Rereading Vietnam May Help Prevent Same Mistakes

Stanley Karnow is the author of Vietnam: A History, generally regarded as the standard popular account of the Vietnam War. This past summer, Karnow, 84, picked up the phone to hear the voice of an old friend, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The two men had first met when Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and Karnow was a reporter covering the war. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was calling from Kabul. The two friends chatted for a while, then Holbrooke said, "Let me pass you to General McChrystal." Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, came on the line. His question was simple but pregnant: "Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?" Karnow's reply was just as simple: "The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place."

Words of wisdom, but not all that useful to General McChrystal. Like it or not, he is already in Afghanistan, along with roughly 68,000 American and 35,000 European troops. McChrystal has been charged by President Obama with presenting a strategy for victory, generally defined as standing up the Afghan Army to beat back the Taliban and deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda. An avid reader of history, McChrystal has read Karnow's book, but he has also read many others. One that he has read—and reread—is a 1999 book called A Better War, written by Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Sorley argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could have won in Vietnam—if only the U.S. Congress hadn't cut off military aid to South Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, the Sorley book is getting a lot of attention at the upper levels of the Pentagon and at McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul. Told that NEWSWEEK was looking into the parallels between the Sorley book and General McChrystal's situation in Afghanistan, a senior Marine general exclaimed, "You're on to something there!" (Like other senior military officials contacted by NEWSWEEK, the general declined to be quoted praising a book that argues, though not in so many words, that the military was stabbed in the back by its civilian leaders.)

As he decides how to respond to McChrystal's request for at least another 40,000 troops, President Obama has been reading some books, too. One that has caught the attention of some top advisers is Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon Goldstein, recounting how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were not well advised on Vietnam. The very title of Goldstein's book captures the conventional wisdom (at least at the center and left of the political spectrum) that Vietnam was a hopeless, unwinnable war.

But was it? The lessons of Vietnam are not necessarily the ones we glibly assume—chief among them that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, is a quagmire, and that achieving some sort of victory is out of reach. Vietnam has become code for American hubris and inevitable military defeat. "What ifs" are always a risky exercise, but some good historians have suggested that there were two moments when victory—or at least a semblance of victory—was possible in America's long war in Southeast Asia. The first came early, in 1965. Had Lyndon Johnson moved aggressively into Vietnam then—taking the war to the enemy and cutting off its supply routes into South Vietnam—the North Vietnamese might have backed off. The second fell five years later, when the military was finally having success with a new counterinsurgency strategy. Would more resources and more fighting later in the war have resulted in South Vietnam remaining independent of the communist North, leaving Vietnam divided in the manner of Korea? Some historians now say yes; many others still say no.

What makes the conversation about Sorley's thesis especially interesting now, of course, is, as McChrystal asked Karnow, whether there is anything to be learned from Vietnam that would illuminate the way forward in Afghanistan. To be clear: there is no precise parallel to draw between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Every war is different. But the revisionists' view of Vietnam does shed some light on the issues facing Obama about war leadership. The most surprising guidance Vietnam may have to offer is not that wars of this kind are unwinnable—which is clearly the common wisdom in America—but that they can produce victories if presidents resist the temptation to fight wars halfway or on the cheap. As President Eisenhower liked to say, if you fight, "you must fight to win."

With their natural tendency to wage the last war, armies learn slowly. In World War II, American armed forces fought badly in Africa in 1942–43 and not so well in Italy in 1943–44 before getting it right in France and Germany in 1944–45. In Vietnam in 1965–67, the Americans pursued a misbegotten strategy of "search and destroy," trying to fight an unconventional war with conventional forces that focused on "body counts" while the North Vietnamese more shrewdly infiltrated into towns and villages. Not until Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as U.S. commander in 1968 did the Americans smarten up and begin to fight a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of "clear and hold." Instead of shoving aside the South Vietnamese Army, Abrams built up the local forces until they could stand and fight largely on their own—as they did in 1972, repulsing North Vietnam's Easter Offensive with the aid of American airstrikes.

But by then, as Sorley laments in A Better War, it was too late. American public opinion had turned. In 1973, President Nixon and the North Vietnamese signed a peace treaty that allowed Hanoi to keep 150,000 troops in South Vietnam, just waiting on orders to march. In 1974, breaking Nixon's promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon. Sorley quotes one of General Abrams's closest colleagues, Gen. Bruce Palmer, as saying that Abrams "died [of cancer in 1974] feeling that we could have won the war. He felt we were on top of it in 1971, then lost our way." Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon who worked with Abrams to turn the war around, felt the same: "We eventually defeated ourselves," Bunker said. (Article continued below...)

In Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces have also been slow learners. Ever since the Civil War, the American way of war was to overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. Against the better-led but materially weaker Confederate Army, a war of attrition finally brought results for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant—who had been made commander by President Lincoln only after much trial and error by the Union Army. In Iraq, the learning curve again stretched out for years. After Vietnam, the Army adopted an approach known as the Powell doctrine that called for overwhelming force and a quick exit strategy. Forgotten was how to fight a counterinsurgency. At the outset of the Iraq War, U.S. forces overwhelmed the pitiful Iraqi Army—but then got bogged down in a guerrilla struggle. At last realizing the futility of superior "kinetics"—roughly speaking, putting a lot of metal in the air—American forces belatedly adopted a counterinsurgency strategy. Using a new field manual—FM 3-24, written under the supervision of Gen. David Petraeus—U.S. forces began to focus on protecting civilians while ruthlessly targeting jihadist leaders. The so-called surge, along with a vigorous effort to negotiate with Sunni enemies and bring them over to our side, worked. It bought the shaky Iraqi government breathing room to establish itself in relative peace. Still marred by violence, Iraq is nowhere near the all-out civil war that had long been predicted.

Now, in Afghanistan, McChrystal is implementing a strategy that draws on the lessons of Iraq—and looks an awful lot like the "pacification" program adopted by General Abrams in Vietnam in 1968. By ratcheting back the heavy use (and overuse) of firepower, McChrystal has reduced civilian casualties, which alienate the locals and breed more jihadists. At the same time, U.S. Special Operations Forces use the intelligence gleaned from friendly civilians to find and kill Taliban leaders. That is precisely what the Phoenix Program was designed to do 40 years ago in Vietnam: target and assassinate Viet Cong leaders. McChrystal is focusing on recruiting and training Afghan Army and police so they can take over the job of securing Afghanistan as soon as possible. "Afghanization" of the war is much the same as "Vietnamization," the strategy adopted—successfully, Sorley argues—before Congress voted an end to aid to the South.

If it was working in Vietnam, will it work in Afghanistan? Contacted by NEWSWEEK, even Sorley wouldn't predict. He would say only that if Obama and his advisers are to study the lessons of Vietnam, they should at least be informed by the right ones. With smarter generals and a "population-centric strategy"—to use the counterinsurgency term now in vogue—the United States could have enabled South Vietnam to beat back the North.

Or so Sorley contends. Vietnam remains a toxic subject for historians, and Sorley's book has inspired no shortage of critics. George Herring, a highly respected historian whose study of Vietnam, America's Longest War, is a standard text, told NEWSWEEK that he is "rather appalled that Sorley's book is being taken so seriously." He acknowledges that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were doing better by 1971, but notes that Hanoi wanted to prevail more than Saigon or Washington did—and was prepared to pay whatever price, in human terms, was necessary. "The war could not have been won at a price we were willing to pay," he says. A more immediate observer, NEWSWEEK correspondent Ron Moreau, recalls patrolling with South Vietnamese infantry in 1973. The South Vietnamese troops, Moreau says, had become utterly dependent on U.S. air power. Without it, they were reluctant to venture forth against the enemy. Moreau, who now covers the war in Afghanistan for NEWSWEEK, sees the same rickety, corrupt power structure in Kabul that he recalls from Saigon and doubts that America can prop it up indefinitely.

