The Army and Vietnam

by Ted on January 19, 2006

Inspired by this post, I read The Army and Vietnam by Andrew F. Krepinevich a few weeks ago. It’s really very good. Most of the book functions as an analysis of the Vietnam war through the lens of counterinsurgency tactics, as the author walks through the failure and sporadic successes of the military leadership to learn from its mistakes.

I especially appreciated the introduction and its lucid introduction to the strategy of a successful insurgency/counterinsurgency. I liked that part so much that I’ve transcribed about four pages, in the interest of posting it in small blog-sized chunks for discussion. The book was published in 1986. It’s fascinating to see how much of it applies to the situation in Iraq, and how much is less relevant.

I hope that this inspires a few readers to buy the book, or at least discuss its ideas. Unfortunately, I realize that this goes beyond “fair use”. I’ve tried to contact Krepinevich to ask for permission, but have failed to get a response. So I’m going to try to play this like an mp3 blog. Each section will stay up for a week, and then I’ll pull it down. I will, of course, respond immediately to any request from the copyright holder or complaint from a co-blogger.

Here goes.

from The Army and Vietnam, by Andrew F. Krepinevich

It’s been a week, so I’ve removed the quote. Buy the book.



BigMacAttack 01.19.06 at 2:28 pm

It is amazing how much damage a small group of people can do if they have their hearts set on it.

I actually calculated that 2% for Iraq once.

20 million 1/2 are male. 10 million. Say 1/2 are of fighting age. 5 million. If 2% are willing to fight. That is 100,000. If they each engage in an attack on average once a year. That is 300 (273 or whatever) attacks per day.

(Or 10% of Sunnis. Or even 2% of Sunnis, .04% of total Iraqis, and 5 attacks per year.)

You can jiggle those numbers a lot of ways but the bottom line is a 2% striking force + passive acceptance can be a popular movement.

Loon pre-emption note. I am not claiming 2% of Iraqis are actively/willingly fighting. Or 20% or 200% or .0002%. I am just strongly agreeing with that last idea.

Just pointing out the difficulties and the limits to power.


BigMacAttack 01.19.06 at 2:36 pm

Oh yeah. Amazing what 3 people Bush, Cheney and Condie can do . Ah aha aha aha ahahahah. Yeah we all get, it is so funny,


But I did get 150,000 as .2%. And passive acceptance. I do find that angle interesting.


soru 01.19.06 at 3:19 pm

This may be relevant to those seeking to compare and contrast:

‘This kind of resistance leads nowhere,” he said. ”Resistance has to have a clear objective. Ours was independence and socialism; not reaction but revolution.”
Some of the occupation’s opponents in Iraq do have developed organisations, complete with spokespersons and ideological programmes. But, Tran says, because all of them are built on ethnic or religious lines, they’ll never succeed in their objectives.

Focusing on the performance of the US army is all very well, but, like those 70s Vietnam war films, there is something being left out of the picture.



abb1 01.19.06 at 3:31 pm

A few thousand people willing to die for a cause is, obviously, a significant force.

To convince thousands of people to sacrifice their lives for a cause, you obviously need a potent cause.

Thus, obviously, the best counterinsurgency tactic is to weaken or eliminate the cause.

End injustice. No justice – no peace.


SamChevre 01.19.06 at 4:25 pm


What if the cause is injustice–then what do you do?

Best example–the US South during the Occupation (“Reconstruction”). The goal of most Southern whites was to return to the status quo ante, or something as close to it as possible. The status quo ante was manifestly unjust, but quite a lot of people were willing to be quite violent (the original KKK, the Knights of the White Camelia, and other organized groups) to restore it. You’re in charge–what do you do?

There are effective models for ending an insurgency without meeting its demands (the Duke of Sutherland, for example); however, they pretty much ensure that you will be hated forever thereafter.


abb1 01.19.06 at 4:56 pm

I don’t know what the goal of most Southern whites was, but policies of the reconstruction weren’t very good either.


SamChevre 01.19.06 at 5:32 pm

Abb1–agreed. “Reconstruction” was evil (so was the Northern Invasion). BUT–what most Southern whites wanted–a society where blacks were entirely subordinate and had “no rights that the white man was bound to respect”–was clearly unjust.


Cranky Observer 01.19.06 at 5:55 pm

> You can jiggle those numbers a lot of ways
> but the bottom line is a 2% striking force +
> passive acceptance can be a popular movement.

The “passive acceptance” part is one of the key undiscussed points. I lived in a city neighborhood once where a drug gang tried to take over the park, shopping area, and some homes. The neighborhood banded together and kicked them back out. It was not fun and not without risk. Luckily no resident was killed or beaten too badly, but some garages were burned, cars riddled with bullets, firebombs found on front porches, etc. The neighbors hung tough; there were never less than 20 attending every single court case where a neighbor had to testify and threats of retaliation were pursued to the ends of the earth. In the end it worked and the gangsters moved elsewhere, but that was because we as a neighborhood wanted that to happen and fought for it.

Given the clan-based nature of Iraqi society, there is no way that many many people there know who the insurgants are. But they aren’t dropping the dime or banding together to do anything about it – which tells me they either tacitly support the insurgants, or they don’t trust that there is an authority which can protect them if they try to stabilize their own society.



R-Squared 01.19.06 at 6:10 pm

We should look a little bit farther outside American hisotry. Don’t you think that British and Japanese were pretty good in conquering and managing colonies. I think they did manage to win the hearts of at least some of their colonial subjects. This is how “divide and rule” works. To learn occupation strategies, I would prefer studying British colonial hisotry to Vietnam war history.


Oskar Shapley 01.19.06 at 8:31 pm

to soru,

I’d say the winning socio-economic ideology would be: “all oil money for the good of Iraqis, not the Yankees!”. Base it on some Islamic principle of sharing wealth/food, and you have a potent political message.

The first Iraqi politician/revolutionary to use that, wins.


abb1 01.20.06 at 2:11 am

SamChevre, OK, maybe, but I don’t think you can argue that the Southerners staged anything even close to “insurgency” as described in the post above. Even if we accept that their sense of justice was somewhat offended by liberation of slaves, clearly not many, not enough of them were willing fight and die for the cause. The cause wasn’t strong enough.


lurker 01.20.06 at 3:24 am

You could start by reading ‘Britain’s Gulag’ by Caroline Elkins, on the way the Brits won in Kenya in the 50’s and the 60’s. Virtually the entire Kikuyu population was herded behind barbed wire. Nairobi was ethnically cleansed in a big roundup removing 60000 people. Torture was massive, systematic and savage. The only people whose hearts the Brits won were the ‘chiefs’ appointed by them, who dearly loved their privileges, perks and power. Elkins notes that the main problem she had in persuading local people to talk to her was getting them to understand she was American and not British.
The one thing the Brits did do better is covering up their crimes (and sentimentalizing their Empire).


Brendan 01.20.06 at 5:24 am


The point of Tran Dac Loi’s comments is that ‘the Iraqi resistance (are like) the many aborted attempts to end French colonisation of Vietnam before World War II.’ What he is arguing is that: ‘Iraq needs a unifying political figure like Ho Chi Minh. ‘’You need a political figure who can introduce a long-term objective that’s in the basic interest of the majority of the people.’‘’

Avoiding the obvious fact that he would say that, wouldn’t he, do you agree with him? Are you arguing that what the Iraqi resistance needs is a Ho Chi Minh figure? Are you also arguing that ‘a programme in Iraq similar to Vietnam’s revolution … based on a single political party, aimed at throwing out the aggressor, defending the unity of the country and the country’s economic and political sovereignty’ is what is desirable? (emphasis added). And are we to infer that if such a resistance did grow up (as it did in Vietnam) you would then support it against the Americans and British?

If not, why did you post this link?


soru 01.20.06 at 6:09 am

If the situation was such that a movement like that had a chance of success, if the kind of people who would lead a movement like that was doing so, instead of working for the elected government, then yes I would.

The correct alternative to ‘my country right or wrong’ is not ‘my country, therefor wrong’.

If there’s one political essay I thoroughly agree with, it’s Orwell’s Note on nationalism:
In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong.

It is perfectly possible to imagine a world in which the US had goals sufficiently sinister (and attainable) to be worth fighting against (preferably by smarter, and consequently less bloody, tactics). The judgement of most of the people on the ground is that that is not the case.



abb1 01.20.06 at 7:34 am

Orwell is talking about the WWII, not some colonial war. I don’t think the quote works in this context.


Brendan 01.20.06 at 7:40 am

I don’t think you quite got my point. Are you seriously arguing that ‘a programme in Iraq similar to Vietnam’s revolution … based on a single political party ‘ would be a good idea?

Cos I don’t.


soru 01.20.06 at 9:00 am

‘a good idea’ is ambiguous, meaning any of ‘effective’, ‘desirable’ and ‘moral’. If someone says ‘in order to achieve B, we need to do A’, there are three potential objections:

1. A will not result in B (is it effective?)

2. I don’t want B (is it desirable?)

3. Doing A is unacceptable (is it moral?)

In case you are genuinely unclear, in this case I meant ‘effective’, not the other two.

The best examples of truly successfully resolving a conflict with a militarily superior opponent (as opposed to merely defeating them) are South Africa and India, which both took the route of a single national congress. It’s not without problems, such as the lack of credible opposition to the ANC, but few things are.



soru 01.20.06 at 9:12 am

Orwell is talking about the WWII, not some colonial war

Has anyone ever found a case of abb1 being right about anything ever?

That essay was post-war.



abb1 01.20.06 at 9:19 am

Soru, the essay is from 1945, but he is talking about ‘anglophobia’ in the context of the WWII there:

English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain. In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, “enlightened” opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy.

What else have I been wrong about?


soru 01.20.06 at 10:09 am

‘did not’, ‘could not help’ and ‘wanted to feel’ are all past tense, referring to the war.

‘many intellectuals follow’ is present tense, referring to the post-war situation. ‘foreign politics’ would be a very strange phrase for an Englishman to use about WWII in 1945.



abb1 01.20.06 at 10:59 am

Well, FWIW, I agree that left-wing dogmatism isn’t any better than right-wing dogmatism.

The crucial (and obvious) concept here is that British government is always acting in the interest of Britain. Thus any benefit to any group of foreigners or humanity in general would be, obviously, highly unlikely and purely coincidental.


Charly 01.20.06 at 12:44 pm

The best examples of truly successfully resolving a conflict with a militarily superior opponent (as opposed to merely defeating them) are South Africa and India,

Could argue that white South Africa was the militarily superior opponent but the Indian army was in a state of open rebellion when Clement Attlee promised independence to India . It is also clearly true that if the Indians would have rebeled in the 30’s that they obvious would have won but that it would have cost millions of lives.


Paul 01.20.06 at 8:49 pm

Krepinevich has written a lot on the Vietnam-Iraq conparison, notably the Foreign Affairs article but also a very detailed three part series, archived here.

Another excellent book on historical counterinsrugency is John Nagl’s fantastically titled “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.” Nagl has served in Iraq and is currently a military assistant in the office of the deputy secretary of defense, so one can assume that the book’s historical lessons are informing (however imperfectly) contemporary stability operations / counterinsurgency doctrine.

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