Pessimism in Iraq and the Myth of Vietnam

The myth that fighting insurgencies is futile may underlie much pessimism about the current war in Iraq. Professor Donald Stoker's article, "Insurgencies Rarely Win - And Iraq Won't Be Any Different (Maybe)," did thinking Americans a great favor by writing the historical truth:  that insurgents are not invincible. The misconception that they are destined to win in war was, as the professor writes, born in the U.S.'s Vietnam fiasco.

John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's administrations purposely chose to focus national attention on the Viet Cong insurgents as the cause of the Southeast Asia war, rather than admitting that the true originator of the conflict was the Communist Government in North Vietnam, which was waging a war of aggression. By publicly pretending that the insurgency was homegrown, springing from native South Vietnamese "guerrillas," Kennedy and Johnson were attempting to circumvent a direct conflict with North Vietnam's sponsors, Communist China and the Soviet Union, which were funding and supplying the war in the south.

The Soviets and Chinese funneled their all-important support to the insurgents in the south through their client state. Kennedy and Johnson mistakenly believed that preventing the Soviet/Chinese proxy aggressor state from receiving the Communist war supplies and trans-shipping them to the Viet Cong conflicted with the vital national interests of the Soviets and Chinese. The absolute fallacy of this Kennedy/Johnson strategic miscalculation was clearly shown when Richard Nixon finally paralyzed all war re-supply to and through North Vietnam in December 1972 with a massive bombing campaign known as "Linebacker II." But by then it was too late to end the war on America's terms because of the total collapse of the American public's will to fight, so Nixon had to settle for the type of cut and run troop withdrawal now advocated in Iraq by disheartened U.S. politicians.

Both Mao Tse-Tung and Nikita Khrushchev had announced before the Vietnam War fully blossomed that they intended to conquer capitalism through proxy wars of insurgency in the Third World in order not to provoke Western nuclear superiority. Kennedy and Johnson bought into the "Viet Cong fiction" to avoid having to identify North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and Communist China as the sources of the Communist aggression to the American people. The logic of their thinking was obviously that, if North Vietnam was rightly singled out as the source of the men and supplies that were prolonging the war and causing U.S. casualties, the American people would naturally demand that our major war fighting effort be aimed at destroying North Vietnam. However, Kennedy and Johnson foolishly accepted the fallacious theory that we could fight and contain a "limited war" within the borders of South Vietnam, while leaving the re-supply sources for the war in Hanoi and Haiphong virtually unscathed.

So these two presidents purposefully misled the nation and pretended that we could defeat the Communists by simply engaging them in South Vietnam. They called this self-restrained form of warfare "counterinsurgency" and treated it as if it were some sort of exotic war genre, thus diverting public attention away from the northern source of the war. When Johnson was forced by circumstances to finally acknowledge that North Vietnam was the cause of the increasing American GI deaths and the failing of the South Vietnamese government, he compounded his mistaken strategic thinking by limiting the bombing of the North to targets of secondary importance, so as not to anger the Soviets or Chinese. The natural result of Johnson's misguided thinking was that Americans continued to die in large numbers.

The insurgency in South Vietnam was totally destroyed in the failed Viet Cong "Tet Offensive." In that major Communist failure, the Viet Cong was decimated to the tune of 45,000 to 70,000 killed, which was the cream of their force and constituted the bulk of their guerrilla army. Thereafter the North Vietnamese could no longer sustain the fiction that it was a southern insurgency, and they had to infiltrate massive numbers of North Vietnamese Army personnel to continue their war of aggression. However, by this time in 1968, Americans were so "Viet Cong saturated" that they made no distinction between North and South Vietnamese combatants fighting against U.S. GI's.

