Thursday, May 01, 2008

Losing Vietnam All Over Again

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” -- Walter Cronkite, February 27, 1968

The most delusional meme of post-modern U.S. military culture is that America lost the Vietnam War on the home front. Nothing could be further, quite literally, from the truth. America lost Vietnam half a world away from the home front—in Southeast Asia, where it fought what has become the template for superpower entanglement in third world wars.

Yet many of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s most avid backers believe—or claim to believe—that America’s military can somehow achieve the “victory” in Iraq that eluded it in Vietnam if only the public gives it enough opportunity. These true believers have asked us for a seemingly endless string of six-month extensions, chances to get it right this time, until they sound like sulky children at bedtime who just want “five more minutes, Mom.”

False Hopes and Friedman Units

In a recent New York Times article titled “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” David Barstow noted that some retired officers who covertly echoed the administration’s pro-Iraq war propaganda on the broadcast news networks “shared with Mr. Bush’s national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.”

This was especially true of Paul E. Vallely, a retired Army two-star who was a FOX News military analyst from 2001 to 2007. A former commander of the 7th Psychological Operations Group, Vallely co-wrote a paper in 1980 that introduced the MindWar concept (.pdf available here). According to Vallely, the failure in Vietnam was caused by the effectiveness of enemy psychological operations (PSYOP) and because “our PSYOP failed.” Vallely said that American PSYOP was insufficient to “defend the U.S. populace at home against the propaganda of the enemy,” and that, “Furthermore the enemy PSYOP was so strong that it—not bigger armies or better weapons—overcame all of the COBRAs and Spookys and ACAVs and B-52s we fielded.” In short, according to Vallely, “We lost the war—not because we were outfought, but because we were out-PSYOPed.”

Vallely and those who share his views are quite wrong. We were outfought in Vietnam, by a low tech, horizontally organized foe with a de-centralized center of gravity that fought smarter than we did. PSYOP didn’t defeat our COBRAs and B-52s and other modern machines of war; it was our military and political leaders’ inability to understand they had gotten us into the kind of war that our gizmology couldn’t win for us. They had also gotten us into a war that was, in the main, a counterinsurgency campaign, and as co-creator of the Fourth Generation Warfare theory William Lind wrote recently, “Not even the best counter-insurgency techniques make much difference, because neither a foreign occupier nor any puppet government he installs can gain legitimacy.”

To this day, I hear bitter Vietnam veterans say, “If we’d only had another eighteen months…” Another eighteen months? We were militarily involved in Vietnam for well over a decade. By late 1966 the war was costing $2 billion per month, and by the end of 1968 troop levels in Vietnam had risen to over a half million. The military had all the time, personnel and materiel resources for Vietnam it could possibly have wanted, and yet some would have us believe it could have won if it could only have had another eighteen months, or six months, or three months, or maybe just five more minutes.

Poppycock. The likes of Walter Cronkite did not lose Vietnam. The likes of men named Johnson and McNamara and Nixon and Kissinger and Westmoreland lost it. And if the likes of Paul Vallely had their way, and had been able to use the media to bolster our “national will to victory,” we’d be losing in Vietnam still today.

A Hole to China

I’m a few years older than Osama bin Laden, so I didn’t really know him at King Abdul-Aziz University. We don’t attend the same church and our kids don’t play on the same soccer team. I don’t need to know much about the guy, though, to realize that he is probably the greatest strategist of the 21st century. I don’t have to be a world class strategist myself to have a pretty good idea what he wants to do or to figure out that he has access to the same information I have access to, and given those two things I can certainly imagine what I would think and do if I were in his position.

If I wanted to take down the United States but didn’t have an air force or navy or army to do it with, I’d find a way to get it entangled in another disaster like Vietnam. In September of 2000, I would have read the neoconservative manifesto Rebuilding America’s Defenses (I would have downloaded the .pdf file here) by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and understood that if they gained power in the U.S. they would invade and occupy Iraq on any pretense. When their hand-picked candidate won the 2000 election on a technicality, I’d put the wheels in place to give them the “new Pearl Harbor” they were looking for, and come September 11, 2001 I’d have told my people “Let’s make magic happen.”

Then I’d sit in the countryside in prayerful meditation and watch as the American people bought their leaders’ Vietnam guilt trip in six-month installments and squandered their country’s might and wealth into a sand dune until it was all gone.

And I’d hope it never occurred to Americans that thinking they lost in Vietnam because Walter Cronkite said they were losing is akin to believing that lemmings behave the way they do because they’re called “lemmings.”

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword .

"So we can play war…"

"Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." — Publishers Weekly

"A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." — Booklist

View the trailer here.


  1. Ahh, yes and bin Laden would be quite familiar with our Nemesis the USSR going down in Afghanistan, wouldn't he?

    Amazing how word gets arund isn't it? When I first saw the Stauber vs Zelinck YouTube link it had been watched around 800 times. Now?
    38 thousand times.

    The Pentagon Strangles Our Economy:
    Why the U.S. Has Gone Broke
    By Chalmers Johnson (first degree was in Economics, was Naval Officer WWII & Japan, in the 50's and CIA consultant)
    also wrote this review of a book on Rand, everybody's favorite think tank.

  2. wkmaier8:02 PM

    Great stuff.

    BTW Jeff, I've wargamed it, and if only Misters Bush, Cheney, Limbaugh, Nugent and O Reilly (and their subordinates) had been able to serve, we would have been victorious in Vietnam. :-P

  3. Montag9:57 PM

    As German Generalisimo Erich Von Ludendorf said after losing WWI, "Ja, we were STABBED IN THE BACK!" Never mind that he was begging the wartime German government for an Armistice because the Allies were steamrolling his forces back into Germany--it was all the fault of those darned gutless civilians.

    I think the stab-in-the-back excuse is so popular because it's like "no fault divorce." You don't have to take responsibility for your own failures. YOU were just a victim of circumstances. And it's always great to feel the self-righteousness of being a victim, isn't it?

    They claim we lost them Vietnam
    Because we had no guts
    This comes from valiant creampuffs
    Who wouldn't risk their butts

    When first they suckered us into war
    They promised it would be grand
    We hear only the bugles at funerals now
    Instead of a marching band

  4. War is a hard mistress. The best measure of who won has always ultimately been who possesses the field at the end of the day.

    Iraq is doubly sad because it was an avoidable conflict waged for the worst reasons.

    But it will be Afghanistan--a conflict we desperately needed to win--where our defeat will be bitterest. We had the means and our leadership, through mis-, mal-, and non-feasance, screwed it all to hell.

  5. Nunya,

    I now think about how compliant the press was in helping us think Afghanistan was a great victory.


    I wonder how long it would have taken before Rush got busted for drugs.


    Yes, I didn't dwell on that aspect too much on this essay, but the Army never wants to admit that IT lost in Vietnam.


    Yep, Mis and Mal, the feasance brothers, struck again.


  6. Anonymous5:52 AM

    i would venture to say that most americans are not aware that the U.S. lost the war in vietnam.

  7. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Outstanding post. Please continue.

  8. wkmaier10:36 AM


    Sen. Fulbright's speech was posted up at American Prospect.

  9. WK,

    Many thanks for the link.

  10. Anonymous11:22 AM

    Cmdr. Huber,

    What do you make of the argument that we lost Vietnam because we didn't insist on land redistribution in Vietnam, as we had in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea?

    In the countries where we did, the peasantry became fanatically anti-Communist, those where we didn't, such as Vietnam and the Philippines were plagued by chronic insurgencies.

  11. Anonymous9:35 PM

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  12. I don't know what's more appalling, that Vallely thinks that propagandizing the American public is a legitimate function of the "defense" establishment, or that we peons are somehow obligated to believe the lies.

    I don't recall having heard the term "PSYOPS" until very recently (along with other such gems as "preemptive war" and "detainee"). I think that the fact that they use such verbiage today without reservation (or any sense of irony, for that matter) is a striking testament to how brazen our political and military establishments have become since then (and I thought they were pretty insufferable back then!).

    I'm about halfway through the book. Off-the-cuff-review: Bravo! (or how do they say it in the military? "Outstanding!"). There's nothing quite like good satirical writing (wish there was more around, we sure could use it).

    Reminds me somewhat of a certain other military satire (and Milo Minderbinder would certainly be at home with some of you characters).

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