Is Iraq like Vietnam? Lessons learned.

By  | 

Colin Powell in Vietnam 1968
This is the third (and last) of a three post series to examine the question “Is Iraq like Vietnam?” The catalyst for the series was the President’s recent speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, where he invoked this historical analogy:

” … one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields'”

He explicitly asserts that the lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that the U.S. withdrawal precipitated a bloodbath, chaos, and massacres for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and we should now apply that lesson to Iraq. In the first post of this series we conclude it is the wrong question to ask about future steps in Iraq. The second post questioned the historical basis for the President’s claim. In this post we turn back to the question of legacy and “lessons learned.”

There were indeed important lessons to be learned from Vietnam. We don’t have to speculate about those lessons. There is no more committed “learning organization” than the United States Military. Every battle, every decision in every conflict is parsed and analyzed to extract lessons that can be applied to making our fighting forces more effective. You don’t need to read all of the military and historical scholarship to glean the real lessons of Vietnam. That task has already been done.

The lessons of Vietnam were distilled into a doctrine by the Secretary of Defense, refined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accepted and embraced by the Commander in Chief. The SECDEF was Caspar Weinberger. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was General Colin Powell. The President that accepted and acted on the distilled lessons of Vietnam, was George Bush – George Herbert Walker Bush. Republicans one and all. The distilled wisdom of the United States military on the lessons learned from Vietnam, became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, and later refined as the Powell Doctrine.

From Wikipedia:

The Powell Doctrine, is a journalist created neologism, named after General Colin Powell in the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It is based in large part on the Weinberger Doctrine, devised by Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense and Powell’s former boss.

The questions posed by the Powell Doctrine, which should be answered affirmatively before military action, are:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

How difficult would it be to apply these questions to Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afganistan and Iraq? My assessment:

Weinberger/Powell Doctrine Vietnam 1968 Gulf War 1990 Afgan. 2002 Iraq 2003 Iraq 2007
1. national threat? Yes Yes Yes Yes/No* Yes
2. clear objective? No Yes Yes Yes No
3. risks analyzed? No Yes Yes No No
4. non-violent tried? No No Yes No No
5.exit strategy? No Yes Yes No No
6. cons. considered? No Yes Yes No No
7. USA support? No Yes Yes Yes No
8. global support? No Yes Yes No No

* It depends. If Saddam had WMD’s, then there was a real security threat. Nevertheless, by mid 2003, the “attainable objectives” of eliminating that threat and effecting regime change had been attained. Unattainable objectives (“Democratize the Middle East”) were then added. Reasonable minds can disagree with my evaluation. I’ll be happy to defend my choices in the comments.

Heh. Looking over the chart, it is apparent the President is right. Iraq really is like Vietnam.

A final exercise is left to the reader, on the topic of lessons learned from Vietnam –

Compare and Contrast:

The George Bush speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention on August 22, 2007 quoted at the top of this post, invoking the “legacy of Vietnam” while ignoring the distilled lessons of Vietnam.


The George Bush speaking at the “8th Annual Reunion of Our Victory in the Desert” Feb. 28, 1999:

It was only after all peaceful means failed, he said, “that we had to fight…”I’ll never forget,” he said, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell “came over and said it was time to end the fighting — mission accomplished.“I don’t believe in mission creep,” he continued. “Had we gone into Baghdad — we could have done it — and then what? “Which sergeant, which private, whose life would be at stake in perhaps a fruitless hunt in an urban guerilla war to find the most-secure dictator in the world? “Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our macho?” he asked. “We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power — America in an Arab land — with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.” Bush said, “We don’t gain the size of our victory by how many innocent kids running away — even though they’re bad guys — that we can slaughter. … We’re American soldiers; we don’t do business that way.” … Bush said his memory of Vietnam influenced his thinking during the Gulf War. He recalled that politicians during the Vietnam War kept changing the conditions under which U.S. forces fought — bombing halts and cease-fires… We didn’t want any man or woman put into harm’s way,” Bush said. “We worked hard to form an international coalition…” – George H.W. Bush

There were indeed lessons to be learned from Vietnam.

One George Bush heeded those lessons.

One did not.

x-cerpted and x-posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall”