Comparing Counterinsurgency Tactics in Iraq and Vietnam

By Christopher Millson
2011, Vol. 3 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Insurgency is not a new phenomenon for the United States, in fact by definition the American's built an insurgency during the Revolutionary War. But it was not until the Vietnam War that America faced an insurgency that it could not defeat. Because of the infamy of the Vietnam War, it is an obvious candidate for comparison to the war in Iraq. This paper is a comparison between the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies of Iraq and Vietnam. What tactics were used by both sides, and were they effective, are the main questions that are addressed in this paper.

“An insurgency is an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”i Insurgencies often conduct guerilla warfare because it is necessary. During these movements the insurgents want power to flow out of the government and into their own hands. An insurgence uses four tactics in order to obtain its goal. The first is Provocation, an attempt to push the government to take an action that it normally would not want. The second is Intimidation; this tactic terrifies people who work with the government. The third is Protraction; this is when the insurgent makes the conflict as long as possible while controlling their loss rates. The final one is Exhaustion; this tactic is to use up resources and time of the counterinsurgency that does not help their purpose.ii Insurgency has been around forever but has only recently, in the past fifty years, become a threat large enough to reorganize military structure. Insurgents are so successful because they “start with nothing but a cause and grow to strength, while the counter-insurgents start with everything but a cause and gradually decline in strength and grow to weakness.”iii Insurgencies began to increase after World War II for four reasons, first there was an increase of nationalism, second there was a decline of imperial power which led to new weak governments leading the countries, third a surplus of weapons that increased the firepower of the insurgents, and fourth an increased media presence that transmitted information that often helped the insurgents cause. iv

“Counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”v Because each insurgency is unique there is no set doctrine to combat a general insurgency. However it is believed that there are fundamentals that when applied can be effective. A few of the fundamentals are “If the great mass of the population knows it will be protected by a strong, just government, it has no reason to cooperate with guerrillas.”vi There has been plenty of works that describe effective counterinsurgency tactics, but it was not until 2006 that the US military created one of their own. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency was created and provided the military with doctrine to effectively fight counterinsurgency. This manual is extremely effective because it was the first official acceptance of counterinsurgency doctrine. It was well received by all sides, the left approved of it because the tactic is not to kill insurgents but to turn them, and the right approved of its military effectiveness. To successfully defeat an insurgency three objectives must be completed, a government must provide security, establish a political system, and build an economic infrastructure.vii The counterinsurgents have to fight a military and political battle simultaneously, because if the insurgents are destroyed but the roots of the insurgency are not then insurgents will return.viii A major problem that faced America’s military is that it was highly resistant to change. This is because it has an attachment to previous success, but this does not mean that it cannot change, which was shown in Iraq. Eventually internal and external pressures cause doctrine to change. When the military is experiencing failure in previous doctrine whether it is through a series of defeats or stagnancy it will analyze it’s self and create a more effective strategy. The change is a slow process that can either begin with junior officers and make its way up through the ranks, or begin with the commanders and trickle down.ix

The Vietnamese have a long history of insurgency; it began as early as 40 BCE and has continued since. In 1859 when France made Vietnam a colony it was not welcomed by the natives and an insurgency began. The French battled the insurgents for almost a century until the French were successfully defeated in 1954. Almost immediately after America replaced Frances presence and was faced was faced with the same insurgency which was fighting for national liberation. The insurgency activity in Vietnam increased in 1956 when Ngo Dinh Diem began a campaign against the Communist Party. His campaign was vicious; he executed and sent Communist supporters to concentration camps. As Diem’s repression got stronger and more violent so did the insurgency, this was a self fulfilling prophecy, as the insurgency gained momentum Diem would get more repressive, which would create more insurgents. The Viet Cong were effective insurgents because they were able to adapt quickly to American firepower, for instance they conducted close combat operations in order to diminish Americas capability of providing air support.x

