Which "Ghosts" Should We Be Trying to Bury from Vietnam

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.

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walrus wrote:"it is not you who has to defeat the insurgency, it's the local population, and if the population doesn't want to, or doesn't have the courage to, then the insurgency succeeds, as it did in Vietnam"
How did it succeed? It was wiped out after the Tet offensive and what was left played no major part in the final collapse of the South. As you noted yourself,
Did the bulk of the South Vietnamese population want to resist the North to their last dying breath? Obviously not.
It was the conventional invasion that ended the war.

Walrus:

"Did the bulk of the South Vietnamese population want to resist the North to their last dying breath? Obviously not."

It's far from obvious. The basis for this seems to be inference from the fact that Saigon fell to Hanoi's 1975 conventional invasion. But if South Vietnam lacked the will to resist, then why'd Hanoi's 1972 Easter Offensive fail?

These two conventional invasions make for a good comparison. In the first, South Vietnamese ground troops held their own w/ US air & logistical support. In the second, South Vietnamese ground troops failed, in the absence of US air & logistical support. So, either the Easter Offensive was due entirely to US airpower, or South Vietnam did have the adequate will to resist, given US air & logistical support.

If the Easter Offensive was beaten entirely by US air power, then why did the US bother to build up the South Vietnamese military so much? Why was it felt necessary to replace US ground troops with South Vietnamese ground troops, and why was it felt necessary to send in so many US ground troops in the first place? The theory that ground troops were unnecessary to beat the Easter Offensive is implausible. However, if we assume it to be true, then that makes the 1975 Democrat congress even more culpable for the fall of Saigon since they refused to let President Ford to use US air power against Hanoi's invasion of that year.

Further evidence of South Vietnam's will to resist comes from the fact that its recruiting went up greatly after Tet '68 for its regular military forces (ARVN), as well as for its local militia forces (the Popular Forces and Territorial Forces).

The will to resist is only part of the story when it comes to winning wars. The capability to resist is the other part. Unarmed, untrained civilians generally lack the capability to resist conquest. Blaming them for their failure to do so is inappropriate.

As for your cultural argument that social loyalty was too localized in South Vietnam for the insurgency to be beaten, that fails as an explanation for a couple of reasons. One is that the Philippines was just as tribal in 1900 as Indochina was in 1970, if not more so, but that didn't stop the US from winning the Philippine-American War. Another is that the insurgents had to have sufficient loyalty from the peoples of Indochina to secure victory, too. If Communism, a foreign ideology, could generate sufficient loyalty, then why couldn't our opposing ideology do the same?

There was never any insurgency in Indonesia? That will come as a great surprise to Col. Kilcullen, who wrote his thesis about how Indonesia defeated an insurgency. It will also come as a great surprise to those on Aceh who experienced insurgency/counter-insurgency in the 1970s, '80s, & '90s.

Perhaps you meant that there was never any Communist insurgency in Indonesia. To address your comments on that:

"The PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) was a legal organisation until they staged a coup, which was crushed by the Indonesian military in a counter coup, about a million PKI members and what you would term 'Liberals' were murdered at the time."

1) The legality of the PKI is irrelevant; Sinn Fein was legal throughout Northern Ireland's "Troubles"; having a legal political wing as a front is standard operating procedure for insurgencies, as well as every Communist party in the world. Given that the Maoists were the more militant wing of the international Communist movement in 1965, it would be highly unlikely for the PKI to have been the only Maoist party in the world at the time to lack an illegal wing.

2) A coup is just another type of violent attempt to take control over territory, like an insurgency, different only in its particulars. Given the size of the PKI at the time of its coup, it clearly had enough supporters to have launched an insurgency if given the chance. Fortunately, it never got that chance, thanks to the Indonesian military's swift and brutal response.

3) I wouldn't call PKI supporters "liberals," as I reserve that term for the likes of John Stuart Mill. While we'll never be able to tell how many of those killed in the counter-coup were innocent victims, and some surely were, it's also true that many were supporters of the coup who intended to violently turn Indonesia into another Maoist regime. Judging by the track records of the other Asian countries that went Maoist during the 1950s, '60s, & '70s, the civilian death toll in a Maoist Indonesia would probably have been a good deal higher & more prolonged than under Suharto.

Tim Starr:

"My defense strategy would start with a citizenry able to defend itself against small-scale attacks and call in the local police for backup as needed; the police would then be able to call for backup from the next level of support, etc."

"The most plausible explanation I can think of is failed US military tactics & strategy in the first half of the war, which weakened popular support for it, thus making it vulnerable to partisan political attack on the home front. Thus, the decisive factor was how and where America chose to deploy its resources."

I would like to suggest that the decisive factor was nothing to do with the deployment of American resources because even if we had tried to implement your laudable strategic approach we would have failed.

To put it bluntly, it is not you who has to defeat the insurgency, it's the local population, and if the population doesn't want to, or doesn't have the courage to, then the insurgency succeeds, as it did in Vietnam.

This is also why your ideal strategy could not be implemented in Vietnam then and cannot be implemented in Iraq now. The reason is simple. Your description of that strategy uses the word "would" twice. But what if the citizenry won't defend itself and what if the police won't come when called, as apparently is the case in places in Iraq now?

Furthermore, while America may then send cavalry to the rescue of the citizenry and police now, what happens in two three four years time when Americans are gone? What then? As a local citizen, are you going to trust the wellbeing of you and your family to an American promise? Nope!, any more than you would trust your family's wellbeing to the promise of a Chinese official.

What was missing in SE Asia (and still is and always will be) is the level of trust in Government institutions. You trust no one outside your extended family. When the village is attacked will the Police come? Maybe, maybe not, will the local militia come as well? Maybe, maybe not. Do you wish to trust your life to someone outside your family or tribe? Nope. That neatly invalidates that strategy.

Did the bulk of the South Vietnamese population want to resist the North to their last dying breath? Obviously not.

Does the bulk of the Iraqi population want to "defeat the insurgency" obviously not. Does the bulk of the Iraqi population trust Americans or America's motives? Nope!

To win, in insurgency, you require the trust of the bulk of the population. Did we have it in Vietnam? Nope! We made a few pathetic attempts to gain that trust, but as we know, all it takes is an ignorant and stupid soldier using a Koran for target practice to destroy it.

That is why I prattle about the population "giving itself permission" to support us as an essential condition for strategic and tactical success.

As for Indonesia, there was never an insurgency. The PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) was a legal organisation until they staged a coup, which was crushed by the Indonesian military in a counter coup, about a million PKI members and what you would term "Liberals" were murdered at the time.

As for Indonesian insurgency in Borneo/Kalimantan ("Confrontasi"), don't make me laugh. The Indonesian army didn't have their hearts in it after they discovered that Australians were slightly harder to deal with than simple villagers.

In Malaysia we did "win" an insurgency against the Malaysian Communist Party, but the conditions were unique as the bulk of the Communists were ethnically and culturally Chinese and it was not that difficult to rally the (predominantly Muslim) Malaysian population to our flag.

Two questions have emerged since my last post. My answers:

1) How could counter-insurgency have been implemented earlier than Abrams did? The way the Marine Corps _did_ during that time period with the Combined Action Program. I'm not sure how many US troops would've been required to do it full-scale, but it clearly worked on the scale on which it was tried. However, I wouldn't argue that conventional forces could've been done away with; I'd favor a full-spectrum approach, instead, to avoid the trap of asymmetric warfare: If you field conventional forces, the enemy hits you unconventionally. If you adopt an unconventional defense, the enemy hits you with concentrated conventional forces. My defense strategy would start with a citizenry able to defend itself against small-scale attacks and call in the local police for backup as needed; the police would then be able to call for backup from the next level of support, etc.

2) Could ARVN have held South Vietnam against Hanoi? My answer: They _did_ hold it, against the 1972 Easter Offensive, with US air and logistical support. They were never expected to hold it entirely alone, any more than South Korea was expected to hold off North Korea without any US support at all. Certainly, ARVN morale evaporated shortly before Hanoi's renewed 1975 invasion. That would happen to virtually any military whose supplies & ammo were running out, and whose (American) air support went AWOL.

John Nagl quoted the PROVN study:

"The situation in South Vietnam has seriously deteriorated. 1966 may well be the last chance to ensure eventual success. 'Victory' can only be achieved through bringing the individual Vietnamese, typically a rural peasant, to support willingly the GVN. The critical actions are those that occur at the village, district, and provincial levels. This is where the war must be fought; this is where that war and the object which lies beyond it must be won."

This is effectively the doctrine that I was taught some years later and my reference to creating the conditions where people can give themselves permission to support us and not the opposition is based on that doctrine.

The obvious question then is does this apply in Iraq here and now, and if so are we following this doctrine?

My assumption is that it does apply because I don't believe (but I wouldn't know) if current force multiplying technologies allow us to hermetically seal and contain Iraq with the forces available.

If it did apply, then the logical focus, it would seem to me, is to stand behind the poorest and most numerous Iraqi's - the Shia, in all it's varieties, who were persecturted under Saadaam Hussien and who would, it seems to me, to have the most to gain from his removal.

However we do not seem to be doing this at all, witness various confrontations with the Sadrists, who should, all other things being equal, be our natural allies.

It appears to me that once again military victory is possible, except that we appear for political reasons to be constrained to lose, being constrained by political forces to produce a solution that accommodates Geostrategic requirements for Middle East Bases and engagement - and that automatically rules out political engagement with the Sadrists.

SO there we go....the poorest and most authentic Iraqi nationalists, stiffed again.

Excellent post, however...

We cannot afford to lose this one, even by walking away. This is the homestead we are defending here, not some Wilsonian crusade. Or even oil.

One more day like that in NYC/NJ, and this government will..shall we say..lose it's legitimacy in these locales.

We will not live like that. Other people can if they so choose. I am not moving to a bunker in Montana.

So if we don't have enough money or people to train for both*, then we prioritize.

*that's debatable.

Andy:

One mans opinions on your two questions:

1. The COIN strategy was implemented in late 1956 by the US MAAG newly arrived in south Viet Nam. It slowly grew and was working. Essentially, ARVN was winning most of the few big battles, the COIN effort perked along with a few hiccups (caused mostly by tour rotations...) and the VC were losing too many people. So in 1964, the North began reinforcing with the NVA. Buildup to answer your question -- there weren't that many, IIRC, the combined VC/NVA strength was estimated in late 1965 at ~100K. ARVN was capable of taking care of most of the VC/NVA efforts and we could've done the COIN thing. The problem was there was no unity of command; ARVN did their thing and we did ours; they learned from us, stopped their COIN effort and went after big fights (sort of...).

No way the US would ever have had enough people to go both -- and we couldn't direct ARVN to do one while we did the other. So the fundamental problem was lack of unity of command exacerbated by a 'strategy' of "Search and destroy" exccuted by all Allies (except the Koreans who quickly pacified and held their AO).

2. Corruption is in the eye of the bystander. ARVN Commanders did take pay for men who were KIA -- but they didn't take it for themsleves, they generally split it among the families those KIA left behind -- South Viet Nam had no pension or support plan. They did things differently than we do but those things were not (and still are not) 'corrupt' in their culture. They had some sharp officers and NCOs; they had some poor ones -- just as the US Army does. On balance, if the Australian Army is a 1, we and the Brits are 3s and the old Iraqi army was a 9, ARVN was about a 5 or 6 -- the NVA was only slightly better tactically but they were a little more motivated, so they were around a 4 or 5. ARVN was bigger, had better gear and interior lines; with adequate fuel and ammo, I doubt it would've been a walkover.

As to which view is right -- we'll never know...

Tim,

"The most plausible explanation I can think of is failed US military tactics & strategy in the first half of the war, which weakened popular support for it, thus making it vulnerable to partisan political attack on the home front."

It seems that much, if not most, of the US sentiment against the war was based upon the premise that we should not have even attempted it in the first place because war is inherently bad and America was unjustly exerting its influence. Rather than wail about mismanagement, poor execution, poor strategy, improper tactics, US casualties, or economic costs, the opponents of the war spat upon troops and called them baby killers. It seems that the only way that the military could have averted this was to win quickly, which is not the nature of COIN.

This is a very interesting debate. I am not sure who is right.

I do have questions on two points

1. How could a COIN strategy been implemented in 64/65? Would not the relatively large NVA/VC units destroyed forces that were dispersed to protect the population? Was it necessary to defeat these forces prior to engaging in a COIN campaign? Was the fundamental problem that the US lacked sufficient forces to both defeat larger communist units and to protect the population?

2. The assumption of Sorley and others seems to be that if not for the cut off of funding by the US Congress South Vietnam would have survived. This view claims that ARVN had the willpower to stand and fight the North Vietamese. The counter claim is that the ARVN was riddled by corruption and incompetence and that no matter how much resources they received, the communists would have beaten them. Which view is right?

LTC Gian P. Gentile:

OK, so you're familiar with Sorley's book. Does refreshing your memory about the context of Thompson's remarks change your explanation of his claim that the US had won the Vietnam War by the end of the Linebacker raids?

You have the advantage over me in that I'm not familiar with Herring's work. However, I notice that Herring's account is criticized quite strongly by Moyar's "Triumph Forsaken" on several points. Do you have a similar opinion of Moyar as you do of Sorley?

Going beyond sources: What made the Vietnam War unwinnable? Considering that the US and its allies/clients defeated insurgencies at other times and places (Philippine War, Huk Rebellion, Malayan Emergency, the various Central American Communist insurgencies of the 1970s & 1980s, etc.), it can't be that America and its allies are somehow inherently incapable of beating them.

The fact that insurgencies in other Southeast Asian countries failed (Malaya, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.), and that they only succeeded in those countries where (and after) foreign support was withdrawn (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), seems to indicate to me that the explanation can't be cultural or geographical.

The most plausible explanation I can think of is failed US military tactics & strategy in the first half of the war, which weakened popular support for it, thus making it vulnerable to partisan political attack on the home front. Thus, the decisive factor was how and where America chose to deploy its resources.

Westmoreland may not have been trying to fight WW II all over again in the jungles of Viet Nam but he did emphatically try to fight a conventional mid intensity war against an enemy that was too smart for him. He did understand the basics of COIN but he was determined to 'win'and thus did not practice what he or others preached.

As I've said, one cannot win a COIN effort, all that can be achieved is an acceptable outcome. A failure to understand that simple fact doomed us to fight the wrong war for seven long years under Harkins and Westmoreland -- even though a great many folks serving there during that time knew better -- and could have done better.

Let me again suggest that one should consider that whatever 'primary sources'and Westmoreland himself had to say on the subject, reality on the ground for many years is proof that what is said and what is done often differ.

Tim Star:

I have read Sorley closely. But alas I did not remember his specific quote on Thompson.

Sorley actually takes that quote that you mention from Herring from a discrete essay that Herring wrote for an edited collection on the Vietnam War. In George Herrings classic book (Americas Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975) length history on the Vietnam War which most historians still generally agree as one of the best accounts of the war, he says on page xi that he, George Herring, did "not believe that the war could have been 'won in any meaningful sense at a moral or material cost most Americans deemed acceptable." I think if you read the quote that Sorely used from a discrete essay by Herring it makes sense in the broader context that Herring was arguing from his book.

John Nagl:

Apologize for mischaracterizing how you would categorize your book. I did not read it essentially as a work of history (this is in no way meant toward derision or condescension) but as a work of social science and more specifically organizational change and theory. The first chapter of the book lays the ground work for your theoretical approach to organizational change. This is the mark of classic work in social science. Most history books, not all, but most do not start with an explicit theoretical construct or model for which the book will be based on. Naturally most historians whether they know it or not operate on some loose theory of historical change, causation, and narrative but to be sure we operate differently than social scientists. NYU Press advertised my book on the World War II Strategic Bombing Survey, among other things, as a book on organizational change and theory. But if somebody asked me if it was a book on that subject I would say no, not per say, it is a book of history. I have to tell you John, most historians would not attempt such a sweeping comparison of two very, very different historical cases like Malaya and Vietnam and attempt to draw straight lines between them by way of conclusions as to which army did better than the other at changing and adapting, without at least 3 additional books between the two cases or a thousand more pages to explain context, change over time, and contingency. Again I am not offering a criticism of your book here but an explanation as to the differences between the social scientific approach and history.

I am not asserting with no substance when I say that Westmoreland did have a counterinsurgency strategy that he adopted early on. Historian Andrew Birtle in his new book on the American Army and counterinsurgency argues cogently, with impressive primary source research as support, that Westmoreland did. Westmoreland knew he had to protect the people and conduct pacification; but he also knew that he had to deal with a large and capable VC force that could mass along with NVA and his assessment was that that VC and NVA enemy operating in south Vietnam had to be reduced to the point where pacification and rebuilding could occur. PROVN agreed with that strategy. Was Westmorelands counterinsurgency strategy wrong? I think it was a reasonable one for what he faced in 1965. Perhaps others disagree. So be it. But he did have a counterinsurgency strategy and he did understand basic coin theory and methods. He was not trying to fight World War II all over again in the jungles of Vietnam. Yes he was trying to apply overwhelming conventional force to crush VC and NVA but that was grounded in a larger strategy that had counterinsurgency in mind.

David Billington:

Let me clarify my point about the implications of these arguments being tied to Iraq. If the Vietnam War was in fact winnable, as many folks argue, so too is the Iraq war today. If Westmoreland was screwed up and fumbled then Abrams came in, radically altered course, saved the day, and could have won the war if the American people had maintained their will. That model can be superimposed on Iraq today as well. I dont have to mention the players and current arguments but they should be obvious.

LTC Gian P. Gentile:

Thompson's statements on the subject are quoted by Sorley, see below. Furthermore, he quotes your source, Herring, in support of his view of the war, not yours:

"Meanwhile, the enemy sought yet another time to regain the initiative and fashion some means of achieving a victory. 'The result of successful Vietnamization and pacification,' stated Sir Robert Thompson, 'was that by early 1971 the North decided that the only thing left was to invade.'"
- Sorley, Lewis, "A Better War," p. 306

"Historian George Herring concluded that, in what he called 'the ultimate irony,' 'the U.S. position in South Vietnam was stronger at the end of 1972 than at any previous point in the war.' But, he added, the commitment required to capitalize on that position was subsequently undermined by domestic political factors. Longtime observer of the war Sir Robert Thompson thought the United States could at this point have dictated the terms and 'the war could have been won, in that a real an enforceable peace could have been obtained.' 'In my view,' he said, 'on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war. It was over!"
- ibid, pp. 356

You seem less familiar with Sorley's book than I would've expected, given your criticism of his take on the Vietnam War.

Walrus: According to Sorley, the South Vietnamese people did rally to their government in response to Tet '68, and benefitted enough from US help that they were able to defeat Hanoi's Easter Offensive w/out any US ground troops, only logistical and air support.

"John Nagls book is very important in terms of its contribution to knowledge on how military organizations learn and adapt. But it is not a book of history, per say [sic], as even I think John Nagl would acknowledge."

I would NOT acknowledge this. I stand behind the historical methodology and conclusions of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife." Those conclusions, and the primary and secondary sources on which they are based, are subject to criticism on their merits. They cannot be dismissed because "Soup" is "not a book of history"; indeed, the University of Chicago Press explicitly categorizes it as "military history", as do I. (Although it is also a book on organizational learning, and I appreciate the kind words about "its contribution to knowledge on how military organizations learn and adapt.")

Asserting that something is true doesn't make it so. General Westmoreland did not adopt a counterinsurgency strategy, and PROVN did not think that the strategy he had adopted to date was correct or likely to lead to success. To quote from PROVN, as cited in a work of military history:

"The situation in South Vietnam has seriously deteriorated. 1966 may well be the last chance to ensure eventual success. 'Victory' can only be achieved through bringing the individual Vietnamese, typically a rural peasant, to support willingly the GVN. The critical actions are those that occur at the village, district, and provincial levels. This is where the war must be fought; this is where that war and the object which lies beyond it must be won."

The leader of the PROVN study was Creighton Abrams. He adopted this strategy, to the extent that he was able to do so, when he assumed command in Vietnam. It helped.

Success in counterinsurgency is possible when the population is protected at the lowest possible level. This was true in Vietnam forty years ago, and it is true today in Iraq (as has been demonstrated over the past fifteen months) and in Afghanistan. Vietnam was always going to be tough, but was winnable; adopting the wrong strategy, and not adjusting quickly enough when there were many indications that the strategy that had been adopted was ineffective, made victory far less likely.

Col. Gentile,

"...so too was Harry Summers' opposite notion that the war could have been won if the US had ditched coin completely and focused all of its military energy toward the defeat of the NVA."

Summers seems to be remembered in the Army for having argued a different position in other venues, but in his book he did not call for ditching counterinsurgency. He argued only that the insurgent battlefield had to be isolated from outside infiltration and that counterinsurgency should then follow. In his book he did not call for an offensive against the NVA. Instead, he argued that an extended and fortified DMZ should have been held defensively against NVA attack and that the shortness of the line between the river and the sea would have maximized the US advantage in firepower.

"They are wrong because the war was unwinnable in the first place; barring a major, major national commitment well beyond what the country really put forward in Vietnam with the conditions as they were in Vietnam the war was not winnable."

Palmer and Summers believed that the line they proposed could have been held with five divisions or half of what we had in 1969. But this would still have been a major national commitment and the question you rightly ask is whether this or any other strategy would have made a difference to the outcome of the war.

I would agree that the war was unwinnable if (1) in constantly assaulting the proposed fortified line the NVA could have replaced its losses indefinitely and inflicted significant losses on us without end, a situation that eventually we would have found intolerable, and (2) ARVN would never have been up to holding the line indefinitely themselves.

"Implications for Iraq are clearly tied to these arguments."

I apologize if I miss your point but I'm not sure what implications you see for Iraq. To change my original question slightly, would the denial of external support to insurgents and militias have a minor or major impact on US casualties in Iraq? If the impact would be minor, then Iraq is clearly different from Vietnam.

Ken:

Fair enough; well said. Let's put this one to bed for a while since we beat it down pretty well.

best

gian

Steve:

Stop means stop to me; whether or not it is "effort" or "operations" the point seemed clear to me but if you read it differently then so be it. Abrams did not stop the search and destroy "effort" or "operations," which ever you want to call it. He did adjust priorities as I have said but these types of large unit operations did continue with Abrams albeit with a lesser priority than before. Too when Abrams came into position he actually increased the number of B52 attacks as compared to Westmoreland.

I accept you statement that Abrams had a more "realistic view of his command situation than did Westmoreland." Surely the Tet Offensive contributed to this realization and the fact that Abrams was receiving political guidance to draw down American forces in south Vietnam; Westmoreland operated under different guidance.

Of course the NVA had an important role in Tet which was to attempt to draw large American forces to engage them at places like Khe Sanh and in the highlands but the VC had an equally important role to go after South Vietnamese government facilities and individuals once the American forces had been drawn away by larger nva units. Of course things did not go according to plan even though they did try to carry it out; but my overall point here is that I do not at all agree with Ken's statement that the VC "were pretty well decimated before Tet" and that the NVA "was doing most of the fighting." That I believe is a mischaracterization of Tet and the overall condition of the VC and NVA.

gian

Thanks for the measured response Gian. Three points; first, Westmorland got the 187 job due to Gavin -- and over the bones of two better qualified people. Even the Gavins of this world can err...

