washingtonpost.com
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. . . .

The military want to avoid what former Army Chief of Staff E.C. Meyer termed the Vietnam mistake of "putting soldiers out at the end of a string" without the full support of the American people. Since time is crucial, furthermore, sufficient force must be used at the outset to ensure that the conflict can be resolved before the American people withdraw their support for it. Nothing succeeds with the American public like success, the military realize; the sooner the mission is accomplished, the better.

On fighting insurgencies

Vietnam planted in the minds of many in the military doubts about the ability of U.S. forces to conduct successful large-scale counterinsurgencies. These misgivings do not in all cases spring from doubts about the capabilities of American troops and units per se. . . .

Rather, the doubts that are part of the Vietnam legacy spring from a number of interrelated factors: the previously noted worries about a lack of popular support for what the public might perceive as ambiguous conflicts; suspicions about the willingness of civilian policy-makers -- not just those in the executive branch -- to stay the course; and lurking fears that the respective services have yet to come to grips with the difficult tasks of developing the doctrine, equipment, and forces suitable for nasty "little" wars. . . .

Others, who believe that the U.S. could develop suitable American forces for counterinsurgency operations, have doubts about the existing capabilities of U.S. units in this area. As one U.S. officer put it, "I submit that the U.S. Army does not have the mind-set for combat operations where the key terrain is the mind, not the high ground. We do not take the time to understand the nature of the society in which we are fighting, the government we are supporting, or the enemy we are fighting."

On civilian officials

Very importantly, many in the military believe that the United States armed forces can win small wars if allowed to do so. Those who hold this view tend to believe that Vietnam was less an illustration of the limitations of American military power than an example of what happens if that power is limited and not used to best advantage. This feeling springs from conviction that the U.S. military in Vietnam were so hemmed in by restrictions that they could not accomplish their mission. The lesson for those of this persuasion, therefore, is that the military must be given a freer hand in future military operations. Even among the most fervent believers in this logic, however, there is a new recognition that the world is more intractable, and intervention with U.S. troops more problematic. . . .

The military also took from Vietnam (and the concomitant activities in the Pentagon) a heightened awareness that civilian officials are responsive to influences other than the objective conditions on the battlefield. A consequence has been an increase in the traditional military distrust of civilian political leaders. . . . While the military still accept emphatically the constitutional provision for civilian control of the armed forces, there remain from the Vietnam era nagging doubts about the abilities and motivations of politicians and those they appoint to key positions. Vietnam was a painful reminder for the military that they, not the transient occupants of high office, generally bear the heaviest burden during armed conflict.

On dealing with the President

The lessons taken from Vietnam work to that end; military support for the use of force abroad is contingent on the presence of specific pre-conditions . . . "Don't commit American troops, Mr. President," they hold, "unless:

1) You really have to (in which case, presumably, vital U.S. interests are at stake);

2) You have established clear-cut, attainable military objectives for American military forces (that is, more than just some fuzzy political goals).

3) You provide the military commander sufficient forces and the freedom necessary to accomplish his mission swiftly. (Remember, Mr. President, this may necessitate the mobilization of the reserve components -- perhaps even a declaration of war.)

4) You can ensure sufficient public support to permit carrying the commitment through to its conclusion."

For the military, in short, the debate over how and when to commit American troops abroad has become a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company