The Best Defense

The key but under-acknowledged role of foreign military advisors in U.S. history

On the train from Exeter to London the other day I was re-reading retired Lt. Gen. Dave Richard Palmer's Summons of the Trumpet, partly because I decided I didn't really get it the first time around when I read it a couple of years ago. I also picked it up again because it as close as I think anyone has come to writing an operational history of the Vietnam War.

The book is good, but a bit dated in places. I think General Palmer is over-optimistic about the implications of the Ia Drang fight. He also seems credulous about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, especially in his interpretation that Hanoi was foolish to launch such an attack.

That said, overall I think it is the best book I've been able to find for an overview of what actually happened in the war, rather than what people were saying about it.  

This is what Palmer writes about the important role foreign military advisors played in the creation of these United States of America (pp. 27-28). They might be appreciated by anyone trying to advise Afghan forces nowadays:

"There was once a time when the American army needed foreign advisors. . . Having neither a nucleus of professionals nor a backstop of military tradition to draw on, Congress turned with scant hope to Europe for trained officers. They came. Lafayette, Steuben, Kosciusko, Dekalb, Pulaski, Duportail -- just to mention a few of the better known names is to evoke an image of the vitally important role they played in the winning of our War of Independence.

These advisors tackled an awesome task: molding an army from raw material in a backward country in the midst of war. A strange and often inhospitable environment seriously complicated their job, not to mention problems created by the barriers of language and other cultural differences. Then, too, buffeted by puzzling and sometimes petty crosscurrents of political and personal jealousies, . . . the foreigners often suffered acute frustration and actual bitterness. Nonetheless, they persevered.

. . .  Another unchanging reality of advising is the more or less constant cocoon of frustration enveloping the advisor. Adjusting to advising is a greater individual challenge than can be easily imagined by anyone who has not done it.


The Best Defense

Britain facing Germany in May 1940: One modern version of the Melian dialogue

By "Jeff"

Best Defense guest historian

I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for better or worse.

A modern parallel existed in May of 1940 in Great Britain. With her armies being shattered on the continent and her key ally in the final stages of her death throes, Britain faced a choice very much like that of Melos.

The choice was no less stark than that faced by Melos. The enemy was a great power, with the momentum of victory behind it. It was utterly ruthless. Britain could have cut a deal with the looming threat -- a deal eagerly sought by Hitler -- and opted out of harm's way with little loss but of reputation and humiliation.

Many of the British elite who were led by Halifax and the Foreign Office were looking for such a peace treaty but Winston Churchill, understanding the nature of his foe, outmaneuvered the Halifax faction and accepted the challenge from Hitler come what may. This choice amounted to the key strategic decision of the 20th century. Churchill's leadership resulted in a decision that showed a willingness to risk all to preserve western civilization from Nazi barbarism.

This choice in my view was anchored in realism. Churchill and his Parliamentary allies possessed a hardboiled realism that fully appreciated the consequences of defeat but also the possibilities (as remote as they seemed at the time) of victory in the end.

Halifax's approach, in contrast, was seemingly realistic on the surface but in fact was not, because it failed to appreciate the nature of the opponent. Any deal arranged with the Nazis could only be temporary, because of the innate predatory nature of the Nazi regime and its cold-blooded ideology. Churchill, a historian, intuitively understood this important fact.

I find this parallel with the experience of the Melians very compelling. Had the Melians had a great power ally (Sparta), perhaps their choice may have become heroically successful rather than heroically doomed. As it was there was no deliverer off in the distance whose interests were served by a living Melos.

"Jeff" is an amateur military historian and financial executive retired after thirty years with Merrill Lynch.