The major lesson of Vietnam will never be learned

January 30 was the 50th anniversary of the launch of what is known as the Tet Offensive, Tet being the name of the Vietnamese New Year. The forces of the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese army launched a concerted attack on US and South Vietnamese all over South Vietnam and even right in the heart of Ho Chi Ming City (then called Saigon), including the headquarters of the South Vietnamese General Staff, the Independence Palace, the US Embassy, the Navy Headquarters, and the National Radio Station.

While the attacks were repulsed, the sheer audacity of it was a major propaganda defeat for the US that had been telling the US public that things were going well with their invasion of Vietnam and they had things under control. The widely broadcast images of fighting in the capital city laid bare the fact that the US government had been lying to the American people about the progress of the war.

Part of the reason for this was that the US military was also lying to itself and to its political leaders, who are always eager to hear favorable news and not so much to hear bad news. James A. Warren writes about how some US military advisors on the ground in Vietnam had a good idea about the true state of affairs, that the South Vietnamese army was corrupt, brutal, and incompetent and that US military strategy was hopelessly inadequate to deal with the political and counterinsurgency methods of their opponents. But the people at the top did not want to hear it.

While attending the Armed Forces Staff College in late 1964, just as the U.S. Army was gearing up to deploy its own combat forces to Vietnam, Col. Volney F. Warner attended a speech by the Marine commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene. Before he began his talk, Gen. Greene asked his audience of a hundred 100 majors and colonels a pointed question: “How many of you think that U.S. forces should be sent to fight in Vietnam and draw the line against communism there?”

Virtually everyone in the audience raised their hands enthusiastically. Then Greene, a decidedly hawkish member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked a second question: “How many think we should stay out of Vietnam?” Six officers raised their hands … hesitantly. Warner was among them.

“There are a few cowards in every bunch,” quipped the commandant.

But those six officers weren’t cowards. They were soldiers and Marines who had recently returned stateside from tours of duty as advisers to South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) combat units. They knew from firsthand experience what the senior leadership of the American armed forces did not: That the ARVN officer corps, like the government it served, was riven by nepotism, corruption, and indifferent to the plight of the peasantry it was supposed to protect. Moreover, the ARVN was fighting a decidedly unconventional, “people’s war” against small units of guerrillas with tactics and doctrine developed by the U.S. Army for conventional conflicts between regular armies. Not surprisingly, it was losing.

The battle of Ap Bac, opines Neil Sheehan—who was covering the battle for the United Press International, and later wrote a brilliant book about [John Paul] Vann in Vietnam called A Bright Shining Lie—compelled this driven American adviser to launch a crusade “to convince the military and political leadership in Washington that the only way the United States could avoid being beaten in Vietnam was to drastically change strategy … Vann saw the elements of this catastrophe with more clarity than anyone else in Vietnam at the time, and he was determined to do everything he could to prevent it.”

Thanks to Vann’s sterling reputation and contacts, he was ultimately able to secure a hearing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington about what needed to change if the United States and South Vietnam were to prevail in Vietnam. A couple of hours before he was scheduled to give his briefing, General Maxwell Taylor, chairmen of the JCS, nixed the presentation when he was informed of its substance. He didn’t want bad news on the record.

Warren thinks that the US military has learned some lessons from that debacle.

The U.S. military’s searing experience in Vietnam did, of course, prompt a great deal of soul searching within the services about the way they had conducted business, and about the dangers of manipulating—or ignoring—candid reporting from its soldiers on the ground. Since the fall of Saigon, all the services have placed much more emphasis on collecting uncorrupted information from the field, and incorporating lessons learned there into training and doctrine. And there is a widespread awareness from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down through the ranks that the skills and tactics required to fight insurgencies and other “asymmetrical conflicts” are vastly different than those required for conventional war.

Whether the U.S. military packs the gear to win “political wars” remains a much-debated question.

I think the answer to that last question is ‘No’. Some things never change. The people at the top still want to hear positive news and it is those who provide such news who are rewarded while the Cassandras are shunted aside. The US public is still lied to about how well the wars undertaken in their name is going. The war in Afghanistan may not make the front pages much these days but observers on the ground say that the Taliban is slowly regaining control. The Taliban is nothing like the NLF in terms of the level its military prowess and its political model but despite those shortcomings, their recent attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was clearly meant to send the signal that they remain a force.

The lesson of Vietnam and subsequent acts of aggression by the US is that it is easy for the US, with its military might, to destroy a country with bombs, to topple and even kill its political leadership, and install a puppet regime. But winning a war on the ground against a determined local force, even a repressive one like the Taliban, is something else entirely.

