In a recent piece in Business Insider, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Miley stated, We believe now that after 20 years, two decades of consistent effort, that we have achieved a modicum of success [in Afghanistan].” He went on to say that the modicum of success is best seen as a strategic stalemate.

But is that all we did there in 20 years? Or did we achieve something much more important? Something that potential adversaries like China and Russia have great reason to fear?

What Is Operational Memory?

The United States will be remembered someday by historians as a vast trading empire that spanned the globe and it fought its wars to protect its trade interests around the world. As reasons for wars go, the ability to trade freely with other nations is not a bad one, folks. Like the British and the Roman, two great trading empires of the past, the U.S. has a powerful, modern military with an army, navy, and air force to protect U.S. trade interests and those of our allies and trading partners. And, on occasion, it has to fight wars to maintain its fighting ability, what I call, Operational Memory.

Wiki Commons, Clockwise from top: U.S. Marines retreating during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir; U.N. landing at Incheon; Korean refugees in front of an American M-26 tank; U.S. Marines, led by First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, landing at Incheon; and an American F-86 Sabre fighter jet.

Since the end of WWII and the rise of the Soviet Union and Communist China, the United States has maintained Operational Memory by getting itself into some kind of war in every generation. WWII was followed by the war in Korea. This was a conventional fight for the Big Army with army corps-sized engagements involving tanks, guns, bombers, fighters, naval bombardments, and even a major, combined arms, amphibious landing at Inchon. Everybody got in on the act. And a cadre of battle-tested officers and NCOs were able to salt formations in Europe and Asia and bring that experience to the training of draftees.

(Photo by Spc. 4 Robert C. Lafoon/ DoD)

The Lessons of Vietnam and its Contribution to Operational Memory

Then, barely 10 years later, we took over an existing Vietnam conflict from the French. It began as a low-intensity counter-insurgency war that was being fought and won by the newly-created Green Berets under the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 saw Lyndon Johnson take over as president. He massively expanded the U.S. military presence with conventional forces in Vietnam. Troop strength went from 16,300 total troops to a staggering 536,100 troops in just three years. Again, everybody got in on the act. The Navy sortied air wings from its carriers and its surface forces engaged in shore bombardments. Navy SEALs went from doing underwater demolition and beach reconnaissance to covertly operating behind enemy lines and bumping off high-value targets and disappearing their bodies. The Army landed whole corps formations with tanks and artillery and we engaged in massive deforestation efforts to give the tanks and guns free rein. The Air Force dropped more ordinance on South Vietnam than it expended bombing Europe during WWII (or so it says at least).

During that conflict, we saw an incredible range of new weapons come into use and be tested in battle. Anti-radiation missiles, TV-guided bombs, the M-16, the M-60, the M-61 grenade, body armor, the M-102 Howitzer, night vision goggles, supersonic jet fighters and bombers, electronic warfare, and even unmanned drones. Vietnam saw the greatest leap in new weapons and tactics since WWII.

What we learned as Vietnam ended in 1975 was again carried on as Operational Memory in the officers and NCOs and into the first Gulf War in 1990. In that war, the United States took about 30 days to demolish the Soviet-Chinese equipped and British trained Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world at the time. (And to say it was demolished may be understating it a bit.) The Iraqi army was so thoroughly beaten in terms of men, material, and moral that entire Iraqi formations tried to surrender to Apache Helicopters and even to a CNN camera crew. The commander on the ground in that war, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, had commanded troops on the ground in Vietnam. As had Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

In these conflicts, the Chinese and Russians sat on the sidelines and attempted to gain their own operational experience against U.S. troops in proxy conflicts. In Korea, the Chinese had attempted to intervene with veteran troops that had fought Japan and the nationalist forces of Chang Kai-shek during WWII. Their losses were staggering, on the order of 300,000 to 900,000 killed and wounded. The conflict all but wiped out their cadre of experienced officers and NCOs. In Vietnam, China sent vast quantities of war material to North Vietnam along with 330,000 troops. Yet, it committed very few troops to actual ground combat operations, perhaps recalling the scorching they had taken in Korea. Recent disclosures have China admitting to having lost some 3,000 troops on the ground in North Vietnam. This confirms CIA reports of the time recording that U.S. troops found dead Chinese soldiers in uniform on several occasions.