Vietnam Legacy Shapes Today’s Military Leaders
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 29, 2011 Tomorrow marks the 36th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War –- a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and continues to affect the United States, including its military leaders and current wartime operations.
The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, marked the dramatic and painful culmination of the Vietnam War. The last of the dominos were laid when then-President Richard M. Nixon announced the end of offensive operations against North Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973. The accords called for a ceasefire in South Vietnam, but allowed North Vietnamese forces to retain the territory they had captured.
With nearly all U.S. forces gone, and Congress’ passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 that cut off military aid to South Vietnam, North Vietnam became emboldened. Its forces began a steady march southward toward Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
As the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon, Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation operation in history, commenced, moving tens of thousands of American military and civilian personnel from the city, along with thousands of South Vietnamese civilians.
On April 29, 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a heavy artillery bombardment that would become their final attack on Saigon. The city fell the following afternoon when a North Vietnamese tank crashed the gates of the presidential palace, accepting South Vietnam’s unconditional surrender.
Ho Chi Minh’s dream of a unified, communist Vietnam was fulfilled, and the city once known as Saigon today bears his name. Vietnam now celebrates April 30 as Reunification Day.
The Vietnam War cost millions of lives, including 58,267 Americans, with more than 300,000 U.S. servicemembers wounded in action and 1,711 missing in action.
The Vietnam War had a profound impact on today’s American military leaders, including Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. And in many ways, the lessons learned during the Vietnam conflict have shaped the way U.S. forces operate today, particularly in conducting counterinsurgency operations like those under way in Afghanistan.
Mullen, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, is among the few people still on active duty who experienced Vietnam firsthand. Fresh from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968, he reported aboard the destroyer USS Collett for duty as an anti-submarine officer and participated in combat operations off the Vietnam coast.
Mullen speaks frequently about how the Vietnam War affected the nation and shaped him both personally and professionally.
“The Vietnam conflict was a life-defining experience for every American who lived during that era, and it continues to impact us all: the pain, the conflict, the healing,” he said during last year’s Memorial Day observance at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. “The lessons we learned in Vietnam were bought at a very great price. Acting on them is the best tribute we can pay to honor those who died” -- among them, some of Mullen’s own friends and Annapolis classmates.
While he was struck during that first assignment at the intensity of the conflict, Mullen said, he soon began to process just how divisive the war had become.
“What I take away from Vietnam is the detachment of the American people from the U.S. military -- the disconnect and the unpopularity of the war," he told U.S. News and World Report in April 2008.
Mullen frequently tells audiences he addresses that he had concerns during the early days of the war in Afghanistan that it would have the same polarizing effect. To his relief, he said at the Vietnam Memorial, Americans "are so incredibly supportive of our military men and women now."
The chairman said he attributes the changed attitudes to the lessons learned from Vietnam about supporting troops unconditionally.
“During that time, as a country, we were unable to separate the politics from the people," he said. "We must never allow America to become disconnected from her military. Never.”
Like most other current military leaders, Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, entered a military still healing from the Vietnam experience. Petraeus graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1974, a year before the fall of Saigon.
But Petraeus has studied the Vietnam experience thoroughly, even writing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University on “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.”
That dissertation, published in 1987, recognized the lasting impact the Vietnam experience would have.
“The legacy of Vietnam is unlikely to soon recede as an important influence on America’s senior military,” Petraeus wrote. “The frustrations of Vietnam are too deeply etched in the minds of those who now lead the services and the combatant commanders.
“Vietnam cost the military dearly,” he continued. “It left America’s military leaders confounded, dismayed and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money and qualified people for a decade.”
This experience, Petraeus wrote, left many military leaders overly cautious. Specifically, he said, many felt “they should advise against involvement in counterinsurgencies unless specific, perhaps unlikely circumstances” ensure domestic public support, the promise of a quick campaign and the freedom to use whatever force is needed to achieve rapid victory.
Later in his career, as he oversaw the revision of the military’s counterinsurgency field manual, Petraeus applied some of the lessons learned through the Vietnam experience.
That manual has become the guide for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It emphasizes that military power alone can’t succeed against an insurgency, and the importance of public diplomacy as part of a “comprehensive strategy employing all instruments of national power.”
Informed by the Vietnam experience, the strategy also recognizes that clearing and keeping the enemy from an area alone does not spell success. A critical third tenet, it notes, is the establishment of a legitimate government supported by the people and infrastructure development that empowers them.
After applying those principles -- first while commanding U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and now as the top commander in Afghanistan -- Petraeus said he is seeing this strategy bear fruit.
Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month the coalition in Afghanistan continues to face tough days against insurgents, but is making steady progress in improving security and helping the Afghan government improve governance, economic development and the provision of basic services.
“These are essential elements of the effort to shift delivery of basic services from provincial reconstruction teams and international organizations to Afghan government elements,” he told the panel.
As the transition approaches for Afghan forces to begin taking security responsibility for their country, Petraeus emphasized that actions being taken now in Afghanistan will have consequences for years to come –- just as those in Vietnam more than three decades ago.
“We’ll get one shot at transition, and we need to get it right,” he said.