Why America Hasn't Learned to Win Wars

President Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam, 1966. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

An understanding of some of the things that went wrong in our once-longest war (Vietnam) might help us deal with its successor (Afghanistan).

January-February 2018

AMERICA’S FOREIGN-POLICY difficulties are multiplying, from Asia to the Middle East. Faced with the prospect of losing in Afghanistan, the president on the recommendation of his military advisers (and reversing a previous stand) has announced a new, notably vague and apparently open-ended “strategy” that includes sending additional U.S. troops. And he promises to “win,” without really explaining how we will know if we have won.

In what has been called a “silent surge,” the administration is deepening American involvement in the endless conflicts raging across the Middle East and Africa. Relations with Russia have soured measurably, if not yet to the extent Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric suggests. A full-fledged crisis with North Korea erupted in August and continues to smolder. And the president has even tossed about possible military intervention in Venezuela, an idea that anyone with even a scant knowledge of the history of U.S. relations with Latin America would not seriously entertain.

Coincidentally, we are “commemorating” the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War, a conflict that dragged on for years and tore this nation apart. Throughout 2017, the New York Times online edition ran two articles a week on the war in 1967. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s television extravaganza aired in September, and a flood of new Vietnam-related books is hitting the market. Such significant anniversaries, particularly those involving national calamities, understandably invite reflection, in the hope that they may aid us in avoiding a repetition of the original error.

Each historical situation is unique; to extract “lessons” from one to apply to another can be at best misleading, and at worst disastrous. The so-called Manchuria/Munich analogy that helped draw the United States into Vietnam is a prime example. Former Kennedy adviser James Thomson once proclaimed, in reductionist words—containing a large grain of truth—that the central lesson from Vietnam should be never again to “take on the job of trying to defeat a nationalist anti-colonial movement under indigenous communist control in former French Indochina,” a lesson, he quickly—and redundantly—added, that was of “less than universal relevance.” History can be a treacherous teacher. Still, an understanding of some of the things that went wrong in our once-longest war (Vietnam) might help us deal with its successor (Afghanistan) and the myriad other problems we now face.

FROM EISENHOWER through Nixon, each new administration, certain that it was smarter and tougher, took power believing it could succeed in Vietnam where its predecessors had failed. We call this the certitude of the new guys. “We will not make the same old mistakes,” Henry Kissinger confidently announced upon taking office. “We will make our own.” In fact, like those who came before, the Nixon administration did make the same old mistakes—as well as plenty of new ones.

Trump personifies, and takes to another level, this new-guy mentality. He constantly bemoans the problems he inherited from the alleged failures of those incompetents who preceded him while, often with bombastic language, he promises to solve the problems they couldn’t.

It’s a little late for this one, perhaps, except that new guys continue to go through the revolving door that is the Trump White House. These newbies, and the president himself, no matter how smart and tough they think themselves, would do well to approach the problems they confront with humility and caution, especially those, like the president, who are totally lacking in foreign-policy experience and expertise. To be sure, they should learn from their predecessors’ mistakes, but they should keep in mind that they will make their own as well.

Another lesson from Vietnam so obvious as to be self-evident—easy in, not-so-easy out—has been ignored by perennially hubristic Americans from James Madison to George W. Bush. No one has stated it better than Lyndon B. Johnson, a year before he plunged into the quagmire by drastically increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. “It’s damn easy to get into a war,” LBJ told National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy prophetically in May 1964, “but it’s going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.”