50 years ago the Battle at Ia Drang began our war in Vietnam. What have we learned since then?

Summary: Fifty years ago today American troops fought their first major battle in Vietnam. The lessons both sides learned from the battle set the course of the war. History shows whose analysis proved more accurate. We have concluded the first phase of our post-9/11 wars, proving that we’ve forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. As the next phase begins we have the opportunity to do better. But only if we begin to learn from our experiences.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Soldier at Ia Drang. Major Crandall's UH-1D in the background.
Soldiers at Ia Drang. Major Crandall’s UH-1D in the background. US Army photo.

On this day in 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) flew to the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, initiating the first major battle between the North Vietnamese and American armies. This marked our transition from advisers to direct combatants.

Fifty years later we again have lessons from battles fought by our military in a distant land. Again all sides devise plans for the future. Lest we forgot, Ia Drang holds profound lessons for us today.

The quotes in this post come from one of the great works about the Vietnam War: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, by Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, retired) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway. I strongly recommend reading it.  For more information about the battle, see the Wikipedia entry.

What happened at Ia Drang?

Ia Drang tested the new concept of air assault, in which helicopters inserted troops to a distant battlefield, then supplied and extracted them. During that four day “test” 234 American men died, “more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War.” Both sides drew optimistic conclusions from the result.

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Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose

Summary: Our wars simple to those who see only bad guys to be killed, but appear as a mystery to many Americans. Unnecessarily, since our journalists tell us all we need to know. Unfortunately these few key facts are buried amidst a flood of trivia. This post gives a small but telling example by examining what experts tell us about body counts, showing how they reveal the key insights about US tactics and progress, both now and in a historical context. Learning is the first step to governing ourselves. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

River of Blood

At an early meeting {1962} about psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.
— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

Body counts as a measure of success

“When Harkins firs arrived in Saigon {Jan 1962} to head the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) he told reporters that he was an optimist and that he was going to have optimists on his staff. The reports he sent to Washington were titled “The Headway Report”… {Halberstam}.

Our military uses body counts as a measure of success today for the same reason they used them in Vietnam: we plan to win by attrition through firepower, yet lack intelligence about targets and results. Body counts can be estimated (aka guessed at), and provide the public with metrics showing progress — a high-priority necessity in the America way of war. Whether pointing to our assassination programs (al Qaeda’s #3 killed for the 7th time!) or our bombing, it shows that we’re winning — always.

For example, see this good news from our Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, in an in an interview on Al Arabiya News Channel on 21 January….

“{Airstrikes have} taken more than half {of ISIS’s leadership}. We estimate that the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq … {and} destroyed more than a thousand of ISIS vehicle inside Iraq. {These numbers were} not so important in themselves … they do show the degradation of ISIS.”

A laundry list of wins in a speech by Hawk Carlisle (General, USAF; commander of Air Combat Command) on 1 June 2015 {Air Force Magazine), similar to the others we’ve heard during the past 14 years….

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The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told

Summary: Another war starts with its barrage of propaganda on America, raising the usual questions. Can we learn from experience? Will we demand accurate information and better analysis, laughing at those who have been so often wrong?  Today’s post provides some context that might help you decide what’s happening, or at least create useful doubts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war’.”
— Philip Snowden in his Introduction to Truth and the War, by E. D. Morel (1916).

Ministry of Truth


  1. Update from Ukraine.
  2. About previous clashes with Russia.
  3. Compare Ukraine with Vietnam.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Update from Ukraine

The US Army announced that “about 300” soldiers from the 173rd Airborne arrived in Ukraine on April 14 “to begin a six-month training rotation with Ukrainian national guard forces”. The NY Times describes the training in the upbeat prose typical of its stenographers repeating what they’re told, with a few specifics (“The courses will train 705 Ukrainian soldiers at a cost of $19 million…”). Canada has sent 200 trainers, Britain has sent 35, and perhaps Israel has sent some as well.

There’s no mention of involvement by US Special Forces, the premier trainers of foreign armies in the methods to fight civil wars, beyond a bland announcement by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of deployments to train local troops in “Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces”.  No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.

Relive the cold war

(2)  Compare it to previous direct confrontations with Russia

As usual with American geopolitical analysis, many “experts” quickly lose their perspective at the first hint of conflict, venting breathless warnings that we’re in a new Cold War — perhaps even sliding to nuclear war. It led them to predicted scores of great power wars since WWII; every month brings a new crop of war rumors (last year the hot “news” concerned war between some combo of Japan, the Philippines, and China).

Back on Earth, nuclear powers tend to walk lightly around each other after their first close call. For the US and Russia that was a close brush with death in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (see the tapes of the NSC meetings described in Virtual JFK; you’ll have a far higher opinion of him after reading it). For India and Pakistan that was a not-close but still scary moment during Kargil War in summer 1999.

One glimpse of atomic death convinces national leaders to avoid direct confrontations of armed forces, relying instead on proxies willing to die for the interests of their great power sponsors. After centuries of experience, western governments have become expert in managing these.

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Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today

Summary: Nothing shows our FAILure to learn more than how we’ve repeat so many of our mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan. No hegemon, no matter how powerful, can survive a rapidly changing world, filled with rivals and foes, if it doesn’t profit from its experience. Today is FAILure to learn day, with 3 lessons from the past that we have ignored, to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.  {1st of 3 posts today.}

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’”

— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869).

Vietnam: closer than you think.

Here is the final pages of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972), describing how Nixon took ownership of the Vietnam War from LBJ — much as Obama did from Bush. I was going to change the names to those from our war in Afghanistan. But why bother? The parallels are obvious.

Remember, because every day is a teachable moment.

