Tag Archives: vietnam

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

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.

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About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again

Summary:  After trying so many tactics in Afghanistan, including search and destroy sweeps, we’re back to that Vietnam era:  clear and hold.  A fog of vivid language disguises this from the American people.  We rely on Afghanistan security forces to hold what they cannot clear.

Although the current operations in Kandahar have no embedded journalists (all were canceled due to logistical problems), the Pentagon keeps us informed (if not well-informed).  Feel the excitment coursing through the reporters as they repeat what they’re told.

A major military operation involving hundreds of American troops, U.S. Special Forces and heavy bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs on Taliban command and control centers wrapped up last week, concluding a critical phase in the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. … The operation was one part of a new push that began in September into the rural areas west of Kandahar City, which includes Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai districts. All are traditional strongholds for the Taliban … A senior coalition official in southern Afghanistan, who asked his name not be used, said the offensive focused on the northwestern part of Arghandab district and, specifically, a village called Charqol Bah.  The official described the village as a “command and control headquarters” for the Taliban.

They provide no picture of this “command and control HQ”.  One can only imagine!

“We expect hard fighting,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, told reporters … “destroying Taliban fighting positions so they will not have anywhere left to hide.”  (Los Angeles Times)

Pillboxes?  Forts?  Castles?  Some descriptions are direct echos from Vietnam, like this:

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A book explaining the secrets behind the Obama surge into Afghanistan

Summary:   People say that there will be powerful books written explaining the behind-the-scenes Washington dynamics of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Better than anything by Robert “court stenographer” Woodward.  You need not wait. They’re already in print, must-reads for anyone attempting to understand our situation.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the many fine books, written with perspective and balance, discussing our young President’s attempts to manage national security policy.

… Which did not stop him {the President} from telling scores of friends, senators, journalists, only slightly privately, that his mistake was to pay any attention to the CIA and the military brass.

The portrait of a young president victimized by subordinate was reprised in Obama, Ted Smithson’s memoir, a huge bestseller when published in 2015.  “Barack Obama,” Smithson wrote, “was capable of choosing a wrong course but never a stupid one; and to understand how he came to make this decision requires a review not merely of the facts but of the facts and assumptions that were presented to him”.  Smithson argued that Obama had been misinformed by the CIA and the military, because the president’s doubts and questions were being answered by those experts “most committed to supporting the plan.”

Arthur Smithinger, in a A Thousand Mistakes, also published in 2015, theorized that Obama’s mistake in authorizing the Afghanistan surge stemmed from his inexperience, having been in office only 77 days.  “He could not know which of his advisers were competent and which were not,” Smithinger wrote.   He told of of a lunch after the debacle in which Obama acknowledged that “I probably made a mistake in keeping Robert Gates on” as Secretary of defense.

What is the name of this book?

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Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”

Summary:  More similarities between the Vietnam and Af-Pak Wars.  These wars are different in almost every way.  The only common element:  us.  We’re using the same flawed decision-making process — making similar mistakes.

Consequently, IASF requires more forces. … The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.
—  From page 2-20 of General McChrystal’s Initial Commander’s Assessment of the Af-Pak War, dated 30 August 2009

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
— “Bob Woodward book details Obama battles with advisers over exit plan for Afghan war“, Washington Post, 21 September 2010

How do  civilian decision-makers approve escalation after escalation, until public suport for a war collapsed?  Below are two explanations.  One from one of our top historical analysts.  The second from The Simpsons Movie.

(1)  Modern American history consists of repeated mistakes

Daniel Ellsberg explains how this happens in The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine (an excerpt from How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?):

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Senator Jim Webb on the Vietnam Generation – Outstanding!

Summary:  An article by Senator Webb reminds of things easily forgotten about our military, with an introduction by Don Vandergriff.

