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The primary lesson of the Vietnam War is that there are no lessons of the Vietnam War, at least when it comes to things we can learn that are unique to that conflict. War has an unchanging nature but each war has a character all its own. So it was with Vietnam.
The applicability of any lessons specific to Vietnam that we think we may have gleaned from it are limited by the fact that the war took place in an international context — the Cold War — that no longer exists.
That hasn’t stopped us from trying. But attempts to universalize the “lessons” of Vietnam, e.g. Jimmy Carter’s critique of a U.S. foreign policy based on its“inordinate fear” of communism, the Weinberger doctrine and the contention that civilian leaders needlessly straight-jacketed the military during the war, all contributed to subsequent adverse outcomes.
Additionally, the “lessons” of Vietnam have all too often reflected little more than four and a half decades of partisan squabbling about the war. Interestingly, the “normal order” of historical interpretation has been reversed with respect to the Vietnam War. The earlier “orthodox” view reflected the more left-wing narrative of the war as unjust, immoral and unlawful, contending that it was uniquely brutal, and that the United States could never have won. The more recent “revisionist” school has argued that the war was justifiable, that it was conducted with as much restraint as possible, and that the United States could have prevailed in the war but for unfortunate political and military decisions.
What we should have learned from Vietnam are lessons that apply to all wars. It is necessary to have some clarity concerning the goals of the war, since they are fought for political objectives. Strategy must link those goals to available resources and be constantly adapted to shifting circumstances. Any strategy must take account of the enemy. As the adage goes, any plan that depends on an enemy’s cooperation is bound to fail.
Finally, defeat in war creates serious problems for the defeated and its allies which must be addressed.
We can learn from history; we can learn from previous wars. But we need to ensure that we are learning the right lessons. Too many of the alleged “lessons” of Vietnam are not.