Revisiting the Vietnam War at Home — And What It Means for Today

November 12, 2019

Just before Veterans Day, we participated in an unusual staff ride that examined the domestic front of the Vietnam War. We joined our students and colleagues from the Strategic Studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in portraying the presidents and protesters, the generals and journalists, and the senators and students who shaped the course of the war here at home. We made presentations in character outside the White House, on Capitol Hill, outside the Washington bureau of The New York Times, and at the Lincoln Memorial. We marched to the Pentagon across Memorial Bridge and reflected quietly at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two of our faculty members portrayed their 1960s selves: one who served as a junior Army intelligence officer in Vietnam, and another who flew as an Air Force forward air controller in the conflict. Both frequently interjected their memories of the period, serving as an important balance to some of the darker narratives.

As we immersed ourselves in the debates about this bitterly divisive war that created such anguish for the United States, we realized that the memory of this relatively recent American conflict and many of its painful lessons were slipping away. Few of our graduate students knew much about the war beyond its broad contours and its disastrous outcome. As we delved into the decisions that shaped the tragic course of the war, we realized how many key lessons from that time still resonate today — and especially how well some of them apply to the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here they are, in no particular order.



Incremental Decisions Can Add Up to Unintended Outcomes

Almost every decision made about the Vietnam War seemed like a perfectly logical next step to senior policymakers. Escalating bombing raids, deploying more troops, disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia — all had a reasoned backdrop of policy arguments to support them and resulted from a structured decision-making process. Yet the sum total of these incremental decisions led to disaster. Successive administrations from both parties failed to step back and assess the trajectory of the war as a whole — whether it was meeting its key objectives and if the ever-escalating costs were worth the benefits.

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have also suffered from incremental decision-making. Though neither has ended in catastrophic defeat (yet), both have been fought in short and often disjointed chapters that made it all too easy to lose sight of the overall strategic objectives. This has been especially true in Afghanistan, where the war has essentially been fought in 18 one-year increments rather than as a single 18-year campaign. Since 2001, the United States has rotated through 17 different military commanders (including one of your Strategic Outpost columnists) and 10 different ambassadors in Kabul. The never-ending transitions among them resulted in a near-total lack of continuity in execution, as each one adopted new approaches and sought to demonstrate short-term success. This unconscionable rate of turnover, along with the churn and chaos it created, made it far harder for these officials and their political superiors in Washington to implement any sort of long-term strategy. The result was a perpetual strategy of muddling through, with no real focus on the long-term result.

Recognizing Failure and Changing Course Can Be Extraordinarily Difficult

For almost a decade, U.S. military leaders argued that they were winning the war in Vietnam. Even after the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland continued to insist he could win the war, if only he were given 200,000 more troops (on top of the 550,000 troops already under his command). By the time that Westmoreland made this staggeringly optimistic argument, many other U.S. military leaders had long ago concluded that his approach was failing. The Army chief of staff published a study in 1966, for example, which discredited Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy tactics. And in 1967, one of his own generals stated, “Westy just doesn’t get it. The war is unwinnable.” Yet many other senior leaders in Washington and Saigon masked their growing concerns and continued to support the war’s ineffective strategy.

Unfortunately, the recent wars have also demonstrated how senior commanders can fail to recognize that a strategy is failing, even when it seems clear to subordinates and superiors alike. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, theater commanders repeatedly claimed that each year would be the “decisive year” in the conflict, and each year they were proven wrong. And in Iraq, as the United States approached the brink of failure in 2006, senior U.S. commander Gen. George Casey continued to resist changing his strategy. By the summer of 2006, the escalating failures of the U.S. strategy in Iraq prompted a number of different individuals and groups, both inside and outside the U.S. government, to develop alternative options. Later that year, President George W. Bush decided to pursue what became known as the surge, and soon replaced Casey with Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus’ new counter-insurgency strategy rejected the key assumptions of Casey’s approach, and successfully reversed the catastrophic trajectory of the war.

The Unequal Burdens of Military Service

Many of those who fought in Vietnam were conscripts. The military draft was intended to include all levels of society, but the early system of local draft boards meant that those who were wealthy or better educated could often find ways to avoid service. Until a fairer lottery system was instituted in 1968, the burden of service fell heavily on those who were less advantaged or were more willing to answer the call. In a war where 2.7 million Americans would eventually serve in Vietnam and more than 58,000 service members never returned home, this fundamental inequality left behind a bitter taste for many Americans.

