The Best Defense

A great but forgotten general

From the new issue of the Washington Monthly, here is my review of a good book:

General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War by Henry G. Gole

University Press of Kentucky, 364 pp.

In a better, fairer world, Henry Gole's terrific biography of Gen. William DePuy, with its epic sweep from World War II to the post-Vietnam Army, would be known as well as Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie.

DePuy was a consummate soldier who fought in Normandy in World War II and commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. Among military insiders, he is best known for his pathbreaking work to fix the Army after it was broken by Vietnam. As Gole, himself a veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, puts it in this book, some admiring officers described him as "the greatest soldier of his generation, the most influential soldier since World War II." DePuy was a genuine American hero, but he is barely known to the American public, and that is a shame.

DePuy's defining moment was the horrific summer of 1944, when an amateurish American military learned lessons the hard way against the Germans. Forget about Saving Private Ryan, with its fantasy of a handful of American soldiers blocking superior German forces in improvised street fighting. The real deal was that the Army General Eisenhower threw into Normandy, for better or worse, was undertrained and all too often horribly led. Almost all the pre-invasion preparation was about getting to the beach, with little taught about what to do after crossing it. Many officers knew more about how to transport troops in trucks than about how to lead them in combat. Gole notes that even data from the previous two years of fighting Germans in North Africa and Italy was largely ignored.

The price paid was huge, and collected swiftly. "In the first six weeks of the battle in Normandy, the 90th [the division in which DePuy served] lost 100 percent of its soldiers and 150 percent of its officers," DePuy later wrote, with replacements arriving daily in battalion-sized batches. To the humiliation of the 90th Division, on July 23, 1944, one of its battalions, with 265 men, surrendered to fifty Germans with two tanks. DePuy described his own battalion commander in Normandy as being "as close to being totally incompetent as it was possible to be." As for his regimental commander, DePuy considered him "a horse's ass ... a disaster." 

DePuy, by contrast, was a natural combat leader, one of those gifted amateurs who rose to the top. He went into World War II a green lieutenant who had graduated from the state university in his native South Dakota. He emerged from the war having commanded a battalion and received a series of high combat awards. He was only twenty-six years old, but he had witnessed, as Gole writes, "the price of getting it wrong." His conclusions were that war is about battle and that the way to prepare for it is to train incessantly. He was, as another general says in the book, "an authentic tactical genius." He became a great trainer.

His record in the Vietnam War was mixed at best. He brought to it his belief in avoiding frontal assaults and instead in using the infantry to find and "fix" the enemy and then using artillery and aircraft to kill the enemy. This led him into conflict with then Maj. Gen. Frederick Weyand, who commanded the adjacent division, the 25th Infantry. Weyand focused on pacification, while DePuy looked to overwhelm the enemy with firepower, Gole writes. Gole pulls his punches a bit here, but quotes DePuy as saying there had been too much emphasis on counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War. I came away wanting to know more about Weyand's approach, which I suspect was the more appropriate one. (Indeed, Andrew Krepinevich, in his classic study The Army and Vietnam, reports that DuPuy was contemptuous of the Marine Corps' CAP program, which in retrospect was a productive road not taken.)

DePuy also carried on in Vietnam another even more controversial World War II tradition -- the fast, even brutal, relief of officers he deemed ineffective. During his year commanding the 1st Infantry Division, he fired an astonishing seven battalion commanders. This so bothered the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, that during a visit to Vietnam late in 1966 he sat down with DePuy and his assistant division commander. "You are relieving too many battalion commanders," Johnson admonished. "You are supposed to train them."

The assistant division commander shot back, "General, I had the idea that you were going to train them and we were going to fight them over here and save soldiers' lives." That sharp response was exactly right: removal of commanders may worry other officers, but it reassures soldiers, because it sends the signal that someone around here knows what he is doing, and recognizes incompetence. Nothing demoralizes soldiers faster than suspecting they are being led by a buffoon. On the other hand, DePuy's hair-trigger firings gave him a reputation as an arrogant, unforgiving tyrant.

Tough, bright, and focused, DePuy probably was exactly the right person to lead the rebuilding of the Army in the early 1970s. He emphasized to his subordinate generals that he would hold them personally responsible to produce results -- which they knew, given his reputation in Vietnam, was no idle threat.

But there is an old military saying that every strength contains the seeds of its own weakness. That seems to have been the case with DePuy's hugely successful effort to reorganize, re-equip, retrain, refocus, and professionalize the post-Vietnam, post-draft Army. His approach, with its detailed attention to tactics and training, was a fine way to rebuild the Army in the late 1970s and early '80s. "We were tactical guys by self-definition and preference," DePuy said later. The effectiveness of the transformation was demonstrated in the short, purposely limited Gulf War of 1991, a conflict that seems all but forgotten now.

But his relentless focus on tactics and training has unfortunately proved to be a poor way to prepare the Army for Iraq in the 2000s. The Iraq War has not been about battle (nor was Vietnam, for that matter). It has been a war in which senior officers need not so much training, which readies them for the known, as education, which prepares them for the unknown. This is not a knock on DePuy, but on his successors, who grew complacent in the '90s, and failed to build on his solid foundation. The follow-on steps that should have improved the Army operationally and strategically were never taken. The price for that terrible lapse was paid in Iraq from 2003 through 2006, as the Army's honed tactics lacked competent strategic direction to make them lead toward a goal. Having solid tactics without a good strategy is like driving a Ferrari without a steering wheel.

On the other hand, the Iraq War also has become notorious as a conflict in which it is almost impossible for senior officers to be relieved. A little of DePuy's old-school insistence on accountability might have been hugely helpful.

Image: U.S. Army via Wikicommons

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