Rewriting the History of the Vietnam War, to the Detriment of Everyone Save the Military-Industrial Complex

Yves here. This is an important post, in that it describes the main parties behind the revisionist history of the war in Vietnam, and how it spawned the wrongheaded belief that the US can win local hearts and minds through better propaganda, counterinsurgency, and “advise and assist” missions. Despite the lack of any instances of success, the US military seems deeply invested in this approach, for if nothing else, it supports military bloat and lucrative post-service career opportunities for generals and senior staff.

This article might also serve as an excuse for you to read, if you haven’t yet, Daniel Ellsberg’s book Secrets, as a form of one-stop debunking of the claims of the revisionists about Vietnam. Ellsberg was uniquely qualified to comment on Vietnam. Not only was he a former Marine, RAND analyst and top expert on decision theory, he was one of a handful of men to not simply go to Vietnam (I do not recall in what order, but he managed to extend his time there by serving both for the DoD and the State Department) but to make a point of getting outside the safe zone in Saigon, where all the Americans would get was self-serving “intel” from the South Vietnamese government, and out in the countryside, often at considerable personal risk. To a person, the analysts and staffers who got out in the field, saw how the US effort was failing and more important, how many of the Vietnamese themselves saw the government in Saigon as corrupt.

Although I read Secrets many years ago, one of the vignettes I recall is when Ellsberg read North Vietnamese POW interviews. Ellsberg had done that often in the course of his career. He said he had never seen anything like them. Unlike any other prisoners, the North Vietnamese captives could not be coerced.

The overarching story of Secrets is that Ellsberg, like many of his colleagues at Rand who had become convinced that the US would never win in Vietnam, all also believed that this information was being withheld from the President. If only someone could give him an honest account as to what was transpiring, surely he would decide to exit. But when Ellsberg read what came to be called the Pentagon Papers, a history of the Vietnam War prepared as an study of DoD decision-making, with an eye to coming up with recommendations as to how to improve procedures, he saw that past Presidents knew full well that the US could not prevail in Vietnam, but decided to stay at war because they deemed the damage to US prestige of winding down the war to be too great. Ellsberg thus concluded the only way to break that dynamic was to release the account.

By Major Danny Sjursen, a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast Fortress on a Hill. Originally published at TomDispatch

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Vietnam: it’s always there. Looming in the past, informing American futures.

A 50-year-old war, once labeled the longest in our history, is still alive and well and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command.  And almost half a century later, they’re still losing it and blaming others for doing so. 

Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it’s well that they did.  The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country’s artificial border.  In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong. 

More than two decades of involvement and, at the war’s peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon.  Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam’s military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.

There’s just one thing.  Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the “orthodox” school) subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not.  Instead, they’re still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.

The Big Re-Write

In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War.  It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus’s impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war.  Though he did observe that Vietnam had “cost the military dearly” and that “the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services,” his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called “low-intensity conflicts” and are now known as counterinsurgencies.  His takeaway: what the country needed wasn’t less Vietnams but better-fought ones.  The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.

Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq, he and a whole generation of COINdinistas (like-minded officers devoted to his favored counterinsurgency approach to modern warfare) embraced those very conclusions to win the war on terror.  The names of some of them — H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, for instance — should ring a bell or two these days. In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his acolytes would get their chance to translate theory into practice.  Americans — and much of the rest of the planet — still live with the results.

Like Petraeus, an entire generation of senior military leaders, commissioned in the years after the Vietnam War and now atop the defense behemoth, remain fixated on that ancient conflict.  After all these decades, such “thinking” generals and “soldier-scholars” continue to draw all the wrong lessons from what, thanks in part to them, has now become America’s second longest war. 

Rival Schools

Historian Gary Hess identifies two main schools of revisionist thinking.  There are the “Clausewitzians” (named after the nineteenth century Prussian military theorist) who insist that Washington never sufficiently attacked the enemy’s true center of gravity in North Vietnam.  Beneath the academic language, they essentially agree on one key thing: the U.S. military should have bombed the North into a parking lot.

The second school, including Petraeus, Hess labeled the “hearts-and-minders.”  As COINdinistas, they felt the war effort never focused clearly enough on isolating the Vietcong, protecting local villages in the South, building schools, and handing out candy — everything, in short, that might have won (in the phrase of that era) Vietnamese hearts and minds.

Both schools, however, agreed on something basic: that the U.S. military should have won in Vietnam. 

The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century.  Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington.  The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now. 

The Go-Big Option

The leading voice of the Clausewitzian school was U.S. Army Colonel and Korean War/Vietnam War vet Harry Summers, whose 1982 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, became an instant classic within the military.  It’s easy enough to understand why.  Summers argued that civilian policymakers — not the military rank-and-file — had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than on the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.  More troops, more aggressiveness, even full-scale invasions of communist safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, would have led to victory.

Summers had a deep emotional investment in his topic.  Later, he would argue that the source of post-war pessimistic analyses of the conflict lay in “draft dodgers and war evaders still [struggling] with their consciences.”  In his own work, Summers marginalized all Vietnamese actors (as would so many later military historians), failed to adequately deal with the potential consequences, nuclear or otherwise, of the sorts of escalation he advocated, and didn’t even bother to ask whether Vietnam was a core national security interest of the United States. 

Perhaps he would have done well to reconsider a famous post-war encounter he had with a North Vietnamese officer, a Colonel Tu, whom he assured that “you know you never beat us on the battlefield.”

“That may be so,” replied his former enemy, “but it is also irrelevant.”

Whatever its limitations, his work remains influential in military circles to this day. (I was assigned the book as a West Point cadet!) 

A more sophisticated Clausewitzian analysis came from current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in a highly acclaimed 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty.  He argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in failing to give President Lyndon Johnson an honest appraisal of what it would take to win, which meant that “the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice.”  He concluded that the war was lost not in the field or by the media or even on antiwar college campuses, but in Washington, D.C., through a failure of nerve by the Pentagon’s generals, which led civilian officials to opt for a deficient strategy. 

McMaster is a genuine scholar and a gifted writer, but he still suggested that the Joint Chiefs should have advocated for a more aggressive offensive strategy — a full ground invasion of the North or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country.  In this sense, he was just another “go-big” Clausewitzian who, as historian Ronald Spector pointed out recently, ignored Vietnamese views and failed to acknowledge — an observation of historian Edward Miller — that “the Vietnam War was a Vietnamese war.”

COIN: A Small (Forever) War

Another Vietnam veteran, retired Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Krepinevich, fired the opening salvo for the hearts-and-minders.  In The Army and Vietnam, published in 1986, he argued that the NLF, not the North Vietnamese Army, was the enemy’s chief center of gravity and that the American military’s failure to emphasize counterinsurgency principles over conventional concepts of war sealed its fate.  While such arguments were, in reality, no more impressive than those of the Clausewitzians, they have remained popular with military audiences, as historian Dale Andrade points out, because they offer a “simple explanation for the defeat in Vietnam.” 

Krepinevich would write an influential 2005 Foreign Affairs piece, “How to Win in Iraq,” in which he applied his Vietnam conclusions to a new strategy of prolonged counterinsurgency in the Middle East, quickly winning over the New York Times’s resident conservative columnist, David Brooks, and generating “discussion in the Pentagon, CIA, American Embassy in Baghdad, and the office of the vice president.” 

In 1999, retired army officer and Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley penned the definitive hearts-and-minds tract, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.  Sorley boldly asserted that, by the spring of 1970, “the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.”  According to his comforting tale, the real explanation for failure lay with the “big-war” strategy of U.S. commander General William Westmoreland. The counterinsurgency strategy of his successor, General Creighton Abrams — Sorley’s knight in shining armor — was (or at least should have been) a war winner. 

