Top Ten Iraq Mistakes



Because the Bush administration, almost from the start, has eschewed any comparison of Iraq with Vietnam, officials apparently never read the history of the nation’s heretofore worst war and have made the same 10 major mistakes:

1. Underestimating the enemy. As in Vietnam, the superpower’s potent military has been astounded by the tenacity and competence of a nationalist rebellion attempting to throw a foreign occupier from its soil. For example, the U.S. military, a hierarchical organization, views the Sunni insurgency as disorganized and without a central command structure. Yet the insurgents are using this decentralized structure very effectively and are not threatened by any U.S. decapitation strike to severely wound the rebellion by killing its leaders.

2. Deceiving the American public about how badly the war is going. President Bush continues to talk of victory, and his chief military officer, Gen. Peter Pace, argued that the United States was making “very, very good progress” just two days before the more credible U.S. ambassador to Iraq warned that a civil war was possible in Iraq. President Lyndon Johnson painted an excessively rosy picture of U.S. involvement in Vietnam until the massive communist Tet offensive against the south in 1968 created a “credibility gap” in the public mind. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries successfully beat back the offensive, but the war was lost politically because the U.S. government lost the confidence of its own citizens. The Bush administration has fallen into the same trap by trying to “spin” away bad news from Iraq. Polls ominously indicate that Bush’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the American public has plummeted more than 20 points since September of 2003 to 40 percent.

3. The Bush administration, like the Johnson and Nixon administrations, blames the media’s negative coverage for plunging popular support of the war. Yet the nature of the press is that it would rather cover extraordinary negative events, such as fires and plane crashes, than more mundane positive developments. Vietnam demonstrated that normal media coverage of mistakes in war could undermine the war effort. The Bush administration should have expected such predictable media coverage.

4. Artificial government statistics cannot be used to measure progress in a counterinsurgency war. In Vietnam, the body counts of North Vietnamese/Viet Cong were always much greater than U.S./South Vietnamese deaths. Lately, the Bush administration has touted that fewer U.S. personnel are dying in Iraq. But U.S. forces have been pulled back from the fight to reduce U.S. casualties and to train Iraqi forces. In guerilla warfare, despite unfavorable statistics, as long as the insurgents keep an army in the field, they can win as the foreign invader tires of the occupation.

5. The initial excessive use of force in counterinsurgency warfare instead of a plan to win hearts and minds. The U.S. military, since the days of U.S. Grant, has used superior firepower to win wars of attrition against its enemies. In Vietnam, the U.S. military used such tactics initially, but later adopted a softer counterinsurgency strategy only after it was too late. The Bush administration initially blasted towns like Falluja into rubble and only now, in an attempt to reduce support for the guerillas among the already angry population, is converting to a strategy aimed at winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

6. Failed “search and destroy” tactics belatedly gave way to the “inkblot” approach of clearing and holding ground. In both Vietnam and Iraq, after search and destroy missions, enemy fighters merely returned to areas when “victorious” U.S. forces left. But not enough U.S. forces are in Iraq to make the “clear and hold” method work.

7. “Iraqization” of the war parallels the unsuccessful “Vietnamization” in the 1970s. The Nixon administration never fully explained how the less capable South Vietnamese military could defeat the insurgency when the powerful U.S. military had failed. The same problem exists in Iraq.

8. As in Vietnam, there has been no “date certain” for withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Bush recently implied that U.S. forces would be in Iraq when the next president takes office. Such an indefinite commitment of U.S. forces convinces more Iraqis that the United States is an occupier that needs to be resisted.

9. Retention of incompetent policymakers. Lyndon Johnson retained Robert McNamara, the inept architect of the Vietnam strategy, as Secretary of Defense until McNamara himself turned against his own war. Bush has kept the bungling Donald Rumsfeld on too long in the same position.

10. Most important of all, starting a war with another country for concocted reasons, which did not hold up under scrutiny. Lyndon Johnson used a questionable alleged attack by Vietnamese patrol boats on a U.S. destroyer to escalate U.S. involvement in a backwater country that was hardly strategic to the United States. Bush exaggerated the dangers from Iraqi weapons programs and implied an invented link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. In a republic, the lack of a compelling rationale for sending men to die in a distant war can be corrosive for the morale of the troops and public support back home.


  1. In Vietnam, we fought at least in part against Vietmanese citizens. No war can be won by an outside agressor fighting against entrenched people defending their homes. Especially not when they are also receiving outside assistance. Every military planner back to Sun Tzu would have warned against that.

    Often, great minds stray from the lessons of history, convincing themselves that despite all signs to the contrary, this time will be different. It is the ultimate example of the trimuph of ego over rational thought processes.

  2. One thing that kept everyone alert to was wave after wave of B-52 bombers flying in and out of Davis Monthan all day long , sometimes a wave of 10 to 20 at a time every 15 minutes flying overhead. The Noise was real and constant!
    The Caskets coming from Viet Nam to Tucson was very real also as at that time only three Funeral Homes existed,and we also had an Ambulance Service that ran 24-7, it was Brings Ambulance and A&A Ambulance there was no Fire Ambulance service,and no County Morgue,all autopsies were performed in my Funeral Homes by The County.
    I recall the fighter plane that crashed into the Food Giant store and exploded at the end of the runway on 29th and Alvernon. We were told to prepare for 250 bodies and the first ambulance brought in a small remains. We were all very silent as it was carried to our embalming rooms. As we looked closer at the remains we discovered it was a “TURKEY!” Yes even in tradgedy there is humor!

  3. The Chinese have “JUNK” from Russia at their disposal. The Chinese kept pumping that same “Junk” into North Vietnam and defeated the United States in a War of Words not just attacks.

    Don’t underestimate the Chinese.

    As for Viet Nam being a tragic error and folly,it involved Three Administrations and over 250,000 American lives lost. To call each one of those deaths a “Folly” I think is wrong.
    An “Error” yes.

    Kennedy put Viet Nam on the back burner,as I was pulling 250 B-26’s out of the bone yard at Davis Monthan AFB at age 17 and refurbishing them for Madam Nue’s Airforce. We had Air Force helicopters flying everywhere in Tucson serving the 18 Titan Missile Silos,with the biggest sales in town going to “Home Bomb Shelters.” You have to put it in context not just a War in Viet Nam it was a War Against Communism, a very “REAL THREAT AT THE TIME!”

    Cuba was RED HOT ALSO! We did not know if Fidel had killed Kennedy or not!

    The War HIT HOME THEN MORE THAN THE WAR IN IRAQ TODAY! We had food shortages due to a boxcar shortage because of War supplies being shipped to the WEST COAST.

    I have many letters from President Johnson as we discussed this War in Viet Nam both over there and at home. Iam very familiar with what went on at schools in the media and on the ground in Viet Nam,it was a War that could have been won. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Even John McCain will tell you that , being held captive as well as my Cousin being held Captive in the Hanoi Hilton longer than McCain also backs up that statement. Looking back 50 years gives you some hindsight we did not have then, but does not reflect the “Total Picture” being projected at that time.

  4. Give me a break. No responsible military planner would suggest that China has the ability to invade Taiwan. They lack the sea and air lift capacity to land more the 10-20K ambibious assault troops. The Taiwanese have air and sea superiority, not to mention American security guarantees. The Chinese would be slaughtered if they attempted a military invasion. Their bluster and military drills are nothing but the impotent posturings of frustrated nationalism.

    As to Vietnam, are you seriously suggesting that the war in Vietnam was something other than a tragic error and folly, Dwight?