Letter from Vietnam magazine – October 2010

By Vietnam magazine
9/14/2010 • Vietnam Letters

Longest war no more

The Vietnam War remains representative of many things in American history, as it was the central event that so dramatically colored and shaped an era and whose reverberations and residual energy still affects foreign and military policy and domestic politics. But one thing the Vietnam War can no longer claim title to is “America’s Longest War.” That “official” designation fell away on June 7, when the war in Afghanistan reached the milestone of eight years, eight months, edging out the Vietnam War as measured from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964. Of course, American military involvement in Vietnam predates Tonkin by a long stretch, and the first names on The Wall earned their place there in 1959.

No matter how you measure them, these two longest wars—and the one in Iraq, which at nearly 90 months is the third longest—have been substantially different in several ways, most significantly in the wide disparity of young lives lost in combat. While controversial and at times confusing, Afghanistan and Iraq have yet, and probably never will, engage and enrage the public as Vietnam did.

In this issue, two stories highlight contrasts between today’s wars and Vietnam, and one relates to what many consider the key to success in Afghanistan. Our cover story on the relief of the siege of Khe Sanh is illustrative of how Vietnam was not strictly a guerrilla or militia war, as our military faces today. The North Vietnamese Army was a formidable force that in 1968 threatened to turn Khe Sanh into another Dien Bien Phu. Likewise, our story on fragging shows how far today’s volunteer military has come from the days when the fear, distrust and disillusionment that engulfed enlisted men led to a shocking number of attempts to murder superiors. While today’s over-deployed troops suffer their own anguish and serious psychological problems, the epidemic of fragging all but died with the end of the Vietnam War.

Our feature on one Marine Combined Action Platoon’s successes deep in enemy-controlled territory has a familiar ring. By helping local forces protect residents and engaging in civic action, they pacified the village. Recently, U.S. military leaders were encouraged when Gizab, Afghanistan, villagers turned on the Taliban and drove them out of town. Special Forces moved quickly to help them counter the insurgents. Most strategists agree that “winning” in Afghanistan can only happen via this type of Afghan/U.S. “combined action” to separate and protect civilians from insurgents and win public support. And critical to that is convincing our troops, increasingly angry about the restrictions on using firepower to protect civilians, that this counterinsurgency strategy is a viable course.

If that is the case, these lessons from Vietnam should prove invaluable.