As we marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon, one of our faculty members asked the students, “Where are the war protesters today?” Some responded that the 9/11 attacks led to broad public support for fighting overseas in order to avoid more attacks at home. Some also pointed to the far lower number of U.S. troops and casualties. But most concluded, correctly in our view, that the all-volunteer force was the main reason why there have been no significant protests during almost two decades of war. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, which means that the vast majority of Americans are not directly affected by the wars. Furthermore, most people who join the military have a family member who also serves. As the burden of fighting continues to fall on an ever-shrinking number of families, fewer and fewer Americans even know anyone who serves in the military. Though the all-volunteer force has many tremendous advantages, it has resulted in a fairer but nevertheless still deeply unequal burden of military service throughout society. Young Americans simply have no reason to engage in mass protests against wars in which they have no prospect of having to fight.

Most Stereotypes of Veterans Were Inaccurate

When Vietnam veterans returned home, they were widely seen by American society as damaged, drug addled, and destructive. Hollywood furthered that view in subsequent years, with movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and the long-running Rambo franchise. Though some veterans did suffer from very serious problems (and deserved far more help than they received), these broad caricatures of Vietnam veterans were largely untrue. As the Vietnam veterans on our staff ride reminded our students, most simply did their duty, came home, and got on with their lives. Though few returning veterans were warmly welcomed, and many were harassed, disdained, or simply ignored, the majority found jobs, started families, and otherwise settled into the next phase of their lives. Only about one-third of male veterans and one-quarter of female veterans who served in Southeast Asia experienced post-traumatic stress at some point after returning home.

Veterans from the recent wars have been welcomed home far more enthusiastically. Americans today have an extremely high degree of confidence in the U.S. military — more than in any other institution in society. Troops in uniform are highly respected and frequently thanked for their service (though many veterans are uncomfortable with that phrase), even by those who oppose the ongoing conflicts. Yet many harmful stereotypes of veterans continue to exist just below the surface of this public ardor. As Rosa Brooks has noted, today’s veterans are widely seen as heroes, villains, or victims — even though most, just like their Vietnam counterparts, have simply done their duty, come home, and gotten on with their lives. A RAND study from 2008, for example, found that approximately 20 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress; a decade later, a Veterans Affairs study put the figure at just under 16 percent. Yet many stereotypes remain powerfully present. In one survey, 78 percent of respondents agreed that “many veterans have difficulty adjusting to civilian life because of stresses they have experienced in the military.” In another, 40 percent of respondents believed that more than half of recent veterans suffer from mental health problems. Much work remains to be done to debunk these damaging stereotypes.

Sustaining America’s Long Wars

After a long, rainy weekend trekking around Washington, an intriguing counterfactual occurred to us. Imagine, for a moment, that the year is 1982 — 18 years after the U.S. military began its long buildup in Vietnam. Now imagine that the Saigon government still remains in power, that U.S. forces have been fighting alongside their South Vietnamese counterparts to hold back the North for almost two decades, and have lost fewer than 2,400 personnel among the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who had fought there over the years. The South Vietnamese forces are bearing the brunt of the fighting, with only about 10,000 American troops remaining. The United States has only had 82 men and women killed in the last five years, and continues to suffer a handful of casualties each month. Here’s the question: For the United States, would that outcome have been considered a strategic success in 1982?

Knowing what we know now, the answer would almost certainly be yes. Maintaining that level of limited effort in Southeast Asia would certainly have been better than losing more than 58,000 U.S. troops en route to the utter defeat of South Vietnam. And, in the context of the Cold War, it would probably have been a fairly sustainable approach as well, with the relatively small number of American casualties seen as a worthwhile sacrifice to prevent a communist takeover.

History does not work that way, of course; we can never compare what is with what might have been. But this counterfactual, which essentially substitutes the current situation in Afghanistan for the disastrous outcome in Vietnam, made us realize that what now seems like a frustrating and endless war in the Hindu Kush could end up looking more positive with the benefit of hindsight. In the context of the ongoing war on terror, would we look back on a decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan (or Iraq or Syria) at some point in the future, and rue it as a grave strategic error? We don’t know the answer, but thinking about Afghanistan in this unexpected way may provide some new insights into the difficult policy choices that lie ahead.

Final Reflections

At our concluding dinner (at the Watergate Hotel, no less), we asked for closing thoughts from the participants. Several of our students, many of whom are destined for careers in government, asked variants of the question, “How can we avoid making these kinds of mistakes in our own careers?” Many were deeply disturbed by what they had learned, and struggled with questions about ethical decision-making. But they had very much grasped the uncertainty, the ambiguity, the nuance, and the incompleteness of information that characterize the worlds of policymakers in hazy real time. And they began to realize just how much of that doubt and confusion gets swept away by the bright spotlight of historical judgement.

The shadow of America’s current wars was never far from our thoughts during the staff ride. A number of our students had served in those wars, and the parallels were particularly sharp for some of them. But all of us walked away recognizing how important these lessons of history remained, and how vital it was that their meaning not be lost to future policymakers. Spending a fall weekend immersed in the home front of the Vietnam War with a cohort of future decision-makers was a small but worthwhile step toward ensuring that does not happen.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Karen Neoh)


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