Vietnam, Iraq & Afghanistan: Different or the Same?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Poster Collection, US 8115, Hoover Institution Archives.

From 1965 to 1972 in Vietnam, America fought both a conventional slugfest against North Vietnamese divisions and a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign against guerrillas. We conducted a COIN campaign in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, and a COIN campaign in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. What are some of the similarities and differences among these three campaigns?1

Public Support and Presidential Leadership. All three dragged on too long at too high a cost in casualties and money to sustain public support. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and Obama failed to lead the American people in support of the wars.

Mr. Obama’s current policy is to rhetorically declare that the Islamists in Syria and Iraq must be destroyed. However, he has repeatedly pledged that this destruction will be accomplished without Americans entering into ground combat. He has promised to pull out all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of his presidency.

Thus in all three COIN campaigns, the commander-in-chief has not rallied the American people to the cause. Mr. Obama, inherently uncomfortable with the very existence of American military might, has taken a farther step. He has proposed cutting the Defense budget from 4.7% of GDP in 2000—just prior to 9/11—to 2.3% by 2024.

Policy Objectives. In 1965, the goal was to prevent the Viet Cong guerrillas, supported by North Vietnam, from overthrowing the South Vietnamese government. By 1968, Mr. Johnson had lost sight of any coherent objective. Between 1969 and 1972, Mr. Nixon pulled out our troops, while promising to continue military aid to South Vietnam. When he resigned from office in disgrace, his promise counted for nothing.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, by 2003 Mr. Bush sought total victory—defined as building both societies into stable democracies. Under Mr. Obama’s presidency, the goal has been to get out of both countries.

In all three COIN campaigns, no president followed the policy goals or the military strategy of his predecessor; indeed, in their election campaigns, Nixon and Obama largely repudiated the goals of their predecessors.

Military Strategy. From 1965 to mid-1968, the goal was to kill—“attrite”—so many of the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas that they would quit. Laos and North Vietnam were granted sanctuary status, off-limits to American ground forces. American air could bomb bridges and military vehicles, but not cities, industrial centers, or the dikes sustaining North Vietnam’s agriculture. From 1968 to 1972, more attention was paid—successfully—to working with local South Vietnamese forces to destroy the Viet Cong. By 1972, despite the withdrawal of American ground forces, the North Vietnamese were battered when they tried a conventional offensive in the face of American air power. We cut our aid to the south, while Russia and China continued to aid the north. In 1975, the north won by the heavy weight of conventional attack, complete with impressive artillery and tanks.

In Vietnam, the American troops focused upon fighting the guerrilla and the conventional North Vietnamese units. No serious effort was actually expended upon nation-building. The South Vietnamese had a functioning governmental system down to the village level.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the mission of American soldiers expanded dramatically and diffused fighting power and focus. Killing the enemy was relegated to a distinctly and deliberately secondary mission. The four primary tasks were providing security to the population, assisting local officials to persuade the people to support the government, funding tens of thousands of development projects, and instituting the Western rule of law. Between late 2006 in Anbar Province and late 2007 around Baghdad and to the north, Iraq stabilized, primarily because the Sunni tribes came over to the Americans, who comprised the strongest tribe. When we pulled out entirely, Iraq fell apart.

In Afghanistan, the military strategy was to build a democratic nation, with, as General Stanley McChrystal phrased it, 5% of the effort by our conventional troops focused upon killing the enemy and 95% focused upon protecting and persuading the Pashtun tribes to reject the Taliban and support the dysfunctional Karzai government in Kabul.

The allegation that our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan gradually “relearned” the counterinsurgency lessons from Vietnam is bogus history. South Vietnam had a functioning police, district and village governance apparatus. Americans did not try to win hearts and minds, or persuade the villagers to support their local officials. Development projects were few and trivial. While the top American generals in Vietnam did sensibly refine their operations in 1968, the focus was always upon finding and destroying the enemy (guerrilla or conventional), not upon persuading the population or developing a democracy.

Weapons. In Vietnam, neither side could see at night or detect units moving in the jungle or through the underbrush. The enemy employed mines (Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs). The proportion of overall IED injuries was higher (60%) in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Vietnam (15%). However, this was due to fewer overall casualties. IEDs accounted for about 3,000 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, versus 8,000 in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, our aircraft could still be shot down. We lost about 10,000 planes and helicopters. Today, that seems astonishing. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our planes and helicopters were hit very rarely, while delivering devastating firepower with incredible accuracy. Prompt, precise, overwhelming firepower delivered by platforms based far from the battlefield is perhaps the single greatest change in ground warfare since World War II. True, digital technologies and computers are remarkable. But they comprise essential inputs; the output is the quantum increase in effective (on-target) firepower.

Fighting spirit and style. Vietnam was fought in thick underbrush and steep jungles. It was a grunt war far from roads; the machinegun was the heaviest weapon carried on patrol or sweep. Artillery and air were called in when the fight erupted. The vast majority of firefights occurred between dismounted infantry units, far from vehicles.

Iraq was an urban/suburban war, with heavy weapons on vehicles supporting those on patrol walking down streets and through alleys. The heaviest urban clearing fights were the two battles of Fallujah against Sunni insurgents in 2004, where 10,000 buildings were searched by 300 squads, covered on each street by tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, or humvees with .50 caliber machineguns. Also in Basra, Najaf, and Sadr City, Shiite militias erred by trying to mass against American firepower and were pummeled.

Afghanistan was a rural fight. But the dirt roads were passable enough for a fleet of rugged armored vehicles. Probably 80% of all patrols were supported by vehicle-mounted heavy weapons.

In Vietnam, fights raged for several hours, sometimes all day. The Vietnamese, north and south, were courageous and tenacious. The enemy fought like badgers, digging trenches in the soft earth and refusing to budge until they knew they were outflanked. In Iraq and Afghanistan, most fights were short. Usually helicopter gunships and air arrived within 20 minutes, delivering a precision accuracy unseen in Vietnam. Enemy soldiers were not tenacious; they did not linger. They did not have disciplined tactics. They were akin to the Apaches in the 1870s, adept at employing cover and concealment, surprise and hasty retreat to live to fight another day.

In Vietnam, the standard American tactic was to set up a base of fire and then send a maneuver element around the flank, usually taking a few hours. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops carried 90 pounds of armor—a twenty-minute run was exhausting—and had on-call massive firepower. Fire & maneuver was replaced by fire & more fire. Night engagements were few, because American night vision systems deterred the enemy.

Links to home. In this regard, the American cultural side of war in the 21st Century has no precedent. For an old grunt like me, the digital links to home—e-mail, Skype, cell phones—were a shock. In all previous wars, distance had created a psychological and emotional firewall. When you went to war, you entered a rocket ship, got off on the other side of the moon, loaded your rifle and focused your mind upon violence. You were no longer in Kansas, or Laguna Beach, or Dallas.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, war for most—including many forward operating bases—took on the routine of a state police barracks or fire station. You had to be alert to danger out on the road; but once back inside, you relaxed, ate good food, and slept in a comfortable rack, with ample time to call the family, listen to complaints and worries, even offer advice on homework. You were living in two different worlds, connected on an almost daily basis.

Death. What distinguishes war from other political activities is its abrupt, final consequence. The infliction and toleration of death determine who wins or loses. The willpower of the loser eventually cannot sustain the increasing cost in casualties. The degree of willingness to bear the cost usually differs among the combatants. By 1783, England was unwilling to sustain the cost of fighting against George Washington’s army of rebels. By Appomattox in 1865, the Confederate spirit to fight was extinguished by the staggering losses inflicted upon its troops, countryside, and people.

By 1972, the North Vietnamese forces had been badly mauled. Yet so tight was the political control and so fierce the will of the Hanoi government that the North Vietnamese soldiers resumed the offensive once we left. In Vietnam, suicide bombers were extremely rare, but tough fighters and resolute military leaders abounded in the armies of both the south and north.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the opposite was true. The jihadists convinced a sizeable minority among them to commit murder-suicide based on a religious belief that God would reward them in heaven. But the vast majority of jihadists did not fight with the grim courage of the Vietnamese. They lacked that degree of discipline and determination. To stay alive, they avoided fights against the Americans. The beheadings and crucifixions by the Islamists showed a blood lust, not a cruel but effective fighting force. The disturbing element of the current war in Iraq and Syria was not the collapse of the Iraqi Army of Shiite soldiers in a Sunni land; it was the acquiescence of Sunnis in being slaughtered by radical, blood-lust Sunnis.

On the American side, Vietnam occurred only two decades after World War II. Back in 1965, death was not rare; it was accepted from the start as normal in ground combat. The tour of duty was one year. Soldiers came and went. Helicopters flew out the dead and wounded, and the unit continued. Ceremonies or memorials were few. There was no pause, no period of reflection. For instance, in the summer of 1966 my battalion fought for one long day, replacements were flown in, mortars hit us that night, and the next morning two Marines were carried out in ponchos. I didn’t even know their names. They had joined the company at dusk and were dead by dawn. They were gone and we were on the march again.

In Iraq and Afghanistan combined, there were approximately 5,000 fatalities, compared to ten times that number in Vietnam. Our troops generally deployed for about seven months in units that were deeply bonded. The loss of each comrade came as a shock. Even on the frontlines, there was time to dwell on death, which defies explanation. Each battalion held a ceremony for each of the fallen; there was another ceremony at the runway ramp when the casket was placed on board; another at arrival in the States; and another at the burial site. As compared to Vietnam, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were more openly affected by death, by the sudden, permanent absences in their ranks.

We fought more carefully in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Vietnam. The consciousness of death and of a precious life lost was more acute. Frontal assaults were unheard of. Because the wars were so limited and the objectives so much more related to nation-building rather than destruction, the willingness to take risks to kill the enemy was less and the rules of engagement were much more restrictive.

Of all the variables looking back on Vietnam and the changes in COIN in the 21st Century, it is the American attitude toward death that is probably the most striking. Similar care and concern pervade attitudes in Europe. In 1884, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—a frontline soldier in the Civil War—said, “Memorial Day embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might.”

Our secretary of state has declared that we are at war. But when our commander-in-chief sounds an uncertain trumpet, pledging to destroy a murderous horde without any Americans engaged in ground combat, the notions of what we are fighting for, at what cost, with what gain, and for what purpose become too dizzying and ethereal to grasp. Supreme Court Justice Holmes would shudder. His view of war—“to want something with all your might”—required—nay, demanded—a selfless willingness to kill and to die. When we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we have lost our way.

1. Note: West fought as a grunt and traveled throughout South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1966, ’67, ’68 and in briefer visits in ’69 and ’70. Over the last decade, he has embedded dozens of times with frontline units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

About the Author

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security