Vietnam's Forgotten Lessons
Twenty-five years after the end of the war, does the Pentagon remember the causes of America's defeat?
Lyndon Johnson once boasted that during the Vietnam War, "I had more control over the generals than any other civilian President in history." But President Clinton had one advantage Johnson didn't: "POTUS slides." During the war against Yugoslavia last year, intelligence analysts produced viewgraphs exclusively for the President of the United States--POTUS, in administration speak. Each contained detailed information on targets NATO commanders wanted to bomb. There was a picture of the target and data on what kind of bomb would be used. Better yet, the slides estimated how much damage would be done to nearby buildings, and how many civilians and enemy troops would be killed. If the numbers looked good, Clinton gave a thumbs-up, and bombs would fly. Key European capitals had to agree, of course, but in the end many targets were deemed too risky and relegated to the "no-strike" list.
A week into the war, Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's top commander, was bristling. Politicians in Washington and Europe were refusing to attack targets in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. Command bunkers and other critical targets were ruled off-limits. Serb forces, meanwhile, were marauding through Kosovo. "Clark said, 'This is impossible,' " according to a NATO official involved in the process. "We need blanket [target] approval." The NATO chief implored his political bosses to approve more targets. He even launched warplanes toward unapproved targets, hoping to get an OK once he explained that the jets were already airborne. The ploy didn't work--not once. Only after about a month of bombing did the restrictions ease significantly, as the Serbs proved far tougher than expected.
Futility. That's no way to fight a war--at least according to the lessons the American military learned in Southeast Asia a quarter century ago. The fall of Saigon and the communist victory in Vietnam brought to a close one of the most painful--but instructive--epochs in the nation's history. The image of defeat is indelible: a Marine Corps chopper plucking desperate Americans from a Saigon rooftop while North Vietnamese troops swarm through the city. It epitomized the futility of Vietnam, a conflict fought valiantly on the ground but lost by the bullheaded decisions of those in high office. Twenty-five years later, the denunciations of the war are muted--but still accurate: 58,219 Americans died in Vietnam because shortsighted political leaders misused the nation's military.
From all the waste, however, something valuable did emerge: a military that learned how not to fight an enemy. "It was a very frustrating war for a lot of us," recalls Gen. Mike Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, who flew 100 missions over North Vietnam in an F-4 fighter-bomber. On many of those flights, North Vietnamese MiG fighters would engage U.S. jets, flying from air bases American pilots were forbidden to bomb. It was that kind of insanity that taught Ryan and others of his generation how to fight to win: Establish clear objectives. Give military leaders broad authority. Don't micromanage the war from Washington. And "if you're going to use American might," says Ryan, "use it in a way so we don't prolong the war." The showcase for those lessons was the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a furious, 43-day onslaught in which the U.S.-led coalition pulverized Saddam Hussein's Air Force, crippled his infrastructure, and routed 300,000 of his troops. "By God," declared President George Bush at the end of the war, "we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."
Nearly a decade later, however, the U.S. military is beset by an identity crisis. Many of the lessons of Vietnam have been lost, forgotten, or cast aside, deemed inconvenient or irrelevant. Few members of the Vietnam generation remain in uniform. Only 1,379 of the Army's 475,000 soldiers, for instance, served in Vietnam. Many generals still remember Vietnam vividly, but the war has virtually vanished from the cultural memory of the rank and file. "Vietnam is history, and it's been forgotten, especially for the younger soldiers," says Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Seiler of the Division of Engineers, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, who spent 27 months on the ground in Vietnam. Clothing stores at Fort Hood don't even carry Vietnam-era ribbons for soldiers' dress uniforms; they have to be specially ordered.
At a higher level, Pentagon brass have increasingly blessed practices denounced after Vietnam: gradual increases in military pressure, bombing to signal American resolve, indefinite involvement in overseas disputes. "In Kosovo," says a retired general who flew combat missions over North Vietnam, "we had the exact same things happening as in the Vietnam War--picking targets at the White House, micromanaging the conflict in ways reminiscent of [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara and LBJ."
Other parallels haunt. In the Persian Gulf, U.S. warplanes drop bombs on Iraq weekly, in attacks reminiscent of the limited responses to enemy aggression ordered by Lyndon Johnson. In Bosnia, Kosovo, and Colombia, the indefinite deployment of American ground troops represents the kind of "stumbling forward" strategy that prevailed in Vietnam, according to another retired four-star general.
Surprises. The difference today, of course, is that few Americans are dying in overseas missions. And a debacle on the scale of the Vietnam War seems inconceivable. But military experts worry that trends similar to those during the Vietnam years could produce ugly surprises for the Pentagon. "There's the illusion that we can rely on technology before we have to go bloody somebody," says Marine Corps Gen. John Sheehan, who led an infantry company through the Vietnamese jungle. "But at some point, you're going to run across the Chechens. I can see 30, 40, or 50 killed because they're not going to be ready, or there won't be enough of the right guys." Retired Army Col. Rich Dunn, who led a company of engineers in Vietnam, argues that "because of the passing of the Vietnam generation, we're forgetting the lessons of Vietnam. We're starting to see things reappear that broke the Army in the 1970s."
The U.S. military--and the Army in particular--was reeling by the end of the Vietnam War. "The American Army emerged from Vietnam cloaked in anguish," wrote Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who is now commandant of the Army War College, in Certain Victory, a 1993 account of how the Army evolved into the force that prevailed in Operation Desert Storm. The military draft, with its tolerance for felons and its escape hatches for privileged youth, produced a dysfunctional force. In the Army, 41 percent of soldiers scored in the lowest of four categories on mental aptitude tests. Drug use and discipline problems became rampant. Many career noncommissioned officers--the experienced sergeants who make units hum--quit when faced with a second or third tour in Vietnam. Dunn's battalion in Vietnam in 1971 suffered just one combat death--but 18 deaths from drug overdoses. As a young Marine commander dealing with discipline problems, says Gen. James Jones, now the commandant of the Marine Corps, "I had many Marines standing before me saying, 'Well, I'm here because the judge said either I go to the Marines or I go to jail for grand theft auto.' It was exhausting."
After the war, military leaders began recasting the services to avoid the kinds of problems they saw in Vietnam. The Army and Marine Corps gave commanders broader authority to give troublemakers the boot. Command assignments were lengthened so battalion commanders would get to know their units, instead of blithely rotating through every six months to punch a another ticket as they moved up the career ladder--the common practice during the war.
At the same time, the military was adapting to the end of the draft in 1973 and the start of the all-volunteer force. That move--bitterly opposed by the brass beforehand and almost universally applauded today--eventually helped the Pentagon recruit more qualified troops. By 1990, more than 95 percent of new Army recruits were high school graduates, compared with about 60 percent 20 years earlier. To test the new force, the services established some of the toughest training programs and facilities in the world, including the Air Force's Red Flag exercises and the Army's National Training Center in the California desert. In exercises, units faced an "opposition force" meant to simulate the best the Soviet Union might throw at them; often, they got clobbered--but they learned how to fight and fight smart.
Powell's way. But the biggest advances were in strategy, most notably, the so-called Powell Doctrine, named after Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. The Powell Doctrine, which actually derived from a speech Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger gave in 1984, held that U.S. forces should be sent to war only when a "vital national interest" is at stake, when there is a clear intention of winning, and when the American public and Congress support a specific operation. Once determined to go to war, the United States should use overwhelming force to defeat the enemy as quickly as possible. In short, Powell's principles addressed virtually all the mistakes he had observed during two tours on the ground in Vietnam.
The Powell Doctrine was the ethos that inspired the Pentagon plan to repel the Iraqi troops that invaded Kuwait. Around the clock, from Day 1, hundreds of U.S. and coalition warplanes hammered targets throughout Iraq, including sensitive sites like command bunkers and power grids. "We made an absolute commitment," says retired Air Force Col. John Warden, a key architect of the plan, "that when we decide to risk the lives of our own people, we ought to be certain we are doing so as decisively as we can."
