Magazine article Newsweek

The Surprising Lessons of Vietnam

Magazine article Newsweek

The Surprising Lessons of Vietnam

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas and John Barry

Unraveling the mysteries of Vietnam may prevent us from repeating its mistakes.

Stanley Karnow is the author of Vietnam: A History, generally regarded as the standard popular account of the Vietnam War. This past summer, Karnow, 84, picked up the phone to hear the voice of an old friend, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The two men had first met when Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and Karnow was a reporter covering the war. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was calling from Kabul. The two friends chatted for a while, then Holbrooke said, "Let me pass you to General McChrystal." Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, came on the line. His question was simple but pregnant: "Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?" Karnow's reply was just as simple: "The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place."

Words of wisdom, but not all that useful to General McChrystal. Like it or not, he is already in Afghanistan, along with roughly 68,000 American and 35,000 European troops. McChrystal has been charged by President Obama with presenting a strategy for victory, generally defined as standing up the Afghan Army to beat back the Taliban and deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda. An avid reader of history, McChrystal has read Karnow's book, but he has also read many others. One that he has read--and reread--is a 1999 book called A Better War, written by Lewis Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Sorley argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could have won in Vietnam--if only the U.S. Congress hadn't cut off military aid to South Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, the Sorley book is getting a lot of attention at the upper levels of the Pentagon and at McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul. Told that NEWSWEEK was looking into the parallels between the Sorley book and General McChrystal's situation in Afghanistan, a senior Marine general exclaimed, "You're on to something there!" (Like other senior military officials contacted by NEWSWEEK, the general declined to be quoted praising a book that argues, though not in so many words, that the military was stabbed in the back by its civilian leaders.)

As he decides how to respond to McChrystal's request for at least another 40,000 troops, President Obama has been reading some books, too. One that has caught the attention of some top advisers is Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon Goldstein, recounting how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were not well advised on Vietnam. The very title of Goldstein's book captures the conventional wisdom (at least at the center and left of the political spectrum) that Vietnam was a hopeless, unwinnable war.

But was it? The lessons of Vietnam are not necessarily the ones we glibly assume--chief among them that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, is a quagmire, and that achieving some sort of victory is out of reach. Vietnam has become code for American hubris and inevitable military defeat. "What ifs" are always a risky exercise, but some good historians have suggested that there were two moments when victory--or at least a semblance of victory--was possible in America's long war in Southeast Asia. The first came early, in 1965. Had Lyndon Johnson moved aggressively into Vietnam then--taking the war to the enemy and cutting off its supply routes into South Vietnam--the North Vietnamese might have backed off. The second fell five years later, when the military was finally having success with a new counterinsurgency strategy. Would more resources and more fighting later in the war have resulted in South Vietnam remaining independent of the communist North, leaving Vietnam divided in the manner of Korea? Some historians now say yes; many others still say no.

What makes the conversation about Sorley's thesis especially interesting now, of course, is, as McChrystal asked Karnow, whether there is anything to be learned from Vietnam that would illuminate the way forward in Afghanistan. …

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