Small Wars Journal

Vietnam Postmortem: A Senseless Strategy

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 10:32pm
The latest posted issue of Parameters (Winter of 2010-2011) is probably well worth reading because we most likely have not learned well our lessons from the past (What did Cohen and Gooch say about military failures in their book Military Misfortune -- all military failures can be attributed for failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate).

Note the authors are a "who's who" of some of our great thinkers, generals, theorists, practitioners, and historians (well I guess Ambrose has had his issues!). Given the recent comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam I recommend one article in particular by the eminent strategist and mentor to so many of us, Colonel (Ret) John Collins' article from 1978 - Vietnam Postmortem: A Senseless Strategy. COL Collins' article should probably be mandatory reading for decision makers before we embark on any future Afghanistans or Iraqs so we do not have a failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate again (a dream of fantasy I know!).



Thu, 07/07/2011 - 1:24pm

And surprisingly it is a free PDF download.


Thu, 07/07/2011 - 1:23pm

From the latest edition of International Security: "The Rubicon theory of war applies this model to the realm of international conflict, where implemental mind-sets can narrow the range of bargaining options, promote overambitious war plans, and elevate the probability of war."


Tue, 07/05/2011 - 11:54pm

Bill C.,
A few probably insufficient answers.

Our idea of good governance is often radically different from what locals would see as good governance. We focus on things they wouldn't and the obverse is true. This doesn't need to be the case. I think that JPV's ideas early on were a less radical improvement of life at the village and regional level. I think similar ideas to the improvement of village security in the CAP program ala The Village maybe?

Second, this still doesn't stitch the country together. This is a significant problem in Afghanistan today as I see it.

Third, you are absolutely right that development, especially along the lines that we push it is extremely destabilizing. I'd argue that the unrest in Egypt is due to the rapid economic development that exacerbated political imbalances there. Analysts were arguing that economic development was going to make Egypt more stable only a few years ago. We need to understand that modernization and development, far from being a cure-all, is a profoundly destabilizing force in today's world. The answer is not to stop development, nor to speed it up, nor to expect to artificially suppress volatility (see Taleb in FA). The answer is to realize that it is what it is and be more realistic about what we can control and how we can control it. In that, I don't think COIN, no matter how you define it, is a reliable instrument, especially if you are not prepared to essentially take over the country and administer it as a mandate. The barriers to entry on such a project are prohibitively high in all but the most extreme cases. And I think that is a good thing.


You will get no argument from me that we need to learn from Vietnam. There are so many lessons, positive and negative. And I agree that we have often thrown the baby out with the bath water because of our baggage from Vietnam. But we come at this from different perspectives because I just do not think it makes sense to look at it from a small war victory perspective even though we lost the larger war. I am with you on learning the positive and negative lessons but I think it is not productive to try to separate the so-called types of war and make the argument that we won the small one and lost the large one. I think we have to come at this from the perspective of did we accomplish the strategic objective or not and we have to take a holistic approach to our strategy and the execution of the campaign plans.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 9:20pm

Dave Maxwell:

We did lose the whole thing in the end, but it is still important to note that we did win the small war part in the South and to learn from that what we can. An analogy would be if for some reason or other the German Army defeated us in NW Europe in 1944, but we still had defeated the U-Boats. It would be important to note and learn from the success in ASW for future reference.

I like your point about achieving the strategic objectives of the North, not the VC. Articulated well.

I raised the point because Gian contended that the small war was not won in the South. I think him wrong.

COL Collins' article was very impressive. Some of the passages could be lifted word for word and applied to today.

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 6:04pm


Thus, if we must throw out "good governance and nation-building" (because these may be, for the reasons I have outlined above, illogical and counterproductive), then where does that leave us re: developing an effective strategy to deal with insurgencies?

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:39pm

Bear with me a little.

Stephen Kinzer in his book "Blood of Brothers" noted that the Sandanistas -- during the Nicaraguan insurgency -- attempted to win over the population by doing "good govenance and nation-building" via changing the political, economic and social order of the country.

He (Kinzer) suggests that this backfired as much of the population had no understanding of, interest in or use for the large, fundamental and completely "foreign" way-of-life changes that the Sandanistas wished to impose.

Collins, when he wrote this article re: Vietnam (and many others who propose things today), also seems to suggest that moving toward "good governance and nation building" are key to dealing with insurgencies.

However, should such a policy -- which often requires an undertaking to radically, comprehensively and fundamentally change a society's way-of-life -- be re-thought; as such activity is more likely to stress, disrupt, confuse, damage (and thereby enrage and alientate -- rather than win over) much/most of the local population?

Thus, "good governance and nation-building" (tearing the state and society away from its old political, economic and social orders and attaching these to completely new and foreign such orders) tending to fuel -- rather than quell -- the insurgency fire.


Tue, 07/05/2011 - 12:25pm

Bill C.,
I don't think the discontent can solely be explained by the foreign presence or the government being a puppet. There's more to it in the internal Vietnamese politics. I think the foreign presence has a powerful role in discrediting the government, but to remove the foreign power from the equation wouldn't solve the problem, even if the government had not been discredited as a puppet.

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 11:02am

Peter J. Munson:

I think the key talking point -- which allows the cadre to recruit from and utilize the majority/rural population -- is not the ineptness or the corruption of the local government, per se. But, rather, the common perception by both entities (the cadre and the population) that ALL the countries problems can be traced to a central flaw; which is, that the local government acts as an agent of and answers to a foreign intervening power -- instead of (in this case) acting as an agent of/answering to the citizens of Vietnam.

Thus, from this perspective, the cadre -- and the population -- have a common "rebel cause," to wit: to throw out the foreign intervening power AND its puppet government and, thereafter, install an effective, legitimate government in its place.

You are right Carl - you can say that. But I will still say so what? Why are we trying to defend COIN when it is like the NVA officer said in a slightly different context to COL Summers that it is irrelevant to the outcome. We did not accomplish our strategic objective to defend RVN. It fell to the NVA in 1975. All our supposedly great COIN efforts did not make any difference because the South still fell. And even if we had continued to conduct successful COIN which I think is suspect but of course an unprovable argument now, it would not have mattered if the South still fell. The larger issue is getting our strategy right and not saying we could or should conduct "better COIN." We need to understand the nature of the entire spectrum of the threat and nature of the problem from the VC guerrilla and infrastructure and its relationship to the north and South as well as to the overall Dau Tranh strategy and what Ho and Giap were trying to accomplish using both indigenous South Vietnamese resistance capitalizing on the perceptions of illegitimacy of the RVN government with external support from the north as well as conventional military operations by the main force units and North Vietnamese Army - again all to achieve the strategic objectives of the north (and Ho and Giap) not of the VC in the South. Saying we won the COIN fight in Vietnam is like saying we won the first 8 innings of the final game of the World Series but at the end of the 9th inning north had more runs than the US and the South and it had won the previous three games.

Of course one could counter that we did achieve our objectives when we changed the end state from defending the RVN to the Kissingerian "decent interval" between our withdrawal and what happened in 1975. We had a rebalancing of ends, ways, and means.

But had we understood the true nature of the threat and problems in the 1950's I submit that our strategy might have been much different in the 60's and 70's. But that too is unprovable. We can only home to learn, adapt, and anticipate.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:51am

Dave Maxwell:

You said: "You cannot say we defeated the insurgency only to lose the conventional war."

Why can't you say that?

As far as Taiwan goes, why would the PRC need to make an opposed landing? They could blockade the place and starve them into surrender. With the USN defeated, there would be no one to stop them.


Tue, 07/05/2011 - 2:14am

Bill C.,
JP Vann's argument as I read it in the referenced memo and other writings didn't conflate rebel causes, good governance, and the aspirations of the populace. His argument, again as I read it, was that the rebels were capitalizing on the discontent of the majority/rural population by keeping their aims vague and thus picking up others who were disgruntled by poor governance but weren't interested in the rebels' true program. He wanted to improve governance at the local level and to better coordinate civil and military programs in order to cleave the "accidental guerillas" (some four decades ahead of the phrase) from the cadres while taking the fight to the cadres.

The cadres did have removal of the foreigner as an aim, but they also had removal of the corrupt, illegitimate government as an aim. Vann wanted to remove their talking point on the corruptness and ineptness of the government.

Thanks ADTS, reinforcing fire is a good thing;-) As an aside (these were pre-PowerPoint days), I laid out my entire anti-landing plan on flip charts. When the wargame was halted and the angry discussion began I knew I must have hit a nerve - or maybe some program or policy I did not know about. To see GOs and SES's and their minions pouring over those charts and giving me the third-degree was quite enjoying, at least to me it was.

In the mid-'90s I was the "red team commander" (actually the whole red team) for a CIA-sponsored wargame at Newport. The scenario was a PLA invasion of Taiwan and I was Taiwan. Without going into too much detail I stopped the PLA at the beaches and, most amusingly, stopped the wargame for several hours while heated discussion took place. Bottom-line, I used simple and well-known anti-landing (I guess now called anti-access) TTP and took advantage of the islands natural and man-made terrain as well as PLA weaknesses in conducting an amphibious operation. To this day I am convinced that the PRC has not invaded Taiwan because they damn well know that the costs would greatly outweigh any benefits.

Dave D.

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 11:49pm

Peter J. Munson et al:

Would I be wrong to suggest that it might be a mistake to equate "rebel causes" with a lack of "good governance," "the aspirations of the majority" or "the aspirations of the rural population" (as JP Vann and others seem to do)?

Herein, I am thinking that a better fit for "rebel causes" might be "the aspirations of certain of the educated and elite" and/or "the convictions of rebel leadership."

These individuals -- and the people they readily inspire to follow them -- often have as their cause the removal of certain foreigners from their home soil. (Be these foreigners -- as in the case of Vietnam -- Chinese, Mongol, Japanese, French and/or American).

Such individuals -- and those of the population they inspire to follow them -- cannot be won over by any amount of "good governance," as such would not meet the fundamental purpose of their rebellion, which is: the removal of the foreigner (and his native "agents").

Carl- Even if the "insurgency" was "defeated" or incapable of winning in the South the question then is "so what"? You cannot say we defeated the insurgency only to lose the conventional war. I do not think we really grasped to nature of the entire problem from the legitimacy of the RVN government starting in the 1950's to the holistic Dau Tranh strategy of Ho and Giap and the employment of both conventional maneuver and unconventional warfare operations. Saying the insurgency was defeated but the north won the conventional fight is as futile as the late Harry Summer's exchange with an NVA counterpart about the irrelevancy of never losing on the battlefield.

As to Taiwan. I would ask those to who have walked the ground there (or the beaches or I mean cliffs along the beaches) to describe the beach (cliff) landing sites around Taiwan. As I recall there is only one significant port and perhaps one poor BLS. I have no doubt that without the US 7th Fleet that eventually the PRC would take Taiwan but it will not be a walk in the park (or a stroll on te beach) for the PLA. It will be one tough slog to get significant ground forces ashore. The question I would like someone to describe for me s what does success look like for the PRC if they attack or what does success look like for Taiwan or the US if they successfully defend? Ivwould submit there is mo good outcome for any side whether they are "successful" and of course especially if they are not! :-)

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 11:06pm

To misquote the Queen-Empress, "we are not assuaged."

<b>gian p gentile:</b><blockquote>"By the mid 1980s in the American Army General Abrams and the idea that he transformed the Vietnam War had become a salve in the Army to ease the pain of losing the war."</blockquote>You keep mentioning that trope but I worked for the Army throughout the 80s and until the mid-90s and I did not see that pain -- or any salve...<blockquote>"Today there is a consensus of scholarly historians who do not buy the better war thesis, and generally see continuity rather than discontinuity between the two generals. To assuage Ken White, that doesnt mean that they are right, but there is a consensus among historians nonetheless."</blockquote>I'm not a scholarly historian but I never succumbed to a "better war thesis" nor do I know anyone who did, really...

There is a consensus among <i>some</i> historians, you mean? I'm sure some agree with any one of a number of theories or results of research and the interpreatation thereof. However, I'd caution them as I have you to accept that the Journals and reports that are their primary sources are after all mostly second hand information at best. While most is sort of reliable and will indicate trends, it is not gospel and Scholarly Historians will fare no better than anyone else in digesting all that. One would expect them to be more objective and I'm sure they are, however, they are still human and haves biases as do we all.

