Earl H. Tilford, Jr.
More than a decade has passed since the last helicopters pulled away from the rooftop of the United States Embassy in Saigon. Their departure marked the end of American involvement in a conflict that spanned a generation, costing 57,000 American lives and nearly two hundred billion dollars. In the nearly fifteen years of the war, the U.S. Air Force lost 2,257 aircraft, suffered, 5,578 casualties, including 2,118 deaths, with several hundred airmen still listed as missing in action. 1 During the war, American political and military leaders made many mistakes, and blame for our ultimate defeat can be shared in many quarters.
The U.S. Army, perhaps because it suffered the most in Vietnam, began analyzing what went wrong back in the early 1970s. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force has made little effort to learn from its Vietnam experiences. For instance, from 1974 to 1979, the Air War College curriculum included only a 2.5 hour case study of Linebacker operations entitled “TACAIR in Vietnam, ” comprising 1.4 percent of the 172 hours in the segment of instruction devoted to studying the use of general purpose forces. 2 Indeed, the word Vietnam appears in neither the 1979 nor the vastly improved 1984 versions of Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force.3
The Air Force has not paid enough attention to the Vietnam War for a number of reasons. To begin with, top Air Force commanders believed that we had, indeed, won the war…or could have won it had “restraints” not been imposed. 4 Then, in the years immediately following the 1973 cease-fire that allowed for U.S. withdrawal, there was a concerted effort to “put Vietnam behind us” as we returned to preparing for the next war which, presumably, would have air power used according to the strategic principles that worked so well in World War II. This attitude was not new. Following the Korean War, the Air Force chose to regard that conflict as a never-to-be-repeated diversion from the true course of strategic air power and, therefore, not worthy of extensive analysis. The lessons that might have been learned in Korea could have proved useful in