Critics noted that Sorley overemphasized the marginal differences between the two generals’ strategies and produced a remarkably counterfactual work.  It didn’t matter, however.  By 2005, just as the situation in Iraq, a country then locked in a sectarian civil war amid an American occupation, went from bad to worse, Sorley’s book found its way into the hands of the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow.  By then, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, it could also “be found on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad.”

Another influential hearts-and-minds devotee was Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.  (He even made it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.) His Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam followed Krepinevich in claiming that “if [Creighton] Abrams had gotten the call to lead the American effort at the start of the war, America might very well have won it.”  In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker “so liked [Nagl’s] book that he made it required reading for all four-star generals,” while the Iraq War commander of that moment, General George Casey, gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a copy during a visit to Baghdad.

David Petraeus and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, co-authors in 2006 of FM 3-24, the first (New York Times-reviewed) military field manual for counterinsurgency since Vietnam, must also be considered among the pantheon of hearts-and-minders.  Nagl wrote a foreword for their manual, while Krepinevich provided a glowing back-cover endorsement.

Such revisionist interpretations would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps. 

Reading All the Wrong Books 

In 2009, when former West Point history professor Colonel Gregory Daddis was deployed to Iraq as the command historian for the Multinational Corps — the military’s primary tactical headquarters — he noted that corps commander Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby had assigned a professional reading list to his principal subordinates.  To his disappointment, Daddis also discovered that the only Vietnam War book included was Sorley’s A Better War.  This should have surprised no one, since his argument — that American soldiers in Vietnam were denied an impending victory by civilian policymakers, a liberal media, and antiwar protestors — was still resonant among the officer corps in year six of the Iraq quagmire.  It wasn’t the military’s fault!

Officers have long distributed professional reading lists for subordinates, intellectual guideposts to the complex challenges ahead.  Indeed, there’s much to be admired in the concept, but also potential dangers in such lists as they inevitably influence the thinking of an entire generation of future leaders.  In the case of Vietnam, the perils are obvious.  The generals have been assigning and reading problematic books for years, works that were essentially meant to reinforce professional pride in the midst of a series of unsuccessful and unending wars.

Just after 9/11, for instance, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers — who spoke at my West Point graduation — included Summers’s On Strategy on his list.  A few years later, then-Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker added McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty.  The trend continues today.  Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller has kept McMaster and added Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger (he of the illegal bombing of both Laos and Cambodia and war criminal fame).  Current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley kept Kissinger and added good old Lewis Sorley.  To top it all off, Secretary of Defense Mattis has included yet another Kissinger book and, in a different list, Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam.

Just as important as which books made the lists is what’s missing from them: none of these senior commanders include newer scholarship, novels, or journalistic accounts which might raise thorny, uncomfortable questions about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable, or incorporate local voices that might highlight the limits of American influence and power. 

Serving in the Shadow of Vietnam 

Most of the generals leading the war on terror just missed service in the Vietnam War.  They graduated from various colleges or West Point in the years immediately following the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops or thereafter: Petraeus in 1974, future Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal in 1976, and present National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in 1984.  Secretary of Defense Mattis finished ROTC and graduated from Central Washington University in 1971, while Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War, receiving his commission in 1976.

In other words, the generation of officers now overseeing the still-spreading war on terror entered military service at the end of or after the tragic war in Southeast Asia.  That meant they narrowly escaped combat duty in the bloodiest American conflict since World War II and so the professional credibility that went with it.  They were mentored and taught by academy tactical officers, ROTC instructors, and commanders who had cut their teeth on that conflict.  Vietnam literally dominated the discourse of their era — and it’s never ended.

Petraeus, Mattis, McMaster, and the others entered service when military prestige had reached a nadir or was just rebounding.  And those reading lists taught the young officers where to lay the blame for that — on civilians in Washington (or in the nation’s streets) or on a military high command too weak to assert its authority effectively. They would serve in Vietnam’s shadow, the shadow of defeat, and the conclusions they would draw from it would only lead to twenty-first-century disasters.   

From Vietnam to the War on Terror to Generational War

All of this misremembering, all of those Vietnam “lessons” inform the U.S. military’s ongoing “surges” and “advise-and-assist” approaches to its wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Representatives of both Vietnam revisionist schools now guide the development of the Trump administration’s version of global strategy. President Trump’s in-house Clausewitzians clamor for — and receive — ever more delegated authority to do their damnedest and what retired General (and Vietnam vet) Edward Meyer called for back in 1983: “a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam.” In other words, more bombs, more troops, and carte blanche to escalate such conflicts to their hearts’ content.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s hearts-and-minds faction consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to approximately 70% of the world’s nations.  Furthermore, they’ve recently fought for and been granted a new “mini-surge” in Afghanistan intended to — in disturbingly Vietnam-esque language — “break the deadlock,” “reverse the decline,” and “end the stalemate” there.  Never mind that neither 100,000 U.S. troops (when I was there in 2011) nor 16 full years of combat could, in the term of the trade, “stabilize” Afghanistan.  The can-do, revisionist believers atop the national security state have convinced Trump that — despite his original instincts — 4,000 or 5,000 (or 6,000 or 7,000) more troops (and yet more drones, planes, and other equipment) will do the trick.  This represents tragedy bordering on farce. 

The hearts and minders and Clausewitzians atop the military establishment since 9/11 are never likely to stop citing their versions of the Vietnam War as the key to victory today; that is, they will never stop focusing on a war that was always unwinnable and never worth fighting.  None of today’s acclaimed military personalities seems willing to consider that Washington couldn’t have won in Vietnam because, as former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak (who flew 269 combat missions over that country) noted in the recent Ken Burns documentary series, “we were fighting on the wrong side.”

Today’s leaders don’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end.  In an interview last June, Petraeus — still considered a sagacious guru of the Defense establishment — disturbingly described the Afghan conflict as “generational.”  Eerily enough, to cite a Vietnam-era precedent, General Creighton Abrams predicted something similar. speaking to the White House as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down.  Even as President Richard Nixon slowly withdrew U.S. forces, handing over their duties to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) — a process known then as “Vietnamization” — the general warned that, despite ARVN improvements, continued U.S. support “would be required indefinitely to maintain an effective force.”  Vietnam, too, had its “generational” side (until, of course, it didn’t). 

That war and its ill-fated lessons will undoubtedly continue to influence U.S. commanders until a new set of myths, explaining away a new set of failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, take over, possibly thanks to books by veterans of these conflicts about how Washington could have won the war on terror.  

It’s not that our generals don’t read. They do. They just doggedly continue to read the wrong books.

In 1986, General Petraeus ended his influential Parameters article with a quote from historian George Herring: “Each historical situation is unique and the use of analogy is at best misleading, at worst, dangerous.”  When it comes to Vietnam and a cohort of officers shaped in its shadow (and even now convinced it could have been won), “dangerous” hardly describes the results. They’ve helped bring us generational war and, for today’s young soldiers, ceaseless tragedy.

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      1. sierra7

        I know there is a book with the name; “The Arrogance of Power”, but it is apt when applied to US attempt to obliterate the nation of Vietnam. We continue to spread this filthy type of “war” around the globe only because we have not really met our “match” but, we will….oh yes, we will. Every book that has been written about either the war itself or the tactics used to try to “win” has contributed to more understanding of that brutal war. The military must relearn the rule of war that war itself alone cannot win, it takes the political side also. It has been infernally “easy” since 9/11 for the politicians, the military industrial complex to construct a world of “terror” and most Americans believe in that world. It has been immensely profitable. No compulsory military service; a bunch of “little” wars around the globe being run by private enterprises; no excess war profits taxes; a Pentagon budget that includes the propagandizing of the American sports public….and on and on and on. What’s not to like for the profit mongers and the ideologically bent?? Ho Chi Min and the people of Vietnam were outright betrayed by WW1 (just like the Arabs) treaties; by the US in it’s treatment of Vietnam in the treaties of WW2 (Roosevelt died but he already had an understanding with the French (DeGaulle)) to not interfere with their retaking over of Vietnam after WW2 so as to get French cooperation with the birth of NATO.
        May I add another book: “Ho Chi Min” “A Life” William J. Duiker. Pub. 2000.

        1. Procopius

          Minor quibble: I believe you are mistaken that Roosevelt “had an understanding” with DeGaulle. In all his recorded statements on the subject, he was adamant that he would never allow the French to return to Indo-China. Unfortunately, Truman (probably) didn’t know about that and Dean Acheson and the permanent bureaucrats in the State Department were all colonialists at heart. George C. Marshall initially refused to provide ships to transport French soldiers to Indo-China but was outmaneuvered by the State Department. Of course, I could be mistaken.

  1. The Rev Kev

    Well if they are looking for good books on ‘Nam, might I suggest some of the books from my own collection?
    “Long Time Passing” – Myra MacPherson
    “About Face” – David H. Hackworth
    “Nam” – Mark Baker
    “Dispatches” – Michael Herr
    “One Soldier”- John H. Shook
    “The Only War We Had” – Michael Lee Lanning
    “To Heal a Nation” – Jan C. Scruggs

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’d add ‘Kill anything that moves’ by Nick Turse

      Also, the novel (based on the authors experience as an NVA soldier), ‘The Sorrows of War’ by Bao Ninh. It shows many NVA soldiers were as cynical of their political masters as the average US grunt.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Oh, I’d forgotten ‘The Quiet American’, incredible book – I kept having to check the inside page when I read it to confirm that it was in fact written before the Vietnam War – its prescience was amazing. It should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in foreign policy of any type.

        1. paul

          Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” and Chesterton’s “The man who was Thursday” fit in with this category too.
          Not much new under the sun.

        2. Objective Function

          George Martin Windrow’s “The Last Valley” (1996) displaces Bernard Fall as the definitive work on Dien Bien Phu, prelude to America’s debacle. I work a lot in Vietnam, and his description of how their society organizes and moblilizes is spot on. He also has blood curdling descriptions of what artillery does to human bodies. And there is the entertaining interlude where the US briefly entertained atomic bombing to break the siege.

      2. Fred1

        From Bernard Fall’s Newport lecture at the Naval War College in about 1964:

        “Let me state this definition: RW = G + P, or, “revolutionary warfare equals guerrilla warfare plus political action.” This formula for revolutionary warfare is the result of the application of guerrilla methods to the furtherance of an ideology or a political system. This is the real difference between partisan warfare, guerrilla warfare, and everything else. “Guerrilla” simply means “small war,” to which the correct Army answer is (and that applies to all Western armies) that everybody knows how to fight small wars; no second lieutenant of the infantry ever learns anything else but how to fight small wars. Political action, however, is the difference. The communists, or shall we say, any sound revolutionary warfare operator (the French underground, the Norwegian underground, or any other European anti-Nazi underground) most of the time used small-war tactics–not to destroy the German Army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But above all they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.”

    2. Adam Eran

      Also worth a look: War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race, which essentially discloses that the U.S. war effort, as understood by the Vietnamese themselves, was to keep the French colonial oligarchy in place.

      Race learned Vietnamese on the boat over to Vietnam and interviewed the Vietnamese themselves to find out why they continued to fight. Basically, the oligarchy promised only continued oppression by the rentiers.

    3. Anon

      I didn’t need to read books about Vietnam. I simply listened to the stories and night-time screams of my new roommates returning to school on the GI Bill in ’68 and ’69. The lives ruined, on both sides, stays with me today.

      One of those room-mates was on Hamburger Hill in May of ’69 and was attempting college in the Fall. PTSD was apparent and he soon enough dropped out (of life).

    1. Procopius

      I sometimes met guys in the bars in Bangkok who claimed they were in the Phoenix Program. It astonished me that the CIA boasted of killing 50,000 civilians. I think they now have walked that back to only 35,000. Funny, I met lots of Green Berets and SEALS and LRRPs but I never seemed to meet any guys like me (personnel sergeant) or my friend (avionics repairman). I know there were lots of truck drivers and telephone linemen and clerks and cooks, but I never met one in the bars.

  2. JBird

    The sad part is we Americans do everything we keep to keep snatching defeat from victory’s teeth. The Vietnamese as a whole were happy with us before our government (read CIA) sabotaged the elections, and handed power over to the Catholic minority and its most corrupt part at that. (When you have to pay/bribe someone for artillery support during a battle…) Ho Chi Min and company did not ally themselves to their worst enemy, the Chinese, because they wanted too.

    Same with Iraq. It was probably unwindable, but scrapping detailed State Department plans on what when, and if, Iraq was occupied because you don’t want to spend the money, defend only the oil ministry’s offices, let the entire country just collapse, and then fire not only anyone a member of the Ba’ath Party as well as the entire Iraqi Army. Of course, if wanted to be a teacher or have a job in the government, you had to be a Ba’athist, and to secure any of the weapons and ammunition of the army is something. I am not what that something is, but it’s really something. And then the Bush Administration basically says it’s going to invade Iran once everything settles, which gave the Iranians incentive to keep arming anyone in Iraq fighting the Americans and British.

    I am raaaanting now and I can feel my blood rising so I am gonna stop now. It’s just so hard seeing our government’s foreign policy and its intelligence services being run by well educated morons.

    1. vlade

      Can’t comment on Iraq, but Vietnam was a MAJOR F-up by USA. Ho Chi Min was actually very much pro-USA – until they handed them back to French after WW2.

      With even a bit of US support Vietnam could have been fairly firmly pro-US (it always was anti-China, so the “it will go to Chinese like Koreans did” fears were fearmongering/PR at worst and lack of understanding at best), aiming to build a sort of social-democratic regime rather than full-on Communist one. Yes, it would have upset the French. What’s not to like, given how deGaule was trying to screw everyone around to push their national interests? (much better than British at the time, one should say).

      1. voteforno6

        The Cold War was spinning up in Europe, and the U.S. was trying to get France on its side. The price for that was allowing France to attempt to reassert itself in Indochina.

        1. vlade

          I know the usual excuse – but there was about zero chance that France would really go into bed with USSR.

          deGaule definitely threatened it, but I very much doubt he would go the full hog – if nothing else, he didn’t want to be anyone’s, and that included USSR’s, puppet. At the very very worst, they might end up Yugoslavia-like, although I’d say that once proto-EU was cooked up, France would jump there pretty quick, as otherwise it would have lost pretty much all influence in Europe.

          1. Procopius

            You’re right, of course, but the European desks in the State Department seized on that threat, at least partly because they wanted to reestablish the French Empire. At least their colonies in Asia and North Africa. Extremely racist, and they weren’t allowed to indulge their innate anti-semitism for a while. There was a lot of attitude that “little brown brother” needed “guidance.”

      2. PlutoniumKun

        Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were all, arguably, ‘winnable’ – the common thread in all three is the US failure to understand local political dynamics. With Vietnam, it was the failure to understand that what was happening was primarily a civil war with the ‘Communists’ not necessarily being anti-American – they saw (and still see) China as their long historical enemy. In Iraq the dismembering of the existing Ba’ath party structures without having anything (apart from the free market of course) to replace it proved fatal, along with an ignorance of Shia/Sunni dynamics. In Afghanistan the ‘victory’ was blown by an insistence on chasing phantom Al-Q enemies when the Taliban was more or less destroyed.

        When you read the history of long lived empires, from Rome to the British Empire, a common characteristic they all have is an acute awareness of how to manipulate local dynamics in order to maintain control without expending too much manpower. The US military seems to completely lack this capacity. In fact, rather than being in charge, a common feature seems to be that US military power is all too easily manipulated by local powerbrokers for their own ends.

        1. vlade

          Yep, I’ll sign under that. I do wonder how much it has to do with the American psyche, and how much with the fact that even British or Roman empires had sort of hard limitations (not just in terms of manpower, but more importantly in the ability to get the manpower to the sharp end pronto).

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I think an element of it is quite simply the sheer wealth and power of America means it doesn’t have to think through the consequences of interventions too much. Even in the heyday of the European empires, military adventures were very expensive operations – two or three failures in a row could fatally set an empire back.

            I think another major issue is the lack of skin in the game for decision makers. I think the early days of WWII was the last time there was a major cull of military officers for incompetence in the US. And even in WWII, it was rare for officers to get killed. Even more so since then, and with the ending of the draft, it means no risks for their sons or daughters, and minimal ones for anyone they would be likely to know.

            There is simply little or no price paid for failure. At least not by the people responsible.

        2. JTMcPhee

          “All, arguably, winnable.” For what definition of “WIN?”

          Our military rulers are supposed to “study war.” The curriculum supposedly includes not only Clausewitz, Mr. “Center of Gravity,” on “modern” war, but also that hoary old classic under the nom de plume “Sun Tzu,” called “The Art of War.” Said rulers, for some reason, skip over the first part of Sun Tzu’s advice, the part about asking whether going to war is wise at all, at all:

          I. Laying Plans

          1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

          2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

          3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

          4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

          5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

          7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

          8. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

          9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

          10. By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

          11. These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

          12. Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:–

          13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

          14. By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.

          15. The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:–let such a one be dismissed!

          There’s a lot more in “The Art of War” about the idiocy of doofus war-fighting in absence of the Moral Law and true national interest at the end of immense logistics and supply chains, war that bankrupts the peasants, getting stuck in quagmires and such. The current rulers just jump (if they pay any attention at all to the work any more) straight to all the chestnuts (“All war is deception,” duh, “Attack where he is weak, retreat where he is strong,” duh) about how to conduct strategy and tactics.

          When was the last time any of these fundamental “Think before shooting” considerations Sun Tzu distilled from millennia of earlier wars and his own experiences was given ANY attention by the rotter nihilists (“Mutual Assured Destruction, Massive Retaliation, “counterinsurgency always and everywhere, the F-35 model of logistics?) who commit “the nation” and the peasants to their programs and “operations”? And even the attempts to “get the peasants on side” via Bernays saucing, one of the necessary conditions per Sun Tzu, have been completely bollixed, or simply plowed over.

          All this sh!t-storm activity is conducted from within the same kind of bubble that got inflated around the French High Command in the run up to the Great War, and seems to regularly envelop “high commands” which are maybe experiencing a “contact high” from breathing, inside that bubble, the heady fumes of their self-generated hallucinogenic “designer drugs.”

          Many of our cities and towns already look a lot like Fallujah and Raqqa after “liberation-by-destruction.” Waiting for a massive collapse, maybe slow-mo or maybe tipping-point quick, with huge collateral damage, in three, two, one…

          1. a different chris

            The problem is, many will argue that the parts of Sun Tzu you so correctly pointed out aren’t really the US military’s job, they are the responsibility of the US Congress.

            And, well, you know.

            1. JTMcPhee

              But something other than “Congress” is what’s loosing the dogs of war. There’s how it’s supposed to work, on paper, per that “quaint document,” and how it actually works. Like so much of “the Republic.” Which ain’t.

        3. animalogic

          “When you read the history of long lived empires, from Rome to the British Empire, a common characteristic they all have is an acute awareness of how to manipulate local dynamics in order to maintain control without expending too much manpower.”
          + 100

        4. Procopius

          Believe me, Vietnam was not “winnable.” We had no vital interest there, and the Vietnamese had the vital interest of reuniting their people and freeing their country from the invaders. Besides, they live there. We were always going to return home.

  3. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    It won’t surprise readers that Petraeus’ “masterpiece” on counterinsurgency bears a strong similarity to a publication by the late Sir Frank Kitson. Sir Frank commanded British forces in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and UK Land Forces soon after. He also served in colonial insurgencies in the 1950s. Kitson gave a talk, based on his publication, on such matters to his alma mater, which I attended, in the mid-1980s. He was also the speaker at “speech day” around then.

    1. paul

      The shankhill butchers seemed a fairly obvious example phoenix/kitson’s counter-gang enthusiasms to me.

      On 27 April 2015 Kitson and the Ministry of Defence were served with papers for negligence and misfeasance in office by Mary Heenan, widow of Eugene “Paddy” Heenan who was killed in 1973 by members of the Ulster Defence Association, because of “the use of loyalist paramilitary gangs to contain the republican-nationalist threat through terror, manipulation of the rule of law, infiltration and subversion all core to the Kitson military of doctrine endorsed by the British army and the British government at the time.”

    2. PlutoniumKun

      When the Iraq and Afghanistan War started, the British military were full of confidence that their experience in counterinsurgency would allow them to show the US how it was done. They had to be rescued in somewhat ignominious manner from both Basra and Kandahar as they were shown to be completely out of their depth. It is part of British Army mythology that they defeated the IRA using sound and sensible COIN, but the reality is much more complicated.

      Incidentally, it is said that Mao (and possibly Ho Chi Minh too) were avid readers of the biographies of early 20th Century IRA leaders, including Michael Collins and Tom Barry, both experts in counter-counter insurgency. Tom Barry was the leader of the most effective unit, the West Cork Brigade. Collins was a master in using intelligence against intelligence services, while Tom Barry was capable of using limited resources to keep an enormous number of soldiers tied up. Both knew the skills of provoking the State into over-reactions which pushed civilians over onto the rebels side.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Yes – despite its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement the British Government is still sitting on files which would likely shed light on the dirty war in Northern Ireland. Its pretty clear that both the main loyalist groups were to a large extent run by the intelligence services to kill suspected IRA members, and were very likely involved in bombings that resulted in mass casualties in Dublin and Monaghan. While they did undoubtedly manage to neutralise some IRA Units in reality they stoked up as much violence as they stopped.

          1. Colonel Smithers

            Thank you, PK and Paul.

            In advance of a Corbyn government, many papers, some going back to the smearing of Labour in the 1920s, have been “lost”. The cache lost include the papers on the “sexed up dodgy dossier”, written by the UK’s current envoy to the UN (Matthew Ryecroft) and sexed up by the loathsome Alistair Campbell, and the death of the weapons inspector. The form of death officially recorded, as with George Michael’s, is disputed by many pathologists, including former colleagues of my father.

            1. icancho

              Indeed. Document “disappearance” is a serious problem, with a long history, addressed pretty well in Ian Cobain’s recent title The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation.

    3. visitor

      Whatever approach Petraeus & Co proposed, “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency was basically a century old. Here:

      Chaque fois que les incidents de guerre obligent l’un de nos officiers à agir contre un village […], il ne doit pas perdre de vue que son premier soin, la soumission des habitants obtenue, sera de reconstruire le village, d’y créer un marché, d’y établir une école. C’est de l’action de la politique et de la force que doit résulter la pacification du pays et l’organisation à lui donner plus tard.