Consequently, when the Democrat controlled congress cut off military aid to South Vietnamese forces fighting the North Vietnamese Army (similar to how Senator Clinton has just proposed cutting off military aid to the Iraqis who are fighting the Islamic insurgents), South Vietnam was overrun and conquered by a conventional army, not an insurgent force. However the U.S. media and American leftists, both of whom were anxious to continue the fiction of Viet Cong moral superiority and U.S. illegality, heralded the triumph of "the people's Viet Cong" over the "U.S. aggressors." The American people totally bought the left's Viet Cong victory propaganda line and tried to forget the whole sorry affair.

With that preface completed, I would just like to reiterate the truth of Professor Stoker's article. Insurgents lose historically and the Bush administration can reverse the present trend on the battlefield by adopting a different "clear and hold" counterinsurgency tactic as opposed to the past "clear and move on" tactic. The troop "surge" of 20,000+ is aimed at making up for the shortfall of American personnel that has precluded the employment of the "clear and hold" tactic up to the present. Clear and hold is absolutely essential in counterinsurgency because providing security for the indigenous population must be the first order of business in order to separate the insurgents from the people. Much was made in the Vietnam War of "winning the hearts and minds" of the people, but so long as the insurgents are able to menace the people, there will be no winning their hearts and minds.

Therefore, the "Bush surge" is the necessary first step in regaining U.S. momentum in the war. However, just as was the case in Vietnam, the war in Iraq has its impetus outside of the borders where the insurgency is being fought. North Vietnam was the source of the war in the South. Iran is the source of the war in Iraq. If the source of a proxy war is not destroyed, the war will eventually be lost just as the war in Vietnam was lost. Tactical counterinsurgency victories can redress the dire situation we are in, but unless we are prepared to remain in Iraq indefinitely to fight tactical counterinsurgency battles at the initiative of the Iranians, we must ultimately implement a strategic solution that ends the re-supply to the Islamic insurgents. If we do not, we will simply continue dancing on the end of the strings pulled by the Iranian mullahs, until the American people again lose their will. But who can blame the American people for losing their will when they have a national political leadership that fights the war in such a hesitant way that maximizes American casualties and drags the conflict on indefinitely?

Colonel Thomas Snodgrass, retired U.S. Air Force, is Advisor on Military Intelligence and Strategy to the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE).
The myth that fighting insurgencies is futile may underlie much pessimism about the current war in Iraq. Professor Donald Stoker's article, "Insurgencies Rarely Win - And Iraq Won't Be Any Different (Maybe)," did thinking Americans a great favor by writing the historical truth:  that insurgents are not invincible. The misconception that they are destined to win in war was, as the professor writes, born in the U.S.'s Vietnam fiasco.

John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's administrations purposely chose to focus national attention on the Viet Cong insurgents as the cause of the Southeast Asia war, rather than admitting that the true originator of the conflict was the Communist Government in North Vietnam, which was waging a war of aggression. By publicly pretending that the insurgency was homegrown, springing from native South Vietnamese "guerrillas," Kennedy and Johnson were attempting to circumvent a direct conflict with North Vietnam's sponsors, Communist China and the Soviet Union, which were funding and supplying the war in the south.

The Soviets and Chinese funneled their all-important support to the insurgents in the south through their client state. Kennedy and Johnson mistakenly believed that preventing the Soviet/Chinese proxy aggressor state from receiving the Communist war supplies and trans-shipping them to the Viet Cong conflicted with the vital national interests of the Soviets and Chinese. The absolute fallacy of this Kennedy/Johnson strategic miscalculation was clearly shown when Richard Nixon finally paralyzed all war re-supply to and through North Vietnam in December 1972 with a massive bombing campaign known as "Linebacker II." But by then it was too late to end the war on America's terms because of the total collapse of the American public's will to fight, so Nixon had to settle for the type of cut and run troop withdrawal now advocated in Iraq by disheartened U.S. politicians.

