On March 8, 1965, 3500 US Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade came ashore at Da Nang, South Vietnam. The first US combat troops committed to the Vietnam War, were intended to assume a defensive role, protecting the Da Nang airbase in use by American aircraft supporting operations conducted by South Vietnamese troops and their US advisors. Once the Marines were ashore, however, their involvement in the conflict quickly mushroomed. By the end of 1965 there were 38,000 Marines in country, and they had long since taken on an offensive role.
In retrospect, that force would look tiny. Over the next three years US military commanders in Vietnam made repeated requests for ever greater troop levels, and the United States assumed a correspondingly greater role in the conflict. What had begun many years earlier as a limited effort to support the South Vietnamese government against a Communist insurgency became an all-out, and largely American, war. By May of 1969, there were 543,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam.
The result was predictable. American forces proved capable of preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. Deployment of this many Americans into a war of arguable strategic significance proved, however, ultimately politically impossible to maintain. The American public, sick of growing body counts and massive expenditures, demanded troop withdrawal. US forces were pulled out, and despite a supposed accord with Hanoi, in 1975, Saigon was overrun. A long, bitter and ultimately fruitless conflict came to an end.
It has been over forty years since the last American personnel were airlifted off the roof of our embassy in Saigon to American warships offshore. Yet, somehow, it seems there are lessons we still cannot learn.
Particularly, since 9/11 we have careened from intervention to intervention, introducing troops, launching drone and missile strikes, and speaking in terms of numbers of troops and tons of ordnance rather than national security strategy, goals, plans and objectives.
We invaded Afghanistan eighteen years ago to destroy a terrorist group that had attacked us on our own soil. We remain in that nation today, pursing some sort of poorly conceived, amorphous goal of nation building and social transformation.
We invaded Iraq fifteen years ago to topple a madman. We remain bogged down there today, because we then expanded that mission, with apparently no thought or planning, into the complete transformation of Iraqi civil and political culture and the resolution of 1500 year old disputes between Shia and Sunni.
We occupied one third of the landmass of Syria in a supposed effort to pursue broken fragments of ISIS and then undertook to guarantee the existence of a proto-Kurdish state in a virtual state of war with Turkey and in open conflict with Syrian governmental forces, Russian mercenaries and Iranian sponsored militias. That completely open-ended commitment, fraught with potential downsides appears to have been entered into with almost no thought whatsoever as to its duration, purpose or possible ramifications elsewhere.
Last week President Trump said “enough.” He signaled loudly and clearly that the age of mission creep, ill-conceived foreign adventures and endless war is at an end. He announced the withdrawal of American forces from Syria. A drawdown in Afghanistan will reportedly follow.
In Syria, there will be any number of issues that will have to be resolved. What will happen to the Kurdish forces with whom we have been working? How will we guarantee that Turkey will not simply crush them? What will the impact be on our relationship with Iraqi Kurds, and how will we reassure them that they will not be abandoned?
These are all significant questions. They will require thought and careful management. That does not change the fact that the decision to end our military involvement in Syria, one with no clear objective, was unquestionably the right one. The fact that we were able to sustain a military presence in Syria indefinitely does not mean that we should.
The United States military is the finest military force that has ever existed on the planet. The fact remains, however that its job is to implement policy, not to make it. We ought not ever have troops on the ground or in conflict without having clearly stated our objectives, identified the national interest at stake and defined with precision what victory looks like. Sending troops into combat is not a strategy. It is a tactic.
In hindsight we often romanticize the Second World War. We see it as a conflict in which we allowed the military to do whatever it deemed necessary and achieved total victory as a result. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We fought the Second World War according to a crystal-clear national strategy, laser focused on our national interests. We did not even enter the conflict until such time as we had determined that the Axis powers posed a direct threat to the security of the United States. Ultimately, that decision came after Japanese bombs had already fallen on Pearl Harbor.
We formed an alliance with the Soviet Union, the world’s leading Communist power, because it would facilitate victory. We ended the war in Europe when Germany fell, leaving all of Eastern Europe and half of Germany under Russian control, because the objective was to destroy Germany, not destroy Germany and then enter into a new, more horrible conflict with the Russians.
In the Pacific we bypassed innumerable Japanese-held islands and avoided any commitment of land forces to mainland Asia, because we were intent on crushing Japan and ending the war. We were not interested in being pulled into the occupation of China, the labyrinth of Southeast Asia or any other resource-draining adventures secondary to our essential purpose.
Perhaps an even better illustration of the necessity for a focus on our national interest is the Korean War. We intervened in Korea, after the fall of China and a Communist invasion of South Korea to stabilize the situation in Northeast Asia and, perhaps more than anything else, to safeguard the rebuilding of Japan. We achieved that goal and pushed North Korean forces out of South Korea. When General MacArthur, bent on igniting a full-scale war with Red China, exceeded his instructions and attempted to broaden the conflict, he was relieved. We were not in Korea to do whatever the military believed it should or could do. We were in Korea to safeguard a clearly defined, and limited, American national interest.
We went to Korea. We achieved what we needed to achieve in the interest of stability in Northeast Asia and the protection of Japan and we stopped. We did not engage in mission creep. We did not continue to add on requirements or objectives. We did the necessary.
We cannot retreat from the world stage. We will not retreat from the world stage. We cannot, however, continue to stumble into conflicts and pursue objectives of limited utility to American national security, doing in many cases simply what we can rather than what we should. We do not have the blood to sustain this practice. We do not have the treasure to sustain this practice. We must begin to regain control over our national security strategy, and we must return generals to the role of implementing a national security strategy rather than crafting it for us.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is the beginning of this process. It has been a long time coming. There have been far too many Da Nangs in the last fifty years.