      I.e. Every time one of our officers is forced to act against a village because of war incidents, he must not lose sight of his first concern, which, after the submission of the inhabitants, is to rebuild the village, to create a market, to establish a school. It is the joint action of policy and force that must result in the pacification of the country and in its later organization.

      From the “fundamental instructions” of General Gallieni from 22nd May 1898, in the midst of the “pacification” of Madagascar. Its estimated death toll was about 100000.

  4. voteforno6

    These generals remind me of the character of Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) in The Bridge on the River Kwai. They’re so focused on the task in front of them, they can’t seem to step back and think about the wider picture.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      In the Netflix film The Siege of Jadotville, the real life Commandant Pat Quinlan is quoted as saying ‘Soldiers do tactics, politicians do strategy’. The US miliitary always seems to have a surfeit of tactics with no discernable strategy.

    2. JTMcPhee

      And of course Nicholson, at the end of the film, was going to stop the demolition of that so painfully built bridge by the “inglorious bastards” on his nominal own team. Only dumb luck and the timing of a bullet from a “Jap” led to his falling on the detonator as he died, and blowing up the span….

    3. flora

      re: wider picture.
      The wider picture is the political picture. The military in the US is supposed to be and remain non-political. The politicians send the military to wars. The military does not choose what war, where, why to fight. Those decisions are Congress and the prez’s job.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Yaas, the military is “supposed to remain nonpolitical.” And the moon is made of green cheese.

        Generals and “military aides” and related contractors don’t stalk the halls of Congress or now direct the President from inside the Oval Office in the driving of “policy” and initiation and conduct of “war, whatever that is.” And there are a whole lot of “operations” that are initiated by the military, on the initiative of generals and other “warfighters,” that only have “political cover” in the sense that the supposedly democratic institutions have either churned out some dreck like the AUMF as part of their abdication of civilian control of the military (sic), or are running a tab for the drunken officer corps and procurement apparatus, also a nominal abdication of their supposed functions and duties. “The US is now involved in 134 wars,”

        Your Congress, like the rest of us, can’t even come up with an agreed definition of “war,” a huge lacunae that is extended and framed by the absence of a definition of the word in the US military’s own “Dictionary.” Which also lacks definitions of “victory” or “success,” And a lot of other terms that one might expect to see defined carefully, alongside all the other precise and idiotic definitions in that tome that costs a billion or so a year to maintain, and update to fit the “narratives” and strategic thinking (sic) and procurement games that earmark “our” military activities.

        Check the 2007 definition of insurgent, and insurgency, in this edition of JP-1.02:

        insurgency — (*) An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.
        insurgent — Member of a political party who rebels against established leadership. See also antiterrorism;counterinsurgency;insurgency. (JP3-07.2),

        Compare that with this 2016 version of the dictionary, which omits ANY definition of “insurgent” at all:

        insurgency — The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region. Insurgency can also refer to the group itself. (JP 3-24) that omits a definition of insurgent at all (considering “we” are training, funding and arming a whole bunch of them as part of “counterinsurgency” and “regime change”)

        I guess the Imperial military, if one parses these definitions, is one he77 of an “insurgency,” eh?

        “War,” that vasty thingie, is Milo Minderbinder running a huge and ever-growing Syndicate “in which everyone has a share,” using US B-25s and crews to bomb and strafe the US base on which said bombers and crews are based, under a “cost plus 15%”contract with the Germans… Or the Krupps using US dollars provided by Uncle Sucker to build U-boats for questionably friendly states… Speaking of globalization, and the “world military-industrial complex:”

        We mopes need to recognize that the Overton Window of permissible imperial actions has been not just slid off to one side, but blown away in a rush of falling JDAMs, Hellfires, “special black ops,” unauditable “programs and expenditures,” and and black- or “internally” funded paramilitary “patriot games” by the CIA and related unguided missiles…

  5. RickM

    A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan and, of course, The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.

  6. shinola

    Thank you Yves for posting this article. It is rather disheartening but explains a lot of what I have been wondering about for years – Didn’t we learn anything from Vietnam?
    Obviously the answer is no; but even worse is the attitude of “we could/should have won” displayed by the current military brass.

    I remarked to wifey the other day that kids who were only a year old on 9/11 will be old enough to join the military this year…

  7. Steely Glint

    I first heard of Ghost Riders of Baghdad by following various military Twitter accounts, like Angry Staff Officer, or the account of Robert Bateman ( who sometimes writes for Esquire). Angry Staff officer also has a blog with very informative posts. I thought of, Is The Amy’s Professional Military Education Broken?, after reading the above post. A sample, ” All military education must stem from the fundamental that war is a human endeavor, and as such cannot be prosecuted without understanding basic factors of humanity”.

  8. The Rev Kev

    It is never mentioned here but how about the possibility that some wars simply cannot be won – ever. It is not for nothing that Afghanistan is know as the place that empires go to die nor that a geopolitical axiom is to never fight a land war in Asia. There was no possible time-line where the US won in Vietnam using either military means or COIN operations. The terrible truth is that most of those 58,00 Americans died long after it was know that they could never win.
    The COINdinistas had their chance in Iraq but younger offices at the time were furious with senior officers in how out of touch they were with what was going on so it was a repeat of the Vietnam experience all over again, including the notorious body-counts. And this whole we-would-have-won-if-not-for-the-politicians-and-hippies is as much crap as the post WW1 German officers with their we-were-stabbed-in-the-back obsession. I see this even here in Australia. Years ago I saw an Army show that featured the history of the Army. When they got to the Vietnam war era they had Aussie soldiers naming the dead bodies in a mock-up of the Battle of Long Tan while of the other side of the arena they had hippies shouting peace slogans and the like. The message was clear – you betrayed us!
    And that “you never beat us on the battlefield” was apparently not true either according to an article I read last year setting out a few hard truths. The truth is that the training of American officers is badly broken and that sycophants do very well in it. The whole system needs to be junked as America is not bringing out the best officers that it can – not by a long shot – and it was this system that produced leaders like Petraeus. They may have been presented as the Great White Hope once but I invite other commentators find out how his superior, Admiral William Fallon, regarded him. Nothing less than a root and branch overhaul of the American officer training regime will counter how we see wars being fought now. Otherwise we will continue to see more of the same.

    1. a different chris

      >And that “you never beat us on the battlefield” was apparently not true either

      Colonel Tu was being a pretty gracious winner with his “that may be so” response, wasn’t he?

    2. animalogic

      Its worse than that: the US military is the cutting edge of a political Imperialist policy completely contradicted by the
      21st C environment. This is failure at the DNA level.

  9. Matthew G. Saroff

    Two things that need to be understand about the Vietnam war that the US military does not get.
    The first is that the US did not lose the Vietnam war, we were beaten by the Vietnamese.
    If we just “lost” the war, then all the “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” crap where the only to lose is through a failure of will, (protesters and namby-pamby members of Congress) becomes the dominant explanation.
    We were beaten, and so we need to know why our military was beaten, and what the military/Pentagon did wrong.
    The second thing is the idea that the Vietnamese won no battles in the war is patently false.
    There are at least 70 battles that were lost.
    The reason that the Pentagon insists on ignoring both of these is because the “stab in the back from protesters” means that there is no accountability for the failures of our military.
    So, like the Bourbon kings, our military has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

  10. Ian Perkins

    The article states “Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq…”
    In fact, the next Vietnam-like quagmire was engineered much sooner than that, and is still running.
    From an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, US National Security Adviser at the time:
    “… it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention … The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.’ ”

    This is him in Pakistan in 1979 egging on the Mujahaddin who would morph into the Taliban and al Qaeda:

  11. Objective Function

    Popular insurgencies can be beaten. There are many examples, especially in Latin America. The common enabling condition appears to be exhaustion of the peasantry over a period of years, after which they choose ‘peace and order’ enforced by thugs with badges over the guerrillas who cannot restore economic life, even in ‘liberated zones’.
    Pastoral mountain tribesmen are probably the least susceptible to this exhaustion and subjugation can take generations: witness the Scots.

    1. hemeantwell

      I think you’re getting at something that the win/lose focus misses: whether or not the US ultimately failed to maintain a client regime in Vietnam, it brutally demonstrated the costs of resistance.

      In Yves’ intro she writes

      but decided to stay at war because they deemed the damage to US prestige of winding down the war to be too great.

      US prestige = certainty of monumental costs to resistance. Prestige is honorspeak for legitimate terrorism.

    2. Self Affine

      I think you are missing the point of all of this and in fact trivializing the war.

      Vietnam was not a popular insurgency (whatever that means). It was an all out war to rid that nation of colonial domination and unify the country. It was not the “Viet Namese war” for these people, but the war against America.

      “Popular insurgency” is the Orwellian term used by those in power. A good example is the American war of independence. From the British Empire’s point of view, it was a “popular insurgency”.

      It would be instructive if you could define “popular insurgency” more clearly and provide some context.

    3. Altandmain

      The issue is that they can only be done by governments in their own nations or the nations that they are very close by.

      Even then, the success record is mixed and it requires a willingness to be totally ruthless. Otherwise the subjugated people eventually will be able to win some form of independence, like the Irish.

      The US is different. It is dealing with self inflicted and totally pointless wars in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan.

    4. Lord Koos

      The insurgencies in Latin America can hardly be compared to Vietnam, as they were for the most part beaten by CIA dirty work rather than crushed by a full-on military operation.

  12. jfleni

    The long, sad record is so awful, maybe we just turn over the whole military to the Civil Air patrol and the Coast Guard! They could not possibly do worse, and might be much better!

    1. JTMcPhee

      In no time flat, either of those organizations (already peopled by nascent Petraeuses and Mattises) would revert to the mean that we already know too well. Nice thought, though. The Coast Guard’s multi-missions mission: Unlike all the other “branches” of the MIC hydra, the CG suffers from cost cutting and neoliberalism. “More and more work, for fewer and fewer people, for less and less money, under tighter and tighter constraints, with every more detailed metrics…” and their recent acquisitions of new cutters are kind of F-35/littoral-combat-ships-ish… “Billions Later, Plan to Remake the Coast Guard Fleet Stumbles,”

  13. Colonel Smithers

    One thing that is rarely, if ever, mentioned is the type of person who joins the officer corps. The school I attended has produced (British) generals and admirals (only, not the ranks). Many, if not most, of the pupils who joined, or were encouraged to join, and only as officers were considered dunces. Goodness knows what the soldiers and sailors, especially NCOs, thought of the “young ruperts”.

    One contemporary, now a well regarded and well known painter (deservedly so), stayed in the same class / year for three years. He was encouraged into the Welsh Guards and served a few years. His elder brother joined the same regiment and is a general. Ian Duncan Smith, formerly of the Scots Guards, is similar.

  14. Norb

    Two good books that give a historical perspective of American involvement in the Pacific and Asia are James Bradley’s,The Imperial Cruise, and The China Mirage- The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia. Both books are written in a narrative style that is very approachable and entertaining. Bradley tells a great story. They describe some long standing American policy that go unreported and bring new understanding to todays events.

    These titles led me to Barbara Tuchman’s, Stilwell and the American Experience in China- 1911-45. I haven’t read this one yet, but Stilwell seems an interesting American character. Someone on the ground, seeing reality for what it is, and ignored by the upper brass. Another typical American story- a tragedy.

    One of the criticisms of American foreign policy made by the British has always been the lack of political foresight and strategic thinking. I came across these criticisms in the context of WWII policy, but at their core, I think they say much about the character of American leadership. American founding principles and the needs of Empire are contradictory to the citizenry. America has become an Empire by luck and default. Luck in the unmatched bounty the North American continent has bestowed on the Nation and Europeans wearing themselves out. This point is driven home by the fact that American standing in the world is falling like a rock in many metrics.

    I believe this explains why Americans still are reluctant to view themselves as being an Empire. Too many tricky contradictions when dealing with their own citizens and reason for being. It is what lies behind the lie of spreading “Democracy” to the world. The British Empire faced no such dilemma. At least they brought law, order, and culture to those they conquered. American Empire spreads chaos. Resisting cultures are treated to the political ideology of annihilation. American policy is, “bombing them into the stone age.”

    Another great read is Halford Mackinder, The Geographical Pivot of History. In a way, his thesis ties up all the loose ends of the Great Game being played by our political and social betters. The Anglo-Saxon mode of rule has been to carve up the world. Asian cultures are much older and as humanity moves forward in time, people are truly tiring of war. A united Eurasian Continent would be a supreme power to set living standards and future goals. True power is moving East.

    What has the West to offer, but more blood and bombs. The embrace of cultural diversity moves away from war and embodies political power in the melding of culture not its extermination. I think that was the policy of Alexander the Great.

    The great fear of American political leaders is being labeled provincials. Failed world leadership lends credence to this charge. We are not ready to lead, and it shows by the mediocracy of our leaders. An Empire that kills itself has to be a first. Is it any wonder that the leadership now embrace the kill anything that moves mentality. It is all they have in the form of power projection and vision.

    All this to get to the point that maybe a multipolar world is not such a bad thing. Trying something new when everything else seems to fail.

    1. a different chris

      Eh I’m no fan of the West but I wouldn’t paint the East in very pretty colors either, for sure. Humanity has a tendency to suck. Look close to home to make things better I would say.

      You want a multipolar world, me too but what’s with this “supreme” “United Eurasian Continent”??? I want to have to at least take my shoes off to count the world’s power centers.

  15. Enrico Malatesta

    We have all forgotten the “Forgotten War”. In another Asian byproduct of WWII, Curtis LeMay channeled Clausewitz to the max as we flattened North Korea. How did that work out? Does it have any ramifications for the USA in 2018?

  16. JTMcPhee

    Books to “explain” Vietnam and sequelae: Why no mention of a really seminal tome, “The Ugly American”? Dated 1958. I read it, avidly, several times over, as a young, testosterone-poisoned American Boy Scout Youth, and its mythos helped in getting me to enlist in the Imperial Army in 1966. From Wiki:

    The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. The Ugly American depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas [sic]. The book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles. John F. Kennedy was so impressed with the book that he sent a copy to each of his colleagues in the United States Senate. The book was one of the biggest bestsellers in the country, has been in print continuously since it appeared and is one of the most politically influential novels in all of American literature.

    The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American and was sometimes confused with it.

    The “Ugly American” of the book title refers to the book’s hero, plain-looking engineer Homer Atkins, whose “calloused and grease-blackened hands always reminded him that he was an ugly man.” Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump.[2]

    Another of the hero’s engineering triumph was getting the women of “Dong Ba” (?) to unbend their backs by changing to a New, Improved, longer model of the bamboo brooms they used to sweep the dirt floors of their huts. A relatively innocuous form of Coca-Colonialism… But the part that I got all hepped up about was the engineer’s innovation, borrowing from the Soviet “multiple launch rocket systems” known as “Katyushas,”, of fitting a truck with a several dozen rocket-launching rails, which he used to fire a volley of “spin-stabilized folding-fin air-to-ground rockets (SSFFARs)” into a bamboo grove where Evil Insurgents were having a meeting of their cabal — “in the glare, you could see body parts spinning up into the night sky…” Heady Stuff for young mopes.

