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Avoiding Vietnam: The U.S. Army's Response to Defeat in Southeast Asia

Authored by Dr. Conrad C. Crane. | September 2002

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Summary

There is a commonly accepted maxim that military defeat is the best teacher for an army. But historian Edward Drea has noted ?The way an army interprets defeat in relation to its military tradition, and not the defeat itself, will determine, in large measure, the impact an unsuccessful military campaign will have on that institution.?

His conclusion is borne out from the American experience in Southeast Asia. While the French Army made a very frank assessment of its performance in Indochina that improved its counterinsurgency capabilities for future wars, the U.S. Army?s process for analyzing failure was quite different. While a series of Vietnam studies by high-ranking officers focusing on branch performance and tactical innovations was completed in the early 1970s, the Army?s primary emphasis quickly returned to the future European battlefield. Army involvement in counterinsurgency was first seen as an aberration and then as a mistake to be avoided. Instead of focusing on the proper synchronization of military and political tools with objectives necessary for success in low intensity unconventional conflicts, the Army continued to concentrate on mid to high intensity conventional wars. Shaped to a great extent by the work of Colonel (Retired) Harry Summers, the American Army?s lessons from Vietnam were far different from the French. While the resulting policies helped produce victory in the Persian Gulf War, they have left a service with a structure, doctrine, and attitude that are still not conducive to involvement in low intensity conflicts or ?Operations Other Than War.?

In hindsight, the Army that won in the Persian Gulf deserves credit for avoiding the common mistake of preparing to fight the last war instead of the next one. However, enemies like Saddam Hussein are becoming increasingly rare, if not extinct, and the time has come for the Army to look more carefully at Vietnam, which seems more relevant for our current campaign against terrorism. Global missions in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM are evoking increasing comparisons with past experience in Southeast Asia. As distasteful as the proposition may seem, to truly be a Full Spectrum force, the Army must be prepared to deal with all aspects of a conflict resembling that lost war. This will necessitate reforms in training, doctrine, and force structure, as well as service acceptance of smaller-scale contingency missions including counterinsurgency and some degree of nation-building.

The American Army can no longer run away from Vietnam. For it has found us in Afghanistan, Colombia, and the Philippines.