Rethinking the Lessons of Vietnam

Napoleon was not a particularly philosophical man, but an observation of his that has come down to us bears thinking about. "What is history," he once asked rhetorically, "but a fable agreed-upon?"

Well, it is lots of other things, chiefly a story of nuances and near misses. The most useful way to think historically—that is, the way to frame the present in terms established by past experience—is to remember that we are often too quick to package the past into Napoleonic fairy tales. Countries shape and reshape their pasts in the way individuals bring order to their own experiences by creating internal psychological narratives in which memory stokes both hope and fear.

There is much danger here, of course. Like individuals, nations always risk falling into denial or can fall prey to reinventing reality to smooth out the rough edges of the past, turning the complexity of experience into too-neat morality tales. We should instead be always open to rethinking and reinvestigation, for in revisiting received history we may learn something new about even the most seemingly familiar of subjects.

America's war in Vietnam, the topic of our cover this week, is a case in point. Vietnam has been long understood as a -disaster, an object lesson in the perils of imperial overreach. But what if the reality of history is more complicated than the force of memory—the force of fables, in Napoleonic terms—would have it? The conventional wisdom is that Vietnam was an unmitigated debacle—the wrong war fought the wrong way by presidents who, through misleading the public, did wrong. The dominance of this interpretation is beyond dispute. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was attacked for calling Vietnam "a noble cause"; a decade later, George H.W. Bush hoped aloud that Operation Desert Storm had cured the nation's "Vietnam syndrome."

It did not. But events once thought to be fixed forever in a certain place with a certain meaning can come to be seen differently with the passage of time or the changing of perspective. As Evan Thomas and John Barry report, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other senior military officers have been reading a revisionist history of Vietnam, Lewis Sorley's book A Better War. Evan and John write: "Now in Afghanistan, General McChrystal is implementing a strategy that draws on the lessons of Iraq—and looks an awful lot like the 'pacification' program adopted … in Vietnam in 1968. By ratcheting back the heavy use (and overuse) of firepower (airstrikes, artillery barrages, and the like) McChrystal has cut back on civilian casualties, which alienate the locals and breed more jihadist recruits. 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—-targeted assassinations of Viet Cong leaders—was designed to do some 40 years ago in Vietnam. McChrystal is focusing on recruiting and training Afghan Army and police so they can take over the job of securing Afghanistan from the Taliban as soon as possible. 'Afghanization' of the war is just the same as 'Vietnamization,' the strategy adopted—successfully, Sorley argues—before the Congress cut off aid to the South."

Analogies are tricky things. Every crisis is not a Munich; every scandal is not Watergate; every conflict is not a quagmire. Our story does not argue that there are precise parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, but that the history of Vietnam is more complicated than many people believe, which means that the familiar lessons of the war should not be taken at face value. We might have won in Vietnam in 1965 with a more dramatic conventional effort, and Sorley makes the case that South Vietnam could possibly have survived as an independent nation if America had built on the counterinsurgency successes of the early Nixon period.

Counterfactual history—the scholarly term for "what if?"—is diverting, but it is just that: counterfactual. The lessons from Vietnam for Afghanistan that seem to be rooted most firmly in fact and in history are partial, but interesting. First, there is evidence that counterinsurgencies, when properly supported, can work. Second, presidents can never win military conflicts by halves.

Enough with the revisionists, replies John Kerry, who knows of what he speaks, both from his heroic service in the war and now as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The argument is worth having, though, because in politics and in war, history, with all its complexities and -contradictions, is ultimately of greater use than any fable.