    Apparently the myth of “The Ugly (But Big-Hearted, Local-Language-Speaking) American settled nicely into the mind and mindset of Saint Kennedy, too…

      1. JTMcPhee

        Tradition is durable. I recall Haitians, like some African forebears, preferred to cook with charcoal, which one gets by burning wood in a low oxygen furnace before burning it in your clay stove. Vastly wasteful. Now a good part of local effort goes into long walks to find bits of shrubbery to reduce to charcoal. And they denuded the whole country of trees and woody shrubs. Efforts made to change the custom met resistance —“good enough for grandemere, good enough” Like trying to get Americans to stop smoking, or worse, to drive smaller cars let alone kick the deadly automobile habit that has so many knock-on deleterious effects on people and planet.

        1. Anon

          The degradation of the Haitian portion of Santo Dimingo was as much a result of the soil erosion caused by that mono-crop, sugar cane. The French merchants were making “boo koo” bucks deploying as many slaves as possible to harvest this cash crop. (Too many slaves on too little land.)

          The other half of Santo Domingo Island is the Dominican Republic and it has little of the resource devastation apparent in Haiti.

  17. John

    I see VietNam as the perfect example of successful neo liberal economic policies. Military Keynesianism, the workings of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and corporate profiteering are more pertinent than Clausewitz or Coin. As with the thoroughly neo liberal DNC, it’s never been about winning or losing. It’s just about the next consulting or munitions contract. Forever war means forever contract. The Mt. Pelerin society didn’t start in 1947 for nothing. Keep them talking about winning and losing while the money flows in. Tough about the GI Joe collateral damage.

    1. Scott1

      I am more with your take John.

      Today’s War Poem I Wrote
      Loving Generals

      The destined warriors are misused. International Law has no problem with wars of defense. I have a right to defend myself. The State has a monopoly on the use of force.

      Sports aren’t enough for the action figures.

      Couldn’t beat the Vietnamese so beating the Beats
      at home, in the homeland develops into for profit prisons
      & the recreation of the Gulag. American Gulags
      & how much of that labor for pennies is done for Koch Industries?

      I could found an entire nation on a love & war movie. South Koreans have made the theaters called 4D. Shakes you around and blows wind and smells on you.

      Spies fail in concert with their employers, the diplomats.
      Haley is at the UN taking names.

      Economic Warfare is universal. I mean there has been all my life
      War against me. I went to Canada, so I am the enemy & the Wall is to keep me here where I can be found & made to pay.

      One term President Carter pardoned dodgers.
      Wear sweaters.
      On goes the petrodollar war. 100 Year Oil War.

      Law of unintended consequences.
      No care.
      10,000 a year die from just small arms, in Mexico, not even artillery.

      US Police kill 2,000 or is it 3? or is it 4? A year.

      Now it is striking that Scandinavia, the Netherlands?
      Nations other places & until France so few do big
      murders of their countrymen or even within the EU.
      They have lived where war means everything is
      bombed or destroyed by cannons.

      Germany won economically in capitalism matured
      Because debts were to NAZIs enabling a great write off
      of debt, not happening and inflated by Hedge Funds
      for anybody else till Greece is enslaved & Puerto Rico
      & whose next?

      Doesn’t matter, the US Military & its Bankers
      & its police have been & will be at war with or
      just at all Territories.
      Unitary Power but as Gov. of Govs, can’t be
      Why? Why Not?
      War is not a war against spaceship aliens
      So war is to destroy the Earth.
      Kill anyone because you are destined
      to kill.
      Great Generals Have a Zest for Killing the Enemy.
      Read “Our Jungle Road to Tokyo” by Robert L. Eichelberger who
      is a great and perfect General of the 8th Army
      in the Pacific.
      Long as a General & an Army has one job only
      At the behest of its Civilians.
      All will be well.
      Or at least rational, which is better.

      Obviously Econ War is war.
      Declaration of Econ War is Sanctions
      Because of illegal War.

      I insist that the ICAO demand that
      Kim Y. Un & DPRK give Notices to Airmen
      When launching their Rockets.

      My Rocket Program is called
      The “Message Rocket Program”.
      Beat, I’m Beat.

      “Army censorship concealed from
      the American public, as it very properly
      attempted to conceal from the Japanese,
      How weak we were.

      The ethical weakness of the US
      has become so profound.
      All it does is war piratical parasitical
      & everywhere all the time
      on the ground or in the mind.

      Out flow of all territory is by right
      The Unitary Power’s.
      No Territory is won or lost.

    1. flora

      adding: one the the self-serving fictions the Dem party estab tells itself is that the working class voted for Nixon and other GOP candidates because the working class is racist. That neatly sidesteps the then growing belief that Vietnam – a Dem war, LBJ’s war – was unwinnable, the Dem power establishment new it was unwinnable, and yet kept drafting working class boys to go fight and die because LBJ and others’ egos were at stake. The Dems have never dealt with that betrayal of the working class.

  18. Trey N

    The reading list is missing the books that describe the actual horrors of combat that our soldiers endured:

    Hamburger Hill – the movie does not do full justice to the total clusterfuck that battle was. I guarantee that you will weep bitter tears as you read accounts of the stupidity of commanding officers from general to lieutenant, and of the tragic waste of life of young draftees.

    We Were Soldiers Once – The first 3/4 of the movie closely follows the book — and then goes all Hollywood at the end. It had to, because what actually happened was a stinging defeat of the American troops and a template for the rest of the war. A REMF staff officer needed to “get his ticket punched” for promotion with combat command experience, so was put in charge of a battalion that took part in the latter phases of the battle. While withdrawing from the battlefield afterward, he led the unit into an NVA ambush and lost 2/3 of his men (155 KIA, 124 WIA and 4 MIA out of about 450 troopers present).

    For somewhat more sanitized versions of what the grunts endured, see the half-dozen books (extended after-action reports) by S. L. A. Marshall.

    Nothing has changed from Nam to GWOT as far as the utter stupidity of America’s military leaders, and their need for constant wars to advance their careers and feed their patrons in the MIC. One thing they *did* learn, after getting their sorry asses fragged by young draftees fed up with dying at the hands of incompetent dolts, was to ditch the draft and pay for mercenary — called “volunteer” — enlisted ranks. The wonder is, after 16 years of endless, futile deployemnts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, that the mercs aren’t murdering their idiot officers now as well…..

    1. paul

      “Go tell the spartans” did without the hollywood ending, us military assistance and Burt Lancaster ponied up the 150k USD required to finish it.
      Set in 1964, says it was clearly fucked then.
      Worth a look.

      1. Trey N

        Yeah, Go Tell the Spartans is an excellent Nam flick.

        Another is Platoon. Oliver Stone served in the 25th Infantry Division in Quang Tin Province in 1967. The last big battle of Platoon is based on an actual event in Quang Tin in 1971, when the VC overran Firebase Mary Ann and inflicted 33 KIA and 83 WIA on the 23rd Division.. Sappers in the Wire is a very good book about that fiasco.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Books by S. L. A. Marshall may have to be read with caution, even though I have never read them. The reason that I say this is a book that I recommended in this series of posts called “About Face” by David H. Hackworth. Hackworth was detailed to escort Marshall around Vietnam and he “described his initial elation at an assignment with a man he idolized, and how that elation turned to disillusion after seeing Marshall’s character and methods firsthand. Hackworth described Marshall as a “voyeur warrior,” for whom “the truth never got in the way of a good story”, and went so far as to say, “Veterans of many of the actions he ‘documented’ in his books have complained bitterly over the years of his inaccuracy or blatant bias”. The guy was always chasing a buck.

