The Real Lessons of Vietnam


Since 1975, in any engagement involving the U.S. military, particularly major wars such as Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, liberals have warned of the possibility of getting into “another Vietnam.” We hear it all day, every day. Yet the real lessons of the Vietnam War have yet to be learned. And as we speak, our nation is committing the same blunders in the Middle East that we did in Southeast Asia 40 years ago. For the record, I am not arguing that Iraq was a mistake or that we should pull out now, but three major lessons of Vietnam are of particular interest in our present situation.

Lesson # 1 – Know Your Enemy. Sun Tzu taught this valuable lesson more than 2,000 years ago. “If you know yourself and not the enemy,” he wrote, “for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” We made countless blunders in Vietnam because we did not know our enemy and we did not understand Vietnamese culture.

For starters there were very few Asian experts in the State Department, so very little guidance could be provided to U.S. policy makers. By contrast, experts on Japan provided much needed information during the Second World War. Had a few of these analysts been around in the 1960’s, crucial mistakes might have been averted. One example occurred early in the American phase of the war. In order to attempt to separate rural Vietnamese peasants from Viet Cong insurgents, the Strategic Hamlet Program was initiated. Villagers would be relocated from their homes to fortified settlements. The problem was that these villages, most of them ancient, are a major part of Vietnamese culture. Ancestors dating back generations are buried there, a belief that they will bless and watch over the land, making it fruitful. Having been to Vietnam on three separate occasions, I have seen this culture first hand.  Forced relocations from ancestral lands caused massive resistance among the Vietnamese people and pushed many villagers to join the Viet Cong.

In addition, the Vietnamese are a very martial people, a fact that most at the time did not know or understand. They fought a war for independence against the Chinese for 1,000 years! These people do not give up nearly as easily as the Johnson Administration believed they would after a few days of Rolling Thunder. These are just a few of many examples that could be cited.

Today in the Middle East, we seem unwilling to admit who we are fighting and why they make war on us. The standard line we’ve been getting since September 11, 2001 is that Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network are fighting the United States because of our way of life, a culture Muslims despise. But this is far from accurate. Bin Laden and his ilk could care less what we do over here. It’s what we do over there that has them upset. Bin Laden issued a declaration of war against the United States in 1996. There is not one word in it that even remotely suggests he is upset with our lifestyle here at home. But he did state unequivocally that he is angry with the presence of American troops on the sacred soil of the Arabian Peninsula and continued U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians. Muslim extremists like Bin Laden also fear that the United States is exporting American culture to the Islamic world, thereby poisoning the Muslim way of life.

Al Qaeda is fighting a religious war against us and we refuse to recognize it. Though I am not suggesting this course of action, in theory, should the U.S. pull out of the Middle East totally, our terrorist problems would disappear. But as long as “American infidels” are engaged in the Middle East, I’m sad to report, Islamic extremists will never stop fighting us.

Lesson # 2 – If You Must Use Military Power, Then Use It Decisively. During the Vietnam War the politicians did not want to use the full weight of the U.S. military against our Vietnamese enemies. We did not use strategic bombing like we did in the Second World War. We never launched an invasion of North Vietnam. We did not seriously attempt to stop the use of Cambodia and Laos as Viet Cong and NVA bases. We were much more concerned with not losing the war than we were on actually winning it. No plan for victory existed anywhere. Now let me be very clear about one thing: American military forces performed superbly in Vietnam, winning every battle. And U.S. forces have been spectacular in the fields of the Middle East. However they are being limited by politicians just as they were 40 years ago.

First, we did not use nearly enough force in Iraq. Turkey should have been punished severely for not allowing us to use their territory to invade with the 4th Infantry Division from the north. More troops on the battlefield would have allowed us to seal the country and keep foreign fighters from pouring into Iraq from Iran and Syria. This was a huge blunder and everyone knows it.

Secondly, we don’t seem to want to get aggressive enough with the insurgency. The job of a military force is to kill the enemy. Period. But what are we currently arguing about? Giving our enemies, those who want to see us dead, the right to use American courtrooms! And worrying that some terrorist thug was humiliated by having to wear underwear on his head! What insanity! The insurgency seems now to be getting stronger not weaker. But yet some of our leaders have stated recently that it is nearly at an end. Funny, didn’t the Johnson Administration say the same thing in late 1967, just before the Tet Offensive?

Lesson # 3 – A Divided Homefront Gives Aid And Comfort To The Enemy. If we should have learned anything from the Vietnam experience it should be this. There is ample evidence that the North Vietnamese did not believe they could continue fighting the United States while suffering the massive casualties inflicted upon them. They are a martial people, to be sure, but they had never taken the kind of beating dished out by the U.S. military machine. But what kept them going was watching American society tear itself apart over the war. Seeing massive protests, dissident congressional leaders, and even violence gave hope to Hanoi that if they just held out longer, the United States would be forced to quit. It was protracted war at its finest. But had we maintained a united front at home, things might have turned out differently.

The American public has been divided over the war in Iraq since it began. And it seems as if every week we get more dangerously subversive rhetoric from congressional Democrats. Fanatical liberals, like Ted Kennedy, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, constantly call the commander-in-chief a liar, compare our troops to Nazis, scream for Rumsfeld to resign, say the war in Iraq is lost, and the list goes on. This kind of behavior is damaging to troop morale and gives aid and comfort to our enemies. Excuse me for asking, but is this not treason in a time of war? Can you imagine if we had had this kind of dissent during World War II? This kind of behavior is irresponsible, inexcusable, and borderline treason. You may hate the war, but once troops are in the field they should be given our full support.

These are just a few of the many lessons drawn from the Vietnam War, but probably the most relevant to our current situation today. But until these lessons are finally learned and never again repeated, the long shadow of Vietnam will continue to hang over our nation.

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