Secondly, I agree the VC / NVA weren't decimated. If you'll note, I put the word 'decimated' in quotes in my comment and I only used that word, even with the quotes, because you, in an earlier comment said"...He could shift priorities because the VC had been decimated by Tet and could no longer concentrate against dispersed American outposts like before." So that's your word, not mine.

As to 'stopping' search and destroy operations, you and I have agreed that war is war and while we can quibble about whether those operations were stopped or not, I think we can both acknowledge that Abrams significantly changed the focus of the effort -- and to good if not conclusive effect.

I strongly agree with your desire to interject realism into a mythical narrative. What I have objected to in this thread is what appears to be a skewed version of reality to make a point.

In the aftermath of Viet Nam, it is not surprising that many in the Army wanted nothing to do with COIN. It is tedious, dirty, difficult and lengthy; not the American way of war at all (well, nowadays at any rate...). There was also the fact that th Bear was getting aggressive in Europe so I agree that the focus in the 70s and 80s was correctly on Europe and major conflict. Post 1989 is another story entirely, that continued eurocentric focus did us and the nation a great disservice.

It is possibly noteworthy that the four Chiefs of Staff I mentioned as being big war guys were all Armor or Artillery types. The two who started the 'no more COIN' mantra were both heavy division alumni as is the current Chief of staff. One could suggest those folks were or are all enamored of the status quo...

Equally noteworthy is the fact that, since Abrams, who did not disown COIN but did restructure the Army, the only Chiefs of staff who effected any cultural change in the beast were Meyer and Wickham, both airborne infantry types -- and Pete Schoomaker with his SO background. :D

I think perhaps there's a message of some sort about parochialism in those last two paragraphs...

"As far as your point about the VC being "pretty well decimated prior to tet," well Ken I would agree that they had been attritted but "decimated?" If they were then how did they come to be able to mount the actual Tet Offensive in Jan 68?"

Tet '68 was a combined effort, with much of the main force push coming from NVN "filler" elements in Main Force VC large units(as Ken points out). In some areas the VC HAD been decimated, but in others they had been supplanted by NVA elements. Tet was a combined effort...and one that resulted in the exposure and decimation or destruction of many VC cadre. It can also be argued that Westmoreland's fixation on big unit war led directly to his surprise at Tet.

Gian, Ken's exact phrase was "stop the senseless search and destroy effort." This to me doesn't imply that Abrams stopped search and destroy entirely...rather that he refocused the larger unit actions and spread his troops out to deal with population security missions. I'd agree that there was a need for search and destroy-type operations, but the way Westmoreland conducted them could be compared to a boxer using only his left hand in a fight. He was predictable, and allowed the NVA/VC to control the tempo of operations. Not a good mix on the best of days.

Also, Abrams in the historiography of Vietnam has been just as polarizing as Westmoreland...and not always in a good light. I would say that he had a more realistic view of his command situation than did Westmoreland. Any myths built around him are of recent construction.

Ken:

I know Westmoreland branched artillery upon graduation from West Point in 1936. He became involved as an artillery battalion commander in Sicily with Gavin and the 82nd Airborne. Gavin became impressed with Westmoreland and his battalion at that time which established the link between him and the 82nd that would continue. That cooperation continued into the Normandy campaign (since the 9th ID landed on Utah and fought in cooperation with the 82nd AB in the first month of the Normandy breakout) as Westmoreland transitioned out of his battalion command then to 9th ID Divarty XO and then finally 9th ID Chief of Staff. His work with the 82nd AB in World War II is what helped to facilitate his later command of the 187th in Korea.

As far as your point about the VC being "pretty well decimated prior to tet," well Ken I would agree that they had been attritted but "decimated?" If they were then how did they come to be able to mount the actual Tet Offensive in Jan 68?

And Ken, Abrams did not, to use your word, "stop" search and destroy opertions. He continued them albeit under a different name and more importantly to the point I have been making only shifted search and destroy operations to a lower priority underneath pacification. But he did not stop doing them.

I am not trying to recast Westmoreland as the greatest General since Grant. Instead I am trying to inject some historical realism into a mythical narrative that has been built around General Abrams with straight lines drawn to the present.

gian

And another thing(semi separate subject)...

Gian said

"That Abrams didnt really do anything radical at all when he came into position. Instead he shifted priorities to pacification but still with search and destroy operations being a key part of his operations. He could shift priorities because the VC had been decimated by Tet and could no longer concentrate against dispersed American outposts like before. And one more point to consider with Abrams; if he would have been the visionary Coin leader who radicalized American strategy in Vietnam toward better coin operations then why was Abrams fully behind the reorienting of American military policy and doctrine after Vietnam away from coin and toward conventional war against the Soviet Union?"

Two points. What Abrams did was listen to his predecessor as DepComUSMACV, Bruce Palmer and implement the concepts of the PROVN Study which Westmoreland and Co. had diligently ignored for over two years. Palmer had tried but couldn't get W.C. off the big battle mantra.

On your second point, having been in D.C. while Abe was CofSA, I'm pretty sure that he realized as do you and I that the USSR was, at that time, the principal threat. He did not reject COIN -- he did want to insure that if the Army went to war, it would entail getting the nation behind the effort -- thus his design of force structure to insure that the Army could not go to war without calling up many Reserve Component units. He actually strengthened SF and the Airborne units and he was not a SOF or Airborne fan.

His erstwhile successor, Fred Weyand was the guy who started the 'no-COIN' effort among other things unhelpful and Bernie Rogers continued the march. Shy Meyer tried to introduce more flexibility and 'unkill' COIN but the bureaucracy just waited him out. John Wickham was sort of ambivalent on the topic, the next four were all firm 'big war' guys.

Umm, Gian -- on a few points of minor relevance, I hate to correct a historian on his history but I think you'll find that Westmoreland, an Artillerist, was the CofS, 9th Inf Div in NW Europe. He didn't go to jump school or serve in the 82d until 1946 and he then commanded the 504th Infantry (rather poorly, tactically and in the field; brilliantly in taking care of a peacetime unit and his troops...). He was a postwar Gavin protege -- one of Slim Jim's few mistakes.

Also, the VC was pretty well 'decimated' before Tet in 1968. Most of the VC Main force had been killed, captured or turned (a surprisingly large number of the latter). By Tet '68, the NVA was doing most of the fighting -- they got severely trounced in Tet and in the summer thereafter but that did not deter Giap. I was there and it was a desultory summer of mostly minor mopping up.

Westmoreland left in the summer of '68 and it took Abrams only a few months to stop the senseless search and destroy effort and reorient units. That did deter Giap.

As an aside, I'd submit that any insurgency in this era constitutes an 'unwinnable' war -- all that can be expected is an acceptable outcome and that was not achieved in Viet Nam principally though not solely due to the fact that the US Army insisted for seven long years in fighting a land war in NW Europe while stuck in the rice paddies of SE Asia...

That said, I agree that Viet Nam as constituted and executed was effectively 'unwinnable.'

Charles:

I will send to you my digital copy via SWJ email.

I also highly recommend Andrew Birtles new book on the American Army and Coin doctrine, "US Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations and Doctrine, 1942-1976," published by the Center of Military History.

John Nagls book is very important in terms of its contribution to knowledge on how military organizations learn and adapt. But it is not a book of history, per say, as even I think John Nagl would acknowledge.

What PROVN really got at was the need for inter-agency coordination in Vietnam and the premise of all operations with the focus of pacification starting at the small village, people level in the countryside. This premise in the PROVN was not, as the document shows, in contradiction with Westmorelands overall approach. PROVN acknowledged that the first task to be completed and kept as priority was for American combat forces in the main to seek out and destroy vc and NVA units in south Vietnam so a baseline of security could be established which would set the conditions for the pacification of the countryside, buttressed by better inter-agency cooperation, to move forward. But PROVN fully accepted for pacification to work, the VC needed to be destroyed. It is in this context that I argue Westmoreland had a Coin strategy in mind and in place and was not trying to relive his time as a regimental staff officer in the 82nd Airborne on the battlefields of Normandy in 1944. Ref Lew Sorleys book, well it has been received widely and favorably by many. The idea that the war in Vietnam could have been won if the American people would have maintained its will and followed through on the perceived radical changes put in place by Abrams. But the historical record shows otherwise. That Abrams didnt really do anything radical at all when he came into position. Instead he shifted priorities to pacification but still with search and destroy operations being a key part of his operations. He could shift priorities because the VC had been decimated by Tet and could no longer concentrate against dispersed American outposts like before. And one more point to consider with Abrams; if he would have been the visionary Coin leader who radicalized American strategy in Vietnam toward better coin operations then why was Abrams fully behind the reorienting of American military policy and doctrine after Vietnam away from coin and toward conventional war against the Soviet Union?

Dave:

If Lew Sorleys conception of Abrams as the savior of Vietnam due to his radically approach to coin is wrong-headed, so too was Harry Summers opposite notion that the war could have been won if the US had ditched coin completely and focused all of its military energy toward the defeat of the NVA. Both are wrong. They are wrong because the war was unwinnable in the first place; barring a major, major national commitment well beyond what the country really put forward in Vietnam with the conditions as they were in Vietnam the war was not winnable. So in this vein I do not accept either the Sorley view or that of Harry Summers. Implications for Iraq are clearly tied to these arguments.

Tim:

I have not seen Thompsons statement in 71 that the United States had won the war in Vietnam. Can you provide a source to where he said that? I would like to read it. I imagine though that he may have said it because in 1971 as the US was close to completing its complete drawdown of troops from south Vietnam, Thompson was a senior advisor to Nixon on pacification in Vietnam. Based on what Arbams had gone to since 68 (for reasons stated above) Thompson may have seen it as an opportunity to proclaim victory for the US because it was tied to what he did in Malaya in the 50s.

Gian,
You're right that I haven't read the PROVN, and I can't get ahold of it through Google. If you have an electronic version of the study, I'd like to read it. But as it is, I can only go by what others have written about it, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture for Westmoreland, nor does it support your thesis that Westmoreland was engaged in a counterinsurgency strategy, classical or otherwise. The PROVN study called for a fundamental restructuring, and Westmoreland did practically none of what was recommended. He claimed that he did, but the reality is that he tried to hide that study under a box, opting to continue with search-and-destroy. The study's recommendations weren't put into action until Abrams came into the picture.

Going by Nagl's book, the recommendations were profoundly in contradiction with Westmorelands's plan, and the primary mover behind the study was a COIN adherent. Going by what Sorley said:

As he [Westmoreland] later confirmed, it was his decision to rely on an attrition strategy, and to emphasize tactics characterized by large search-and-destroy operations designed to locate and engage enemy main force elements.

Because that tactic is only one facet out of whole array of COIN measures, I don't see how you can claim that Westmoreland employed a COIN strategy. He may have claimed it, but it doesn't mean that he executed it, going by what he actually did. It seems that, at every major decision point where Westmoreland could have instituted a COIN strategy, he went the other way.

Col. Gentile,

Thank you for your comments. I wonder if you could respond to two questions below.

1) On Vietnam, do you disagree with General Bruce Palmer's view, quoted by Col. Harry Summers in the paperback edition of his book, On Strategy (1982), pp. 169-173? General Palmer argued that we could have extended the DMZ to the Mekong River in 1965 and fortified the entire line from the river to the sea with five divisions. In your view, could a line between the river and the sea have been fortified and held so as to keep the North Vietnamese out of South Vietnam? Would the war have gone differently had we done so?

2) Al-Qaida and the Taliban today have base areas in Pakistan that we are not allowed to occupy. The militias in Iraq have safe zones into which we are not allowed to go. How would you compare (or contrast) the role of sanctuaries in the current struggle with the role they played in the Vietnam War?

David Billington

I'd like to suggest that Vietnam was unwinnable, just as Iraq is unwinnable by reason of culture, language and geography.

I know all about "clear, build and hold", but you miss the purpose of doing it [b]which is to create the conditions under which the population give themselves permission not to support the insurgency.[/b]

This truth is usually glibly ignored as in the immortal (and fatal) saying "If we have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." They won't, period.

So let's restate the question regarding Vietnam:

"Was it reasonable to assume that the population of South Vietnam would support its' Government against a popular insurgency?"

"Under what conditions would the population of South Vietnam support the Southern Government?"

"Did American involvement hinder or help the creation of those conditions?"

The answer to those questions, as far as I can tell (and I stand to be corrected), are that the average South Vietnamese had no particular love for their Government, and that the poorer rural people had some sympathy with the Communists.

The conditions required for the people to eschew any support for the insurgency started with the removal of government corruption and the strengthening of democratic institutions and the economy (the build part), as well as protection from insurgent activity (the clear and hold part). Not much of this was achieved at all. I'm not sure if much was even attempted.

American involvement didn't help at all. The langauge, culture and customs were foreign. The nature of "tours" meant that long term relationships were impossible to form, and there was the ever present risk that when the Americans left, the insurgents would take revenge on anyone foolish enough to have supported them (which is exactly what they did, leading to the creation of exquisite Vietnamese restaurants in Australia and I suppose America).

Lets ask the same questions now about Iraq:

"Was it reasonable to assume that the population of Iraq would support its' Government against a popular insurgency?"

"Under what conditions would the population of Iraq support the Government?"

"Did American involvement hinder or help the creation of those conditions?"

I'll let you answer that one yourselves, but I am not an optimist at all, for reasons too numerous to mention. For example, the spectacle of U.S. attempts to neutralise Sadr, an authentic Iraqi nationalist figure, and his decamisados, is both stupid and pointless when it comes to trying to attract popular support for what we offer. The only outcome that is certain is the eventual introduction of Iraqi cuisine to America and Australia via a horde of Iraqi refugees.

So to me, if you want to discuss future capabilities in counter insurgency you need to ask this basic question "What must I do to allow local populations to give themselves permission to support us instead of them?"

You need to understand the context of "Clear, hold, and build".

The question of whether we eevr came to Iraq with "clean hands" in the legal sense is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Sirs:

1) If the America couldn't win the Vietnam War, then why did Sir Robert Thompson, the architect of Britain's victory in Malaya and an adviser to President Nixon at the time, declare that the US _had_ won the Vietnam War as of 1971?

2) As for Herring's word on the alleged unwinnability of the Vietnam War, why should the opinion of diplomatic historians like Herring should carry more weight than the contrary opinion of military historians like Lewis Sorley, Mark Woodruff, etc. - especially amongst military professionals?

3) If America can't beat insurgencies on foreign soil, then how come America won the Philippine War?

Gian, I think you've been talking to my wife; she doesn't pay any attention to what I say either...

However, I'll give her credit, she rarely misstates what I've actually said while you seem to make it a habit. I said absolutely nothing about the war getting any better.

What I did say was that Westmoreland did NOT understand or practice COIN tactics and that the bulk -- not all -- of the Army also did not understand or want to even try. I said that in direct contravention of your earlier post which was, as I said, just wrong. It is still wrong.

RE: your comment to Charles -- as is often true, what the document says and what actually happened on the ground are two entirely different things. Westmoreland and staff hung onto that "...the main purpose of conventional american forces in Vietnam was the destruction of major enemy base areas and combat forces." and ignored the rest. Bruce Palmer -- who understood the problem, tried to turn that around with little success, only when Westmoreland departed was that three year old study able to be implemented.

That's the kind of thing that engendered my earlier comment; "No one should try to tell me what happened in a war they did not fight in." I say that simply because I have long observed there is far more misinformation in scholarly tomes about Viet Nam than one would believe possible. Historians are great people; Tom Clark was one of my personal all time favorite folks -- but they can only write what they read or dredge up from someones dim recall. While they strive for accuracy, there is no substitute for being there. Regrettably, one cannot believe everything one reads. Nowadays, I'm inclined to say hardly anything that one reads. Particularly history -- and that's sad...

Ken:

We disagree on how much better the war could have gotten. I make that statement in the broadest sense of the war writ large. Were there some units that did better than others? Yes. Were there some generals who did better than others? Yes, but overall when looking at the war as forest instead of trees it was as good as it could have gotten.

Steve:

Disagree, mostly, with your point that VC needed weeks or longer to concentrate. In some cases I would agree depending on where they were at and how far dispersed. But certain VC outfits along the Cambodian and Laos borders with relatively secure rear areas could actually concentrate very quickly. And other VC outfits throughout the countryside, again depending on the extent of their dispersion could reasonably concentrate in a matter of days. I think it fair to say on the average a VC company could certainly not muster and concentrate in minutes or hours, but days does seem to be a reasonable timeframe.

Charles:

Well, the essence of any good history is revision and rewriting. If not we would never have anything new and would be literally stuck in the past. I am not a Westy groupy or looing to rehabilitate him in history; only to see the war as it actually was in 65 then 68. This is the task of good history. As for your point on PROVN; recommend you read the document. In it at a number of spots it clearly states that the main purpose of conventional american forces in Vietnam was the destruction of major enemy base areas and combat forces. PROVN clearly acknowledges that this is a key task for the American Army that must be accomplished for effective pacification directed at the village level to take place.

gian

Re Westmoreland, Gian, it sounds like you're rewriting history about the general. Search-and-destroy missions and creating massive internal displacement had little to do with COIN (at the time, the Small Wars doctrine on relocations was added after the fact).

Westmoreland wanted, and got, a big-unit war. He was unwilling to adopt the CAP program, which had shown clear signs of success for the Marines, and he was overly focused on attrition. He kept forces away from major population concentrations, not unlike the large FOBs during the Rumsfeld era. He rejected State Department suggestions that political considerations be made, which is in turn a rejection of COIN doctrine.

