. Vietnam proved obdurate. Mourning the assassination of a president with whom it had identified, and perplexed by an impasse to which its own theories had contributed, the intellectual establishment ascribed its traumas to a failure of the American experience and the moral inadequacy of its leaders. This turned the national debate from an argument over feasibility into a crusade increasingly settled by confrontations designed to demonstrate a moral indictment. In that sense, Bundy was victim as much as cause of the forces unleashed as America was obliged to adapt its history to a changing world. *+*

Don Oberdorfer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "In my view, the story of the Vietnam War can be summed up in an observation made by North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh's close aide and successor, to French war historian Bernard Fall in 1962, three years before the massive U.S. intervention and nearly six years before Tet: "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win in the end." The North Vietnamese and their southern comrades were willing to fight to the death against the United States and the government it had installed, just as they did against the colonial French, who had tired of fighting and sued for peace. And this time, China, which had pushed the Vietnamese Communists to partition their country into North and South to end the first Indochina War in 1954, was fully on their side, as was the Soviet Union. [Source: Don Oberdorfer, Smithsonian magazine, November 2004]

Book: "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam" by Gordon M. Goldstein,

How Not to Fight a War

Vietnam has become a textbook example of how not to fight a war. It showed the limitations of fighting a limited war, the heavy costs of politicians meddling in military affairs, and the results of micro-management from the White House and not doing everything possible to achieve a decisive victory. It also showed the political consequences and human cost off waging such a war.

Kissinger wrote in Time: "The strategy that had worked in every previous American war—of wearing down the adversary by attrition—could not succeed against guerillas defending no specific territory and were therefore in a position to chose when and where to fight. Nor did the non-Communist countries of Indochina live up to the standards of democracy of our European allies, throwing into question the moral purpose of the war."

As was the case with the Viet Minh and the French at Dien Bien Phu, the victory by the Viet Cong over the Americans showed that determined peasant army could bring a major world power to its knees. A nation that Johnson once a called a "damned little pissant country," forced Johnson into retirement, cost Humphrey the 1968 election, divided the United States and caused it to lose prestige abroad. As for the Communists and the North Vietnamese, the war was regarded as a victory and a boost to their morale and objectives.

Robert Doughty, a professor of military history at West Point told the Washington Post, "I don’t see how we could have won the war. It was the nature of the war itself, a people’s war waged by the North Vietnamese. You’re fighting an enemy willing to take those kind of casualties. Lord, I saw them die by the hundreds." A Vietnam War veteran who is now a radiologist told Newsweek: "We backed a [South Vietnamese] government that was neither democratic nor honestly elected, and we supported against a national movement not unlike our own American struggle during the war of Independence."

McNamara: "We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong"

The Vietnam War is sometimes called McNamara's War. In his 1995 book "In Retrospect," Robert S. McNamara wrote: "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principals and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong...I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgement and capabilities." McNamara also said that he and members of the Kennedy administration "totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh's movement. We saw him first as a Communist and second as a Vietnamese nationalist." [Source: Robert S. McNamara, "In Retrospect" Time Books, Random House, excerpted in Newsweek, April 17, 1995]

Vietnam veteran Jim Silva told Col. David H. Hackworth in Newsweek that when he heard that McNamara admitted the war was "terribly wrong": "All I could think was 'Why now?' From my viewpoint, his confession was a slap in the face to anyone who ever served in Vietnam...I felt a sense of rage beginning to well up inside me, a rage I have worked hard to suppress over the last 25 years."

Lawrence Tahler, an infantry platoon leader in 1968-69 told Hacksworth: "I was in Vietnam after Mr. McNamara realized the war was unwinnable. My men and I went out in the boonies to fight Viet Cong, to get wounded or killed—to what end? Once the leadership knew the war was could not be won by military means, didn't they owe it to the country to immediately make adjustments so more lives wouldn't be wasted?"

Pham Xuan An, the North Vietnamese spy who worked for Time magazine and worked with the CIA, said of the Americans: "They were very smart. They weren’t ignorant about Vietnam. But being smart and making the right decision are different things. The big mistake the Americans made was not understanding the Vietnamese culture or mentality. They were so sure military strength would win the war, they never bothered to learn who they were fighting."

