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There was no tactical, operational way to win the war, given the constraints

When U.S. forces crushed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War, many of the top commanders had been young officers in Vietnam and applied what they had learned there—learned not to do. 

They included Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Norman Schwarzkopf, the top battlefield commander; and Barry McCaffrey, a major general who commanded the 24th Infantry Division. McCaffrey led U.S. troops on a dramatic “left hook” sweep around Iraqi units to cut them off from their supplies and an escape route. It was a quick, decisive victory with limited casualties, the exact opposite of Vietnam. 

McCaffrey did two tours in Vietnam as a captain—in 1964-65, advising South Vietnam’s airborne division, and in 1968-69, commanding a 1st Cavalry Division company.

After the Gulf War, McCaffrey served as a special assistant to Joint Chiefs Chairman Powell; the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs; and the four-star commander of the U.S. Southern Command (Central and South America) from February 1994 to February 1996, when he left to become President Bill Clinton’s director of National Drug Control Policy. 

 In an interview with Vietnam magazine Editor Chuck Springston, McCaffrey contrasted the Vietnam and Gulf wars with each other and with current conflicts. 

How did the Vietnam experience affect you and other high-ranking Gulf War commanders who had served in a war that was a long slog and didn’t end well? My command sergeant major was a Vietnam veteran. My chief of staff was. Both assistant division commanders were. Just before the Gulf War starts—we’re going to start that evening at dusk—I had the final meeting of the command group in my expandable van. The ADCs, the chief of staff, the command sergeant major and I are standing in a circle. I thought we were going to take light casualties, meaning 2,000 killed and wounded, and there was a possibility I’d be among them. I tell them in normal lighthearted infantry humor: “Well, good luck to all of you. I guess this is the last time we’ll all be together alive.” And Brig. Gen. Terry Scott from West Texas, one of my assistant division commanders, says, in dead seriousness, “I’ll tell you what, I’d rather get killed than f–k this thing up like Vietnam.” I said 2,000 killed and wounded in my division. We had eight killed and 36 wounded. Terry Scott retired as a three-star general.

What did your generation of officers see as the problem with U.S. leaders during the Vietnam War? They had lost their way. There was a tremendous animosity among the captains and sergeants in the Army and Marines against the media, against the political leadership and against the generals. [William] Westmoreland [the commander of all U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam] was an outstanding man, but was widely derided by the career professionals. Now that didn’t apply to the two-star general commanding the 1st Cav Division, Maj. Gen. George I. Forsythe, an incredible combat leader who had commanded an infantry platoon at the Normandy landings in World War II.

But the political leadership had gotten us into this war. An astute observer would be empathetic to the country’s leaders. They didn’t want to go to war with China, with Russia. They didn’t want to use any nuclear weapons. They didn’t want to invade North Vietnam. 

 We had a tactical and operational military plan to kill North Vietnamese Army soldiers to the point where they said: “OK, we give up. We’re not going to try and unify the country by force.” But it was clear that you couldn’t ever kill enough North Vietnamese Army soldiers in South Vietnam to get them to stop trying to reunite the country. We weren’t even close to killing more each year than they could produce each year. There was no tactical, operational way to win the war, given the constraints. Lyndon Baines Johnson was politically afraid to say this isn’t working, I quit. America had never done that. 

At some point you’ve got to say, what are the political aims of the war? And therefore what are the military objectives that will achieve your purpose? And are you willing to take the military measures required to achieve your purpose? Yes or no?

So what could have been done in Vietnam? There were several options. One of which was, declare the war won and withdraw. Another one was declare the war in the hands of the South Vietnamese, the Vietnamization [policy], but continue to give them the money, munitions and the technology to defend themselves. That’s what we didn’t do. The day—I totally believe this—that the U.S. Congress turned off the flow of cash to the Vietnamese government and armed forces was the end of the war. 

Some argued that it would just be pouring more money into a losing cause. I think that had we continued to provide air and sea backup to the South Vietnamese armed forces, the North Vietnamese would have fought for some period of time and given up. But who knows, right? 

