I picked up one of my sainted wife's paperbacks, War Trash, by Ha Jin, and was immediately pulled in and read it in a couple of nights, after finishing my work reading, which right now is old transcripts of interrogations of captured Viet Cong, intermixed with oral histories of retired Army generals from the '60s, '70s and '80s. (They kind of talk past each other.)
The novel is a beautifully written account of being a Chinese prisoner of war in South Korea during the Korean War. I am not sure what made it seem so remarkable, but it is. With its rich detail and emotional fullness, it reads more like a memoir than a novel. Yet the author was born three years after the Korean War ended.
I'd have to say this is one of the profoundly anti-Communist books I have ever read, made all the more powerful by the author having some sympathy for the goals of the ideology.
Like Yiyun Li's great The Vagrants, this novel was written in English by a Chinese émigré. I wonder if that is becoming a new genre of American literature. I recommend both books to anyone interested in China -- and also to anyone just looking for a good read.
The Civil War, the most important event in our nation's history, began 150 years ago today. There is little I can say in a blog item to add or detract. (And btw, wasn't that a magnificent closing phrase?: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." America in a nutshell.)
Rather, it is for us today to appreciate the meaning of the war. Historian Fergus Bordewich does good job of summarizing that, noting that among other things our world would be much different had there not been a United States to contain the Soviet Union (or, I might add, Nazi Germany).
U.S. National Archives/Flickr
By Army Capt. Bart "Buddy" Love
Best Defense guest film reviewer
I recently purchased the Blu-Ray version of the classic World War II film Bridge on the River Kwai.
I've watched the film enough times over the years that many of the quotes are burned into my mind. As I settled in on Saturday to watch the film I was struck by the distortion of one of the movies most memorable lines. In the scene Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, is informing his officers of his intent to build the bridge. He states: "We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We'll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing."
It's one of my favorite lines since many years later those "barbarians" taught us a thing or two about efficiency. As the movie reached the scene COL Nicholson begins to speak the line and I suddenly noticed something missing; I couldn't make out the word "barbarians." I replayed the scene twice and sure enough no barbarians. I then turned on the subtitles and played the scene again. In the subtitles the word "them" was placed where "barbarians" should have been.
I'm not sure why anyone would edit this line out. My knee-jerk reaction is to assume that it is some sort of conspiracy since the movie was released by Sony. Of course the explanation could come down to simple human error in editing the film.
"Colonel Khaddafi is a madman. There is no way of predicting his behavior. What is the political goal ...To provoke him into something?...
"Now, I'm not saying we should back away from doing something when resolute action is called for. I am saying that, between the generals and the politicians -- and the generals need to be the foremost spokesmen for this -- when the president or secdef says, 'Let's send a force to do this, that, and the other thing,' some general needs to ask, 'What is your political goal?' In my opinion, the belligerent posturing of this administration has created turmoil in parts of the world where there need not be turmoil today. Eventually, if they keep it up, it's going to get us in trouble."
--Army Gen. (Ret.) Donn Starry, February 1986, on President Reagan's intervention in Libya. (P. 1097, oral history interview, in Press On! Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry, Vol. 2, Lewis Sorley, ed.)
One of the things that has struck me repeatedly in reading accounts of minor figures in the My Lai case is how the moral question that will define a person's life can come upon us at any time.
You're an aviation company commander minding your own business on your base in Vietnam one warm morning in March 1968, and one of your helicopter pilots, Hugh Thompson, lands his aircraft clearly upset, and comes over to tell you that an American infantry unit a few miles away is killing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians. What do you do, major?
So when I particularly impressed by these comments about the massacre made decades later by William Eckhardt, the Army lawyer who was lead prosecutor:
Evil doesn't come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear: 'Think about your career. I'm not sure what's going on. We'll muddle through for the next couple of hours. We'll get over the hill, and we'll go on. I mean, after all, I can't call people in and admit that I can't control, I can't do some other thing.' In my judgment, the evil comes from that point of view.
(From p. 43, David Anderson, ed. Facing My Lai: Moving Beyond the Massacre)
My bedtime reading as of last night is Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, which touches on this theme. Little known fact: O'Brien served in the Americal Division about a year after one of its battalions committed the My Lai massacre. Probably the only guy in history to go directly from the Americal to the Washington Post.
I hear the Army is contemplating closing the Army Heritage Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which includes the Army's wonderful Military History Institute, where I have been doing a lot of research in recent months.
If anyone out there has some sway with the Army or with members of Congress, please tell them this is an awful idea. As I do research, I watch of stream of visitors come in and ask the very helpful staff for information about what granpa did in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. At a time when we are fighting "1 percent wars," this is a good way of connecting the other 99 percent of society to the military.
I think there is a lot to fault the media for in the Vietnam War. But I was surprised to see this in the oral history that Gen. Paul Harkins, Gen. Westmoreland's predecessor in Vietnam, gave to the LBJ Library: "Halberstam was a Jew, and he didn't like Diem." (Part 1, p. 26) The implication was that Halberstam was driven by an anti-Catholic bias. Novel theory of why we lost the Vietnam War, to say the least.
Like his original mentor, George Patton, Harkins was an equal opportunity hata. For example, he also says: "the Buddhists -- they just blow everything way out of importance, as far as I'm concerned." (Part 1, p. 27)
If eccentric, Patton at least was bright and insightful in his own maddening way. I am not sure the same was true of Harkins. He may have just been a big wanker.
Thanks for the opportunity to review this post before it goes online. I'm pleased to hear that you agree with some of my more provocative interpretations.
I disagree with you on some of the points you raised:
1. I am averse to the word "tendentious" because it has two very different meanings- 1) argumentative, and 2) biased. I think it is fair to say that Triumph Forsaken is argumentative at times. Most histories on highly controversial topics are argumentative to some extent. Demonstrating bias is a much more problematic proposition- it requires demonstrating gross inaccuracy and proving that the inaccuracy is the result of ideology or prejudice rather than incompetence. A lot of people have taken swipes at Triumph Forsaken but I don't think any of them have demonstrated gross inaccuracy. I spent seven years on the book in order to get the facts right. I also spent a lot of time contributing to the book Triumph Revisited in order to refute allegations of inaccuracy.
2. I think is incorrect to say that I overlooked the importance of the Cambodian infiltration. Page 323 makes clear that stopping the flow of supplies into South Vietnam required not only the cutting of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the severing of the maritime infiltration to the South Vietnamese coast, but also the closing of the Cambodian route. I could have included more on this topic and many others, but I had to keep the book within a certain word count. I didn't get into the MACV vs CIA dispute on Cambodia in Triumph Forsaken vol. 1 because it didn't become a major point of contention until November 1965, when North Vietnamese Army units retreated into Cambodia after the Ia Drang battles and the U.S. began paying more attention to Cambodia. I am addressing Cambodian infiltration and MACV vs CIA in the sequel to Triumph Forsaken, which I am currently writing.
3. Concerning the remarks from the Soviet diplomat, I think your point would be more valid had it been an idea out of the blue, rather than an idea that had been proposed by some senior U.S. military leaders in the preceding months, including Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson. Admittedly, LBJ probably was not very familiar with the proposal to cut the infiltration routes, but that was his fault- he should have had a greater interest in the war than he did and should have paid more attention to his military advisers. Had Abraham Lincoln been President in 1965, he would have been well versed in a matter of such strategic importance, and would have perked up had he received a report of this type from the diplomat of a hostile country.
I finally got around to reading Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken, an interesting revisionist take on the first 10 years of our involvement in the Vietnam War. (His response will follow tomorrow.)
I think his book is more right than wrong. For example, my bet is that he is correct in concluding that the American reporters in Vietnam, especially early in the war, probably were off base, especially in their coverage of the Diem government. He also does a good job on the Ap Bac battle.
Scorecard report: His villains are John Paul Vann, American journalists, Henry Cabot Lodge, the State Department and, eventually, Lyndon Johnson.
Where he goes wrong, I think, generally is when he tends to rely more on documents stating what policies were intended to be rather than assessments from the field about how those policies were translated into reality. Overall, the book has a tendentious edge to it, making me worry that he is being selective in his representation of what happened.
There were passages where I suspected that he was searching for facts to support his theory, rather than finding all the facts and then developing a theory to explain them. For example, in one passage he discusses how the U.S. Navy interdicted enemy vessels bringing supplies into the South. After March 1965, he notes, "the North Vietnamese Navy would attempt only eighty voyages to the South, and of these only fourteen would reach their destination, resulting in total delivered cargo of less than 800 tons." (p. 358) The implication of this in the author's eyes seems to be that if only the U.S. had moved on the ground to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, then the Communist forces in the south would have withered and the war would have been over.
I didn't know until recently that the Library of Congress had digitalized tens of thousands of pages of the Army's investigation of the My Lai massacre of March 1968. Having it all on-line-including 32 volumes of testimony given to investigative commission run by Lt. Gen. William Peers--is helpful, but the real wonder is its searchability. (And a big BD thanks also to Texas Tech for putting on line a bunch of stuff-for example, here is MACV's near-contemporaneous summary of the Tet Offensive.)
On the downside, going through all this stuff is no way to get a book written.
I've been reading My Lai materials for about four weeks now. I haven't said much about the incident on my blog. The more I learn about it, the worse the whole event seems. It is pretty awful stuff. Just reading the documents sometimes gives me a headache. I am amazed that the Americal Division's entire chain of command didn't wind up doing hard time at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. From what I have read, they should have. I mean, this battalion had a platoon with a reputation for being into raping Vietnamese villagers while on patrol-including the platoon leader. (Btw, it wasn't Calley's platoon.) If I were re-doing my list of the worst generals in American history, I'd add to it the Americal's commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, who brought more disgrace to the uniform than any general since Benedict Arnold. He should have done time.
The two bright lights in the situation are Gen. Peers and, to my surprise, Gen. William Westmoreland, who was Army chief of staff and who shielded Peers from White House pressure to curtail the investigation. Though of course it was a lot of Westmoreland's lousy decisions on personnel policy in 1964-1968 that helped hollow out the Army and so create the rotten chain of command that presided over My Lai.
Just when you think there is not much new to say about a subject, along comes a book that overhauls your understanding of that subject.
I say this because I just finished Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam, by George Lepre. I've been reading about Vietnam full-time now since early last summer and so wasn't surprised to see how the Army fell apart in Vietnam, for example going from 47 drug "apprehensions" of soldiers there in 1965 to 11,058 in 1970 (p. 113). Or that one U.S. Army division, the ill-fated Americal, in 1970 had 5,567 NJPs and courts-martial.
What did surprise me in this illuminating book was the basic profile of soldiers who fragged NCOs and officers (that is, tried to kill them with hand grenades). In this carefully researched study, Lepre reports that:
--Most fragging occurred in the noncombat support units in the rear, not in front-line combat units. (p. 31)
--The attacks often killed the wrong person: "of all the army officers who are known to have died in fragging incidents during the Vietnam War, only one was the intended target of the assault." (p. 44)
--Four would-be fraggers were killed in their own attempts to assault others. (p. 47)
--The last Vietnam fragger to get out of jail was William Sutton, who was released in 1999, his time extended by a parole violation. (p. 200)
--Not all fraggers left the military. Staff Sgt. Alan G. Cornett Jr., who was in Special Forces, fragged his unit's executive officer, Lt. Col. Donald F. Bongers, who was wounded but not killed by the grenade blast. Cornett was convicted, did a year's confinement, some of it at Fort Leavenworth's disciplinary barracks -- and then served another 17 years in the Army, retiring in 1989 as a master sergeant. (p. 82)
--Most fraggers already had had a brush with the military justice system before committing their fragging offenses (pp. 76-77). More typical of fraggers than Cornett was PFC Richard Buckingham, a cook in the 538th Transportation Company. Lepre goes on:
The government eventually withdrew its charge against Buckingham, which who would have faced his second court-martial in the space of a year: in June 1970 he had been tried in West Germany on charges of rape and sodomy, and was acquitted. Buckingham left the Army in 1972 but couldn't stay out of trouble: only weeks after his discharge, he strangled a seven-year-old girl to death and was sentenced to life imprisonment. A judge released him in 1999 in the belief that he "would not pose an unacceptable risk to society" but Buckingham was quick to prove him wrong: in 2002, he was sentenced to serve several more years in his native Ohio for assaulting yet another female.
From a Pentagon press release on Monday: "Col. David R. Stilwell, who has been selected for the rank of brigadier general, special assistant to the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for international affairs, Washington, D.C., to defense attaché, Beijing, China, U.S. Pacific Command, Defense Intelligence Agency, Beijing, China."
Did you also know there is a Navy admiral named Julius Caesar? I say we give him the Mediterranean fleet and instructions to concentrate off the Tripolis/Leptis Magna area. I'd forgotten that Septimius Severus, who among other things pushed the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire to the Tigris River, was born in what is now Libya.
