Comparative Insights on Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan Based on Lessons of Vietnam

Lessons from the past might serve as a valuable source for present and future decision-making policies, particularly in analyzing the armed conflicts that undermine the nation’s security. To be more specific, lessons obtained from the Vietnam War encompass policy-relevant analogies, ambiguities, and paradoxes, but can be highly significant for investigating and solving current armed hostilities, such as conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During such critical crises, the lessons received from the past military experiences might be especially important to develop different tactics and war strategies. Furthermore, perceived lessons can help the commanders avoid the similar and, sometimes dreadful, mistakes learned from the previous warfare. The upsetting military experience of the U.S. troops in Vietnam left an indelible mark in the mindset of America’s senior military commanders.

In his article, Petraeus (1986) states that leaders tend to reflect on historical analogies in policy-making approaches in case of a sudden global development that jeopardizes national security interests and, thus, requires a prompt response. With that said, lessons from the United States’ experience in Indochina have a major impact on the current U.S. military leaders’ perspective concerning every post-Vietnam security crisis. Petraeus (1986) defines three general lessons based on the Vietnamese conflict, which might apply to the recent hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. To begin with, it is a crucial recall of the set limits of American public support for the country’s engagement in a protracted conflict. Considering the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, people started getting frustrated over the prolonging conflict. It may be said that all three military campaigns dragged on the conflicts, which resulted in significant losses in casualties and finances to maintain public support. American presidents Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and Obama did not manage to lead the American nation in support of the warfare.

The second lesson implies the increased understanding that civilian officials prefer to respond to the influences with the exception of objective conditions in combat. Therefore, this led to enhanced traditional military mistrust regarding politicians and political appointees. This lesson highlights the damaging role of civilian control over armed forces and related decision-making policies. One of the critical errors defined in both the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts is strategic and ethnocentric shortsightedness. In terms of the war in Afghanistan, the presidential position concerning the combat forces remains unchanged. From the political point of view, as well as the presidential office’s perspective, the military’s purpose involves fighting and winning wars, excluding the engagement in peacekeeping. Based on such vision, the United States is obliged to the long-term military cooperation in Afghanistan, including its security and safety. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the presidents aimed to transform both societies into stable democratic systems; however, the goal was to leave both countries later. In general, all three operations failed to adhere to the policy goals or the military strategy of the forerunner.

The final third lesson from the war in Vietnam is a changed perception of the limits of military force in dealing with particular problems in international relations. Bearing this in mind, the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan caused 5,000 deaths altogether, which is almost ten times smaller number compared to the Vietnamese experience. In contrast to Vietnam, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are increasingly open touched by death and the sudden shortages in the ranks. Given the discussed lessons from the Vietnamese conflict, the U.S. soldiers fight more carefully in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Vietnam. To conclude, the present hostilities are highly limited, including the objectives that are more oriented toward the nation-building process rather than destruction. This also led to enhanced restrictions of rules regarding armed engagement. The lessons determined by Petraeus had a chastening impact on the modern military thinking of the United States.


Petraeus, D. H. (1986). Lessons of history and lessons of Vietnam. Parameters (1986), 48–61.