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What were the main lessons the Americans took from the Vietnam War?

Obviously, America took many lessons from their experience in Vietnam. You do not need to look far to find a wealth of resources on politics, military strategy, economics, counterinsurgency, etc.

I’m sure you can find something; there are only ~65 million results to choose from.

However, I think you may find some interest in the question: Where did America put into practice some lessons learned from Vietnam?

For that, one of the clearest examples is the overwhelming victory of the United States and its coalition against Iraq in the 1991 First Gulf War. To explain, I will lay out the lesson, how it was learned in Vietnam, and finally, how the lesson was applied in Kuwait.

U.S. Marine Corps troops during a welcome home parade held after Operation Desert Storm, June 10, 1991.[1]

The background of this US military action can be traced to the brutal Iran-Iraq War which lasted from 1980 – 1988. This war saw many atrocities, ranging from child soldiers to indiscriminate chemical weapon attacks between the two Islamic regimes.

Iranian child soldiers marching off to fight Iraq.[2]

Saddam’s chemical attack on Halabja,Iraq.[3]

The important takeaway from this event, however, is that the war left Iraq in deep debt with its neighbors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq owed its fellow Gulf states at least $80 billion. Additionally, Iraq accused Kuwait of overproducing oil, driving down prices and further impeding Iraq’s ability to recover its economy.[4] Internal unrest due to the war was also rising.

However, Saddam Hussein, the dictator and leader of Iraq, had the fifth largest military at this point in time and after exhausting diplomatic options, decided that a war would solve many of its ongoing problems…[5]

Kuwait Maps – Perry-Castañeda Map Collection – UT Library Online

Colorado Springs Gazette, August 3, 1990, p. 3

While the Invasion of Kuwait was quite short, the United States faced an uphill battle.[6] Keep in mind, at this point in time, there was no guarantee of US victory. Saddam’s army was vast and many were battle-hardened veterans of the previous war. The memory of Vietnam still lingered in everyone’s mind as it become increasingly clear that Iraq would refuse to withdraw from Kuwait.

Iraqi Military Parade, 1990.[7]

But America stuck to a narrowly defined objective. It played to its strengths and capitalized on what its enemy lacked. It isolated Iraq from the world and won the world opinion battle.

And luckily, we had some extremely brilliant diplomats and military leaders who did all the right things in all the right places.

James Baker, US Secretary of State, met with world leaders and convinced many to join the coalition. Major accomplishments include Saudi Arabia and Kuwait footing a major portion of the bill and a rare Chinese Security Council abstention to allow outside forces to intervene in Kuwait (China dislikes foreign intervention in almost all circumstances).[8]

Thomas Pickering was the US Ambassador to the UN, crafting the legal framework that would eventually justify military intervention in Kuwait and how the resulting peace would look like. He got almost every Security Council member to approve the various Resolutions; no small feat in diplomacy.[9]

Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. was the overall military commander of coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War. He was a brilliant leader, tactician, and master of working with the press. One of America’s greatest generals.[10][11]

Collin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a notable disposition for diplomacy before military action. But in his hands, the US military would maximize its potential, to the utter devastation of its adversaries. The “Powell Doctrine,” as he is popularly known for, is a well-crafted answer to the Vietnam War experience.[12][13]

The man at the top, who made the critical decision to intervene in Kuwait and draw the line in the sand when many were reluctant to get involved. This answer was written a couple weeks after George H. W. Bush passed away and may he rest in peace. While he had his flaws, Bush Sr. was truly an honorable man and a worthy President of the United States of America.[14]

Clearly defined military objective; no mission creep

Major American involvement in the Vietnam War was started by a rather innocuous document, the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.”[15] Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to address the purported attack of North Vietnamese patrol boats on US Navy destroyers.[16]

However, President Lyndon Johnson used the open-ended provisions of the document to vastly expand the American presence in the region. US forces went from simple advisers to the South Vietnamese military

U.S. Army Adviser trains at the Battalion Level.[17]

to boots on the ground

US Marines of the 9th Expeditionary Brigade land at Da Nang in March 1965 to protect the local air base.[18]

to conducting full-scale military operations.

7th Cavalry riflemen engage Vietnamese snipers in Ia Drang Valley, November 1965.[19]

Soldiers on a search and recovery mission.[20]

Mobile Riverine Force monitor torches potential enemy ambush points.[21]

A B-52 Stratofortress drops its payload during Operation Linebacker II.[22]

Obviously, this mission creep hurt American effectiveness in pursuing long-term strategies.[23] Simply put, the escalating involvement of the United States precluded any sort of attempt to consolidate US military and civil development toward a cohesive and clearly-defined objective. US leaders merely reacted to the situations of the day and allowed the adversary to determine the pace of the conflict.

The First Gulf War was different. From the outset, the mission was clear: expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, restore the sovereignty of Kuwait, convince Iraq to comply with the United Nations resolutions. At the request of President H. W. Bush, Congress passed the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution.”[24]

What separates the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” from this document is the narrow scope of the latter. It cites the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions granting use-of-force (Resolution 678) and sets up a system of regular reports to ensure the objectives of this authorization are being met by the President (as per the War Powers Act).

“In the face of tyranny, let no one doubt American credibility and reliability. Let no one doubt our staying power. We will stand by our friends. One way or another, the leader of Iraq must learn this fundamental truth.”[25]

Once Saddam withdrew from Kuwait, President Bush had offensive military operations stopped, only 100 hours after such operations had begun.[26][27] He faced heavy criticism for not capitalizing on the crushing victory and taking the opportunity to overthrow Saddam.[28] However, Bush Sr. stuck to his guns and limited his gains to that which he had sought, avoiding American entanglement with Iraq, at least for awhile.

Play to American strengths

America is one of the best countries at conventional warfare. [29] Within its doctrine, is an emphasis on the use of overwhelming force and superior technology to quickly cut off and crush enemy forces with minimal casualties to friendly forces.[30]

The Vietnam War was mostly a guerrilla war, as North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces capitalized on self-imposed US limitations to blend in with the local population, ignore national boundaries, and choose when to engage with military force.[31]

A Vietcong lays a mine.[32]

Wary of expanding the conflict and possibly risking war with China (as had happened in Korea), the US did not invade North Vietnam, which controlled the Vietcong and the instigator of the conflict. It also did not use ground forces to permanently cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos or Cambodia, the vital supply route that sustained Communist forces in South Vietnam.[33]

Map of Vietnam and some major events that occurred. The invasions of Cambodia and Laos would be too little, too late.[34]

Furthermore, the insurgency nature of the conflict meant that neutralizing upper leadership targets was less effective and that in general, enemy forces could escape, recoup and plan new attacks, even after devastating losses.

An NVA Platoon leader with a PPSh-41.[35]

US technology, while certainly destructive and even useful under certain circumstances, could not overcome such deep deficiencies in US conventional strategy and doctrine.[36]

Helicopters like the UH-1 Huey and the air assault tactics their usage envisioned could not be used to full effectiveness in the jungle environment.[37][38] The resourceful guerrillas developed a series of countermeasures to neutralize these vehicles’ superior mobility and firepower advantage.[39]

US Army helicopters fire into the tree line as they cover a South Vietnamese ground assault in March 1965.[40]

Napalm and Agent Orange created fear in the enemy, but also consternation among allies and the public at large.[41] Their usage was seen as needlessly cruel and barbaric, crippling the minds and bodies of those exposed to such untested chemicals. [42]

A napalm strike erupts as US troops patrol in South Vietnam, 1966.[43]

Agent Orange defoliant sprayed in South Vietnam, September 1965.[44][45]

All these factors culminated in the US military being unable to decisively defeat the Communist forces while its own casualties continued to mount and leading to the eventual withdrawal from South Vietnam.

In September of 1991, Saddam bragged that attempting a war against his country would be a repeat of Vietnam for America.[46] He could not be farther from the truth, because he was, unfortunately, going to find himself in a conventional war with the United States.

This picture contains more firepower than many small countries can summon in their entire armed forces.[47]

US military planners could utilize their full conventional knowledge to quickly neutralize enemy logistics and support, overrun weak Iraqi positions, and isolate and destroy stronger concentrations.

In the lead-up to offensive ground operations, a variety of aircraft and cruise missiles bombed airfields, anti-aircraft sites, radar stations, command facilities, and other military infrastructure and targets. Meanwhile, fighter-bombers engaged the Iraqi Air Force and established air supremacy over the battlefield.[48][49]

F-14 Tomcats await their turn refueling from a KC-10A during Desert Storm.[50]

America used the high profile nature of its naval assets and the US Marines to draw the attention of the Iraqi higher command and make them orient their forces against a perceived amphibious landing.[51][52]

This left the Iraqi forces concentrated in Kuwait dangerously isolated if, for instance, a mass infantry and armoured push up the Saudi Arabian desert somehow cut off the route back in Iraq proper.

Coalition forces broke through the seemingly impassable desert, overrunning the lightly-held Iraqi positions. These forces could then turn east and attack Iraqi forces in Kuwait from the vulnerable rear.[53]

1st Armored Division Abrams pass the burning remnants of an Iraqi tank. [54]

Soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment provide security as their ground assault convoy moves through Iraq.[55]

In this conventional fight, US technology definitely provided a superior edge.[56] Stealth aircraft could fly undetected by radar and bomb with unsuspected impunity. Cruise missiles and smart bombs gave a new depth to precision bombing and allowing for selective destruction of high value targets.[57]

F-117 dropping a GBU-27 laser-guided bomb during a live exercise bombing run.[58]

BGM-109 Tomahawk being launched.[59]

Iraqi military planners believed the allies would have trouble navigating the featureless desert, but GPS enabled soldiers to maintain their bearings and continually surprise the enemy with their rapid movements and coordination.[60][61]

The Battle of 73 Easting, was named for the UTM coordinate line it took place on due to the lack of any other distinguishing features in the area.[62]

The sheer strength and rapidity of the coalition attack whittled down Iraqi resistance and enabled the swift resolution to the conventional fight.

Ensure world opinion is on your side

Vietnam is partly famous for just how much of an American endeavor it was. The British and Canadians politely refused to officially help, France had enough of Vietnam during the First Indochina War, while USSR and Chinese aid were key to keeping North Vietnam and the Vietcong in the fight.[63][64][65]

North Vietnamese pilots discussing tactics on their flightline in front of their Russian-made MiG-19s. [66]

North Vietnam successfully convinced many in the world that the Vietcong was a homegrown Communist insurgency from the South and that it had little to do with what was going on in the South.[67]

The deception helped to create general unwillingness to get involved in the perceived internal conflict, leaving America with few allies to rely on.[68] The only countries that were really committed to aiding the US in Vietnam were Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea.[69]

Australian of the 6RAR during a “search and destroy” mission[70]

Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment go on patrol in Vietnam, 1969[71]

Soldiers of the South Korean 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam.[72]

All told, the allies provided roughly 60,000 soldiers, who served alongside 550,000 US soldiers in 1968.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States assembled one of the largest international coalitions since World War II. With no small effort by United States diplomats and many other partners around the world, the UN Security Council passed a series of resolutions, with the first being Resolution 660, condemning Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and calling for its immediate withdrawal, enacting sanctions, and finally, Resolution 678, which authorized “all necessary means” to ensure Iraqi compliance with the UN Resolutions.[73][74]And many countries would answer the call.

Coalition countries in blue vs. Iraq in orange[75]

In total, 697,000 US military personnel along with approximately 172,000 personnel from 39 other countries would be assembled; a formidable 20th century military force that the world had never seen before.

Multinational group (Qatari, French, U.S. Air Force, & Canadian) of fighter jets during Operation Desert Shield.[76]

14th/20th King’s Hussars, a part of the 4th Armoured Brigade pose in front of some Scorpions.[77]

A combat group from the French 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment (RIMa) on Al-Salaman Street in Iraq, 1991.[78]

Saudi Arabian soldiers flash the victory sign following the Battle of Khafji, February 2, 1991.[79]

A Kuwaiti M-84 tank during Operation Desert Shield, 1990.[80]

This potent coalition allowed the US to portray itself as leading a liberation that had worldwide support against a clearly hostile and uncooperative Iraqi regime.[81] Moreover, the participation of Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt denied Saddam the opportunity to liken the struggle as a grand “Islam vs. the West” struggle.[82]

However, I would like to point out that the situation in Vietnam and the situation in Iraq were very, very different. As can be seen in my answer, Iraq was not a competent player in the diplomatic front, often relying more on blatant thuggery and intimidation to achieve its goals.[83] Its administration was highly centralized around fulfilling the personal ambitions of its dictator, often to the detriment of Iraqi national interests or independent thought.[84] Its military, while indeed massive and having some decent units, turned out to be mostly poorly motivated, lacking in equipment, and often entirely incompetent.[85][86][87] World opinion on the various atrocities committed by the Iraqi Army in its occupation of Kuwait and against coalition forces only inflamed world public opinion.

Iraq Puts Clearly Beaten POWs On TV

Yet, it is obvious that America and the coalition had won a stunning victory that could not have been possible without appreciating the experience in Vietnam. Iraq had around 22,000 combat deaths while the coalition experienced 300 deaths. [88][89] I am not a big believer in body count indexes, but all objectives of the coalition were fulfilled with an insanely small casualty ratio; by any standard – that must count as a win.

But I like to think that the real lesson we learned from Vietnam is that bad things happen to people, sometimes through no fault of their own. Sometimes, America makes the wrong choice and it ends up hurting people even more. But even so, we need to learn from our mistakes and continue trying to help. Because we need to if we want to leave a better, brighter future on this Earth. I will end with a speech excerpt from the recently-departed President H. W. Bush about a long-term goal for why we had to go into Kuwait.

“We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective—a new world order—can emerge: a new era—freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace…Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”[90]

All mistakes made were my own, but please tell me so I can correct them. Thank you for reading.

Footnotes

[1] ‘Mother of All Battles’ lasted only 100 hours

[2] The horrifying way Iran cleared mines in the Iran-Iraq War

[3] 20 things the U.S. did to help Saddam against Iran

[4] Iraq & Kuwait

[5] Iraqi Army: World’s 5th Largest but Full of Vital Weaknesses :  Military: It will soon be even larger. But its senior staff is full of incompetents and only a third of its troops are experienced.

[6] Superpowers unite on Iraq

[7] Iraqi Military Parade 1990 استعراض الجيش العراقي

[8] MIDEAST TENSIONS; How U.S. Won Support to Use Mideast Forces  The Iraq Resolution: A U.S.-Soviet Collaboration — A special report

[9] The 1991 Iraq War – The Battle at the UN – Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

[10] Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. – Wikipedia

[11] Oral History – Norman Schwarzkopf

[12] Colin Powell – Wikipedia

[13] Powell Doctrine – Wikipedia

[14] George H. W. Bush Announces Start of Persian Gulf War

[15] Transcript of Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)

[16] Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

[17] The Crucial Years, 1960-1964

[18] Marines in the sands of Red Beach at Da Nang, 1965

[19] The 50th anniversary of the battle of Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam

[20] The UH-1 Iroquois in Vietnam

[21] From Blue to Green and Brown

[22] Join a B-52 on a Linebacker II mission with this story about the Christmas bombing campaign over Hanoi

[23] The Military and Diplomatic Course of the Vietnam War

[24] Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution

[25] Presidential Address on Persian Gulf

[26] Iraqis Welcome Saddam’s Withdrawal From Kuwait

[27] Bush Halts Offensive Combat; Kuwait Freed, Iraqis Crushed

[28] Why the U.S. Did Not Overthrow Saddam Hussein – FPIF

[29] 2018 United States Military Strength

[30] An Assessment of U.S. Military Power

[31] Vietcong: Definition & Tactics | Study.com

[32] Vietnam War: The Vietcong

[33] MUST WE INVADE THE NORTH?

