How the ghosts of Vietnam haunt the War on Terror

Summary: Major Sjursen goes to the heart of our Long War, showing how our military remains haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam — and how today’s failures result from the tragically wrong lessons they learned from it.

The last copter our of Vietnam.
Photo by Hugh Van Es, Saigon 1975.

The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command)
And It’s Not the War on Terror

Wrong about Nam, Wrong about the War on Terror.”

By Danny Sjursen (Major, US Army). From TomDispatch, 7 September 2017.

Vietnam: it’s always there. Looming in the past, informing American futures.

A 50-year-old war, once labeled 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.

Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it’s well that they did.  The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country’s artificial border.  In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong.

More than two decades of involvement and, at the war’s peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon.  Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam’s military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.

There’s just one thing.  Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the “orthodox” school) 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 to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.

David Petraeus
I want you for my wars! (DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel.)

The Big Re-Write.

In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War.  It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus’s impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war.  Though he did observe that Vietnam had “cost the military dearly” and that “the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services,” his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called “low-intensity conflicts” and are now known as counterinsurgencies.  His takeaway: what the country needed wasn’t less 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.

Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq, he and a whole generation of COINdinistas (like-minded officers devoted to his favored counterinsurgency approach to modern warfare) embraced those very conclusions to win the war on terror.  The names of some of them — H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, for instance — should ring a bell or two these days. In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his acolytes would get their chance to translate theory into practice.  Americans — and much of the rest of the planet — still live with the results.

Like Petraeus, an entire generation of senior military leaders, commissioned in the years after the Vietnam War and now atop the defense behemoth, remain fixated on that ancient conflict.  After all these decades, such “thinking” generals and “soldier-scholars” continue to draw all the wrong lessons from what, thanks in part to them, has now become America’s second longest war.

Rival Schools.

Historian Gary Hess identifies two main schools of revisionist thinking.  There are the “Clausewitzians” (named after the nineteenth century Prussian military theorist) who insist that Washington never sufficiently attacked the enemy’s true center of gravity in North Vietnam.  Beneath the academic language, they essentially agree on one key thing: the U.S. military should have bombed the North into a parking lot.

The second school, including Petraeus, Hess labeled the “hearts-and-minders.”  As COINdinistas, they felt the war effort never focused clearly enough on isolating the Vietcong, protecting local villages in the South, building schools, and handing out candy — everything, in short, that might have won (in the phrase of that era) Vietnamese hearts and minds.

Both schools, however, agreed on something basic: that the U.S. military should have won in Vietnam.

The danger presented by either school is clear enough in the twenty-first century.  Senior commanders, some now serving in key national security positions, fixated on Vietnam, have translated that conflict’s supposed lessons into what now passes for military strategy in Washington. The result has been an ever-expanding war on terror campaign waged ceaselessly from South Asia to West Africa, which has essentially turned out to be perpetual war based on the can-do belief that counterinsurgency and advise-and-assist missions should have worked in Vietnam and can work now.

The Go-Big Option.

The leading voice of the Clausewitzian school was U.S. Army Colonel and Korean War/Vietnam War vet Harry Summers, whose 1982 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, became an instant classic within the military. It’s easy enough to understand why.  Summers argued that civilian policymakers — not the military rank-and-file — had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than 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.

Summers had a deep emotional investment in his topic.  Later, he would argue that the source of post-war pessimistic analyses of the conflict lay in “draft dodgers and war evaders still [struggling] with their consciences.”  In his own work, Summers marginalized all Vietnamese actors (as would so many later military historians), failed to adequately deal with the potential consequences, nuclear or otherwise, of the sorts of escalation he advocated, and didn’t even bother to ask whether Vietnam was a core national security interest of the United States.

Perhaps he would have done well to reconsider a famous post-war encounter he had with a North Vietnamese officer {described in his book} …

Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

A more sophisticated Clausewitzian analysis came from current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in a highly acclaimed 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. He argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in failing to give President Lyndon Johnson an honest appraisal of what it would take to win, which meant that “the nation went to war without the benefit of effective military advice.”  He concluded that the war was lost not in the field or by the media or even on antiwar college campuses, but in Washington, D.C., through a failure of nerve by the Pentagon’s generals, which led civilian officials to opt for a deficient strategy.