<b>Move Forward:</b><blockquote>"But continued harping that Vietnam then, plus Iraq and Afghanistan now are conflicts not worth fighting is fratricide... particularly when we know we will fight them again, like it or not."</blockquote>I disagree. If we cannot discuss history and current activities then we may have to fight them again as you say -- but I do not believe it will be a like it or not problem. It will be a choice on our part. I for one submit that Viet NAm was a mistake in all aspect and while I did and do agree with the attacks on Afghansitan and Iraq and think both were necesssary (and a long overdue response to almost 30 years of probes emanating from the Middle East) I submit that in both those latter cases, staying to 'rebuild' was a very poor decision so far as US interests were and are concerned. Humanitarian effort, seen as needed but poorly conceived, poorly executed and IMO generally unnecessary.

Hopefully, reasonable professional discussion can help preclude unnecessary future trauma -- and stupidity.

There are far better ways to handle dysfunctional regimes and groups other than committing the GPF to do jobs for which they will give their best shot but are very poorly suited.

<b>Bill C.:</b><blockquote>""Eradicating rebel causes should have been our key goal in Vietnam."

If that were the case, then we should have simply gone home; much sooner rather than much later."</blockquote>True dat -- and we could've done that but it wouldn't have changed much in the long run...


Mon, 07/04/2011 - 10:35pm

Move Forward,
Your assertion that open debate of issues is fratricide simply does not fly. If you truly think so, I suggest you stop posting in a forum that is a place for open debate of such issues. By doing so, you are in your warped mind encouraging fratricide. You should stop.

These are not essential missions, nor were they essential even when we did truly believe that Iraq had WMD. Their WMD presented no more of a threat to the US than any handful of other nations that possess WMD but which we did not choose to spend inordinate amounts of money and effort invading. America would still be doing fine had we chosen not to invade Iraq or Afghanistan. Invading Afghanistan was a policy choice undertaken when the regime refused to give up Bin Laden. If that is the case and if they had given up Bin Laden, we wouldn't have invaded. So how is invading Afghanistan an essential mission? And as stated before, the safehaven argument doesn't fit because there is safehaven all over the place.

I am a Marine and Marines do debate some of the roles we fill and the way we fill them. This is responsible professionalism, which you evidently do not appreciate.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 9:54pm


Aren't you perhaps not asking the correct question? Shouldn't you be asking "Was the VC as it existed in 1971 or 1972 capable of defeating or overthrowing the gov of South Vietnam without the assistance of the NVA?" If they were not, and I think it obvious they were not, then they were functionally defeated and barring the intervention of the NVA the war in the south was won.

Move Forward:

As I said, if the PRC can land and occupy the island, they would have already defeated the USN and gained control of the straits. Once control of the straits was achieved, they have the island there wouldn't be a thing a defeated USN could do about it. I have confidence that there wouldn't be a base close enough for the F-22s and the little light bombers that can't to have any effect.

It is fratricide because an essential but unpopular stability operations mission, not to mention air deployment/deterrence mission is ideally suited to the Army...yet bad-mouthing it eliminates a primary reason for sufficient Army and lighter forces in particular. Full spectrum operations will be thrust on us again, like it or not. As you know, that includes:

* offensive, defensive, and stability operations often on terrain unsuitable for massed armor and its resupply
* training, logistics, and air support of host nation forces that often have little
* area security of large territories that host nation forces and SOF alone cannot secure
* protection of the few civilians willing to restore governance, essential services, and other lines of effort

So some Soldiers who naysay a mission are simply reinforcing civilian authorities who feel we don't need a large Army after other Soldiers/media/civilians jump on the bus to Abilene in denigrating the mission. Would the Marines ever bad mouth any mission of theirs no matter its limitations?

Then when the Army does need to deploy once again, as previously, the Air/Sea components will suffer relatively few casualties/deployments while the smaller/underimproved Army once again will bear the burden because funds/forces were not there or suitably protected/capable when needed.

Iraq was a threat because Hussein made us believe he had WMD. Oil for food also was limiting supplies from one of the world's largest producers as Northern and Southern Watch failed to end his rule.

Somalia, Yemen, and piracy are natural Navy and airpower missions because the threat is dispersed and at sea or close to shore. But terrorists know that AfPak is far from the sea, may not provide overflight/resupply route rights or bases, and is a potential terrorist partner with possible access to Pakistan nukes. Same for Syria, Iran, and Libya that have all learned that they can/must hide/harden their capabilities from air/seapower.

Secretary Gates was most likely referring to a land war against China. In contrast, seizure of the Straits of Hormuz after an Israeli attack could easily be a long term Army occupation mission not necessarily unpopular with Arab neighbors. No need to seize the remainder of the country.

Israel may again force or have its hand forced with Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. Like it or not, we may get drawn in.

Carl, do you really believe supplies and military would be routinely crossing 100 miles unobstructed? Taiwan would not be fighting a guerilla war? Do you have confidence in Chinese airpower against the F-35 and F-22, or seapower against our subs?

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 8:47pm

Another excerpt:

"Eradicating rebel causes should have been our key goal in Vietnam."

If that were the case, then we should have simply gone home; much sooner rather than much later.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 8:30pm


Here is how I see it.

To be sure the South had the appearance of being stable brought about by the Tet Offensive and the drubbing the VC took in it and due to the effects of the SVN run pacification which put further pressure on the VC. But the VC and its infrastructure were not defeated, and even with the openings to the population that the Tet Offensive and Pacification produced, the government of SVN still could not establish moral and lasting links between them and the people.

Yet Colonel C's use of the term "stable" implies, tacking with the better war thesis, that the US had actually won the war in the South. It did not.


carl (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 8:24pm


Was South Vietnam a more stable place in 1971 than in 1967 in that the VC weren't the power they were and the SVN gov was considerably stronger? And if that were the case, which I read that it was, something made a difference, or a number of things, programs and actions made a difference. And since, Abrams was the commander during the bulk of that time shouldn't he get some of the credit?

Move Forward: If the PRC took Taiwan they would face no prolonged insurgency. It is an island easily isolated and aid would be impossible to ship in; especially since if the PRC managed to do it they would have defeated the USN and there wouldn't be anybody left to ship aid in.

Also, the Communists seem inclined to use the "kill everybody in sight and their families if they even look like they are thinking of resisting" school of small war fighting. That is an effective method. There would be no prolonged resistance.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 7:57pm

Peter Munson makes an important point, of which the dogmatism of the tactics of coin often burries or disregards, that "public support" cannot be wished away by the coin maxim that counterinsurgencies must by rule take a long time and therefore the public must accept this tactical rule and then support them. It is the antithesis of strategic thinking.

Bill C's highlighting of the flawed thinking on Malaya is also important since the population that mattered in terms of supporting the insurgency really didnt make any choice at all since they were phsyically relocated into resettlement camps which produced control over them; thus the choice was made for them when they were physically resettled.

To Move Forward: why are you so convinced that we will be fighting more of "these" wars in the future? After all one of the most highly respected in decades Sec of Defenses, Robert Gates, recently said that anybody recommending to go off on another campaign to transform a middle eastern country should have his head examined. Why then are you so sure that there will be more of them?



Mon, 07/04/2011 - 7:51pm

Move Forward,
How is questioning the strategic necessity of Vietnam or Afghanistan, or especially Iraq fratricide? Is this meant to say that questioning your logic is tantamount to killing our brothers? That is a pretty bold statement that speaks to an underlying inability to defend your supposition.

I agree that the Chinese threat is overstated by most and that we are economically interdependent, but by that logic, how are places like Iraq and Afghanistan more worthy of American sacrifice and expenditure of national power? If the Chinese threat is minuscule, then what was the Iraqi threat? And although Afghanistan had complicity in harboring the plotters of an attack that reached out across oceans, aren't similar safe havens available all over the place? Somalia, Yemen, Sudan? South America? Mexico? Germany? California?

And regardless of the temperature of the lid, how can we use an ill suited military instrument on a significantly constrained time-public support continuum to manage extremely complex human interactions to produce a utopian peaceful outcome in a matter of years? The time constraint alone militates against this hope and hamstrings our efforts by forcing us to value short-term expedients over long-term development. We shoot ourselves in the foot at the outset because we're looking for the door from the get-go. The answer is not to pixie dust away the time and public support constraints. The answer is to understand that we cannot attain our desired ends in the face of these constraints.

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 7:27pm

Another excerpt, and a/the central gem (or flaw) underlying this concept:

"The tides turned in Malaya and in the Philippines when common people made personal choices between imperfect but free societies and closed Communist states."

People live on land, not the air or sea. Naval theorists talk global commons. Air force advocates speak of effects based operations... all diverting attention from the reality that failure to seize/hold terrain leaves air and seapower unable to free invaded/oppressed friends from enemies hiding and hugging in their midst.

Land/air/seapower employed jointly has repeatedly proven its value. Yet costs and naysaying about current conflicts leave other services seeking to go it alone. Wars in Iraq and particularly Afghanistan with only around 1600 U.S. deaths in a decade of war leave little stomach for land power employment facing future events in Libya/Syria/Lebanon, and an Iranian likelihood of gaining nukes.

Instead, we will rely on hopes that air/seapower will do what it never has done before because the cat sat on a stove cover that normally is mildly warm but once got pretty hot. That resulted in 58,000 dead (most of which occurred practicing search and destroy), and then got semi-hot in CENTCOM, yet the new grading scale sees those costs as too heavy even though no mass attacks in the U.S. have occurred for a decade, and the next such attacks may well involve WMD aimed at Israel, Europe, or the U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, a minute threat compared to the Soviets is slowly emerging in China. Yet China will not take Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia... heck not even Vietnam, nor will they swim the Pacific. It might attempt to take Taiwan and then would face its own Vietnam/Afghanistan... with pesky U.S. assistance. Yet when budgets are assured to decline, this becomes the all-consuming threat even though we each heavily depend on one another economically. It also is conveniently a threat where use of the Army is unlikely.

Some in the Army eager to fight the last war would hold onto legacy sea deployment of logistics-heavy armor or reject the value of light forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere to include Taiwan. Thus we ensure that our strengths in conflicts that are ACTUALLY LIKELY are supplanted by imagined Chinese threats leading to AirSea Battle solutions and new systems where we already have asymmetric advantages and more coming in the existing budget.

Army and landpower advocates should be advertising where U.S. interests are most threatened to include loss of U.S. life, limbs, and treasure to include oil access. Point to:

* the value of tanks in Afghanistan and their assistance of Marines
* Iraqi success of heavy/Stryker/light/engineer units in Baghdad COIN
* the need for solar/wind power to reduce fuel-powered generators
* hybrid-electric power to further reduce logistics
* continued improvements of sensors, unmanned systems, and longer-range man-carried weapon like XM-25 and precision mortars
* a next generation of faster rotorcraft that still hover at high altitudes in hot conditions
* capability to Airland even heavy forces at allied airfields to preclude further adjacent aggression and safeguard ports/airheads for follow-on forces

All these systems/concepts would help the Army in full spectrum operations. I would be highly curious how much of the fuel and cost that goes to Afghanistan that is blamed on COIN is actually consumed by high performance jets. But continued harping that Vietnam then, plus Iraq and Afghanistan now are conflicts not worth fighting is fratricide... particularly when we know we will fight them again, like it or not.

Legitimate full spectrum conflicts will be thrust upon us in the Middle East or elsewhere requiring offense, defense, and stability operations that could benefit from land power that can deploy rapidly and sustain itself more easily. But that is unlikely to occur when we insist on 28 tanks per combined arms battalion (requiring 28 C-17 sorties and lots of subsequent gas) when the entire Afghan effort has only 16 or so.

Meanwhile we may add another combined arms battalion ensuring more frequent deployment of heavy troops in future conflicts in a smaller Army... while other services continue 6-7 month tours and have sufficient force structure that they do not deploy nearly as many months as the Army.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 6:27pm

Old Eagle:

Look I have the utmost respect for Colonel Collins; his intellectualism, his humanity, his officership, his long and hard service to the nation in multiple wars.

But the question I asked is a reasonable one. It is hard to tell by the text of the article and the notes (since there are only two of the latter). The piece of course is a classic, and still worth the read as brother Dave Maxwell suggests. It is reflective and thoughtful, all the while being superbly analytical. But those things do not make it a gospel and preclude questioning and challenge.

The piece is, in effect, a very typical acceptance of the better war thesis in the Army and other defense circles in the late 70s and early 80s. It opines that there was stability in the South by 71, that there were qualitative differences between Abrams and Westmoreland, that we didnt get the revolutionary nature of the war and focused too much instead (until Abrams arrived at least) on military victory, that the war ended the way it did because of half-baked negotiations on our part, a separation between the American people and the military, and so on.

Yet Colonel Collins missed the mark in an important way in the piece, I think. That is to say he still sees a possible victory in the War IF the United States had just done this or that a little bit better. Ronald Spector in an excellent review of HR McMaster's important "Deriliction of Duty" argued that we will not in America move to a more sophisticated and rounded understanding of the war until we move away from an American-centric approach to understanding it and why we lost; or in other words that there was another side to the war that mattered. I think it was SWJ commenter Peter Munson in another post on Vietnam who said essentially the same thing, of which I agree.



As I am sure you know this was written in 1978.

But more importantly per his bio "he served as chief of the Campaign Planning Group, Vietnam, in 1967 and 1968."

So I am sure that some of his primary sources are his own experiences. But beyond the discussion of this Vietnam narrative and the issue of did Abrams differ in any significant way from Westmoreland (and I leave that to reading your book which I eagerly await!!) COL Collins has provided us with a myriad of cautions that should be heeded.

Just to cherry pick a few(for those who have not taken the time to read the whole article - and it would be interesting to make the comparisons of just the below excerpts to the US and Afghanistan today.):

excerpts begin

"US leaders learned those lessons too well. They forgot that winning combinations cannot be switched from one time period to another without very precise appreciation for changes that transpire in the interim. Concepts are just as tough to transplant from place to place, unless the problems peculiar to one locale are pertinent in the others."

"US forces would never have been needed for counterinsurgency purposes if our strategy had been solid to start, but with frontal assaults and attrition as the only substitute for sensible concepts, we were rapidly losing the war by 1968."

"Eradicating rebel causes should have been our key goal in Vietnam. Instead, we wrestled with symptoms.

From the very beginning, US objectives were mainly military, with economic overtones. Consequently, supporting operations were tactically offensive, but strategically defensive and negative in nature, because the true aim was social change, not military victory.

There was always a sense of US urgency--the typical American proclivity to solve present problems quickly, then get on with others. Communist campaigns, in contrast, took time, but Ho Chi Minh could afford to wait because South Vietnam, steered by this countrys advisors, was put in a "cant win" position."

"The war initially was an insurgency, aided by infiltration. It was not an invasion aided by insurgency until much later. Dissidents therefore depended almost entirely on underground organs for support. Unfortunately, US and allied intelligence specialists focused on enemy main force units, nearly ignoring the Communist infrastructure. The upshot was predictable. Unchecked subversive cells, which continued to expand, replenished logistic losses and replaced guerrilla casualties."

"Bled white, blocked on the battlefield, and battered at home, Hos successors sued for peace, and unskilled US statesmen gullibly snapped at the bait.

Willingness to compromise is a pillar of American foreign policy, but our side was strictly amateur when compared with Communist spokesmen. The Marquis of Queensbury was our model; theirs was Machiavelli.

Our aims were exposed and stressed compromise and conciliation, but their aims were concealed and stressed consistency and US concessions. Our tactics were straightforward; theirs were deceptive. While our armed forces were separated from the negotiations, theirs were supportive. Finally, time was important to US negotiators, but it was immaterial to the Communists."

"In short, we lost a game of intellectual judo, in which conceptual leverage was more potent than lethal power."

"What were the long-term consequences to the United States? This country took up the torch from France in 1955, 20 years before the fatal collapse. Failure to formulate and then follow a sound strategy during that fateful period still cripples our Presidents ability to shape foreign policy and sculpt a solid defense. The legacy includes isolationist sentiment, antimilitarism, foreign aid coming under fire, controversy over war powers, cracks in the US alliance system, decreased conventional deterrent powers, and the spread of subversive insurgencies."

"In sum, this country suffered from a shortage of competent strategists.An Army general, while Superintendent at West Point, once was asked why the United States, after 200 years of nationhood, has never produced a classic theorist.2 His answer alledgedly was "Were not interested in thinkers. Were interested in doers."

Doers, however, dont do very well unless skilled strategists think."

end excerpts

I do not think that COL Collins is making the argument that we were or should have been conducting classic counterinsurgency the way it is outlined in 3-24 (either during Westmoreland's or Abram's command). I really think he is making the case that we should have understood the nature of the problems in the 1950's and figured out then that there was not a US military solution to the Vietnam conflict. But he is also showing how our strategy was disconnected from reality right up through negotiations and withdrawal. And I am afraid the legacy he outlines above and in his article is similar to the one that will be left by Afghanistan.