That conviction no longer prevails. The Kosovo war, for instance, was designed from the start to be a "phased" operation, with NATO gradually increasing the pressure until Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic caved. Air Force commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff lobbied vigorously for a more aggressive campaign. But the U.S. and European civilians they were appealing to recalled not the lessons of Vietnam but the lessons of Bosnia. When NATO finally intervened in that war in 1995, it took less than two weeks of bombing to halt the Bosnian Serb military campaign and ultimately compel them to sign a peace agreement. But the NATO bombing coincided with a ground campaign by the Serbs' opponents that left the Serbs vulnerable to air attacks, an advantage NATO air forces didn't have in Kosovo. "We walked into incrementalism [in Kosovo] because of NATO's experience in the past, and there was no way to move them off that as a starting point," says a senior Pentagon official. "Did we want to get into this in an incremental way? Absolutely not. But it was incrementalism or don't go."
Whose rules? This is a modus operandi military officials may have to get used to, even though it challenges one of the principal lessons military officers took away from Vietnam: that once a president has decided to go to war, he should turn the conduct of the campaign over to military professionals. "It's the wrong lesson," says Tom McNaugher of Rand, a government-supported think tank. "I don't know any way around incrementalism. Massing forces is nice, if you can get it. But if you can't get that kind of freedom of action, are you going to stand by and do nothing? That's like saying we'll only fight the wars where we get to play by our rules."
Eventually, during the Kosovo war, NATO and U.S. authorities granted permission to strike the targets military leaders wanted to hit at the outset: Power plants, TV and radio transmitters, political headquarters in Belgrade. Since NATO ultimately won--with zero combat deaths--Defense Secretary William Cohen and others have argued that incremental bombing worked. But there was a cost: The war probably went on much longer than it had to. "There were probably 30 or 40 good targets in Belgrade," says Warden, the Desert Storm strategist. "The whole war could reasonably have been done in less than 10 days--with fewer sorties, fewer attacks, fewer targets. The refugee flow never would have happened. There is a feeling that the humane way to conduct military operations is gradually, but you end up with the opposite effects. You end up killing more people."
An eerier echo of Vietnam may be the "containment" of Iraq. The plan, implemented in 1992, relies on U.S. and British jets flying patrols over northern and southern Iraq. In December 1998, Washington and London approved an intensive four-day bombing campaign against Iraq. Since then, American and British pilots have been fired at regularly by Iraqi air-defense guns and missiles. When such attacks occur, U.S. commanders choose from a number of "response options" deemed appropriate to the level of provocation. The result has been hundreds of U.S. attacks on Iraqi air defense sites, including seven so far this month.
That kind of tit-for-tat reminds many Vietnam experts of the "retaliatory" strikes against North Vietnam during the 1960s. The missions were meant not to win the war, but to signal America's resolve against North Vietnamese aggression. After North Vietnamese attacks on a U.S. installation in Pleiku in February of 1965 that killed eight and wounded more than 100, for instance, an outraged Lyndon Johnson ordered the bombing of several North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas. But he stressed that the response was "carefully limited to military areas" and was "appropriate and fitting . . . . We seek no wider war," Johnson assured the North Vietnamese.
Is the United States committing the same mistake again in Iraq? "There's no way you can plausibly argue that the bombing of Iraq will lead to the overthrow of Saddam or any kind of political outcome," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, Vietnam veteran, and professor of international relations at Boston University. "It's using force for signal sending and demonstrating our determination. That was completely--completely--discredited after Vietnam." Military commanders accede to the policy, Bacevich says, because "they need to demonstrate their relevance," in order to justify continued funding from Congress.
Are there no better solutions for the military challenges the United States faces today? "We have a lot of angst about [Iraq]," admits one senior Pentagon official. "But if containment in the long run works, it will be declared a victory." Even Warden, a strong advocate of overwhelming force, agrees that "in the scheme of things, [containment of Iraq] has been pretty cheap. We have exercised control at a pretty low price."
The need for soldiers to do things other than fight and win wars is forcing the Pentagon's top officers to question whether the lessons they learned in Vietnam still apply. "The debate should be more sophisticated than to say we have a military just to use in case of fire," says Jones, the Marine Corps commandant. "For the United States to remain in a position of leadership, we're going to have to engage [in foreign countries]. In my opinion, we do windows."
