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Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?

8 February 2012

Summary:  The Afghanistan War vividly demonstrates one of America’s greatest weaknesses.  We don’t learn from experience.  Change the names and so much history of Vietnam War reads like today’s news.  All that’s old is new again.  The actions of Lt Colonel Davis (see yesterday’s post) should remind us of similar events so long ago.

From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1969), chapter 11

The conflict between Harkins ({Commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam}and his senior advisers in the Mekong Delta, his colonels and lieutenant colonels, was very real.  These officers were the fulcrum between the Saigon command, with its illusions about the war and its sense of responsibility to its superiors in the Pentagon, and the reality in the field where the junior officers, the captains and lieutenants, were discovering their ally did not want to fight and that the enemy was winning.

At considerable risk to their own careers, the four key officers began to complain, in varying ways and in varying degrees. … They were all combat veterans of other wars, men who had been specially selected for these slots. … They thought it was a serious business to send young men out to die, and if you were willing to do it, you had to be willing to fight for their doubts and put your career on the line.

To the Saigon command, then and later, Vietnam and the Vietnamese were never really a part of American thinking and plans; Vietnam was only an extension of America, of their own careers, their own institutional drives, their own self-image.  To the men in the field it was a real war, not just a brief interruption in their careers, something to prevent damaging your career.

{Lt Colonel Fred Ladd} was quickly put down for pessimistic reporting from his area.  {Lt Colonel John Paul Vann} was even worse. … By the time Cann went home in June 1963 he was the most informed American i the country.  A statistician by training, he had managed to come up with a new kind of statistic.  In contrast to the {MACV}, whose figures reflected only the greater American fire power and the American willingness to accept inflated ARVN body counts at face value, Vann had managed to compile a different kind of statistical story.  Thus he documented the ARVN failure to fight … This did not mean that the AVRN was fighting well, as Harkins implied; it confirmed that they were not fighting at all, and the burden of the war was being borne by ill-equipped militia who more often than not (Vann proved this too) were being killed asleep in their defensive positions.

Vann went home a very angry man, to find that Saigon had ordered that he not be debriefed in Washington.  So he began to give his briefing to friends at the Pentagon.  it was a professional presentation, and very different from the usual briefings coming in from Saigon.  What made it striking was that it was based on hard facts.

Vann began to get higher and higher hearings in the Pentagon until finally General Hamlett, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, heard the briefing, was impressed and arranged for Vann to meet with the Joint Chiefs. … the Vann briefing was set for 2 pm on July 8 1963.  … He showed up outside the office of the Chief of Staff when a phone call came in {cancelling the briefing}.  Thus a major dissenting view was blocked from a hearing at the highest level by Max Taylor {Chairman of the Joint Chiefs}, and thus the Army’s position on how well the war was going.  Had Vann briefed, it would have been much harder for the high-level military to go into meetings with the President and claim that the war was going well.

This charade was a microcosm of the way the high level miltiary destroyed dissenters, slanting the reporting lest the top level lose its antiseptic views, lest any germ of doubt reach the high level.

For more information:  Afghanistan as a lite-repeat of Vietnam

  1. Least we forget: lessons for us from the Battle of Ia Drang, 26 November 2007
  2. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009
  3. Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template, 27 March 2010
  4. Senator Jim Webb on the Vietnam Generation – Outstanding!, 25 July 2010
  5. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 5 October 2010
  6. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again, 20 October 2010
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 February 2012 5:27 am

    The observation that the commanders’ careers were more important than victory sounds eerily familiar. I just finished reading “The Operators” and was not surprised (but was depressed) to hear that the same thing is going on in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Careerists, willing to fight to the last drop of someone else’s blood, in order to avoid having to admit they made a mistake.

    Like

  2. Bluestocking permalink
    8 February 2012 5:20 pm

    “Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?”

    Given the fact that the Military Industrial Complex dominates American society far more now than it did during the Vietnam War — to the point that we’re probably no longer making bullets because we’re going to war but are instead going to war because we’re making bullets — then I think it’s safe to say that the answer is most likely “no.”

    Next question…?

    Like

  3. M Shannon permalink
    9 February 2012 4:15 am

    I just read a review of David French’s, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967.

    According to the reviewer, Thomas Ricks, the author maintains that contrary to Petreaus, Nagl and the rest of the coindinistas the Brits lost most of their COIN campaigns and used far more force than “Hearts and Minds” ( BTW this was originally Brit speak for concentration camps in Malaya).

    No news here but it might be for those whose only exposure to COIN was 3-24 or COIN academy.

    Like

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