Two very important lessons we have learned since the Vietnam War
It has been six years since we blundered into Iraq with half the ground forces or less that we needed to accomplish the mission. The Army and Marines have been ridden hard and put away wet. The equipment is completely worn out. The troops, amazingly, are holding up far better, despite the endless rotations and no end in sight.
By this point along the Vietnam War timeline morale was completely in the toilet and headed south from there. Even though we seemed to have forgotten—or more accurately, just ignored— many of the hard-learned lessons from Vietnam, we still have managed to hold on to at least two important lessons, which account largely for the fact that morale is still pretty good at this point— even though the strains are showing.
The first lesson is that the individual replacement system we used in Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster. There was very little unit cohesion in Vietnam, especially as the war dragged on. Units were not teams. They became collections of strangers, with each individual focused almost exclusively on surviving to the end of his tour. There was no group identity, no sense of mission. Students of warfare from Ardant du Picq to S.L.A. Marshall constantly emphasized the fact that the soldiers in combat do not fight for their country, or for God, or for the flag, or for motherhood and apple pie—they fight for each other.
Modern war is so complex and so team-centric that individuals by themselves can accomplish almost nothing. The Germans understood this better than anybody. In both World Wars, they never even replaced casualties in units on the battlefield. When a unit was finally attrited down to the point where it was no longer combat effective, they pulled it out completely, sent it back far to the rear, rebuilt it from scratch, and then started it through the training cycle as if it was a brand new unit.
The reason we went with the individual replacement system in Vietnam is that it was easier to operate, and far more efficient than rotating entire units in and out. The key rub here is that in warfare, efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing; far too often they are mutually exclusive. But the people who ran the personnel system during Vietnam were more focused on operating and defending their precious system, which of course made their own jobs easier. For at least the last 100 years the U.S. Army’s single worst enemy has been its own personnel system.
Fortunately, we learned that lesson, and this time around we send entire units in and out together. But it isn’t efficient or easy to manage. The bean counters and the management wonks still go crazy because it takes three units for every one committed to combat—one “in the box,” one getting ready to go and one just back and reconstituting. Nonetheless, the troops are hanging together and performing magnificently under harrowing conditions.
Another critical difference between now and the Vietnam years is the way that returning soldiers are treated by the American people at large. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a hard time to be an American soldier. After going to the far side of the world and putting your life on the line for your country, it was very tough to come back to widespread scorn, constantly being called a baby-killer and worse. The treatment of Vietnam veterans was one of the blackest stains on the pages of U.S. history, and apparently most Americans have learned that lesson.
Although public support for the present war isn’t much better at this point than it was at the height of Vietnam, the American people haven’t turned against their own soldiers—so far. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hope that my Marine son never has to experience what we did.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.