Tag Archives: vietnam

A lesson from history about wasted valor, for which a price might be asked of us (eventually)

Summary:  Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other small wars we have and are fought.  All fruitless in terms of our nation’s needs. All fought at great personal cost by our troops, up to and including the ultimate payment.  But no nation can continue to waste the valor of its troops in such a manner without eventually having a reckoning. These are men and women, among America’s best.  Eventually they will ask questions. Perhaps they’ll demand a change in the national equation.  Today we look at one moment from history described by historian Beth Crumley, a note about wasted valor.

Major General Ray Davis


Fire Support Bases Neville and Russell, 25 February 1969“, Beth Crumley
Originally posted at the Marine Corps Association website on 15 February 2012. Reprinted here with their generous permission.


Over the years I have often talked about Vietnam. How it’s looked at differently than the wars that preceded it. When I addressed the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in October, I  began by asking a simple question:  “I am sure that most of you here today were at least aware of some of the history of this battalion before today. The history of this battalion is the stuff of legends…but how many of you sitting here today know anything about the history of this unit in Vietnam?” The only person to raise his hand was an older gentleman, a guest who had obviously served in Vietnam himself.

I was not surprised.  As I said to the assembled Marines, we tend to embrace the history of World War II, and to a lesser extent Korea — but not so much Vietnam. Why is that?  Probably because it isn’t easy. The war in Vietnam was not marked by set-point battles, or large-scale amphibious assaults against enemy held beaches. Instead it was one named operation after another, endless patrols, and search and destroy missions that blended together into “the War.”

So what was the situation faced by the Marine Corps in January 1969?

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Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to our New Syndrome

Summary:  No nation, no matter how powerful, can long prosper (perhaps not even survive) with a broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop).  Like ours.  The primary symptom: an inability to learn.  We cannot learn from our peers’ to fix our health care system.  We cannot learn from our history to cope with 4GW (eg, foreign insurgencies).  Today Tom Engelhardt explains our attempts to forget lessons of the past, and so we repeat them.

The Afghan Syndrome:
Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to the New Syndrome on the Block.

By Tom Engelhardt
Originally published at TomDispatch, 10 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. The Smog of War
  2. A Titleholder for Pure, Long-Term Futility
  3. A Vietnam Analogy Memorial
  4. About the author
  5. For more information

(1)  The Smog of War

Take off your hat. Taps is playing. Almost four decades late, the Vietnam War and its post-war spawn, the Vietnam Syndrome, are finally heading for their American grave. It may qualify as the longest attempted burial in history. Last words — both eulogies and curses — have been offered too many times to mention, and yet no American administration found the silver bullet that would put that war away for keeps.

Richard Nixon tried to get rid of it while it was still going on by “Vietnamizing” it. Seven years after it ended, Ronald Reagan tried to praise it into the dustbin of history, hailing it as “a noble cause.” Instead, it morphed from a defeat in the imperium into a “syndrome,” an unhealthy aversion to war-making believed to afflict the American people to their core.

A decade later, after the U.S. military smashed Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait in the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush exulted that the country had finally “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” As it turned out, despite the organization of massive “victory parades” at home to prove that this hadn’t been Vietnam redux, that war kicked back. Another decade passed and there were H.W.’s son W. and his advisors planning the invasion of Iraq through a haze of Vietnam-constrained obsessions.

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History helps us learn from the past and overcome the ghosts of the Vietnam War

Summary:  One cause of our dysfunctional foreign policy is that we’ve lost our past, and substituted myth.  About the great American expansion (stealing land has a high return on investment).  About the Civil War.  And about the Vietnam War, whose grim tale has become lost in myths told about the past to support policies for today.  History can act as an antidote.  Today we look at one good place to begin, a book looking at the starting point of our adventure in Vietnam — and incident that foreshadows so much that followed.  Martin Windrow alternates his account of French planning and execution with the best of the limited information available on the Viet Minh, and provides a very evenhanded narrative.  Superior force and good plans can result in bad outcomes.


The Last Valley – Dien Bien Phu, the battle the doomed the French Empire and led American into Vietnam  (2004)

By Martin Windrow. Reviewed by Christopher S. Owens (Brigadier General, USMC). Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2005. Republished here with their generous permission.


Several books have appeared over the past 40 years covering the battle at Dien Bien Phu, and at first glance, Martin Windrow’s The Last Valley would seem redundant given the status accorded to those by Bernard Fall and Jules Roy. Windrow admits his book leans heavily on those works and others for reference. What sets The Last Valley apart is its comprehensive analysis of the battle, its operational and strategic context, and its avoidance of the fatalistic, retrospective criticism of the French that pervades most of its predecessors.

Windrow alternates his account of French planning and execution with the best of the limited information available on the Viet Minh, and provides a very evenhanded narrative. While the author accurately points out flawed French assumptions, he avoids the tendency of some authors to adulate Vo Nguyen Giap, and instead analyzes the strengths and shortcomings of plans and decisions on both sides. For instance, many authors dwell on Giap’s genius in digging in his 105mm howitzers on the forward slope of the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. Windrow notes that despite their near invulnerability to French air and counterbattery fire and the damage they caused, the Viet Minh could not adjust fires during the fight; each tube could only target a very limited area of the complex.

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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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