The results will be posted tomorrow, so if you care to vote, please do so sometime today.
And yes, Jimmy Carter should have been on the list. I just forgot about him.
This observation is worth keeping in mind as you consider how we got so deep into Vietnam:
Neither of them had the kind of feeling that it was politically okay for him to simply tell the generals what they ought to do, that for different reasons, both General Eisenhower, because he had more stars than they did, and Mr. Truman, because he just didn't give a damn, really did have. I've exaggerated in both cases, but still on balance, Truman and Eisenhower, and indeed FDR, had more self-confidence in dealing with their senior military advisors than either Kennedy or Johnson did." (From pp. II, 4-5, McGeorge Bundy Oral History, Interview II, 17 February 1969, LBJ Library.)
Hey, speaking of bygone aides of rotten White Houses: How did Bill Moyers manage to go from being LBJ's spokesman to being the moral arbiter of American journalism? Pretty good maneuvering there, considering he was the mouthpiece for the man who was the most damaging president we had in recent decades, at least until George W. Bush. The jury is still out whether the younger Texan's choice of a poorly run war and fiscal mayhem ultimately will outweigh the older Texan's choice of same. I wonder if Karl Rove will have a PBS series in 20 years. ...
Idea for file: What say we put a constitutional moratorium on Lone Star presidents, kind of like a penalty box in hockey? (And no, I don't consider Eisenhower a Texan, even though he was born there. Plus, he kept us out of a war in Vietnam.) I'm usually against constitutional amendments, but I might sign up for this one.
The candidates, according to you, are:
I'm only including FDR because someone nominated him. I'd actually say he was the best president of the century, and one of our top five overall. George W. Bush, alas, is not eligible, though as we have discussed he might have retired the crown for the 21st century.
You can post a comment, or e-mail me at the address above the little postage stamp foto of me on the right hand side of this page.
And here are two of his e-mails to me in response to my
Friday post about how I had come to think Kennedy
was a terrible president. I disagree with what he says here, but I think it
is worth considering.
By Fred Kaplan
Best Defense department of defending JFK
Just to state a few points on the question of whether JFK was a terrible president:
(1) Yes, he listened to Taylor and other hawks early on, but the Cuban missile crisis, which you glide over, was a turning point. The real significance (which I've gleaned from a close examination of the tapes) is that, quite early on (the 4th day), JFK was looking for how to give Khrushchev a face-saving way out; that when Khrushchev offered the secret trade (his Cuban missiles for our Turkish ones), JFK wanted to take it right away, while everyone -- and I mean everyone around the table (except, significantly, George Ball) -- was adamantly opposed. I think that the crisis taught him that all those smart experts sitting around the table weren't any smarter than he was. (He was beginning to see this point during the Laos crisis, when his generals behaved like bureaucrats -- the Army wanted to invade, the Air Force wanted to send B52s, the Navy wanted to send carrier groups.) Another key thing: JFK told six people that he was taking the deal and swore them to secrecy. Among the people he did not tell was LBJ. This was a critical mistake, as it left intact a false lesson of the crisis, which JFK's successors (including LBJ) applied to Vietnam. (McGeorge Bundy concedes this point in his memoir.)
As I studied the Vietnam war over the last 14 months, I began to think that John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century.
In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.
Looming over it all is the American descent into Vietnam. The assassination of Vietnam's President Diem on Kennedy's watch may have been one of the two biggest mistakes of the war there. (The other was the decision to wage a war of attrition on the unexamined assumption that Hanoi would buckle under the pain.) I don't buy the theory promulgated by Robert McNamara and others that Kennedy would have kept U.S. troops out. Sure, Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam -- just like Lyndon Johnson wanted out a few years later: We'll scale down our presence after victory is secure. And much more than Johnson, Kennedy was influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, who I suspect had been looking for a "small war" mission for the Army for several years. Indochina looked like a peachy place for that -- warmer than Korea, and farther from Russia.
(As a side note, there's another coup that JFK supported earlier in 1963: the Baathist one in Iraq that chucked out a pro-Soviet general. Events in subsequent decades obviously are not Kennedy's fault, but it still is interesting to look at the documents. Here's a State Department sitrep from, of all dates, Nov. 21, 1963: "Initial appraisal cabinet named November 20 is that it contains some moderate Baathis. Of twenty-one ministers, seven are holdovers from previous cabinet, thirteen are civilians, four are from moderate Shabib-Jawad faction of Baath (Defense -- Tikriti; Communications -- Abd al-Latif; Education -- Jawari; Health -- Mustafa) and a number of technician-type civil servants." Did you notice the name of that defense minister? I think this might have been Saddam Hussein's uncle.)