Mogadishu moment. The willingness to mop up messes that don't directly affect the United States might have surfaced earlier if not for the deaths of 18 soldiers in Somalia in October 1993. A force of more than 25,000 U.S. troops that entered the African nation to help end a famine caused by tribal warfare had dwindled to just 4,000. But then the mission changed. The new objective? Hunting down warlords. When the Battle of Mogadishu erupted on Oct. 3, 1993, the U.S. force lacked the armor to extract soldiers trapped in alleys by armed and angry Somali clansmen. Only after the battle did the U.S. ramp up the force again. "It was the Powell Doctrine again after 3 October," says retired Maj. Gen. Carl Ernst, who commanded the U.S. relief force. "Then it got real quiet."
Those lessons of Mogadishu have colored every American ground mission since. U.S. troops entered Bosnia in 1996--after four years of debate over whether they should even get involved there--with enough tanks and artillery to defeat the entire army of most nations. Unlike their European counterparts, U.S. troops in Bosnia and Kosovo must wear flak jackets and Kevlar helmets virtually everywhere they go. While it's hard to argue against the value of protecting soldiers, some analysts believe the Powell Doctrine has become so rigid that it makes the military ineffective. "The Army is hung up on the Powell doctrine, and it's going to make them irrelevant," says one veteran of Vietnam who works as a consultant for the Army. "You ask for 24 helicopters and they give you 5,200 guys," he moans, referring to the two months it took the Army to deploy 24 Apache attack helicopters to Albania last year and prepare them for the Kosovo War. The Apaches and their crews were deemed fully ready to fight just days before the war ended. They were never used.
Others see pernicious effects in the Pentagon's seeming obsession with avoiding casualties, a corollary of the Powell Doctrine. In a paper published in December, three West Point instructors argued that such airtight "force protection" is eroding the military principle of self-sacrifice. The result, they claim, is "a major breakdown in . . . the professional military ethic within the United States Army."
Slowly, the Pentagon is shifting away from the Powell Doctrine, even as it continues to oppose broader roles for its troops, like taking on routine police functions in Kosovo and Bosnia. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has vowed to transform heavy Army units that take weeks to get to overseas conflicts into fast-deploying shock troops that can be fighting within days. Last week, an independent panel reviewing national security policy, led by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, issued a report urging the Pentagon to prepare more of its force for "constabulary" missions around the world--the very sort of operation General Powell opposed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Echoes. Other changes are transforming the military Powell left behind. The Army is losing captains--field-grade officers with four to 10 years of experience--at a record rate. Few experienced NCOs stay in the Army past the 20-year point at which they are eligible for retirement benefits. A recent survey of hundreds of Army majors at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., revealed that young officers question the value of many Army missions and are losing respect for their leaders. "Senior leaders are devoted to micromanagement and their own career advancement--they spend most of their time avoiding mistakes instead of explaining to soldiers why they are on a deployment and what impact they are making," reads one summary of the survey.
Those complaints sound hauntingly familiar to some old-timers. A groundbreaking Army study from 1970, which sought to explain the disarray wrought by Vietnam, found that "the existing climate includes . . . selfish behavior that places personal success ahead of the good of the Service; looking upward to please superiors instead of looking downward to fulfill the legitimate needs of subordinates; [and] preoccupation with the attainment of trivial short-term objectives."
There's no doubt that today's Army is far better trained and staffed than it was 30 years ago, but there are some signs of trouble. "There're lots of data showing that morale throughout the armed forces is the lowest it's been in a long time," says retired Lt. Gen. Walt Ulmer, who conducted the 1970 Army study and helped lead a recent survey of 12,000 service members. The Army has formed two "blue-ribbon" panels to study the problem. But if it doesn't manage to stop the current "hemorrhaging of talent," says Ulmer, "we won't have any good people left in three or four years--and we might not know until we lose the next war."
PICKING THE TARGETS
A passenger train destroyed in a NATO airstrike near Belgrade during the Kosovo war last year
THE FORCE FACTOR
In Somalia (above) unprotected U.S. troops saw tragedy. A massive American presence easily expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait (right).
TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING
Practice time on the shooting range at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, S.C.
This story appears in the May 1, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.