In retrospect, I’m absolutely convinced that we lost the war wrong. We should have fought that war in an advisory mode and remained in that mode. When the South Vietnamese failed to come up and meet the mark at the advisory level, then we never should have committed US forces. We should have failed at the advisory effort and withdrawn. — Gen. Volney F. Warner, 1983
I’ve reached the epilogue of H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, and it’s been quite a journey. The book covers the period from the inauguration of John Kennedy in 1961 to the point in July 1965 when Lyndon Johnson’s non-decision decisions fatally committed the United States to a land war in Asia, which nearly all of his advisors believed the US could not win. To get an idea of the granularity level McMaster is working at, check the first four (of fifteen) entries in the Table of Contents:
At several critical points the narrative goes day by day, occasionally even hour by hour. The endnotes require eighty-two pages. It appears McMaster has gained access to nearly every relevant document, many of them unpublished memoirs or government memos that describe in detail what the participants were thinking about.
Anyone familiar with the history of the period will not be surprised by the duplicity and heartlessness of the main manager of the war, Robert Strange McNamara. If you saw The Fog of War, you know what I mean. McNamara is the kind of liar who lies to himself first and foremost, with the result that he can be convincing because he believes the lies he tells.
Certainly the war in Vietnam is the fault of LBJ above all; he handed McNamara the reins so he could concentrate on passing his Great Society legislation. That wasn’t a surprise to me, but I was taken aback by McMaster’s conclusion that Johnson’s personal insecurity was a large part of the problem. Unlike the current occupant, the President was actually the decider; but, like Bush, he was uncomfortable with dissent, so he continually reduced the size of the group with whom he was candid. When an advisor began to express doubts about the war, he was ignored, even if he happened to be the Vice President.
As a result the Joint Chiefs of Staff were cut out of the process of generating a strategy for fighting the war. When Johnson took office on November 22, 1963, American military folks were fighting in Vietnam, but neither the Vietnamese nor the American governments admitted that. Both claimed that US personnel performed in advisory roles only, which was true in the sense that American forces were not acting alone. Ground forces were always composed of Vietnamese soldiers accompanied by a few Americans, though the opposite ratios generally held when it came to the air war.
The Secretary of Defense, so called, held the top military brass in low esteem, in part because of his lack of knowledge of the military, in part because of his experience with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and in part because he believed he was smarter than they were and his systems analysis methods would solve every problem. This led McNamara to believe that he could control the American side of the war very precisely from Washington; so when he ordered bombing raids and the combination of bad weather and restrictions on military methods produced disappointing results, he blamed the military, despite their opposition to his methods. They might have been opposed to his goals as well, had they been given a clear picture of those goals; but you can’t provide a clear picture if you don’t have one yourself. At one point the National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy,
…told [Under Secretary of State George] Ball that there was no need for the United States to “follow a particular course down the road to a particular result.”
Right, we were only there killing people, and losing American lives, to see what would come of it. And to keep the profits rolling in for companies like Bell Helicopter. LBJ’s war cabinet believed, and said, that the US would be better off to fight and lose in Vietnam than to withdraw from the fight altogether.
Of course there’s plenty of blame to go around. An insecure President and a megalomaniac Defense Secretary were the main culprits, but the Joint Chiefs get some grief from McMaster too, which is probably why he’s still a Lieutenant Colonel.
The body charged with providing the president with military advice and responsible for strategic planning permitted the president to commit the United States to war without consideration of the likely costs and consequences. Comprehensive estimates of the number of troops necessary to win existed, but to conceal interservice divisions and to increase the likelihood that the president would approve the actions that they recommended, the Joint Chiefs suppressed them.
One study estimated that seven hundred thousand troops would be needed to win in Vietnam. The Army Chief of Staff thought five hundred thousand troops and five years would be required. But no one said anything, because McNamara and his allies in the administration had chosen a strategy they called graduated pressure, which severely limited the military’s ability to fight the war. The CIA was consistently reporting the difficulties faced by American strategists, but the American ambassador, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, removed the offending paragraphs before forwarding his reports to Washington. This inability to present the President with unvarnished analyses eventually led the director of the CIA to resign in frustration. But the Joint Chiefs simply buckled.
There are some striking similarities to the current war in Iraq. The ideological certainty of both administrations, though of different types, produced similar situations of willful blindness. This caused both administrations to ignore intelligence estimates that didn’t fit with what they wanted to hear. In both cases, many of the Americans making war strategy were innocent of military experience themselves. They believed passionately in the inherent superiority of American firepower, and equally strongly but less overtly in the superiority of Americans and the American way of life. These beliefs allowed both groups to retain their intentional ignorance of the objectives of those on the other side. McNamara et.al. persisted in thinking that Hanoi was playing a prestige game, and that rational calculations of cost would drive Ho Chi Minh to give up his ambitions to unify Vietnam.
William Bundy’s, [Michael] Forrestal’s, and [John] McNaughton’s education and experience in the law reinforced the analysts’ assumptions. In English common law, lawyers and judges must view human behavior through the lens of the “average reasonable man.” That theory underlay predictions of how Hanoi would respond to limited air strikes.
The problem was that all the evidence showed that Hanoi was not directed by average reasonable men. Ho told a French visitor that if they killed ten of his men for every man the Vietnamese killed, Ho would win the war. In the end, the Vietnamese were not going anywhere; the only way to beat them was to wipe them out. Graduated pressure was a strategy that clearly would not dissuade such opposition.
One is left with the impression that a good deal of the bungling of the invasion of Iraq is a replay of the disaster the US created in Vietnam. The main difference is that in the case of Iraq the Cheney administration knew exactly what it was going for. The PR was equally dishonest, but the goal was clear to the strategists: steal all the oil, even if we have to be there a hundred years to do so. American lives no longer mean more to the White House than foreign lives; dollars, and power, count.