General Westmoreland's Children

How does the Vietnam War shape the U.S. military’s attitudes towards a possible invasion of Iraq?

August 8, 2002

How does the Vietnam War shape the U.S. military's attitudes towards a possible invasion of Iraq?

Generals are known to fight the last war. They learn the lessons of past victories or defeats well — and in every new conflict they want to repeat the former and avoid the latter.

For example, throughout the 1930s, French generals were busy getting ready for the kind of trench warfare they had seen in World War I. They underestimated the strategic role played by tank armies. They were totally surprised when the Germans easily outflanked and overran the massive fortifications of the Maginot Line.

Those who run the U.S. military today came of age during the Vietnam War — and the worst military defeat in American history. They have, directly or not, learned their craft from General William Westmoreland, who from 1964 to 1968 headed the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam — which the Pentagon established to help the South Vietnamese to fight the communist insurgency fomented by the North.

General Westmoreland presided over a gradual shift in U.S. policy from providing assistance to Saigon to much of the actual fighting. In doing so, he was fighting not just the North Vietnamese, but also the ghosts of the past.

He was determined to avoid the kind of all-out military disaster that the French, Vietnam's original colonial masters, suffered in 1954 — which ended up driving them out of Indochina.

General Westmoreland's eventual failure is the lesson that the Pentagon top brass has learned very well — many of them first-hand. They certainly don't want to be bogged down in an open-ended military conflict, into which they have gone poorly prepared.

They also remember a successful example of using U.S. military power. The 1991 Gulf War was meticulously planned. The United States assembled an overwhelming force in the Persian Gulf before the first shot was fired.

The war also had a limited objective — to liberate Kuwait. American troops stopped fighting and went home as soon as that objective was achieved.

Not surprisingly, America's men in uniform are wary about another war with Iraq — and especially about the perception that such a conflict could be easily won. As reported in the Washington Post, the generals are highly apprehensive of the Bush Administration's plans to remove Saddam Hussein.

One of the plans tossed around calls for a rapid deployment of troops, using a small number of Special Forces soldiers and much of America's deadly airpower that is already located around the Middle East.

Civilians in the Bush Administration, who have devised this plan, have been frustrated with what they see as an overly cautious attitude on the part of the military.

Of course, the civilians in the U.S. government have a very different experience, as far as the use of military force is concerned. Few of its top decision-makers have ever donned a uniform.

President Bush's record of service in the Texas Air National Guard is controversial enough. Instead of being drafted and running the risk of going to Vietnam, Mr. Bush served on a special unit which included sons of other Texas politicians and influential people.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did a stint in the Navy, but it was in 1954-1957 — a peaceful time well before the nasty experience of Vietnam.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz avoided military service altogether. And the only career soldier in the cabinet, Secretary of Defense Collin Powel, has actually sided with the generals.

While the military is still brooding about Vietnam, the conventional wisdom among civilians has it that the U.S. military victory in the Gulf War has exorcised the ghosts of Indochina from the national psyche.

In fact, the division runs strictly along the civilian-military line. Other civilians in Washington, including most Democrats in Congress, support decisive action against Saddam.

The problem with arguments about military strategy is that you can never be certain until the action takes place. Given that in modern warfare so many things can — and do — go dreadfully wrong, the newfound caution of the U.S. military top brass may be a welcome development. After all these years, Americans may find something to be grateful for to General Westmoreland.