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Hailed as one of the great battle captains of our time, Gen. David H. Petraeus developed an interest in the Vietnam War as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy and examined the war’s effect on the Army’s senior leadership in his doctoral dissertation at Princeton. Those lessons stayed with him when he assumed command of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

After graduating from West Point in 1974, Petraeus spent the better part of the next four decades rising to high positions in the Army. He commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was later dispatched to head up Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, where he assumed responsibility for organizing, training and equipping Iraqi security forces.

Appointed commander of Multinational Force-Iraq in 2007, Petraeus presided over the “surge” strategy implemented to stabilize the country and avert a sectarian civil war. He also headed U.S. Central Command and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan before retiring from the Army in 2011 to serve as CIA director.

In an interview with Vietnam contributor Warren Wilkins, Petraeus discussed the Vietnam War, its influence on the postwar military and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What piqued your interest in the Vietnam War?

Vietnam was the defining conflict of the 1960s and early 1970s. Those were very formative years for me as I was in high school and then at West Point for the final 10 years of the war. It seemed natural, I guess, that I should study the conflict that had so gripped and roiled our country during that time.

Beyond that, it appeared to me that the impact of Vietnam on the senior military’s thinking about the use of force was very substantial. Given that advice on the use of force is arguably the most important task of senior military leaders, I thought I ought to explore what they had taken from their service during the war, how it influenced their thinking and advice on the use of force, whether that influence was fully warranted and what the implications of that influence were for our military forces.

I figured that such an exploration would be instructive and stimulating and that it might also provide intellectual capital on which I could draw if I was ever in a position to give advice on the use of force. Needless to say, that situation did materialize, and the research and thought for my Ph.D. dissertation did, indeed, provide considerable intellectual capital to help me when I ultimately was one of those providing options and recommendations to the president.

Do you feel your appointment to command the surge in Iraq cast you in the same role as Gen. Creighton Abrams in 1968—a “savior general” dispatched to reverse a war many believed the U.S. was losing?

I actually saw my role as more akin to that of Gen. [Matthew] Ridgway taking over the embattled and retreating 8th Army in Korea, halting the enemy’s momentum, restoring morale and confidence in the American forces and then conducting an aggressive campaign of counteroffensive operations that ultimately established the front lines of the war roughly along the 38th parallel, north of Seoul. Ridgway’s leadership turned around a failing effort and achieved an outcome that, while short of the kind of victory once thought possible, was still broadly acceptable to America’s leaders and citizens.

By contrast, and whether completely fair or not, my sense was always that Gen. Abrams’ main task in Vietnam was to figure out how to draw down U.S. forces, hand off the fight to the South Vietnamese and embark on a path to an American withdrawal, without the forces of the South collapsing in the process.

Some scholars have, of course, asserted that Abrams increased emphasis on a true counterinsurgency approach and reduced what was described as the “attrition warfare” approach of Gen. [William] Westmoreland. There is some substance to that, to be sure. However, as your excellent article on Gen. Westmoreland’s command [“When Strategy Isn’t Enough: General Westmoreland and the War in Vietnam,” On Point—Journal of Army History] showed, there actually was a reasonable amount of emphasis on a counterinsurgency approach during Westmoreland’s time, albeit with South Vietnamese forces and U.S. advisers—rather than with U.S. combat forces, which generally conducted search and destroy operations—taking the lead whenever possible in “clear, hold, build and transition” operations that characterize counterinsurgency.

Critically, those operations —“clear, hold, build and transition”— were the most significant element of our approach with U.S. and Iraqi forces during the “surge” in Iraq, together with a tenacious pursuit of “irreconcilables” and the promotion of reconciliation with rank-and-file insurgents and militia members.

Gen. David Petraeus discusses insurgents in Iraq during a news conference on March 8, 2007. Petraeus’ study of the Vietnam War while in graduate school influenced his strategy in Iraq. / AP photo
Gen. David Petraeus discusses insurgents in Iraq during a news conference on March 8, 2007. Petraeus’ study of the Vietnam War while in graduate school influenced his strategy in Iraq. (AP photo)

Of note concerning Vietnam, of course, the CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support] pacification effort began a full year before the transition from Gen. Westmoreland to Gen. Abrams. I should note that then Brig. Gen. Bill Knowlton, whose daughter I would marry in 1974, was the deputy to CORDS chief Bob Komer during Knowlton’s first year in Vietnam.

And Gen. Abrams’ approach with US units, at the least, did not change that dramatically from the Westmoreland era, when he assumed command, though the enemy main-force threat during his time became increasingly North Vietnamese forces rather than the Viet Cong.

In fact, the Battle of Hamburger Hill, one of the most intense and controversial of the search-and-destroy operations during the entire war, took place about 11 months after Abrams assumed command in Vietnam. Tragically, the hill on which so many lives were lost was surrendered within weeks of the battle. To be fair, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division explained that he had fought for the hill because that’s where the enemy was, not because it had any operational significance.  

In any event, with all that in mind, when I was informed in late December 2006 that I would be nominated to command the “surge” in Iraq that was to begin within a month or a month and ahalf, I asked one of the many great military historians at Fort Leavenworth, where I was assigned at the time, to research Gen. Ridgway’s assumption of command in Korea rather than Gen. Abrams’s assumption of command in Vietnam. Coincidentally, perhaps, Gen. Ridgway and I are among the five individuals featured in Victor Davis Hanson’s 2013 book, Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost—From Ancient Greece to Iraq.

Vietnam, you noted, profoundly affected the military’s postwar mindset. Some senior officers concluded that the military should avoid fighting low intensity “irregular wars” altogether. The Gulf War in 1990-91 seemed to confirm that institutional bias. You concluded, however, that the U.S. was more likely to be engaged in similar conflicts in the future and that the military had better be prepared to fight them. Do you still feel that?

I fully appreciated the understandable reasons why senior military leaders might harbor an aversion to engaging in irregular warfare again after Vietnam and would prefer the tank-on-tank-in-the-desert combat—in largely open terrain devoid of civilians— that characterized most of the battles in Operation Desert Storm.

I feared, however, that we would not have a choice in that policymakers would commit American forces to irregular conflicts despite our misgivings about engaging in them and regardless of our level of preparation for them. That proved to be a valid concern.

In fact, in the 1980s, we were already engaged in such warfare, supporting counterinsurgency campaigns in El Salvador—which I visited twice during a summer temporary duty stint in 1986 as special assistant to Gen. Jack Galvin, the commander of U.S. Southern Command and the most significant mentor I had during my career— and Colombia. Additionally, we were clandestinely supporting insurgents in Nicaragua.

And, in the 1990s and early 2000s, we would go on to conduct irregular operations in Somalia and peace enforcement operations in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. And then, of course, we commenced operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Policymakers didn’t ask when the decisions were made to go to war in those countries whether we were prepared for the operations in which we ultimately became very heavily engaged.

Finally, we are still engaged in irregular warfare today, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Syria, various locations in Africa and a handful of other locations, although in numbers that are now quite sustainable and in operations that largely consist of advising, assisting, supporting and enabling indigenous, rather than American, forces to assume responsibility for the fighting on the frontlines.

Beyond that, I am pretty certain that we will continue to have to engage in various tasks associated with irregular warfare, even as the paramount focus of our military understandably shifts to the endeavors necessitated by an era of renewed great power rivalries, in particular in the so-called Indo-Pacific region.

In 2006, you directed the drafting of a new counterinsurgency manual for the Army and Marine Corps. Were operations in Vietnam a starting point for the manual?

We certainly revisited U.S. operations in Vietnam during the drafting of the new field manual; however, the more important experiences from which we sought to distill lessons were our ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippine Islands, as well as experiences of the U.S. in El Salvador, which featured a particularly impressive comprehensive civil-military campaign.

We also considered the post-World War II Philippines, the British, especially T.E. Lawrence, in the post-World War I Arab world and Iraq, Britain’s post-World War II operations in Malaysia, Oman and Northern Ireland, and the French experience in Vietnam and Algeria. And, of course, we studied U.S. efforts to counter communist forces under Mao Zedong in post-World War II China.

Did the 2007 surge of over 25,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have similarities to counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam?

In general, the situation in Iraq was very different from that in Vietnam. That said, there certainly were a few similarities between Vietnam and our operations in Iraq, in that we had air supremacy over the operations on the ground in Iraq and over South Vietnam, though not the North, certainly.

The threats to helicopters in Vietnam were considerably greater than were the threats to our aircraft in Iraq, though some were shot down in Iraq to be sure. Our overall technology, equipment, weapons systems, soldier kit—including night vision goggles, body armor, weaponry and optics—and so forth were generally much better than those of our adversaries.

Nevertheless our enemies in Iraq made very good use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, snipers, rockets, and were tenacious fighters—just as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese made creative use of mortars, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], booby traps, mines, and snipers while also fighting with great determination and courage.

How were they different?

The differences were much more numerous and significant. First and foremost was the mindset of President Bush. Unlike what I suspect was increasingly in the minds of Presidents Johnson and Nixon over time—that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable—President Bush rejected the assessment that we could not achieve our objectives, even when the bulk of his advisers believed that to be the case. He decided to surge, and thanks to the great work of our military and their coalition and Iraqi counterparts, his view was validated.

The enemy situation in Iraq was also quite different from that of Vietnam. The situation in Iraq at the start of the surge in early 2007 was no longer just a Sunni Arab terrorist and insurgency campaign against the Shia Arab-led government that the Sunnis believed had disenfranchised them. By then, the situation in Iraq had evolved into the early stages of a Sunni-Shia Civil War in mixed areas where the two groups lived together, such as in Baghdad and its surrounding areas.

The battles in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s increasingly were with North Vietnamese regular forces, of course, for which there was no comparable element in Iraq. Moreover, the terrain and population density in Iraq also were very different. In contrast to Vietnam, which featured a large rural population, dense jungle and a mountainous border, the bulk of the Iraqi population was concentrated in cities and towns along and between the Tigris, Euphrates, Diyala and other rivers in that country.

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While there were operations in dispersed villages in the desert, most of our operations in Iraq were in fairly populated areas. Our biggest battles were in the biggest cities, similar perhaps to the fighting in Hue and Saigon during the Vietnam War.

Additionally, we fought the war in Iraq with a professional force, not a largely draftee force as in Vietnam. All of our men and women in uniform had volunteered for multiple years of service or more. Many of us, regardless of rank, served multiple tours in Iraq and really came to understand the situation in a granular, nuanced way. We learned, for example, how to develop important relationships with our Iraqi counterparts and partners. This was absolutely invaluable.

Westmoreland preferred to delegate responsibility for securing the civilian population to indigenous forces. In Iraq you argued that U.S. units could not simply “commute to the fight” and decided to base them in populated areas. Why?

The decision to use U.S. and to a degree coalition forces, typically in partnership with Iraq forces—but often in the lead—to secure the people by “living with them” and conducting clear, hold, build and gradually transition operations reflected the unique circumstances and situation in Iraq, which was on the verge of a full-blown sectarian—Sunni-Shia—civil war.

We had to break the cycle of sectarian violence and improve security for the people, as nothing else was possible without that. As always in such a situation, security is the foundation on which all else is built. Military action was not sufficient, in and of itself, but without it nothing else was possible. So we had to dramatically reduce the violence and substantially improve security for the people, and only our forces could do that.

In addition to that reality, I also knew that if we didn’t have demonstrable results to report to Congress six months after I took command, the residual support for the war in Iraq in the U.S. Senate, in particular, could lead to constraints on our campaign and, possibly, even to an effort to defund the war. Given that reality and the fact that many of the Iraqi Army and police units had been so seriously degraded by the violence that they were not fully effective, our forces had to take the lead in operations to improve security. And to do that, we recognized that we had to reverse the previous approach of consolidating U.S. forces on large bases and return to the neighborhoods.

As my guidance explained, the human terrain was the decisive terrain. We had to provide improved security for the people. And we could only do that by living with them. In Baghdad, for example, we established 77 new locations—Joint Security Stations, Combat Outposts, and other bases—to provide better security for the Iraqis and to break the cycle of sectarian violence.

That approach worked. By the end of the surge in the summer of 2008, violence in Iraq was down by some 85 percent. Sensational attacks—car bombs and suicide vest bombs— had also been dramatically reduced, and all other metrics concerning security issues—civilian casualties, Iraqi and coalition casualties, etc.— also were all significantly improved. And that improvement, in turn, enabled the reconstitution and expansion of Iraqi security forces, repair of damaged or destroyed infrastructure, revival of markets, reopening of schools and health facilities, establishment of local governance, business development and even the reopening of the Baghdad amusement and water parks and soccer leagues. It also helped with the passage of some key laws in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, though achievements in that realm were to prove more elusive than were those in the security arena.

Whom do you admire from the Vietnam-era military?

I must say that those I admired from the Vietnam period were, first and foremost, the young men who were drafted to fight a war about which there were increasing questions, but who served faithfully nonetheless and were then treated horribly by their fellow American citizens when they returned home. That was a disgraceful episode in our history, and I have sought to thank Vietnam veterans ever since then in public venues where they have been present.

Interestingly, it was Vietnam veterans who worked harder than any other element of our citizenry to ensure that those who returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan were given the recognition and thanks that those who came home from Vietnam never received.