The counterinsurgency story of Vietnam can be told in two parts; the first began in 1950 and continued until 1965, the next part is from 1965 to 1972. When the United States began getting directly involved in Vietnam it wasn’t prepared for the war it was about to fight.xi The war it had fought most recently was the Korean War which was a conventional war. It is possible that the commanders assumed that since Vietnam is also in Southeast Asia and it is a war against communism then they would be facing a similar enemy. The military was effective against conventional warfare, and was successful against the North Vietnamese Army, but ineffective against an insurgency, the Viet Cong. In 1961 Kennedy took office and he was a proponent of counterinsurgency. He asked his advisors “What are we doing about counterinsurgency?” and the answered his own question by saying “new military tactics had to be developed but new political tactics also had to be devised, and, most importantly, the two, the military and political, had to be meshed together and blended.”xii Kennedy understood that an insurgency was a relatively political matter and realized that the organization of the military would have to change dramatically. He wanted to create new military tactics that would be built around the units using counterinsurgency, especially the Special Forces. His suggestion of reorganizing the military was heavily resisted, and he was assassinated before he could see any strategy involving counterinsurgency take effect. xiii In 1964 General Westmoreland became commander of Vietnam and realized that the United States had to fight two armies at once, the North Vietnamese and the insurgents. Westmorland decided that the North Vietnamese were more important because they were a larger threat at the present than the insurgents. The development of counterinsurgency in the first fifteen years of military presence in Vietnam is often considered a failure. This is because during the time there was an increase of insurgent activities and Diem was assassinated. The US failed to create a Vietnamese army able to defeat an insurgency, and still did not acknowledge the insurgency as the number one threat facing South Vietnam. The conduction of conventional warfare was not discerning civilians from enemies and often created more insurgents than defeating them.xiv

The next part of counterinsurgency in Vietnam takes place between 1965 and 1972. In 1965 Marine Major General Lew Walt began a counterinsurgency campaign that combined the Marines with local agencies, entitling these units Combined Action Platoon, or CAP. These platoons conducted around the clock patrols and provided security to local villages. Walt’s goal was to eliminate the insurgent’s political power and remove the insurgent presence. He was successful, insurgent control in the area was diminished, while areas where conventional warfare was continuing to be conducted saw an increase in insurgent activity.xv Simultaneously a study began called The Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam, also known as PROVN. The purpose of the study was to create new doctrine that would result in a successful operation. The study showed that the Army needed to stop the current course of action and begin a campaign to win over the population. Westmoreland dismissed the study, but in 1968 Westmoreland became the new Chief of Staff, and was replaced by general Abrams.xvi General Abrams was part of the committee that developed the PROVN study and replaced Westmoreland’s strategy with one that provided security for the Vietnamese and expand the local authorities. He witnessed the destruction of air attacks, and did not allow anybody but himself to ok air assaults.xvii This new strategy was resisted because it challenged the current organization of the military. Although Abrams strategy was developing, it wasn’t fast enough. On July 30th 1969 President Nixon visited Vietnam and changed the strategy to train the South Vietnamese forces to become capable of providing security without the aid of the United States. At the end of the period the United States failed to achieve its primary goals which were to create an effective South Vietnamese military that would be able to defeat the insurgency and keep the North Vietnamese out. It also failed to emphasize politics instead of the military, and continued to not discern targets appropriately.xviii

Although when we left Vietnam in 1973 the North Vietnamese army had retreated to its borders and there was peace for three years, the United States counterinsurgency mission in Vietnam failed, the main reason for the failure was because the military failed to adapt. Any innovation that was developed during Vietnam was for conventional warfare, and even when Abram became commander he failed to develop a following that would support his strategy. Throughout the Vietnam War and even before the conflict began the United States was given advice which it chose to ignore. The British had extensive experience with insurgents in Malaya and offered to give America advice but it was not taken. The lower officers who were actually witnessing the fighting and seeing how ineffective it was were also ignored by the higher ups during Westmoreland’s era, and then also failed to follow Abram’s orders when he attempted to implement a counterinsurgency strategy. Also another problem at the end of the war was that it was no longer for the South Vietnamese; America was too involved both emotionally and militarily. The Secretary of Defense at the time said “The war needed to be turned back to the people who cared about it, the Vietnamese. They needed U.S. money and training but not more American blood.”xix Despite the failure in Vietnam there were some strategies that if properly applied could work. The best lesson to take from this war is from the Marines fighting up north. The Marines accomplished both a political and military victory in the areas that they were present. Lessons like this were eventually implemented in the future.xx

The Iraq insurgency began almost immediately after President Bush gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003. The insurgents were mostly Sunni’s, who had been in power since 1921. Their insurgency motives were for political, military, tribal, and religious reasons. Because of these many reasons the insurgency was not centralized, many different insurgent groups became active and often did not coordinate with each other. Despite the different groups much of the insurgency took place in the center of the country around Fallujah and Baghdad. When they were removed from power they took it as an assault on their identity. After their political collapse, ethnic turmoil increased between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Their defeat led to a need to restore their honor and exact revenge. The goal of the insurgency was to remove America’s presence and to restore their power; they attempted to do this by targeting US forces and anybody that collaborated with the US. They did this by fighting small battles and using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. It is important to note that this was the first insurgency that used vehicles on a massive scale which provided mobility in firefights and enabled the insurgents to move faster.xxi

