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A Lesson from John Paul Vann
A Lesson from John Paul Vann


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August 26, 2003

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off here.]

By Sid Smith

Iraq is no Vietnam, but there is a lesson from Vietnam that our commanders in Iraq will ignore at their peril: To win, we must think and act differently than our training and military education prepare us to do.

During the Vietnam War, some of the fiercest fighters the war ever saw were soldiers who were known as combat bums and as troops who had gone native.

What they had in common was an obsession with winning, even at the cost of career advancement within the U.S. military. These soldiers even chose to stay in Vietnam rather than return to stateside to attend schools and further training that would ensure their promotion.

Once free of the pressures of "ticket punching," they began to adopt the lifestyle of the locals in Saigon and elsewhere, and they began to think "out of the box." Ultimately what emerged was an extremely unique style of counterinsurgency warfare - one that may save us both in Iraq and in our current war against terrorism.

Not every military person is cut out for counterinsurgency, nor is that approach the only element in U.S. military strategy toward the emerging terrorist-guerilla conflict in Iraq.

It is worth our while today to learn from the Vietnam-era "combat bums" who went native to fight their war. Of all the combat bums, few left us a more worthwhile legacy than John Paul Vann, who fought in Vietnam first in uniform and then later returned to Vietnam as a civilian advisor.

Several authors have written about Vann's career, particularly Neil Sheehan in his brilliantly detailed book, A Bright Shining Lie. But, I caution, Sheehan was pushing his own historical interpretation of the Vietnam War and failed to provide much information as to what actually makes a great U.S. counterinsurgency leader tick. I strongly recommend the late Marguerite Higgins' book, Our Vietnam Nightmare, as well as the works of some noted counterinsurgency experts such as Roger Trinquier and David Galula. From there, the spirit of a counterinsurgency leader may emerge and one then can apply this wisdom to winning war as it exists today.

More than anything else, these works suggest that typically the counterinsurgency leader leaves the familiarity and safety of U.S. institutions and begins to live among the local population - the same people who are recruited by an adversary such as Osama bin Laden and the like. Sometimes this type of mission will include overseeing civilian projects that will improve the lives of the locals. But in all cases, the leader cuts as many ties as possible with the U.S. government and, by primarily relying on his intuition, learns to move among the people like "a fish through water."

A successful counterinsurgent will begin to build trust with the local population and, over time, will receive different kinds of information in return, including information that protects the leader himself. As an example, on at least one occasion, local peasants in Vietnam warned Vann of an impending enemy ambush. Another type of information will reveal the identity, location, strengths and weaknesses of the adversary. Usually with the knowledge of local tribal leaders, the counterinsurgent may pass on the information to appropriate U.S. authorities for organizing direct military action.

As the counterinsurgent emerges as leader among the locals, invariably his leadership will threaten the adversary. The longer the counterinsurgent remains in the field among the enemy's people, the greater the likelihood that his activity will flush out the adversary, ultimately leading to the counterinsurgent's objective - a showdown where the victor wins even further allegiance from the locals and his reputation among the people spreads across the countryside.

What kind of person becomes such a leader? Counterinsurgency experts such as Trinquier and Galula point out that it is impossible to predict from what part of society such a leader will arise. At least one noted counterinsurgent has written that such a leader more likely than not will come from the civilian sector. History seems to suggest that he may emerge from the military or civilian life or, in the case of John Paul Vann, both. The reason for such unpredictability is that, more than anything else, the leader possesses a personality type - actually a charisma - that helps to connect him with the local people.

There are no handbooks or classrooms, much less institutions, that can create such a charisma. It is a God-given talent and a person either has it or doesn't. And often such a charisma only becomes apparent as the particular circumstances of a conflict unfold.

The vocation of a counterinsurgent leader has little to do with covert CIA techniques or the insertion and extraction methods employed by special operations forces such as the Green Berets or Navy SEALs. First, the work of the counterinsurgent leader is not covert. The locals are fully aware that the leader is associated with the U.S. Government. By placing his identity and associations on the table at the first meeting with the local population, the leader relies on a growing mutual trust - not deception - with the local people.

A counterinsurgency leader lives among the local population and adopts their lifestyle. He does not go into a village during the night, wreak havoc and then leave. But, of course, at some point - once the locals start to supply information - the leader may relay details to authorities that would lead to such missions. As each mission takes place, the locals' trust of and reliance on the leader will increase, thus sending a message to the adversary that the counterinsurgent has challenged him for the people's allegiance.

Obviously, this creates a situation of extreme danger for the counterinsurgent. He must accept the possibility that he will experience the same fate as Sun Tzu's "doomed spy" - the agent whose activities are deliberately exposed to the enemy as part of a larger campaign.

Another form of danger confronts the dedicated counterinsurgent: It is common for a counterinsurgent to become fond of locals he is serving, and to begin fighting at their side. The attitude of the combat bum gone native hardens to believe that the only way to win is if the U.S. military and the local people truly emerge victorious on the same side of the fight. So while the leader represents the best of the United States to the locals, the odds increase that he will become critical of U.S. policies if they indeed become oppressive to the locals.

The counterinsurgent thus faces a quandary. It is his love of the United States that gives him the courage to go into uncharted territory and, if necessary, sacrifice his life for the flag. But he may start defending the locals and opposing U.S. policy if he thinks American leaders misunderstand or ignore the needs of the people he is defending.

In such cases, to be successful the counterinsurgent must come up with a creative and unique strategy that will first defend the United States its interests while also leading to ultimate victory in the field.

But surviving such a danger is like walking a razor's edge.

In Vietnam, John Paul Vann endured such a great struggle within his soul as he tried to balance the need to protect the Vietnamese while supporting a U.S. policy that was already leading to military withdrawal and disengagement from Vietnam. This inner conflict gave rise to Vann's creativity as a warrior and an American adviser.

Today, there is little doubt that both the war against terrorism and the occupation of Iraq call for "out of the box thinking" from soldiers in the field to our national leasership in Washington, D.C.

It is imperative that we learn from those heroes who fought and died in Vietnam, including the combat bums who went native.

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off here.]

Sid Smith is an amateur military historian who writes frequently on defense issues. He can be reached at sidsmith7@earthlink.net. 2003 DefenseWatch. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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