THE VIETNAM SYNDROME: Desert Storm Changed Americans And Their Military

Posted on Wed 08/26/2015 by


20150129_BillConnorBy Bill Connor ~

“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

– President George H.W. Bush after victory in Desert Storm

On Aug. 2, 1990, Operation “Desert Shield” was declared after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait and stood poised to invade Saudi Arabia. Desert Shield started as the defense of Saudi Arabia and lasted until mid-January 1991 when the air campaign of Desert Storm began.

20150825_OPERATIONDESERTSTORMBy Feb. 28, 1991, at the end of a 100-hour ground campaign, Iraqi forces were effectively defeated. Interestingly, a quarter century prior to Desert Shield, in 1965, the first major conventional operations of the Vietnam War began when a battalion of the newly created air-mobile 7th Cavalry Regiment under Lt. Col. Hal Moore fought a division of the North Vietnamese Army in the Ia Drang Valley.

With the 25th anniversary of the Desert Shield/Storm coming at the midpoint between now and the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, I’d like to offer a perspective about the similarities and contrasts of those two conflicts.

First, the Vietnam War started with the best of armies the United States has ever fielded. During the Battle at Ia Drang on LZ X-ray, a battalion of helicopter-borne Infantry under Moore defeated a division of NVA. The U.S. forces went on to win a number of successful encounters with the insurgent Viet Cong and NVA, despite the substantial level of support for the NVA from the Soviet Union and China.

However, the commander of North Vietnam’s Army, Vo Nguyen Giap, learned after the 1968 Tet offensive the American people would not support continued involvement in Vietnam over the long term. Though Tet was an operational victory for the United States, destroying the Viet Cong as a fighting force, it was a strategic victory for North Vietnam in pushing the U.S. decision to leave.

From January 1969 until January 1973, the United States not only lost substantial popular support for the war effort, but suffered demoralization and degradation from within. The military was leaving Vietnam while still suffering casualties as the war became increasingly more unpopular on the home front. That’s a major part of the “Vietnam Syndrome”: The first time America was seen to have “lost” a war.

The post-Vietnam nation and military went through a traumatic period. Not only did the troops face disrespect by many, but the military was cut (roughly) in half between 1968 and 1974. The Army went from a draftee military to an all-volunteer force but without pay and benefits commensurate with volunteers.

Drug use, discipline problems and lowered standards brought Army Chief of Staff Gen. “Shy” Meyers to call the Army “hollow” when testifying about the paltry 1981 defense budget. Revelations of war crimes at My Lai and a widely publicized service academy cheating scandal added to the spiraling morale.

The consequences of this neglect and low morale were on display with the failed “Desert One” mission to free the American hostages in Iran. As the son of a Vietnam veteran and serving active-duty officer, I will not forget the way Vietnam veterans and the military were treated by so many in American society in the 1970s. That was also part of the Vietnam Syndrome: The first time our military was not properly honored and thanked by the people of the United States.

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he brought renewed optimism, leadership and a focus on national defense. He was intent on crafting a military that would eventually win the Cold War. Reagan demanded higher pay and increased standards necessary to recruit and retain high-quality volunteers.

The National Training Center, the Joint Readiness Training Center, Top Gun, the “Air-Land Battle Doctrine” and the new systems of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the M1 Tank and the Apache Helicopter were but a few of the means to achieve the end. The public respect for the military rebounded, and those in the military felt the support of the nation they loved and served. The reserves were fully integrated into the regular force to ensure they would be at the forefront of any future wars. The Cold War ended without firing a shot.

Then came Desert Shield 25 years ago. Though the military had fought successfully in relatively small engagements of the 1980s in Grenada, Beirut and Panama, it had not been tested against a serious adversary. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army was that test. It was the fourth largest in the world, supplied for many years by the Soviet Union. This would show whether we had truly moved past Vietnam.

I was commissioned an infantry officer shortly after the start of Desert Shield and assigned to a front-line infantry division. I can recall being on a “wartime program of instruction” at Fort Benning’s Infantry Officer Basic Course, in which we were being prepared for war. Our general prediction was that many of us would become casualties, and the dead would reach into the tens of thousands (we all expected Saddam to use his chemicals, as he did on the Kurds and Iranians). I can remember seeing the thousands of body bags being shipped from Fort Benning and wondering if I would return.

The question for so many of us in the military was whether the people of the United States would support us, and how the military would handle its first major war since Vietnam. Then came the 100-hour ground war and victory!

The people of the United States overwhelmed the military with support and praise! Unlike during much of Vietnam, the military worked closely with the media, even embedding them with the various units during the ground war. The reserves was fully integrated, bringing a much closer connection of America to the fighting. The equipment from “Reagan’s Army” performed even better than expected.

For those who had fought in Vietnam, and then fought in Desert Storm, the emotion of the time was surreal. Such an incredible change with the nation and military from the dark days of the 1970s. I was just finishing Infantry Officer Training when the 100-hour ground offensive came and went. Instead of deploying immediately to combat (I later served tours of duty in the occupation of Kuwait), we were sent to Ranger School and other such training. I will never forget the homecoming parades of those returning, the singing of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be An American,” and patriotism beyond what I could have imagined.

One refrain of those young officers and sergeants coming out of Vietnam was “never again.” They vowed to never again be part of what happened with Vietnam. We, the people of America, should always support those who fight our wars, even when we disagree with the fight.

Never again should we neglect and marginalize our military. Never again should we forget what it takes to build our defense. The Vietnam Syndrome was kicked a quarter century ago in the deserts of the Middle East. Let’s vow to never let it come back again. Contributing Editor Bill Connor is a S.C.-based attorney and decorated U.S. Army Reserve infantry officer, Ranger (Airborne), an expert in counterinsurgency combat and a founding partner of National Defense Consultants, LLC. He is a former senior U.S. military advisor in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Read more excellent articles from .