The lesson that there is a limit to what raw power can achieve is something that big powers never seem to learn.


  1. mnb0 says

    “there is a limit to what raw power can achieve”
    There isn’t. You’re wrong here.

    It’s what the Roman Republic did to Carthago about 2200 years ago and it totally worked.
    The reason it didn’t work for the US Army in Vietnam is public opinion (in the home country). It didn’t care too much for Chili though and hence Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973 was a great success for American raw power.

  2. says

    I know that it’s not what the song is about, but when I think of this I can’t lose the bits from Don Mclean’s “Vincent”

    Now I understand
    what you tried to say to me,
    how you suffered for your sanity,
    and how you tried to set them free.
    They would not listen, they did not know how.
    Perhaps they’ll listen now.

    They were not listening, they’re not listening still,
    perhaps they never will.

    But winning a war on the ground against a determined local force, even a repressive one like the Taliban

    That’s because the Vietnamese were fighting for their freedom. And so are the Taliban and their supporters. It seems to be impossible for American blockheads to realize this; that the “local support” for insurgents is “people want the insurgents to win” -- just like, you know, 1776. Any country that realizes they have invaded a place and the civilian population is arming itself to resist, ought to just get the fuck out of there while they still can.

  3. fentex says

    That’s because the Vietnamese were fighting for their freedom. And so are the Taliban and their supporters.

    In a very broad sense (though corrupted by complications) the Taliban are the Pushtun resistance to rule from Kabual.

  4. says

    Authority tends to corrode its ability to get accurate information. As soon as authority starts “shopping” a problem -- listening to the subordinate that says what they want to hear -- or finding the subordinate who says “yes!” when others are saying “we should not do that” -- then it begins to invite its own deception. I suppose a wise authoritarian would assume that when they are told everything is going just great, that it’s time to look most closely -- or that if they find a subordinate that is exceptionally “can do” they need to check for progress instead of just its appearance.

    I speak from experience on the latter. Back when I was running a software company we had an engineer who was very quick to say “I’ll make that happen” to just about anything. Of course he quickly took on too much load and nothing got done at all and we mangled our entire development schedule and it was nasty to un-mangle. I blame myself for not realizing his confidence was over-confidence until it had done some damage to all of us.

  5. aquietvoice says

    I think that the military cannot -- and indeed must not -- learn the lessons about losing, but the civilians who control them must learn them well in order to take responsibility and control, and that the military must accept that as part of their subordination. Strange idea, but let me explain.

    The essential basis of military thought is essentially “you have these objectives and these assets. The enemy has these assets. Complete your objectives and do not fail”.

    The prices that you have to pay for that are: 1) In order to speed up decision making, it must be simplified and 2) the starting point of any assessment is that you can complete your objectives, until exhaustively proven otherwise. Often literally.

    The first price means that the military needs enemies, and enemies who can be shot. To fight effectively, you need to actually fight. This means that the political assessments where there are no firm enemies, just growing and shrinking factions doesn’t work that well. Especially if ‘presenting a coherent narrative’ is required more than, say, shooting some people.

    The second price means that they will virtually never, ever tell their superiors that they cannot win or complete their objectives until they actually lose. If their superiors (whether they are military or civilian) ask for a way forward, they will find whatever gives them the highest chance and go for that. Well, that’s what I’ve thought every time I’ve heard about the latest ‘surge’ or ‘swell’ of ground troops that will surely win the war this time.

    However, I’m a strong believer that the absolute subordination of the military to civilian authority means more than just attacking who they are told to -- it means being very open and informative about what’s going on, giving the civilians the ability to make meaningful decisions.
    I believe that learning how to properly inform civilians should be part of every soldiers (or at least every officers) training and duty.

    In short, as far as I see it, the military needs to remain the very best at killing people without dying, and they have to pay a certain cognitive price for that. What they have to lose must be made up for by civilian support, and that is part of the civilians’ responsibility when they tell the military to go invade somewhere. Clear scope, clear ideas, clear political plan and narrative, enough civilian backup to meet military shortcomings.

    I mean, it’s just not going to happen, but working out the right way to do things is something of a hobby of mine.

    Oh, and don’t take any of this as an excuse for excluding valuable voices inside the military like the anecdote above. Deliberately reducing the amount of useful information is dumb, no matter how you think.

  6. fentex says

    aquietvoice: In short, as far as I see it, the military needs to remain the very best at killing people without dying

    I would rather my nations military achieved their assigned objectives than simply killed as many as they could.

