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Lessons of Vietnam

A former North Vietnamese Army officer explains how the US is making the same mistake in Afghanistan that it made in Vietnam.

Gen. Petraeus and the lessons of history

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief of Central Command for the U.S. military and the architect of what is widely viewed as the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, disagrees with Nguyen.

And Petraeus speaks from his own knowledge of history. He did his doctoral thesis on the lessons learned in Vietnam and he co-authored the U.S. military’s recent counterinsurgency manual which provided a detailed history of counterinsurgency from ancient Rome to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

While Nguyen and Petraeus derive very different lessons from some of this history, there is also a great deal on which they do agree.

Petraeus’ 1987 Ph.D. thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of  Vietnam,” argued that the U.S. military’s fear of getting trapped in another counterinsurgency war left it reluctant to intervene abroad except to accomplish narrow goals and with overwhelmingly superior forces. Indeed, Petraeus wrote in his thesis that the military’s anxieties about Vietnam-style wars were being reinforced by another contemporary conflict: the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

“The Soviet inability to achieve a decisive result in Afghanistan has reminded some military observers of the problems of counter-guerrilla warfare in rugged terrain where the enemy enjoys sanctuaries,” Petraeus wrote, reinforcing the military’s desire to avoid “lengthy, inconclusive commitments of U.S. troops.”

Petraeus brought this understanding to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which forced the military into exactly the sort of counterinsurgency warfare it had long tried to avoid. He was one of a cadre of warrior scholars who pushed the U.S. Army to relearn how to fight such wars. The new counterinsurgency thinkers included promising younger officers such as Col. H.R. McMaster and Col. John Nagl (now retired). For inspiration, they turned to lessons from Vietnam.

These counterinsurgency reformers adopted a rough storyline to explain the U.S. failure in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they argued, the U.S. relied for too long on a “search and destroy” strategy, trying to seek out the main forces of the NVA and destroy them in battle. It ignored the problems of security and prosperity in the countryside, allowing the Viet Cong to increase its political and military hold on the villages of South Vietnam.

It was only in 1967, and increasingly after the Tet Offensive in 1968, that the U.S. turned to a strategy of pacification and counterinsurgency, known as “clear and hold.” When it did, it was successful, according to these counterinsurgency reformers. By 1971, the Viet Cong had almost entirely lost its hold on South Vietnam’s countryside. But the U.S. then retreated from Vietnam, and the ARVN was finally outmatched in a main-force struggle against the invading NVA in 1975.