Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

By David Fitzgerald | Go to book overview

1 THE ARMY’S COUNTERINSURGENCY
WAR IN VIETNAM

THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM is one of the most well documented and hotly debated events in the history of the United States. The literature on the war is vast, the historiography strongly contested, the debate never ending. Nancy Tucker argues that Vietnam is “the never-ending war,” with the conflict’s reverberations being felt long after the end of hostilities.1

As John Prados has observed, study of the war has been somewhat atomized, with relatively few grand, overarching works that attempt to tell the story of America’s lost war in a single narrative.2 That atomization diffuses possible “lessons” of the Vietnam War and enables the fashioning of multiple alternative “usable” narratives of the war. In revisionist strands of the literature there is a sense that, if only the particular aspect under discussion had been given more attention, then things might have been different and there might have been a “better war.”3 Indeed, some revisionist scholars argue that there was a better war the United States had in fact won before the vital domino of public opinion gave way.4 This contention that victory was possible if only something had been done differently has wide repercussions, not only for the historiography of the war but for the lessons that policy makers and strategists draw from it.5 If the war had been winnable, then arguments about the need to avoid future interventions would lose some of their force, and the Vietnam syndrome would cease to be a key point of concern for policy makers. In short, a “better war” would make military intervention palatable again.

Nowhere is this tendency to offer history as a lesson more prevalent than in the historiography of the US counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam. Gary Hess has divided those who argue that the United States could have prevailed

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