Smarter than the average Army general by mattsteinglass
February 18, 2009, 9:24 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m reading David Petraeus’s 1987 Ph.D. thesis, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” and in a footnote on P.109 he shows a skepticism that has apparently served him well over the course of the Iraq conflict:

Vietnam planted in the minds of many in the military doubts about the ability of US forces to conduct successful large-scale counterinsurgencies. These misgivings do not in all cases spring from doubts about the capabilities of American troops and units per se; even in Vietnam, military leaders recall, US units never lost a battle.(22)

So far, so chest-thumping. But then read footnote 22, and the grain of salt is revealed:

22. Although this phrase is heard frequently, I have never heard anyone define the terms “battle” and “lost”.

Exactly. You read histories of the war, with account after account of small US units overrun in surprise attacks, with a dozen GIs killed, after which Vietnamese forces retreat and melt away. And then you get these self-serving American officers claiming the US “never lost a battle”. Right, like the British won at Lexington and Bunker Hill — in fact, the British won practically every engagement, except a lot of skirmishes, and the war.

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by this writer’s measure, every incident would be accounted equal weight, i.e. the v.c. wiping out a two man listening post is equal to the ia drang or hill 875. that’s sheer idiocy, but even there the u.s. comes out ahead, and its not even close. in other words, each casualty ought to be weighed, man for man. as i recall, the 58,000 american dead accounted for something like three million dead vietnamese. not a bad ratio. now, i suppose the writer will have to dream some other scenario proving that we (i was there) lost. the fact is, we didn’t lose a damned thing, not a battle, not a skirmish, not a war–as j.f.k. observed, it was the vietnamese’s war to win or lose. i’m not trying to justify the war, but i’m getting damned tired of this bum rap.

Comment by jim filyaw

In response to jim filyaw, what does body count have to do with it? That was the flawed metric that sucked us into the delusion of victory in Vietnam in the first place. The purpose of war is not to kill the enemy, but to achieve some strategic goal. Body count is no metric of victory. If victory were merely based on killing more of theirs then they kill of yours, then we won in Vietnam — and the Germans won both World Wars. Only they clearly didn’t, and neither did we. As for it being the Vietnameses’ war to win or lose, I agree, and so did all of my antiwar buddies at the time. But that’s hard to square with 58,000 American dead. The fact is, we tried very hard, spent an awful lot of blood and treasure, and did not achieve the goal we set out to achieve. That’s not victory.

Comment by David Picker


Indeed there were 3 million dead Vietnamese. However, a great many of them were civilian casualties, from destruction, disease, whatever. Also, we had South Vietnamese men fighting North Vietnamese men, so that 3 million dead count includes people our guys didn’t directly kill.

From what I’ve read, US troops generally had a 10:1 kill/loss ratio in confrontations with enemy fighters. So if we lost 58,000 men, presumably a good 580,000 Vietnamese soldiers were killed.

A 10:1 kill/loss ratio seems to be the standard number for US forces since world war II. I believe we have something like that in Iraq and Afghanistan, although perhaps not in the first Gulf War. (Incidentally, this means I think the recent Israeli assault against Hamas was particularly potent. Israel lost less than 10 soldiers to enemy action but killed hundreds…they were operating on a 20-40:1 ratio or so).

But you’re still missing the historical point. It doesn’t matter how many of the enemy you kill if they have more to replace them. Ho Chi Minh understood that Americans weren’t willing to sacrifice 100,000 men in Vietnam, but he was willing to sacrifice a million if he had to.

I believe WE lost the war because we weren’t able to defeat the north and make them stop attacking the weaker south. Now, arguably our hands were tied politically, since we couldn’t launch a full scale invasion of the north, for example. But that is irrelevant. You fight a war within certain political parameters which are there whether you like it or not. Within those parameters, the North Vietnamese were able to prevail.

Afghanistan is a similar situation. In fact, for years I’ve said we have a better shot in Iraq than we do in Afghanistan, even before the surge. This is because the problem with Iraq is mostly local, and non-ideological. Afghanistan is like Vietnam. In both, the ideology of our foes makes them willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of men for their cause. The Taliban are doing this in the name of religion; its harder to negotiate with them than the Sunnis in Iraq who were doing it for money and power.

But the most important similarity between vietnam and afghanistan is the sanctuary of insurgents. In Vietnam, they were in the north, with supply routes through Laos or Cambodia or wherever. We couldn’t go after them there, or we would risk nuclear confrontation w/ the soviets or china. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the problem is Pakistan. Its a barely functioning nation of 180 million very poor Muslims, with a crazy-high birth rate, with really nothing better to do with their time. The flow of militants will never, ever stop, if the Pakistanis don’t want it to.

And I don’t mean the Pakistani government, which is pretty much powerless to stop it. Its the people. To win in Afghanistan, we’d have to literally get the people of Pakistan (or specifically, radical militants living there) to not view the US as an enemy. And for the record, I think Obama has a much better shot at that than McCain did, although ultimately neither would have had any luck.

Comment by Nick

To jim filyaw: As a fellow Vietnam vet I share your obvious frustration regarding the seemingly endless myths that surround our most unpopular war. I enlisted in the army in 1967 and served two tours, both voluntary. My first tour, with A Co., 3/187th INF, 3rd BDE, 101st ABN DIV, was cut short on the night of 6 Sep 68 when my rifle company was overrun by an NVA Regiment in the vicinity of Trang Bang (in II Corps). We suffered 32 paratroopers killed and a similar number wounded. I was hospitalized in Japan for 3 months with gunshot and shrapnel wounds. I’m afraid that no matter how you spin it, my company decisively “lost” that engagement — the NVA kicked our ass. Many other grunts can tell of similar disastrous encounters. It’s simply not realistic to state that “we didn’t lose a damned thing, not a battle, not a skirmish, not a war,” and whether or not the war was “lost” by the Vietnamese is, in my view, beside the point. While it’s true that U.S. forces ultimately prevailed in most “battles,” (e.g., Con Thien, Hue, Dong Ap Bia) it’s also true that we suffered many tactical defeats at the battalion, company and platoon level. Our failure in Vietnam was a “death by a thousand cuts,” and the NVA/VC were confident that we would eventually decide it wasn’t worth the candle and we would leave, which, of course, we did. Another point — the North Vietnamese and their communist allies in the South were completely prepared to fight to the last man — a 10-to-1 kill ratio in our favor did nothing to deter them. We, obviously, were not prepared to endure anything like that sort of sacrifice. Given that fact, our efforts in Vietnam (short of using nuclear weapons and obliterating the North) were almost certainly doomed from the start. BTW, thanks for your service. No war is fun, but ‘Nam was particularly hard considering the opprobrium we all faced when we returned home. S.F. McPherson, MAJ (Ret.), USAR

Comment by S.F. McPherson

This talk about who killed more of the enemy is only relevant in pure attrition warfare, where both sides stand their ground and slug it out until the victor is the one left alive. The U. S. Marine Corps’ base document, Warfighting, defines war as a battle of wills, and that seems to me to be a very apt definition. It is not about killing at all necessarily, it is about two (or more) opposing parties seeking to bend the other to their will. Period. So the relevant question with regard to Vietnam is: who bent? The U.S. wanted a non-communist, U.S.-friendly South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese wanted a Vietnam unified under their regime. It is quite clear who got what they wanted. And it doesn’t matter how they achieved it.

In war, each side will use whatever resources they have at their disposal. The N. Vietnamese used a lot of manpower, because that’s what they had. We used a lot of firepower, because that’s what we had. Manpower won. While it was close at points, in the end N. Vietnamese manpower, and the will to sacrifice it, won the objective.

Comment by PatricktheRogue

[…] doutorado do cara que comanda o exército americano no Iraque. Tomara que ele discuta mais trechos, esse postzinho só serviu para dar uma […]

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I just wanted to say to any Vietnam vets reading this that I don’t mean in any way to play down the skill, dedication and lethalness of the US forces that fought in Vietnam. In 6 years living in Vietnam, I’ve spoken with a number of PAVN officers, and I’ve never heard any of them downplay the effectiveness of the American military, either; rather they’ve generally spoken of how difficult it was to learn to cope with the power and speed of US forces. But there is no need to insist that the US “never lost a battle”. That would require, as Maj. McPherson writes above, excluding engagements where superior PAVN forces overwhelmed, or lured and trapped, small American units. The PAVN was conscious that US forces had superior firepower and avoided head-to-head confrontations, with a few exceptions (e.g. Khe Sanh) that generally confirmed the wisdom of the basic strategy.

Comment by mattsteinglass

“The United States entered the war to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment.”
I was there too, and we lost the war I was in.
(Last I looked, the communists had occupied South Vietnam).
I hear this “We won”, We never lost a battle” crap all too frequently. We lost. Get over it.
My hope was that the lesson of “Nam was to stay out of wars that didn’t have the support of the American people, and that didn’t have an exit strategy, but that hope has been dashed by the last lot of incompetent boobs in the White House and the military.

Comment by Hugh

1. I have a number of comments based on my serving in Viet Nam in 1968 and 1969; my work with refugees from Viet Nam and helping in resettlement which includes being a legal adviser to the Vietnamese Community in our area from 1975 to present; and my some twenty return humanitarian missions to Viet Nam from 1993 to the present for a charitable foundation established by a Vietnamese woman who was an interpreter during the War.

2. I was convinced in the early 1960’s and remain convinced today that we should have been in Viet Nam. Perhaps we should have and could have done it differently, but basically we were right to be there.

3. Most of us never understood that both the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese wanted one country, united and strong. The South Vietnamese flag with its three red stripes on a yellow background was never understood by most Americans. The three red stripes stood for the North of Viet Nam, the Center, and the South, all which were to be joined in one nation.

4. The ordinary people of South Viet Nam, including those in the rural areas, did not want a communist government with its communist-style society and restricted economy. Most of them simply wanted to be left alone. Most wanted to grow their own rice in their own fields, to make money from selling that rice, to make money from buying-and-selling business ventures, and to support and promote their own families.

5. Who won the war? Some think there is no debate about this. Of course, North Vietnamese-operated tanks burst through and smashed the gates of the Presidential palace in Sai Gon in April 1975. But was that the victory the Communists had wanted? One of my Vietnamese friends says that was the high-point and beginning of the end for Communism in the world. The Communists wanted a grand people’s revolution with all the people participating. What they got was a temporary military victory with two million of their own people (many talented and bright) leaving this Communist paradise in any way they could, including thousands of leaky small boats overloaded with people trying to cross dangerous ocean waters for a better life.

5. By 1986 the Communiss had admitted to themselves–if not to the world–that their limited military victory had turned into an economic defeat and nightmare. Even at the heighth of the war, Vietnam always grew enough rice for its people and even rice for export. By 1986, the Coomnusit economy could not even grow enough rice to feed its own people. The rest of the economy was also in bad shape. So the Communists radically reversed course and instituted “Doi Moi,” the new policy which, for one example, let the farmers grow and own their own rice with permission to sell whatever they wanted. Today Viet Nam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an average 8% GDP growth since 1993.

6. From the slick color magazines to the skyscrapers of Sai Gon to new highways, power systems, stores selling all kinds of products, new restaurants, tourist places, and capitalist factories everywhere–who really won the war? The answer may depend upon what we define as “win.”

7. I welcome comments. By the way, I also write a book about Viet Nam, entitled “The Green Berets and Their Victories.” If anyone is interested in the book, just email me at

Hen Gap Lai

Comment by Joseph Meissner

[…] ALSO: Steinglass’s take on General David Petraeus’ 1987 thesis, ‘the American Military & the Lessons of Vietnam.” […]


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