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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

10 - Vietnam with a happy ending: Iraq and “the surge”


Reconstructing “the American way of war”

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 found the US Army bitter, confused, “nearly broken,” as was much of the country in a painful decade, for which warfare as an instrument of policy appeared to have lost legitimacy. While George Decker’s confident contention that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas” appeared hubristic in hindsight, no appetite existed to remodel the US military into a counterinsurgency force in the face of an arming Warsaw Pact in the second half of the 1970s and the putative lessons of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War on the acceleration of conventional war as interpreted below. On one level, Andrew Krepinevich captured the popular perception of a group of civilian military reformers of the 1970s that the US Army was inept, unimaginative, careerist, and hidebound, adjectives to which some on the left at the time might have added incompetent, racist, bloodthirsty, and imperialist.

But the book that found the widest readership three decades ago was Colonel Harry Summers’ 1981 On Strategy. That Summers’ counter-narrative, levied against the counterinsurgency school, found more resonance in the newly all-volunteer US Army is hardly surprising. Many of the most respected senior soldiers, seized again as in the early 1950s after the Korean War of the “never again” school, saw counterinsurgency and nation-building as a fool’s errand, a sort of semi- or quasi-war endeavor, and, like the post-1871 French army or the Reichswehr from 1919, devoted themselves to “the reconstruction of conventional war.” The situation of the late 1970s whereby events seemed to indicate a Soviet offensive in arms in Central Europe and Soviet-led proxy wars in Africa provided fertile ground for Summers’ ideas of re-professionalization through a willful interpretation of the immediate past and the Anglo-Saxon reading of Clausewitz. Summers’ Vietnam was a war in which American soldiers “never lost a battle,” but instead were stabbed in the back by vague objectives, political micromanagement, “incrementalism,” Congressional pusillanimity, and a drought of generational fortitude in contrast to the era of total war earlier in the twentieth century.