Vietnam lessons learned

August 12, 2004|By Gian P. Gentile

THERE HAS BEEN much talk that the military in Iraq, especially the Army and Marines, have not learned the lessons of Vietnam and how to fight a counterinsurgency.

A repeated criticism is that the military continues to focus on "body counts" as an indicator of success in Iraq and yet has not been able to destroy the insurgency. This recalls the unraveling of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet offensive. Iraq, in this line of thinking, is Vietnam all over again.

But perhaps the critics are wrong, and the U.S. military has learned some important lessons from the Vietnam War and is applying them in Iraq, even in the face of the fierce battle between the Marines and Muqtada al-Sadr's insurgents in Najaf.

From the time major combat operations started in Vietnam in mid-1965 up to Tet in January 1968, senior U.S. military leaders routinely proclaimed that the United States was winning the war. Although there were numerous indicators to the overall commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, that his search-and-destroy tactics were not having a decisive effect against the Viet Cong, he maintained that the United States was winning militarily.

The Tet offensive convinced many Americans that the war was not winnable, but General Westmoreland still saw light at the end of the tunnel and asked President Lyndon B. Johnson for more troops.

It is now clear that by 1968, the United States could not lose the war in Vietnam militarily, but neither could it win it by military means alone. The solution in Vietnam was essentially political: Establish a viable South Vietnamese government that had the support of the people. Military power, regardless of how it was used, could not accomplish that political objective by itself.

That the Vietnam War was not winnable militarily was one of the primary lessons learned by the U.S. military.

The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, brought this lesson home in May when he told a Senate subcommittee that "there is no way to militarily lose [and] there is also no way to militarily win" in Iraq.

General Westmoreland never could have acknowledged such an important point after Tet because he would have had to admit that superior U.S. firepower and tactics could not alone win the war.

But in Iraq, after only a few months of experiencing an intensely rising insurgency, the U.S. military understood that there were limits to what it could accomplish. Although military force was fundamental to establishing security, the solution in Iraq, as General Myers made clear, had to be political.

This realization is no small matter. When it once took years for the U.S. military to learn the limits of American military power, it only took a few months in Iraq.

The Vietnam War also taught that the use of military force from the lowest to highest levels of command in a counterinsurgency must always be subordinate to political goals, even if that means adjusting or degrading a military operation. Current reports from Iraq indicating that Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi requested U.S. military assistance to confront the al-Sadr insurgents indicates a clear subordination of U.S. military power to political authority and objectives.

The inverse often happened in Vietnam.

For example, it made good military sense to relocate civilians from villages that were heavily infiltrated by Viet Cong so that the U.S. military could attack the enemy without killing innocent civilians. But it was a political disaster, because it alienated the very people that the military was trying to "save" from the Viet Cong. In order to save the village, the saying went, you had to destroy it.

The hard lesson from Vietnam, ironically, was that you could easily destroy the village with military force but in so doing the United States lost it and, ultimately, the war.

This lesson from Vietnam is not lost on the Marines and soldiers fighting tough battles with insurgents in cities such as Najaf.

There has been a determined attempt by Marines and soldiers to spare the important holy sites in the Shiite city. U.S. casualties are undoubtedly higher because of the need to protect those sites. But as frustrating as it must be to have their buddies shot at by snipers hiding with the protection of holy sites and to know that a cannon shot from a tank can easily remove the threat with little risk to their own troops, Marines and soldiers demonstrate a clear understanding of the higher political purpose of their operations. Reports of hand-to-hand combat between Marines and insurgents in and around the holy sites suggest the extent to which the U.S. military is willing to adjust its military operations to support political objectives.

An Army battalion commander who fought in Najaf in April recognized that he could have used overwhelming firepower to destroy the insurgents and the holy sites they were using for protection. But then he noted that instead of having 200 insurgents fighting against him he would have had 200,000, and in the process of trying to save the city by destroying it, he would have lost it.

Another lesson learned from Vietnam.

Army Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, a professor of military history at West Point, was executive officer for the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division based in Tikrit, Iraq.

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