Anyway, I think his track record kind of makes even old Herbert Hoover look good.
Tom Ricks, was born in Massachusetts and is the grandson and great-grandson of Democratic politicians there.
Somewhere in Supreme Command, supreme strategist Eliot Cohen discusses the importance when formulating strategy of surfacing differences rather than papering them over, which is the general impulse in Washington.
I thought of that when I read this comment in an oral history given by Douglas MacArthur II, nephew of the awful general and, during the 1950s, one of Cohen's predecessors as counselor to the State Department:
... the president [Eisenhower] and I went over to Mr. Dulles and the president said he wanted me to coordinate the policy plans and policy for the meeting. He said, 'Doug, there's one thing I won't have.' He said, 'I know your bureaucratic language where there are differences, you smother those differences with general language, and then every department goes its own separate way.' He said, 'That's the sure road to disaster.' He said, 'I want, when there are disagreements, I want first to find out if the two secretaries or three secretaries, if Treasury is involved or somebody else, can iron out their difficulties. If they can't I want those issues brought with clear, separate and distinct positions that differ to me. And then I will decide what our position is going to be.' He said, 'The last thing in the world that we can afford is that wonderful bureaucratic language that you guys are so great at inventing where it's nice and general and it means everything to all people and each one goes his separate way.' He said, 'That's no way to go.'
(P. 42, Douglas MacArthur II oral history, Eisenhower Library)
The more I learn about Eisenhower as president, the more impressed I am.
By coincidence, in my research for my current book, I've also been reading, because it gets into George C. Marshall's handling of generals, Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive. Drucker hits a similar theme and develops it further. Not only is it important to surface dissent, a decision should not be made if there is no dissent, because real decisions by their very nature are difficult and contentious. Moreover, he says, imagination is needed to make good decisions. And the way to tap the imagination, he says, "is argued, disciplined disagreement." (P. 153 of my edition)
Gen. Bruce Clarke, one of the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge, also was historically minded. I was struck by this comment in his oral history. I think he was right when he said this in 1970, and still is: A good operational history of the Vietnam War, taking into account views of both sides, still has not been written.
I don't think the history of the Vietnamese war will be written before the year 2000. . . . I think by the year 2000 we will see what the import of the Vietnamese war was in southeast Asia, but it will take that long to, I think, sift it out. I don't think you could get the history of the Vietnamese war by studying any of our papers. I certainly wouldn't want to take it out of the big papers. It's my opinion that it has been the poorest reported war of the four that I've had something to do with."
The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I agree with him.
Btw, Gen. Frederick Franks mentions in the awkward, dull memoir he penned with Tom Clancy that in the waning days of the Vietnam War, Clarke was the only senior officer who visited the amputee ward in the old military hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, when Franks was recuperating there from war wounds.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? We are learning the answer to that old question, and it ain't what the flower children thought.
By Joseph Trevithick
Best Defense department of robotic military history
The arming of drones really hits at a number of disparate issues. The U.S. Navy had actually fielded a rotary wing anti-submarine warfare drone in the 1960s that could attack targets with torpedoes. Under the direction of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA; what is now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA) a small number of these drones were fitted with machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, rockets, and other weapons, and used experimentally during the conflict in Vietnam. The results of these tests were generally favorable, but went nowhere. The Navy ceased operating the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH), designated the QH-50, in 1970. Japan also used the QH-50 in the anti-submarine warfare role.
I didn't realize old Foote was so goofy: "I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar." This really disappoints me -- and I speak as a descendant of someone who (according to a family history produced by them Latter-Day Saints) was pals with Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Glad to see Coates pursuing this question. In a follow-up, he notes that Foote managed to get court-martialed out of the Army during World War II. I think you had to screw up pretty badly to actually released and sent home. Not even Jim Brown got that treatment.
…Henry "Hap" Arnold, the chief of the Air Corps in World War II, was decorating workers at a B-29 factory in Wichita in 1943, and the foreman introduced a woman in her 70s, saying, "This is our best worker." The woman was Helen Longstreet, widow of the Civil War soldier James Longstreet. He had lived a long life and married a young woman.
Indeed, I believe his widow did not pass until 1962.
