Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned: Counterinsurgency in Vietnam


There were many sources of failure in US counterinsurgency in Vietnam.  Most of them can be attributed to arrogance.  The American army would not listen to alternative strategies, even after it was clear that their strategy was not working.  Unlike the British, who were more prone to adapt and change using lessons learned from the units themselves, American commanders chose to ignore input from the field.  Neither would they listen to foreign sources that had experience in counterinsurgency.  They believed they could successfully execute their operations with an increasingly demoralized drafted force, lacking in discipline and prone to drug use.  They suffered from the same “institutional racism” afflicting them today.  

In addition, the fact that the troops were not supported at home did not improve unit cohesion.  Many of them came to question their reason for being in Vietnam, even if they had believed in their mission from the beginning.  As the war dragged on, and it became apparent that operations were not going as well as Washington claimed, morale and professionalism sank further.

On top of this, there was a lack of Vietnam specialists, which resulted in a lack of understanding about the Vietnamese.  As Robert McNamara describes in the movie, “Fog of War”, the Americans did not understand the motivation of those they were fighting.  Years later, Secretary McNamara met his counterparts in Vietnam.  They told him they would have fought to the last person, because America was just another in a long line of what they viewed as an occupying force. They were fighting to get their land back.  Historically, people will fight much more aggressively if the battle is on their homeland, when they have no place else to go.  This type of resistance has usually only been successfully countered by true suppression of the population, and even then, the suppression itself is a continuous drain on the conqueror. 

Counterinsurgency works when your opponent can either be persuaded, or brutalized.  Democracies with value systems that have universal values regarding humane treatment can only go so far.  If the difference isn’t made up in persuasion, winning becomes impossible. And Vietnam was the first war that was brought into America’s living rooms.  While most Americans, soldier and civilian, were inclined to humane treatment, the presence of the media curtailed harsher tactics that might have been used by some.

America was not without its viciousness, but Vietnam was a comparatively “clean war”.  In many conflicts throughout history, insurgencies were put down by simply killing anyone who resisted.  Even in the modern world, some nations have chosen to follow this more violent approach.  Particularly when dealing with an adversary seen as inferior, the lines regarding treatment of the enemy were easily crossed, since the enemy was seen as marginal or “other”, and not worthy of the respect afforded an equal.

Finally, there was a lack of consistency in the use of air power.  Bombing campaigns would start, and then be disrupted by political negotiations.  Due to the interplay between negotiations and tactics, a consistent strategy was not deployed.  By the end of the war this had begun to improve, but at that point it was clear that America would almost certainly be pulling out.

The CIA’s Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program was one of the only true successes.  Run by U.S. Special Forces, the program focused on village security through training the villagers, and providing them with agricultural and medical assistance.  The Regular Army thought the Special Forces should be used in offensive operations, and pulled them from the program.  They did not want to work with the CIA.  Even success was derailed by the Army’s arrogance.  Perhaps if the resources, training, and manpower had been utilized to implement CIDG on a larger scale, more headway would have been made.