Failure to Learn: Reflections on a Career in the Post-Vietnam Army


The legacy and future of American counterinsurgency remains perhaps the most contentious issue in contemporary military affairs. Many punches have been thrown in this raucous debate in key online publications, most notably Small Wars Journal, the late Abu Muqawama, and here at War on the Rocks. WOTR’s Mark Stout caused quite a stir with his article on “Why the Counterinsurgency Debate Must Go On.” Critics focused their fire and ire on his caution that the Army must not do what it did after the Philippine Insurrection and the Vietnam War, when it “consciously decided to forget. It locked the records away and pretended that nothing had ever happened.”

How did the Army deal with the Vietnam War? And how did this experience inform the controversial Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24)? These are questions with which I have some personal experience from my career as an Army officer. These questions have also framed my research as a historian in the Army and at RAND.

Like many of my contemporaries, I joined an Army in disarray in the aftermath of Vietnam, contributed to rebuilding it without looking to Vietnam for lessons, and made it the most powerful warfighting army in history.

I was commissioned in 1972. The Vietnam War ended while I was in Ranger School and I went to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. I was a mechanized infantry rifle platoon leader and assistant S-3 for a little over a year and then became a Quartermaster officer, my Regular Army branch, for eight months before branch transferring to Field Artillery. I recall spending most of my time, as did my peers, trying to lead small units transitioning from the draft to a volunteer army. The state of the Army of the 1970s is summed up in its official history of the first Gulf War: “The Army emerged from Vietnam cloaked in anguish…it was an institution fighting merely to maintain its existence in the midst of growing apathy, decay, and intolerance.”

We junior officers spent most of our time trying to train soldiers that many thought were untrainable, gaining control of our units, and preparing to fight a conventional adversary. Our equipment was in bad shape, although our leaders rated us “ready.” Two events stick in my memory: We had a “best vehicle” competition in our brigade. The vehicle that won was an M-578 Recovery Vehicle that, while freshly painted and immaculate, had not run in a year. I also recall that we were C1—the highest level—in our readiness, until the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The rumor was we were going to go to Israel; suddenly our readiness ratings dropped precipitously. I left Fort Hood for the Artillery Basic Course en route to Korea and the 2nd Infantry Division. I recall nothing about Vietnam in the course. The 2nd Infantry Division was appropriately riveted on the North Korean Army. When I returned to the Advanced Course in 1976 our focus was on conventional operations. We learned how to “shoot and scoot” to avoid Soviet counterfire and to suppress enemy artillery and antitank guided missiles, a lesson from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. There was nothing about Vietnam in the course.

After the Advanced Course, I commanded a battery and then was in the school in the Weapons Department at Fort Sill. I rewrote FM 6-50: Firing Battery Operations; nothing other than fighting Russians entered my mind or the manual. Indeed, I included “know your enemy” pictures of Soviet vehicles in the manual.

I went to Germany in early 1980 and served in the 1st Armored Division for four and a half years. Operationally, I thought about nothing other than fighting the Warsaw Pact. I attended the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in May 1984. We were the first class to return to Corps level exercises, and the 1982 FM 100-5: Operations, which introduced AirLand Battle, was our text. There was no discussion in the manual about low intensity conflict (LIC) or counterinsurgency (COIN). In fact, the word “insurgency” is not there at all. The discussion of light infantry focused on its utility as an adjunct to heavier forces.

My Leavenworth class spent every hour in tactics looking at operations in NATO and gamed a Corps attack to the Elbe River. What we studied in my CGSC class was the operational level of war, Corps level and below operations, organized around campaigns. And the object of these campaigns was conventional: “Campaigns are sustained operations designed to defeat an enemy force in a specified space and time with simultaneous and sequential battles.” I do not recall anything in the curricula on Vietnam specifically or LIC or COIN generally, although there were limited opportunities for them in electives. I took an elective on insurgency, taught by a British officer, and most of that elective focused on Northern Ireland and various Latin American insurgencies.

After Leavenworth, I was an assignment officer at Field Artillery Branch and then a student for three years at Duke University, where I did a Ph.D. in military history and did course work in international relations and security studies. My book, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945, was based on my dissertation. It was during my time at Duke that I had time to research and write about Army (and Air Force) culture.

After Duke, I commanded the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division (Light), from June 1990 to December 1992. There was some emphasis on LIC, but with conventional methods, i.e., close with and destroy the enemy. We did that during our Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation. We chased enemy special forces who were trying to undermine a government (that we never interacted with), attacked a fortified position, and got crushed defending against a mech/armor attack. We did not in any remote way deal with “locals.” We did have to interact with a reporter—the only civilian on the battlefield I ever saw at JRTC. I did turn to Vietnam lessons for our deployment. We built a firebase for the one howitzer battery in our rotation–dug-in with overhead cover—that withstood red mortar and ground attacks. During our train-up for JRTC, I do vividly recall a new Leavenworth graduate with a stopwatch in our fire direction center grading us against counterfire norms that were familiar to me from Germany, but seemed oddly out of place when we were going to fight special forces and guerillas known to infiltrate a mortar among friendlies to get the artillery battalion to fire at it and cause fratricide.

In 1993 I was a student at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) and a research fellow. The Cold War was clearly over, but conventionality still pervaded our curriculum in the form of preparing for two major regional conflicts against conventional adversaries in Iraq and North Korea, framed from the perspective of lessons learned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Our class focused on conventional war and nation-state strategy, which is largely what the Army did until the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This seemed odd to me, given what the U.S. Armed Forces had actually been doing since the Vietnam War. We had been involved in what was eventually—and briefly—termed MOOTW (military operations other than war) in Lebanon, Grenada, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, and a host of other places. I decided to focus my research project at ICAF on trying to understand why conventionality was the prevailing construct, even in the face of other challenges, particularly in the Army. In 1997, I finished the resulting monograph, published by the National Defense University, Modern Civil-Military Relations: Wielding the Terrible Swift Sword.

My research led me to two fundamental conclusions. First, the Nixon Doctrine that shaped U.S. strategy in the aftermath of Vietnam sought to avoid ground force interventions in Third World insurgencies. Second, the Army treated Vietnam as an aberration in which political constraints, rather than military factors, drove the results in the war. Thus, any reflection on Vietnam was irrelevant to the emerging national strategy and would deflect the Army from its principal mission of defending against the Soviet Union in NATO.

I interviewed former Chief of Staff General Edward “Shy” Myer during the project and he was very candid about the turn to NATO:

We decided that NATO was the centerpiece of what we were going to do… and that the Soviet Union was the evil empire and that was the basis upon which we were going to get force structure…I think the people that did that really believed that there might be a war.

General William DePuy, the commander of TRADOC (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) after Vietnam, was one of the principal architects of the Army’s refocus on NATO. He later recalled that three key realities demanded a “substantial renaissance in tactical theory and practice throughout the Army”:

  • The Vietnam war—combat with light and elusive forces—was over.
  • The defense of central Europe against large, modern, Soviet armored forces once again became the Army’s main, almost exclusive, mission.
  • The Arab-Israeli War vividly illustrated the lethality of modern weapons and the high value of crew proficiency and the skill of tactical commanders.

Observations by General Donn Starry, a future TRADOC commander and a key light in developing AirLand Battle doctrine, are also revealing of the Army’s response to Vietnam. In a newspaper interview he stated: “After getting out of Vietnam, the Army looked around and realized it should not try to fight that kind of war again elsewhere.” He also wrote in a Military Review article that: “There was the strong feeling that, after every war, armies always set out to figure out how they might have fought the last war better. There was an even stronger determination to avoid that pitfall, and this time to look ahead, not back.”

The 1976 FM 100-5: Operations that was the Army’s first doctrinal expression of its post-Vietnam direction explicitly stated that it “presents principles for accomplishing the Army’s primary mission—winning the land battle.” And that battle was going to be in Europe: “Battle in Central Europe against forces of the Warsaw Pact is the most demanding mission the US Army could be assigned.”

FM 100-5 also asserted that this focus on conventional war in Europe was appropriate to other challenges the Army might face: “The principles set forth in this manual…apply also to military operations anywhere in the world.” Nowhere was there any mention in FM 100-5 of Vietnam, the political dimensions of warfare, or counterinsurgency.

Thus, I wrote that “the fundamental lesson for the military that emerged from the Vietnam war was crystal clear—‘no more Vietnams.’”

I also noted that the focus on conventional conflict was not unique to the Army. The 1996 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Vision 2010 embraced the same basic principles as the 1976 FM 100-5:

Our forces have been largely organized, trained, and equipped to defeat military forces of our potential adversaries. Direct combat against an enemy’s armed forces is the most demanding and complex set of requirements we have faced. Other operations from humanitarian assistance in peacetime through peace operations in a near hostile environment, have proved to be possible using forces optimized for wartime effectiveness.

All this is to say that the Army for many reasons moved “beyond” Vietnam, but did not look at what happened there with any rigor. For more recent scholarship on this, I highly recommend David Fitzgerald’s excellent book Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq.

In 1997, I retired from the Army after three years at the National Defense University as Director of Academics, Chief of Staff, and Professor. After a brief stint in private industry, I joined the RAND Corporation. Early in my time at RAND, I was at a meeting before 9/11 when a past TRADOC commander slammed his fist on the table when someone started discussing “military operations other than war,” proclaimed that everything is war, and directed its removal from all Army doctrine. General James Mattis issued a similar edict about effects-based operations, excising the concept from Joint Doctrine.

In 2002, RAND published a short paper that I was asked to write for General Jack Keane, then Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, to answer the question: How well is the Army preparing its senior leaders for a future whose dimensions are known to be largely unbounded and to involve the complexities of “full spectrum operations” executed in a joint and/or coalition context?

My research reached a conclusion similar to that of The Army Training and Leadership Panel Officer Study Report to The Army, published in 2002, which stated: “Officers are concerned that the officer education system (OES) does not provide them with the skills for success in full spectrum operations.” Additionally, the report noted that the OES had been “largely untouched since the end of the Cold War” and that it “is out of synch with Army needs.”

I found that key Army leaders in the intervention in Bosnia believed that they were not prepared by a conventionally focused Army for the challenges they had faced in nonconventional operations. Their comments were captured in a 1999 U.S. Institute of Peace report (Training U.S. Army Officers for Peace Operations: Lessons from Bosnia).

Major General William Nash, commander of the 1st Armored Division when U.S. forces first went into Bosnia in 1995, observed that: “Having trained for thirty years to read a battlefield…general officers were now asked to read a ‘peace field.’”

General William Crouch, U.S. Army Europe Commander at the beginning of the IFOR [Implementation Force] deployment, noted, “I was on my own. I’d certainly never trained for something like this.”

General Eric Shinseki and General Montgomery Meigs also commanded in Bosnia. Shinseki believed he was in a “roll-your-own situation.” Meigs was more blunt: “I got nothing…for this mission. I visited a lot of folks, but the [A]rmy didn’t sit me down and say, ‘Listen, here is what you need to know.’”

My conclusion in the paper was that “senior Army leaders were largely on their own to devise workable solutions to the complexities of the situation they confronted in Bosnia.”

I made a brief foray into the COIN debate in an article about the military surge discussing the strategic mismatch between ends, ways, and means in Afghanistan. This mismatch was most notable in the limited number of security forces available and the paucity of civilian expertise, which combined to severely undermine the potential effectiveness of the “whole of government” approach.

Compounding the challenges posed by the shortage of security forces and competent civilians was the fact that two other COIN prerequisites were obviously not being met: the adversary had sanctuary outside Afghanistan and there were questions about the Karzai government’s legitimacy.

My point in the article—and one that should be of continued relevance to the COIN debate—is that we have never actually done in Afghanistan what FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency requires. Why should we expect that we will achieve our ends there if we do not do what we say must be done to be successful?

I am aware that during my career and before Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom that the U.S. Army conducted MOOTW both with conventional and special operations forces. That said, from the aftermath of World War I until 2003, the Army viewed these operations as cases that competent warfighting forces could easily handle. Vietnam never changed that view, largely because the U.S. military did not collect or assess lessons from that war. What we have taken from Vietnam—and Malaysia and Algeria—in the development of COIN doctrine are the “good” lessons that fit the modern American “COIN narrative.” Those lessons that do not fit—the realities of what happened in Algeria with torture and concentration camps—are not discussed, while the palatable lessons (e.g., David Galula’s work) are included without the broader context.

There is remarkable doctrinal continuity between the Army after World War I, which was coming to grips with being the ground force of a major power, until 2003. The 1923 and 2001 Army operations manuals are both very conventional and explicit that the objective of military operations is decisive victory, attained by offensive operations aimed at the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. With the 1923 Field Service Regulations, the Army began an 80-year effort to design itself to fight “an opponent organized for war on modern principles and equipped with all the means of modern war,” because “An army capable of waging successful war under these conditions will prove adequate to any less grave emergency with which it may be confronted.”

The wording of the 2001 FM 100-5: Operations—the Army’s doctrine in the initial years of OEF and OIF—shows great continuity with the 1923 manual by continuing the central tenet that general purpose forces, well trained for conventional combat, could prevail in the other cases: “The doctrine holds warfighting as the Army’s primary focus and recognizes that the ability of Army forces to dominate land warfare also provides the ability to dominate any situation in military operations other than war.”

When Iraq descended into chaos and violence in the aftermath of the brilliantly executed 2003 invasion, as prescribed by FM 100-5, the Army adapted as it always does. This adaptation began well before, and in some cases despite, FM 3-24.

In the past ten years, the U.S. military has realized that the unconventional cases are complex and not amenable to the prescriptions of the previous 80 years of conventional doctrine. That is not to say that doctrine is inappropriate in the future against different adversaries. My lingering concern is that the Army has taken what was termed as “irregular warfare” before 9/11 and regularized it.

And this gets to my final point about Vietnam: the context really matters, particularly in characterizing the nature of the political and military problems. Specifically, in Vietnam the reality of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong main force units created a military problem that did not exist in Malaysia or Algeria—or in Iraq or Afghanistan. In short, there are no universal, time-tested COIN principles, and I am still pondering the comprehensive utility of the “principles of war.” There are challenges that exist today in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere that are not amenable to decisive action or COIN, as the Israelis found out in Lebanon in 2006, and I examine in Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza.

In the aftermath of a decade of war, the Army must have an objective, serious debate— one that it never engaged in after Vietnam—to understand its experiences, both good and bad. The goal of this discussion should be about how to create an army that requires minimal adaptation to respond to the conditions it finds itself in, because it has thought through and prepared for a broad range of possibilities. This broad preparation minimizes the need to adapt, which I believe is extremely important, because the costs of radical adaptation, as we saw in the early years of OIF, are blood, treasure, and strategic dislocation.

I also believe that this generation of soldiers can do better than we did in preparing for the complexities of the future, if it allows itself to do so. Our Army is strong and experienced—not broken like the Army I joined in 1972. It has the strength to turn its hard won experiences into the knowledge that will prepare it for a challenging future security environment as it continues to serve our nation.


Dave Johnson is a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. He is on a temporary assignment to the U.S. Army through September 2014 to establish the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. This article reflects his personal views and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.


Photo credit: tommy japan (adapted by War on the Rocks)