Westmoreland ignored the March '66 PROVN study which recommended a re-prioritization from search-and-destroy to pacification. In '68, spending was $14 billion on bombing and offensive operations and only $850 million on pacification and related programs.

I don't know if Vietnam was winnable or not, but it seems far-fetched to suggest that Westmoreland did as well as could be done.

"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. "

This could be Westmoreland speaking, as it talks more to his own fears of COIN than the reality most units experienced. SF camps were exposed to overruns (and sometimes were...with the worst cases coming in the A Shau Valley), but they were also constructed for border surveillance missions and not COIN. This statement also demonstrates one of the more common fallacies committed when discussing Vietnam: a failure to examine both sides in the conflict. The VC/NVA could (and did) concentrate forces of company size and higher with regularity (even in the face of massed US battalions and brigades), but it took them weeks and months to do so. The US (and even ARVN) could muster similar forces in hours due to better transportation. Westmoreland failed to grasp one of his greatest advantages...because he didn't want to use it in that way.

But, sadly, another historical reality seems to be that the American Army prefers to prepare for the enemy it wants to fight and not the enemy it has to fight. This has been the trend since the Revolution, and I see no real signs of it ending.

To focus on one small part of a great article: Recent blog discussions about the current assignment of LTC Paul Yingling imply that there is not much need for artillery support in Iraq, but the second to last paragraph mentions a study pointing out problems with the field artillery branch.

Is it possible that some people may be more passionate about a certain field (artillery or COIN, or mistakes in Vietnam) and therefore offering a skewed perspective?

Secretary of Defense Gates' speech today could have been written for this thread. Certainly his comments are worth considering:

"I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called "Next-War-itis" - the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict. This inclination is understandable, given the dominant role the Cold War had in shaping Americas peacetime military, where the United States constantly strove to either keep up with or get ahead of another superpower adversary....

But in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms - ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank - for some time to come. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces - insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists - will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.

The implication, particularly for Americas ground forces, means we must institutionalize the lessons learned and capabilities honed from the ongoing conflicts. Many of these skills and tasks used to be the province of the Special Forces, but now are a core of the Army and Marine Corps as a whole. For example, at West Point last month, I told the cadets that the most important assignment in their careers may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations.

What we must guard against is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes its course, these kinds of capabilities - that is counter-insurgency - tend to wither on the vine....

Going forward we must find, retain, and promote the right people - at all ranks, whether they wear stripes, bars, or stars - and put them in the right positions to see that the lessons learned in recent combat become rooted in the institutional culture....

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater - to that institution, as well as to our country - if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win."

Amen.

Ahhh, now I've got this warm fuzzy...right here.

Seriously, Gian, excellent piece, as usual. While I must admit to being one of those not entirely inclined to consider Vietnam to have been unwinnable, I will defer to your far better informed position and to the late GEN Depuy's explanations on what was done, what was not done, and why, during that war.

Your drawing a parallel between Hezbollah's defence against the Israeli invasion in 2006 to the character of the German defence against Allied forces in Normandy in the summer of 1944 was a little surprising at first. But come to think of it, it is a rather enlightening comparison, and goes somes way to illustrating the difficulties that even large and technologically sophisticated conventional forces, that, deficient in real mastery of combined-arms warfare, may experience when facing opponents of substantially weaker strength, but with a clear and practiced concept of operations. For its part, FM 3-0 is not exactly clear and focused in such regards.

Perhaps the 1986 edition of FM 100-5 Operations should be required reading once again; it certainly stands out in the starkest contrast to 2008's edition of FM 3-0 Operations. It would not, of course, be anything like an antidote to the decline of fudnamental warfighting capabilities, but it might be a good start on the road back.

This is just wrong:

"Americas 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. "

The first sentence is flat incorrect, period. The second was incorrect in that Westmoreland did NOT ever really understand COIN doctrine, it is partly correct in that much of the US Army did have a grasp on COIN operations -- but it omits the fact that because many senior folks, generally veterans of NW Europe in WW II, did not grasp the concept, those units that did understand it were mostly not allowed to practice it.

It further elides the fact that once those folks who did know COIN left after their first tour and the second string came in during mid 1966, there were few if any COIN knowledgeable people in positions of power.

That in turn, led to a decrease in US effectiveness causing a concomitant increase in Viet Cong and NVA effectiveness, an increased casualty rate and started the major turn in public and press opinion -- that turn also fed by false press releases, false metrics and continued 'search and destroy' missions where there was not a single heart or mind to be won. Senior Army leaders in general never really understood the problem.

Those mistakes negate the rest of this restatement of your position. I agree that conventional and major combat needs to be the primary focus of the Army -- but do not believe distortion is necessary to make that point.

I realize you're stating a view of some of the history that has been written but history can be skewed and erroneous in its presumprions. No one should try to tell me what happened in a war they did not fight in.

I think the lesson we have never learned in COIN is that the US cannot win a COIN fight unless it is the US that is directly threatened by an insurgency. We could not win in Vietnam, only the Vietnamese could (and there were assessments by advisers in the late 1950's that recognized that if the RVN government did not change it would never be seen as the legitimate government by the people). And the same goes for Iraq and Afghanistan. As seemly sacrireligous as it is to say, we cannot win in Iraq and Afghanistan (nor in Colombia, the Philippines, HOA, or Trans-Sahel). Only the people in those countries/regions can win and we can only play a supporting role both through direct and/or combat Foreign Internal Defense and our civilian agencies and military organizations assisting the indigneous government with Internal Defense and Development strategies that must in fact be home grown to be ultimately successful. Until we come to grips with these facts we will never be able to execute operations that support our friends, partners, and allies in their fight against terrorism, subversion, lawlessness, and/or insurgeny. Our COIN doctrine is premised on us winning the fight but as I stated it is only the indigenous people that can secure their own country.