Posted by: Kevin | August 23, 2006

The Lessons of Vietnam?

As the Iraq war has dragged on into year 3 and it’s become increasingly clear that we aren’t getting job done there, I’ve been hearing more and more about the lessons of Vietnam.  So what are those lessons?  It was amazingly difficult to find data on what our political leaders think those lessons are.  In fact, the only answers I could easily find come from none other than Ted Kennedy. 

Senator Kennedy’s answer, “We continued the war too long, we failed to comprehend the events around us and our very presence was creating new enemies.” (Jan 27, 2006 at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies).  I give credit to Teddy for coming forward with this and putting the transcript up on his website.  His answer, though, is pretty broad and could easily be used as an indictment of any war longer than a day.  At least that is consistent with his stance on most of the conflicts we have been in since the Vietnam War. 

Since I was able to find anyone else’s answer, I’ve substituted my belief of what their answer would be based on their actions. 

Ronald Reagan:  When things get tough, declare victory and get the hell out (Lebanon).  Blame evil empire and spend a ton of money on military hardware.

Bush Sr.:  Hire someone named Colin Powell.  Watch him use Reagan’s military hardware and practice the Powell Doctrine – Overwhelming force, broad international support, clear exit strategy.  Pat yourself on the back for being smart.

Bill Clinton:  Studying at Oxford > fighting in Vietnam

Bush Jr.:  If I get an 8-ball Friday night…

Bush Sr. gets the gold star, which is why I’ll be posting sometime in the future on why Colin Powell must be drafted to lead a centrist bid for the presidency.  Clinton gets honorable mention because, lets face it, who wouldn’t prefer studying at Oxford to getting shot at.

My own take on the lessons of Vietnam are consistent with Colin Powell’s.  Use overwhelming force.  Proportional response just convinces the other side that they can stay in the fight.  If you identify a means of winning that is consistent with your overall strategy, do it.  For much of our involvement in Vietnam we were hamstrung by fear of a wider war with China.  Lastly, get allies on your side.  Even if their contributions are small, international allies add legitimacy and help deflect criticism at home and abroad. 

So what have our enemies learned from Vietnam?  Volumes.

Number 1, prolong the war.  Politics in America is such that an extended war invites political backbiting and second guessing.  Once that warm glow of a successful invasion wears off (and it will be successful), the American public gets bored with the war and American politicians will treat it as another chip in the game. 

Number 2, fight the war in the media whenever possible.  Journalists are lazy, take every opportunity to manipulate this to get your version of events across.  Remember, the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, but it was a propaganda master stroke. 

Number 3, present no hard targets.  Dirt and shrubbery are much easier to replace than steel and concrete.  This applies to leaders as well.  Keep the leaders safe, preferably in another country.  Your foot soldiers are untrained, inexpensive fodder.  Use then freely because if your leadership survives, you’ve won. 

Number 4, A US soldier is worth more than 10x one of your soldiers us this against them.  They are lavishly trained and equipped, thus more difficult to replace.  Don’t be afraid of high losses because your people will blame the Americans for your casualties.  Americans will blame Americans for their own.

So that’s it, my long rambling take on the lessons of Vietnam.


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