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Why Strategy Matters

"You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," said the American colonel.The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. "That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant."

Conversation in Hanoi, April 1975(1)


"We thank God for appeasing us with the dilemma in Iraq after Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation for both countries. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."

Ayman Zawahiri, September 2003(2)

The two statements above, separated by 28 years of history, reflect a common element for the United States in both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror - the lack of a cohesive wartime national strategy. The War on Terror, as the outcome of the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, promises to be the effort of a generation. If it is to win the War on Terror and prepare itself for the era of warfare that follows, the United States must approach it in a manner reminiscent of successes in past wars: with clearly defined and obtainable national objectives, and a unified national strategy to obtain those objectives. In addition, it must establish a clear long-term vision for transforming its efforts and its institutions from the industrial age to the information age as the new paradigm for waging war. Parameters for the new paradigm can be found by studying the lessons from past United States wars, and by evaluating them against emerging concepts of warfare in the information age.

For example, when the strategic reasons for the United States loss in the Vietnam War are considered against current United States efforts in the War on Terror parallels can be found. In Vietnam, the United States expended the majority of its strategic military effort against the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam which it viewed as the main North Vietnamese effort. Although the United States military succeeded in destroying the Viet Cong, it did not prevent North Vietnam from attaining its strategic objective of destroying American public support for the war and forcing the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam in defeat. In actuality, destruction of North Vietnam's regular forces, which ultimately overran South Vietnam, should have been the main strategic military objective of the United States.

In the War on Terror, the United States is currently expending the majority of its strategic military efforts against insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it has not clearly defined its adversary, nor its strategic objectives. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are likely not the main effort against the United States, and it is not certain that in its military engagement against them the United States is winning the War on Terror. In a manner reminiscent of Vietnam public opinion polls reflect that while the American public continues to support the War on Terror, it is growing increasingly disenchanted with the War in Iraq.

Additional factors which define the character of the War on Terror also have to be considered. First, the Vietnam War was an ideological struggle between a western industrialized world power and an Asian agrarian nation, fought using industrial age methods and weapons. The War on Terror is a war along cultural lines between a western information age world power and information age non-state entities. It will be fought using information age methods and weapons. Information age technology, which has eliminated concepts of time and distance, virtually guarantees that the War on Terror will again be brought to United States soil, as it was on 9/11. Second, the ongoing reorganization of the United States government and its intelligence community will play an as-yet-to-be-determined role in the War on Terror. Finally, the implications of the War on Terror are global. The experience of the United States, and its outcomes, will have implications for the world community as a whole in the information age.



Summers, Harry G., Jr.. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis Of The Vietnam War.
Conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi between Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., then Chief, Negotiations Division, U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team and Colonel Tu, Chief, North Vietnamese (DRV) Delegation, as reported by Colonel Summers.

Anonymous (Michael Scheur). Imperial Hubris: Why The West is Losing the War on Terror.
"Recorded Audio Message by Ayman Zawahiri," Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel Television, 10 September 2003, as reported by Anonymous (Michael Scheur).

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