WHEN AMERICAN GROUND forces paused briefly during the march to Baghdad in 2003, critics of the war were quick to warn of a "quagmire," an oblique reference to the Vietnam War. Virtually as soon as it became clear that the conflict in Iraq had become an insurgency, analogies to Vietnam began to proliferate. This development is not surprising. Critics have equated every significant American military undertaking since 1975 to Vietnam, and the fear of being trapped in a Vietnam-like war has led to the frequent demand that U.S. leaders develop not plans to win wars, but "exit strategies," plans to get out of messes.
There is no question that the Vietnam War scarred the American psyche deeply, nor that it continues to influence American foreign policy and military strategies profoundly. CENTCOM's strategy for the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq is an attempt to avoid making Vietnam-like mistakes. Proponents of other strategies, like "combined action platoons" or "oil spot" approaches, most frequently derive those programs from what they believe are the "right" lessons of Vietnam. It is becoming increasingly an article of faith that the insurgency in Vietnam is similar enough to the insurgency in Iraq that we can draw useful lessons from the one to apply to the other. This is not the case. The only thing the insurgencies in Iraq and Vietnam have in common is that in both cases American forces have fought revolutionaries. To make comparisons or draw lessons beyond that basic point misunderstands not only the particular historical cases, but also the value of studying history to draw lessons for the present.
AN INSURGENCY WAS underway in Vietnam for nearly two decades before Lyndon Johnson committed large numbers of American ground forces to the fight in 1965. The U.S. had nevertheless maintained hundreds and then thousands of "advisors" there for years before that in an effort to help the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem fight off an attempt to remove him that had both internal and external components. The Viet Cong was a terrorist/guerrilla force recruited from within South Vietnam and operated there. It was heavily supported by the communist government in North Vietnam, which sent advisors, equipment, and supplies, and which provided a safe haven. Ho Chi Minh's government also supplied troops, however, and the first major battle U.S. forces in Vietnam fought on their own (now immortalized in print and on the screen as We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young) was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley; the enemy were North Vietnamese soldiers.
The presence of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, and the enormous logistics train the North maintained for the benefit of its Viet Cong partners, complicated the development of American counterinsurgency strategy enormously. Throughout the war, American leaders had difficulty deciding whether the main enemy was the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or the Viet Cong (VC). In the initial phases of the war, the U.S. leadership focused more on the NVA and therefore on using conventional American military capabilities to defeat the external threat. This was a convenient decision that allowed the U.S. to bring all its military power to bear: Troops fought the NVA on the ground; aircraft and "swift boats" attempted to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines; bombers attacked targets within North Vietnam in an attempt to dissuade Ho Chi Minh from continuing the fight.
Efforts to conduct a real counterinsurgency within the South were generally overwhelmed by this focus on a more or less conventional struggle against North Vietnam. Thus critics then and since have complained that the Combined Action Platoons (CAPs) program pioneered by the Marines would have been much more successful if only it had been better resourced, for example. Such claims are plausible, but they generally ignore two defining factors of the South Vietnamese insurgency: the presence of sizable enemy units maneuvering throughout the country, and the illegitimacy of the South Vietnamese government. …