The ascendance of infantry in the ranks of Army general officers was recently discussed on this blog by Lt. Gen. Barno. Nowadays, everyone seems to want to be a groundpounder. This quotation, written by Field Marshall Archibald Wavell in April 1945, reminded me that infantry has not always been so favored:
Let us be clear about three facts. First, all battles and all wars are won in the end by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped and far harder to acquire in modern war than that of any other arm. The role of the average artilleryman, for instance, is largely routine; the setting of a fuse, the loading of a gun, even the laying of it are processes which, once learnt, are mechanical. The infantryman has to use initiative and intelligence in almost every step he moves, every action he takes on the battle-field. We ought therefore to put our men of best intelligence and endurance into the Infantry.
Yet the Infantry in peace or war receives the lowest rates of pay, the drabbest uniforms, sometimes even the least promising of recruits; most important of all, it ranks lowest in the public estimation and prestige.
I've just finished reading an advance copy of Lewis Sorley's biography of General William Westmoreland, which will be published later this year. It is terrific, and surprisingly interesting. I found it a lively, brisk read, despite Westy having been in many ways a dull man.
The tension that drives the book comes from the author's continuing astonishment at his subject: How could this deeply flawed, limited man rise so high in the U.S. Army? Westmoreland was an ambitious, energetic but incurious man, one who looked more like a general than thought like one. In many ways he was a stupid man.
The stunning chapter titled "Atmospherics," about how Westy lived and operated in Vietnam, is worth the price of admission all by itself.
I expect this will be the definitive book on Westmoreland, and a must read for anyone who tries to understand the Vietnam War.
Robert Kaplan also said the biggest unreported story of the last two years is the re-emergence of an influential Germany. "The capital of Europe moved from Brussels to Berlin." Germany has been unleashed by the Euro, he said, and the country is showing itself to be an "avant garde" major power, wielding influence politically and economically but not militarily. At least for the moment: "I don't believe that German quasi-pacifism is permanent."
But, he added, this does not mean we should throw away NATO. As the U.S. Navy and Air Force focus more on the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas, he said, NATO should pick up the slack in the Atlantic.
I also think that the rise of Germany may make NATO relevant again. Remember the old line from the 1950s, that "the purpose of NATO was to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down"? Well, if Germany is beginning to throw around its weight, NATO may be the way to control that a bit. Keep in mind that the history of Europe since the Romans has been basically, What to do about Germany?
As it happened, on the metro ride home after the CNAS conference I read Martin Wolf's column in the Financial Times about challenges facing the Euro. He observed almost in passing that the German central bank now is owed the equivalent of the total debt of Ireland, Portugal and Greece. (And speaking of Ireland, Yeats maintained that the center could not hold, but looking at the list of European financial cripples, it looks to me like the periphery is what goes first.)
Marc Lynch added the thought that the best thing Europe can do to support the Arab Spring is to open its markets to Arab goods, but he said it won't do it.
From the diary entry of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for Oct. 18, 1951:
"In 1941 our peacetime navy took a terrible blow on the first day of the war, but the navy built after the war started did a great job in both oceans, particularly against Japan, where it really, with air force help, won the war. And this does not ignore the work of the great divisions that won and held the bases from which air attacks were made."
(P. 202, The Eisenhower Diaries, edited by Robert Ferrell.)
You have got to wonder just how much Ike despised MacArthur, who is shoved into the backseat here. I think a whole lot, but I have never actually seen it stated by him, even in a diary or private note. I suspect that Mac's quiet campaign for president in 1951-52 is what finally drove Ike to run.
Over the years, a certain aura has grown up around the American LRRPs -- "long range reconnaissance patrols" that operated deep behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War. In 1969, they were folded into the 75th Ranger Regiment.
In a 1985 interview, Gen. William DePuy said he wasn't buying the hype. Of course, this may just reflect the prejudice of a lifelong conventional arms officer against special operators. Or it may not. Here is his last shot.
Well, our long-range patrols, by and large, were not very good. They were kind of amateurish. Brave but amateurish. I think that's true in every division.… IN most cases, we had to go out and extract them. As soon as they got into some kind of an interesting situation, they would be discovered, they'd come under fire, and they'd ask for help. Then it was like the Perils of Pauline, you'd go and rescue them.
(P. 37, "William DePuy Oral History Interview," conducted by Ted Gittinger, 28 October 1985, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.)
