Small Wars Journal

"Burying the Ghosts of Vietnam"

Tue, 05/13/2008 - 2:52am
"Burying the Ghosts of Vietnam"

By Bob Cassidy

The recent spate of posts and editorial pieces that have amplified the emerging debate between counterinsurgency advocates and big conventional war advocates, coupled with Phillip Carter's 12 May Washington Post Online post, "Vietnam Ghosts," compelled me to post these links (below) to three studies that were published between 1970 and 1980. These studies testified to why the U.S. Government (USG) and the U.S. military failed to achieve their objectives in Vietnam. Also, because the USG and the U.S. military failed to heed, absorb, and institutionalize the lessons derived in these analyses during the two decades following the last study (BDM), the USG was initially ill prepared to counter the insurgencies it confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the 28 November 2005 Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 3000.05, Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations DODD 3000.05, the extant work by USSOCOM and the USMC on the re-emerging notion of irregular warfare (IW JOC), and the latest version (February 2008) of the U.S. Army's capstone manual, FM 3-0, Operations, together prescribe an emphasis on irregular warfare, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, equal to that of regular, conventional, war. These documents help provide the requisite philosophical and doctrinal balance for a military that must be able to conduct both counterinsurgency and conventional big wars.

Since it generally requires up to 12 years, ultimately, to prevail when prosecuting counterinsurgency, and, because it takes between five to ten years to change military cultural preferences, the USG and U.S. military can ill afford to revert to an almost exclusive military cultural focus on big war, as they certainly did following Vietnam. To recapitulate the essence of these three studies in distilled form, the USG and the U.S. military did not succeed in Vietnam because they failed to integrate the interagency within a unified effort and purpose to prosecute the counterinsurgency in Vietnam, they failed to understand the nature of the war they were fighting, and the U.S. military's cultural preference, and almost sole focus, for big conventional war precluded (impeded) it from adapting to prosecute counterinsurgency successfully. While U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have witnessed some significant successes during the last two years, it is still not completely certain that the American military's culture, doctrine, and organization changed with sufficient celerity to ultimately succeed. But, it currently seems that these changes were effected just in time. However, in future permutations of this long irregular war, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and their ilk, will not likely elect to fight the U.S. with methods that approximate "head-on tank battles." For this reason, it would be exceedingly prudent to sustain the recently achieved co-equal emphasis on both irregular and regular warfare that has been absent heretofore. Perhaps, now, the USG and the U.S. military, with their concomitant organizational and cultural preferences, are genuinely on the verge of expunging the ghosts of Vietnam.


1. A Study of Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam (Omnibus Executive Summary) - BDM Corporation, 9 March 1981.

2. The Unchangeable War - Brian M. Jenkins, Rand, November 1970.

3. Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN Performance in Vietnam -- R. W. Komer, Rand, August 1972.

Post-Script: Note Appendix A (Asymmetries in the Second Indochina War) and Appendix C (Characteristics of the American Way of War) in the Executive Summary of the 1980 BDM report, A Study of the Strategic Lessons of Vietnam. Some of these salient points, surprisingly, still resonate today if one takes a hard, introspective look, at the American military and the enemies it faces.

SWJ Editors' Links:

The Ghosts of Vietnam - Richard Fernandez, The Belmont Club

Discuss at Small Wars Council


Ken White

Tue, 05/13/2008 - 12:49am

There are those in this country who have a Viet Nam syndrome and those who do not. The former have an announced concern with body bags and are unlikely to ever have the concern or the syndrome purged.

I believe a majority fall in the latter category to whom Viet Nam is of only slight or no concern and I submit that the average American's take on body bags is that they're expected in war -- but for that terrible price, a competent job must be done. They expect casualties and they want results.

After a slow start we're being reasonably competent. <i>That</i> is what's for the better...

I believe that the U.S. missed the opportunity to purge the "Vietnam syndrome," when U.S. forces in particular tried to win the Afghan leg of the so-called war against terrorism by depending on proxies instead of fighting themselves. They paid of the Afghan war-lords but seemed to be unaware that their presumed allied were also enlisted by and ultimately sided with the al-Qaeda and Taliban commands.
If there ever was a time for getting rid of the idea that the American public could not stomach the view of returning body bags--it was the post-9/11 sentiments.
Now, of course, it is too late. The so-called bogeyman of the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well.
And, perhaps, for the better.