General Studies

Petraeus on Vietnam's Legacy

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Among Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus's qualifications for the post of senior U.S. military commander in Iraq is his work training Iraqi security forces, as well as his oversight of the Army and Marine Corps' updated counterinsurgency field manual. But another document may prove useful to Petraeus in Iraq. In 1987, he earned a PhD from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School with a 328-page thesis titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era." Excerpts below.

-- Rachel Dry

On the lessons of history

Historical analogies are particularly compelling during crises, when the tendency to supplement incomplete information with past experiences is especially marked. . . . The legacy of Vietnam is unlikely to soon recede as an important influence on America's senior military. The frustrations of Vietnam are too deeply etched in the minds of those who now the [sic] lead the services and combatant commands. . . .

Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America's military leaders confounded, dismayed, and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money, and qualified people for a decade. . . . While the psychic scars of the war may be deepest among the Army and Marine Corps leadership, however, the senior leaders of all the services share a similar reaction to Vietnam. There is no desire among any of them to repeat the experience that provided the material for such descriptively titled books as: "Defeated: Inside America's Military Machine"; "Self Destruction: the Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era"; and "Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the United States Army." The simple essence of this feeling is that, in the words of then Colonel Dave Palmer, "there must be no more Vietnams."

On war and public opinion

Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply. . . .

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