Vietnam’s Lessons…and Afghanistan

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Those who forget the past &c.

Colonel Gregory A. Daddis is the author of No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War, published by Oxford University Press. Daddis teaches history at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He has served in a variety of Army command and staff posts around the world and in both Iraq wars.

Daddis’ book focuses on how the U.S. tried to figure out if it were winning in Vietnam. Then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” emphasized “body counts” and other countable things over fuzzier indications of the morale and support each side had. In this email exchange with Battleland, Daddis talks about such yardsticks, and how they might apply today:

What did writing this book tell you about winning wars?

The American experience in Vietnam demonstrates that when an army is unable to reach a consensus over how well it is doing in a complex war, the very definition of “winning” becomes muddled. Appreciating whether a nation’s armed forces are making progress towards their strategic objectives is a crucial element of warfare, particularly in unconventional conflicts where there are no front lines to serve as visible yardsticks for such progress.

Gregory Daddis

For nearly a decade Americans in South Vietnam tried in vain to assess progression towards the daunting political-military objective of a stable and independent non-communist government in Saigon. Military officers and their civilian leaders employed a range of metrics to track success in the myriad political, military, economic, security, and social programs. By war’s end, questions remained over whether the U.S. Army in particular had won in Southeast Asia. That debate continues to this day.

How much of a road map do past wars lay out for new ones?

The Vietnam War, like other past wars, has served—rightfully so—as only an imperfect road map for our more current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Henry Kissinger accurately maintained of Vietnam, it “represented a unique situation, geographically, ethnically, politically, militarily and diplomatically.” Still, an objective study of the Vietnam War offers valuable insights and perspectives into the unresolved problems of measuring progress and military effectiveness in a wartime environment like Afghanistan.

Commanders in our current wars have struggled to determine whom to trust among the local population, where the insurgents’ main bases were located, and what organized groups posed the greatest threat to government stability. In Afghanistan, much like in Vietnam, analysts have wrestled with defining success, both “from the perspective of the international community and from that of ordinary Afghans.”

How good a job does the U.S. do at learning lessons from past wars?

One of the dominant narratives of the Vietnam War has centered on the argument that the U.S. Army lost the war because it failed to learn from the experiences of others, particularly the British in Malaya and the French in Indochina. In fact, many army leaders looked to the past to help clarify both strategy and operations in Vietnam. Our current army continues to use history as a venue for improving critical thinking and communication skills and for understanding human behavior and ideas in a broad, global context.

As an illustration, the army’s current field manual on counterinsurgency employs a number of historical vignettes to promote learning about a highly complicated topic. It is important to note, however, that history rarely if ever provides concrete “lessons” for contemporary armies. Using the American experience in Vietnam or the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan to “prove” the validity of an idea or concept in our current wars is a risky enterprise as all wars are unique.

Can we over-learn the lessons of old wars? Under-learn?

Certainly, there is a danger in viewing historical “lessons” as prescriptive. Many in the U.S. Army today are fond of drawing on the British experience in Malaya as evidence of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Current army doctrine, as an example, notes that the “Malaya insurgency provides lessons applicable to combating any insurgency.” Aping British policies, however, discounts the distinctive nature of the conflict, where the established government exploited deep divisions between the Malaya and ethnic Chinese communities.

Similarly, discounting the American experience in Vietnam as not worthy of study due to the war’s final outcome overlooks the difficulties in synchronizing a political-military campaign in an unconventional environment. The army in Vietnam struggled to coordinate a wide range of political and military programs in an effort to stabilize a country weakened by prolonged conflict. The study of such difficulties can be informative for those hoping to gain a deeper understanding for waging war in an unconventional environment.

Given your insights, why is there so much debate about progress in Afghanistan?

Our recent conflicts illustrate the continuing challenges of defining progress and success in unconventional wars and of developing a coherent strategy for such wars. It is here, I would maintain, that an objective study of Vietnam can offer an appreciation of the unresolved problems in measuring what matters most in an environment like Afghanistan. Quantitative statistics often do not tell the whole story as governmental allegiances, population security, and political stability all are highly subjective assessments.

As in Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have varied from province to province and any broad, centralized appraisals of the war likely miss the finer points of local conditions driving the political and military struggle. If historical examples can be instructive in any way, the problem of metrics in Vietnam arguably helps illuminate the reasons why gauging wartime progress in Afghanistan has produced such a wide range of contradictory opinions. Assessing wars oftentimes is just as difficult as winning them.