Beyond my admiration for those who carried a rucksack on the ground, in a tough war, against a determined enemy in very difficult terrain and weather conditions, I focused on those who led platoons, companies and battalions, especially those who did so particularly valiantly. This was, most likely, because I was a cadet or young officer when I studied operations in Vietnam. I was fascinated by books about both the French and American experiences on the ground. I read everything I could find about those operations and developed enormous admiration for those leading tactical operations.

I read and reread, for example, Seven Firefights in Vietnam, one of which was about Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and its battle in the Ia Drang in late 1965. That battle was later the subject of Moore’s exceptional book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang-the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam. I was so impressed by Seven Firefights in Vietnam [published by the Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History] that decades later, in 2006, I asked the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth to produce a similar product on Afghanistan and Iraq when I was the commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth.

In sum, then, perhaps given that I was a company and field grade officer when I most intently studied Vietnam, I most admired those who commanded tactical units—especially those like captains Paul Bucha, Bill Carpenter and Jack Jacobs, each of whom had earned the Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross and was assigned to West Point when I was a cadet.

Ultimately, I did study the senior military and civilian leaders of that period as well, and ever since I have engaged in an internal—and sometimes external—debate about what we might have done differently and better, in particular whether geographic considerations and various features of the forces and leadership of North and South Vietnam meant that our effort there was, at the end of the day, unwinnable and also unsustainable over time, given the cost in blood and treasure.

What are the enduring lessons of Vietnam?

One lesson has to be to truly understand the strategic significance, context and nature of a possible commitment of military forces. Likewise, we need to appreciate in a very nuanced way the country where the commitment will take place—something we lacked in both Iraq and Afghanistan for a number of years—undertake very thorough preparation of the units and individuals deploying for a particular campaign and pursue personnel policies that enable the development of understanding by those fighting the war.

It has often been noted that we refought Vietnam every year for over a decade as result of our draft and individual personnel replacement system. Beyond that, we must also recognize when the conduct of our partners may jeopardize the achievement of progress and a desired outcome etc.

Of course, we had to relearn many of those lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, though I’d like to think that we did prove to be a learning organization over the years by dramatically improving how we prepared leaders, units and soldiers for deployment to those wars. Complementing those efforts, we developed considerable understanding of the situation and greatly enhanced our organizational capabilities, especially in the intelligence realm, and structures.

Similarly, we improved our equipment, weapons systems and individual kit, and we changed how we fought the wars over time, particularly with respect to advances in drone technology, precision air munitions, intelligence fusion and so forth.  Together these initiatives now enable us to help our partners on the ground combat their enemies, so that our forces do not have to do the fighting on the front lines. 

Beyond all that, of course, we dramatically changed how we operated when we commenced the surge.  I have often noted that the surge that mattered most in Iraq was not the surge of forces, it was the surge of ideas—namely the 180-degree change from consolidating our forces on big bases and handing off security tasks to our Iraqi counterparts to going back into the neighborhoods and assuming responsibility for securing the people. Providing security also included aggressively promoting reconciliation with rank-and-file members of the Sunni insurgent and Shia militia groups while intensifying the effort to capture or kill their irreconcilable leaders. 

The results that our young men and women and their coalition and Iraqi counterparts achieved were dramatic. Indeed, our efforts resulted in a substantial reduction in violence that only improved in the subsequent three and a half years after the surge, even as our forces were steadily drawn down.

This positive trend continued until, tragically, the prime minister with whom we had worked to bring the fabric of Iraqi society back together began pursuing highly sectarian initiatives right after our final combat forces departed in December 2011. That once again tore the fabric apart and alienated the Sunni Arabs. And as the Iraqi forces focused on confronting huge Sunni demonstrations, they took their eyes off the Islamic State, which was able to reconstitute, move into Syria and exploit the civil war there to build the kind of strength, numbers and capabilities that enabled it to establish a caliphate on the ground in northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. It was very sad to see all this from my position as director of the CIA by that time.

I should also share the most important lesson I learned about wars “among the people.” It was captured on a sign that we always had posted on the front wall of the operations center in the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul and in each subsequent ops center. The sign asked, “Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?” If the answer to that question was “No,” then we were supposed to go sit under a tree until the thought of that operation passed. The same question should be asked of policies, of course.

In any event, I think that many episodes—operational ones as well as policy decisions, such as the firing of Iraq’s army without telling them how we would enable them to continue to provide for themselves and their families—validated the importance of that question. There were many additional operations and policies in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that validated the concept that that question captured, as well.

It is, in fact, very likely the most important question of all that we should ask when contemplating committing America’s sons and daughters to combat, and one we should repeatedly ask again and again once in combat.

This interview appeared in the October 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine.