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Learning the Wrong Vietnam Lessons

By Douglas Valentine
November 19, 2009

Evan Thomas and John Barry begin their Newsweek article, “The Surprising Lessons of Vietnam,” in a promising way, recounting a recent anecdote in which Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal gets on the phone with author Stanley Karnow, whose book Vietnam is described as “the standard popular account of the Vietnam War.”

McChrystal asks Karnow if there are any Vietnam lessons that can be applied to Afghanistan. The 84-year-old Karnow, in no mood for beating around the bush, said the lesson was simple: “We never should have been there in the first place."

Karnow’s comment strongly implied that the United States should not throw away more good money – and good lives – in Afghanistan, as it did in Vietnam, where 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese died, a tragedy of epic proportions that shattered American society, turning parents against their own children.

However, the Thomas-Barry article – subtitled “Unraveling the mysteries of Vietnam may prevent us from repeating its mistakes” – is not really about learning from those mistakes. It’s actually about persuading the American public to support escalation in Afghanistan.

Accordingly, Thomas and Barry dismiss Karnow’s advice as “not all that useful to General McChrystal [because] like it or not, he is already in Afghanistan.”

The rest of the article expands on the premise of a winnable war in Afghanistan and implies that Karnow’s advice simply reflected the tired and wrongheaded liberal consensus that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.

Thomas and Barry suggest that the American military could have won the Vietnam War:  1) if President Lyndon Johnson had been more violent in 1965; 2) if President Richard Nixon had put more effort into fighting a counterinsurgency in 1970; and 3) if the Democrats in Congress hadn’t stabbed the military in the back in 1974.

Hawkish Authors

To support their allegedly fresh thesis, Thomas and Barry rely heavily on two authors of Vietnam books, retired Army Lt. Col. Lewis Sorley and Professor Mark Moyar at the Marine Corps University in Washington, D.C.

The Newsweek correspondents cite Moyar as their authority on the point that President Johnson could have won the Vietnam War early on simply by overwhelming the North Vietnamese with a 1960s version of shock and awe.

“In 1964–65, the top military leadership understood that to defeat the North, it was necessary to go all-out,” Thomas and Barry wrote, citing Moyar’s “groundbreaking work” in his book, Triumph Forsaken.

Moyar’s research supposedly discovered that “a massive bombing campaign, mining Hanoi's port, and sending troops into Laos and Cambodia to cut off the North's all-important sanctuaries and resupply route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail” would have done the trick.

But Thomas and Barry lament that scared politicians and accommodating commanders prevented the United States from winning.

“LBJ's advisers were reluctant — fearful, in part, of dragging China and the Soviet Union into a larger war,” Thomas and Barry write. “The military pressed — but not very hard,” making “the classic mistake of telling their political masters what they wanted to hear.”

In the Thomas-Barry account, a cowardly Congress in 1974 delivered the coup de grace to a promising counterinsurgency effort late in the war by betraying a commitment to support the South Vietnamese army.

“Sorley argues [in his 1999 book, A Better War] that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could have won in Vietnam — if only the U.S. Congress hadn't cut off military aid to South Vietnam,” Thomas and Barry write.

For good measure, the Newsweek correspondents also demean the unmanly books that President Barack Obama’s advisers have been reading, like Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster.

Thomas and Barry write that Goldstein’s book “captures the conventional wisdom (at least at the center and left of the political spectrum) that Vietnam was a hopeless, unwinnable war.”

With that prelude, it’s pretty clear that Thomas and Barry are girding themselves to set off heroically to pierce this misguided center-left orthodoxy.

“But was it [unwinnable]?” they ask, before answering their own question: “The lessons of Vietnam are not necessarily the ones we glibly assume — chief among them that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, is a quagmire, and that achieving some sort of victory is out of reach.”

Right Course

Thomas and Barry then press on with their thesis that they have uncovered new information that demonstrates that the right course of action in Afghanistan is to give McChrystal all the troops and all the resources he wants for a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign.

In this view, de-escalating in Afghanistan or even ordering only a small troop increase is not an option, unless Obama wants to invite more questions about his resolve and renewed accusations about political back-stabbing of the military.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired general who previously commanded the American forces in Afghanistan, presumably falls into the camp of timid Obama advisers because of his recent cable questioning the wisdom of sending more troops to prop up the corrupt Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

But the bottom line of the Newsweek article is that the United States can win in Afghanistan if Obama has the “heart” to prevail and Washington can learn the correct lessons from the Vietnam War.

In advancing this thesis, however, Thomas and Barry distort the bloody history of that conflict. They downplay the unprecedented violence that Johnson did unleash against North Vietnam (including the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign from March 1965 to November 1968, more than 300,000 bombing missions dropping 864,000 tons of bombs).

They also gloss over the historically disproven rationales for the war (from the “domino theory” to the idea of a unified Sino-Soviet strategy for world conquest); and they rely on the sanitizing language of military jargon to obscure the inhuman brutality that pervaded “death squad” operations like the Phoenix Program.

Many Contrasts

Another problem with the Thomas-Barry Afghan comparisons to Vietnam is that the two wars have more differences than similarities. Many of the tactics that the Newsweek writers suggest should have been expanded in Vietnam have no relevance to Afghanistan.

For instance, there is no North Afghanistan to bomb back to the Stone Age; there is no Soviet Union that can transform the war into a nuclear confrontation; there’s not even a formal military like the North Vietnamese army landing supplies in Haiphong harbor and bringing reinforcements and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Indeed, the parallels between the two conflicts are mostly over the fairly narrow question of counterinsurgency tactics. Which may be why the Newsweek article skirts any serious discussion of the murderous Phoenix Program, instead using friendlier language about “a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of ‘clear and hold.’”

Thomas and Barry also praise the special operations that McChrystal directed in Iraq that focused “on protecting civilians while ruthlessly targeting jihadist leaders.”

Ironically, it was Newsweek that disclosed in 2005 that the Bush administration was taking to Iraq the “death-squad” strategies that had been applied in El Salvador in the 1980s, what Newsweek called “the Salvador Option.”

The strategy was named after the Reagan administration’s “still-secret strategy” of supporting El Salvador’s right-wing security forces, which operated clandestine “death squads” to eliminate both leftist guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers, Newsweek reported. “Many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success – despite the deaths of innocent civilians.”

Yet, now judging that those tactics worked in Iraq, Thomas and Barry seem okay about having McChrystal expanding the approach in Afghanistan. They write:

“U.S. Special Operations Forces use the intelligence gleaned from friendly civilians to find and kill Taliban leaders. That is precisely what the Phoenix Program was designed to do 40 years ago in Vietnam: target and assassinate Viet Cong leaders.”

This “true counterinsurgency,” Thomas and Barry assert, was beginning to work in Vietnam in 1968 when Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as the top U.S. commander and Americans began to “smarten up.”

The Thomas-Barry article adds that “Now, in Afghanistan, McChrystal is implementing a strategy that draws on the lessons of Iraq and looks an awful lot like the ‘pacification’ program adopted by General Abrams in Vietnam in 1968. By ratcheting back the heavy use (and overuse) of firepower, McChrystal has reduced civilian casualties, which alienate the locals and breed more jihadists.”

But Newsweek’s repeated use of the word “jihadist” is what lawyers call prejudicial, justifying the cold-blooded murder of people designated as violent religious fanatics whether the description fits or not.

In truth, McChrystal’s classified assassination program in Iraq – and a similar one in Afghanistan – made little or no distinction between killing Islamic “jihadists” and killing nationalists who were defending their homes and resisting foreign occupiers. [See’s “Bush’s Global Dirty War.”]

Facts Wrong

Thomas and Barry also get some basic facts wrong about “pacification” in Vietnam:

--CIA and military Special Forces were building up South Vietnam’s local “self-defense” forces for the specific purpose of waging a “clear and hold” style counterinsurgency, long before Westmoreland arrived in 1965 or before Abrams took over in 1968.

--The CIA created a “general staff for pacification” in 1967: called ICEX-SIDE (Intelligence Exploitation-Screening Interrogation and Detention), it was soon renamed the Phoenix Program. 

--Westmoreland’s “main force” battles with the North Vietnamese army bought the U.S. military time to implement this counterinsurgency strategy, and compelled the North to initiate the Tet uprisings of February 1968, which decimated the South’s guerrilla forces before Abrams took command in June 1968.

The one accurate comparison that Thomas and Barry cite between counterinsurgency in Vietnam and the later wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the central role of targeting and assassinating enemy leaders, but even that comparison is incomplete and misleading.

The CIA’s counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam was based on its Provincial Interrogation Center (PIC), Counter-Terror (CT), Armed Political Action, Hamlet Informant, Census Grievance, Chieu Hoi (defector) and Administrative Detention (An Tri) programs.

These cornerstones of the counterinsurgency effort were put in place around 1964, if not earlier in the war, by other names. All were incorporated in the Phoenix Program in 1967.

The “intelligence” purpose of these counterinsurgency programs was to map out the clandestine organizations that drove the “insurgency,” which was really not an “insurgency” at all, but a national liberation movement. 

In mapping out this “secret government,” the CIA came to understand how the so-called Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) helped average Vietnamese citizens cope with the violence that the U.S. military and its puppet regime in Saigon were using.

Based on this intelligence, the CIA sought to establish its own secret government, mirroring the organizational structure of the resistance.

The Death Lists

In Vietnam through the Phoenix Program, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan through the new and improved versions, the CIA sent its hit teams after a long list of targets.

Those targets included tax assessors and collectors; people operating business fronts for purchasing, storing, or distributing food and supplies, including farm products, to the resistance; public health officials who distribute medicine; security and judicial officials who target American collaborators and agents; officials in the media and anyone proselytizing to the general population; officials involved transportation, communication and postal services; political and religious indoctrination cadre; military recruiters; guerrilla leaders and forces; and anyone who creates and staffs political front organizations or teachers, students, labor groups, etc. 

Today, all these categories of people – and their sympathizers and supporters – can find their names on the computerized Phoenix-style blacklists in Afghanistan and Iraq, as they did in Vietnam.

As counterinsurgency guru David Galula notes, many if not most of these people are “men (and women, I might add) whose motivations, even if the counterinsurgent disapproves of them, may be perfectly honorable. They do not participate directly, as a rule, in direct terrorism or guerrilla action and, technically, have no blood on their hands.”

In other words, many non-combatants are – and have been – targeted by McChrystal’s “true counterinsurgency” which, Thomas and Barry glibly insist, has the goal of “protecting civilians.”

Though their article supposedly addressed lessons from Vietnam that might apply to Afghanistan, Thomas and Barry turned a blind eye to what may be the single most important parallel, the pervasive corruption – even links to drug trafficking – that was endemic to the U.S.-backed regimes in South Vietnam and in Afghanistan.

For example, in 1965, Air Force General Nguyen Cao Ky, the chief of South Vietnam’s national security directorate, got control of a lucrative narcotic smuggling franchise, just as Karzai’s inner circle in Afghanistan has been allowed to traffic in opium without much fear of arrest and prosecution.

Karzai even has rejected a proposal that he send into honorable exile his drug-implicated brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is the political power in southern Kandahar province.

Another overlooked parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan is the self-delusional hubris embodied in U.S. confidence that its forces possess accurate intelligence.

McChrystal gains all his intelligence about the Afghan resistance through translated documents, interrogations conducted through secret police interpreters, and secret Afghan informants and agents – what he refers to as “friendly civilians.” There is absolutely no way of knowing if this intelligence is reliable.

A Fallacy

The “friendly civilians,” secret police interrogators, hit teams and corrupt U.S.-allied politicians understand the falsity of much intelligence information, but their livelihoods depend on American patronage, so they deliver names to U.S. operatives who then run up the body counts so they can impress their superiors.
As a result, an “insurgent” on a death list can be almost anyone.

One Phoenix Program veteran explained this reality to me: "The Vietnamese lied to us; we lied to the Phoenix Directorate; and the Directorate made it into documented fact. It was a war that became distorted through our ability to create fiction.”

Another lesson of Vietnam that seems likely to apply to Afghanistan is the value of propaganda in keeping the American people in line through emotional appeals and twisted facts. American hawks also have learned how to play the victim if Washington decides that de-escalation makes more sense than escalation.

Like the German military after the First World War, McChrystal and other senior U.S. officers have glommed on to the knife-in-the-back argument.

Central to that is revising the history of the Vietnam War to insist that victory was within grasp if only Johnson had more nerve, if only the U.S. public hadn’t lost the stomach to fight, if only Congress had continued military aid to South Vietnam.

That historical revisionism is what the Newsweek article promotes.

The United States and its South Vietnamese allies “finally” adopted a winning counterinsurgency strategy in the early 1970s, Thomas and Barry write, prompting North Vietnam to commit more troops to the battle and testing American will.

However, citing Sorley’s A Better War, the Newsweek correspondents note that “it was too late. American public opinion had turned.” President Richard Nixon signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam in 1973 and Congress grew weary of the endless spending to sustain the South Vietnamese army.

“In 1974, breaking Nixon’s promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam,” Thomas and Barry write. “Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon.”

Citing Sorley again, the Newsweek correspondents claim that key war participants – such as Gen. Creighton Abrams and U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker – were sure that the United States could have prevailed if defeatism hadn’t taken hold.

“We eventually defeated ourselves,” Bunker is quoted as saying.

Having emphasized this fatal betrayal, Thomas and Barry conclude that the key lessons to be drawn from Vietnam are the importance of decisive leadership and a presidential commitment to do what’s necessary to achieve victory.

But they doubt that Obama is made of such stern stuff.

“Obama may decide that Afghanistan is too hard,” Thomas and Barry write, adding that if Obama does waver and begin “an orderly withdrawal,” he must “explain to America and the world why it's necessary.”

Obama might have some explaining to do, too, if he decides to escalate a war that appears to have no logical end point and declining popular support. There are growing concerns that the underlying motivation is more about economics than politics or even national security.

In a speech on Oct. 22, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray said he had concluded that the real motive for the long war in Afghanistan was the desire of Western energy interests to use its territory for a natural gas pipeline to connect the Caspian Basin to the Arabian Sea.

“Almost everything you see about Afghanistan is a cover for the fact that the actual motive is the pipeline they wish to build over Afghanistan to bring out Uzbek and Turkmen natural gas which together is valued at up to $10 trillion,” Murray said. [See’s “How a Torture Protest Killed a Career.”]

Then, there’s the question of access to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. China recently made a multi-billion-dollar deal for a copper mine contract, angering U.S. officials and their Afghan allies. Bidding on an iron-ore mine begins soon.

Douglas Valentine is author of The Phoenix Program, which is available through Amazon, as well as The Strength of the Wolf and the new book Strength of the Pack. His Web sites are,,  and

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