The Pentagon Book Club

The Pentagon Book Club

A handful of recent revisionist histories of the Vietnam War are shaping counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.


In the spring of 1984, a young Army officer wrote a seminar paper about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era. Three years later he returned to the subject in a Princeton University doctoral dissertation titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." What "today’s junior officers think about Vietnam—which is fast becoming ancient history—is likely to undergo significant change before they assume positions of power and influence," he claimed. In his dissertation, he sought to investigate the legacy of the war and its "chastening effect on military thinking about the use of force," which made military leaders, he contended, "more cautious than before." "Caution has its virtues, of course," he wrote. However, "the lessons from which that caution springs are not without flaws." Among the flawed lessons he identified were a professional aversion to counterinsurgency operations, "a new skepticism about the efficacy of American forces in the Third World countries where social, political, and economic factors are the causes of unrest" and "a widespread fear among officers that assignment to counterinsurgency, special forces type missions will be the end of their career."

The author of those words is David Petraeus, now a four-star general and commander of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974, one year before the fall of Saigon, and he has lately consolidated his military career around trying to reverse the lessons of Vietnam. He tasted combat for the first time during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where he commanded the 101st Airborne Division and the Multinational Security Transition Command (tasked with training Iraqi military forces). In 2005-06, after his second tour in Iraq, Petraeus oversaw the revision of FM 3-24, the military’s counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual. (The previous Army COIN manual was published in 1986; the Marines were still using a guide from 1980.) It was a chance for Petraeus to put his dissertation into practice by literally rewriting the book on the type of warfare American officers had shunned since Vietnam. Early in 2007, following the futile efforts of generals Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey, Petraeus took command of US forces in Iraq and aided a reeling President George W. Bush by implementing the "surge" strategy, designed to tamp down violence to a so-called acceptable level. Taking a page from FM 3-24, Petraeus offered money and weapons to Sunni insurgents in exchange for a cessation of attacks on US troops, a strategy that helped to lessen bloodshed and get bad news about Iraq off the front page. In exchange, Bush made "King David" his most influential adviser on the war (Petraeus was granted much clout at National Security Council meetings) and even took him mountain biking.

To a segment of the military establishment that Andrew Bacevich has dubbed the "Crusaders," officers who "see the Army’s problems in Iraq as self-inflicted," the consequence of excessive post-Vietnam caution, Petraeus is seen as a successor to another top Army general, Creighton Abrams. A West Point grad and World War II tank commander under Gen. George Patton, Abrams assumed command of US forces in Vietnam in 1968 when his predecessor, William Westmoreland, was kicked up and out, to Army chief of staff, after a four-year run of failure in Southeast Asia. Abrams’s star has been on the rise in recent years too, thanks in large part to the efforts of his chief booster, the prominent historian, retired Army lieutenant colonel and CIA veteran Lewis Sorley.

Last fall, as the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan geared up, Sorley’s ten-year-old book A Better War was the pick of the Pentagon and, according to Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal, "recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates." (A Better War is also listed in FM 3-24’s annotated bibliography of recommended texts, and Abrams is mentioned and quoted several times in the manual.) Sorley’s book was also read and reread, according to Newsweek, by Petraeus’s top commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal—a counterterrorism specialist who worked closely with Petraeus when he led the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit that The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh called "an executive assassination wing." Under this program, according to Hersh, elite units were reportedly given the authority to track and kill suspected terrorists and militants with minimal oversight, in noncombat situations and across national boundaries.

There is much for the Crusaders to like about Sorley’s account of the often neglected latter half of the Vietnam War, especially his assertion that by late 1970 "the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won" by the United States. Abrams had achieved this victory, Sorley contends, through a kinder, gentler strategy of pacification operations and population protection that stood in abject contrast to Westmoreland’s ineffective "search and destroy" missions in the countryside. As Sorley explained in a New York Times op-ed published in 2009 when President Obama was weighing his options in Afghanistan, "Abrams decided instead to try ‘clear and hold’ operations, in which small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace." According to Sorley, Abrams recognized that under Westmoreland US forces had been "causing undue ‘collateral damage’ to the South Vietnamese people and their property"; thus enlightened, Abrams "reined in the use of heavy firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes." Defeat, however, was snatched from the jaws of victory when the United States cut its support for South Vietnam’s Saigon government—a stab in the military’s back by weak-willed politicians and a war-weary public back home.

In 2004 Sorley took an up-close-and-personal approach to his hero in Vietnam Chronicles, a collection of passages selected and transcribed by Sorley from tapes of high-level meetings chaired by Abrams in 1968-72. The book is a tremendous resource, yet one gets the feeling while reading it of being not a fly on the wall but the object of a concerted propaganda campaign. In the spring of 1969, for instance, we hear Abrams yukking it up over cigars he had imported from Hong Kong. At the same time, in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, his World War II buddy from the Siege of Bastogne, Gen. Julian Ewell, was coordinating a civilian slaughter during Operation Speedy Express, which was executed with the same heavy artillery and tactical airstrikes Abrams had supposedly shut down [see Nick Turse, "A My Lai a Month," Dec. 1, 2008]. During the operation, Abrams publicly praised Ewell’s performance. Behind closed doors not long afterward, he laughed off his subordinates’ bloodthirsty talk while warning Ewell to consider how a proposal of his to kill Vietnamese civilians for petty crimes might look if Newsweek got wind of it.

In 1971 two reporters from Newsweek discovered much worse: namely, that as many as 5,000 noncombatants—ten times the number killed during the My Lai massacre—had been slaughtered during Speedy Express, according to one US official. When one of the Newsweek reporters, Kevin Buckley, brought the results of the investigation to Abrams’s attention and asked for comment, the general claimed to have no information and denied Buckley an interview. What Buckley couldn’t have known, and what goes unaccounted for in Vietnam Chronicles, is that Abrams knew a lot about Speedy Express. He learned of reports about mass killings in 1969 from US advisers who charged Ewell’s division with having driven up the enemy body count by killing civilians with helicopter gunships and artillery. Then, on a 1970 trip to Vietnam, Army Secretary Stanley Resor, on the advice of the Army’s acting general counsel, discussed with Abrams reports of widespread civilian killings provided by a different source, a whistleblower from Ewell’s division who had witnessed the bloodshed firsthand. Buckley and his Newsweek colleague Alex Shimkin learned about the carnage from still other US and Vietnamese sources during the meticulous investigation they conducted over a period of months. A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek‘s desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of their work under wraps. The publication of a severely truncated version of Buckley and Shimkin’s original article allowed the Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort that followed public disclosure of My Lai. A secret Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin’s investigation but buried for decades, concluded:

While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).

In both his books Sorley ignores the carnage of Speedy Express. Consequently, his readers, including McChrystal and other Crusaders in the Pentagon book club, taking notes for their own pacification campaign in Afghanistan, are left with a counterfeit history of Abrams’s bloodless "better war."


Not all of Sorley’s fans, however, labor under the same misconceptions about what the Vietnamese call the American War. In the acknowledgments of his Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975, John Prados writes admiringly of the herculean labors of transcription that Sorley—a friend—performed to produce Vietnam Chronicles. But Prados’s scholarly admiration goes no further. He squarely challenges the contentions of Sorley and others who have, over the years, attempted to recast US and allied efforts in Vietnam as a Lost Victory or an Unheralded Victory, among other wishfully titled studies [see Rick Perlstein, "The Best Wars of Their Lives," October 15, 2007]. Regarding Sorley’s belief that victory was thrown away, Prados writes:

Most recent commentators of this school call themselves "revisionists," arguing that Americans are wrong to believe they lost the Vietnam war. This is not revisionism, it is neo-orthodoxy.
  Something happened in the countryside, but it was not Saigon’s victory….
  The neo-orthodox commentators of the "lost victory" school make their claims as if the only important elements were pacification and Vietnamization, as if politics did not matter. Not only is this strange, given the kind of conflict—where supposedly everyone now understood the political to be paramount—but those same analysts take no account of Saigon politics.

For these reasons, General McChrystal would do well to forgo another reading of Sorley’s text and instead wade into Prados’s Vietnam. Steeped in the copious records generated by the US government during the conflict, Prados offers an expansive history, written in a lucid style, that scholars of the war will want to make room for on their shelves and casual readers can accommodate by purging a few faded volumes. Prados, a senior fellow of George Washington University’s National Security Archive and the head of its Vietnam Documentation Project, surveys the wars in Vietnam against the Japanese, French and Americans, from 1945 through 1975, and makes smartly written sojourns back to the United States to listen in on White House phone calls and take it to the streets with returning antiwar veterans. Prados demonstrates the dire effects a foreign war can have on the homeland, as criminality abroad acted as a catalyst for an increasingly lawless government at home.

While he ably covers a lot of historical territory in the United States and Southeast Asia (with surprisingly thorough, if brief, treatments of the contiguous conflicts in Cambodia and Laos), Prados is strongest on Nixon’s war in Vietnam—the period from 1969 onward—making his book a natural counterweight to Sorley’s study of the same period. Through a staggering array of primary and secondary sources, Prados discredits the "better war" thesis and the "neo-orthodox" school through his clear and thorough examination of the increasingly hollow and corrupt South Vietnamese government and its failures to win over the people, which made supposed US pacification successes meaningless.

With devastating clarity, Prados demonstrates that neo-orthodox claims of an increasingly effective South Vietnamese military taking charge, from 1969 onward, are based on smoke and mirrors and outright fabrications. In truth, just as the US military was increasingly wracked by drug use, racial tension, AWOLs, fraggings (attacks on officers and noncommissioned officers, often by fragmentation grenade), combat refusals, mutinies and other disciplinary issues, Saigon’s military forces were in dire straits, as draft evaders and deserters thinned the ranks, officers collected the pay of nonexistent "ghost soldiers" and child soldiers were, instead, put into uniform. At the same time, government corruption was rampant. (In one scandal top officials got away with skimming from a tax on soldiers that was designed to aid veterans.) Prados then couples his nuanced study of the ample shortcomings of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces with, more important, an astute analysis of the many "levels and layers of reasons" the revolutionary forces from North and South Vietnam won the war. It’s here that Prados really shines and demonstrates what a historian at the height of his powers of scholarly synthesis can accomplish.

Paying attention to the Vietnamese—whether ordinary civilians being slaughtered in the name of pacification or Saigon’s political elites emptying the public treasury—has never been a strong suit of American commentators on the war. Consciously written to render the Vietnamese visible in ways too few American histories of the war do, Mark Philip Bradley’s important history Vietnam at War mines Vietnamese novels, poetry and films, as well as a plethora of recent and often overlooked works of scholarship, to paint a more complete picture of the lived experience of the war for the people of Vietnam. Bradley begins with the millennium-long Vietnamese anticolonial struggle against the Chinese beginning in 111 BC and then chronicles the rise of French colonialism in Indochina during the latter half of the nineteenth century; the often-ignored political and intellectual developments among elites and the economic upheaval and demographic explosion in the countryside during the early part of the twentieth century; and finally the wars of liberation against France and the United States.

Bradley discusses the many ways that ordinary people struggled to "navigate and survive the complicated terrain of wartime South Vietnam." Weaving together disparate threads, from contemporary commentary about changing Vietnamese romantic and sexual mores amid wartime uncertainty ("It’s no longer about appreciating love but escaping the sense that one has been abandoned") to social anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s recent meticulous and skillful reconstruction of the complex and clandestine networks of social connections that allowed a wounded South Vietnamese officer to defect to the revolutionary side, Bradley offers a social history of wartime Vietnam and of a people in a state of acute crisis. Perhaps the most important aspect of Vietnam at War, however, is Bradley’s effort to convey the ubiquity of civilian suffering during the American War—the decimation of the countryside, the mass population dislocations, the indiscriminate use of firepower, the collapse of farming, the savaging of the economy, the rampant inflation and the proliferation of a culture of corruption and prostitution among the desperate, war-ravaged Vietnamese. Given the scale of misery caused by the war, Bradley doesn’t devote enough attention to the subject. But he makes a noble effort and, even in a slim volume, is stronger on the subject than many thicker histories.

In fact, very few of the more than 30,000 books about the conflict plumb the depths of Vietnamese misery during the American War. One volume that should, by any stretch of the imagination, be counted among them is Eddie Adams: Vietnam, but the book—a glossy collection of photos and text—in many ways defies conventions. Most books, for instance, don’t begin with an admission of the photographer’s opposition to the project. But Adams didn’t have a say in the matter. He died several years ago, and Eddie Adams: Vietnam—edited by his wife, Alyssa, with text by Hal Buell, Adams’s former boss at the Associated Press, as well as short interviews with contemporaries like Morley Safer, Peter Arnett and the late David Halberstam—was published against his wishes.

Adams is best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of Col. (and later Brig. Gen.) Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a defenseless, restrained prisoner at point-blank range in the head with a pistol. (It is the cover image of Eddie Adams: Vietnam.) It was a photo, Arnett notes in the opening of the book, that Adams "was sorry for." Adams would later commiserate with Nguyen (known to Americans as "General Loan") at a pizza parlor in Virginia operated by the former general, who immigrated to the United States with help from a friend in the CIA. Adams felt the photo had been used unfairly to vilify Nguyen and not only apologized for his picture but took great pains to excuse the general’s actions. "General Loan was killing our so-called ‘bad guys,’ but the U.S. government kind of disowned him," Adams later lamented. In his introductory piece, Arnett recalls telling Adams that he had captured a moment of truth—executions were common but rarely photographed—yet "Eddie, Mister Patriot, just would not accept that. He enjoyed winning the Pulitzer Prize as well as the fame that came with it, but in his heart he felt that he had let the country down."