America's best chance to win in Vietnam may have come earlier in the war. In 1964–65, the top military leadership understood that to defeat the North, it was necessary to go all-out. As historian Mark Moyar points out in his groundbreaking work, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954–1965, that would have meant a massive bombing campaign, mining Hanoi's port, and sending troops into Laos and Cambodia to cut off the North's all-important sanctuaries and resupply route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But LBJ's advisers were reluctant—fearful, in part, of dragging China and the Soviet Union into a larger war. The military pressed—but not very hard. As Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster shows in Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, the top brass made the classic mistake of telling their political masters what they wanted to hear.

Johnson was horribly conflicted. One of his advisers, Douglass Cater, recalled the president's angst: "I'd never seen the man in as dejected a mood—he said, 'I don't know what to do. If I send more boys in, there's going to be killin'. If I take them out, there's going to be more killin' ' … And he never put a 'g' on the 'killin',' it was Texas 'killin'.' Then he got up and walked out of the room, leaving us in a somewhat shattered state." Despite these melodramas, Johnson's heart was never in the Vietnam War. He was much more concerned with getting his Great Society legislation through Congress. To avoid a fractious public debate over Vietnam, he tried to slide by without leveling with the American people about the commitment required to win. Inevitably, he just got sucked in deeper, an agony he captured in his colorful way: "I knew from the start if I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to fight this bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home," he told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "All my programs. All my hopes … all my dreams."

History may not repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain said, it does have a tendency to rhyme. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK in September as his secret 66-page analysis of the mess in Afghanistan was leaking out, General McChrystal said it was his "duty," his "sacred duty," to tell the president exactly what the military required to win there. McChrystal was clearly mindful of the cautionary tale told by McMaster in Dereliction of Duty. But duty is not a simple notion, and it's possible that the range of options presented to the president by McChrystal—to dispatch 40,000 more troops? Or 20,000? Or 80,000?—has been massaged for political effect. The formula used by General Petraeus's own counterinsurgency manual—one soldier for every 50 square miles—suggests America would need far more troops, something like a half million all told, to pacify the whole country. An aide to McChrystal, who would not speak for attribution on this sensitive subject, told NEWSWEEK that there's "a bit of a Goldilocks scenario—too hot, too cold, just right"—in the general's recommendation. McChrystal is sensitive to the need to make do with whatever he gets, though if he gets "the lower number" (roughly 10,000 to 20,000 troops), says this aide, he will have to "rethink strategy." (Article continued below)

Just as Afghanistan is not Vietnam, President Obama is not President Johnson. LBJ's heart truly did belong to his dream of a Great Society. It's not clear what Obama's heart belongs to—he is a much more dispassionate figure. Nonetheless, he is undoubtedly thinking about how history will judge him. He may want to show that he is decisive, that he did not just kick the problem down the road. If he decides that Afghanistan is winnable—i.e., that the Afghans can find some lasting measure of security against the Taliban—he will need to give the war his wholehearted backing. It may be true, as Sorley's detractors suggest, that by 1972 Vietnam was already lost. But that does not mean it's too late to win in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not the North-Vietnamese. When the Americans and Saigon finally found an effective counter-insurgency strategy and took control of the countryside from the Viet Cong, Hanoi responded by sending in whole divisions of battle-tested troops. The Taliban are much weaker and far less organized. They do not have waves of combat troops and armor.

Or Obama may decide that Afghanistan is too hard, that the country's leadership is too corrupt; that too many Afghans will forever regard American soldiers as alien occupiers; that a big influx of troops will only fuel the insurgency and make the Afghan military more dependent; that America will not indefinitely tolerate a war that costs more than $40 billion a year and bleeds off hundreds or thousands of young American soldiers. But if that is the case, Obama needs to start preparing for an orderly withdrawal—and explaining to America and the world why it's necessary.

Obama's pronounced tendency is to try to find a middle ground, a compromise. He may try to find a way to send, say, 20,000 troops and ask McChrystal to make do. If so, he runs the real risk of repeating Johnson's mistake of incrementalism—of doing just enough (or so he hoped) to get the enemy to the bargaining table and to keep the hawks at home off his back. Hoping to muddle through only got LBJ stuck deeper in the mud. Afghanistan may not be Vietnam, but Obama risks repeating Johnson's mistake.