Top 7 Military Leadership Lessons from the Vietnam War

When we look back on Vietnam, there are many lessons we can learn from this war. There were, and still are a wide variety of opinions on how the United States could have handled the situation much better. I do have many opinions of my own. Many of these were developed from news stories, and from listening to others who had opinions. I also had one family member “knee deep” in Vietnam. I remember reading letters from him and seeing pictures sent home where he has Vietnam jungle all around him.

When Charles first mentioned this article, I delved deep into my mind on how I could write such an article and keep it from being, or sounding political. The fact is…I cannot. Leadership starts from the top down. This article will have political substance, because it must to be properly written.

I have been reading works by people who served in Vietnam, and those who didn’t. I have read both sides of the equation, and I have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for both sides of this extreme debate.

These are what I feel are the top 7 military leadership lessons from the Vietnam War. Please read them carefully, and provide your opinions at the comment section at the end. At the end of this article, I am going to refer to a few books and articles you may find of interest. While you may not necessarily agree with the author, we can still learn by reading.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

1: Research the past.

If the President and military leaders would have researched past military maneuvers and battles throughout Indochina, they probably would have considered other options. The Chinese, Japanese and lastly, the French all tried with all their might to control Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other countries in Indochina. None of them could keep control. If none of these governments could enact their ideas, it made no sense that the United States would think that they could. The primary consensus is that the main objective was to show power and might to the Communist countries of Russia and China.

Reference: Vietnam: Lessons Learned

AUTHOR Major Clarence Mariney,USMC

2: Show respect and military uprightness.

In many ways, this lesson comes from deep inside my memories. I believe that many military leaders also agreed because I see a much different perspective in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When my memories go back to the pictures, videos and news coverage of Vietnam, I recall seeing service members not properly dressed in their uniforms. There was talk of how service members drank, did drugs and paid for prostitution services while in Vietnam. The overall perception of the American serviceman was disgust and hate. The people we were trying to help considered us the enemy. Military leaders must keep control of their soldiers. Respect must be shown to the natives as to gain trust and respect back.

“This war turns the clock of history back

and perpetuates white colonialism.

The greatest irony and tragedy of it all

is that our own nation which initiated so much

of the revolutionary spirit in this modern world

is now cast in the mold of being an arch anti-revolutionary.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Reference: History of Peace

3: Following the Enlistment Oath.

Before I delve into this lesson, we will recall the Oath we took when entering military service:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

We all know that the United States Government broke many rules the Constitution of the United States sets forth when we invaded Vietnam. I will not even mention how many of the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice rules were broke.

When orders were given to break any of these, it is up to military leadership to stand against orders that are breaking any of these. Too many leaders were simply puppets in Vietnam. It makes me question if we learned anything from Hitler at all.

“One of the few unequivocally sound lessons of history is that the

lessons we should learn are usually learned imperfectly if at all.”

Bernard Brodie

4: Diplomacy before bullets.

This lesson is for the highest military leaders starting with the President of the United States. Without sounding like a person who agrees with today’s administration, I do agree with the fact that we, as the most powerful country in the world, need to support and commit to full measures of diplomatic procedures before we send troops and bombs. I firmly believe that our current President has used that premise, but in the same sense, there is a fine line. Groups such as ISIS want their way, and only their way. Diplomacy is a method of give and take. ISIS only wants to take. As leaders, diplomacy must be the first step, but armed action never can be put in the closet.

When high military leaders utilize diplomacy as a first step, lower leaders will follow suit.

Reference: Presidential Decision making and Vietnam: Lessons for Strategists

Author: Joseph Cerami

5: Do not underestimate smaller forces.

There is a strong consensus by all who write about mistakes made in Vietnam that we underestimated the North Vietnamese. Just because a force is smaller, or is using antiquated weapons does not mean they cannot be victorious. As military leaders, we always need to consider all possibilities. This is something that was not done in Vietnam, but I do believe leaders learned from Vietnam and consider these factors in operations now.

We must also always consider the current situation, and not always focus on the past. This again, is a fine line and it takes wise leadership to understand.

“Trying to use the lessons of the past correctly poses two dilemmas.

One is the problem of balance: knowing how much to rely on the

past as a guide and how much to ignore it. The other is the problem

of selection: certain lessons drawn from experience contradict others.”

Richard Betts

Reference: Vietnam Legacy Shapes Today’s Military Leaders

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

6: Keeping morale high.

“War is not only a matter of equipment, artillery, group troops or air force; it is largely a matter of spirit, or morale.”

Chiang Kai-shek

Vietnam showed us that soldier morale can lead to terrible consequences. With the battle against the war going on in the mainland and reporters creating stories that attacked the soldiers, many soldiers felt alone. Leaders didn’t help the matter when they turned blind eyes and ears.

When there is no support coming from outside, it is a leader’s job to find means to build morale. It can be by pep talks, or just listening. Again, this leadership lesson starts at the top and rolls down.

Reference: Lessons from the Vietnam War

Author: Edward Cuddy

7: Empower the people we are helping.

I saved this for last, as it comes from a man I have always admired. Retired General David Petraeus wrote a great paper in which I will reference at the end. Petraeus was involved in Vietnam, led forces in Iraq, and was also Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He explained that in Vietnam we neglected to show the people we were trying to help how to help themselves. It reminds me of an old proverb: Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him how to catch fish and feed him for a lifetime. Petraeus used what he learned in Vietnam and adapted it in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe it worked in many ways. Here is a quote from Petraeus in that article:

“Informed by the Vietnam experience, the strategy also recognizes that clearing and keeping the enemy from an area alone does not spell success. A critical third tenet, it notes, is the establishment of a legitimate government supported by the people and infrastructure development that empowers them.”

David Petraeus

Reference: Lessons of History and Lessons of Vietnam

Author: David Petraeus

Final Thoughts

As leaders, we must always learn from past mistakes. Vietnam had its share of mistakes, but there were also many things done right. Wise leadership means studying the past, but also looking into the future.

Leaders will always have to make decisions that will not be popular; it is imperative that they always keep the whole of humanity’s good in the forefront of their decision making process.

I really hope that this article makes sense to you. I know that you may disagree with some aspects, and I would like to hear your thoughts and comments. Please provide them below.

Thank you and have a great day.

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Thanks for Your Service,

Chuck Holmes

SKYPE: mrchuckholmes
(352) 503-4816 home office
Email: chuck@part-time-commander.com

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