Is Iraq like Vietnam? Lessons learned.

Is Iraq like Vietnam? Lessons learned.


Colin Powell in Vietnam 1968
This is the third (and last) of a three post series to examine the question “Is Iraq like Vietnam?” The catalyst for the series was the President’s recent speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, where he invoked this historical analogy:

” … one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields'”

He explicitly asserts that the lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that the U.S. withdrawal precipitated a bloodbath, chaos, and massacres for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and we should now apply that lesson to Iraq. In the first post of this series we conclude it is the wrong question to ask about future steps in Iraq. The second post questioned the historical basis for the President’s claim. In this post we turn back to the question of legacy and “lessons learned.”

There were indeed important lessons to be learned from Vietnam. We don’t have to speculate about those lessons. There is no more committed “learning organization” than the United States Military. Every battle, every decision in every conflict is parsed and analyzed to extract lessons that can be applied to making our fighting forces more effective. You don’t need to read all of the military and historical scholarship to glean the real lessons of Vietnam. That task has already been done.

The lessons of Vietnam were distilled into a doctrine by the Secretary of Defense, refined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accepted and embraced by the Commander in Chief. The SECDEF was Caspar Weinberger. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was General Colin Powell. The President that accepted and acted on the distilled lessons of Vietnam, was George Bush – George Herbert Walker Bush. Republicans one and all. The distilled wisdom of the United States military on the lessons learned from Vietnam, became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, and later refined as the Powell Doctrine.

From Wikipedia:

The Powell Doctrine, is a journalist created neologism, named after General Colin Powell in the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It is based in large part on the Weinberger Doctrine, devised by Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense and Powell’s former boss.

The questions posed by the Powell Doctrine, which should be answered affirmatively before military action, are:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

How difficult would it be to apply these questions to Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afganistan and Iraq? My assessment:

Weinberger/Powell Doctrine Vietnam 1968 Gulf War 1990 Afgan. 2002 Iraq 2003 Iraq 2007
1. national threat? Yes Yes Yes Yes/No* Yes
2. clear objective? No Yes Yes Yes No
3. risks analyzed? No Yes Yes No No
4. non-violent tried? No No Yes No No
5.exit strategy? No Yes Yes No No
6. cons. considered? No Yes Yes No No
7. USA support? No Yes Yes Yes No
8. global support? No Yes Yes No No

* It depends. If Saddam had WMD’s, then there was a real security threat. Nevertheless, by mid 2003, the “attainable objectives” of eliminating that threat and effecting regime change had been attained. Unattainable objectives (“Democratize the Middle East”) were then added. Reasonable minds can disagree with my evaluation. I’ll be happy to defend my choices in the comments.

Heh. Looking over the chart, it is apparent the President is right. Iraq really is like Vietnam.

A final exercise is left to the reader, on the topic of lessons learned from Vietnam –

Compare and Contrast:

The George Bush speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention on August 22, 2007 quoted at the top of this post, invoking the “legacy of Vietnam” while ignoring the distilled lessons of Vietnam.


The George Bush speaking at the “8th Annual Reunion of Our Victory in the Desert” Feb. 28, 1999:

It was only after all peaceful means failed, he said, “that we had to fight…”I’ll never forget,” he said, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell “came over and said it was time to end the fighting — mission accomplished.“I don’t believe in mission creep,” he continued. “Had we gone into Baghdad — we could have done it — and then what? “Which sergeant, which private, whose life would be at stake in perhaps a fruitless hunt in an urban guerilla war to find the most-secure dictator in the world? “Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our macho?” he asked. “We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power — America in an Arab land — with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.” Bush said, “We don’t gain the size of our victory by how many innocent kids running away — even though they’re bad guys — that we can slaughter. … We’re American soldiers; we don’t do business that way.” … Bush said his memory of Vietnam influenced his thinking during the Gulf War. He recalled that politicians during the Vietnam War kept changing the conditions under which U.S. forces fought — bombing halts and cease-fires… We didn’t want any man or woman put into harm’s way,” Bush said. “We worked hard to form an international coalition…” – George H.W. Bush

There were indeed lessons to be learned from Vietnam.

One George Bush heeded those lessons.

One did not.

x-cerpted and x-posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall”

  • Derrick

    I think your assessment is pretty much right on. I would add one lesson that all Marines and Soldiers understand about Viet Nam and Iraq. You have to let war be war. It is a terrible and ugly thing. When you try to clean it up and fight a politically correct war, you get Viet Nam and now Iraq. The people who still support this war would not do so if it started hitting their pocket books. They feel real sorry for the young men and women who have been injured or killed, but not one of them would give up his 401K for victory in Iraq. Who really supports the troops? Bring my brothers and sisters home.

  • Joshua

    You forgot one war in your assessment table: the “War on Drugs”.