McMaster is a genuine scholar and a gifted writer, but he still suggested that the Joint Chiefs should have advocated for a more aggressive offensive strategy — a full ground invasion of the North or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country.  In this sense, he was just another “go-big” Clausewitzian who, as historian Ronald Spector pointed out recently, ignored Vietnamese views and failed to acknowledge — an observation of historian Edward Miller — that “the Vietnam War was a Vietnamese war.”

COIN: A Small (Forever) War.

Another Vietnam veteran, retired Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Krepinevich, fired the opening salvo for the hearts-and-minders.  In The Army and Vietnam, published in 1986, he argued that the NLF, not the North Vietnamese Army, was the enemy’s chief center of gravity and that the American military’s failure to emphasize counterinsurgency principles over conventional concepts of war sealed its fate.  While such arguments were, in reality, no more impressive than those of the Clausewitzians, they have remained popular with military audiences, as historian Dale Andrade points out, because they offer a “simple explanation for the defeat in Vietnam.”

Krepinevich would write an influential 2005 Foreign Affairs piece, “How to Win in Iraq,” in which he applied his Vietnam conclusions to a new strategy of prolonged counterinsurgency in the Middle East, quickly winning over the New York Times’s resident conservative columnist, David Brooks, and generating “discussion in the Pentagon, CIA, American Embassy in Baghdad, and the office of the vice president.”

In 1999, retired army officer and Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley penned the definitive hearts-and-minds tract, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Sorley boldly asserted that, by the spring of 1970, “the fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.”  According to his comforting tale, the real explanation for failure lay with the “big-war” strategy of U.S. commander General William Westmoreland. The counterinsurgency strategy of his successor, General Creighton Abrams — Sorley’s knight in shining armor — was (or at least should have been) a war winner.

Critics {such as Gregory A. Daddis in Parameters noted that Sorley overemphasized the marginal differences between the two generals’ strategies and produced a remarkably counterfactual work.  It didn’t matter, however.  By 2005, just as the situation in Iraq, a country then locked in a sectarian civil war amid an American occupation, went from bad to worse, Sorley’s book found its way into the hands of the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow.  By then, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, it could also “be found on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad.”

Learning To Eat Soup with a Knife
Available at Amazon.

Another influential hearts-and-minds devotee was Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.  (He even made it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.) His Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam followed Krepinevich in claiming that “if [Creighton] Abrams had gotten the call to lead the American effort at the start of the war, America might very well have won it.”  In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker “so liked [Nagl’s] book that he made it required reading for all four-star generals,” while the Iraq War commander of that moment, General George Casey, gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a copy during a visit to Baghdad.

David Petraeus and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in 2006 of Counterinsurgency: FM 3-24, the first (New York Times-reviewed) military field manual for counterinsurgency since Vietnam, must also be considered among the pantheon of hearts-and-minders. Nagl wrote a foreword for their manual, while Krepinevich provided a glowing back-cover endorsement.

Such revisionist interpretations would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps.

FM 3-24
Available at Amazon.

Reading All the Wrong Books.

In 2009, when former West Point history professor Colonel Gregory Daddis was deployed to Iraq as the command historian for the Multinational Corps — the military’s primary tactical headquarters — he noted that corps commander Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby had assigned a professional reading list to his principal subordinates {recounted in Gregory A. Daddis’ Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam}.  To his disappointment, Daddis also discovered that the only Vietnam War book included was Sorley’s A Better War.  This should have surprised no one, since his argument — that American soldiers in Vietnam were denied an impending victory by civilian policymakers, a liberal media, and antiwar protestors — was still resonant among the officer corps in year six of the Iraq quagmire.  It wasn’t the military’s fault!

Officers have long distributed professional reading lists for subordinates, intellectual guideposts to the complex challenges ahead.  Indeed, there’s much to be admired in the concept, but also potential dangers in such lists as they inevitably influence the thinking of an entire generation of future leaders.  In the case of Vietnam, the perils are obvious.  The generals have been assigning and reading problematic books for years, works that were essentially meant to reinforce professional pride in the midst of a series of unsuccessful and unending wars.

Just after 9/11, for instance, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers — who spoke at my West Point graduation — included Summers’s On Strategy on his list.  A few years later, then-Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker added McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty {to his list}.  The trend continues today.  Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller has kept McMaster and added Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger (he of the illegal bombing of both Laos and Cambodia and War Criminal fame).  Current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley kept Kissinger and added good old Lewis Sorley.  To top it all off, Secretary of Defense Mattis has included on his list yet another Kissinger book {World Order} and, in a different list, Krepinevich’s The Army and Vietnam.

