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.


Sometimes presidents and the people around them just don't themselves have a coherent plan, as much as they pretend otherwise:

Even among the "architects" of our Vietnam commitment, there has been persistent confusion as to what type of war we were fighting and, as a direct consequence, confusion as to how to end that war. (The "credibility gap" is, in part, a reflection of such internal confusion.) Was it, for instance, a civil war, in which case counterinsurgency might suffice? Or was it a war of international aggression? (This might invoke SEATO or UN commitment. ) Who was the aggressor -- and the "real enemy"? The Viet Cong? Hanoi? Peking? Moscow? International Communism? Or maybe "Asian Communism"? Differing enemies dictated differing strategies and tactics. And confused throughout, in like fashion, was the question of American objectives; your objectives depended on whom you were fighting and why.

Confusion about what type of war we're fighting sounds very familiar.


After writing about the innocents that American drone strikes kill in Pakistan and the terror sowed among a subset of the population there, these words from the Vietnam-era resonated powerfully:

I do not mean to imply any conscious contempt for Asian loss of life on the part of Washington officials. But I do mean to imply that bureaucratic detachment may well be compounded by a traditional Western sense that there are so many Asians, after all; that Asians have a fatalism about life and a disregard for its loss; that they are cruel and barbaric to their own people; and that they are very different from us (and all look alike?). And I do mean to imply that the upshot of such subliminal views is a subliminal question whether Asians, and particularly Asian peasants, and most particularly Asian Communists, are really people -- like you and me. To put the matter another way: would we have pursued quite such policies -- and quite such military tactics -- if the Vietnamese were white?

It's hard to imagine that the profiling aimed at Muslim Americans would be tolerated were it directed by the NYPD or the FBI at any other ethnicity or subset of Americans; we saw how apoplectic the right was when the Department of Homeland Security released its warning about domestic right-wing extremism, despite the fact that large scale terrorism had originated there as recently as Oklahoma City. I wrote more about this in "Why the Reaction Is Different When the Terrorist Is White."


The last passage I'll highlight, though my no means the last worth reading, concerns the inability of some policymakers to do what Atul Gawande spoke about in this memorable commencement speech -- to recognize errors, openly acknowledge them, and quickly fix the problem (emphasis added): 

.... No discussion of the factors and forces at work on Vietnam policy-makers can ignore the central fact of human ego investment. Men who have participated in a decision develop a stake in that decision. As they participate in further, related decisions, their stake increases. It might have been possible to dissuade a man of strong self-confidence at an early stage of the ladder of decision; but it is infinitely harder at later stages since a change of mind there usually involves implicit or explicit repudiation of a chain of previous decisions. To put it bluntly: at the heart of the Vietnam calamity is a group of able, dedicated men who have been regularly and repeatedly wrong -- and whose standing with their contemporaries, and more important, with history, depends, as they see it, on being proven right. These are not men who can be asked to extricate themselves from error.

This isn't an exhaustive accounting of Vietnam-era failures to remember in the War on Terrorism. Neither is it a suggestion that the two conflicts are directly parallel, or that the establishment hasn't learned anything from its past mistakes. It is only to say that American policymakers seem to have made a lot of the same mistakes as their Vietnam-era predecessors. I suspect that looking back at the War on Terrorism decades from now, the interventionist hawks will once again be judged the actors who most catastrophically misjudged the situation.