The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era
Former General David Petraeus, now retired from the United States Army and unemployed, had been a professional soldier for thirty years before he commanded troops in combat. The year was 2003, the place southern Iraq. The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was only a few days old when Petraeus concluded that the scrambling retreat of the Iraqi army was not going to be the whole of the story.
“Tell me how this ends,” he remarked to a reporter embedded with Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, heading for Baghdad. “Eight years and eight divisions?”
Army folklore says “eight years and eight divisions” was General Matthew B. Ridgway’s answer when asked what it would take to rescue the French from defeat in Indochina in 1954. No president who was thinking straight—certainly not Dwight David Eisenhower—would ever commit so large a force for so long a time to anything less than a matter of the first importance. Survival of the French colonial regime did not come close. What Petraeus was saying was, now we’re in for it.
Open-ended wars—getting over them, staying out of them, stumbling into them—were the constant theme of Petraeus’s life as a solider. He had been a high school teenager in the mid-1960s when General William Westmoreland was playing tennis two or three times a week in Saigon, where his formal title was Commander of the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam, or COMUSMACV. His preferred courts were at Le Cercle Sportif, a private sports club near the Saigon River, built by the French colonial regime in the 1890s. It was there in March 1966, while the army under Westmoreland’s command was climbing toward its ultimate peak of 540,000 men, that the general suffered his only wound during four years of war—a fractured wrist suffered when he fell on the court.
Saigon conversation in the mid-1960s inevitably came around, as an evening wore on in a French restaurant over a glass of French wine, to the French defeat in their eight-year war. President Lyndon Johnson had gone forward where Eisenhower hung back, but Westmoreland did not think the French had anything to teach us. Asked at a press conference what it took to defeat an insurgency, Westmoreland answered with a single word: “Firepower.” Big-unit war backed by firepower was Westmoreland’s strategy for beating the Vietcong, and nothing ever altered his view. By temperament he was not flexible, nor was he much of a reader. His favorite book in childhood had been the Boy Scouts of America’s Handbook for Boys. But it was impossible to ignore entirely the books written by the French about their long agony, and Westmoreland kept several of the best-known on his bedside table, next to his Bible—histories by the French writer Bernard B. Fall, and a novel called The Centurions.
Fall’s best-known books were Street Without Joy, a history of the long French failure, and Hell in a Very Small Place, his account of the French defeat in a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which decisively ended public support for the war in France.
The Centurions, by Jean Lartéguy, was a very different sort of book. The main characters were French officers captured at Dien Bien Phu. History records that their months in a jungle prison camp were horrific; at least half died. But Lartéguy focuses on a different matter—what the French officers learned from the Vietminh who had defeated them. The French higher-ups were not much interested in the Vietminh’s approach to war. Like the Americans, they believed that firepower, mobility, and professional soldiering would beat any ragtag army of guerrillas. But Pierre Raspéguy, the hero of The Centurions if there is one, listened to the Vietminh in Camp One and absorbed their rule number one. “You’ve got to have the people on your side,” he said, “if you want to win a war.”
The odds are good that nothing could have persuaded Westmoreland to look deeper, but Lartéguy and Fall never had a chance. Westmoreland told a Time magazine reporter in 1966 that he was “usually too tired in late evening to give the books more than occasional attention.”
By the time David Petraeus graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at West Point in 1974, Westmoreland had been relieved of duty, kicked upstairs for a final tour as Chief of Staff of the Army, and retired to civilian life during which he gave hundreds of speeches insisting that he had not backed a losing strategy, had not lost the war, and was not to blame for the demoralized and confused United States Army in which Petraeus began his career. Ambitious, able, and energetic young men (and since 1976, women) graduate from West Point every year, all launched into a ferocious competition for command and promotion leading toward four stars and you name it; even the presidency, as Eisenhower proved, is not beyond reach. But in this challenging company Petraeus, as portrayed in several new books, which join an impressive group of others already published in recent years, was recognized by his peers at an early moment as a man destined to make a mark in his chosen branch of the Army—the infantry.
That summer Petraeus took the physically grueling, sixty-one-day course at the Army’s Ranger School in Georgia and Florida, finishing first in his class. From Ranger School, Petraeus proceeded to Vicenza, Italy, where he was assigned to the 509th Airborne Battalion Combat Team as a second lieutenant. During the following four years Petraeus learned two things. The first was that he liked the physical challenge, danger, and camaraderie of elite combat units like the 509th that made parachute jumps all over Europe. The second was that the war that had broken the confidence of the Army in Vietnam might have been fought in a different way, and might have had a different outcome.
Petraeus liked to explain the evolution of his thinking on this point. Versions can be found in at least three books—The Fourth Star by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, published a few years ago; and the new books by Paula Broadwell, All In, and Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents. His education began when he asked about a portrait of a French military officer on the wall of a French army mess hall in the Pyrenees in 1976. The answer was General Marcel Bigeard, one of the French military officers who had been sent to a Vietminh prison camp after the fall of Dien Bien Phu.
What Bigeard learned in prison camp about fighting a revolutionary war he put to use as the commander of a brutal but successful campaign to break the back of an insurgency in Algiers in North Africa between 1954 and 1957. A lot of history attaches to the French defeat in Algeria, which Bigeard had at best delayed, but what seized Petraeus’s attention was the example of Bigeard himself, who had taught the French army in Algiers how to fight—conceivably to win—the sort of war it had lost in Indochina.
Petraeus’s French was not good enough to read Bigeard’s many books, but the man led to the war, and the war to Bernard Fall’s histories, bringing Petraeus eventually to Jean Lartéguy’s novel about Bigeard—unmistakable as Colonel Raspéguy in The Centurions. Unlike Westmoreland, Petraeus read this book not once but many times. It became a favorite of his, and of many officers close to him—so many that copies of The Centurions in English are now practically unobtainable. Petraeus often pulled the book down from a shelf close to hand to read from it for visitors. Kaplan zeroes in on a passage Petraeus particularly liked. One of the French officers is explaining how the Vietminh way of war differed from the French:
It’s difficult to explain exactly, but it’s rather like bridge as compared to belote [a similar card game popular in France]. When we make war, we play belote with thirty-two cards in the pack. But their game is bridge and they have fifty-two cards: twenty more than we do. Those twenty cards short will always prevent us from getting the better of them. They’ve got nothing to do with traditional warfare, they’re marked with the sign of politics, propaganda, faith, agrarian reform….
It was the full spectrum of the game—the nature of modern people’s war, as fought and lost by the Americans in Vietnam—that engaged Petraeus. Confronting that failure, of which the Army for years could barely bring itself to speak, has been the central work of Petraeus’s life. It is the great theme of the best of the new books, Kaplan’s The Insurgents, which relates the history of Army thinking about counterinsurgency. It is the reason Petraeus has attracted so much attention for so long, and it is what lends a somber note of broader loss to the recent end of Petraeus’s public career, which came so abruptly last fall, for reasons so entirely irrelevant to any issue of substance, that one is almost embarrassed to cite the details.
In addition to ambition and native ability, two factors can usually be found at work in the rise of a general in the United States Army—mentors and luck. Petraeus attracted the attention of an impressive string of high officers who pushed his career along. Important among them was Major General John Galvin, who arrived at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 1981 to take command of the 24th Infantry Division where Petraeus, a new captain, had been jumped over his peers to serve as a battalion operations officer, a billet usually filled by a major.
The Fourth Star by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe offers a fine portrait of their unfolding relationship. Petraeus was an omnivorous reader, a tireless worker, and a fanatical runner. Galvin was not a runner but he was a reader and the two men quickly grew close. Petraeus thought Galvin should quit eating candy bars, run more, and get in shape. Galvin, who had a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University, told Petraeus he needed to think beyond six-minute miles and the competition of military units for best in this or that.
Petraeus pondered Galvin’s arguments during a year he spent at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was one of the few captains, a typical distinction in Petraeus’s personnel file. Finishing first in his class was another. From Kansas, Petraeus went to Princeton University for a master’s degree which he followed with a doctorate. While he was writing his dissertation he taught in the Department of Social Sciences—called “Sosh”—at West Point, and in 1987 Princeton accepted his thesis, a solidly researched and forcefully argued 317-page document entitled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.”
As Petraeus saw things, American military history in the forty years after World War II centered on two crippling misadventures—the wars in Korea and in Vietnam. The vow of officers who lived through the first was “never again,” for veterans of the second “No More Vietnams.” What made the stove hot were the political limitations imposed by civilian leaders in Washington, who wanted to take a strong stand, but feared a slide into general war with China or even the Soviet Union. In Korea this meant no determined pursuit of enemy forces across the Yalu River into China. To this rule two more were added in Vietnam—no call-up of the reserves and escalation by slow degree. Army officers detested these restrictions, which they said compelled them to fight “with one hand tied behind our backs.”