COL Did we learn our lessons from the Vietnam War?

About a dozen years ago I taught a course at the U.S. Army War College -- "The Challenge of Military Reform." The purpose of the course was to examine the mistakes we made in past conflicts, to improve future operations.

I divided our Vietnam discussion into five functional areas -- personnel, intelligence, operations and training, logistics, and public affairs.

I don't have space in this column for all mistakes we noted in these functional areas, so I only selected a few to discuss with you. First, we addressed bad personnel policies: tours of duty were individual, 12-month tours, rather than unit tours, or tours for the duration of the war, as in prior, successful wars. When a soldier knows he can't go home until he gets the job done, he gets it done.

Another thorny issue we discussed was that medals and citations for bravery and valor were awarded so often in Vietnam that it diminished internal respect for the awards program.

In Intelligence, what intelligence we had in Vietnam was never current, and always wrong. Today, we have a similar situation in Iraq. We find the chemical-dispensing drones, and find out they can't dispense chemical weapons. We can't find Saddam's massive stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, or Saddam for that matter, or bin Laden or Omar or....


We didn't learn lessons from the French, who lost their war in Indochina a decade before we entered Vietnam. In Iraq we didn't anticipate the severity of the looting, lawlessness, the fierce loyalty of Sunni Muslim support for Saddam, or the stealthy and steady immigration of Arab and Muslim terrorists who are entering Iraq to fight coalition forces and sabotage reconstruction efforts.

In Operations and Training in Vietnam we were taught conventional warfare fighting skills before we were shipped to Vietnam, only to find an unconventional enemy. Wrong training for the wrong war. We occupied South Vietnam, but our forces in the field had to form circles of defense -- think "circle the wagons" -- called firebases and night defensive positions, which provided lucrative targets for hit-and-run enemy mortar and rocket attacks on a nightly basis.

In Logistics in Vietnam, we lost accountability and created a middle class of "traders" within the military, who followed the example of Milo Minderbinder in "Catch 22." There wasn't anything you couldn't get if you were willing to make the right trade or pay the right price.

Rear echelon logistics organizations built swimming pools, steam baths and air-conditioned living quarters and offices. My sources tell me that we may still have issues in getting logistics needs satisfied on time, but there is now discipline in the system. Hurray!

And finally in public affairs in Vietnam, we allowed a substantial degree of openness for the Dan Rathers there to report on battles and massacres, resulting in the most violent, bloody TV scenes imaginable, which helped divide our country into pro- and anti-war factions, nearly akin to our U.S. Civil War.

We accounted for the dead and wounded in terms of "body counts." Today the press is counting and reporting American casualties on a daily basis and may again be using the numbers and photos to support today's anti-war effort.

We have not yet implemented all the lessons learned in Vietnam. A very senior general told me recently, "lessons learned aren't really learned until they've been shaped to be instructive and finally institutionalized."

I'm glad to see that we are finally changing from individual to unit replacements. We still don't have good intelligence, and I don't know if we ever will. We need to train as we fight, perhaps the only bright spot among all the Vietnam lessons learned. Our individual, unit and leadership training is the best it has ever been, and is designed to instill competence, creativity and flexibility. It does. Maybe we still have some personnel, intelligence, logistical and public affairs lessons to be learned, but we sure do know how to train and fight.


Col. Shaver is a retired U.S. Army officer and former, tenured faculty member at the U.S. Army War College. He can be reached at

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