Both Mao Tse-Tung and Nikita Khrushchev had announced before the Vietnam War fully blossomed that they intended to conquer capitalism through proxy wars of insurgency in the Third World in order not to provoke Western nuclear superiority. Kennedy and Johnson bought into the "Viet Cong fiction" to avoid having to identify North Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and Communist China as the sources of the Communist aggression to the American people. The logic of their thinking was obviously that, if North Vietnam was rightly singled out as the source of the men and supplies that were prolonging the war and causing U.S. casualties, the American people would naturally demand that our major war fighting effort be aimed at destroying North Vietnam. However, Kennedy and Johnson foolishly accepted the fallacious theory that we could fight and contain a "limited war" within the borders of South Vietnam, while leaving the re-supply sources for the war in Hanoi and Haiphong virtually unscathed.

So these two presidents purposefully misled the nation and pretended that we could defeat the Communists by simply engaging them in South Vietnam. They called this self-restrained form of warfare "counterinsurgency" and treated it as if it were some sort of exotic war genre, thus diverting public attention away from the northern source of the war. When Johnson was forced by circumstances to finally acknowledge that North Vietnam was the cause of the increasing American GI deaths and the failing of the South Vietnamese government, he compounded his mistaken strategic thinking by limiting the bombing of the North to targets of secondary importance, so as not to anger the Soviets or Chinese. The natural result of Johnson's misguided thinking was that Americans continued to die in large numbers.

The insurgency in South Vietnam was totally destroyed in the failed Viet Cong "Tet Offensive." In that major Communist failure, the Viet Cong was decimated to the tune of 45,000 to 70,000 killed, which was the cream of their force and constituted the bulk of their guerrilla army. Thereafter the North Vietnamese could no longer sustain the fiction that it was a southern insurgency, and they had to infiltrate massive numbers of North Vietnamese Army personnel to continue their war of aggression. However, by this time in 1968, Americans were so "Viet Cong saturated" that they made no distinction between North and South Vietnamese combatants fighting against U.S. GI's.

Consequently, when the Democrat controlled congress cut off military aid to South Vietnamese forces fighting the North Vietnamese Army (similar to how Senator Clinton has just proposed cutting off military aid to the Iraqis who are fighting the Islamic insurgents), South Vietnam was overrun and conquered by a conventional army, not an insurgent force. However the U.S. media and American leftists, both of whom were anxious to continue the fiction of Viet Cong moral superiority and U.S. illegality, heralded the triumph of "the people's Viet Cong" over the "U.S. aggressors." The American people totally bought the left's Viet Cong victory propaganda line and tried to forget the whole sorry affair.

With that preface completed, I would just like to reiterate the truth of Professor Stoker's article. Insurgents lose historically and the Bush administration can reverse the present trend on the battlefield by adopting a different "clear and hold" counterinsurgency tactic as opposed to the past "clear and move on" tactic. The troop "surge" of 20,000+ is aimed at making up for the shortfall of American personnel that has precluded the employment of the "clear and hold" tactic up to the present. Clear and hold is absolutely essential in counterinsurgency because providing security for the indigenous population must be the first order of business in order to separate the insurgents from the people. Much was made in the Vietnam War of "winning the hearts and minds" of the people, but so long as the insurgents are able to menace the people, there will be no winning their hearts and minds.

Therefore, the "Bush surge" is the necessary first step in regaining U.S. momentum in the war. However, just as was the case in Vietnam, the war in Iraq has its impetus outside of the borders where the insurgency is being fought. North Vietnam was the source of the war in the South. Iran is the source of the war in Iraq. If the source of a proxy war is not destroyed, the war will eventually be lost just as the war in Vietnam was lost. Tactical counterinsurgency victories can redress the dire situation we are in, but unless we are prepared to remain in Iraq indefinitely to fight tactical counterinsurgency battles at the initiative of the Iranians, we must ultimately implement a strategic solution that ends the re-supply to the Islamic insurgents. If we do not, we will simply continue dancing on the end of the strings pulled by the Iranian mullahs, until the American people again lose their will. But who can blame the American people for losing their will when they have a national political leadership that fights the war in such a hesitant way that maximizes American casualties and drags the conflict on indefinitely?

Colonel Thomas Snodgrass, retired U.S. Air Force, is Advisor on Military Intelligence and Strategy to the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE).