Small Wars Journal

A Better Understanding of the Vietnam War

Mon, 11/09/2009 - 7:22pm
A Better Understanding of the Vietnam War

by Colonel Gian Gentile

Download the full article: A Better Understanding of the Vietnam War

Thanks to Senator Kerry for his excellent and very accurate article in Newsweek, "Beware the Revisionists," on the serious flaws of a certain strain of Vietnam War history. This flawed history coalesces around a number of highly problematic assumptions like the war could have been won if the United States had not lost its political will because by 1972 pacification was working, or that more troops could have done the trick, or that better tactics and methods earlier applied in 1965 could have won the war. Senator Kerry's points concerning this flawed Vietnam history is actually supported by a general consensus of scholarly historians that still is in line with one of the most well known and respected of them all, Professor George Herring of the University of Kentucky, who states in his book The Longest War that for the United States:

...the war could [not] have been 'won' in any meaningful sense at a moral or material cost most Americans deemed acceptable.

Herring's clear and profound observation of the Vietnam War is still correct and supported by a consensus of historians. Yet there has been this incorrect interpretation of the history of Vietnam that argues that when the wrong General (Westmoreland) was removed after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and the right General was put in place (Abrams) things then turned around on a dime, the American Army started doing classic Coin and had actually pacified the South—had essentially won the war through better Coin tactics—but the American people and their political leaders lost their will and therefore the war. No, this interpretation is dubious.

Download the full article: A Better Understanding of the Vietnam War

The author is a serving Army Colonel. He commanded a Cavalry Squadron in West Baghdad in 2006.

About the Author(s)


Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:44pm

Robert C. Jones:

We agree on many things -- possibly due to the fact that we are clean, thrifty, brave, loyal, reverent (occasionally) and bold -- as well as, in my case, exceptionally old...

Howsomeever, though I do not deny in either case the mission creep (creeps? creeping? creepings?), it's an American trait after all and though I agree that Afghanistan is not critical to deterring AQ (I doubt they can be defeated but they can be deterred and reduced to a virtual non-threat), I do not agree they and their allies of sorts -- and not all are Islamists -- are overblown.

AQ proper is not the issue, the so-called Jihadist mind set which far transcends AQ is the problem as are the possibly more dangerous allied, non Islamist "Down with the American hegemon" fellow travelers who will provide tacit under the table support to AQ et. al. An abrupt departure would encourage those flakes. said flakes are not existential threats but they can do a lot of damage.

That attitude is more dangerous than Communism if only because those folks are mostly more patient, less forthcoming about their real intentions and more subtle than was the Comintern and its follow-ons. Far more so in all cases. Do not concern yourself with what is seen, rather with that which is not readily apparent.

We, as you often have pointed out, have annoyed a <b>great many</b> people around the globe over the years...

Bob's World

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 3:54pm

I will agree with Ken completely if his point is that containing the USSR was the critical task in Vietnam; and that defeating AQ is the critical task in Afghanistan.

My point being, we got sucked into Vietnam and mission creep expanded our effort to many things directly related to Vietnam that were not much our business, not directly affecting US national interests, and not (in the retrospect of history) very essential to the mission of containing the Soviets. As I have argued often, ideology is a critical requirement to every insurgency, but is only useful so long as it is useful, and quickly abandoned by the wise insurgent who is focused on his political goal, not the ideology he uses to rally support and strike fear in his opponents.

Similarly we are mission-creeping our way in Afghanistan to many things that meed the same criteria I describe above, and I suspect history will also prove out that a US approved governance in Afghanistan is equally non-essential to defeating AQ; and that Islamist ideology is as even more of an over-blown distractor today than Communist ideology was in the 50s and 60s.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 11:36am


As a participant in the SE Asia war games and a visitor to several of the Dominoes, I'm very much aware of the alleged domino effect -- not necessarily a fallacy but an issue ascribed to world communism, not to Viet Nam specifically. Had Colonel Jones cited the old bugbear of communism instead, I'd have noticed and replied accordingly.

I'm also very much aware aware that the "right" or the 'left' are not necessarily valid sources for much of anything.

I think if you'll dig a little deeper you'll find that Al Qaeda's stated goals are accepted by a number of other factions. You are correct, surprisingly, that capabilities are more important than intentions but you appear to incorrectly assume that a lack of total capability does not include a lesser included extremely damaging potentiality. That can be, while not as unpleasant as destruction, an undesirable thing.