Just as important as which books made the lists is what’s missing from them: none of these senior commanders include newer scholarship {e.g., Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam}, novels {e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried}, or journalistic accounts which might raise thorny, uncomfortable questions about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable, or incorporate local voices that might highlight the limits of American influence and power.

Serving in the Shadow of Vietnam.

Most of the generals leading the war on terror just missed service in the Vietnam War.  They graduated from various colleges or West Point in the years immediately following the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops or thereafter: Petraeus in 1974, future Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal in 1976, and present National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in 1984.  Secretary of Defense Mattis finished ROTC and graduated from Central Washington University in 1971, while Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War, receiving his commission in 1976.

In other words, the generation of officers now overseeing the still-spreading war on terror entered military service at the end of or after the tragic war in Southeast Asia.  That meant they narrowly escaped combat duty in the bloodiest American conflict since World War II and so the professional credibility that went with it.  They were mentored and taught by academy tactical officers, ROTC instructors, and commanders who had cut their teeth on that conflict.  Vietnam literally dominated the discourse of their era — and it’s never ended.

Petraeus, Mattis, McMaster, and the others entered service when military prestige had reached a nadir or was just rebounding.  And those reading lists taught the young officers where to lay the blame for that — on civilians in Washington (or in the nation’s streets) or on a military high command too weak to assert its authority effectively. They would serve in Vietnam’s shadow, the shadow of defeat, and the conclusions they would draw from it would only lead to twenty-first-century disasters.

From Vietnam to the War on Terror to Generational War.

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. Representatives of both Vietnam revisionist schools now guide the development of the Trump administration’s version of global strategy. President Trump’s in-house Clausewitzians clamor for — and receive — ever more delegated authority to do their damnedest and what retired General (and Vietnam vet) Edward Meyer called for back in 1983: “a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam.” In other words, more bombs, more troops, and carte blanche to escalate such conflicts to their hearts’ content.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s hearts-and-minds faction consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to approximately 70% of the world’s nations.  Furthermore, they’ve recently fought for and been granted a new “mini-surge” in Afghanistan intended to — in disturbingly Vietnam-esque language — “break the deadlock,” “reverse the decline,” and “end the stalemate” there.  Never mind that neither 100,000 U.S. troops (when I was there in 2011) nor 16 full years of combat could, in the term of the trade, “stabilize” Afghanistan.  The can-do, revisionist believers atop the national security state have convinced Trump that — despite his original instincts — 4,000 or 5,000 (or 6,000 or 7,000) more troops (and yet more dronesmore planes, and other equipment) will do the trick.  This represents tragedy bordering on farce.

The hearts and minders and Clausewitzians atop the military establishment since 9/11 are never likely to stop citing their versions of the Vietnam War as the key to victory today; that is, they will never stop focusing on a war that was always unwinnable and never worth fighting.  None of today’s acclaimed military personalities seems willing to consider that Washington couldn’t have won in Vietnam because, as former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak (who flew 269 combat missions over that country) noted in the recent Ken Burns documentary series, “we were fighting on the wrong side.”

Today’s leaders don’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end.  In an interview last June, Petraeus — still considered a sagacious guru of the Defense establishment — disturbingly described the Afghan conflict as “generational.” Eerily enough, to cite a Vietnam-era precedent, General Creighton Abrams predicted something similar. speaking to the White House as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down.  Even as President Richard Nixon slowly withdrew U.S. forces, handing over their duties to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) — a process known then as “Vietnamization” — the general warned that, despite ARVN improvements, continued U.S. support “would be required indefinitely to maintain an effective force.”  Vietnam, too, had its “generational” side (until, of course, it didn’t).

That war and its ill-fated lessons will undoubtedly continue to influence U.S. commanders until a new set of myths, explaining away a new set of failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, take over, possibly thanks to books by veterans of these conflicts about how Washington could have won the war on terror.

It’s not that our generals don’t read. They do. They just doggedly continue to read the wrong books.

In 1986, General Petraeus ended his influential Parameters article with a quote from historian George Herring: “Each historical situation is unique and the use of analogy is at best misleading, at worst, dangerous.”  When it comes to Vietnam and a cohort of officers shaped in its shadow (and even now convinced it could have been won), “dangerous” hardly describes the results. They’ve helped bring us generational war and, for today’s young soldiers, ceaseless tragedy.

© Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Danny Sjursen

About the author

Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge
Available at Amazon.

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. See his other articles at TomDispatch.

For More Information

The best brief history of the US war in Vietnam that I have seen: “Westmoreland was right: Learning the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War” by Dale Andrade in Small Wars & Insurgencies (2008). Gated; open copy here. This has a pro-military bias. For example, it cites beliefs of LBJ that were in fact based on what his generals told him.

Books showing the dark side of the Vietnam War: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse — and My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones.

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about Afghanistan and Iraqabout COIN, and especially these…

  1. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars — About Kilcullen’s famous “28 Articles.”
  2. Why John Nagl’s advice in How to Eat Soup with a Knife works for our foes, not for us.
  3. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  4. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
  5. Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.
  6. Return of the COINistas (the zombies of military theory).

Great books to better understand our mad wars.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith (General, British Army).

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
Available at Amazon.
Transformation of War
Avilable at Amazon.

19 thoughts on “How the ghosts of Vietnam haunt the War on Terror”

  1. I think the real lesson of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam is that as long a America is will to commit combat power, be that ground troops, airpower, military aid in large enough quantities, they can delay an Insurgent victory, in essence create a frozen conflict. Sometimes that maybe enough achieve policy goals, or create an opening for a diplomatic or negotiated solution.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s a false framing. Also it ignores the other four score or so 4GWs since WWII (see studies about this, and the simple conclusion, here).

      More accurately, a powerful nation can occupy a smaller one and suppress an insurgency against it (or the puppet state it creates). However, this occupation inevitably incites opposition that eventually leads to its expulsion — with few or no benefits afterwards after the expenditure of money and blood.

      That’s the story of Iraq. We were ejected in 2011 (by the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement Bush Jr. signed in 2008), leaving behind an Islamic theocracy, allied with Iran, that is #10 on the 2017 Fragile States Index and #11 on 2016 Transparency Internationals Corruption index.

      Not much of a return for the $2 trillion we spent, the 4,530 dead American troops, and the 32 thosand wounded (plus the dead and wounded US civilians and those of our allies).

      Afghanistan is still running. I doubt many expect much from it, especially since our invasion and occupation are based on a lie.

  2. So the good major says that Vietnam was unwinnable. Really? He should study Krulak’s report in 1965 which said that it would take only 2.5 divisions to extend the DMZ at the 17th parallel across the southern Laotian panhandle to seal the south like the 38th parallel in Korea. And this would have been grand strategically consistent with the iron curtain separation in Europe.

    Of course the reasons given for not doing this was that we had a “tacit understanding with the North Vietnamese” that we would honor Laotian neutrality. Of course, the North didn’t, therefore we had the right to ignore that understanding, and commence the separation to prevent their 600 mile supply line operating with impunity. The DMZ in Korea has functionally operated for going on 65 years, so why couldn’t a second one have operated from the South China Sea to the Mekong? The North later acknowledged that they could not have won if we had done this.

    If undertaken, this DMZ would have prevented perhaps 90% of the casualties from all sides, and relatively “free” South Vietnam would exist today. As to free elections after the Geneva accords, a communist regime conducting elections in the North? How does the major “know” that a truly free election could have been conducted anywhere in the country? As a Vietnam vet, and also a two-time contractor in Vietnam after my service, I remember Vietnamese talking with pride about Diem. And when I left for the last time in March 1970, the south was virtually pacified and they were developing a middle class. In contrast to when I first arrived in April 1965, one could drive around in a car with safety in most of the country – even at night.

    And the major’s gratuitous remark that the south could not defend except for our support, ignores the north’s support from China and Russia, and our withdrawal of support in mid 70s as the Soviets and Chinese ramped up theirs? A replay of China in late 40?. When the south fell, they were down to 78 rounds of ammunition per soldier, per month. Still, the Vietnamese 1st.division held out for weeks surrounded by three enemy divisions until they ran out of ammunition, food and water. They were as good as any of ours.

    The good major is deficient in his knowledge, and gleefully ignores the international environment of the time, When we allowed the south to fall , I was consumed by shame. The major should also as he has written an ignorant piece based on an arrogance of distance.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “He should study Krulak’s report in 1965 which said that it would take only 2.5 divisions to extend the DMZ ”

      The archives of the Vietnam War overflow with such bold confident proposals. The ones that were tried led to the outcome we know. But hope remains that one of the untried proposals would have been the miracle cure. Such dreams cannot be refuted, leading (as the Major shows) to the mistakes in the WOT. These are expensive dreams, paid for in American blood.

      The combination of a powerful insurgency fighting a weak government (almost a puppet government) plus a simultaneous civil war (much like the American Civil War, a powerful North invading the weaker South) was probably an unbeatable combo. We fought powerful conventional ground forces from the North allied with a third stage insurgency (i.e., fielding battalion and regimental conventional units) — lavishly aided by major powers. Since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity), insurgent forces with far fewer advantages have consistently defeated foreign armies.

      See the various studies of this history. You might find it eye-opening.

      As for dreams of victory, if wishes were…

  3. Hearts and minds and going big are military strategies to engage an enemy, but this couches the problem too much in military terms. The more central issue is understanding the American mythos, and how our national zeitgeist leads us to send our military all over the world in the first place. If we can reimagine a different role in the world, military strategists won’t have to deal with these no win predicaments that our government asks them to go in to.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Yes. As they say, “if you love your hammer, you see everything as a nail.”

      The result of this is that the State Department, the alt method of engaging the world, has atrophied to become a small tail on DoD’s dog. So non-military perspectives and solutions are not even well presented to senior civilian officials.

      This has reached insane proportions with Trump’s almost all-general foreign policy team. Disaster is almost guaranteed.

  4. Larry,

    After reading Chet Richards’s “If We Can Keep It” and your “Lies of Our Leaders” along with various 4GW material, this article makes perfect sense to me.

    Two interesting Vietnam Vet authors who wrote about COIN not mentioned are Bing West and Richard Hackworth. They were hands-on COINistas who were displeased with the strategy and tactics.

    I remember sitting in the TV Room at our barracks watching the Fall of Saigon. Sad day. It was one of those rare times I said the right thing. I predicted we would become friends.

    I didn’t learn like the rest of those mentioned in the article. Why didn’t I listen to Hack! I didn’t know DNI, you or Bill Lind. Richard Hackworth knew better. I was reading Petraeus and Nagl.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Remember, this article is about the books that guided our military leaders. Hackworth, Lind, Richards, West — even Martin van Creveld aren’t on that list.

      If they were, the WOT would have taken a different course.

  5. That is true. Overlooked that point. My revised beliefs cause me to agree we would be better off had our leaders read more from DNI and FM community.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “we would be better off had our leaders read more from DNI and FM community.”

      True, but there is good reason they did not. It is the same reason that they learned almost nothing from the failures of the 16 years of the WOT.

      “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
      — Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935).

      See the links to my posts in the For More Information section. Why do we continue to try “killing our way” to success when it obviously fails? Why does our military refuse to recognize the near-total failure of foreign armies to defeat local insurgencies since WWII?

      Because seeing those things will end the Long War and the money flow.

      Until these things change we will continue to lose.

  6. The Man Who Laughs

    I read the Summers book a long time ago. Looking back on it, two things strike me. One is that even if you did everything Summers said we should have done, it really doesn’t change anything. It fails on its own terms. Whether you fight them in South Vietnam or extend a line across the Ho Chi Minh trail, they still wait you out. The other thing about Summers was that he said to the NVA Colonel “You never defeated us.” But the fact is that we didn’t do nearly as well in some of the stand up battles as Summers seems to think.

    I’d read about the battle in the Ia Drang Valley, but I did not know, until quite recently, what happened after, specifically that a US battalion suffered severe losses in a series of ambushes withdrawing from the valley after the battle was over. I believe it was called LZ Albany. I think the article was in one of the Decision Games wargaming magazines.The Army in those days was set up to fight the Russians on the Central Front, and I honestly wonder if it would have done all that well. Leaving aside any discussion of Fourth Generation War, counterinsurgency, or any of that other stuff, it sometimes seems as though the US military spent the years from 1946 to 1960 forgetting everything it ever knew about how to win any kind of war.

    The other end of it, I guess, is that even if it’s winnable, what, exactly are you going to win? Since we won the Cold war without winning in Vietnam then I have to ask why the thing would have been worth over 50,000 dead even assuming you pull out a win. We cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or we win their hearts, their minds, and various other body parts, or we just bomb ’em to snail snot. So what was it about a strip of coastline on the other side of an ocean that our Navy controlled that made it worth all that? I’ve seen a quote attributed to Rommel – “Don’t fight if you don’t gain anything by winning.” Good advice, I think.

  7. i was a junior officer serving through out SEA during the end days of Vietnam. It wasn’t pretty or honorable. The young Major has many valid points, and I agree with him on much of what he has to say.

    But history and the entry into war is quite often not a well thought out rational mindset. Once the twin Rubicons of Diem’s murder and then JFK’s were crossed. The course was set. And it was all but inevitable the American War behemoth would be unleashed on Vietnam. Can we say $$$$? And WW2 era generals like Westmoreland would apply the principles of overwhelming fire power to win this peoples war. Unfortunately My Lai wasn’t the same type of tactical problem as Stalingrad.

    General Brute Krulak was the one General Officer who had the integrity to tell his Commander in Chief LBJ the war was being lost. It cost him his promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps. Krulak was also correct about cutting the communist supply lines thru Laos. But the ever so genius minds of the US State Department made sure the idea was still born.

    Up until 9-11 the American people’s patience for waging war was between three and four years. The hubris of the American establishment failed to calculate this in Vietnam.

    But in the post 9-11 eternal imperial war, they have so far successfully calculated America will evidently tolerate eternal war if KIAs are kept to around a thousand per year with an all volunteer military.

    Like Imperial Rome, Imperial America will always have wars and rumors of war on the periphery. That is until the US Dollar collapses as the world reserve currency. Then the war will come home. This won’t be pretty or honorable either.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Thank you for sharing your observations about the Vietnam War!

      “That is until the US Dollar collapses as the world reserve currency. Then the war will come home.”

      For good reason being the major reserve currency (there are others) is called a “poison chalice”) — its not clear that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Which is why no other nations want their currency to challenge the US dollar’s status. The reserve currency tends to be overvalued; smart nations want their currencies to be cheap (boosting exports).

      For details see this 2009 post: The falling US dollar – bane or boon?

  8. Somewhat mystified here. The Major tells us much about what should not be read, but pretty much nothing on what should be on a FOGO’s reading list, no?

    Whether we should have been in the war is an entirely different context. And seems to me that lesson about Vietnam is well appreciated. Stretching that to our latest ventures (whether right or wrong) is a dog that doesn’t hunt for me.

    Using both your recommendations – Utillity… and Transformation.. one would assume this site believes 4GW type warfare is going to be in the “war mix” for some time to come, so why wouldn’t all the books the Major sees as misleading be part of a future high level reader’s education. Right or wrong the Vietnam war occurred and it was damn well messy enough at multiple levels that I doubt any general or historian is going to produce THE answer.
    (OBTW, as I recall “…Soup with a Knife” was one of the supported books along with stuff by GI Wilson and Chet Richards on this site under the 4GW topic, no?)

    Further, the war in the North and South were entirely different things, thus requiring more than one strategic, operational or tactical approach.
    “The hearts and minders and Clausewitzians atop the military establishment since 9/11 are never likely to stop citing their versions of the Vietnam War as the key to victory today; that is, they will never stop focusing on a war that was always unwinnable and never worth fighting. None of today’s acclaimed military personalities seems willing to consider that Washington couldn’t have won in Vietnam because, as former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak (who flew 269 combat missions over that country) noted in the recent Ken Burns documentary series, ‘we were fighting on the wrong side.’ ”

    Repeating myself a bit “how to fight” and how we got there ” are two very different things, and as too General McPeak’s quote… REALLY??? So how many of his own people did Uncle Ho execute, how many people of Hue were executed/murdered. Burn’s implication that the good Ho was a nationalist looking out for his country is utter BS. Communist, self serving through and through.

    Glad to see the Major doing some thinking, but he needs some more research
    Editor’s note: See Ed’s work at the Project White Horse forum — “an inquiry into team based time critical decision making in worst cases.”

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      It’s great to see you here again. I added a note to your comment pointing to the Project White Horse website.

      “The Major tells us much about what should not be read, but pretty much nothing on what should be on a FOGO’s reading list”

      (1) Analysis tends to receive one or two of these three criticisms.

      1. It is too superficial (covers too much in too little detail).
      2. It is too specialized (focused examination of one subject, does not cover many other related issues).
      3. It is too long.

      Major Sjursen’s article gets #2 perhaps and #3 (at 3500 words, it is well past the 800-1000 word point at which many readers find it “too long”).

      (2) “Whether we should have been in the war is an entirely different context. And seems to me that lesson about Vietnam is well appreciated.”

      Our occupations of Iraq and Af, plus intervention in insurgencies in an ever-widening number of nations — repeating the same mistakes — tell me otherwise.

      (3) “Right or wrong the Vietnam war occurred and it was damn well messy enough at multiple levels that I doubt any general or historian is going to produce THE answer.”

      Because these books are largely wrong, as Sjursen shows. There are many books that are far more accurate, far more than most military officers will (or even can) read. As for historians, they have a different set of criteria than Sjursen uses here.

      (4) “Further, the war in the North and South were entirely different things, thus requiring more than one strategic, operational or tactical approach.”

      North and South Vietnam were two fronts in the Vietnam War, hence covered by one strategy. Just as Sjursen discusses.

      (5) “OBTW, as I recall “Soup with a Knife” was one of the supported books along with stuff by GI Wilson and Chet Richards on this site under the 4GW topic, no?

      No. I wrote several critiques of Soup. See the second link in the For More Info section: Why John Nagl’s advice in How to Eat Soup with a Knife works for our foes, not for us (2008). I frequently repeated the points raised in that post, which look quite prescient a decade later.

      (6) “REALLY??? So how many of his own people did Uncle Ho execute…”

      General McPeak gave a military evaluation: the North had all the advantages, and was almost inevitably the winning side (just as nationalist forces won the other four score anti-colonialist wars since WWII). He wasn’t speaking as a Priest conveying God’s evaluation of both sides’ moral worth.

      (7) “Glad to see the Major doing some thinking, but he needs some more research”

      You have not raised any points suggesting that Sjursen needs to do more research. Or even addressed anything he wrote, let alone gave a rebuttal to them.

  9. The problem is not so much was it winnable. Maybe it was, though one suspects it would have required bombing of the North on the scale of the earlier bombing of North Korea, followed by installation of a North Korean style but puppet regime in Hanoi complete with internment camps and mass executions. Could it have been done? Maybe, given enough men, munitions, money and will. Given enough you can eliminate opposition for a generation. It takes an amazing amount of all of them, but given enough you probably can do it.

    But the problem is, why would that have been in US and Western interests? Surely the lesson of Vietnam is, don’t fight wars where there is no vital interest at stake. The right approach to Vietnam would have been to stand back and trade with whatever emerged. In the end all the doctrinaire Communist regimes have fallen, and in a fairly short time in historical terms, withering from within as their nomenklatura lost faith.

    How the North Korean issue should be approached is much more problematic. Here I incline to think that dictators mean what they say, and that if Kim says he wants to nuke LA, believe him and take appropriate measures.

    But when you look at the Middle East? It was right to stop Iraq taking over Kuwait, but policy after that has been totally destructive and pointless. It was probably right to seek out and kill Bin Laden. But what followed was futile, expensive, and didn’t serve US or Western interests.

    Thanks for the reading suggestions, as always! Its turning into a degree level lot of material at this rate, but don’t stop with them, its really widening the mind.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “The problem is not so much was it winnable.”

      “Winnable” in military terms mean able to achieve the desired result with available resources. In Vietnam the limiting factor was the American public’s willingness to pay the cost in money and blood — and limits to the amount of blood we were willing to shed.

      As that discussion at the Peace Conference shows, the Vietnamese understood at the start that their greater commitment was their greatest asset.

  10. Thanks for adding the PWH site. It’s still there but not doing anything currently. The last edition provided summaries of all editions and offered my conclusions related to unconventional crisis in the Readiness Factor concept. RF leveraged the idea of a severe negative start OODA Loop, high reliability organizations, and recognition primed decision making among others while focusing on ” doing what you know or knowing what to do.”

    Since then have been writing on the air war in Vietnam from the perspective mostly of my squadron, airwing and USS Midway. Focus has now turned to some analysis of future airpower with particular interest in what in shorthand could be labled the Middle East vs South China Sea dilemma or A-10 vs F-35 situation. Site is

    Just quickly, the study done on airpower and my own VN experience makes me sensitive to articles like the Majors because while he did mention bombing, he ignored a huge aspect of the war, thus for me his dots just do not connect to present a simple cause effect relationship between VN and our tendencies with current wars.VN had a lot more puzzle pieces than how to fight the Viet Cong.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: