Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant understood, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that counts.”
Fourth, know your enemy. From the start of the Vietnam War, the fatal assumption was that Hanoi and the National Liberation Front—the Viet Cong—could be coerced with incrementally applied force. Their goals were not amenable to our logical frames of reference. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were willing to pay an enormous price for victory.
The “War on Terror” suffered from the failure to identify the enemy as Islamist fundamentalist-Jihadists determined to defeat the United States and, ultimately, bring down Judeo-Christian civilization. Knowing yourself corresponds with knowing the enemy.
Fifth, Americans are not patient. In 1946, General of the Army George C. Marshall stated, “America cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.” In 1968, the Tet Offensive occurred almost precisely seven years after the Kennedy administration drew the line in Vietnam. Frustrations grew throughout the subsequent administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, weakening public will.
Sixth, beware of open-ended commitments to regimes of dubious legitimacy. In Vietnam, first the United States committed its power and prestige to the support of Ngo Dinh Diem, a self-described “16th-century Spanish Catholic” who governed like a mandarin in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country struggling to throw off its colonial past. When in late 1963, Diem proved ineffective, the United States acquiesced in a coup resulting in a succession of military dictators.
History’s not so tidy that mistakes in the War on Terror are entirely analogous to those in Vietnam. The current war proceeded with an all-volunteer force, not a conscript-driven force. From October 2001 to the present, American military leadership, at every level, has been outstanding. The Bush administration’s big mistake was not clearly identifying the enemy. The Obama administration’s blunder was to set a deadline for withdrawal.
Wars are the most unpredictable of human endeavors, fraught with the unexpected and quite often, when strategically ill-conceived, much longer and bloodier than anticipated. That’s why over 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote, “War is a matter of vital importance; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.