Here's the penultimate excerpt from the papers and sayings of General DePuy. Again, I have read thousands of pages about this stuff and observed military operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as training at Fort Benning, Fort Hood, Fort Polk, Fort Irwin, and Camp Lejeune, and I have never seen it put this succinctly.
When I commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam, we received hundreds of lieutenants from Fort Benning and OCS, and I have to tell you that almost without exception -- this was in 1966 or 1967 -- these platoon leaders would, if not otherwise instructed, almost automatically proceed in a column and deploy into a line when the first shots were fired and assault into the enemy position as a sort of puberty rite, a test of manhood.
Instead, a platoon leader should always think of the leading element as being on a reconnaissance mission for the company commander and the battalion commander so he's out there to find out where the enemy is, try to figure out the enemy strength so that the company and battalion commanders can make decisions. That's the professional way to fight a war.
Attacking may sound like more fun, Gen. William DePuy told young infantry officers, but the best way to fight is to get into a position where the enemy has to attack you, like infiltrating and putting a battalion on a hill or other key piece of terrain behind him.
Then the enemy has to attack you and you're down and waiting and he's up and moving and, gentlemen, no matter how romantic you may be about the attack being the preferred method, my preferred method is staying alive while killing the enemy. The aim is to get him up and moving while you're down and waiting. That doesn't mean you don't go on the offense. But if you can sit down on a piece of terrain right behind his front, in the middle of his airfield or whatever, and he has to come to you, that's what you constantly seek once you become a seasoned soldier.
(Again, my italics. P. 457, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
One of the things that I like about reading the papers of Gen. William DePuy (link) is that he sheds new light on familiar subjects. Few debates are as long-running in the U.S. military as to whether to place more emphasis on firepower (the dominant view) or maneuver (the fashionable minority view).
DePuy argued in 1990 that it is a false dilemma. Rather, he says, maneuver is something you fight for:
People talk a lot about attrition versus maneuver. This is not an intellectual choice. The same generals who so brilliantly dashed across France were suddenly forced back into conducting attrition warfare. Nobody doubts that General George Patton preferred maneuver, but maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice; it is an earned benefit.
The efforts to break through and obtain operational maneuver in the Fall of 1944 at Arnhem, with the great air-ground operation called Market Garden, failed; the attacks through Huertgen and Aachen were bloody and indecisive, and the attack by the Third Army across the Saar bogged down.
In a last operational effort in the middle of December -- three months later -- the German Army once more sought freedom of maneuver through the Ardennes.
(My italics. P. 452, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
Deep in the oral history of Gen. Gordon Sullivan, who was Army chief of staff from 1991 to 1995, is this interesting comment on why Grant stands out so much among Civil War generals:
The Union generals were unable to turn their advantages into accomplishments on the battlefield. Their advantages were mass production and the North processed food, munitions, standardized artillery, you name it. The railroad, had waterborne transportation. Grant was the first one who was able to look at all of that and turn all of those advantages on the battlefield. He was able to run large-scale operations. He essentially was writing the book on going from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age, he and his generals in the Army.
I thought, and I still do, that [during Sullivan's time as Army chief of staff] we were beginning the journey from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. There was a lot that Grant did which was exemplary of the kind of work that we did. I used some of the examples.
(P. 271, with my editing of some punctuation)
It is not all it is cracked up to be, Gen. Donn Starry (U.S. Army, ret.) warns in his oral history. "As a matter of fact, brigadier generals get treated with much less respect and so on than second lieutenants do in many places. I got much better treatment as a second lieutenant, in many instances, than I did as a brigadier general."(P. 1103, Press On! Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry, Vol. 2, Lewis Sorley, ed.)
Of course, when Starry was a lieutenant, he served in a tank battalion commanded by a lieutenant colonel and war hero named Creighton Abrams and his company commander was one George S. Patton III.
Anyway, Starry's observation reminded me of an exchange I had with a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back during the Bosnia crises. I asked a question, and the general said, "Oh, I don't think anyone in a responsible position thinks that."
"Actually," I said, "it was just said to me by an Army brigadier general I ran into walking over here to your office."
"Well," he shrugged, "if you're going to listen to every brigadier in the hallway..."
Here's another thought from Gen. William DePuy about the lessons of the Vietnam War. I was especially struck by his observation, made in 1987, about trying to continue a war beyond one administration, which made me realize how difficult it must be for President Obama to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan:
Prudent military planners should draw the obvious conclusion that operations which span two administrations may lose their support in midstream. Very short operations like Grenada are about perfect. Long inconclusive operations like Vietnam are now known to be doomed. We may take this to be a legitimate consideration in connection with the doctrine governing operational art. It is a political refinement which is no less organic to the problem.
(From p. 399, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
A plea to book cover designers: Could we not put a helicopter on the cover of every single book? It is getting boring. I mean, I don't recall transport helicopters playing much of a role in Fields of Fire, or in Marine operations generally -- but here you are.
This is no knock on the books themselves. One of my favorites, The American Culture of War, by Adrian Lewis, features no fewer than 15 helicopters on its cover. Maybe that's why that book is so damn expensive.
While I'm on the subject of Vietnam books: Why are there so many oral histories of the Vietnam War, in which veterans and others tell the story of what they saw and did? I counted at least 15 at a Marine library the other day. I suspect it is because we are still trying to understand that damn war.
And while I'm bellyaching about the Vietnam War: It is amazing to me how naïve academic historians often seem to be about government memos. I've been reading a bunch of books that I have come to think of as "memo histories." Basically, these claim to offer new insight into the Vietnam War by some poor guy who has waded through thousands of pages of memoranda, reports, and other government documents. Generally these hard-working but perhaps innocent historians accept these documents at face value, as accurate and true records. But in my experience of covering the national security establishment for two decades, memos sometimes are written not to clarify the record but to obscure it. A lot of them are written for the files to show future historians that, "I lost in the meeting but will record here why I still think I was right." Sometimes I think they are produced also to revise what actually was said in meetings-sort of to "correct the record."
Government memos frequently are most significant, I suspect, for what is said between the lines, as part of bureaucratic infighting. For example, a Pentagon memo that emphatically states, "We pledge to give our total, unqualified support to State Department points 1 and 3" might mean, But we will fight you to the death on point 2. But that seems to be lost on the revisionist academic historian who triumphantly concludes, "Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the secretaries of State and Defense were in bitter opposition on this important issue, the documentary record shows that the Pentagon gave its 'total, unqualified support' to most of the Secretary of State's proposals." Likewise, when Westmoreland states that he really supports "pacification," he may not be defining pacification as you or I might. As in, Them B-52 Arc Light strikes sure pacified the hell out of that corner of the southwestern corner of the province.
And to finish off my current pet peeves: I am amazed at how often "Ridgway" and "DePuy" are misspelled in books, even in indexes. It is not "Ridgeway," "William Depuy," or "William Dupuy." My book researcher, Mr. Gregory McGowan, the Big Poppy of documents, even found an instance where the Government Printing Office apparently confused Gen. William DePuy with Col. Trevor Dupuy, who confusingly testified in the same set of December 1990 hearings of the House Armed Services Committee.
While I'm at it, I also think baseball writers need to lay off the word "iconic."
Now I feel better.
Back in September 1986, Gen. William DePuy wrote that, "U.S. combat forces were not and are not the preferred or proper instrument for counterinsurgency operations amongst the people." (P. 373, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
He is right that the U.S. military is not the preferred instrument-if the locals can do it, they should. But I can see circumstances where it is for a time the proper instrument, as in Iraq in 2007, when someone had to get the ball rolling. Also, the forces doing it must be well-trained and well-disciplined, and in 1986 that did not describe the Army that DePuy had seen for most of the previous 15 years.
I was particularly interested in it because until last year, I knew almost nothing about the Korean War. I now wonder if it eventually will be seen as more historically significant than the Vietnam War. It was the first hot conflict of the Cold War. It was the emergence of Communist China as a major power. It introduced us to limited war in the nuclear era.
CMH has a substantial series of After Action Reports and monographs, but no mandate to digitize these records. Same with Carlisle Barracks. Korean War records are scattered at many government locations. Researching the Korean War has formidable obstacles.
At the Korean War Project, we recently obtained a set of Marine Corps digital records in a proprietary format created in 1999 but almost unusable for research. We now have over 30,000 pages of those Marine records converted to PDF and will have them online next week. As part of this work, we discovered after the Marine Corps digitized the records, they sent the files to NARA. Through a bureaucratic error, the Marine records were reclassified and cannot be accessed by the public to this day, many years later.
Recently, DOD started a multi-million dollar research project to digitize Korean War Command Reports and Unit Histories. Over 100,000 pages of these records are digitized but have been declared off limits under FOIA under an arcane and unsupportable interpretation of the "Agency Records" case law. Many government agencies consider public records as private property, and use a FOIA denial to create a brick wall requiring a federal court battle to obtain simple public records available at NARA for a quarter a page.
On the good side, we recently obtained access to 30 boxes of Korean War Second Infantry Division records independently obtained in paper form by a veterans group. When these records are digitized, it will be the first time the most blooded Division from Korea will have records online for intense research free of charge.
Who would have thought DOD would deny access to digital Korean War records? This is one of the many reasons why Korea has often been called the Forgotten War.
For my current book project, I spent part of last weekend going over a list of 13,542 papers and group studies done at the Army War College since 1950. A lot of them were what you might expect, such as two from 1952: "The Soviet Railroad System" and "The Soviet Iron and Steel Industry." Some of them are downright scary, such as 1953's "A United States Program for the Post-World War III Peace."
And there are the hardy perennials, such as "Retention of Junior Officers" (1959), "Kashmir Dispute - Appropriate US Role" (1964), "Haiti: Another Abscess in the Caribbean" (1966) and "The Future of Stability Operations" (1970). With some updates in names and numbers, a clever but unethical student probably could re-submit any of those papers now.
Some of them just make you shake your head. In 1961, one officer studied "The Missile Killer Belt: The Ballistic Missile Defense of the Future." (You wanna talk about government spending? How many multi-billions of dollars has the Pentagon spent on ballistic missile defense over the last 40 years?) And speaking of throwing good billions after bad, there is 1963's hopeful "Pakistan: A United States Investment." Yep, I am sure it will pay off any decade now.
But there were some surprises to me, like how many papers were done on unconventional warfare in the 1950s, which military historians tend to depict as a decade when everyone was focused on nuclear warfare. And even some of that stuff on nuclear warfare looks interesting, such as 1958's "Critique of Kissinger's Strategic Force - Tactical Force Concept."
I also was surprised at how little written about the Korean War. It just seems never to have been foremost in the collective mind of the Army. Indeed, Vietnam seems to get almost as much attention in the mid-'50s, with papers such as Richard Stilwell's "The Indochina Contest," done in 1955, and another paper in 1958, "Military Strategy in Southeast Asia."
And then, 15 years later, this sorrowful topic: "Lesson from My Lai."
There are fads. Lots of papers about energy in the late 1970s. Then, "Contemporary Terrorism," written in 1982, marks the start of a new trend. After a long absence, the Civil War begins showing up again in the '80s, though in small numbers compared to the early years of the 20th century, when it dominated. In the 1970s, computers are an occasional curiosity in some papers. In the late 1980s, they begin showing up in large numbers, as in "The Application of Microprocessor Technology in Enhancing Combat Unit Effectiveness" (1987). In the '90s, the word was "digitization." Over the last decade it was "networks." The late '80s also saw a spate of papers on the military's role in "the war on drugs." The '90s are full of "revolutions" in various areas, such as "military engineering," in 1997.
The papers by future generals don't stand out particularly. One of the more interesting one appears to be Alexander Haig's "Military Intervention: A Case Study of Britain's Use of Force in the 1956 Suez Crisis," written in 1966. More typically, in 1985, there was Tommy R. Franks on "An Alternative Corps Concept for Winning the AirLand Battle."
In the papers written in the wake of 9/11, I had expected to see a torrent of papers on terrorism, Islamic extremism, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and such. There were a few, but in general the papers for 2002 looked pretty much like previous years, featuring studies of "U.S. International Fresh Water Policy," "Vince Lombardi as a Strategic Leader, " and "Major General William S. Rosecrans and the Transformation of the Staff of the Army of the Cumberland: A Case Study." Plus, of course, a naval officer's 2007 contribution, "Algae: America's Pathway to Independence." You certainly can't accuse them of all running to the soccer ball.
There are few illusions reflected in the titles from the post 9/11-era. From 2004, this paper, from an Army Reservist, intrigued me: "Operation Iraqi Freedom - An Unjust War." Two years later, an Army officer discussed, "Iraq: How We May Lose the War We Won."
Overall, the biggest hole, I would say, is a long-term tendency to study foreign strategic problems, but not to examine battles or wars that did not involve American forces. There are a few, and they generally seem to involve Germans, often the battle of Kursk. For example, I was surprised not to see a study of the Iran-Iraq War --though a small percentage of the papers are simply marked "CLASSIFIED," and that may where such papers are hidden.
Also, there are some that I just plan to read for fun on my next research trip, such as, "1953: Creighton W. Abrams, 'Mobility and Firepower.'"
Anyway, this is just one of the gems up available at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Army is mulling eliminating it, probably by putting it under the Army's Center of Military History. I think that is nuts. If anything, the Center of Military History should be made part of the Military History Institute, which has a broader mission, and connects the Army to the American public. Also, for researchers, Carlisle is a much cheaper place to go do a week of research than is the Washington, D.C. area. If you are researching on your own dime, and I think most military historians are, that matters.
Gen. DePuy argued that the most sophisticated military organization was the rifle squad, because it existed only as an idea:
Why is that? It is because unlike a bomber crew, they don't have a bomber, unlike a tank crew, they don't have a tank; unlike a howitzer crew, they don't have a cannon; and unlike the radio section, they haven't got the VH radio vans.
What have they got? Well, they have got an idea and so a rifle squad consists of a kind of an agreement, a common understanding by a bunch of limited guys about how they are going to go about their business.
So what we have is an intellectual exercise being performed by non-intellectuals. So we have got to help them. We have got to make it a simple, clear system that doesn't require each member of the squad or the fire team leaders to be eloquent because they are not.
(From "Briefing by LTG DePuy, 7 June 1973, at Fort Polk, Louisiana," p. 61, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
One of the more notorious incidents of World War II was the massacre late in 1944 of at least 70 American PoWs in Malmedy, Belgium, by an SS unit led by Col. Joachim Peiper. I knew about that, but not about the screwy trial of the perps two years later.
Thrice-blessed Fred Borch III tells the tale in the new issue of Army Lawyer. If your copy hasn't yet arrived, here's the story: Of the 73 German soldiers tried near Dachau in 1946, all were found guilty, and 43 were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Yet none actually was executed, and everyone was freed from prison by the end of 1956.
How come? It turns out some of the evidence had been obtained by telling Germans being interrogated that they would be hanged the next day, so they might was well write a confession and clear some comrades before departing this world. Two or more of these people had ropes placed around their necks.
Their defense attorney, Col. Willis Everett, was a persistent man -- and a racist. Even after leaving the military he continued to work on behalf of the convicted SS men. He also attacked one member of the military court, Col. Abraham Rosenfeld, as the "Jew Law Member" and spoke of "Jewish pressure...demanding blood and death penalties." He also spluttered some nasty stuff about black Americans, Borch notes.
Peiper had been almost contemptuous in his trial, stating that of course experienced commanders knew it sometimes was necessary in combat to shoot PoWs. Once freed, he went to work for Porsche and then went that became controversial, he moved to eastern France. There rough justice caught up with him on Bastille Day 1976, when he was died after his house was firebombed and he was perhaps shot -- accounts differ on that last point.
I was a year early on predicting that Ryan Crocker would become next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to uber-reporter Karen DeYoung. I think he is terrific, so it's a good move, and quite a sacrifice on his part, given his 11 previous tours of duty: He has done time in Iran, Qatar, Tunisia, Iraq (twice), Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He also went to high school in Turkey, where his pop was serving in the Air Force. In 1983, when many of the little grasshoppers were not yet born, he was in the American embassy in Beirut when it was blown up.
Old Crocker's return to Kabul does make me think about something young Exum has pointed out, which is that we haven't figured out in American counterinsurgency what the U.S. government relationship with the host government is supposed to be. I think Crocker has a better handle on this than most.
I was thinking about this on a recent weekend when I re-read Robert Komer's fascinating autopsy of what went wrong during the Vietnam War, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. If you are a steady reader of this blog, you've probably already read it. If not, you'll learn a lot from it -- plus it is free, just click on it and print it out. It is still one of the best studies of Vietnam going.
Komer was the veteran CIA officer who oversaw pacification and the controversial Phoenix program in Vietnam, seeking to either capture or kill Viet Cong leaders in the villages. After the war, Viet Cong officials disclosed that Phoenix had been extremely effective in attacking their control of rural areas. (Also, because main force Communist units laid low after taking a beating in the 1968 offensives, U.S. forces were freed to do more small unit patrolling, which added to the pressure on VC in the villages.) Stylistic bonus point: The straightforwardness of Komer's prose reminds me of the fine memoirs of U.S. Grant.
Anyway, reading Komer's comments about his frustrations with the government of South Vietnam made me think there is a great but difficult dissertation to be done detailing and comparing U.S. relations with host governments during four wars: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I wonder if the more divided, both politically and organizationally, the U.S. government is, then the more difficult relations are with the local government. My hypothesis is that the more divided, both politically and organizationally, the U.S. government is, then the more difficult relations are with the local government. (This is different from the nation being divided. For example, when Vietnamese President Diem was whacked, the Vietnam War was not yet particularly unpopular, but Kennedy Administration officials differed sharply with U.S. military officers in Saigon about whether to back the coup against Diem.)
Or maybe this could be an Army War College seminar -- bring in Allan Millett on the government of South Korea during the war there; someone good on Vietnam; Emma Sky and Sadi Othman on relations between the U.S. and the Iraqi government; and someone else, maybe David Barno and Vikram Singh, on the U.S.-Karzai relationship. And after each panel, invite commentary from Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans who worked with (or, in the earlier wars, opposed) the Americans.
There is lots to explore here. For example, I was struck in a recent conversation when someone referred to good relations with the host government as the sine qua non of COIN. Au contraire, I responded: "Actually, the U.S. started making progress strategically in Iraq when it summoned the nerve to cross the Maliki government and started cutting deals with Maliki's foes in the Sunni insurgency." You have to be tough-minded with the enemy, but perhaps even tougher with your allies.
Komer also is surprisingly complimentary of the analyses done by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, saying they often had a better handle on the war than did MACV in Saigon. "OSD/SA's Southeast Asia Analysis Report, produced monthly or bimonthly since 1967, provides in the author's judgment by far the best running analytical account (unfortunately still classified) of the course of the war." (p. 71) I believe the reports to which he refers are no longer classified, so it may be time to do a tasty dissertation on them. It might cheekily be called, "No, actually it was McNamara's aides who were right." The quality of those analyses is reflected in the book by one of the aides, Thomas Thayer, that I've mentioned on this blog. There also is probably a good article or dissertation in just looking at Thayer's papers.
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So said Army Gen. William DePuy, whom I find endlessly interesting. He was a junior officer in a division that was chewed up badly in Normandy in the summer of '44, rose to become a 25-year-old battalion commander, was perhaps the chief theorist of how we fought the first half of the Vietnam War, first as Westmoreland's operations chief and then in1966-67 as commander of the 1st Infantry Division, and finally played a central role in rebuilding the Army after that war. The Army we saw in Kuwait in 1991 was in many ways the one he and his posse put together.
Here is his comment on leading soldiers in combat, a subject he knew a few things about:
There is nothing complicated about the command of men in combat and, no matter how sophisticated leadership courses may become, there are only three steps to perform, easy to state and not difficult to accomplish.
First, a leader of troops in war must decide in each tactical situation, or, for that matter, each administrative situation, exactly what he wants to do with his unit...
Second, he must tell his men precisely what it is he wants them to doand in most cases it is best to tell them in the language of the street, not the language of the field manual. If the officer knows with certainty and confidence what he wants to do, he will have no trouble telling his soldiers what he has in mind.
And then, lastly, he must insist that they do exactly what he told them to do."
(From The Army Reserve Magazine, January 1969, reprinted p. 57, Selected Papers of General William E. DePuy)
Ever notice how a passage from an old book can suddenly take on new meaning? On our rainy Saturday afternoon over the weekend I was checking something in Maj. Gen. (ret.) Robert Scales' Firepower in Limited War (rev. ed), and this paragraph on p. 98 jumped out at me:
A phenomenon of recent history has been the disturbing habit among Western nations, the United States in particular, to expect too much from aerial firepower. Perhaps this expectation has been the product of our search for a technical means to win wars without expending lives. Whatever the cause, the use of airpower in Vietnam certainly followed the historical precedent. Policymakers with an imperfect understanding of the true limitations of modern airpower concluded all too readily that those wondrously destructive weapons of aerial warfare would be able to persuade the enemy to come to terms with a minimum of human investment.
Tom again: So, while I still think that President Obama had to intervene in Libya, yeah, I understand why this air campaign is making many of my friends very nervous.
Meanwhile, I see where veteran intelligence analyst John McCreary is growing more pessimistic: "The survival of the Benghazi regime will be nothing short of miraculous, if events continue as they have this weekend." Suddenly a stalemate doesn't look so bad.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.