Barry (not verified)

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 11:05am

Ken White: "Consider the perspectives of the opponents. In Viet Nam, they only wanted us gone and had no designs against the US proper. Today, OTOH, destruction or significant weakening of the US is the goal... "

Um, that's not what the right was saying back in the 1960's and 70's. Do you really not know about the term 'domino effect'?

As for destroying the USA, that's Al Qaida's goal; please keep your factions straight. And if Al Qaida can't do that, their intentions matter less; we need to work off of capabilities, as well.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 11/18/2009 - 12:22am

Robert C. Jones.

It's a question we should all consider...<blockquote>"A lesson here is to not get so blinded by your own perspective that you cannot see the perspective of others..."</blockquote>Excellent advice. Really...<blockquote>" Good question to ask is if we are any better at seeing others perspectives today than we were then..."</blockquote>I believe we looked at a number of other perspectives but the problem was far more difficult than you imply.<blockquote>"...and if "failure" in the areas we are committed today is any more dangerous to US national interests than "failure" in Vietnam was?</blockquote>Consider the perspectives of the opponents. In Viet Nam, they only wanted us gone and had no designs against the US proper. Today, OTOH, destruction or significant weakening of the US <b><i>is</i></b> the goal...

Bob's World

Tue, 11/17/2009 - 10:19pm

"We had to burn the villiage to save the villiage"

Perhaps like no other quote coming out of Vietnam this defines the war. Perhaps if we would have honored our relationship with Ho for helping us defeat the Japanese in WWII and established a free and independent Vietnam rather than turning them back over to their Colonial masters we could have avoided the whole false Western construct of "North" and "South" Vietnam and avoided having to burn the "villiage" of Vietnam in an effort to save it.

A lesson here is to not get so blinded by your own perspective that you cannot see the perspective of others. Good question to ask is if we are any better at seeing others perspectives today than we were then, and if "failure" in the areas we are committed today is any more dangerous to US national interests than "failure" in Vietnam was?

Don't have any answers, but its a question I think about...

oldpapjoe (not verified)

Wed, 11/11/2009 - 11:36am

Ah history, the field of study that allows arguments to go on forever!!

I reject, as ahistorical, the standard accepted belief --a belief that is almost religious in its conviction--that the US could not have won its war in Vietnam. Given the massive power the US possessed from 1964-1975 relative to all its opponents (USSR, PRC, NV), the US could have won--but as the good colonel has pointed out, the US lacked a strategy to frame our war in Vietnam. That is what makes the study of Vietnam so darn interesting. That is what makes Colin Gray's statement that Americans don't do strategy.

Now, what appears to have happened in 1968, following Tet, was the loss of America's political will to see the war through the events that came out of the Tet uprising. LBJ and the Democratic leadership, and the intellectual elites who advised him and dominated his party, appear to have used the event as the "enough is enough of this dumb war..a war we never wanted and had no idea of how to fight". What I find so remarkable about the situation is the fact that the Tet uprising came as a result of the North's "let's try the big gamble" before following Mao's maxim of reverting to a less aggressive phase of the war. I suspect that they felt that they had about as much of Westmoreland's attrition "strategy" they could take. As the senior NVA commander in the south told the North's leadership, fighting the Americans was not like fighting the French. His troops were taking massive casualties, casulaties that he thought were strategically unnecessary and unacceptable. As old NVA veterans recount today, when a young man was called into service to "go south" it was not unusual for his family to hold a farewell dinner that was akin to a funeral. The family knew that it was unlikely the young soldier would return. Giap took the strategic gamble of the Tet uprising as a result of the impact Westmoreland's large battles had on the NVA. How the US strategically mishandled the Tet 68 uprising outcome (the outcome of the battles,as Clausewitz's points out are the substance of either obtaining one's strategic aim or not) made the difference for the entire war. And as we all know, when the RVN fell in 1975, it fell to a mechanized enemy, not an insurgency. Bottom line for me is this: What should have been the strategy that would have enabled the US to prevail? Once that is laid out, then the operational methods, the campaigns in Vietnam can be examined (more COIN, less COIN, more battle, less battle, etc). Once again, as the good colonel points out, COIN was not and is not a strategy. Relevant to today is the question: What is our strategy, not for Afghanistan, but for the entire "thing" [can't call it a GWOT] we have with radical Islamic movement and its silent partners in Europe and in capitals from Egypt to Pakistan? Unless we answer that question first, all the COIN in the world may prove pointless. It is for this reason that Colin Gray says quite clearly and consistently, that the US doesn't do strategy.

Mike in Hilo

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 10:38pm

Others have spoken in support of the larger question of the war's winnability by adducing far greater corroborating detail than I could (and I disclose that I am in basic agreement with their bottom line in this regard, rather than with Col. Gentile's)....

But there remains a more narrowly framed question with which I have been wrestling for years, viz.: To the advisers on the ground, many of whom had been serving for the better part of a decade, there was no doubt that security had improved measurably by 1970 to a state unseen since, at least, the demise of the Diem regime. The question is, how critical was COIN to the improved security? In 1970, the GVN controlled (in varying degree) the bulk of the population. Locally recruited RF were providing territorial security, PFs manned outposts even in contested areas (where it is likely that at least some were former VC/). This was COIN, to be sure. But this became possible because, under US leadership, the friendlies raced to fill the vacuum in the countryside left by two years of heavy fighting in enemy-initiated offensives. The vacuum was the result of the decimation of the large enemy units (main and regional forces) by US forces. It strikes me as questionable that, absent this massive attrition of the enemy units, placing the bulk of rural Vietnamese manpower in RVNAF uniforms would have been possible in, say, 1967. As for the views of our GVN countereparts, I might point out that this was a question I routinely posed to the ARVN field grade officers with which I worked. I never encountered one who did not attribute the improved security to the destruction of the enemy units--with the added attribution specific to Tay Ninh (where I spent my first 13 months in-country on the CORDS province team) to the US pushing the three threatening NVA divisions, 5th, 7th and 9th, away from Tay Ninh's border deeper into Cambodia in the 1970 Cambodian incursion.

The VC were beaten down to the point where they played no important role in the defeat of South Vietnam. As Bill M. suggests, I think an important reason for that is the South Vietnamese and Americans learned to fight them more effectively as the war went on.

One of the things that hugely frustrated the American people during the war was the refusal of the American leadership to take decisive measures against North Vietnam until it was too late. Maybe this lack of backbone on the part of the leadership contributed to a faulty strategy.

A primary reason South Vietnam fell to the North was we did not support them as we had led them to believe we would. Millions of people in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos suffered and died because of this. If we are going to analogize Vietnam to Afghanistan, perhaps we should start here.

Lastly, I should like to hear more discussion about the ISI/Pakistani Army's double dealing. As long as their machinations in Afghanistan are not dealt with, I don't see how the place can settle down.


Tue, 11/10/2009 - 6:37pm



Where are we, in the Soviet Union circa 1988?

Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 4:17pm

All very well and good. As a multiple tour Vietnam veteran, I'm also under no illusions that victory/success was within grasp - if only, etc.

However, the quote, "the war could not have been won in any meaningful sense of moral or material cost most Americans deemed acceptable," may (and I emphasize may) have a partial parallel with Afghanistan?

If one gets off a military base and/or town beholding to a military payroll, many I come in contact with are questioning whether the cost is worth the effort, and most polls seem to back that up.

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam ~ Lewis Sorley


Tue, 11/10/2009 - 12:52pm

COL Gentile's point is quite apt. Policymaking by historical analogy is problematic enough (see Neustadt and May, Thinking in Time) without complicating things with a selective reading of historiography. If senior leaders are only reading and drawing conclusions from revisionist works, than history is being abused.

For an appaling misreading of Vietnam and American military historiography in the context of Afghanistan, see the companion piece to Kerry's Newsweek article by Evan Thomas and John Barry, "The Lessons of Vietnam." (Newsweek, 16 Nov 09)

A more historiographically sound use of the Vietnam/Afghanistan comparison can be found in the November/December 2009 edition of Military Review: Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, "Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template."

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 11/10/2009 - 12:31pm

Exactly what historical revisions is the author referring to that is so dangerous?

Are the following inaccurate revisions:

1. Did or didn't S. Vietnam and the U.S. effectively reduce the insurgent threat to a manageable level using effective COIN strategies after Westmoreland left? Or as I think the author may be suggesting, should we have continued with Westmoreland's attrition strategy?

2. Did the insurgents or N. Vietnamese conventional forces overthrow the government of S. Vietnam?

3. Was the U.S. military's reaction to Vietnam (no more Vietnam's and the so called Powell Docctrine) appropriate, or did we simply wish away the irregular warfare challenge to our national security interests?

4. How many S. Vietnamese people were murdered/purged and re-educated after the fall of S. Vietnam? Assuming it was in the thousands if not tens of thousands, was this really a war supported by the people as the American left would like you to believe?

Bill M.