What Vietnam-Era Failures Can Teach Us About the War on Terrorism

Evasive language, banishment of experts, and the egos too big to admit error are just some of the pathologies common to both conflicts.

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In 1968, The Atlantic published "How Could Vietnam Happen" by James C. Thomson, an East Asia specialist who served in the White House during the war. The essay set forth a number of explanations for what went wrong, and reading it as the United States blunders through the longest conflict in our history, one can't help but wonder whether it holds lessons for our generation. Several passages in particular grabbed me, each offering a particular insight for reflection.


Regular readers know that I recently complained about the Obama Administration calling its drone strikes "surgical." So I was interested to see a colleague from another era object to the term. For him, it was an example of "bureaucratic detachment" that blinded policymakers to reality. What exactly is bureaucratic detachment?

By this I mean what at best might be termed the professional callousness of the surgeon (and indeed, medical lingo -- the "surgical strike" for instance -- seemed to crop up in the euphemisms of the times). In Washington the semantics of the military muted the reality of war for the civilian policy-makers. In quiet, air-conditioned, thick-carpeted rooms, such terms as "systematic pressure," "armed reconnaissance," "targets of opportunity," and even "body count" seemed to breed a sort of games-theory detachment. Most memorable to me was a moment in the late 1964 target planning when the question under discussion was how heavy our bombing should be, and how extensive our strafing, at some midpoint in the projected pattern of systematic pressure. An Assistant Secretary of State resolved the point in the following words: "It seems to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with periodic touches of brass." Perhaps the biggest shock of my return to Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the realization that the young men, the flesh and blood I taught and saw on these university streets, were potentially some of the numbers on the charts of those faraway planners. In a curious sense, Cambridge is closer to this war than Washington.

Language from the War on Terrorism (some of it old, some of it new) that contributes to bureaucratic detachment includes:

  • Enhanced interrogation techniques
  • Waterboarding
  • Collateral damage
  • Special Operations
  • Intelligence professionals
  • Detainees
  • Exporting democracy
  • Freedom agenda
  • Surgical strike
  • Kinetic operations
  • Indefinite detention
  • Signature strikes
  • Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism
  • Overseas Contingency Operation


The parallels between the following passage and the Bush Administration's behavior during the Iraq War are impossible to miss:

.... A recurrent and increasingly important factor in the decisionmaking process was the banishment of real expertise. Here the underlying cause was the "closed politics" of policy-making as issues become hot: the more sensitive the issue, and the higher it rises in the bureaucracy, the more completely the experts are excluded while the harassed senior generalists take over (that is, the Secretaries, Undersecretaries, and Presidential Assistants). The frantic skimming of briefing papers in the back seats of limousines is no substitute for the presence of specialists; furthermore, in times of crisis such papers are deemed "too sensitive" even for review by the specialists. Another underlying cause of this banishment, as Vietnam became more critical, was the replacement of the experts, who were generally and increasingly pessimistic, by men described as "can-do guys," loyal and energetic fixers unsoured by expertise.

As striking is that after Iraq, the experts who got it right were not elevated, in large part because the vast majority of people who got the war wrong suffered no discernible lowering of their statures. This is especially true within the Republican Party and among a majority of movement conservatives.

This passage in particular sounds as though it was written for Colin Powell:

.... As the Vietnam controversy escalated at home, there developed a preoccupation with Vietnam public relations as opposed to Vietnam policy-making. And here, ironically, internal doubters and dissenters were heavily employed. For such men, by virtue of their own doubts, were often deemed best able to "massage" the doubting intelligentsia.

And it is closely related to...


The Obama Administration is filled with people who railed against the War on Terror excesses of the Bush Administration, only to participate in an executive branch that advanced policies as problematic. I thought of Eric Holder and Harold Koh in particular when I read the following passage:

... .Internal doubters and dissenters did indeed appear and persist. Yet as I watched the process, such men were effectively neutralized by a subtle dynamic: the domestication of dissenters. Such "domestication" arose out of a twofold clubbish need: on the one hand, the dissenter's desire to stay aboard; and on the other hand, the nondissenter's conscience.

Simply stated, dissent, when recognized, was made to feel at home. On the lowest possible scale of importance, I must confess my own considerable sense of dignity and acceptance (both vital) when my senior White House employer would refer to me as his "favorite dove." Far more significant was the case of the former Undersecretary of State, George Ball. Once Mr. Ball began to express doubts, he was warmly institutionalized: he was encouraged to become the in-house devil's advocate on Vietnam. The upshot was inevitable: the process of escalation allowed for periodic requests to Mr. Ball to speak his piece; Ball felt good, I assume (he had fought for righteousness); the others felt good (they had given a full hearing to the dovish option); and there was minimal unpleasantness... The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men -- to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be 'effective' on later issues -- is overwhelming.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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