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 US 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 US-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 Rewrite
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.