Leadership: April 28, 2000

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Lessons Lost: The 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam makes the "lessons of Vietnam" a hot news item once more. The lessons were many, but the most important insight is that we have gone on to ignore all of them. Are you shocked? Read the list and get depressed.

@ Don't get involved in civil wars. That's an old historical lesson no one should forget. But now we have gotten into Civil War Central with troops stationed all over the Balkans, and many Americans urging that troops be sent to African civil wars as well.

@ Don't micromanage the troops. This got a lot of Americans killed in Vietnam, where rapid global communications made it possible for the president to personally direct operations. Now we have even better spy satellites that send information straight to the White House. Commanders on the scene who complain about it get bad mouthed. 

@ Let the military run the military. No more. Congress issues more detailed instructions on how the military must (not should) recruit, train and discipline its troops. The military calls it social engineering, Congress calls it pandering for votes. Officers and NCOs are leaving in numbers so large that even the normally comatose generals and admirals have to take notice. 

@ Don't get in a war you don't intend to win. That one was never popular with politicians. As long as they had good polls behind them, they never met a war they didn't like. If the voters changed their minds, so would the politicians. This sort of thing leaves a bad aftertaste among the voters, but they have short memories. And the troops hate it, for it means they are risking their lives so someone way up the food chain can improve their chances for reelection.

@ Incrementalism doesn't work. This is not exactly true. Applying military pressure in stages didn't work in Vietnam because the communists were willing to accept all the pain we could apply. The North Vietnamese had the backing of Russia and China to prevent us from really doing a number on them. In the past, "gunboat diplomacy" has worked to change a government's mind. But it's a dangerous game to play. Guess wrong and you either look like a fool (as in Somalia) or get sucked into a war you don't want (Vietnam). Incrementalism is especially popular among politicians and diplomats who see soldiers lives as something used to buy a temporary political advantage with.

@ Telling the truth. The US government would never admit exactly what its prospects were in Vietnam, especially when they were mixed or bad. It was the lies, as much as the dead G.I.s, that turned the voters against the war effort. Same thing happened in Somalia and a similar situation is brewing in the Balkans.

@ Ignoring history. Taking a sober look at history would have kept us out of the Vietnam. But politics is often the triumph of political ambitions over historical facts. Still happening. We never seem to learn.

@ See what is really there. The lies were bad enough, but it had an equally unpleasant side effect in distorting history, or at least the popular of events. For example, U.S. troops were never defeated in Vietnam. The communist troops were thoroughly cowed by American battlefield prowess and after 1968 they basically retreated to the bush to wait us out. American troops left Vietnam in 1972, not 1975 as many current news stories have it, and the troops left because Congress and the president ordered them out. In that same year, the North Vietnam tried to conquer South Vietnam with conventional forces and were defeated by South Vietnamese troops and American airpower. In 1975, Congress had cut off most support for South Vietnam and the third North Vietnamese invasion of the south succeeded. A similar outcome was seen in Somalia in 1993, where 18 U.S. troops were killed after they were set upon by a much larger Somali force (which lost some 500 dead.) The U.S. troops wanted to go back the next day and finish the job, and the Somalis were thoroughly cowed (not an easy thing to do to the combative Somalis.) But overnight, the U.S. media declared the Somali defeat a U.S. defeat and that was that.

As has often been said, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


 


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