Vietnam Syndrome: Does It Still Exist?

After the Vietnam War the political landscape had changed. At nearly the same time the “forgotten war” in Korea had been fought to a stalemate, Vietnam, however, has been remembered and has never left the collective memory of the United States of America. This seems to stem across generations, to groups of people that weren’t even alive during the time of Vietnam. The war in Vietnam has been so ingrained within the minds and memories of everyone who went through the ordeal, whether they remained stateside, fled to Canada, ordered by the military to go overseas or if the people simply saw it on their television every night, Vietnam remained etched in the minds and soul of the nation.

Vietnam Syndrome was a political term which was used to define the reluctance of the American population’s unwillingness to become entrenched in another long, drawn out war. This was shown immediately after 1975 when President Carter refrained from beginning new wars and even President Reagan’s involvements were contained and limited. It wasn’t until President George H. W. Bush’s term when he took the nation and a coalition into the Gulf War. According to The Atlantic (2006), George H. W. Bush, after the conclusion of the war had famously said, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula… By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” But this declaration was short sighted for a few reasons.

The Gulf War was a war which had clear aims, the war wasn’t meant to transform a nation or to rebuild one, and it wasn’t meant to station American troops overseas for years on end. The aftermath of the Gulf War had been the first major war which was fundamentally different to every peace America had made since World War I. The United States didn’t establish military bases throughout Kuwait, there wasn’t an elongated presence, fighting was undertaken by a litany of nations who all shared the same goal, and once the goal of liberating Kuwait had been achieved, victory had been declared. To suddenly expect that the Vietnam Syndrome had been shed because The Gulf War had been so easily won is short-sighted. President Bush should’ve known that it would’ve taken more than one war to know if the Vietnam Syndrome had truly been “kicked.”

Vietnam was still in the minds of people even after the Gulf War. Noted in the same article within The Atlantic (2006) they cited a USA Today/Gallup poll which stated that nearly 46 percent supported the idea that the United States should mind it’s own business when it came to international affairs. While there was support for the Gulf War, particularly because its aim was to oust Saddam Hussein who illegally invaded another country and, incidentally, caused the region to raise its oil prices, Vietnam wasn’t even twenty years old. People still remembered Vietnam coming into their homes every night through their television sets and their radios. If The Gulf War had been a struggle then President H. W. Bush might’ve seen a different mood through the population and he wouldn’t have claimed that the people were beyond Vietnam.

Naturally, the Gulf War didn’t end Vietnam Syndrome. It’s still seen throughout the nation. The cautionary tale of fighting “another Vietnam” is often repeated repetitiously when the nation considers getting involved in another prolonged conflict. This threat rose briefly with the involvement in Somalia. It was cited by Mariani (2011), “Yet US participation, Bush maintained, would never escalate past a humanitarian intervention. Despite concerns from his cabinet that this war could turn into a drawn-out and dangerous conflict in an area which was of no strategic importance to the US, Bush remained confident that this could remain a humanitarian mission.” While President Clinton quickly removed troops from East Africa, he also committed to war although his aims were much more limited. There were brief conflicts that the United States involved itself in along Iraq once more and within the former Yugoslavian countries. But these weren’t wars in the same way that Vietnam was, or even that The Gulf War had been. These were limited enterprises where the United States only half-heartedly activated itself, often with allies, before committing troops.

The end of the Cold War had euphorically given Americans, and their leaders, carte blanche to work overseas and around the world with little to stop them. The Perspectivas Journal (2018) reinforces this fact when writing, “The end of the cold war created a new inter-national panorama with discussions around the world system and its unipolar (or multipolar in some sense) character. In this framework, the Gulf War… paved the way for new structural changes, affecting especially the Middle East and other regions of the world.” Before this sudden change, the Soviet Union could involve itself into the war if it so chose and it would likely be prolonged. This occurred in many proxy wars between the United States and the USSR in such places as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded the country in the 1980s.

The Gulf War did encourage a change that Vietnam, Korea and a few other minor wars had lacked. In Vietnam there wasn’t a clear, definable objective. As Chapman writes in the Chicago Tribune (2017), “Gen. Colin Powell, who served in combat [in Vietnam], had them in mind when he formulated what became known as the Powell Doctrine. It advised going to war only if we can identify a vital interest, have clear, achievable purposes, are prepared to use decisive force and know our exit strategy. But Powell’s wisdom eventually was forgotten.” The United States went into Afghanistan because the Afghan government wouldn’t oust Al-Qaeda and hand over the terrorists who helped to orchestrate the attacks on 9/11. Aside from capturing Osama bin Laden, there didn’t seem to be an overarching goal aside from rebuilding the nation in spite of there being so many obstacles such as opium, cartels, faction in-fighting, terrorism, location, dealing with a nation that didn’t have a liberal tradition and being surrounded on all sides by hostile forces. If a lesson was learned in Vietnam it should’ve been that not all nations can be forced to change. They must have a history of the government or the ideas it wants to adopt. There must be some familiarity. The United States must understand the nation and culture of a people with which it will involve itself.

We can look specifically at the similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam as well. There were many similarities but the most obvious was in the way in which the wars have been fought. Non-traditional armies and terrorists both worked to fight through guerrilla tactics which helped to level the field between both technology and manpower. Chapman featured the threat of guerrilla tactics as he articulated, “In Kabul, Afghanistan, American Embassy personnel who want to meet with their counterparts at the nearby U.S. military base have to travel a mere 100 yards. But they don’t make a practice of walking or driving. They go by military helicopter, reports The New York Times. The space between is too dangerous to cross on the ground.” Afghanistan had quickly turned into another Vietnam. The American military, while initially victorious in traditional warfare, suffered when it came to winning over the people and establishing a new government. The American people, based on what Chapman had written above, were quickly reminded of the problems with the Vietnam War as they were repeating them so soon after 2001.

Afghanistan continued through from Bush to Obama just as Vietnam had transferred from Johnson to Nixon. The similarity is seamless as noted by Johnson and Mason (2009), “The Obama Administration deliberately took ownership of the Afghanistan war in its first days in office by sending more troops and ordering multiple strategic reviews. In October, as this article is being written, the Obama Administration is engaged in a very public strategic review following both a grim assessment from the President’s hand picked theatre commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and an embarrassing election fiasco in Afghanistan.” This was the same record that presidents took following Vietnam. John F. Kennedy initially sent more advisors and funds than Eisenhower had and Johnson followed suit; this is very similar to Obama’s lack of deviation when adding both Iraq and Afghanistan to his administration. What reigned seemed to be nothing more than confusion and the lack of leadership and understanding.

Counter-insurgency then became a popular talking point about how the military was working to integrate itself with the local population to root out terrorists and those who were threatening the newly formed Afghan government. Although this too was a failure. Johnson and Mason continued, “…an Army Special Forces officer returning from a year of duty in southern Afghanistan told us that although he had pacified his district by building a relationship of trust with the elders, and had the lowest number of IED attacks and ambushes in his province for the past six months, he was rated the lowest of all the officers in his unit for promotion because he had the fewest number of ‘kills’ during his tour of duty.” The US Army seemed to have resisted change for over four decades; they were fighting the same war they had left in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam the tactic was to demoralize and kill as many communist and People’s Army of Vietnam as possible. While the US leaders claimed that they wanted to win hearts and minds, as they had claimed in part in Vietnam, they instead carried out deadly attacks and rewarded kills which has rewarded the United States with the same result.

Some changes were attempted. General McChrystal, Johnson and Mason cite, removed the policy of rewarding body counts after it was reinstituted in June 2009. Whereas the North Vietnamese had help from the Soviets, the Taliban had aid from the Pakistani army and wealthy Saudis. The similarities between the two are clear and obvious. The United States had walked into and chose to remain in a chaotic situation which proved to be both unwinnable in the past and in the moment.

These tactics have continued up and through even today. Even when the United States isn’t actively adding more troops or going out of its way to install change, just inhabiting an area can rile the opposition. An NBC article (2020) wrote, “More than eight months after a barrage of rockets killed an American contractor and wounded four American service members in Kirkuk, Iraq, militia groups continue to target U.S. military bases in that country, and the frequency of those attacks has increased.” They added that rocket attacks had even gone up. While those attacks are more common, the local militias use less rockets in each attack. This may be in part due to the draw down and the expected withdrawal from the region but it shows that there is continuous danger in these regions where the United States remains.

The Vietnam Syndrome will exists with the American people. Kalb (2013) has stated that, “…it had never really left—what was widely referred to as the ‘Vietnam syndrome’–but it has now returned unmistakably, certain to exercise a major influence on American foreign policy during President Barack Obama’s second term in office.” President H. W. Bush’s claim that the American people had gotten over the Vietnam Syndrome was nothing more than a temporary moment. The Gulf War had been so brief if we compare it to its bookends of Vietnam and Afghanistan. There were other minor skirmishes through American eyes and while those caused some resentment and fears from the American people, it wasn’t enough for anyone to know if the Vietnam syndrome had truly been eradicated.

If we look at the events of Vietnam and the intervening years leading up to Afghanistan and Iraq, we can see that the American people still show disdain for long, drawn out and directionless wars. The foreign affairs of the nation are incredibly important as it’s one of their primary duties to avoid entangling the nation in these Vietnam-like situations. If the United States had “kicked” the Vietnam Syndrome as George H. W. Bush has stated, it was nothing more than a case of momentary amnesia. The results of Vietnam are still strongly buried in the American soul and it’s been reinforced with the constant barrage of news and information which has inundated the people with the reminder that another Vietnam is never too far away.

Works Cited

  • Chapman, Steve. “The Vietnam Syndrome: How We Lost It and Why We Need It.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 20 Sept. 2017, www.chicago tribune.com/columns/steve-chapman/ct-perspec-chapman-vietnam-syndrome-afghanistan- 20170921-story.html.
  • Johnson, Thomas H., and M. C. Mason. “Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template.” DTIC, 1 Dec. 2009, apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA518261.
  • Yurtbay, Baturay. View of Vietnam Syndrome and Its Effects on the Gulf War Strategy, Perspectivas, Journal of Political Science Vol 18, 4 June 2018, www.perspectivasjournal.com /index.php/perspectivas/article/view/160/3024.

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