Redefining War

When we look back at American History, we are often greeted with a lineage of war, conflict, and malcontent. There is an old Thomas Jefferson quote that says, “Every generations needs its revolution.” That statement has been twisted in modernity to “every generation has its war”. In many way, this is the reality faced by those who fought in the Vietnam War. It was a new type of war. It is a conflict shrouded  by grey. The public hated it. The soldiers who fought it dreaded it. The politicians struggled to justify its prolonged tenure. We see a new era of American Warfare ushered in with the Vietnam War.

Example of a ROE card that many soldiers are required to carry. Informs the soldier of their parameters regarding the use of force.

This “redefining” of America’s approach to war took several forms, of these, the most notable change was an increased emphasis on what are known as Rules of Engagement, or ROEs. These ROEs are standards guiding how war is conducted, for instance, what can and cannot be bombed, when the soldier is allowed to use lethal force, what weapons are considered inhumane, etc. Columnist and author, George C. Wilson published a piece in the Washington Post  in 1975 (just after the war ended) where he stated, “The objective of the rules of engagement was to keep from killing Vietnamese Civilians at a time when the United States government was trying to win them over to the Saigon government side.” We see the crux of what the Vietnam War was through this quote. It was one of several proxy wars the United States became involved in during the Cold War Era. This reality represents the shift of American military mindset in that we transitioned from a force that conquers and rebuilds to a force that appeases then leaves. This standard is still seen to this day with the United States’ prolonged involvement in the Middle East namely Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Vietnam War saw a significant shift in the way that the United States conducted war. In World War II, the U.S. pushed through southern and western Europe to Germany, and when the war ended, helped rebuild the economy and infrastructure there through the Marshall Plan. The U.S. did the same in Japan post World War II. With Vietnam, the U.S. went to “aid” the locals in instilling a democratic form of government. When this failed, the U.S. withdrew leaving the region in an unstable position. ROEs represent a product of the Vietnam era. A shift in the thinking and execution of military action that is still in practice today. Understanding where this president comes from allows for us today to better understand why we conduct war in the manner in which we have in the middle east for the past 16 years. Through the lens of history, we are offered a better perspective on the actions of today.


George C WilsonWashington Post,Staff Writer. 1975. “Vietnam War ‘Rules’ Attacked.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Jun 07, 1.

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