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Lessons from the Vietnam War: part 1

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‘Counter-insurgency’: problematic technique; distorting frame

Lessons from the Vietnam War: part 1

Barry Naughten (2366 words)

Australia’s adverse experience with the Vietnam War in the 1960s has been used to support the contention that before Australia commits itself to support of U.S. foreign policies in future it must insist upon a place in the ruling councils of the U.S.

In a recent documentary All the way (ABC TV 12 April 2012) journalists Paul Ham and Anne Delaney have put this case for high level consultation as part of a ‘special relationship’ with the U.S. In making this claim they draw on an interview with Malcolm Fraser, the former Prime Minister but at the time of the Vietnam War, Defence Minister in the then Coalition Government.

In support of this thesis, their case-study is that of counter-insurgency and an implied assessment of how it should have been conducted in the Vietnam War.

However, their treatment of counter-insurgency confuses means with ends. In large part, this is because they fail to note the ways in which involvement in the Vietnam War conflicted with the national interest of the U.S. itself, not to speak of that of Australia.

40 years later and over a decade since 9-11, debate about counter-insurgency continues, and once again ideology is distorting a realist analysis. Two aspects are considered here.

The first touches on recent revisions to U.S. doctrine on counter-insurgency (COIN). Integrally related to this doctrine is the counter neo-conservative notion of a ‘Long War’, a.k.a. ‘the war on (Islamist) terror’ (WOT). Indeed, the leading proponent of the ‘Long War’ in its most extreme form (Norman Podhoretz) had been a prominent hawk on Vietnam. Under the Obama Administration it has morphed into ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’ a.k.a. WFKATGWOT — the latest stage, as Andrew Bacevich puts it.

Hence, the second current aspect is about the U.S. foreign policy paradigm represented by WOT and accompanying COIN as a counter-productive response to the ideological and material spread of jihadist Islamism, as well as having other significant costs.

Whether in ‘supreme councils’ or otherwise, Australia’s position should rest on sound realist analysis of its national interest, not a preoccupation with techniques for ‘digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in’. In doing so, policy must be cognisant of the interests of other states, especially the U.S. Such analysis is a proper point of departure.

U.S. foreign policy realism about Vietnam and the myth of counter-insurgency

It does not suffice to say: ‘everyone now agrees that the Vietnam War was mistake’. Indeed, a significant minority claim that the ‘mistake’ was to use insufficient force. Public opinion surveys are not unimportant but learning lessons requires engagement with the recorded history—which for many, and for many reasons, can be painful.

Undue focus on counter-insurgency excludes the alternative framing asserted by U.S. realist critics of the war at the time. The same point is made by the eminent historian of Vietnamese anti-colonialism David G Marr. In his review of a recent book, drawing on previously secret CIA documents, by Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., (himself a former senior CIA officer, 1979 station chief in Tehran, no less), Professor Marr comments as follows:

The doctrine of counterinsurgency failed in Vietnam because adherents of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam saw themselves not as ‘insurgents’ but rather as upholding the independence and territorial integrity of the nation declared by Ho Chi Minh in 1945.  The political and military parameters of the ‘Anti-American Resistance’ had been set during the ‘Anti-French Resistance’ (1945-1954), about which Ahern says almost nothing.  The French considered the ‘Viet Minh’ an insurgent threat to legitimate authority, rather than a functioning state.  American analysts then made the same mistake.  No CIA-initiated program, be it `civic action’, `census grievance’, counter-terror’, or ‘political action’, managed to overcome this liability. (emphasis added)

Because they understood this basic point at the time, leading U.S. realist scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz opposed the war. More recently, contemporary U.S. realist scholars such as John Mearsheimer have made valid comparisons with another unnecessary war: Iraq (2003-). As Mearsheimer points out, this realist perception of the Vietnam War was never accepted or admitted by some of the ‘best and brightest’: U.S. liberal internationalist officials like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow. An inkling is evident in Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s later musings in the documentary film The Fog of War a position he had actually come to decades earlier though not for the public domain. In a memo to Johnson as early as May 19 1967, he had warned:

There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States.

This vastly understates the scale of the holocaust inflicted on the people of Vietnam under both Johnson and Nixon Administrations.

All-the-way with the ‘counter-insurgency’ frame?