Adams, who served as a photographer in the Marines during the Korean War, was hardly critical of the US war in Vietnam and maintained a close relationship with the military. Yet while no equal of Philip Jones Griffiths’s magisterial Vietnam Inc., a 1971 collection of more than 250 photos documenting the destruction of the Vietnamese people’s way of life during the war, Eddie Adams: Vietnam almost inadvertently manages to convey the scale of Vietnamese suffering. When defending Nguyen, Adams noted that a picture can lie; yet it can also be said that multiple images can often offer a less cloudy vision of the truth. In Adams’s book we see many disturbing scenes: a bound prisoner threatened with a bayonet; another with a spear at his throat; a noncombatant being punched; a woman beckoning Adams and fellow Americans to help her wounded husband, his arm vainly grasping at air as they fly away in their helicopter; a child suspect trussed up with a rifle trained on him, mangled bodies lying in the open; children crouching and wailing in fear as an armed US marine approaches them; a young girl, hands raised to the sides of her head, whose eyes lock on Adams’s camera as she runs for cover; and a Saigon demonstrator being threatened with a bayonet.

Whatever his internal conflicts, Adams’s fearlessness, skill and fine eye are evident in a picture he shot on April 25, 1965, in Quang Nam province. Crawling on his belly, Adams captured the abject terror on the faces of a mother, crouched low and clutching her baby, and a father, frightened and powerless, shielding his tiny child as marines, their weapons at the ready, stalk through their hamlet searching for the guerrillas who had fired at them from afar. That November, Adams pronounced the shot his favorite. Of all his many magnificent photos, including his iconic shot of the prisoner and Nguyen Ngoc Loan—which many consider the defining photograph of a conflict that produced not a few worthy contenders—this image may capture the essence of the American War as well as any other. The combination of helplessness and sheer terror in the parents’ eyes, their inability to do any more for their children than to hold them close and act as human shields while a hulking group of heavily armed foreign teenagers draw fire and return it from their yard, says much about the American War in Vietnam and American warmaking in general.


Several years ago, during a trip through the Mekong Delta, I talked with Nguyen Van Tu, a well-weathered farmer residing in a simple wood-and-thatch home with an earthen floor, likely very similar to the one he lived in during the war. Probably the only major difference was the absence of a nearby bomb shelter. During the war, such bunkers were as ubiquitous as the bombs and artillery shells from which they provided uncertain protection. Year after year, families were forced to live a semi-subterranean existence. But they still had to eat, and that meant farming and foraging out in the open. One afternoon in 1971, Nguyen heard artillery being fired from a nearby base and shouted for his family to bolt to their bunker. They made it. He didn’t. A 105-millimeter US artillery shell slammed into the ground near him and ripped off most of his right leg. It was, in fact, one of numerous tragedies he endured as a result of the American War. His brother, a simple farmer, was shot dead by America’s South Vietnamese allies in the early years of the conflict. His father was killed just after the war. While tending his garden, he accidentally detonated a US M-79 round—a 40-millimeter shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher—buried in the soil.

In 2008 I published a story about Nguyen, and thanks to readers’ generosity he received a new prosthetic leg to replace the rudimentary wooden model he’d walked with for years. But Nguyen hadn’t asked for a new leg; it wasn’t what he wanted out of the interview. What he wanted was a story in the US press about the true suffering of the Vietnamese people that would spur the government to "take responsibility" for what it had done during the war. Nguyen was skeptical that an American would tell this story. "Do you really want to publicize this thing?" he asked. "Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the Vietnamese people here?"

Nguyen’s skepticism was well founded, even if he knew nothing of the Crusaders or their revisionist histories. There’s a moment in Petraeus’s dissertation when he pauses to take stock of the "impact of America’s longest war" and its fallout. He devotes not a word to Vietnamese civilians. There’s no mention of women with shrapnel still lurking beneath their skin, or the men with faces melted years ago by incendiary weapons, or the inconsolable people still grieving for mothers, fathers, siblings and children gunned down decades ago. Instead, Petraeus wrote, without apparent irony, that "the psychic scars of the war may be deepest among the Army and Marine Corps leadership."

Drawing too many conclusions from a years-old dissertation is a risky proposition, but Petraeus’s writings then and his efforts since raise serious questions about just who he believes has suffered most because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what role he has played in that misery and the lessons he has drawn from the carnage. Given the Crusaders’ cheery (and bizarre) conclusions that Petraeus turned the bloody US war in Iraq into a victory and that his "surge" there offers a template for similar success in Afghanistan, one also worries what dubious lessons the next generation of Crusaders will draw from him and his "better wars."

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