Iraq, Vietnam, and the Lessons from History


Ingo Trauschweizer is the author of The Cold War U.S. Army: Building Deterrence for Limited War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. He is a Max Weber Fellow and a member of the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute.

History never repeats itself exactly, but given the undercurrent of comparing the present war in Iraq to the Vietnam War, it is essential that historians in and of the United States reconsider basic assumptions of the latter conflict. The lessons we may learn from such a re-evaluation will be specific to a time and place and should not be applied inflexibly. But the broader questions we may derive would help us better understand the present and speak more effectively as scholars to policy-makers and the general public.

The U.S. Army was defeated in Vietnam. But it is doubtful that more carefully crafted tactical and operational systems would have altered that fundamental outcome in the absence of a winning strategy. Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy had kept American military involvement at a minimum, hoping instead that the French and later the new government of South Vietnam could stem the tide of Ho Chi Minh’s communist and nationalist coalition. However fanciful that objective may have been, it turned out to be more adept than the aftermath of American military escalation in 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson - and Robert S. McNamara - chose to wage limited war against a foe determined to persist at any cost. Richard Nixon, faced with a war that could not be ended on America’s terms, opted for the dual course of extricating U.S. ground forces while expanding the war into Laos and Cambodia. None of these three approaches worked. None of them should be mistaken for strategy. In the event, historians of the Vietnam War cannot escape the conclusion that the United States was defeated, although there remains much debate over the nature of that defeat and over who was most to blame for allowing it to happen.

The U.S. Army suffered tremendously from its experience in Vietnam. Afterwards, it tried quite successfully to avoid thinking deeply about the long-term implications of the war. Historians and contemporary commentators have accused army leaders of pursuing the wrong kind of war, a big-unit war seeking pitched battles, in an environment that called for smaller and more flexible operations. General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, has been criticized severely for his insistence on seeking out and destroying enemy forces in a bid for military victory. His successor, Creighton Abrams, placed greater emphasis on the pacification of South Vietnam’s provinces. The relative success of this new approach further fueled criticism of Westmoreland. But then, the political decision to reduce the number of U.S. forces and the scope of American ground operations, just as these operations appeared to be leading toward a more tangible result, opened the door for army apologia and aided army leaders in their quest to avoid serious analysis of the causes of their defeat.

Another line of critical argument has been cultural. Veterans and scholars alike have pointed out that the direction of operations in Vietnam was the result of an institutional culture that remained focused on previous wars, particularly the Second World War and the Korean War. This made it practically impossible for civilian leadership to persuade or order the army to adjust to a new world. Emphasis on institutional culture addresses a critical aspect of the army’s inability to adjust to the conditions in Vietnam, but it underemphasizes the political, fiscal, and strategic context of the 1950s and early 1960s, when crucial decisions about the nature of the Cold War U.S. Army were put into effect. After Vietnam, army leaders could return to what they considered their primary mission, the deterrence of war in Europe, because they had never entered into the Vietnam War with any conviction. In a psychological sense they had never left Europe.

The significance of Europe to the Cold War U.S. Army rested on strategic assumptions and political considerations. War with the Soviet Union was almost unimaginable. But the possibility, however remote, served as a lifeline for army leaders of the 1950s, who feared that there would be no place for ground forces in the atomic age. Budget cuts and declining significance vis-à-vis Air Force and Navy left the impression of an institution destined for irrelevance. When President Eisenhower left office, the U.S. Army had eleven combat-effective divisions; six of them were deployed to Europe and three more would have to be sent with the first wave of reinforcements in case of a NATO call for mobilization.

Maxwell Taylor, army chief of staff from 1955 to 1959, tried to divert the strategic debate within the Eisenhower administration. Instead of relying on the threat of nuclear deterrence, he argued, the U.S. needed a more balanced approach. This found fuller expression in the “flexible response” strategy of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but this strategy for the 1960s also increased the likelihood of direct U.S. participation in third world conflicts. Taylor, more than anyone, knew that the U.S. Army did not have the means to prepare both for a conventional and tactical-nuclear war in Europe and a third world conflict simultaneously. He, more than anyone, understood that there was no choice. Defeat in the first battle in Europe could only lead to escalation to all-out nuclear war. The stakes were never quite as high in Vietnam.

Why was the army unprepared for the Vietnam War? And why did army leaders in Vietnam fail to adapt to the nature of the conflict? These are the basic questions most military historians of the conflict have tried to address. But that approach is too narrowly focused and leads to analysis of Vietnam in isolation from its Cold War context. If we asked instead for what the army was prepared, our conclusions would be more comprehensive. The question whether the decisions made by army leaders during the 1950s and early 1960s - which became obstacles during the Vietnam War - were reckless, prudent, or even wise, should lead us to a new debate that might illuminate contemporary issues of military transformation and, perhaps, the preparedness of the U.S military for a global war on terrorism and specific regional wars as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq in a world that still offers more conventional threats as well.

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omar ibrahim baker - 11/15/2008

1-There is no way to defeat a determined whole people no matter what except by killing all its men and women of a fighting ability age.
2-Fighting in the defence of one's homeland mobilizes inner resources that can NOT be matched by an army fighting away from home
3-Dead count plays a crucial role in determining how far both contestants will endure and how far both will go.
Its relative importance to either of the contestant will play a major role in determining the outcome of war.
4-Will Black Water, in alliance with the US army, fight America's next conquest/war?
Or will it be only Black Water,in alliance with international mercenaries,who will be fighting the fight.
5-Hard ware can only go that far in determing the outcome of a war.
6-Ultimately it is endurance and persistance that will determine the outcome!