Old Eagle

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 5:47pm

Gian --

As the senior military guy at CRS, John Collins (who is still available if he cares to comment) had both the motive and opportunity to conduct world class research and analysis. Now I have to refresh my memory on the original piece to comment on the substance.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 5:40pm

Move Forward:

I wonder how much primary research (in the archives, viewing primary documents) Colonel Collins did to reach that conclusion of discontinuity and difference between Westmoreland and Abrams or was it mostly based on his personal observations. By the mid 1980s in the American Army General Abrams and the idea that he transformed the Vietnam War had become a salve in the Army to ease the pain of losing the war.

Today there is a consensus of scholarly historians who do not buy the better war thesis, and generally see continuity rather than discontinuity between the two generals. To assuage Ken White, that doesnt mean that they are right, but there is a consensus among historians nonetheless.

Your last point puzzles me; are you saying that the Army should be doing Coin so that we can maintain a bigger chunk of the defense budget so that we dont have to downsize? That seems to me to be a perversion of good strategy which should ask basic questions of interests, threats, priorities, etc and from there construct a well rounded military force to carry it out. You seem to be saying with your closing sentences in the above post that what should drive the organizational structure of the Army is not strategy, but the interests of the army to maintain or even enlarge its current structure.


"In sum, lessons of the past are not always used wisely. Proper employment of history has been the exception rather than the rule. Historical analogies often are poorly chosen and overgeneralized. Their contextual circumstances frequently are overlooked. Traumatic personal experiences often exercise unwarranted tyranny over the minds of decision-makers. History is so often misused by policy-makers, in fact, that many historians agree with Arthur Schlesingers inversion of Santayana: "Those who <b>can</b> remember the past are condemned to repeat it.""


"Policy-makers employing the lessons of Vietnam, or the lessons of any other past event, should resist the American tendency for overgeneralization. For if nothing else, Vietnam should teach that global, holistic approaches do not work. In short, when drawing on the lessons of Vietnam, senior officers should do well to recall the advice of Mark Twain:"

<i>"We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it--and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again--and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one."</i>

"Beyond recognizing such general pitfalls that can snare users of historical analogies, military leaders also should be aware of the paradoxes that reside in certain of the prescriptions derived from the lessons of Vietnam. In particular, the guidelines taken from Americas experience in Vietnam contain a significant dilemma about when to use force, appear to embody a potentially counterproductive approach to civil-military relations, and create a quandary over counterinsurgency doctrine and force structuring."

Quotes above are from MAJ David Petraeus in 1986 in the link provided. COL Collins article also reinforced the differences between GEN Westmoreland and Abrams.

Army leaders/historians/observers/naysayers can continue to bash counterinsurgency thus ensuring the cat never sits on the cold stove lid again...which means the Army will get much smaller (or in the Guard) and more irrelevant...which means AirSea Battle will achieve greater prominence...which means the Army budget will dwindle.

Jimbo (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 2:11pm

I'm with Dayuhan on this one. We tossed aside several opportunities in order to support France. During WWII, Ho Chi Minh worked with the OSS. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh wrote President Truman asking for humanitarian assistance in response to a famine in Vietnam that killed over a million Vietnamese. Officials at State decided not to forward this letter to Truman, censoring the mail from one head of state to another. Later the same year, Ho Chi Minh wrote again asking for recognition and support for his new government. Again nothing.

Once you move forward into the era of the war, the pathological fixation of Averell Harriman and William Sullivan on protecting Laotian neutrality allowed the NVA freedom of maneuver to fully develop the Trail. By the time State's resistance to operations in Laos were partially overcome, the damage was done.

These were fundamental failures of policy.

Failed strategy, or failed policy? I'd argue the latter, and I'd further suggest that we placed ourselves in an almost impossible position in Indochina on the day we decided to support the French.


Sun, 07/03/2011 - 11:21pm

This article printed in 1978 was obviously forgotten by the 2001-2005 timeframe. Reprinted today, its shelf life will be even shorter. I'm not as sanguine as some that there are right lessons to be learned. Given the constraints of our system and the incredible complexity of conflict in weak, failing, and failed states, I don't know that we have an instrument flexible and capable enough to manage a positive outcome no matter how many lessons we learn. To me, the lesson of books like "Dereliction of Duty" is not in how the outcome could have been different with more dutiful characters, but that the reality of fighting limited wars of limited national interest in a democracy is that the civil-military interface is going to yield worst-case outcomes. Each comes at the problem with such differing objectives, outlooks, and rules of logic that they maneuver each other into a middle way that suits neither. The tragic outcomes do not negate the reality that it is what it is.