Vietnam: Victory Over Communist Expansion?

Some believe the America won because communism proved to be lacking, and capitalism won out. Marvin Ott, a professor of national security policy at the National War College, has argued that the U.S. ultimately won the war because American action in Vietnam gave notice that the U.S. would not stand by while communist movements seized power in domino-like fashion. The communist movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and elsewhere eventually lost momentum and ultimately posed little threat to pro-West governments in Southeast countries which have become capitalistic powerhouses.

Walt Rostow, a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson told Time magazine in 1995: "This was a war about the balance of power in all Southeast Asia. We lost the battle in Vietnam but we won the war in Southeast Asia." Michael Lind went even further and argued the war had important impact on the relations and tensions between the United States, the Soviet Union and China. He argued that the Vietnam War enabled the United States and the Soviet Union to fight a war in a limited arena without using their nuclear weapons. It allowed the United States to make a stand and prove that it was serious about stopping Communism with less consequences than if it had taken a similar stand in Taiwan or Germany, or some other place of more strategic value. He went to argue that if the United States didn’t stay in as long as it did it might have emboldened the Soviet Union and China to move aggressively into other countries.

Vietnam War Could Have Been Won?

Commander of the American force in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, and others claimed after the war as they did during it that the "U.S. military won every battle, but the American press, politicians and people lost the war."

Peter Spiegel wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In historical assessments and the American recollection, Vietnam was the unwinnable war. But to many in the armed forces, Vietnam as a war actually was on its way to succeeding when the Nixon administration and Congress, bowing to public impatience, pulled the plug: first withdrawing U.S. combat forces and then blocking funding and supplies to the South Vietnamese army. If they hadn't, the South Vietnamese army, which had been bolstered by U.S. advisors and a more focused "hearts and minds" campaign in the later stages of the war, could have been able to fend off the communist North, many leading military thinkers have argued. [Source: Peter Spiegel, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2006 //\\]

"In their view, progress was undermined by President Nixon's decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in 1969 in the face of political pressure at home, despite military objections that the South Vietnamese army was not ready to go it alone. Another key U.S. mistake, they contend, was the deep cuts Congress made to military aid to Saigon beginning in 1974. For many in the military, the lessons of Vietnam are clear: Maintain public support, and be patient. //\\

Evan Thomas and John Barry wrote in Newsweek, "In his 1999 book "A Better War," Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could have won in Vietnam—if only the U.S. Congress hadn't cut off military aid to South Vietnam. With their natural tendency to wage the last war, armies learn slowly. In World War II, American armed forces fought badly in Africa in 1942–43 and not so well in Italy in 1943–44 before getting it right in France and Germany in 1944–45. In Vietnam in 1965–67, the Americans pursued a misbegotten strategy of "search and destroy," trying to fight an unconventional war with conventional forces that focused on "body counts" while the North Vietnamese more shrewdly infiltrated into towns and villages. Not until Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as U.S. commander in 1968 did the Americans smarten up and begin to fight a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of "clear and hold." Instead of shoving aside the South Vietnamese Army, Abrams built up the local forces until they could stand and fight largely on their own—as they did in 1972, repulsing North Vietnam's Easter Offensive with the aid of American airstrikes. [Source: Evan Thomas and John Barry, Newsweek, November 16, 2009 |=|]

"But by then, as Sorley laments in A Better War, it was too late. American public opinion had turned. In 1973, President Nixon and the North Vietnamese signed a peace treaty that allowed Hanoi to keep 150,000 troops in South Vietnam, just waiting on orders to march. In 1974, breaking Nixon's promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon. Sorley quotes one of General Abrams's closest colleagues, Gen. Bruce Palmer, as saying that Abrams "died [of cancer in 1974] feeling that we could have won the war. He felt we were on top of it in 1971, then lost our way." Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon who worked with Abrams to turn the war around, felt the same: "We eventually defeated ourselves," Bunker said." |=|

In response to the argument that the U.S. could have won the war if "we had unleashed the military," McNamara told Newsweek, "Johnson and I held the lid on unleashing the military. One reason was we didn't want war with China and the Soviet Union...in which case we might have had to resort to nuclear weapons...I know of know thoughtful analysis of the war that says we would have won if we had "unleashed" our military...We killed 100,000 people in Tokyo in one day in 1945 with [conventional] bombing. It didn't change Japanese behavior. Short of genocide, it is unlikely that you can break a nation's will by bombing."

