Lessons for the War on Terror

After the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975, military and civilian strategists sought “lessons learned.” Many were tactical or technical, such as the operational effectiveness of precision-guided munitions and the continuing need for guns on jet fighters. At the strategic level, one pundit recommended that the United States never again fight in a former French colony located on the other side of the world with borders contiguous to enemy sources of supply governed by an ally of dubious political legitimacy. After the fall of Saigon 37 years ago, the United States embarked on another unsatisfying war, the result seeming eerily familiar. What was missed in post-Vietnam assessments that might have informed a strategically efficacious approach to the War on Terror?

First, understand the historical context. The Vietnam intervention resulted from a Cold War mindset that assumed the war in South Vietnam was part of a larger “communist plot for world domination.” That made Vietnam more important than it was. The resulting intervention into a local struggle tied U.S. prestige to a dubious cause. Lesson: Look closely at the local situation before commitments become irrevocable.

Second, there are dangers in incrementalism. It is a myth that the United States “blundered” into a Vietnam quagmire. American intervention resulted from a series of small, incremental steps, each seemingly low in risk. By the end of 1965, with over 100,000 American service personnel committed to Vietnam, the U.S. presence was hostage to a faulty policy. The political cost of getting out seemingly outweighed the military cost of staying in.

Third, there are limits to what military power can achieve. In 1961, when the Kennedy administration decided to “draw a line in the sand” in Vietnam, the general military assumption was that U.S. military power, sufficient to defeat Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan in less than four years, could easily handle an insurgency in South Vietnam supported by an impoverished military power in North Vietnam. Surely a nation reaching toward outer space had little to fear from a country where few people knew how to drive a car.

History shows that small nations and dedicated movements can defeat major powers. England defeated the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. The American Revolution succeeded against the British Empire. Japan defeated Russia in 1905.

In March 2003, with Operation Iraqi Freedom, the assumption was U.S. forces would be in Baghdad within a month. It took three weeks. Then the real war started and U.S. forces languished there for the next eight years.

Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant understood, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that counts.”

Fourth, know your enemy. From the start of the Vietnam War, the fatal assumption was that Hanoi and the National Liberation Front—the Viet Cong—could be coerced with incrementally applied force. Their goals were not amenable to our logical frames of reference. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were willing to pay an enormous price for victory.

The “War on Terror” suffered from the failure to identify the enemy as Islamist fundamentalist-Jihadists determined to defeat the United States and, ultimately, bring down Judeo-Christian civilization. Knowing yourself corresponds with knowing the enemy.

Fifth, Americans are not patient. In 1946, General of the Army George C. Marshall stated, “America cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.” In 1968, the Tet Offensive occurred almost precisely seven years after the Kennedy administration drew the line in Vietnam. Frustrations grew throughout the subsequent administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, weakening public will.

Sixth, beware of open-ended commitments to regimes of dubious legitimacy. In Vietnam, first the United States committed its power and prestige to the support of Ngo Dinh Diem, a self-described “16th-century Spanish Catholic” who governed like a mandarin in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country struggling to throw off its colonial past. When in late 1963, Diem proved ineffective, the United States acquiesced in a coup resulting in a succession of military dictators.

History’s not so tidy that mistakes in the War on Terror are entirely analogous to those in Vietnam. The current war proceeded with an all-volunteer force, not a conscript-driven force. From October 2001 to the present, American military leadership, at every level, has been outstanding. The Bush administration’s big mistake was not clearly identifying the enemy. The Obama administration’s blunder was to set a deadline for withdrawal.

Wars are the most unpredictable of human endeavors, fraught with the unexpected and quite often,when strategically ill-conceived, much longer and bloodier than anticipated. That’s why over 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote, “War is a matter of vital importance; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”

Dr. Earl Tilford


Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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  • William Morris

    Do not enter into any military engagement that you do not intend to win.  The US forces were quite capable of winning the war had they been allowed to fight it.  It is foolish to assume that because US forces had the capability to win, that they also were given permission to win.  Don’t bomb at night!  Don’t set up DMZs surrounding Veitnam! Don’t bomb North Vietnam ports! The rules of engagement in Vietnam were a travesty.

    South Vietnam was our ally then as Japan is now. So do we not have allies? Do we only enter into agreements with perfect governments.  If you think that South Vietnam was corrupt, you should visit Illinois, esp Chicago. If Japan is attacked and we accept the cassus belli of some agressor, do we offer limited protection?  Do we allow North Korea to supply troops, weapons etc. and pretend that this is just a civil war because some foreign power tell us it is.

    The real problem and the lesson we should learn from that war is that that war was only part of an upheaval of American values.  We lost our moral compass and in the view of Alexander Solzhenitsyn became afraid.  We let teenage children dictate to parents and college deans by threatening to shut down college campuses. We let radicals threaten violence in our city streets. We let the egos of journalists control all of the agendas of the American scene. (The reportage on the Tet Offensive was a complete travesty).

    In the revolutionary war, many Americans sacrificed their lives for a cause.  In the Civil War, many Americans sacrificed their lives for a cause. In World Wars I and II, many Americans sacrificed their lives for a cause.  Now formal and informal education teaches our children that the greatest good is pleasure and self-fulfullment and as long as that is the case, any rogue outfit can make us quit just by threatening our comfortable lives.

  • Peter Nyikos

     Well put, William.  We must be careful about not drawing too many conclusions from one conflict.  Perhaps the lessons were learned too well in some cases.

    The elder Bush learned the fifth lesson of American impatience all too well; the result was that he announced victory and broke off the engagement before Saddam’s trapped army was completely disarmed and POWs held as bargaining chips.  “Declare victory and leave” was a Vietnam solution frequently proposed by critics of our handling of that war, and the elder Bush took it way too much to heart.

    The younger Bush learned the second lesson against incrementalism all too well in Afghanistan.  Instead of just going after Al-Qaida, he immediately decided “The Taliban has to go” and went after them as well.  And we are still in that quagmire.

    Granted, the Taliban might have attacked our forces and escalated the conflict anyway, but then we would have been on the moral high ground, and our allies would have been more enthusiastic about supporting us.