Clinging to myths about Iraq and Vietnam only guarantees more war.

By Danny Sjursen
November 9, 2017
The American Conservative

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to weapons squad, 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment pose for a photo before patrolling Rusafa, Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 18, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey) (www.army.mil)

Stop me if you’ve heard this: American soldiers didn’t lose in Vietnam. In fact, our brave troopers had the commies whipped by the late ‘60s; that is, of course, before a conspiratorial cabal of cowardly hippies, anti-war protestors, and dovish liberals pulled the rug out from under an all-but-victorious U.S. military. It’s quite a tale, replete with heroes, villains, and glib moral lessons. It is all wrong of course, faulty and fallacious.

Others—debunked historians and enthusiastic military officers among them—posit an altogether different, and even more insidious myth. The U.S. military could’ve won, almost did win; it’s just that dusty old World War II vets like General Westmoreland remained fixated on conventional war when they should’ve applied counterinsurgency tactics. One young military officer you may have heard of—then Major David Petraeus—argued as much in his Princeton doctoral dissertation. Later, as General Petraeus sought to apply the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq, he spawned a generation of so-called soldier-scholar “COINdinistas”—young Iraq and Afghan vets keen to win hearts and minds throughout the Islamic East. Counterinsurgency could work, they vociferously asserted (perhaps the “lady doth protest too much?”). Their favorite case studies: Malaya and Vietnam.

They were wrong too, of course, and, like the Vietnam narrative spinners, are being by more serious scholars. As eminent Vietnam historian, and contributor to the recent Ken Burns documentary, Gregory Daddis, wrote: rather than crafting a “better war” narrative we should see Vietnam as “a case study in the limits of U.S. power abroad.” Furthermore, “the outcome never lay entirely in American hands.” This was a civil war, a Vietnamese struggle for nation and identity. So, too, was (and is) the Iraq War.

Still, you have to admire the stories. Memory is a tricky thing. Sometimes the way we collectively remember an event becomes more durable than reality. Were the resulting mental paradigms less treacherous, one could simply ignore the errors and enjoy the fable. If only. Sadly, misremembering, and mythologizing Vietnam contributed to American adventurism, first in Central America in the 1980s, then, more recently, in the Middle East.

Read more