    1. national threat? No
    2. clear objective? No
    3. risks analyzed? No
    4. non-violent tried? No
    5.exit strategy? No
    6. cons. considered? No
    7. USA support? Yes
    8. global support? Yes/No (varies from country to country)

    The American people’s fear of drugs is pretty much the only thing keeping that war going. Likewise, fear of the consequences of withdrawal is pretty much the only thing keeping us in Iraq at this point. But in both cases, fear has proven to be a very powerful motivator, as John Robb has noted.

  • mw

    “The people who still support this war would not do so if it started hitting their pocket books. ” – Deririck

    I’ve heard a number of our military and civilian leaders talk about this phenomena – the disconnect between the burden placed on the military and families, with the complete absence of any impact whatsoever on the lives of – well – anyone else in the country. Among elected representatives, it seems to be the vets and mostly vietnam vets who are concerned and talk about this – guys like Hagel, McCain, Webb, Warner.

    I think this is unique in our history of any war of this magnitude. Absolutely zero impact on those that are safe at home (like me), and massive and increasing burdens put on those that fight and their families. I am a big believer in a volunteer army, it affords us a superior fighting force, but the unintended consequence, magnified by the administration policies, is this huge discontinuity in the experience of the war.

    Agree about the WOD, but – I had enough trouble formatting that table to fit. Plus it is a bit off-topic. Interesting comparison though. Maybe a future post.

  • Hayward Maberley

    Interesting piece, however the US has again shown that it learns nothing from history in spite of what you claim. I recently finished reading a very interesting book “Ghost Wars” by John J. Tierney Jr. It is a study of the American involvement in unconventional warfare starting with the early settlement of the colonies. It takes in Revolutionary Terrorism used by Whig supporters of the Revolution against Tory Loyalists, the Confederate use of raiders, through all the early American adventures in Cuba, the Philippines, Central America and on to Indo China and the current adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. It leads to the conclusion that in every military adventure the US starts into it has to reinvent the wheel.
    An Australian, Colonel Kilcullen formerly of the ADF, has been hailed as bringing new insights to the Iraq Fiasco. But ex Commandos, Special Forces, Psy Ops and other former military who served in both the Malayan Emergency and the Viet Nam Farrago say Kilcullen brings nothing new to the conflict. For his approach almost exactly echoes that of the British in the Malayan Emergency, as that conflict was called. At least they had the good grace not to call it a “war”.
    Sir Robert Thompson, who had fought the Japanese in the jungle of Burma with the Chindits in WWII, was made Permanent Secretary of Defence for Malaya. Early on he was the main driver of the change in strategy and tactics, e.g. hearts and minds, used to defeat the MNLA. Despite this it took 12 years and involved up to a maximum of 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops including Ghurkas against a peak of about 7–8,000 communist guerrillas. Who were ethnic Chinese from a distinct language group.That is a ratio of 5 to 1! The current surge, not “escalation” but “augmentation” according to Condi, will not do it. Just more fish in the barrel !
    When Thompson was appointed to help the US in its adventure in Viet Nam, JFK was receptive to these ideas but the US military refused to implement them in any serious fashion. Thompson’s warning not to bomb villages went unheeded and his dismissal of US air supremacy was ignored. “The war [will] be won by brains and on foot”, Thompson told the US, but interests in Saigon and Washington marginalised him so his ideas and plans had no effect.
    Neither previously in Viet Nam nor currently in Afghanistan and Iraq has the US attempted seriously to win hearts and minds. The “shock and awe campaign” was a bad start and the situation, when you take into account Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha etc. and the emergence of al-Q’aida which was not in Iraq prior to the illegal invasion and occupation, is deteriorating. The US still really thinks that firepower and technology will win the day.
    This all proves that George Santayana’s saying “Those that do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat their mistakes” is again ringing true.
    As is a saying by another great citizen of the USA, Benjamin Franklin “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

  • Ken Larson

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak. I believed another Vietnam could be avoided with defined missions and the best armaments in the world.

    It made no difference.

    We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:

    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

    There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

    The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

    This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

    The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

    For more details see:

  • mw

    You speak to a much bigger (although intriguing!) question than I am addressing in this post. My point is that we had a doctrine developed from the lessons of Vietnam and that doctrine was used to guide a successful military venture in 1990. It was ignored in our decision to occupy Iraq, with the resultant quagmire as a result.

    Thank you for your service. My draft number was 309 in 1972, and so I did not serve. Just got lucky I guess. Interesting observations and blog. It’s blogrolled and I am going to spend a little time there. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jimmy the Dhimmi

    I have a more semantic question about all this. Many politicians, such as John Murtha, Ted Kennedy and Ron Paul(PBUH) have stated rather forcefully that there will NOT be a bloodbath if we pull out of Iraq immediately.