  19. Winslow P. Kelpfroth

    One significant action this piece left out was Congress’ cutting off aid to South Vietnam after the US military withdrawal in ’72 on. When the final tank-led NVA push came in Apr 75 most of the ARVN forces remained at their bases for lack of fuel and ammunition. Could the NVA Apr 75 campaign have met with similar lack of success as the ’71 and ’68 campaigns had Congress continued support for South Vietnam? Guess we’ll never know.

    1. a different chris

      Oh I think we know. We have Afghanistan and Iraq to prove how long a hyperpower can prolong stupid wars.

      BTW, so I Orbitz’d LA->HoChiMin City. 1 transfer, 800 bucks. Tell me again WTF we were fighting about?

      1. Procopius

        Tell me again WTF we were fighting about?

        Well, there was a very profitable industry called “anti-communism” at the time that had a lot of support among conservative (i.e. Southern Democratic and right-wing Republican) politicians. It was all based on lies and fraud, of course.

    2. Procopius

      Yeah, the counterfactual is always unrprovable. I confess I have always been surprised that the ARVN performed as well as they did. They put up a hell of a fight in III Corps, extreme heroism. The thing was, most of the conscripts and most of the civilian population did not want to be ruled by the puppet government installed by the colonialists (us, since we took over as the colonial masters after the French were defeated).

  20. HopeLB

    Vietnam Vets, Tom and Chuch Hagel were on c-span last night discussing Vietnam.

    Tom Hagel, at one point, calls the wars in Iraq and Afganistan stupid but I can’t find it in the transcript. However, he also said this;


  21. Synoia


    Basics (I learned this at a military University, informally, not as coursework):

    The objective of the military in war is to cause the enemy’s economy to collapse.

    This can be achieved by other means: eg Sanctions (an act of war) and Venezuela as an example.

    It would have been easier to control Vietnam in the ’60s, by becoming the largest customer for their major product, Rubber, and having American corporations, such as Coca-Cola, “colonize” the country.

    My experience of the Vietnamese, in the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, is they are Capitalists.

    The various wars the US is fighting around the world have all the appearance of draining the US economy and forcing it to collapse. Which in the world of soccer is referred to as an “own goal.”

    That is, the US’ largest enemy appears as itself.

    1914 there were a number of Empires, British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, et, and the US.
    By the 1920s there were many less.
    By the 1960s few.
    Today, one, the US.

    In California, where I live, manufactured goods used to come from the east, over the mountains. Today it appears few goods come over the mountains from the east.

    One wonders if the union will last, for how long, and if it’s ending will be bloody or peaceful.

    1. UserFriendly

      My experience of the Vietnamese, in the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, is they are Capitalists.

      That was nominally what the whole war was about.

  22. Lee Robertson

    I came back from Vietnam feeling that I had just bathed in a septic lagoon. It was a war based on a false moral premiss, and the obvious was apparent to anyone properly informed. In a war that is at its foundation a moral outrage, even if you win you lose. Added to our present situation is the fact that no one will read the Koran……READ THE KORAN…..(the Penguin Classic translation will do nicely) then come back and we’ll talk about “hearts and minds”. The halls of power are everywhere stacked with sociopaths, narcissists, and culpable morons.

  23. VietnamVet

    David Halberstam from the Best and Brightest:
    “The truth of the war never entered the upper-level American calculations; that this was a revolutionary war, and that the other side held title to the revolution because of the colonial war which had just ended. This most simple fact entered into the estimates of the American intelligence community and made them quite accurate. But it never entered into the calculations of the principals, for a variety of reasons; among other things to see the other side in terms of nationalism or as revolutionaries might mean a re-evaluation of whether the United States was even fighting on the right side. In contrast, the question of Communism and anti-Communism as opposed to revolution and anti-revolution was far more convenient for American policy.”

    The Vietnam War could never have been won by the USA. Invasion of the North at worst would have started a nuclear war (as Russia threaten) or at best a wider war with the Chinese Peoples Army which had ended in a tie a decade before in Korea.

    Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are repeats except without the draft there is inadequate manpower. The USA’s Great Game uses proxy forces that they supply and then fight; the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS. Kurds will soon be added to the list. These wars likewise cannot be won. Counter insurgency wars have been won against minorities who do not have outside support or safe havens; the American Indian Wars or Australia for example. This is fairly clear. Then why don’t the experts, West Point graduates, see it? First, it is hard to admit that it all for nothing. Second, the ruling ideology in the West; neo-liberalism, advocates the free movement of people, goods and services. The way mankind ends wars is with strong borders, home based militias and peace treaties. This is antithesis to western plutocrats. The military is doing what their bosses want them to do.

  24. Plenue

    I think the thing that always needs to put out in front of any discussion of the euphemistically named ‘Vietnam War’ is that there literally wouldn’t have been a war if not for US interference. Debates about whether we could have ‘won’ or not, or if the US should have ‘intervened’ in the first place always seem to ignore the fact that this wasn’t just some regional conflict that the US decided to interject itself into. If we had allowed the elections stipulated by the 1954 Geneva Accords to happen, rather than seeking to make the South into a permanent puppet regime, there wouldn’t have been any war. Going even further back, if we hadn’t given our support to the French to continue their colonial rule there probably wouldn’t have even been a First Indochina War, or it would have at least been far shorter.

  25. J C Bennett

    Memorable books that I was reading at the time and shortly thereafter:

    “A Viet Cong Memoir,” by Truong Nhu Tang, a massively detailed account of his own personal journey from a privileged family serving the French, to a leader of the Viet Cong war against the US invaders.

    Frances Fitzgerald’s “The Fire in the Lake” What the American invaders did not understand nor care to learn about Vietnamese society and customs, that did them in as much as anything else in that war.

    “Betrayal” by Marine Colonel William Corson;

    “Our Own Worst Enemy” by William J Lederer;

    “The Viet-Nam Reader,” edited by Marcus Raskin and Bernard Fall

    Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”

    “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia” by William Shawcross (This is an explosive, massively researched, highly detailed and horrifying account of Kissinger’s deliberate destruction of the land and the people of what until then had been the “bread basket of SE Asia” and the most contented society on earth.)

  26. Roland

    Why would anyone blame de Gaulle WRT to anything in Indochina? De Gaulle didn’t take over France until several years after their Vietnam debacle, and de Gaulle was the man who got the French out of Algeria (he nearly got assassinated for this). De Gaulle was an authoritarian French nationalist, but he was neither an imperialist nor a sabre-rattler.

  27. Chauncey Gardiner

    As the author alludes, the war in Vietnam was essentially unwinnable because it failed to meet a basic precept for success in any war: It did not have a higher purpose. Ditto Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Raises fundamental questions regarding military action as the geopolitical default option of choice, which as the title to the post suggests, is not desired by the MIC.

  28. Procopius

    I have to say, MAJ Sjursen does not seem to have a very good understanding of how we got into Vietnam, how the two Vietnams came to be, why we stayed, and what we actually did there. It was much, much worse than he seems to realize. I don’t think he’s read The Pentagon Papers. I don’t think he’s read Bernard Fall. I don’t think he’s read Michael Herr’s dispatches. I don’t think he’s read David Halberstom’s “The Best and the Brightest.” Probably I’m wrong, but he’s terribly unimpressive. That makes me doubt his view of why the military brass are making the decisions they are today. I do think venality and corruption are big factors.


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