Successes of Nixon’s Vietnam Team: Ellsworth Bunker, William Colby, and Gen. Creighton Abrams?

Lewis Sorley wrote in the New York Times: "Few seem aware of the many successful changes in strategy undertaken in the later years of the conflict. The credit for those accomplishments goes in large part to three men: Ellsworth Bunker, who became the American ambassador to South Vietnam in 1967; William Colby, the CIA officer in charge of rural "pacification" efforts; and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the top American commander there in 1968. [Source: Lewis Sorley, New York Times, October 17, 2009, Lieutenant Colonel (U.S. Army, Retired) Lewis Sorley holds the following degrees: B.S. from the United States Military Academy, M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam" (1999) \:/]

1) Fight one war: Abrams, Bunker and Colby agreed that the war would be fought — and won or lost — in the villages. They decided to put equal priority on all key aspects of the war — thus the improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces and the elimination of covert Viet Cong bases and refuges in rural areas were given the same emphasis as large combat operations. 2) Rethink combat operations: The early strategy in Vietnam was to use large units in "search and destroy" sweeps — often on ground of the enemy’s choosing in the deep jungle. Abrams decided instead to try "clear and hold" operations, in which small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace. These troops were followed by South Vietnamese security forces — which Abrams made sure would get better training and equipment and were integrated into the regular army — to provide the "hold." 3) Restrain the use of force: Early on, Abrams said, "My problem is colored blue." By that he meant that friendly forces (usually portrayed in blue on battle maps, as contrasted to the enemy shown in red) were causing undue "collateral damage" to the South Vietnamese people and their property. He reined in the use of heavy firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes.\:/

4) Create an effective central government: As Nguyen Van Thieu, who became South Vietnam’s president in 1967, gained experience and influence, senior Americans came to regard him as the "No. 1 pacification officer." He traveled extensively, promoting and evaluating local programs. And by 1972 his "Land to the Tiller" initiative had achieved genuine land reform, distributing two and a half million acres of land to nearly 400,000 farmers. 5) Support local governments: In Vietnam, rural hamlets were able to elect their own officials, who were sent to training sessions in the port city of Vung Tau. President Thieu spoke to every class, emphasizing that they had to be "little presidents" and make good use of the resources that the central government would provide for economic growth, health care and schools. 6) Gather intelligence: "The intelligence is the most important part of this whole damn thing," Abrams told a visiting officer. "And if that’s good, we can handle anything." The best way to root out the enemy’s secret bases in Vietnam was to get good information from villagers and "ralliers," former Viet Cong rebels who had switched sides. \:/

7) Build the economy: Vietnam depended on rice, and widespread fighting and enemy gains in early years took many acres of land out of cultivation. Pacification efforts put some of that land back into production and re-opened local markets, while the introduction of genetically engineered "miracle rice" greatly increased yields. In Afghanistan, finding viable alternative crops for farmers now growing opium poppies would seem to be a first order of business. 8) Improve security: Protection of the people (not body counts, as in the earlier period) became the measure of progress in Vietnam. The appropriate metrics to watch in Afghanistan are probably economic growth, the percentage of children attending school and health data, along with freedom of movement within and between population centers. 9) Control the borders: In South Vietnam, allied forces were never able to seal off borders with Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam. The self-imposed prohibitions against going outside South Vietnam with ground forces allowed the enemy to use border areas for training, supply routes and sanctuary. 10) Maintain political support at home: All that was accomplished on the battlefield in the latter years of Vietnam was lost when Congress, having tired of the whole endeavor, drastically cut support for South Vietnam. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was able to rally public and press support for the war. \:/

Gen David Petraeus on Vietnam's Legacy

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the mind behind the successful surge strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan and timely updating of the Army and Marine Corps' counterinsurgency field manual, earned a PhD from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School in 1987 with a 328-page thesis titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era." Excerpts below. [Source: Washington Post, January 14, 2007 ^]

