A War Without End?

David Tucker

April 1, 2000

As the Gulf War came to an end, President Bush declared triumphantly that we had finally put the Vietnam War behind us. In a sense, this was true. After the futility and failure of Vietnam, America had used force effectively, its military displaying almost unbelievable power. But in another sense, 25 years after the fighting stopped and 28 years after the last U.S. forces left, Vietnam is still very much with us, at least with our military.

When young officers read and talk about the war, there is an undercurrent of resentment about how the civilians ran it. “Too much civilian interference,” they say. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara should not have picked bombing targets and restricted what we could do. In this view of the war, it could have been won, if only the civilians had not made the military fight with one hand tied behind its back.

This view of Vietnam came to dominate the military because a generation of officers who fought there, exemplified by Colin Powell, swore on the fallen bodies of their comrades that they would never again allow the military to be used without a commitment to win and to do all that was necessary to win. This view received dramatic expression in the Gulf War in the overwhelming power that the U.S. military brought to bear against the Iraqis. But it was evident in the words of Colin Powell before the fighting started. When asked how we were going to fight the Iraqi army, Powell responded simply that we were going to cut it off and destroy it.

Use overwhelming force and achieve decisive victory—that is the lesson of Vietnam that is still very much with the American military. Because of what happened in Vietnam, the American military resists using force unless it can be used decisively. The only problem is that this lesson is wrong. It is based on a misinterpretation of what happened in Vietnam and on wishful thinking about how we can use force.

Civilians did involve themselves in the details of military operations in Vietnam. On the other hand, they followed the advice of the generals and sent 500,000 troops there and agreed to have more bombs dropped than in World War II. What more could the military have asked for? In fact, they asked for more troops. But the truth is that the military did not have a strategy to win the war at any level of commitment. In Vietnam, in short, the problem was military incompetence more than it was civilian interference and restrictions on the use of force.

But the doctrine of overwhelming and decisive force is not just based on a misinterpretation. It is also impossible to adhere to. Consider two cases. First, some of the threats we face—terrorism, for example—cannot be removed by sheer power because those who pose them have neither conventional forces we can destroy nor capitals we can seize. Because we cannot do so decisively, should we never use force against terrorists and their sponsors?

Second, it makes sense to deal with problems—a simmering conflict involving an ally, for example—before they become big. But in such a situation, before the fighting has really started, military force will be only one of many tools we use and civilian policymakers will interfere in its use, and rightly so. In these cases, they should limit and shape the use of force based on the nature of the conflict, the interests we have at stake, which may change as circumstances change, and the wishes of allies, among other things. Military force will not be decisive in such cases but should still be used.

That the military continues to resist such uses of force demonstrates that the war that ended 25 years ago is still not over.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.