Phoenix and the Birds of Prey

Doc Know’s first post. As you can imagine, he has a lot to say.

Not many people will remember the date, but 45 years ago, on August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. This measure authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force in Southeast Asia (read: Vietnam), notably without a formal declaration of war by Congress. If you think about it, this procedure was very similar to the one adopted through the Iraq War Resolution, which in 2002 authorized the administration to invade Iraq. It almost seems to me that, whenever we try to relegate the Vietnam War to the back pages of our history books, the conflict comes back to teach us another lesson.  

Vietnam as well as Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the U.S. military to engage in asymmetrical warfare—regular troops, using the latest military equipment, fighting primitively armed but highly motivated guerrilla forces. In the 1970s as well as today, U.S. commanders have drawn on the intelligence services, especially the CIA, to wage this kind of counter-insurgency. In Vietnam, the CIA developed and led the so-called Phoenix program: small teams of South Vietnamese paramilitary troops and American “advisers” would systematically seek out known or suspected Vietcong cadres and “neutralize”—i.e., arrest, interrogate, or kill—them; by 1972, over 80,000 Vietcong had been neutralized, of which over 25,000 were killed.

At the time, Phoenix incurred much criticism. Small wonder—taking the war to the villages, Phoenix teams often “neutralized” Vietcong cadres and innocent civilians alike. But if you talk to experts on Phoenix today, they will mostly tell you that the program was effective and dealt severe blows to the Vietcong infrastructure in South Vietnam.

As an avid student of intelligence history, I am keen to learn if and how the lessons of Vietnam can or should be applied in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I am asking myself: Is it legitimate to hunt down and selectively “neutralize” our enemies, even at the risk of killing innocent civilians? Or should we refrain from adopting Phoenix-style operations, both for moral considerations as well as concerns over possible backlashes in public opinion abroad?


Nothing is what it seems.

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