The Ham documentary has contemporary relevance in its warnings about the fallibilities of U.S. foreign policy record in our region. For this it was predictably slammed by the political right, as represented by the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson.

Commendably it also includes arresting and important interviews and testimonies from a range of Australian soldiers caught up in an involvement that was obviously not of their making — with a notable exception or two, as outlined below.

However, the documentary does not engage with the above realist arguments against the war and their meaning for Australian foreign policy, then and in the future.

With its focus on the supposedly technical matter of ‘counter-insurgency’ it draws heavily on comments by a CIA counter-insurgency expert, John Nagl and on the experience of Australian troops in Phuoc Tuy province. Two dichotomies are presented:

  • ‘bad’ versus ‘good’ forms of counter-insurgency;
  • counter-insurgency versus conventional high-firepower warfare.

‘Bad’ versus ‘good’ forms of counter-insurgency arepersonalised in a comparison of two allegedly influential Australian operatives, Colonel Francis ‘Ted’ Serong (bad) and Captain Barry Petersen (good), presented as being at cross-purposes with each other. Thus, the driven, devout Catholic and anti-communist Serong was:

on a crusade that would eventually consume him, when he later joined the CIA’s controversial and brutal Phoenix program.

By contrast, Petersen was deposed and relieved of his position by the CIA operatives under whose authority he worked. In his own words:

‘After getting up the nose of the CIA for refusing to have counter-terror teams, and wanting to continue doing things my way, they decided I had to be replaced’.

In this account, the alternatives to counter-insurgency are manifested in the failures ofWestmoreland’s conventional high-firepower warfare, the corrupted obscenity of McNamara’s management science and its ‘body counts’, culminating in the horrors of My Lai and its unreported equivalents, each of which atrocity he properly reminds us.

The irrelevance of Thompson

Much of the prestige of counter-insurgency warfare, such as it was at the time, rested on the innovations of the UK military strategist Sir Robert Thompson informing the British-sponsored anti-insurgency campaign in the Malayan emergency (1947-60). But the ‘lessons’ from that campaign were not transferable to Vietnam, where Thompson’s ideas had little influence. Malaya’s inhabitants were predominantly Malay-speaking and of Malay ethnicity and identity. The Chinese were thus a minority whose support for a communist revolutionary movement was related not only to their colonial (or post-colonial) situation but also to their working class role in industries such as rubber-tapping, stevedoring, and as ‘coolies’ and petty traders.

The revolutionary movement in Vietnam clearly also had its class aspects, notably about the differing roles of landlords and landless peasants in the nationalist struggle. Support from the latter was fundamental to its success; but the former were often associated with the previous colonialist regime. Unlike the Malayan case, the nationalist character of the resistance was compatible with the population being predominantly ethnic Vietnamese.

Australia’s role and the problematic lessons from Phuoc Tuy province

Instead of focusing on foreign policy fundamentals, Paul Ham’s account dwells on Australia’s apparent success, supposedly unique, in neutralising Vietnamese resistance activity in Phuoc Tuy province of southern Vietnam. The inference seems to be that had these techniques been replicated by the U.S. elsewhere then the organised resistance might have been defeated.

But even in these terms, such a conclusion is a fallacy of composition. Vietnam was not and could not be Phuoc Tuy province writ large. For example, it might be conceded that due to successful techniques used by Australian forces in this province, resistance forces may have given up or deferred attempts to gain control of this particular region. But they did so in favour of other regions and tactics.

In the event (however hypothetical and implausible) of the U.S. replicating Australian techniques, and abandoning its own harsh and intimidatory methods, it seems highly unlikely that the Vietnamese resistance would have abandoned its armed struggle against foreign domination that had been in place since World War II.

‘Moving on’ from Vietnam: the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual

Post-Vietnam thinking is supposedly reflected in the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, prepared under the auspices of General Petraeus (December 2006). The above-noted John Nagl was a principal author of this document.

On p. 60, it concludes a chapter as follows:

President John F. Kennedy noted, “You [military professionals] must know something about strategy and tactics and…logistics, but also economics and politics and diplomacy and history. You must know everything you can know about military power, and you must also understand the limits of military power. You must understand that few of the important problems of our time have…been finally solved by military power alone.”

Nowhere is this insight more relevant than in COIN. Successful COIN efforts require unity of effort in bringing all instruments of national power to bear. Civilian agencies can contribute directly to military operations, particularly by providing information.

J. F. Kennedy’s point here is the realist one made above: sometimes this can be the wrong war. Willfully or otherwise, the manual ignores or misconstrues this point. This mis-construction demonstrates how ‘technique’ can become ‘frame’. Forgotten is Clausewitz’s injunction that policy (indeed realist foreign policy) should dominate the application of military force, not vice versa. A problem arises when highly placed military technicians—military ‘pro-consuls’ and the Pentagon—make foreign policy.

Recent reports indicate that even at West Point some military-strategic thinkers are beginning to view counter-insurgency thinking is a poor guide to foreign policy.

Counter-insurgency as ‘technique’ and as ‘frame’: ‘War on Terror’

Twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differ from the Vietnam War and from each other, just as the Vietnam War differed significantly from the Malayan ‘emergency’ noted above. However, counter-insurgency ‘framings’ have been prominent—and potentially misleading—in each case. Whereas Cold War categories once distorted public debate and official decisions now the context of a ‘Long War on Terror’ is counter-productively imposed. As it happens, once again an Australian specialist in counter-insurgency—David Kilcullen—has been a prominent advisor to the U.S. military in this regard. Once again a realist critique is relevant, and is well put by Andrew Bacevich in his review of Kilcullen’s arguments:

….Yet as someone deeply invested in that conflict [the ‘Long War on terror’], he [Kilcullen] cannot bring himself to acknowledge the conclusion to which his own analysis points: the very concept of waging a Long War as the antidote to Islamism is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

If counter-insurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. … Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.

The ‘Long War’ was always ill-conceived as a response to diverse and uneven threats associated with variants of Islamist jihadism (not all of which constitute a dire threat).

Robert Gilpin and other foreign policy realists have argued that such a response is unlikely to be successful without active support from the mainstream Islamic world of 1.6 billion people. The good news is that such support is likely to be forthcoming in the presence of sound policies of restraint and international cooperation. Muslim-majority states, and their peoples also in Muslim-minority states, have a strong stake in marginal-ising Islamist jihadism. But such political support is not automatic. Indeed, as conceived and named by its neo-conservative proponents, the so-called ‘long war’ is likely to alienate such support, according to U.S. foreign policy realists like Gilpin and Bacevich.

The historical conditions of Islamist jihadism must be addressed. These include certain highly questionable actions of the U.S. itself over the years — not least its vital support (no secret to Muslim peoples) to autocratic and corrupt regimes in the Islamic world.

Multiple such cases demonstrate the systemic bias in the concept of ‘insurgency’. It is defined (as it was in the case of Vietnam) in terms of movements of opposition to those autocratic ruling regimes (as well as corrupt and failing states) enjoying U.S. support, often on dubious calculations of the long-term national interests of the U.S. itself.

Generalizing, the insurgency frame has more recently been applied also to nation-states unwilling to accept client status within an hierarchical world system headed by the U.S.

Australian representation on U.S. supreme councils?

A key lesson from Vietnam case was supposed to be the notion that if only entry to supreme U.S. war councils were available to Australia then U.S. military strategy might be reshaped to serve our national interests. This is potentially misleading. Protecting the national interest of Australia as a sovereign state requires first and foremost that we do our own ‘due diligence’ on the foreign policy issues at hand, and not leave this to others.

Part 2 of this comment takes up the ‘regional’ dimension of Australian foreign policy. Regarding the Vietnam War it will argue that the Coalition Government thought it was indeed taking up a realist perspective based on national interest. Unfortunately that position was singularly ill-informed, and reflected an irrational fear of China. Part of the argument is that foreign policy should be based not only on actual or perceived policies and capabilities of relevant states (both purported allies and purported adversaries) but also on an informed calculation of the actual self-interests of those states.

Barry Naughten bio

Barry Naughten, PhD, MAIR, MEc, BSc is a Departmental Visitor in the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU, where he is completing a book on U.S. foreign energy policy in the Middle East. He was formerly a Senior Economist in ABARE, the Commonwealth Government economic research agency, where he specialised in energy economics. He has published journal articles and book-chapters in these and related fields. He is contactable on and on

Written by Barry Naughten

August 23, 2012 at 11:38 am