During the recent recording of a panel session for the upcoming Virtual JFK Lancer 2020 conference, we were discussing American involvement in SE Asia, particularly the early years in Vietnam, and the transition from Eisenhower’s policies to JFK’s. While huge amounts of time have been spent discussing JFK’s decisions during 1963, much less has been devoted to his earlier views on the region, including his experiences and positions while a Senator during the Eisenhower administration.
My friend Michael Swanson is addressing that in his upcoming book, which deals with the origins of the Vietnam War. At one point during our conversations on “nation building”, the topic turned to counter-insurgency as it was conducted over several years in Vietnam. That led me to recall the point that as soon as the United States became involved in nation building in Afghanistan, I recalled seeing a number of figures show up on radio and television to discuss what should be done there, based on their experiences in Vietnam.
My immediate reaction was simply to listen open mouthed as to why anyone would use Vietnam as a positive example of developing plans for Afghanistan? In regard to nation building, Walt Rostow’s philosophies lead JFK into making commitments to the Diem regime which proved not only impractical, but politically disastrous. Beyond that it seems tragic that the high level military decisions in Vietnam would ever be brought forth as an experience on which to make policy or counter-insurgency plans for Afghanistan.
I’ve wrestled why the question of why the U.S. keeps repeating the same geopolitical mistakes over and over again. Most recently I examined that question in great detail in my 2020 book, “In Denial”. However during our conversations about Vietnam it dawned on me that there was another aspect I had not discussed in any detail – the political nature of promotion and senior command within the military.
Not that I plan another book about it, but there is history to show that senior command often comes to officers who are brilliant at certain elements of command – especially in logistics and coordination – and who are also adept at managing their careers within the services. Not that they might not have been successful in combat, but they are often very career oriented, and especially likely to make decisions on the conventional practices which they mastered in their earlier years.
Unfortunately this means in some instances that high level commanders tend to rely on the standard practices that relate to their own experiences – but which may not fit changing circumstances and new threats. I’ve written about some examples in my past books. One example being the Hawaiian Army command’s focus on sabotage, and its failure to take full advantage of the new technology of radar as it related to the defense of the islands and the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Another example from World War II would be General MacArthur’s total failure to follow his orders to use strategic air power to preempt attacks on the Philippines, instead focusing on a defense against Japanese landings.
In regard to Afghanistan, CENTCOM’s early insistence on conventional practices totally failed to respond to the situation on the ground which was accurately being reported to them by the first CIA paramilitary action teams inserted into the field – and according to the CIA, was a factor in allowing Osama bin Laden to successfully escape into Pakistan.
Perhaps the most egregious example of falling back on experience (and on following “the book”) comes from the American experience in Vietnam. This is related exceptionally well in Lewis Sorley’s biography of William Westmoreland. Westmoreland was an able commander, experienced in conventional military practices and certainly of a political bent, as illustrated in Sorley’s work. Yet his experience served him and the nation poorly – with Westmoreland rejecting virtually all the advice he was given by those with prior experience on the ground in Vietnam. Instead he overlaid his own conventional combat experience (including massive artillery bombardment) onto a conflict which was of a totally different nature.
The point of all the above is simply to highlight that there are risks in relying strictly on experience in making high level decisions, especially if those decisions do not take into account direct input from field level personnel (including both the military and State Department). In the simplest terms, far too many of our national policy decisions appear to have been made according to the old temptation – if a hammer as your only tool, you begin to treat every challenge as a nail.
On a more positive note, some commanders and even some policy makers are able to operate at a different level. As an illustration of that, for those interested in national defense issues, I would refer you on how the Marine Corps is restructuring itself in light of new challenges and realities: