Vietnam Stories: The wrong lessons learned in war

For the Monitor
Monday, September 25, 2017

This is not an anecdote, but a few thoughts on the Vietnam War. I haven’t seen the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick film, but I question whether they did the public a service by bending over backwards to avoid making any recommendations or coming to any conclusions.

I believe there are lessons to be learned from Vietnam, and that we’re still struggling to come to grips with them. Some of the lessons we think we learned are wrong.

Discounting the question of whether we should have been there in the first place, I’ve long pondered the question of whether the war was winnable. I believe it was, but not with the civilian and military leaders we had at that time, who were incapable of eschewing the use of Big Army in favor of the low-tech approach of village pacification. The two approaches are incompatible on the same battle front. We talk brave talk about counterinsurgency warfare, but as soon as we have setbacks we resort to bombs and Big Army tactics.

And to my point that we haven’t learned much from our Vietnam experience, just look at the results of our recent military forays in the Middle East, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Syria and other hot spots, we’ve failed to put together a comprehensive strategy that has been useful to either the people of the Middle East or ourselves.

For those still interested in Vietnam, I recommend Kevin M. Boylan’s Losing Binh Dinh. I’m just getting into it, but it has a lot of parallels to Thomas Rick’s book on Iraq, Fiasco. It is depressing to read about the mistakes made by our leaders in both Vietnam and Iraq.

I spent three two-month tours in Vietnam, and was there during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

I was one of the first people to fly out of Tan Son Nhut airport at the end of the offensive.

(John V. Kjellman lives in Henniker.)