Capturing the Lessons of Counterinsurgency: A Word from Barry Zorthian

Wednesday, February 19th 2014

During the Vietnam War, Barry Zorthian (1920-2010) was the Director of the U.S. Information Service in Saigon, and he was the prime mover in establishing the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO).  JUSPAO brought together the media operations of the State Department, the U.S. Information Service, USAID, the CIA, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.  He was “Czar of Media Relations” and press advisor for U.S. ambassadors Lodge, Taylor, and Bunker in Saigon.  Matt Armstrong called him “a legendary member of the old guard of Public Diplomacy.”

Studying the history of Public Diplomacy recalls the past, but it also speaks to the present and future.  Here’s an excerpt from Zorthian’s 1988 oral history interview with the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training, under the subhead “USIA Has Never Addressed Problem of How It Would Handle Another Counter-Insurgency Program If It Ever Arose.”

Read the excerpt, and then substitute “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” for “Vietnam.”  The phrase that haunts me is “it's no good to tell me there ain't going to be a next time, because there sure as hell may be.”

ZORTHIAN:  Still today, 20 years after I left, the U.S. government has not worked out standard operating procedures for low-intensity wars and how it would handle them.

If we got into another such situation, is the [U.S. Information] Agency going to be the prime agency again? Will it take it on? If so, is it ready to? Has it given any thought to training and preparation? If it's not going to be, who is? Whoever it is, are they ready?

Is the military still, in their training for psychological operations, emphasizing largely equipment -- mobile printing presses, mobile radio transmitters, all the rest of the equipment, the goodies? But how much of substance?

How developed are our overall plans? Some of it's going on but not very much.  We are not prepared, and the [U.S. Information] Agency isn't.  I don't think the Agency has distilled a thing out of Vietnam -- which is a disappointment.  Now, the military has tried some; they've done a certain amount of lessons out of Vietnam, they've done a certain amount of postmortems on it.  But I don't think the Agency has, and I think the Agency essentially want to turn its back on it.  Well, perhaps so.

All I say is, the last time we went into it, the only one that came close was the Agency, and so we were tapped.  What's going to happen next time?

And it's no good to tell me there ain't going to be a next time, because there sure as hell may be.  You know, we came close to it in the Gulf in some ways, and Central America is an area where we've done something.  Now the CIA ended up doing the consultation down there, but the [U.S. Information] Agency has had some involvement in it.

*****

But I'm also very disappointed that we didn't do it better in Vietnam.  And I don't know that, again, our structure, our approach to these problems is any more sophisticated or skilled today than it was then.  Maybe.

I think we lost whatever accumulated backlog of knowledge and skills we had.  And what have we done with it? Twenty years now, we have very few people in this government who know counter-insurgency, are ready to deal with it, or have any real thoughts about it.  Sure, there's some skill left.  Now, you can't stay prepared for that forever, but you can spend some time dusting off the lessons, keeping them up to date, keeping them alive.  And we haven't.

*****

There were some first-rate people involved there who devoted an awful lot to it, put an awful lot into it.  The frustration of feeling -- you know, all this crap about "the press lost the war" -- bunk.  We lost the war in Vietnam, not the press.

Now, you can make an argument that in a backhanded sort of way we won, that the 55,000 lives did not all go in vain.  Because we bought ten years, if you will, for South Asia.  And those ten years were important ones in getting the surrounding governments to get their roots in and then to establish themselves.  In South Asia, in many ways -- with the exception of Vietnam, where you had all the boat people coming out, and Cambodia, Indochina -- but Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and so on -- not the Philippines recently -- in many ways is one of the more peaceful areas of the world.  We've had fewer problems there, with the exception of the Philippines.

So there are arguments to be made, but overall, I guess, there's some -- pride may be the wrong word, but some satisfaction in having done a job, feeling you contributed, playing a role in what was a critical event in our lifetime, our generation, being very much part of it. And at the same time, a sort of frustration and very real disappointment -- in not having it be successful.  So you get ambivalent about it.

Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the Foreign Service and the Public Diplomacy cone.  Many regard the Foreign Service’s role in those counterinsurgencies as an aberration, not to be repeated, and an end to the turbulence and strain will be welcome.  As a former Public Affairs Officer in Kabul, however, I renew Barry Zorthian’s counsel -- “it's no good to tell me there ain't going to be a next time, because there sure as hell may be.”  I hope the Department will soon begin its review of the “lessons learned” of Iraq and Afghanistan.  An honest reckoning will include both successes and failures.  For the future, we must look them in the eye.

-30-

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

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