Henry Kissinger


About the same time Henry Kissinger, who had emerged as the top foreign policy adviser of the Administration (in part because he, like Nixon, was hard-line on Vietnam, whereas both William Rogers, the Secretary of State, and Mel Laird, the Secretary of Defense, had been ready to liquidate the war in the early months of the Administration), was asked by a group of visiting Asians if the Nixon Administration was going to repeat the mistakes of the Johnson Administration in Vietnam. “No,” answered Kissinger, who was noted in Washington for having the best sense of humor in the Administration, “we will not repeat their mistakes. We will not send 500,000 men.” He paused. “We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the movement.

One thing though — Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For step by step, they repeated the mistakes of the past. They soon became believers in their policy, and thus began to listen only to others who were believers (they began to believe, in addition, that only they were privy to the truth in reports from Saigon, that the secret messages from the Saigon embassy, rather than being the words of committed, embattled men, were the words of cool, objective observers).

Doubters were soon filtered out; the Kissinger staff soon lost most of the talented Asian experts that had come in with him at the start of the Administration. Optimistic assessments of American goals, of what the incursion into Cambodia would do, of what the invasion of Laos would do — always speeding the timetable of withdrawal and victory — were passed on to the public, always to be mocked by ARVN failure and NVA resilience.

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Myths about the Vietnam War laid the foundation for our Forever War

Summary: Today we have a reading that provides insights about our mad wars, written by someone who fought in the Cold War and later fought to prevent more wars. He explains how our leaders steered us into supporting these wars, such as by creating the myths about Vietnam that laid the foundations for our forever war. Essays like this are useful, since learning from our experiences can help cure our problems. We can do better.



America’s Memory of the Vietnam War
in the Epoch of the Forever War

H. Bruce Franklin (Professor of English, Rutgers)
Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 July 2014


WHILE WASHINGTON PONDERS the ifs and wheres of our next military adventures, the hawks are shrieking against America’s “war weariness” and croaking that Americans have no right to be weary.

  1. Robert Samuelson writes in The Washington Post that our unending wars have “posed no burdens, required no sacrifices, and involved no disruptions” for us civilians.
  2. William Kristol, who promised us in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a “2 month war, not an 8 year war,” raves that the “war-weary public” must again be “awakened and rallied.”
  3. Sounding her familiar alarm, Condoleezza Rice urges us to “heed the wake-up call of Ukraine” before it’s too late.
  4. “Of what exactly are you weary,” demands an irate Wall Street Journal correspondent, arguing that those with an authentic right to weariness are just “those who have suffered severe physical and mental wounds or lost a loved one.”

War-weary citizens seem to be just a gaggle of selfish, spoiled brats, traitors to the heroes fighting our wars.

Maybe we have no right to be weary of our young service people getting maimed and killed, weary of the slaughter and devastation we have been inflicting on peoples in dozens of nations, or selfishly weary of having trillions of dollars sucked out of health care, education, infrastructure, and the environment to pay for these wars.

Perhaps we have grown weary of our endless post-9/11 wars. Just as after Vietnam we were weary of war. But after Vietnam we had not learned from our experience; so eventually we resumed our wars. If we have not learned from our Long War, eventually our wars will resume.

Learning from history

There is another explanation for our lack of enthusiasm about our forever war: perhaps we have learned the futility of these wars — and the folly of listening to hawks about our wars.

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Read these articles about our past to learn about today’s challanges

Summary:  One reason we have such difficulty charting  path to the future is that have lost so much of our past. It not only destabilizes us, but limits our ability to learn from our history. Here are three articles about our past that illuminate problems we face today.



(1) Why weren’t they grateful?“, Pankaj Mishra reviews Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue, London Review of Books, 21 June 2010


APOC, renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, grossed profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951, but only $624 million of that remained in Iran. In 1947, the British government earned £15 million in tax on the company’s profits alone, while the Iranian government received only half that sum in royalties. The company also excluded Iranians from management and barred Tehran from inspecting its accounts.

Growing anti-British sentiment finally forced Muhammad Reza to appoint Mossadegh as prime minister early in 1951. The country’s nationalists by now included secularists as well as religious parties and the communist as well as non-communist left. Mossadegh, who, de Bellaigue writes, ‘was the first and only Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains’, moved quickly to nationalise the oil industry. Tens of thousands lined the streets to cheer the officials sent from Tehran to take over the British oil facilities in Abadan, kissing the dust-caked cars – one of which belonged to Mehdi Bazargan, who would later become the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The American ambassador reported that Mossadegh was backed by 95% of the population, and the shah told the visiting diplomat Averell Harriman that he dared not say a word in public against the nationalisation. Mossadegh felt himself to be carried along on the wings of history. … He was supported by a broad coalition of new Asian countries.

{T}he British, desperately needing the revenues from what was Britain’s biggest single overseas investment, wouldn’t listen. …

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The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.

Summary: Now that our most recent wars are ending, we have an opportunity to learn. Will we? Making clear insights more difficult, our war machines has already started preparing us for new wars: threat inflation plus cheap/easy solutions. After 9-11 we bought such stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, with no questioning or skepticism. Will we do so again? Today we look at the “cheap/easy solution” part of the formula. Stand by for excitement.


Wanted: Ph.D.s Who Can Win a Bar Fight. How to reform the Pentagon for ‘light footprint’ interventions.“, Fernando M. Lujan (Major, Special Forces), Foreign Policy, 8 March 2013 — Opening:

By Eric A. Hendrix.


Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making “light footprint” military interventions a central part of American strategy.

Instead of “nation building” with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.

Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others.

… The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance.

This is a brief of Major Lujan’s report for the Center for a New American Security (a powerful lobbying groups for foreign wars): “Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention“. It’s a wonderful example of America’s failure to learn, especially so after our COIN fiasco (another failure to learn from the post-WWII experiences of the US and other nations fighting insurgencies as foreigners).

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