The Magazine

The Incurable Vietnam Syndrome

Distorting our foreign policy for three decades and counting.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By MAX BOOT
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Far be it from me--a military historian--to dispute the usefulness of history in policymaking. Properly applied, the study of past wars can be essential in guiding the course of current and future conflicts. But the key is to take lessons selectively and intelligently and not become enthralled by lazy reasoning along the lines of "Vietnam was an American war; X is an American war; therefore, X will be another Vietnam."

The Vietnam conflict featured a variety of factors that are absent in Afghanistan and Iraq. North Vietnam was a disciplined, one-party state with one of the world's largest and most battle-hardened armies. It had the legitimacy that came from a struggle against French colonialism and the support of two superpowers, China and Russia. Almost all of its resources from 1954 to 1975 were devoted to one goal--the annexation of South Vietnam. Given such a formidable foe, which was able to confront us not only with black-clad guerrillas but also with regulars riding tanks, the U.S. defeat becomes more explicable and less replicable.

The Iraqi guerrillas, Sunni and Shiite, were formidable in their own right, but they were no Viet Cong. Neither are the Taliban. They are more likely to engage in sustained firefights than were Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Mahdi Army, but they are incapable of maneuvering in battalion-, brigade-, or division-sized formations as the Vietnamese Communists routinely did. Even company-sized attacks are rare in Afghanistan. The Taliban, like their Iraqi counterparts, prefer to strike with IEDs, which take little courage to plant. Although the Taliban, like the Viet Cong, enjoy cross-border havens, they do not receive anywhere close to the same degree of support from Pakistan that the Viet Cong got from North Vietnam. They don't even receive as much outside support as the mujahedeen did during their 1980s war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. Nor are they monolithic, as the Viet Cong were. The very term "Taliban" is a misnomer. It is used to describe loosely affiliated bands of insurgents who have no unified command structure of the kind that Hanoi imposed on its forces. Thus there is little danger of coordinated, countrywide attacks like the 1968 Tet Offensive. None of the Afghan insurgent groups enjoys anywhere close to the prestige and legitimacy, either at home or abroad, that the Viet Cong were able to garner in their fight against first France and then the United States. Mullah Omar is no Ho Chi Minh. Neither is Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Are there nevertheless lessons from Vietnam that will help us fight the Taliban and other present-day foes? Undoubtedly. But the right lesson to draw is not that "we can't win." In fact, in Vietnam between 1968 and 1972 we did more or less win (a point elaborated by historian Lewis Sorley in his 1999 book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam), but we failed to stick it out. If the United States had continued supporting Saigon with substantial aid after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 to counter the aid Moscow and Beijing were providing to Hanoi, the likelihood is that South Vietnam would still exist--just as South Korea still exists.

The Vietnam experience demonstrates the importance of using sound counterinsurgency tactics based on protecting the population rather than the conventional "search and destroy" methods employed in the early years of that war, which resulted in massive casualties for both sides (as well as for civilians) and ultimately squandered America's commitment to continue the fight. Somewhat in the mold of General Creighton Abrams, who took command in Vietnam in 1968, General Stanley McChrystal has inherited a conventional war effort that he is determined to convert into a population-centric counterinsurgency effort. The difference is that the Afghan National Army and the International Security Assistance Force are far smaller and less capable than their Vietnam war counterparts, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and Military Assistance Command-Vietnam. Therefore implementing a counterinsurgency strategy will require more troops. If the White House agrees, it will be imperative to send a substantial number of reinforcements quickly rather than repeating one of the mistakes of the Vietnam days when Lyndon Johnson escalated gradually. That allowed the enemy to adjust to American tactics and made it impossible to wrest the initiative on the battlefield.