Many veterans believe they could have won the war if constraints had not been put on the military. We could have told the North Vietnamese, “Stop this or we’re going to invade the country with an air, sea, land campaign and destroy your political leadership and your armed forces.” Would the Chinese have intervened? Korea changed the politics of ground warfare against the Chinese. We weren’t going to fight a ground war with China. We would have had to say to the Chinese privately, “If you come in, we’re going to go to nuclear weapons if required.” Was all of that worth Vietnam and the domino theory? The answer is probably no. They were stuck with us taking a thousand killed and wounded a week. 

What changed between Vietnam and the Gulf War that led to a better outcome? We ground up the Marine Corps and the Army for seven years to no avail. So first of all we spent 15 years rebuilding the armed forces. [Ronald] Reagan was the turning point in the country and the armed forces. Suddenly we had technology, manpower, confidence, the support of the American people. 

Then in Desert Storm we had a clearly defined objective—to destroy the Iraqi armed forces and free Kuwait. President [George H.W.] Bush was willing to take all military measures required to achieve that purpose. And we immediately achieved our military purpose. I think that was the big lesson from Vietnam. It was the leadership of Powell and Schwarzkopf and the whole generation of people who said, “Never again.”

Vietnam had a positive impact on how the country should think about the employment of military power. We can achieve huge purposes, but only if there’s a vital security interest, only if you come up with a political strategy to achieve your goal. And if you’re going to conduct military operations more than 90 days long, you have to tell the American people, “Here’s what we’re trying to do. Will you support us?” 

 Are the lessons from Vietnam being applied in today’s wars? We’re not leveling with the American people right now about Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t think our operations against Afghanistan and Iraq were wrong. I think the problem was we screwed both of them up.

Particularly with Afghanistan, you can say, “Oh my God, here we go again. A generation later.” We got into Afghanistan because we were angry and scared. I’m sympathetic to that. If you kill thousands of American people, you ought to rue the consequences of it. Al-Qaida was protected and emboldened by the Taliban.

Then we got in there and started moving the goal posts. We changed the mission. There was the notion of building an Afghan federal army and police force. We could see it was deserting at a higher rate than we were building it. There was the corruption that we couldn’t get our hands on, so we’d put in a billion dollars and they would steal $500 million of it. By the way, in Afghanistan you’ve got a 14th century people. It’s not a homogeneous, ethnic, religious state, so trying to create a centralized government in Afghanistan has been a fool’s errand for 150 years.

We’re down to about 10,000 troops [from a high of about 100,000 in 2010].  Does anybody actually believe we’re going to achieve some new outcome in Afghanistan with 10,000 troops? But the political leadership can’t stand up and say this is a broken play; we’re going to call it off and just leave. So there’s a commonality between Vietnam and Afghanistan.

After the original defeat of the Taliban in 2002, what should we have done next? It was possible to come up with other approaches where you punished the Taliban for their assistance to al-Qaida’s strike at the U.S., where you offered them a reward and a punishment [to stop that assistance].

What about our involvement in Iraq? With Iraq, you can say there’s oil there, that we’re worried about Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coast states. Their viability is vitally important to us. We’re worried about the other actors in the area. They’re all connected. We want the Turks to stand. At least in Iraq you could come up with a shaky argument every time that sounds coherent.

Afghanistan, zero national interest at stake. A thousand miles from the U.S Navy. An army should never engage in a campaign where you can’t walk down to the ocean and a U.S. Navy ship.

Did you see any difference between the combat soldiers you commanded in Vietnam and those in the Gulf War? In Vietnam, the soldiers were teenagers or in their very early 20s. They [soldiers under his command] were nearly all draftees. They were absolutely superb soldiers. Now flash forward to Desert Storm. They were older, married, had children.

In Vietnam, we were emaciated, we were sick, we had scabs on us. The soldiers of Desert Storm were physically healthy and had incredible medical care, preventative care, nutrition. 

And then there was the technology we were employing. During Desert Storm, in our M1 tank or M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, we were moving at 30 miles an hour and killing people at a range of 3,000 meters in the dark with a 120 mm main tank gun. We could target a tank behind a sand berm because we could see the heat signature of the tank’s antenna. We’d fire a round that would go through the sand berm, bust the front slope of the tank and exit through the rear. 

For my company in Vietnam, it was bunker complexes, Bangalore torpedoes out of World War II, M16 rifles and hand grenades and crawling in the mud with sweat pouring down your face and people getting their eyes shot out by a machine gun 15 feet away. So it was about as dramatically different a war as you can imagine.

Published in the August 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine.