Vietnam Analogy: Stabbed in the Back, Again by mattsteinglass
October 4, 2007, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Vietnam, War | Tags:

Earlier this week Rick Perlstein had a piece in The Nation reviewing two of the rash of recent conservative books that argue that the US didn’t actually lose the Vietnam War: Mark Moyar’s and Lewis Sorley’s. Inevitably, anyone who argues that the US didn’t really lose that war must have some explanation for why it is that the hammer and sickle is flying over Saigon. Moyar’s explanation is that the US should have stuck with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, instead of backing the coup that killed him in 1963. Sorley argues that the turn to counterinsurgency strategy in late 1968 actually won the war by 1970, but liberals refused to believe it. Both Moyar and Sorley blame the defeat on Democrats in Congress for refusing to provide US military support to South Vietnam when the North staged its final invasion in 1975. Liberals, meanwhile, generally attack such explanations as variations on the “stab-in-the-back myth”, or “Dolchstosslegende”, propagated in Germany in the 1920s by furious nationalists who refused to accept that their country really had lost World War I.

Interestingly, the first person to invoke the Dolchstosslegende with regard to conservative reactions to American failure in Vietnam was a US military officer. Back in 1968, Marine Col. William R. Corson complained that other officers were preparing “an American version of the German ‘stab in the back’ myth” to excuse their failure to win the war, claiming that politicians had forced them to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Corson, who had commanded an armored regiment in Vietnam, was a fierce critic of the massive attrition strategy of Gen. William Westmoreland, and an advocate of a counterinsurgency-oriented strategy of small deployments to protect villages in concert with Vietnamese troops. Corson was also a pioneer of the CAP, or Combined Action Platoon, system, which put US soldiers in units with Vietnamese ones in village-level deployments. He wrote a book in 1968 making the case that the US military’s inept failure to adapt in Vietnam was losing the war, and was nearly court-martialed for his trouble.

Ironically, Corson is one of the heroes in Sorley’s book; Sorley’s “stab in the back myth” relies on the claim that Corson’s counterinsurgency tactics actually won the war between 1968 and 1970. But the even greater irony is that Corson’s counterinsurgency tactics, including the CAPs, stand at the heart of the shift in strategy carried out in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus. From 2003 to 2006, the US strategy in Iraq to suppress the insurgency — it took a long time for the US even to admit it was an insurgency — resembled the search-and-destroy attrition strategy of Westmoreland in Vietnam. Petraeus is the exemplar of the shift towards counterinsurgency strategy which began at the beginning of 2006, and has continued with the Surge. Every element of his strategy can be found in Corson’s recommendations for Vietnam. It is precisely Petraeus’s recognition of how the US military failed in Vietnam that has motivated this shift. If, like Mark Moyar, you think the US won in Vietnam but was denied victory because of Congressional liberals, then you disagree with Gen. Petraeus and the whole rationale behind America’s current strategy in Iraq.

I originally came across Corson’s “stab in the back” comments in Michael Lind’s 1999 book, “Vietnam: The Necessary War”. Lind, after citing Corson, goes on to describe how this myth took hold in the US military and on the American right; he terms it “the praetorian critique” of the Vietnam War. He then makes some interesting and rather prescient comments.

…the praetorian theory of the Vietnam War is the new orthodoxy in the Pentagon, the Republican Party, and in conservative intellectual circles. Thanks to the majority status of the Republican party and the deference that civilian policymakers today are expected to show to top miliary officials, the praetorian critique is likely to inform America’s military strategy in the early years of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the lessons of Vietnam that the U.S. military establishment and its political allies have learned are the wrong lessons. Widespread acceptance of the erroneous praetorian critique of the Vietnam War will make it more, not less, likely that the military will repeat the mistakes of that war.

— “Vietnam: The Necessary War”, Michael Lind, P.81

And so it did.

2 Comments so far
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I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak. I believed another Vietnam could be avoided with defined missions and the best armaments in the world.

It made no difference.

We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:

Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

For more details see:

Comment by Ken Larson

Aloha, read your piece in the Nation. You mentioned Benedict Arnold. there’s an essay by Robert Graves on Arnold that you may find interesting. If you like me to send it to you drop me a line at



Comment by steve laudig

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