Unexpected Lessons of Vietnam

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Heated comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam wars have often been used by public officials ranging from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebr.) to prove that America must simply ‘pull out’ from its doomed attempts at nation-building in the Middle East. However, a variation of the Vietnam model may actually enhance our military’s ability to counteract the Iraqi insurgency by providing useful data-collection models, the lessons of which can be applied to the Iraq war.

Dr. Richard Stewart, Chief Historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that the military used a Hamlet Evaluation System during the Vietnam War in order to rank levels of security and stability among 11,000 hamlets in southern Vietnam. The hamlets were ranked monthly from A (secure) to V (VietCong controlled) by measuring communist military and political activity, as well as the allied capability to counteract VietCong influence. While somewhat subjective at the local level, the army found the measure indicative at a national level over time.

One of the most telling measures of security in Vietnam came from the local commander’s personal narrative, which Dr. Stewart terms the commander’s holistic “gut feeling” about progress on the ground. The commander’s personal narratives might be particularly useful in the Iraq War because they reflect the circumstances of disparate regions, without imposing predetermined methods of measurement which overlook regional variability.

Vietnam War historians also found, in retrospect, that a highly predictive measure of security was the willingness of the commander to sleep in his village overnight, which indicated levels of trust. Speaking on the same panel, Lieutenant Commander Gian Gentile similarly suggested that Iraq analysts should measure whether Iraqi citizens participate in “normal activit[ies],” or are willing to travel outside their districts.

Since the parallel between Iraq and Vietnam is limited by differences in troop size, enemy strategy, geography, and other factors, only some of the Vietnam War variables can be compared between the two wars. Although the VietCong operated with guerilla-style warfare and suicide bombers, American military analysts still had the comfort of knowing that the insurgents were centrally organized and intent on concrete goals such as territory expansion. Personnel stationed in Iraq have no such guarantee. Also, sectarian tensions have complicated the Iraq scenario.

According to Dr. Stewart, “it takes at least 3 to 4 years of data collection to be sure that progress is being made—or that progress isn’t being made. That’s how long before you’re reasonably sure that your subjective collection of data can be… accurately verified…” Iraq is no exception. Even when the data is analyzed, the results are intended for “management” purposes, rather than war strategy, because they “are only measurements of progress, not true measurements of success…” Dr. Conrad Crane, Director of the U. S. Army Military History Institute, characterizes the insurgency as a “mosaic war” which “differs by time, it differs by region.” Since Iraqi insurgents utilize extremely fluid battle tactics, utilizing multiple strategies simultaneously throughout Iraq, there remains the possibility that the data, once analyzed, will have already become obsolete. In addition, there is the distinct possibility that, as in Vietnam, the government will find that many of its analyses were unreliable and arbitrary.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich.,
member of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, told the crowd at Heritage that he and others believe that in “…any successful reconstruction effort either post-conflict—or as we try to do in Iraq during a counterinsurgency which was not at the time recognized sufficiently…you have to build from the grass roots up.” Such an approach would recognize and strengthen the tradition roots of power in Iraq, emphasizing tribal and regional distinctions over national centralization.

Bethany Stotts
is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.