On the lessons of history: "Historical analogies are particularly compelling during crises, when the tendency to supplement incomplete information with past experiences is especially marked. . . . The legacy of Vietnam is unlikely to soon recede as an important influence on America's senior military. The frustrations of Vietnam are too deeply etched in the minds of those who now the [sic] lead the services and combatant commands...Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America's military leaders confounded, dismayed, and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money, and qualified people for a decade. . . . While the psychic scars of the war may be deepest among the Army and Marine Corps leadership, however, the senior leaders of all the services share a similar reaction to Vietnam. There is no desire among any of them to repeat the experience that provided the material for such descriptively titled books as: "Defeated: Inside America's Military Machine"; "Self Destruction: the Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era"; and "Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the United States Army." The simple essence of this feeling is that, in the words of then Colonel Dave Palmer, "there must be no more Vietnams." ^

On war and public opinion: "Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply...The military want to avoid what former Army Chief of Staff E.C. Meyer termed the Vietnam mistake of "putting soldiers out at the end of a string" without the full support of the American people. Since time is crucial, furthermore, sufficient force must be used at the outset to ensure that the conflict can be resolved before the American people withdraw their support for it. Nothing succeeds with the American public like success, the military realize; the sooner the mission is accomplished, the better." ^

On fighting insurgencies: "Vietnam planted in the minds of many in the military doubts about the ability of U.S. forces to conduct successful large-scale counterinsurgencies. These misgivings do not in all cases spring from doubts about the capabilities of American troops and units per se. Rather, the doubts that are part of the Vietnam legacy spring from a number of interrelated factors: the previously noted worries about a lack of popular support for what the public might perceive as ambiguous conflicts; suspicions about the willingness of civilian policy-makers -- not just those in the executive branch -- to stay the course; and lurking fears that the respective services have yet to come to grips with the difficult tasks of developing the doctrine, equipment, and forces suitable for nasty "little" wars...Others, who believe that the U.S. could develop suitable American forces for counterinsurgency operations, have doubts about the existing capabilities of U.S. units in this area. As one U.S. officer put it, "I submit that the U.S. Army does not have the mind-set for combat operations where the key terrain is the mind, not the high ground. We do not take the time to understand the nature of the society in which we are fighting, the government we are supporting, or the enemy we are fighting." ^

On civilian officials: "Very importantly, many in the military believe that the United States armed forces can win small wars if allowed to do so. Those who hold this view tend to believe that Vietnam was less an illustration of the limitations of American military power than an example of what happens if that power is limited and not used to best advantage. This feeling springs from conviction that the U.S. military in Vietnam were so hemmed in by restrictions that they could not accomplish their mission. The lesson for those of this persuasion, therefore, is that the military must be given a freer hand in future military operations. Even among the most fervent believers in this logic, however, there is a new recognition that the world is more intractable, and intervention with U.S. troops more problematic." ^

"The military also took from Vietnam (and the concomitant activities in the Pentagon) a heightened awareness that civilian officials are responsive to influences other than the objective conditions on the battlefield. A consequence has been an increase in the traditional military distrust of civilian political leaders. . . . While the military still accept emphatically the constitutional provision for civilian control of the armed forces, there remain from the Vietnam era nagging doubts about the abilities and motivations of politicians and those they appoint to key positions. Vietnam was a painful reminder for the military that they, not the transient occupants of high office, generally bear the heaviest burden during armed conflict. ^

"The lessons taken from Vietnam work to that end; military support for the use of force abroad is contingent on the presence of specific pre-conditions . . . "Don't commit American troops, Mr. President," they hold, "unless: 1) You really have to (in which case, presumably, vital U.S. interests are at stake); 2) You have established clear-cut, attainable military objectives for American military forces (that is, more than just some fuzzy political goals). 3) You provide the military commander sufficient forces and the freedom necessary to accomplish his mission swiftly. (Remember, Mr. President, this may necessitate the mobilization of the reserve components -- perhaps even a declaration of war.) 4) You can ensure sufficient public support to permit carrying the commitment through to its conclusion." For the military, in short, the debate over how and when to commit American troops abroad has become a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.