I admire Senator’s Webb’s writing skills very much.   I think he’s really onto something in this article.  He certainly helps explain the very real and very sharp resentment of many Veterans who fought the war in Vietnam.  He also cites some figures that are eye-opening, such as 91% of Vietnam Veterans are glad they served their country,  78% enjoyed their time in service, and 73% of those killed were volunteers, not draftees.

“Heroes of the Vietnam Generation”, James Webb (Senator, D-VA), The American Enterprise, September 2000:

The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from the leading lights of the so-called 60s generation. Tom Brokaw has published two oral histories of “The Greatest Generation” that feature ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct was historically unique.

Chris Matthews of “Hardball” is fond of writing columns praising the Navy service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for its alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a startlingly condescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago comparing the heroism of the “D-Day Generation” to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the “Woodstock Generation.” And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film Saving Private Ryan, was careful to justify his portrayals of soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.

An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today’s most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The “best and brightest” of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse to remember.

Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the “generation gap.” Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through the magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the Depression and fought the largest war in history were looked down upon as shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.

Those of us who grew up on the other side of the picket line from that era’s counter-culture can’t help but feel a little leery of this sudden gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old counter-culture. Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from the dubious assumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a unified generation in the same sense as their parents were, and thus are capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.

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“Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template”

A fascinating analysis on a subject often discussed on the FM website (see the list at the end of this post).   I recommend reading it in full.

Excerpt from “Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template“, Thomas H. Johnson (Prof of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey) and M. Chris Mason (retired Foreign Service officer, Sr Fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies), Military Review, Nov-Dec 2009:

Whatever the outcomes of the President’s decision and the current Afghan election in the next few weeks, however, they will not affect the extraordinary similarity of the two conflicts.

The superficial parallels between the Afghanistan and Vietnam conflicts are eerie enough. Both insurgencies were and are rurally based. In both cases, 80% of the population was and is rural, with national literacy hovering around 10%. Both insurgencies were and are ethnically cohesive and exclusive. In both cases, the insurgents enjoyed safe sanctuary behind a long, rugged and uncloseable border, which conventional U.S. forces could not and cannot cross, where the enemy had and has uncontested political power. Both countries were wracked by decades of European imperial aggression (France, the Soviet Union), both improbably won their David-versus-Goliath wars against the invaders, and both experienced a decade of North-South civil war afterwards: all producing generations of experienced and highly skilled fighters and combat commanders.

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Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said

Summary:  the McChrystal’s Assesment consists of layers of absurdity, piled high.  Future generations will study it as a prime example of early 21st century madness, when such a thing was taken seriously.

Essentials of the McChrystal’s Initial Commander’s Assessment of the Af-Pak War, released 30 August 2009.

  1. Amnesia is the essential requirement
  2. The key strategic element is that we have no strategy.
  3. Hope is the plan, cost is no object.
  4. Nation-building in Afghanistan today.  Mexico next?
  5. For more information from the FM site, and the Afterword

(1)  Amnesia is the essential requirement

Amnesia is the essential requirement to be an American geopolitical guru — or Amerian journalist covering geopolitics.  As described in How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan? (15 September 2009), we are closely following the military’s playbook for escalating a small war — perfected in Vietnam.  This remains invisible to many experts, as in this excerpt from Stratfor’s “McChrystal and the Search for a Strategy in Afghanistan“, 22 September 2009:

This is a statement by an officer of the modern U.S. Army, an institution with a broad disdain for the legacy of Gen. William Westmoreland. As first commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (1964-1968) and then Army chief of staff (1968-72), Westmoreland’s legacy has come to be seen as that of having asked for more and more American troops without a winning strategy. In other words, he continued to commit more American soldiers to a conflict without a strategy that had any real chance for success. While one can debate the history, many in the U.S. Army’s officer corps today consider Westmoreland an officer who did the ultimate disservice to his country — and perhaps more importantly, to his men — by allowing a failed political and military strategy to continue to consume American lives. … With this report, McChrystal has clearly differentiated himself from this path.

Absurd.   For example, the report’s language on page 2-20 could come from DoD report about Vietnam written up to the very end:

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