Military planners have learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War, focusing on war’s “winnability” rather than questioning whether to engage in it all, notes Alastair Crooke.
By Alastair Crooke
Setting aside for the moment President Donald Trump’s animus to Barack Obama and all his works (notably the JCPOA, AKA the Iran nuclear deal), and his close attachment to Benjamin Netanyahu, much of this administration’s foreign policy seems to Beltway outsiders as one that is strategically incoherent: increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan (after 16 years of war); a militarized ‘statelet’ to be constructed in northeastern Syria; a ploy to divide Lebanon; operational collaboration with Saudi’s Yemen war; and ‘taking Jerusalem off the table.’
These policies all seem to be conceived with a puzzling indifference to the likelihood for U.S. failure and humiliation.
Now one military historian who served with U.S. forces in Iraq tells us in a compelling discourse that if we find it confusing, it is because we have failed to grasp the essence of what drives these policies. He explains – in a single word – what it is that we’re missing: Vietnam
“It’s always there,” Danny Sjursen writes of the Vietnam War. “Looming in the past, informing American futures. A 50-year-old war, once labelled the longest in our history, is still alive and well; and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command. And almost half a century later, they’re still losing it and blaming others for doing so.”
More than two decades of involvement, spanning from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s and — at the height of involvement — with half a million American troops on the ground, the basic weakness was never altered, observes Sjursen. The U.S.-backed regime in Saigon was simply unable to hold the line without American military support – and ultimately collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion, in April 1975.
“There’s just one thing,” Sjursen writes. “Though a majority of historians … subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not. Instead, they’re still refighting the Vietnam War.”
Many of the current military leaders entered the service when military prestige was at an all-time low ebb. They came of age believing the Vietnam failure was due to political cowardice in Washington, or due to a military high command that too weak to assert its authority effectively. But none of the military analysis done by this post-Vietnam generation of officers ever addressed the basic question “about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable” from the beginning.
No, in this view, the war could, and should, have been won – if only the right approach had been pursued.
Thus, we have had “forever war” which is designed empirically to “prove” the two major military theses of the war lacunae – which if they had been properly implemented in Vietnam, instead of being neglected – would assuredly have led to an American “win.”
This revisionist history began in 1986 with an article by David Petraeus in the military journal Parameters, in which he argued that the U.S. army was unprepared to fight low intensity conflicts (such as Vietnam), and that “what the country needed wasn’t fewer Vietnams; but better-fought ones. The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.”
One strand of military analysis (the Clauswitzian, “go-big” hypothesis), about how to “win” next time, was initiated by a Colonel Harry Summers, who suggested that “civilian policymakers had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than focus on the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi: More troops, more aggressiveness, even full-scale invasions of communist safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, would have led to victory.”
Though H.R. McMaster (the present National Security Advisor) in a 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, pinned the blame rather on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a lack of honesty in advising the President Johnson on what was needed to “win,” he agreed with Summers that “winning” required a more aggressive offensive strategy – a full ground invasion of the North, or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country.
In this sense, he was another “go-big” Clausewitzian – and we may recognize something of this earlier intellectual framing in McMaster’s attempt in April 2017 to persuade President Trump to deploy 150,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as a Petraeus-style “surge.” It will be recalled also, that McMaster reportedly is the advocate for a more aggressive, military-options approach for North Korea.
The other strand – the lack of a COIN, or counterinsurgency, approach in Vietnam – was initially adopted by Colonel Krepinevich as the overarching explanation for the US military’s Vietnam failure. The definitive COIN doctrine, Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations, however, was overseen by David Petraeus, working with another officer, Lt. General James Mattis (the present Defense Secretary).
Petraeus would “famously return to Iraq in 2007,” Tom Engelhardt notes, “that manual in hand, with five brigades, or 20,000 U.S. troops, for what would become known as ‘the surge,’ or “the new way forward” – an attempt to bail the Bush administration out of its disastrous occupation of the country.”
“Such revisionist interpretations of the Vietnam experience would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps,” Sjursen reflects. “All of this misremembering, all of those Vietnam ‘lessons’ inform the U.S. military’s ongoing ‘surges’ and ‘advise-and-assist’ approaches to its wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa.”
Both Vietnam revisionist schools are represented in the Trump administration and guide its version of global strategy. There are those who demand a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam and there is a “hearts-and-minds” faction that consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to more than two-thirds of the world’s nations. “Today’s leaders don’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end,” notes Sjursen.
In an interview last June, Petraeus described the Afghan conflict as “generational,” raising the specter of a decades-long engagement. Speaking on PBS’ News Hour, Petraeus said:
“But this [war in Afghanistan] is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, [and] go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable. We have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time: Still there, of course, and actually with a renewed emphasis now, given Russia’s aggressive actions. And I think that’s the way we need to approach this.”
The analysis by Sjursen helps explain what otherwise seems to be ill-conceived actions by the US military, such as militarily to occupy (i.e. illegally) a corner of Syria (well, 40% of it really). War with Russia and Iran, it would appear, are “forever” wars – generational struggles. China is too, but that is a financial war front, principally.
McMaster said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2016: “What is required to deter a strong nation … is forward deterrence, to be able to ratchet up the cost at the frontier, and to take an approach to deterrence that is consistent with deterrence by denial, convincing your enemy that your enemy is unable to accomplish his objectives at a reasonable cost.”
That is perhaps what America’s annexation of northeastern Syria is all about: ratchetting up the cost, at the frontier; a deterrence by denial (of Syrian land to Iranian forces).
Europe might like to ponder McMaster’s words. For if the U.S is engaged in “generational,” COIN-influenced operations against Iran, the Europeans are fighting the wrong war: Trying to appease Trump, by setting up a working group with the Americans to consider how the JCPOA can be improved, or entering into talks on ballistic missiles with Iran, is likely to achieve nothing: it will be simply subsumed into what McMaster described as the US needing to operate effectively on this “battleground of perception and information.”
That is to say the Europeans will be colluding with the U.S. COIN operations being mounted against Iran.
What is less clear however, about “what’s up” with U.S. foreign policy, is this: At the 2016 CSIS event, McMaster described Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine and its “annexation” of Crimea as having “punctuated” the end of the post-Cold War period, but that these were not new developments “in terms of Russian aggression.”
“Of course, this is a sophisticated strategy, what Russia is employing – and we’re doing a study of this now with a number of partners – that combines, really, conventional forces as cover for unconventional action, but a much more sophisticated campaign involving the use of criminality and organized crime, and really operating effectively on this battleground of perception and information, and in particular part of a broader effort to sow doubt and conspiracy theories across our alliance,” McMaster outlined.
“And this effort,” he continued, “is aimed really not at defensive objectives, but at offensive objectives – to collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic, and political order in Europe, and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.”
This is frankly psychotic. It reminds of Fyodor Dosoevsky’s The Possessed, in which the revolutionaries fearing for the soul of Russia (read America), believe that, unless the perceived threats to her are exorcised by a renewal of vigor and a pure nationalism, their country would be overwhelmed. It is a study in the fragmentation of human psyche which leads the group to see everything conspiring together, to destroy what they see to be the true soul of their homeland.
McMaster’s view is presented as if America is the threatened, fragile psyche – under evil attack from all quarters. There seems to be no understanding that these fears might be largely the projections from his own psyche (as in Dostoevsky’s analysis), or that American military actions might have contributed anything to towards these antagonisms that he now identifies as threatening him, and his country; or that the dissolution of the American-shaped global order or America’s dominance over the global financial system, may represent changing major underlying dynamics, that are occurring in, and of, themselves and not connected directly to Russia.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.