Lessons from Vietnam Not Learned in Iraq and Afghanistan

Lawrence Freedman wrote in Washington Post, In Vietnam “Americans acquired the bad habits and learned the wrong lessons from the Europeans, believing, in their hubris, that their more liberal and enlightened imperialism would be better. The problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be explained by the lingering influence of this hubris. For example, the Americans drew upon experience with counterinsurgency during the colonial wars for clever tactics without paying attention to the political contexts that shaped the tactical possibilities. [Source: Lawrence Freedman, Washington Post, September 2013]

Frank Snepp wrote in the Washington Post, “I was among the last CIA officers to be choppered off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon as the North Vietnamese took the country. Just two years before that chaotic rush for the exits, the Nixon administration had withdrawn the last American troops from the war zone and had declared indigenous forces strong enough, and the government reliable enough, to withstand whatever the enemy might throw into the fray after U.S. forces were gone. That's the same story we told ourselves in Iraq when we pulled out of that country in 2011. And today, as American troops are being drawn down in Afghanistan, we're hearing variations on the same claims once again. Yet security remains so fragile in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is impossible not to worry that we are deluding ourselves and that we failed to learn the most important lessons of Vietnam.[Source: Frank Snepp, Washington Post, May 5, 2013 /+/]

“One major ingredient of both the Afghanistan and Iraqi experiments was the use of American dollars to buy off insurgents, wean them from their Al Qaeda or Taliban suitors and win the indulgence, however grudging, of the leadership in Kabul or Baghdad. Such payments may help ensure a lull in the violence to allow U.S. forces to withdraw. But the enduring fallacy of such tactics was made clear in Vietnam. /+/

The strategic hamlet and pacification programs of the early and mid-1960s featured U.S. operatives fanning out through the countryside to buy the quiescence of village and hamlet chiefs. But in the end, the only thing that this money purchased was a continued Balkanization of the political landscape. The local beneficiaries, including special police and paramilitary units, identified with their American bagmen, not with Vietnam's central government, and the government in turn remained suspicious of their loyalties. The moment U.S. dollars and protection were withdrawn, the central government cracked down, destroying whatever calm existed. Such an adjustment is now going on in Iraq, where reports are mounting of Shiite vengeance against Sunnis. In Afghanistan, the "stabilizing" effect of U.S. forces and money is belied by a ragged security picture throughout the country and the resurgence of warlords./+/

“The Obama administration has staggered into its Afghan end-game, armed American drones and special commando operations have replaced the expensive counter- insurgency template designed by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. But the resulting campaign of targeted killing may not be an improvement because it contains the same ghastly flaws the Phoenix program had in Vietnam. The Phoenix program, a de facto assassination operation run by the CIA and U.S. military and carried out by provincial Vietnamese units, helped put the Viet Cong on the ropes temporarily, by eliminating many of their most experienced fighters and political operatives. /+/

“But for all this, the North Vietnamese went on to win. In the end, Phoenix drove people into the arms of the enemy by killing civilians. The cause was often imperfect intelligence from local sources more interested in settling personal scores than in taking out the real enemy. News reports suggest that today's drone program suffers from similarly tainted targeting, as do periodic security sweeps that continue to deliver Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects to allied detention centers. /+/

“Another problem in Vietnam was our choice of bedfellows. By the time I chauffeured the fleeing President Nguyen Van Thieu to Ton Son Nhut air base in late April 1975, some of us in the embassy had come to realize that political or military stability could not coexist with corrupt local leadership. But the last American ambassador to Vietnam had made allowances for Thieu and bent intelligence to cover his faults. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have continued to choose our allies unwisely and tolerate their corruption. /+/

“Richard Holbrooke, who until his death in 2010 was Obama's special advisor for Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrestled with another lesson from the Vietnam War, one he learned as a young pacification specialist in the Mekong Delta and a diplomat in Saigon. It was this: A war can't go well if the enemy is able to move in and out of the country safely thanks to sanctuaries in adjacent countries. In Vietnam, he'd seen how the Viet Cong slipped into the south easily through Laos and Cambodia, which may have been why Holbrooke labored so diligently to persuade the Pakistanis to break off their enabler's role in the Afghan insurgency. But the tribal borderlands, along with factions of Pakistani intelligence, remain wellsprings of support for the Taliban and its fellow travelers in Al Qaeda. Even Osama bin Laden was able to find a safe haven in Pakistan for years. /+/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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