Similar to Vietnam, counterinsurgency in Iraq can be broken up into two parts. The first part is from 2003 to 2006 and is often referred to as the time before counterinsurgency, or BC. The second part is from 2007 to 2008 and is called after Dave, or AD, referring to General David Petraeus’ becoming commanding general.xxii These terms aren’t entirely accurate because there were counterinsurgency efforts before 2007, and Petraeus was in Iraq but was not in command of the whole country. During the BC the military did not plan for an insurgency, and failed to recognize the severity of the situation. This gave the insurgents time to successfully insert themselves into the population and prepare for the military. The US did make efforts to win the hearts and minds of the local populations, like building schools and building sewage systems, but it is believed that the efforts were too little too late. America wasn’t seen as a nation builder, but as an occupier. However there were successful efforts in certain areas, Marines utilized the same tactics as they had in Vietnam and inserted themselves into the population, created CAPs and often did not utilize air strikes or artillery that caused too much collateral damage. In the north under Petraeus the Army was also executing a counterinsurgency campaign that utilized similar tactics.xxiii At the end of 2006 a momentous movement occurred in Anbar, called the Sunni Awakening. Sheik Abu Risha Sattar, a tribal leader, declared a rebellion against Al Qaeda, which condoned any affiliation with Al Qaeda and legitimized cooperation with American forces. As a result the violence in the region decreased greatly.xxiv This eventually pacified the province and influenced Sunnis in the East to cooperate with Americans. Shortly after the Awakening America increased their military forces which began the AD period of Iraq counterinsurgency.

The pacified West allowed the troop surge in 2007 to be focused in the East, in and around Baghdad. The new troops were split in two, one half would patrol the outskirts and remove the Al Qaeda presence, while the other half remained in Baghdad and patrolled the city. At this time General Petraeus became the commander of Iraq; his number one objective was to protect to population, to him it was more important than killing insurgents or executing force protection.xxv Under Petraeus soldiers began to live in the city in order to constantly be present. He also utilized local volunteer forces to support the troops in the city and fight alongside them. The war on both fronts turned around because of combining Iraqi and American forces, and having a constant presence in the area. xxvi

There is no doubt that America was successful in Iraq, this is because it was able to reorganize its military within three years, from a conventional army to one that is capable of fighting an insurgency. It worked with the Iraqis on all levels, and had constant patrols regardless of conditions and risks.xxvii Troops lived in the cities rather than the distant forward operation base where it could not protect its allies. It also was the first operation where there were more insurgents captured than killed. Despite the success there are still lessons to be drawn from the insurgency. If the new government had allowed more participation from the Sunni’s it is possible that the insurgency could have never happened. Instead of ostracizing the enemy it could have turned it into a partner, if not an ally.xxviii

The Iraq and Vietnam insurgencies may seem similar on the surface but when one looks deeper they are very different. The reasons for the insurgencies are different as well as the tactics. Iraq took place half a century after Vietnam and had technology that was unavailable in the mid 20th century. The reason for the insurgencies truly shows how different these two were. In Vietnam the goals were to unite the North and South under the communist rule of Ho Chi Minh. In Iraq the goals were to restore the former power. Insurgents in Iraq did not see themselves necessarily as Iraqis but as Sunnis, in Vietnam they were all Vietnamese. But there were similarities; both insurgencies were spread out across the countries, in small autonomous villages that would fight regardless of the fate of other insurgent groups. This made it difficult for Americans to accomplish its goals because “Nations composed of a large number of small, autonomous villages are hard to conquer, as each individual village will fight on individually after the defeat of the national army and will have to be individually subdued.” xxix Both insurgencies had help from outside their country, in Vietnam it was the North Vietnamese and other neighboring communist regimes, and in Iraq it was from Al

The counterinsurgent strategy was the same in both wars win the hearts and minds then hand over the country to the natives.xxxi However this was accomplished in Iraq but failed in Vietnam, why? The primary reason for the success in Iraq is because of the reason for the insurgency. The Sunnis wanted to have power in Iraq, and reached a compromise. But the goals for the insurgents in Vietnam could not be appeased in a compromise, they wanted it all. The second reason for the success in Iraq is that although the military wasn’t entirely prepared for a insurgency they were still capable of fighting it, in Vietnam, America had faced a new kind of insurgency that it wasn’t prepared for.xxxii The third reason for a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq was perseverance, both by the troops and the American government. The troops were volunteers and wanted to be in Iraq therefore they were willing to give a hundred percent and go on patrols in the heat; where in Vietnam many troops were conscripted into service.xxxiii Also the American government did not face the same protest that it had in Vietnam, and was able to accomplish its mission. This can be attributed to many reasons, but it would seem that the amount of casualties on both sides is much lower than in Vietnam. The fourth reason is the sharing of information has been made much easier since the internet. The junior officers do not receive advice from generals who have not seen the battles, but from each other. There are now online forums made especially for the lower officers, on these sites they share tips with each other which have worked for them.xxxiv But this was made possible because of the implementation of an effective counterinsurgency strategy.


From my personal experience in the military I would agree that the military has implemented counterinsurgency into its strategy. I went to Basic Combat Training in 2009 where I learned Military Operations in Urban Terrain, or MOUT. Here we learned how to check booby trapped doors and search a house. We were taught Iraqi and Afghani culture, and how to properly search a suspect. We were taught how to identify IEDs. I would not say that my training was in conventional warfare. As thousands of men and women go through training they learn how to become effective fighters against insurgents. From the lessons of Vietnam, Iraq, and other insurgencies that America has faced, the American military has changed its definition of war to become an effective force. One day America will face a new type of warfare that it is not prepared for; hopefully history won’t repeat itself, and the United States won’t be so stubborn to change.


Andrade, Dale, and James Willbanks. "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Vietnam for the Future." Military Review March-April (2006). (accessed October 1, 2010).

Balm, Dan . "Battle Lessons: What the Generals Don't Know." The New Yorker, January 17, 2005.

Biddle, Stephen. "Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon." Foreign Affairs 85, No. 2 (2006): 12. (accessed October 10, 2010).

Coyle, R.G.. "A System Description of Counter Insurgency Warfare." Policy Sciences 18, No. 1 (1985): 23. (accessed October 10, 2010).

Hashim, Ahmed. Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Hoffman, Bruce. "Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq." RAND National Security and Research Division (2004): 26.

Kilcullen, David. "Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice." (accessed October 1, 2010).

Laird, Melvin. "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam." Foreign Affairs 84, No. 6 (2005): 21. (accessed October 5, 2010).

Lyall, Jason, and Isaiah Wilson III. "Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars." International Organization 63 (2007): 39.

Metz, Steven. Learning From Iraq : Counterinsurgency in American Strategy. -: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007.

Nagl, P.J. Schoomaker J.A.. J.A. Nagl's, P.J. Schoomaker's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam [Paperback])(2005). 1ST ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

Paige, Jeffery. "Inequality and Insurgency in Vietnam: A Re-Analysis." World Politics 23, No. 1 (1970): 13. (accessed October 10, 2010).

Petraeus, David, and James Amos. Tactics in Counterinsurgency: The official U.S. Army / Marine Corps Field Manual FM3-24.2 (FM 90-8, FM 7-98). Washington D.C: United States Army, 2006.

Phillips, Rufus. "Counterinsurgency in Vietnam: Lessons Learned, Ignored, Then Revived." American Veterans Center. (accessed October 4, 2010).

West, Bing. "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Iraq." Military Review March-April (2009). (accessed October 6, 2010).

i.) Petraeus and Amos, 1-1.

ii.) Kilcullen, 6.

iii.) Nagl, 23.

iv.) Nagl 24

v.) Petraeus and Amos 1-1

vi.) Nagl 25

vii.) West, 11. Kilcullen, 11. Hoffman, 13.

viii.) Metz, 84.

ix.) Nagl, 8-9.

x.) Nagl, 116-118. Paige, 2. Biddle, 2. Nagl, 136. Nagl, 155.

xi.) Nagl, 115.

xii.) Hoffman, 13.

xiii.) Phillips, 3.

xiv.) Nagl 124; Andrade and Willbanks 1-4; Nagl 138;

xv.) Nagl, 156-159.

xvi.) Nagl, 198.

xvii.) Phillips, 8.

xviii.) Nagl, 171

xix.) Laird, 28.

xx.) Laird, 25. Nagl, 115-118. Andrade and Willbanks 4.

xxi.) Hashim, 59-80. Biddle 4. West,3.

xxii.) West,10.

xxiii.) Hoffman, 17.

xxiv.) West, 3.

xxv.) West, 3. Phillips, 8.

xxvi.) West, 10. Hoffman, 12. West, 3.

xxvii.) West, 10.

xxviii.) Hashim, 346.

xxix.) Nagl 25.

xxx.) Biddle, 2.

xxxi.) Biddle, 4.

xxxii.) Metz, 76.

xxxiii.) West, 11.

xxxiv.) Balm, 5.

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