I find Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II and turned around the Korean War in early 1951 after MacArthur screwed it up, endlessly interesting. When I was up at the Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, doing book research last month, I spent a day reading his oral history interviews, some of them corrected in his own hand, and signed by him at the end in the same ink.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
On the strains of combat: "The best of troops will fail if the strain is big enough...I have commanded in World War II the finest troops the U.S. had...I have seen individuals break in battle, and I have seen units perform miserably. The latter was always because of poor leadership. But sometimes, failure of the individual was not due to leadership. It just gets to the point where a man can't take it anymore -- that's all...I saw men in Normandy in a few cases where the strain was too damn much for them. Casualties were very, very heavy, men were falling all around them, and they just walked off crying. Always be easy on a man like that. Help him get back to the rear. Nine times out of 10 he will come out of it all right. Sometimes he can be ruined for life, though."
What a chief of staff should be: "I always picked my chief of staff very carefully. A commander and his chief of staff should be a dual personality. There must be no secrets between them. Each one has to know the soul of the other and have confidence in the other. He knew my policies and everything else. He was completely authorized to act in my name."
Col. Frank Zachar, recently tossed as commander of an Army brigade in Germany, allegedly told his subordinates that, "If we were disloyal … then he was going to take an ice pick and shove it in our left eye."
Zachar is said to have explained, "It [is] all about loyalty. Performance does not matter, potential does not matter, only loyalty matters. If you are not loyal … you will not survive this brigade."
This reminds me, by contrast, of something I read the other day by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, one of the Army's under-acknowledged heroes, who led the way in the revival of ethical leadership following My Lai, when as lieutenant colonel he played a big role in a study showing Gen. Westmoreland, the chief of staff, how screwed up the Army was.
In 1986, Ulmer wrote:
What is the essence of a 'good climate' that promotes esprit and gives birth to 'high performing units'? It is probably easier to feel or sense than to describe. It doesn't take long for most experienced people to take its measure. There is a pervasive sense of mission. There is a common agreement on what are the top priorities. There are clear standards. Competence is prized and appreciated. There is a willingness to share information. There is a sense of fair play. There is joy in teamwork. There are quick and convenient ways to attack nonsense and fix aberrations in the system. There is a sure sense of rationality and trust. The key to the climate is leadership in general, and senior leadership in particular.
Maybe that should keep Zachar around as a living example of what not to do.
It's hard times for separate brigade commanders in Europe -- the commander of the 173rd just got himself "suspended." Anyone know what's up with that? ("Bryan H. in Heidelberg," feel free to post anonymously.)
So in my research on the Vietnam War I was paging through H.R. Haldeman's diaries to see what he says about General Creighton Abrams and was surprised to come across his comment about a former defense secretary we all know: "typical Rumsfeld, rather slimy maneuver." (657)
Pot calling the kettle, I know. It did make me ponder, for a moment, why it was that Rumsfeld was the senior member of the Nixon administration to enjoy the longest public career.
Meanwhile, I see where Mr. Rumsfeld just told an interviewer that he never read the books by Bob Woodward or me about the Iraq war. "Neither one of them were involved at all," Rumsfeld said. "They were all on the outside listening to people two or three levels down. No, I've not read their books."
Rumsfeld is indeed correct about whom I was listening to -- and I am glad I was. In retrospect, I have come to see my book Fiasco as reflective of the views of many brigade and battalion commanders, and a couple of thoughtful division commanders, who indeed were several echelons below Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. I think they also had a much better understanding of what was going on in Iraq than he did, and they were angry and frustrated, which is why Fiasco amounted to an indictment of the top generals and the civilian overseers of the military in the Pentagon, the White House, and the Congress. How often did Rumsfeld's undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith, go to Iraq? Anyone know? I can't remember him going more than once or twice.
I spent most of last week at the Army's archives up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. On Thursday it was warm and sunny so I took a break and walked the mile-long "heritage trail" outside the archives.
It was fun, if you're into military history. They've built a series of replicas -- a redoubt from Yorktown, a mini firebase from Vietnam, a bit of World War I trenching. Also, they have on display a variety of old Army weaponry -- a Cobra gunship, a World War II tank destroyer, and some tanks. Plus, for some reason, lots of small artillery pieces. No Abrams tanks, Bradleys, Strykers, or MRAPs as of yet. I think they should also get a Humvee, for me the characteristic U.S. military vehicle of the 1990s. I'll long remember that combination of the smell of dust and radio.
Anyway, it would make a perfect rest stop for anyone driving this summer on Interstate 81 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a minivan bursting with boys and dogs. (Which reminds me of my parents back in the 1950s putting my one of my older brothers out of the station wagon and making him trot along behind the station wagon to work off some of that excess boy energy.)
Yep. Gather round, little grasshoppers, and I will tell the strange tale.
I know it sounds like the reverse of a Quentin Taratino movie, but it is true: During World War II, the Army intentionally formed a unit chockablock with fascisti and their suspected sympathizers. What a sensible idea -- much better than kicking them out into society and losing track of them.
This is all discussed in the new issue of Army Lawyer , where Fred "Three Sticks" Borch has a fascinating article about PFC Dale Maple, a brilliant young man who was born in San Diego in 1920 and who graduated from Harvard with honors but then, because he was bad, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
Young Maple spoke many languages. But his favorite, alas, was German. At Harvard he got kicked out of ROTC for being vocally pro-German when that just wasn't cool, according to a separate article on him that I just read. Stymied in his hopes to do post-graduate work in Berlin, which was busy with other things at the time, he enlisted in the Army in 1942. The Army had just the place for him: the 620th Engineer General Service Company, which despite its innocuous name was actually a holding unit for about 200 GIs of suspect loyalty, many of them German-born. The unit, which was not given weapons, was located in Camp Hale, Colorado, which is far from any port, but happened to next to an detachment of German PoWs on a work party.
And thereby hangs this tale. In February 1944 Private Maple decided it would be a good idea to help some hard-boiled eggs from the Afrika Korps escape to Mexico. Southward he drove them though New Mexico-a lovely drive, I've done much of it. Just across the international border, Mexican authorities caught them all and tossed them back. (Is there a derogatory term for people who illegally cross from the U.S. into Mexico, besides "stupid gringos"?) Maple was tried and found guilty and secretly sentenced to death. President Roosevelt clemently commuted his sentence to life, and he was released in 1951. Maple's claim to notoriety is that he was the first American-born GI ever found to have committed treason.
As best as I can tell from an internet search, Maple then moved back to San Diego and, like a Tom Waits song, went into the insurance business. He apparently died 10 years ago.
I agree with the statement below. First person to post a comment correctly identifying who said it gets a signed copy of one of my books, or if you don't want any of them, you can have my extra copy of Generation Kill:
The Vietnam conflict was an undeclared and limited war, with a limited objective, fought with limited means against an unorthodox enemy, and with limited public support. The longest war in our history, it was the most reported and the most visible to the public -- but the least understood.
What an interesting, thoughtful book.
I've had this memoir, The Lost Battalion of Tet, on my shelf for a couple of years but had waited to read it in order of my research for the book I am working on. I am now, finally, studying the Vietnam War in 1968, so I turned to it. It is mainly about a 1st Air Cavalry infantry battalion that suffered 311 casualties in a few weeks, most of them after being surrounded outside Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, cut off with dwindling ammunition but without artillery support.
First, it strikes me as unusually honest in its relation of events and its depiction of people. This is a characteristic that it shares of one of my all-time favorite books, E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. Another similarity: Both books were written several decades after the events described, yet remained vivid.
In one passage, set in Quang Tri, Charles Krohn's battalion commander recommends to another battalion commander who is just arriving not to store any ammunition near a building with a shiny tin roof that was being used as an enemy aiming point. "You command your battalion and I'll command mine," responded Lt. Col. Herlihy Long. And then, writes Krohn, "A few hours later, Long was killed when an NVA rocket scored a direct hit on the ammunition." (78)
Then there is the rattled chaplain, Capt. Dan Klem, who asks to offer a prayer for a group of men about to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. "Instead of saying something inspirational . . . he asked God to be with the boys who were going to die," recalls the company commander, Capt. Robert Helvey, who was leading the reconnaissance mission. (210)
Krohn meditates well on the systemic failure and command failures at the brigade and division level that led to his battalion being cut off without much support. Near the end he offers this wise advice to commanders:
Try training for failure-system failure. Train under the assumption that one or more systems supporting you won't work knowing beforehand it reduces your probability of success. (281)
By Crispin Burke
Best Defense personnel policy bureau
A recent Atlantic article by Tim Kane spotlights several top-performing officers who lament the military's "peacetime" personnel system, which promotes officers along a generic timeline. Many point to the promotion policies during the two World Wars, when innovative officers enjoyed meteoric advancement through the ranks. Anecdotes from the private sector and even the State Department suggest that many large, successful organizations promote leaders on a merit-based system, much as the US Army did during the World Wars.
Nevertheless, every personnel system -- be it military, government, or private-sector -- is fraught with pitfalls and unintended consequences. Far from establishing a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" organization, a so-called "merit-based" system might easily give rise to nepotism, sycophantism, and ultimately, organizational entropy.
Thus, the promotion policies of the World Wars must be viewed in their unique historical context. We will examine some of these policies through two case studies from the World Wars: Britain's T.E. Lawrence and America's Dwight D. Eisenhower.
T.E. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, joined the British Army in 1914 as a second lieutenant, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel by the War's end. Prior to the War, Lawrence became an expert in the Middle East, the result of archaeological expeditions and topographical work throughout the region. Lawrence was therefore posted to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, where his meticulous map-making, his knowledge of Arabic, and his work on The Arab Bulletin were invaluable. Nevertheless, Lawrence grew bored of office routine, and, along with other officers within the Arab Bureau, pleaded with General Sir Archibald Murray to support the revolt of the Arab tribes against the Turks. When their efforts proved fruitless, Lawrence took it upon himself to organize a number of military expeditions throughout the Hejaz -- to Rabegh, Wejh, and eventually, to Aqaba.
Lawrence's expedition to Aqaba -- arguably one of the most brilliant military operations in the history of warfare -- was not blessed by his higher command. In an era when communication across vast expanses of the desert was virtually non-existent, micromanagement was unheard of. Subordinate commanders therefore operated with considerable autonomy. Lawrence merely sent a conciliatory letter to his superior in the Arab Bureau before setting off with hundreds of Arab tribesmen into the wasteland. Indeed, Lawrence had no contact with the British Army for two full months -- hardly a normal turn of affairs today.
What prevents combat trauma? In the same July 1944 article from the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry that I cited the other day, Dr. Herbert X. Spiegel, a psychiatrist assigned to an Army infantry battalion in North Africa in World War II, made these observations:
"Good leadership meant good morale, and this, in turn, meant a low psychiatric casualty rate and good performance...The company commander or platoon leader...saw to it that his men got the best possible food under the circumstances; sent blankets up to them at night if it were at all possible; made every effort to keep them well supplied with water and ammunition; saw to it that promotions were fair; made certain that good work and gallantry were properly recognized; he got mail, news and information to them when possible; and he made sure that violations of rules were treated quickly and fairly. But above all, by these actions, he made his men feel they were not alone, that he was backing them up with everything humanly possible. That, plus technical ability, constitutes a good leader."
Tom again: I think that is about as good a summary I've seen. I'd like to see it quoted in our military manuals on small unit leadership. And I can't think of a more important subject for this blog.
Yet even with good leadership, there clearly are limits. Another reader, Mike F., sent along a link to an Army study of "the old sergeant syndrome" in late World War II-experienced and trusted combat leaders simply falling apart after too much. "When they were evacuated for psychiatric disturbances the matter became of real interest to all from the company commander to the commanding general of the division, for these men were among the best and most effective of the trained and disciplined combat infantry soldiers. These soldiers eventually developed abnormal tremulousness, sweating, and a tendency to be the first to get in and the last to leave a foxhole. They became useless to their unit."
Here's a sample:
Yeah, I have lots of questions today.
Over the weekend I was reading (in Christian Appy's Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides) an account of post-1975 Vietnam and was struck by this account of who the Communists most feared and targeted. It was not the former regime elements, who didn't have a leg to stand on. Rather it was the people who had not been Communists but had opposed the Thieu government. Here is how Tran Ngoc Chau, a former South Vietnamese military officer and provincial chief who managed to be imprisoned by both Thieu and the Communists, explains the problem:
…the anti-Communists who opposed Thieu represented a greater potential threat to the Communists. They believed such people would mask their anti-revolutionary efforts under the labels of nationalism and religious traditionalism. The Communists therefore began to target the Buddhist leaders and other nationalists whose anti-Communism was rooted in ideology and philosophy.
Most of the Buddhist leaders whom Thieu and the Americans had once suspected and condemned as Communist agents were put in jail, isolated, or killed after the Communists came to power. Venerable Thich Thien Minh, the powerful deputy chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Unified Church, who had been jailed by Thieu in 1967 for pro-Communist activities, was beaten to death in a Communist prison in 1979. (p. 479)
I'm always amazed at how refined field craft can become. Here are a couple of things that struck me in that essay by Col. Hoang Ngoc Lung, a former senior South Vietnamese intelligence officer, from Sorley's The Vietnam War: An Assessment by South Vietnam's Generals:
Floors, too, were good candidates for caches. The most effective way to detect them was to pour water over the dirt floor. Places that had been excavated would absorb more water at a faster rate than those that hadn't...
"The sapper threat was recognized and given high priority by security units. Small outposts took inexpensive measures for detecting infiltration which were nevertheless effective, such as raising dogs, geese and ducks on the outer perimeter of their positions...To deal with geese and ducks, they [the sappers] attached a stalk of blackened water potato plant to the end of a walking stick and dangled it upwind in front of the birds. Thinking they saw snakes, the birds did not dare make a sound. Another way they distracted the ducks and geese was to run green onion leaves on the sappers' bodies. The smell frightened the birds because they thought they smelled vipers." (pp. 118-119)
I've been reading a terrific (and massive) new book edited by Lewis Sorley, The Vietnam War: An Assessment by South Vietnam's Generals, and a passage in it provokes me to return to the issue of the literacy of local security forces. Col. Hoang Ngoc Lung, who had been a senior South Vietnamese intelligence officer, wrote in 1978 that:
Only country people had a natural affinity for night operations. ARVN officers and noncommissioned officers were all urban dwellers. They were chosen for their educational backgrounds; high school graduates were sent to officer candidate schools and junior high school certificate holders to noncommissioned officer schools...Rural peasants almost never had this opportunity. Even most enlisted men in the National Army were not rural peasants but urbanized peasants and worked to had had contacts with the machine age. (Pp. 117-118)
Tom again: Who would you prefer protecting your village while you sleep -- someone who grew up in that environment and isn't afraid to patrol at night, or someone who can read a field manual but wants to be behind closed doors when the sun goes down? It seems to me that who you recruit and how you train them depends a lot on where and what the fight is.
So on my day off over the weekend I paging through the July 1944 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry and this passage, about the experiences of a psychiatrist serving with an infantry battalion in North Africa in 1943, jumped out at me (italics are his, not mine):
It soon became apparent that a tense, tremulous soldier was not necessarily a psychiatric casualty. He was if we made him one and sent him back, but often he was not a casualty simply because he was not permitted to be one. A state of tension and anxiety is so prevalent in the front lines that it must be regarded as a normal reaction in this grossly abnormal situation.
The second sentence made me think of General Patton slapping two soldiers in the August 1943 in Sicily, and made me wonder if he thought he could "not permit" them to become casualties. (Of course, the first soldier he assaulted, Pvt. Charles Kuhl, was suffering from dysentery and malaria, and those afflictions were not going to be knocked out of him, no matter how hard Patton swung or kicked-and he did both.)
And the third sentence seems to me to be a great summary of the message of Joseph Heller's wonderful Catch-22.
Jonathan Caverley responds to last week's item about the "who lost Vietnam" articles in International Security. I am tempted to argue with him here (like, I did read his first article), but I think I should really just let the guy have his say -- which is one reason I also have tried to write a neutral headline for this item.
As in counterinsurgency, making clear claims about the Vietnam War is messy, complicated, and unlikely to please everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to make my case (as well as Professor McAllister's generous words in the comments section).
I embarked on the research underpinning the original article because I was fundamentally puzzled by the lack of Johnson Administration intervention in what appeared to be a counterproductive, firepower-intensive ground campaign. I concluded that ultimately LBJ and his aides approved of this type of warfighting, largely for domestic political reasons.
Contrary to Tom's synopsis I do not make the speculative claim that "Westmoreland would have pursued a counterinsurgency strategy." I actually suspect that Westmoreland got the MACV job, and retained it for so long, because he could be counted on not to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy.
At no point did I deny that Westmoreland and other Army generals largely shared a preference for firepower because (1) that would be wrong, and (2) this shared belief does nothing to undermine my argument.
Risking oversimplification, Prof. McAllister and I disagree on the state of Vietnam-era civil-military relations. McAllister argues that the archival record shows the uniformed military to be in the driver's seat for the ground campaign. I claim that civilians were in the back telling the cab where to go. If I'm right, one would be surprised if the military did not reflect the desires and prejudices of its civilian masters. Finding lots of indications that the military supported poor COIN practices cannot distinguish between these competing claims.
The resulting quandary highlights an important difference between theory-driven political science (which often gets a bad rap) and more historically-oriented approaches; the former can point out important social forces that are no less real despite a lack of overwhelming archival evidence. In the case of Vietnam, to test our articles' competing claims, one must look at the times, however rare, when civilian and uniformed policymakers disagreed. In such cases, I find support that the Administration was more wedded to firepower and conventional combat than were Westmoreland and his lieutenants.
Interested parties should read all three articles to compare the evidence (particularly before using the term "shoddy scholarship" in a headline). I will point out that Westmoreland was one of the very few Americans to recommend against escalation (in the air or on the ground) in late 1964. His logic -- found in his recommendation to the president and in "eyes only" messages to his fellow generals -- largely appears to be COIN 101. One can only wonder what would have happened had Westmoreland carried that debate.
I've rarely seen as thorough a demolition job as the one done by Williams College political scientist James McAllister on an article by Jonathan Caverley, "The Myth of Military Myopia," that ran last year in International Security. McAllister's article, "Who Lost Vietnam?: Soldiers, Civilians, and U.S. Military Strategy," is in the new (Winter 2010/11) issue of the same magazine, but I can't find it online for free.
Caverley, who now teaches at Northwestern University, argues that Gen. Westmoreland would have pursued a counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam if only his civilian overseers had permitted him to do so. This would be an amazing revelation if it were true, of course. But Caverley, a former submariner, makes this case, McAllister charges, by confecting an argument out of a few bits of theories and misquoted documents, while ignoring a mountain of contrary evidence. (Hey, prof, that worked for the Bush administration in making a case for invading Iraq.…)
McAllister's bottom line:
Ultimately, Caverley delivers a theoretical and historical synthesis that does not explain why the United States fought the way it did in Vietnam. The source of the problem is not hard to discern; his theoretical framework leads him to simplify and distort the history of the war. There is nothing inherently wrong in approaching the history of the Vietnam War armed with a simple and elegant theory. There is something wrong, however, in making the complex history of the war conform to that simple and elegant theory.
Tom again: One thing I learned by toiling as a reporter for 26 years is that there is always another side to the story, so I will invite Professor Caverley to respond to this, if he likes.
Here is a quick comment from Prof. Caverely:
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the charge of shoddy scholarship, defend my argument, and present elements of the historical record that back it up. But for now, allow me to note that I have a response to Prof. McAllister in the same issue of International Security that does this at considerable length.
And he also generously has passed along a link to his original article.
On the metro into DC I read Roger Spiller's essay on how wars end, in the Col. Matthew Moten volume about how wars end that I mentioned a few weeks ago. Spiller is a mighty quotable writer, so here are some of the things I underlined:
--"military doctrine is above all a modern army's way of thinking out loud about what it must do next." (p. 20)
--"wars are defined not by their extremes but their limitations" (p. 25)
--"The Civil War was to all intents and purposes a West Pointer's war: Academy graduates commanded on both sides in fifty-five of the sixty largest battles, and on one side in the rest." (p. 28)
--"From Tet onward the United States was on the strategic defensive." (p. 39)
--"the course by which a war ends, if embarked on without care, can be as dangerous to a nation's vital interests as the war itself, regardless of the war's military results." (p. 41)
I just got in the mail, but haven't yet read, a new book by George Lepre titled Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press).
It is interesting that university presses in "flyover country" seem to be producing the best books on Vietnam nowadays. Here are the state universities producing good histories books I've read lately: Texas, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas. How about it, university presses of California, Massachusetts, Virginia and so on? Step up, fellas.
I finally got a chance to read James Robbins's relatively new book on the Tet Offensive. It is an odd volume, because it doesn't have that much new in it, and the core argument seems to be that Tet '68 would have been a strategic victory if only Lyndon Johnson had recognized it as such. In fact, I think the American people did understand what happened and concluded that if that was going to be the cost of victory, they were not interested. As former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wrote in a 2002 memoir, "Because they had been told that victory was just around the corner, Tet shook America's confidence in the war and in its government." (P. 271, Ky, Buddha's Child.) Also, the fact that the Communists were able to reduce their engagements and casualty levels in 1968 and 1969, after taking a tactical beating in Tet, calls into question the entire attritional strategy the United States pursued.
Robbins thinks different. I still think he is wrong. Even so, two major points from the book struck me as worth pondering:
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.