Which "Ghosts" Should We Be Trying to Bury from Vietnam
A Response to Bob Cassidy's Recent SWJ Post
By LTC Gian P. Gentile
The United States lost the war in Vietnam because it was unwinnable. One of the best books on the history of American involvement in Vietnam by historian George Herring stated just that. But we keep trying to rescue the Vietnam War from its impossibility by turning it into a "better war." There was no "better war" in Vietnam.
America's major involvement in the War in Vietnam starting with Westmoreland was as good as it could have gotten. Westmoreland along with the rest of the American Army prior to 1965 had developed a reasonable counterinsurgency doctrine that was understood by senior army leaders. That doctrine was premised on classic counterinsurgency theory. Arguably it was premised a bit too much on "counter-guerilla" warfare as part of an overarching counterinsurgency approach, but the basic tenets of good Coin practices were understood by the American Army on the eve of Vietnam: the importance of the people in COIN, the need to separate the insurgents from the people, etc. In fact Westmoreland's approach as he started the major American involvement in 1965 was premised on the classical notion in COIN of "clear, hold, and build." The strategy Westmoreland devised in 1965 was a reasonable one. He knew the population was the key along with government legitimacy but to get at those two keys he had to provide security. And that security was threatened by regular South Vietnamese communist military outfits and elements of the NVA Army operating in South Vietnam. The notion of having Westmoreland start of the campaign by dispersing American combat outposts of squad and platoon size throughout the countryside is nothing but chimera; they would have been crushed by a Vietcong and NVA enemy that could easily mass in company size and larger formations within South Vietnam. If Abrams would have been put in place as MAC-V commander instead of Westmoreland in 1965 he almost certainly would have adopted the same strategy. When General Abrams replaced Westmoreland in 1968 he did not radically and immediately alter course but instead shifted priorities and placed pacification of the population on top. What allowed Abrams to do this was the fact that the South Vietnamese Vietcong had been decimated by the Tet Offensive and no longer posed a determined threat to dispersed American troops. Abrams was also operating under the political direction to draw-down American forces in Vietnam which required a shift to focusing on South Vietnamese Army forces to carry out counterinsurgency operations with the American military in support with its new priority of the pacification of the countryside. By and large the American Army did the best that it could with the situation that it was presented and the mission assigned in a war that was fundamentally unwinnable. No amount of better "interagency cooperation and function (the term "interagency" by the way is a metaphor for America's Sisyphean attempts to create imperial institutions along the lines of the old British empire) could have rescued it from its inherent impossibility.
Armies exist primarily to fight; that is their most important and basic core competency. The capability to conduct stability operations must flow from that core competency of fighting. Conventional wars are not things of the past. But in so saying this it does not mean that those of us who argue this point believe that the Soviet Union will soon emerge again so that we can go back to 1985 and prepare to fight them at the Fulda Gap reminiscent of the huge tank engagements at the World War II battle of Kursk. No, instead when we argue that conventional wars are not things of the past we mean that there is, to use scholar Frank Hoffman's conception, hybrid enemies out there who can fight along the full spectrum of conflict. The recent Israeli experience in south Lebanon is a clear example of a "hybrid enemy" in Hizbollah who fought Israeli tactical combat units the way small units of German infantry fought the American Army in the Hedgerows of Normandy in World War II. The Israeli Army experience also shows what can happen to ground combat units when their army becomes overly focused on stability operations like the Israelis had in the years preceding in the Palestinian territories.
The notion that the Army's new operational doctrine FM 3-0 treats conventional war and stability operations as equal is a bit off of the mark. In fact in the 11 pages in the chapter that deals with full spectrum operations 7 of those 11 pages are dedicated to stability operations, 2 to offensive operations, and 2 to defensive operations. How is that equal?
The American Army's conventional warfighting capabilities are not a constant. Yet proponents of stability operations often assume that they are and from that point of departure keep hounding the American Army to get better at COIN and stability operations. Their premise is that up to about February 2007 in Iraq the American Army for the most part fumbled at COIN. This assertion is fallacious. Most American combat outfits have been conducting best COIN practices in Iraq since the middle of 2004. For examples of this go back into the past issues of Military Review and see that as far back as 2004 the experience shown in these articles was of American ground units who figured out very quickly that they were not in a "conventional fight," that they were in a counterinsurgency and therefore learned and adapted very quickly to its necessities.
It is wrong to think that American Army's conventional capabilities are at the same level they were in 2001, in fact they have atrophied severely. A recent study by three former Army Combat Brigade Commanders who served in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 wrote an analysis for the Chief of Staff of the Army pointing out serious problems with the Army's field artillery branch. After 6 years of counterinsurgency war a key means for the Army to fight conventional war through firepower delivered by artillery has become, to use the words of the colonels, a "dead branch walking."
The "ghosts of Vietnam" actually rest in those who want to fight Vietnam all over again in Iraq. It is time for the American Army to start looking outside of its self-imposed Counterinsurgency box and toward a reasonable and realistic view of the future. For the American Army to remain in this box we are courting huge strategic risks.