Sunday, 9 September 2012

Vietnam, a war the US Army didn't want to win

"I'll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war"

I thought Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare by Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian would be a good way to get a long term perspective on counterinsurgency warfare ofr Lost Youth. Sadly, there was no time to read the whole book, so I focused on the short introduction and the chapter on Vietnam.

In the introduction the authors give a skeleton overview of the literature on the subject, as it moved from the colonial experience (think Caldwell's Small Wars) to decolonisation and Cold War. Three authors from the 1960s were formative in present thinking: Galula, Thompson and Kitson.

Galula was a French officer who worked on his experiences in Algeria. His 1964 book focussed on the political nature of the conflict and the necessity to protect/separate the population from the insurgents.

Thompson, a British officer, wrote in 1966 about the necessity for a government to clearly define it's aims, plan for the long term and operate within the law, so as to keep the population on it's side. Kitson, like Thompson a British officer with ample experience in 'low intensity' warfare, further stressed the importance of intelligence gathering. His book appeared in 1971.

From these three books Marston and Malkasian draw as the primary conclusion that insurgency is first and foremost a political conflict. Further more the have a list of general guidelines for counterinsurgency warfare:
  • aim for political compromise
  • adapt to local circumstances and be aware of ethnic and social sensibilities.
  • protect the population
  • know your enemy
  • organisational culture, home support and good cooperation between military and civil institutions are vital to successful execution.

Then I moved on to the chapter 'Counterinsurgency in Vietnam. American Organizational Culture and Learning' by John Nagl. This is based on his book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgence Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

Nagl's main claim is that the US Army as an institution refused to accept that the nature of the conflict in Vietnam was primarily political. Therefor they worked towards the conventional military solutions that mirrored the conflict they had fought in WWII and Korea, and which they expected to encounter elsewhere.

This was apparent in US Army doctrine, which was founded on overwhelming firepower. But this doctrine was also taught to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from the first advisors in 1950 till the fall of Saigon in 1975. Apart from the question whether this type of army was best suited to the mission of maintaining South Vietnam as an independent state, this doctrine was unsustainable economically.

What is interesting is that the three books mentioned earlier were all published when the Vietnam war was already escalating and thus were essentialy too late to influence the discussion. As said, the official US doctrine was formulated in 1962. However, there was a wealth of experience from the 1940s and 1950s available, and of course from Vietnam itself, even if not always congested in a clear theory.

It is clear that those lessons were being learned by some Americans. Nagl shows a number of attempts to change doctrine or experiments with alternative methods to face the nature of counterinsurgency. A presidential committee in 1959, Kennedy in 1961, CIA civilian irregular defense groups, the combined action platoons of the Marines and the PROVN study in 1965/6.

At best these attempts were paid lip service by the army. A section on counterinsurgency warfare was added to the Field Manual in 1962. But in practice the Army stuck to its guns. The CIA and USMC initiatives were terminated by the Army to make way for their own, more aggressive tactics. Even general Abrams, who had been part of some of these initiatives, couldn't effect a change when he replaced Westmoreland in 1968.

The organisational culture of the US Army was thus highly resistant to change. It refused to accept that to beat the insurgency, the political struggle was the most important, rather than an 'other war'. It stubbornly continued to wage the war the way it wanted to fight. Nagl refers to a 1981 book by Summers that even argued that Vietnam was lost because too much focus was put on counterinsurgency at the expense of the big unit war.

From this perspective, the claim that the US Army won the war but was let down by the home front is thus pathetic and wrong. The US army maybe achieved the objectives it set itself, but the North Vietnamese won the real war for control of Vietnam. It is difficult to see how more US troops and firepower could have changed that outcome.

Of course in the end this was foremost a failure by successive US administrations to take control of the effort in South East Asia. By subordinating the civilian effort to that of the military, counterproductive methods like carpet bombing, burning villages, defoliants etc could continue at the expensive of protecting the population and removing the support for the insurgents. If anything, Vietnam showed that war is too important to leave to the military.


  1. After reading your review I wonder if the lessons of counter insurgency were learnt and embedded in the military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I think we are doing things better now than in the Vietnam war, but it is a difficult thing to get right.

  2. Nagl argues they were not (on the contrary). Now reading a book by Bergerud, who argues that Thompson's ideas had already been incorporated in Vietnam in the Strategic Hamlets programme before his book came out (as consultant to the Diem regime). But that was a failure.

    There are differences with Vietnam, especially the existence of Northern Vietnam. But there are great difficulties with the nature of all regimes propped up by the US.

    Bergerud argues that in Vietnam there was no chance the regime would ever turn to good governance, so would also have less legitimacy than the communists.

    The question is whether good governance is a realistic expectation in Iraq and Afghanistan now


I appreciate comments. Let me know what you think!