What are the lessons of Vietnam? I've forgotten.

I was reading this review of Graham Greene’s work in Salon, and it occurred to me I really didn’t really recall any specific “lessons” about Vietnam, and getting involved in the politics of foreign nations.

What are those lessons?

Was Vietnam a “necessary” war with respect to our national interests?

The first lesson of Vietnam is “don’t forget the lessons of Vietnam”.

The second lesson of Vietnam is… “don’t forget the lessons of Vietnam”.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself on that one…

Don’t enter a war without a clear objective to win–with a definition of what winning means.

Don’t enter enter a non-traditional (guerilla, non-set-piece) war without the firm support of the majority of the local population.

Don’t lie to the folks back home about the war’s progress.

Technology does not trump motivation unless you intend a war of ruthless conquest (and even then technology might not be enough).

Just look at how little good all those death stars did.

Yeah, I think that the big one is some variation of, “Winning militarily is not enough to win the war.”

Lesson #1: Don’t let pre-conceived ideology cloud your perception of the facts on the ground.

American-controlled elections brought a horrible ruler to power in South Vietnam, engendering a civil war in that country. But America could not conceive of this notion, and preferred to think that communist North Vietnam was fomenting revolt, backed by China (a nation that has hated Vietnam for centuries).

Without learning this lesson, you can not learn tomndebb’s lessons.

I want to add some…

  1. Don’t fight unless you are willing to do whatever it takes to win. - attack the enemy everywhere, don’t make his cities or capital a safe haven, don’t tell tropps they must stop at some arbitrary imaginary line.
  2. Never fight a “holding” or “police” action. Maintaining a “presence” is nonsense - either fight or go home.
  3. Don’t let politicians run or use the war for short term political gain - leave it to the professionals.
  4. “Never try to fight a land war in Asia” (the Sicilian Genius).
  5. Don’t lie about the success or lack of success.
  6. Have a clear reason for war.
  7. Have clear and attainable objectives, plainly stated.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia”

“Don’t match wits with a Cecilian when death is on the line.”

“Location, location, location. The location is Asia. Don’t go there.”

“Well, we could have won, but the wimpy liberal politicians made us fight with one hand tied behind our backs! Wasn’t for them, we could still be there!”

“Dissent is treason. Dissent offers aid and comfort to the enemy. Support our troops! Obey.”

Actually, if it is merely death, it is a Sicilian with whom one must not match wits.
To invoke the Cecilian aphorism, it must be ignorance that is on the line.

Obviously, Fazzini (sp?) never reckoned with the Dread Pirate Roberts. Sorry I didn’t get the quote exactly right, I’m still topping off the caffeine level (too much blood in my caffeine system).

I’m going to once again put a plug in for The Fog of War. Very dry, but very, very good. If you haven’t seen it yet, rent it. Very apropriate to this topic.

mmm? 'Twasn’t you I quoted. Your statement looks good to me.

I agree with John Mace.

(Did I just type that out loud?)

I’m compelled by forces beyond my control:

Who’d be more professional at using the war for short term political gain than politicians? They certainly seem like the go-to experts on this.

As usual, tomndebb does a fine job of explaining things but I will quibble with his #2. Lets remember that Vietnam, despite all the hype, wasn’t a guerilla war. It had that component but so did WW2. The other side did field an army which we refered to as the NVA. The leaders of that army, such as General Giap, gave irregulars as little credit for winning their independence as Washington did for ours.

Also, it takes more to maintain low intensity conflict against an occupying power than just support of the population. A movement also needs safe havens to do the hard work of building the resistance: planning, training, equiping, that sort of thing; and outside aid. A more complete formulation for Tom’s #2 then might be: Don’t enter into nontraditional conflict without the support of the majority of the local population unless they can be effectively isolated.

Another important lesson for successful occupation is the need to understand the local culture. When you are trying to hold onto the other guy’s turf, as opposed to just smacking him around and getting out, you are at a disadvantage if he knows the rules and you don’t.

  1. It’s not the heat, but rather the humidity.

George W. Bush, 2000 GOP convention speech:

In summary and contrast to Iraq war.

**Just cause? ** Hmm, well, no clear and present danger of WMDs. Hussein wasn’t a great person either, but not a just enough cause when comparing against other world nations.

Clear Goal? The goal was clear to go into the war. Disarm Iraq. That was the one goal said by Bush and the administration before the war. However they weren’t armed. We’re still there and have no clear exit strategy which I would assume should have been part of any comprehensive goal.

Overwhelming victory? Hardly. When “Mission Accomplished” was being marketing by a jumpsuited Bush we had US soldiers getting killed in Iraq. The numbers have multiplied since then and are still counting up.

Not with WMDs. However, it just so happens that there were some high explosives, we knew where they were and the Bush administration, with typical incompetence, let the enemy get 350 tons of the stuff about a year ago, well after mission was so splendiferously accomplished. It’s just coming out now: http://story.news.yahoo.com/fc?cid=34&tmpl=fc&in=World&cat=Iraq

So, rather than preventing our enemies from being armed the Bush administration handed them a huge armament bonaza.

Inicidentally, the Bush administration’s justification for not telling the press about the theft is that they wanted to keep it a secret from the enemy so he wouldn’t know that he had stolen the stuff. Now, there’s a fine piece of thinking. :smack:

That’s an interesting twist on the “October Surprise”. I would never have guessed that they’d surprise themselves like that.

My thoughts exactly.

I’ve got to say, I don’t think that there were any lessons from Vietnam.

Or at the very least, the lessons that various folks have taken away from Vietnam can be outright contradictory. Those opposed to the war might reason that we shouldn’t fight wars where we aren’t wanted. Those who supported the war might argue that fighting a war with one hand tied behind one’s back is folly. Well, if both of those are valid lessons, then I don’t think there are any really solid lessons to be learned, because those lessons are contradictory. Even if you can talk yourself out of the contradiction, following either one would lead to radically different outcomes. Where is the lesson there?

I, for one, think that “the lessons of Vietnam” is an ingenious catchphrase that can be used to try to get the hawks and the doves nodding in unison, each thinking that their views are being heard.

And, for good measure, on “The Fog of War.” McNamera certainly had his lessons from war. But I think his best message was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of course, historians have been dissecting this for ages trying to figure out how that genuis Kennedy got us out of that close call with nuclear war; or to devine the true essence of negotiation from strength that will lead to insights on how to resolve international crises peacefully. But I think McNamera’s view is the keenest of them all: “We got lucky.”

Bottom line, the lessons of Vietnam – if there are any – apply to Vietnam and Vietnam alone. One can’t possibly hope to isolate the scores of variables and arrive at a lesson that is useful in any other real-world circumstance. If there are lessons to be learned from this sort of examination of history, perhaps the most useful one lies in the comparison of the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam: win some, lose some.