As I watched video of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, I shed a few tears for the U.S. troops who died there and for the Afghan citizens who were murdered there by the Taliban regime. And for others who will be murdered soon by that ruthless and bloodthirsty group for association with Americans.
The scene brought back painful memories of 1973 when I watched on television as a similar event took place in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. I had left Vietnam just a year before after serving as information officer for the First Cavalry Division (Third Brigade Separate). In that one, helicopters evacuated the last of the Americans from our embassy’s rooftop.
The two wars have many striking similarities. To name just three: Both lasted almost 20 years when measured by U.S. involvement. Both were effectively guerrilla wars with no front lines. Both were politically driven and cast American military forces into situations they were least equipped to fight and win.
Back in the 1960s, while I was studying at Mizzou, as I approached graduation I knew I would be drafted. Almost every healthy male had that to face. I decided it was better to go as an officer, so I went to Crowder Hall and applied to get back into Army ROTC. I had completed two years of compulsory ROTC as a freshman and sophomore. About 400 guys applied for 90 or so openings, and I got one of them, most likely because my grades in ROTC the first two years had been good.
I was conflicted about Vietnam. I come from a family that has long ties to the U.S. military. One ancestor was an aide to General George Washington, my grandfather was an engineer wounded in the last big battle of World War I and my father flew 62 combat missions in a dive-bomber in Sicily and Italy in World War II. He was in the first flight of planes to support the invasion of Italy at Salerno, earning the first of four Air Medals. Just wars. All of them.
So, when Vietnam rolled around, I figured it was simply my time to support my country despite uncertainty about why we were there. That, in a nutshell, is why I applied to get back into ROTC. I was fortunate to spend a year and a half in Germany before being ordered to Vietnam. But I finally got those dreaded orders, and I willingly complied. There was no running off to Canada for a descendant of multiple generations of war heroes.
I was commissioned as an infantry officer, so I expected to be assigned as a platoon leader or company executive officer. In either role, I would be spending plenty of time in the jungles, rubber plantations or rice paddies of Vietnam. When I arrived in Vietnam after a long series of flights from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, I was assigned to the First Cavalry and rode to its headquarters in the back of a truck with another lieutenant. The other guy entered the office of the assigning officer first. When he came out, I asked him what assignment he got.
“I’m replacing a guy who got killed this morning,” he replied. I offered my condolences.
Then it was my turn. I entered, stood at attention and saluted the major I was facing. “Lieutenant Brooks reporting for duty, sir!”
“At ease, lieutenant. How would you like to be an information officer?”
“Yes, sir!” I replied. The unit needed someone to ride herd on the civilian reporters swarming out to Bien Hoa to get war stories, and no senior officer wanted that job near the end of a most unpopular war. My dossier showed that I had two journalism degrees. So, I got the job. As a first lieutenant in a major’s job.
As I settled in, I quickly learned the truth of what was happening in Vietnam. We were engaged in an unwinnable guerrilla war despite having the best Army in the world and total air superiority. The politicians had placed so many restrictions on what the Air Force and Army could do that there was simply no plausible route to victory.
Other U.S. soldiers learned the same thing. Imagine being sent out on patrol in the face of danger when you know the war is unwinnable. That’s exactly what we were asking our young men to do. Many of them survived. Others died, and I asked myself, “For what reason?”
All of us did our jobs to the best of our ability in a horrible situation. Those in Afghanistan, I’m sure, did exactly the same.
I fully support President Biden’s decision to end our involvement in an unwinnable war. Yes, the end was messy, and too many of our Afghan supporters — interpreters, guides and the like — were left behind. I pray for their well-being, but I know that many of them will die at the hands of the Taliban.
The sad thing is that our political leaders failed to learn the most important reality of the Vietnam War: We have no business inserting our military into unwinnable guerrilla wars. We can easily sweep to victory in conventional wars, as we did in taking out Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But our military has yet to figure out how to win a guerrilla war, which can negate the advantages of things like overwhelming firepower and air superiority.
We owe it to our young people either to find a solution or to refuse to enter further guerrilla conflicts. As it is, the only people who win such wars are military contractors, who line their pockets while our young men and women suffer. And sometimes die.
Brian S. Brooks is a former editor of the Columbia Missourian and former European Editor of the U.S. military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.