U.S. Air Force F-105 Thunderchiefs take off on a mission to bomb North Vietnam in 1966. USAF
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: A Lesson Learned 

June 7, 2024

In the half-century since the end of the war in Vietnam, we Americans seem to have forgotten most of the useful lessons that unkind war once taught us.  

The most important of these is encapsulated in the Powell Doctrine: “Once a decision for military action has been made, half-measures and confused objectives extract a severe price in the form of a protracted conflict, which can cost needless loss of human lives and material resources, a divided nation at home, and defeat,” reads the 1992 National Military Strategy, published during Gen. Colin Powell’s tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  

“One of the essential elements of our national military strategy is the ability to rapidly assemble the forces needed to win,” the strategy continues, before advocating “the concept of applying decisive force to overwhelm our adversaries and thereby terminate conflicts swiftly with minimum loss of life.”

The document never mentioned Vietnam. It didn’t have to. 

Powell served two combat tours in Vietnam. His boss, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, escaped military service, but not the national reckoning that period invoked. 

Overwhelming force is only possible if the nation has the capacity and capability to employ that force at will.  

They published their military strategy in the immediate wake of Operation Desert Storm. There, they applied that strategy so artfully that the U.S. military successfully deployed 500,000 troops halfway around the globe, obliterated the world’s fourth-largest army, and got almost everyone home in time for a national Welcome Home celebration in under 11 months. 

Of all those who served, America lost just 147 troops to hostile action in that war; there were days in Vietnam, we lost many more in a single day. 

Success was born of the conviction that we would not fight with “half measures and confused objectives” again. President George H. W. Bush said we would expel Iraq from Kuwait, and he did. Once that was done, in the midst of a rout, he ended the killing. One can argue the consequences of not removing Saddam Hussein right then, but Bush achieved his objective and got most of his troops home. Later that same year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. 

So, when Powell and Cheney produced their strategy and articulated the doctrine within it, it seemed a clear attempt to ensure the United States would never again be bogged down in “another Vietnam.” Ironically, of course, Powell and Cheney would re-emerge a decade later as crucial figures in the aftermath of 9/11. So shaken were they by al-Qaeda’s attack that they seemingly ignored their own sound advice and helped launch the U.S. into a pair of forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Doing so cost hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and vastly diminished American political, military, and deterrent power worldwide.   

The principles of the Powell Doctrine and the effective deterrence that it should yield remain relevant today as we contemplate a new Cold War with China and two regional conflicts in which American policy is deeply intertwined. 

In Ukraine, the U.S. and our NATO allies have provided more than $175 billion in military aid along with priceless intelligence and cyber support. Yet our persistent incrementalism with regard to how much and what kind of aid we’ve provided, and how those weapons may be used, has consistently restrained Ukraine from being able to fully defend itsef  against brutal Russian invaders. These severe restrictions offer added advantage to the enemy.  

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, returning from military consultations in Ukraine in May, likened the situation to a football game in which each side plays by different rules. “The Russians get to use the whole field, Ukraine can’t cross the 50-yard line into the opposition’s territory,” he said. “They can only play defense on their own side (with U.S.-supplied weapons), but they can’t score. So, how are they going to win?” 

Helping Ukraine just enough to keep hope alive borders on cruelty. It also signals to allies that the U.S. is not to be fully trusted. We fight over offering aid and make poor choices that must soon be reversed. We opposed long-range artillery, then changed our minds. We said no to tanks, then changed our mind. We said no to F-16s, then changed our mind.

Now it’s time to change our mind about how Ukraine fights its enemy. We should drop restrictions on missiles, long-range artillery, and other U.S.-made weapons. In a war of attrition, which is where Ukraine is today, Russia can’t lose and Ukraine can’t win. Vladimir Putin has deeper pockets and controls all the levers of power at home. He has a marriage of convenience with China, which benefits from anything that seems to weaken the United States. 

Thus, it seems they are deterring us, rather than the other way around.

In Israel and Gaza, the Powell Doctrine offers other lessons. After Hamas attacked and killed 1,500 civilians without provocation last Oct. 7, Israel invaded Gaza with a just cause and overwhelming force. But while it got those things right, its stated objective—the destruction of Hamas—was aspirational, perhaps even unachievable. 

Here again are reflections of Vietnam. Like the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, Hamas is at once both a political movement and a military organization. It is deeply integrated in the community and can appear and disappear at will. Headquartered in Qatar and funded by foreign sponsors, it exists beyond the confines of the Gaza Strip. Hamas cannot be crushed there militarily, but rather must be made irrelevant politically. 

The Palestinian people chose Hamas and rather than be held responsible for its atrocities, now point to the humanitarian crisis unleashed by Israel’s invasion as a moral equivalent, or worse undertaking, than the wanton rapes and murders Hamas forces unleashed in October.  

In this, Israel played directly into Hamas’ hands. The world now wrings its hands over heart-rending images of Palestinian refugees, —many complicit in Hamas’ crimes—having all but forgotten the similarly wrenching images of Israelis, Americans, and other foreign nationals, young and old, held hostage by Hamas terrorists. 

Thus, college campuses gave way to protest groups this spring and Ireland, Norway, and Spain now recognize Palestine as an independent state. These are political victories for Hamas, the fruits of their unprovoked attack last October. Israelis, like Americans, are divided at home—precisely the outcome Hamas hoped for.

“Half measures and confused objectives” also threaten our ability to deter China in the Pacific and in Space. Our Air Force is shrinking to unprecedented levels, as theirs grows larger by the day. We are jettisoning more aircraft than we buy, and underfunding modernization, sustainment, and training. Our Space Force is likewise underfunded and takes a cut under the President’s 2025 budget request. 

The overwhelming force intrinsic in the Powell Doctrine is only possible if the nation has the capacity and capability to assemble and employ that force at will. Underfunding our military risks ceding that advantage to others—a risk Americans should not accept.