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The Real Lessons of Vietnam

12:10 PM, Oct 7, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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President Obama's dithering over what to do in Afghanistan has renewed interest in Lewis Sorley's powerful, revisionist book on the Vietnam war, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. Sorley's and another book, Lessons in Disaster by Gordon Goldstein, "have become a framework for the debate over what will be one of the most important decisions of Mr. Obama's presidency," the Wall Street Journal said.

Sorley's book is relevant because it points out what actually happened in Vietnam: by employing what we now call a counter-insurgency strategy, American forces had actually won the war by 1970, only to toss it away later by abandoning the South Vietnamese government. That strategy, similar to what has been pursued successfully in Iraq with the "surge," replaced the failed search-and-destroy effort of General William Westmoreland. Despite this history, search-and-destroy, which had failed in Iraq, is what Vice President Biden and other Democrats are urging in Afghanistan. They refer to it today as counter-terrorism.

The hero in Vietnam was General Creighton Abrams. He concluded that concentrating on killing enemy soldiers, as Westmoreland had, was a losing strategy. Under Abrams, "the object was not destruction but control, and in this case particularly control of the population." It worked. "There came a time when the war was won," Sorley writes. "The fighting wasn't over but the war was won."

The press missed what was going on, preferring to cover battles. Sorley says:

"Maybe it wasn't exciting enough, maybe it wasn't graphic enough for television, maybe it was too difficult to comprehend or to explain, maybe it ran counter to preconceived expectations or even wishes . . . Hamlets in which the population remained secure, refugees who were able to return to their villages, distribution of land to the peasantry, miracle rice harvests, roads kept open for farm-to-market traffic, and the election and training of village governments were less dramatic than whatever fighting still went on, but they were also infinitely more important in terms of how the war was going."

Abrams didn't request more troops because they were already more than 500,000 in Vietnam--too many, he thought. That's not the case in Afghanistan, where there are too few to carry out the counter-insurgency strategy--also known as "clear and hold"--adopted by Obama last March but now being reconsidered. General Stanley McChrystal, today's version of Abrams, is said to favor deploying 30,000 to 40,000 more, a modest request compared to the boots on the ground in Vietnam.

A Better War is far more timely and applicable to Afghanistan in 2009 than is Lessons in Disaster, which deals with military pressure on the White House to escalate the American effort in Vietnam in 1965. We know more now than the generals or the politicians did then about what works militarily and what doesn't. They were stumbling in the dark.

Since the 1960s, two things have happened. As Sorley argues cogently, counter-insurgency worked in Vietnam after counter-terrorism failed. In Iraq, we experienced a rerun of that scenario.

So let's review the bidding in the current debate on Afghanistan. Biden and many Democrats, reportedly including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, want the president to adopt a strategy that failed twice and, so far as I know, has never led to success. Gen. McChrystal and Republicans, along with Senator Joe Lieberman and a few other Democrats, are in favor of a strategy that has twice proven to be successful.

Given this, Obama's decision should be a no-brainer.

Editor's note: You can access Fred Barnes's 1999 review of Sorley's book in THE WEEKLY STANDARD here.