    Which is entirely the point of Mano’s post I think. In Vietnam, and adjacent nations, the U.S killed some two ~ three million and made way for the Khmer rouge to kill some three million more. They were pretty good at that.

    Now there was no way they could achieve their objectives, which were essentially prevent Vietnamese independence and unification (because the mistake had already been made when post WW2 the U.S and other western powers didn’t tell France to fuck off with it’s colonial plans for Vietnam) but IF facts were as the U.S dreamed they were (a free western aligned capitalistic south Vietnam needing defending for aggressive invasive North Vietnam) and no more the only hope of success would be in empowering and strengthening the resources of South Vietnamese to fight diligently for their own independence and liberty.

    Not empowering dictators, destroying the environment and dropping bombs on them. And your, I surmise, position that that was an error of politicians and not the military is I think naivete about how the power structures of nations so ready to war, as the U.S is, for dominance and foolish fantasy’s of the powerful that they can have what they instruct of inferiors.

  7. aquietvoice says

    fentex: Yes, in the end the whole point of a military act is to complete objectives rather than kill people. Politics by other means.

    However, everything the military trains to do needs to work in a high-stress, highly lethal environment. When the back-kick on an artillery barrel is enough to straight up pulverize someone’s entire torso, for example, everything to do with that needs clear procedure and communication, fast decisions, well-known and well drilled routines, et cetera.

    My point is the kind of thinking needed to do that effectively -- the kind of thinking the military must have and must maintain to be functional, is wholly incompatible with fuzzy logic, careful narrative construction, and the careful balances and nuance of civilian political change.

    In other words, we expect the military to commit themselves wholly to one way of thinking. There must be a clear divide on who is responsible for what and the military must be both informative and obedient to their civilian oversight.

    I believe that this responsibility to be fully informative is currently neglected, that clear lines of responsibility are not drawn, that civilian support to the internal structures of invaded nations is lacking, and that civilian oversight generally operates more on fallacy and corruption than a holistic understanding of what is required to complete the objectives given to the military.

    My position on authority and responsibility doesn’t seem to have come across, so I’ll give it another go. No biggie 🙂

    My position was that in the example given, in vietnam, the error of the military was 1) throwing away useful information because it contradicted their narrative and 2) not building a culture of open reporting to their civilian oversight.

    The error of the civilian oversight was 1) failing to empower a political structure that was genuinely good. Or half-decent. Or even salvageable, really, 2) failing set out clear and honest standards, objectives and guides as to how the US military was to interact with the various factions they encountered, and 3) failing to provide talented civilians to help out with the politics and internal structures of south vietnam.

    Am I naive, though? I doubt it. I’m overflowing with contempt for people who try to dominate others, especially because they seem to believe that if they are in control, things will happen the way they want them to. For example, the promises and fantasies of every authoritarian ever: “I will make jobs!” or “I will get rid of crime!” but no sound ideas on how to actually do it. Idiots.

    I’m well aware of *why* all of those errors exist and persist, by the way, but I believe it is important to work out the right way of doing something, even if neither of us expect people to do it.

    To be honest, in the current climate I can think of only a few persons in positions of civilian leadership who would take the time to fully understand these responsibilities, must less properly discharge them.

    Your thoughts?

  8. demonax says

    What were troops doing in countries that have their own governments? Wasn’t it just simply imperialism-old style.?

  9. KG says

    Given the history of Vietnam (establishing its independence from China more than 1000 years ago, defeating both Japanese and French colonialists before the Americans, and the Chinese invasion of 1979 since), perhaps the simplest lesson is: “Don’t try to colonise Vietnam”!

  10. fentex says

    To reply to aquietvoice:

    You are writing, as many have in the past, that you wish the U.S army be wielded as a scalpel.
    But it is not a scalpel, it is a broadsword. It is too big to be a scalpel, and when swung broadswords momentum carry their wielder.

    You cannot make big scalpels.

    But that’s not even the problem -- people getting distracted because they think they have the force of a broadsword that could be effective if they could concentrate it as a scalpel (impossible) when they shouldn’t be resorting to weapons at all.

    The problems that were created -- dividing Vietnam up, allowing the French to try and re-assert their colonial ambitions -- made Vietnamese re-unification through violence inevitable. Using it as a proxy war against the U.S.S.R could only serve to sacrifice people for U.S dominance.

    By the way, do you think the U.S lost in Vietnam? People tend to think any writing about ‘Learning the lessons of Vietnam’ implies the U.S needs to learn how to win.

    That would be an error. The U.S categorically won it’s war. It showed what the price of defying Washington was, other nations had better have good reason to risk it.

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