[34] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Vietnam War

[35] Viet Nam; VC & NVA; They called him ‘Charlie’

[36] https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/c…

[37] Vietnam War Helicopters (1955-1975)

[38] Air assault – Wikipedia

[39] NLF and PAVN battle tactics – Wikipedia

[40] Vietnam War: The Early Years, 1965-1967

[41] Napalm in Vietnam War – The Vietnam War

[42] Agent Orange and the Vietnam War – Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

[43] Vietnam War: The Early Years, 1965-1967

[44] Agent Orange a risk for US personnel working on planes after Vietnam war

[45] VA Nearly Done With Agent Orange Claims – VAntage Point

[46] Saddam Refuses to Withdraw

[47] #PartnershipsMatter Now and Mattered in 1991 during Operation Desert Shield

[48] Gulf War air campaign – Wikipedia

[49] Gulf War–Air Campaign 1989–91 – The History Reader

[50] Gulf War air campaign – Wikipedia

[51] This fake amphibious assault saved hundreds of lives in Desert Storm

[52] Schwarzkopf’s Strategy

[53] File:DesertStormMap v2.svg

[54] One Hundred Hours

[55] CNN.com Specials

[56] Weapons | The Gulf War | FRONTLINE | PBS

[57] Stealth, GPS, ‘Smart Bombs’ and More: How Desert Storm Changed Warfare Forever

[58] Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk – Wikipedia

[59] https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/…

[60] Weapons – Global Positioning System

[61] GPS Goes to War – The Global Positioning System in Operation Desert Storm.

[62] Battle of 73 Easting – Wikipedia

[63] The United Kingdom Involvement in the Vietnam War – The Vietnam War

[64] First Indochina War – Wikipedia

[65] Chinese and Soviet involvement in Vietnam

[66] Countering MiGs: Air-to-Air Combat Over North Vietnam

[67] The Viet Cong

[68] How Europe Sees Vietnam | News | The Harvard Crimson

[69] What Countries Involved in the Vietnam War? – Part 2 – The Vietnam War

[70] Vietnam War 1962-75

[71] r/HistoryPorn – Soldiers of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment on patrol in Vietnam, 1969 [640×280]

[72] South Korea in the Vietnam War – Wikipedia

[73] ODS HOME PAGE

[74] Security Council resolutions – 1990

[75] 21 facts about the First Gulf War

[76] Coalition of the Gulf War – Wikipedia

[77] CVR(T) Scorpions – Operation Granby

[78] “One hundred years of photography in the French Armed Forces”. Fithteenth episode. Desert Storm and Opération Daguet.

[79] Stock Photo – Saudi Arabian soldiers flash the victory sign during clean up operations following the Battle of Khafji February 2, 1991 in Khafji City, Saudi Arabia. The Battle of Khafji was

[80] Invasion of Kuwait – Wikipedia

[81] Saddam Refuses to Withdraw

[82] Muslim Leaders Reject Hussein’s Call for Holy War on the ‘Infidels’ :  Arabs: His plea finds favor with some. But Iran labels it a ‘propaganda ploy’ and Syria spurns Iraqi policies.

[83] https://www.washingtonpost.com/a…

[84] IRAQ: The Country

[85] https://fas.org/nuke/guide/iraq/…

[86] CONFRONTATION THE GULF;   A Million Strong? Some Experts Question Iraq’s Military Strength

[87] Iraqi Armed Forces – Wikipedia

[88] Persian Gulf War | Definition, Combatants, & Facts

[89] Appendix – Iraqi Death Toll

[90] September 11, 1990: Address Before a Joint Session of Congress | Miller Center