The Parallels Between the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War

While Obama has a strategy to prevent failure, there's not much evidence that America has its strategy for success.

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A few weeks back I watched We Were Soldiers, the Vietnam War movie starring Mel Gibson. It tells the story of the heroic men of the 7th Cavalry (General Custer's old unit) who defended LZ X-Ray in the battle of the Ia Drang valley, at the beginning of the U.S. escalation in November 1965.

Pretty good movie. Good enough that I bought the book, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and legendary war correspondent Joseph Galloway (a former U.S. News-er).

[Read the story behind the book and the movie.]

We are all used to Hollywood's "adjustments" to history. And, sure enough, I found that a movie that began with considerable accuracy veered off into fiction in the third act. Hal Moore did not lead his men in a desperate charge, like Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, and rout the North Vietnamese. The American infantry fought with courage and endured, as U.S. air and artillery firepower decimated the enemy.

[Read Joseph Galloway's account of the Ia Drang battle.]

But the biggest difference between book and movie is what Hollywood decided not to show us at all. The events shown in the film have ended at around page 200 in a 360-page book. The second half of the book is all about loss and stupid mistakes, and savagery and horror.

One of the columns leaving LZ X-Ray was ambushed by the North Vietnamese on the way to its pickup point at nearby LZ Albany. The American line disintegrated. Whole companies were destroyed. U.S. soldiers hid in the waist-high elephant grass, listening to their comrades weeping and begging for mercy as the North Vietnamese stalked the battlefield, executing the wounded. Other injured Americans were killed by U.S. artillery and air strikes, called in close to rescue the survivors.

Though their book is about bravery, brotherhood, and endurance, and not politics, Moore and Galloway don't hesitate to examine the repercussions of the battles of the Ia Drang valley. The 300 American dead were proof that the North Vietnamese were skilled, fanatical soldiers, willing to endure a "terrible high-tech firestorm," and fight on despite losing 10 times the number of U.S. casualties.

The American military and civilian leadership now recognized that it would take hundreds of thousands of additional American troops to win the war. And even then, because the North Vietnamese could take sanctuary in Cambodia, and venture across the border to attack when they chose, there was no guarantee of victory. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara traveled to Vietnam to be briefed on the lessons of the Ia Drang battle, and then told the press, "It will be a long war." In private, McNamara told President Lyndon Johnson that with 600,000 U.S. troops, "the odds are about even that … we will be faced … with a military standoff."

But no American wanted to admit failure. We were God's special people. With enough can-do spirit, our splendid military--the conquerors of Hitler and Tojo--could accomplish anything. And we could do it on the cheap--there would be no universal sacrifice, as in World War II. So the escalation started, and 58,000 families paid the price. South Vietnam fell anyway. The American economy cratered. We launched a 40-year, divisive "culture war" at home.

There are limits to historic parallels. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the Afghans we are fighting are fanatics too, skilled enough to beat the Russians, willing to wait us out, able to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan. The government of our Afghan ally is corrupt, and its young men don't seem motivated to join our fight.

[See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]  

To write their book, Moore and Galloway went to Vietnam and interviewed Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap. They asked him why he had been confident that his side would ultimately prevail. "We had a strategy of people's war," Giap told the writers. "You had tactics."

It was much the same lesson that Moore took from reading Clausewitz: "No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

The good news from Bob Woodward's book Obama’s Wars is that President Obama seems determined to subject American involvement to rigorous examination. This is one place where it may be a blessing to have a cold, calculating president. The bad news is that, while Obama has a strategy to prevent failure, there's not much evidence that America has its strategy for success.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan
  • Follow the money in Congress
  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan