Guest Opinions

Comparing Vietnam to Afghanistan is unfair, but US should not enter wars without winnable strategy

U.S. Special Forces soldiers gather in a Mideast location recently.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers gather in a Mideast location recently. NYT

I’m writing in response to the guest opinion titled, “Add the lessons of Vietnam to our growing list of casualties in Afghanistan,” which appeared in the Statesman in December. My purpose in writing is to clear up some misconceptions and conclusions in the guest opinion.

The author states that he was disillusioned because he knew Vietnam was a war we could not win. From my perspective as a participant in the war as an Air Force officer in 1965-1966 with the 355 TFW, the M.S. degree in logistics management I received from the Air Force Institute of Technology, my completion of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the Air War College, plus time spent at the Pentagon as a military planner, I believe that the Vietnam War was indeed winnable.

The major factor in the lack of our success was that of a flawed overall strategy for prosecuting the war. The nature of warfare had changed since our experience in World War II and the Korean War. War was no longer merely a conflict between professional fighting elements on the field of battle. The North Vietnamese fought an unconventional war, thereby neutralizing much of our technical and military superiority. The U.S. military leaders failed to modify their combat strategy to effectively counter the guerrilla warfare tactics of the North Vietnamese.

General Westmoreland was the commander of U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968. He adopted a strategy of attrition against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, attempting to drain them of manpower and supplies. Westmoreland’s strategy was ultimately unsuccessful. The daily release of enemy body counts did little to convince the American public that we were winning the war, and did not weaken the North Vietnamese’s will to fight.

In the early years of the war, our efforts to destroy or disrupt the North Vietnamese’s ability to wage war were not without success. The airstrikes on the oil storage facilities near the capital city of Hanoi were a significant blow in destroying a great deal of their petroleum reserves. However, the continual bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by the North Vietnamese to move men and supplies down through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, disrupted, but did not eliminate, the North Vietnamese’s ability to resupply their ground forces.

The bombing campaign in Vietnam was later hamstrung with so many restrictions on target selection, timing and armament loads that it was rendered largely ineffective. The public outcry over collateral damage, civilian casualties and the politics of the war made it impossible to accomplish our military objectives, and in so doing, dictated the eventual outcome of the war. Never before had superior technology and air power been utilized so ineffectively.

Given the nature of the war, the most effective and winnable strategy would have been to continue to target their logistics infrastructure, thereby destroying the North Vietnamese’s ability to sustain military operations. Without the basic elements required to wage war, such as industry, petroleum, munitions, equipment and supplies, they no longer would have retained a sufficient logistics base to support combat operations.

The second misconception I find in the article is the author’s attempt to equate the lessons of Vietnam to our “growing list of casualties in Afghanistan.” Comparing the two wars in this manner is not totally fair. Wars are fought for different reasons and purposes. The war in Vietnam was fought to support an ally in their efforts to defend their county against a communist takeover.

Our objective in Afghanistan is a proactive military effort to prevent another 9/11 in the United States. It was with disbelief and shock that people around the world saw footage of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, when the planes-turned-missiles slammed into the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon.

If we don’t confront terrorists on their soil overseas, we will find ourselves fighting them right here at home. This fight is not about “holding the line in Iraq and Afghanistan as it will ultimately lead to the end of democracy as we know it.” You pick your own poison — confront them in their backyard overseas or suffer the consequences of possible terrorism right here at home. The reality of the matter is this: We can’t pick our enemies, but we can pick where we fight them.

One of the primary lessons that should have come out of the Vietnam War is, don’t commit the U.S. to war, and our young men and women to combat, unless our national interests are clearly at stake, and we have a winnable strategy with a clearly defined outcome. Our military heroes who sacrifice so much deserve better.

Robert Jones is a bronze star-decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who retired as a lieutenant colonel. He lives in Rexburg.