Intangible Frustrations of Not Asking Vietnam Combat Veterans

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, a quote generally attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. For me, this quote speaks volumes about the frustrations I still hold, presumably as other Vietnam combat veterans, with respect to how that war, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syrian, Yeman, South Korea, and numerous other areas where U.S. combat troops are deployed, were and still appear to be prosecuted.

In the U.S., it seems we have largely come to assume any war, particularly those post-WWII, (quickly, inevitably) breed committed-resolute proponents, reluctant followers, and staunch – unforgiving opponents.  The distinctions, I believe, frequently emerge from – are immerse in nuanced (individual-group) social, geo-political, ideological, moral, religious, strategic and/or national security arguments.

Regardless, each eventually and inevitably, get translated to a war’s underlying rationale for its initial prosecution, which, in turn, sometimes in short order, give rise to doubts, questions, frustrations, and public weariness, e.g.,

• what are the ‘knowns and unknowns’, i.e., foreseen, unforeseen, but inevitable costs, tradeoffs, consequences, and outcomes?

• is the war being prosecuted as effectively (tactically, strategically) as it should, and with sufficient transparency that allows objective assessment and interpretation?

• what means exist – are used to regularly measure-assess the war’s status, i.e., are specific and transparent objectives being achieved or not, and at what cost?

To be sure, frustrations regarding ground combat operations, i.e., the presence-absence of perceived progress evolve over time, sometimes believable, sometimes not.  Repeatedly this is evidenced when tactical, strategic, and/or policy misjudgments and misdiagnoses occur, all-to-often, in my view, as surfaced throughout the Viet Nam War, almost uniformly marked by an absence of ‘lessons learned’ from numerous comparables, routinely studied at the various U.S. ‘war colleges’.

It is with confidence, had any military war planner – tactician asked any Vietnam War (ground) combat soldier (veteran), prior to deploying large numbers of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, to describe risks-threats for which it would be prudent to train and prepare combat troops for, in advance, their responses would likely include…

  • there will be more sophisticated versions of booby-traps’ of all types, the former, a term/phrase ludicrously modified to IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and ‘suicide bombers’.
  • any prospect of ‘winning hearts and minds’ of centuries old independent indigenous (religious) sects-cultures marked by thousand year histories of conflict, will be a long, risky, costly challenge, and will very likely produce a limited and disappointing outcome, and if it does occur, it will be highly individualized and will be achieved only through long periods of one-to-one relationships and unwavering and mutual trust.
  • the wars’, in general, and the ground combat operations specifically (in Iraq, Afghanistan) will occur with 360-degree asymmetry, and 24/7 spontaneity.
  • recognition that the primary, perhaps the primary difference insofar as combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, is terrain!
  • training indigenous personnel (people) to serve in ‘standalone’ defense capacities of-for their village, province, and country will be challenging, at best, very time consuming, costly in dollars spend and lives lost, and probably never produce the aspirational outcome.
  • lackluster performance of indigenous military will collectively translate to a political and social unsustainable willingness to continue indefinitely.
  • mitigating – countering the narrative individual indoctrination adverse to U.S. aspirations and multi-country insurgents will present persistent and wearing challenges.
  • therefore, at best, only sporadic territorial gains will be achieved, i.e., lost and retaken, especially when coalition troops withdraw.

It is apropos then, to revisit the aforementioned quote attributed to Mr. Churchill, i.e., “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. It’s quite possible the U.S. military co-opted Mr. Churchill’s quote to ameliorate the utter absence of ‘lessons learned’.

One example of which occurred in April, 1996, when a U.S. government Boeing 737 crashed in Croatia and killed then Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and 34 other American aides and business persons accompanying the Secretary on a trade mission. Following this incident, the U.S. Air Force, primarily, compiled a 7,700-page document titled ‘lessons learned’.

One of the most significant takeaways from that document, in my judgment, was the fact that numerous civilian and military pilots had personal and recent knowledge of the risks and challenges associated with negotiating the runway – a safe landing at the same Croatian airport where the aforementioned crash occurred.   Such reports, conveyed over a period of time prior to the crash of Secretary Brown’s plane, were probably at echelons well below what would be required to produce change. As the report admits, most, if not all of the relevant concerns went un-asked, until that is, the Secretary’s plane crashed, upon which it became ‘time to ask’.

Michael D. Moberly March 4, 2016  St. Louis  [email protected] ‘A blog where attention span really matters’!



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