    Lets say a Democrat, or Ron Paul(PBUH) becomes president and there is a blood bath, despite their predictions. Would it be appropriate to call that person a liar? When Bush (as well as every intelligence agency in Europe and the Arab world) predicted that WMDs would be found in Iraq, and his prediction turned out to be false, he was deemed a liar.

    Is getting a prediction based on intelligence assessments wrong (One could say, for example, that Murtha’s assertion that the Iraqi army is prepared to “wipe the floor” with Al-Queda is a form of intelligence assessment) the same as lying?

  • Jeremy

    “Lets say a Democrat, or Ron Paul(PBUH) becomes president and there is a blood bath, despite their predictions. Would it be appropriate to call that person a liar? When Bush (as well as every intelligence agency in Europe and the Arab world) predicted that WMDs would be found in Iraq, and his prediction turned out to be false, he was deemed a liar.”

    Uhhh, yeah! Since when has the United States given two-shits about other countries’ intelligence assessments? We didn’t give a shit about their “assessment”
    to postpone our unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003 due to their skepticism concerning the validity of the “imminent threat” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We just told half of the western world to, in French parlance: Fuck off!

    Tell me, who were these “Arab” countries giving us this “spot-on” intelligence? Saudi Arabia? or perhaps Israel? You’ve got to be kidding me.

    Our CIA knew Saddam already possessed “WMD’s” such as chemical and/or biological agents because we are the ones that sold him the shit in the first place. We even have Rummy on tape shaking the “evil” tyrants hand. So, all this crap about Bush be misled by “others” poor intelligence is
    a sad, sadistic joke. Everyone knows that America is running the show here, America isn’t relying on poor little ol’ Kuwait or Yemen for our “smoking gun” now are we?

    The truth of the matter is that Bush and his “New American Century” friends had this planned long beforehand. The invasion was going through. Whatever had to be said or fabricated was going happen. In fact, we have a chief U.N. weapons inspector by the name of Scott Ritter that refutes the assertion that their was any credible intelligence supporting the fact Suddam Hussein’s Iraq still possessed WMD’s, when in fact! he and other U.N. inspectors notice a complete absence of ANY evidence to support that idea.

    However, there was one particularly corrupt chief U.N. weapons inspector by the name of David A. Kay which had a convenient tie of being the Vice President of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) from 1993 to 2002. Remember him? I do! I remember him very vividly. He appeared all throughout the buildup and actual invasion of Iraq in 2003. He
    was the super-staunch supporter of going in and taking out Saddam militarily instead of letting the U.N. inspection team continue its assessment.

    Here’s a little quote from Wikipedia, I know! I know! Wikipedia isn’t a quotable source, anyhow: “While at SAIC, he worked alongside Steven Hatfill until March 2002. Then, he was appointed as a Special Advisor for Strategy regarding Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Programs. He received the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Distinguished Service Award and the U.S. Secretary of State’s Commendation. (SAIC was contracted by the U.S. to build prototype Mobile Weapons Laboratories in fall of 2001)”

    WOW!!!! Did you hear that? Not only did this guy work for a company that has made hundreds of millions of dollars off the invasion of Iraq but he was also chosen to head a project to build “Mobile Weapons Labs.” Hmm, isn’t that odd! isn’t this the very same person that went on countless U.S. news stations proclaiming that Saddam had “Mobile Weapons Labs.” Why heck! I think it is. Isn’t this a strange twist of events? a mere coincidence? Puh-leeeease!

    Fact is what you are saying here is total misinformed garbage. Bush and his oil buddies invaded Iraq, it has gone very poorly and now you want to act like Bush was just a poor little victim of faulty intelligence of some Arab country with an ax to grind, or even worse, a scapegoat for Bush to claim it was their intelligence that made me do it.

    You cease to amaze me with the bullshat you seem to actually believe.

  • Jeremy

    “Former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay told CNN on Saturday that though there was a “lack of strong evidence” that the vehicles had been used to produce deadly biological agents, “the most likely use” and “the most probable use” was to create biological weapons. He said suggestions that the mobile labs had some more benign application, such as producing agricultural chemicals, were unlikely.” -CNN

    So now we know were good ol’ David Kay, Mr. “Chief” Weapons inspector came up with the great, albeit, misleading idea of “Mobile Labs,” he had a very real notion of mobile weapons labs long before 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, he was after all tasked with the project to make them himself in 2001.

    What a wonderful idea, let’s accuse Iraq of having this “ominous” weapons capability that could kill potentially thousands of U.S. soldiers in the filed of combat. What a better way to get the American people at home behind this invasion and fill up my pockets at the same time. Jimmy, how about you read up on SAIC corporations windfall profits, many of them no-bid contracts which they continue to receive regarding the Iraq war directly and indirectly. Also not, they have flopped several very costly projects yet they still continue to get more defense projects thrown their way. Coincidence?

  • Jeremy

    SAIC: The Very Model of the Military-Industrial Complex