The Bayonet

Tuesday, May. 27, 2014

Vietnam expert draws parallels to Iraq, Afghanistan conflicts

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Vietnam expert Rufus Phillips visited the Maneuver Center of Excellence May 20 to discuss his experiences in Vietnam as part of the Combat Leader Speaker Program.

Phillips served in Vietnam intermittently from 1954 to 1968, and filled a number of roles during that time.

"I was an Army officer, a CIA case officer, head of counterinsurgency on the civilian side and a consultant to state," Phillips said. "I kind of bridged the whole U.S. government, but I was mainly focused on trying to help the Vietnamese defeat the Viet Cong. ... I wound up being the only military advisor to Vietnamese pacification operations, one of which involved two divisions. That was a unique experience."

Phillips is the author of the 2008 book Why Vietnam Matters: An eyewitness account of lessons not learned, which he said was inspired by the parallels he saw between his experiences in Vietnam and the American military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think part of our problem is that there was a disconnect between the Vietnamese and the Americans," he said. "I don't think we understood each other too well. This same thing has caused us some real problems in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Phillips' CLSP address was delivered to Maneuver Captains Career Course students, and Phillips stressed the need for officers to have an increased understanding of their foreign counterparts.

"Many of these officers may be out in the field as advisors to foreign armies and military forces in places where the culture is different from ours," he said. "They need to learn to adapt and to understand the people they're working with. That's not just cultural sensitivity - it's actually the ability to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and try to understand their problems. ... Then, if you're giving advice, it will be accepted. Too often, Americans go out and they have their own ideas abut how things ought to be done, and it doesn't fit the local thinking. But on the other hand, the basic concepts can be very effective if translated into local terms."

However, Phillips said that need for understanding will also apply to future situations after U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has ended, citing a high number of countries that could be targeted by enemies of the United States.

"We have a vested interest in trying to help these countries," he said. "A lot of these operations will not be direct U.S. troop intervention, but will probably be small advisory missions. So, I try to relate my experiences to what these officers will experience in trying to help these forces become more effective in their own territory protecting their own people."

During his visit, Phillips, a 1953 graduate of Officer Candidate School, was also honored with induction into the OCS Hall of Fame.

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