Newsweek: The Surprising Lessons of Vietnam

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Stanley Karnow is the author of Vietnam: A History, generally regarded as the standard popular account of the Vietnam War. This past summer, Karnow, 84, picked up the phone to hear the voice of an old friend, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The two men had first met when Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and Karnow was a reporter covering the war. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was calling from Kabul. The two friends chatted for a while, then Holbrooke said, "Let me pass you to General McChrystal." Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, came on the line. His question was simple but pregnant: "Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?" Karnow's reply was just as simple: "The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place."

Words of wisdom, but not all that useful to General McChrystal. Like it or not, he is already in Afghanistan, along with roughly 68,000 American and 35,000 European troops. McChrystal has been charged by President Obama with presenting a strategy for victory, generally defined as standing up the Afghan Army to beat back the Taliban and deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda. An avid reader of history, McChrystal has read Karnow's book, but he has also read many others. One that he has read—and reread—is a 1999 book called A Better War, written by Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Sorley 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.

Not surprisingly, the Sorley book is getting a lot of attention at the upper levels of the Pentagon and at McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul. Told that NEWSWEEK was looking into the parallels between the Sorley book and General McChrystal's situation in Afghanistan, a senior Marine general exclaimed, "You're on to something there!" (Like other senior military officials contacted by NEWSWEEK, the general declined to be quoted praising a book that argues, though not in so many words, that the military was stabbed in the back by its civilian leaders.)

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