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:

6 responses »

  1. John F. Davies says:

    As a former Military Officer myself ( Marine Corps), I concur with your observations.

    The promotion policy you refer to is known as “Up or Out” and was implemented by none other than George Marshall after WWII. During the war there were found in positions of leadership many who, due to age and time in service , lacked the capacity and experience to deal with the new forms of warfare. With the idea of instilling a “Young and Vigorous” leadership, models from the corporate sector were used. This and other post war reforms changed American Military Culture so much that Military Professionals were transformed into Corporate Executives in Uniform.

    Military historian T.R. Fehrenbach covers this topic in great detail in “This Kind of War ” his classic history of the Korean Conflict.

    It works like this. There is a “schedule” during one’s career that one must keep in order to be promoted. There are annual promotion boards for each rank. When it comes time on your schedule to be promoted to the next rank, all of your fitness reports are reviewed. If you do not make the cut, then you are “Passed Over” for promotion. If passed over twice, you are honorably discharged. If you are a Captain (Or Navy Lt Senior Grade), and have ten year’s service, you qualify for Severance Pay. If you are a Major, ( Or Navy Lt Commander.), you can retire at 20 years with full benefits. And the higher it gets, the more cutthroat the competition. Just like in Corporate Boardrooms.

    In the Fleet there was a saying- “There’s nothing more worse than a senior Captain who’s
    bucking for Field Grade”.

    Where Officers before were encouraged to take risks, which one must do in combat, today the fear of being passed over prevents them from making the decisions that could mean a battle won and people’s lives saved. Many other decisions and actions that should be done are not because of visions of bad fitness reports hanging over your head. This makes it perfectly understandable why the US Military is the way it is.

    A personal note.
    Forty one years ago, when I was at Marine Corps Basic School, my final class was not about our future in the Corps, but instead had some Major rambling on about how important our fitness reports were to our career. One thing I did learn from him was how inflated the ratings were, and even having one “Good” fitness report could spell the end of your career. During my tour in the fleet, I found so many Officers, ( Especially in senior positions.), who just would not make a hard decision unless their asses were completely covered. They were way more concerned with getting their ticket punched than learning the profession of arms. There was one officer in particular, our battalion S-3, who earned the nickname “The Sultan of Sweat”, because he was always making sure he looked good so’s to get leaves on his shoulders. My first Company Commander was just the same, an over supervising micromanager first class. Between them and my chequered career in the Intel World, its no wonder that my tour ended after a mere eight years.

    However, not long afterward, the entire 2nd Marine Division were deployed in Desert Storm, and now many of the people I knew from then now have Gulf War Syndrome. So maybe there was a silver lining to that cloud.
    Over and out,

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    John, you’ve seen it far more on the inside than I did in my limited time in service, but even as a NCO the effect of this policy on officers was obvious….and at the end of the Vietnam war it was particularly brutal at the ranks of Captain and Major in the Air Force.

    One of the down sides of this approach is that it tends to actually penalize experience – normally one would expect both positive and negative experiences to be important in building a good career officer. However this tends to reward personnel who either avoid operational experiences period, or who successfully distance themselves from anything that might lead to negative entries in their files.

    One of the other things that emerges in Michael’s backstory of the war in Vietnam is that the people who had the most field experience were very often either simply ignored and never brought into the policy discussions, or if their actual experience countered some higher level individual who was pushing an agenda, they were either sidelined or had their career shredded.

    Its pretty depressing to review some of the Eisenhower era meetings in regard to policy making on SE Asia – the level of knowledge of the history, ethnology and cultures in the region was minimal to say the least. There was simply no ability to view events in terms of anything other than the American cultural mindset.

  3. John F. Davies says:

    The ignorance of American policy makers concerning the culture and history of foreign nations and people was something that JFK was actively working to change. At the beginning of his administration there was a great surge in Federal Block Grants to States for the hiring and education of foreign language teachers. This greatly benefitted my Mother, who spoke and taught Spanish, because it got her tenure in her teaching position. He was also appointing some Ambassadors from the ranks of the Foreign Service, and / or spoke the language of their host country.

    As for the Air Force’s situation with its Officers at the end of Vietnam, I know of it well. The axe that hovered above every Captain and Major was the word RIF. Meaning Reduction In Force. Between 1973 and 1976, there was a mass hemorrhage of Company and Field Grade ranks in the Air Force, which included many veterans of Operation Linebacker, whose combat experience was priceless, but were nevertheless punched out into the stratosphere, so to speak. Any minor black mark against you meant the old heave ho.
    I had a good friend, a former F-4 Fighter jock with 250 missions under his belt, and also a born leader, who nevertheless got the sack because of a bust up he had with his flight leader ( A jerk from VMI ), whose own idiocy cost the life of his wingman to a MIG 21.

    This all proves once more that the phrase “Military Intelligence” is indeed an oxymoron!

    Over and out

  4. AnthonyM says:

    A very interesting discussion. It’s very curious how doctrine on counter insurgency operations or counter-revolutionary warfare evolved over the decades so differently between even close allies such as the UK and the USA.

    By the time US involvement in Vietnam accelerated from 1964 onwards we already had a model for a highly successful strategy for counter insurgency operations from the Malayan campaign in the 1950s, and to some extent from the Mau-Mau operations in Kenya in the same time period. The concept of ‘hearts and minds’ went on to be successfully applied in Borneo in the 1960s (including cross border operations against regular army units from Indonesia) and again in Oman in the 1970s. Whilst the latter two were too late to inform Vietnam, the idea of using Vietnam as a model for anything in the early 21st Century is bizaare. Meanwhile, in developed countries, the various terrorist groups in Europe in the second half of the 20th Century (from the IRA to Bader-Meinhof, RAF, ETA etc.) have all been defeated by a combination of security operations and society being willing to ‘wait them out’ (and the loss of supplies, funding and ideology after 1989).

    Perhaps even more puzzling from a nation building point of view is that the USA set the standard on how to do that after WWII in Germany and Japan. Whilst Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same as each other and not the same as either of the earlier examples, many of the principles are generic. We could have also drawn on lessons from colonial experiences in the 18th and 19th centuries in the region. which largely lead to the same basic approach.

    So what seems very odd is the lack of drawing on the lessons of military and wider geopolitical history to inform the development of doctrine in this area whilst at the same time the US military was so effective in conventional warfare.

    I’m not up to date on the extent to which the strategies utilised by Patreaus and McChrystal (a sort of hybrid “French solution” and hearts and minds approach if I follow it correctly…and at least temporarily effective) have become embedded in US military doctrine. As the British learned in Aden in the 1960’s, if the people believe you are going to pull out then you have already lost and no military strategy will be effective in the long term and hence the ‘surge’ had only a temporary benefit

  5. larryjoe2 says:

    I think a good bit of the difference comes from the experience and doctrine that was being carried over within the U.S. Army from WWII. In Shadow Warfare I quote some comments from Army sources stating that to them – and in the manuals – their officers were trained to support insurgencies not suppress them. That experience came from Europe and Asia both, with the OSS and the Army operating against the Japanese in the Far East – which is where Army personnel first encountered, were impressed by and assisted Ho Chi Minh’s insurgency against the Japanese. And in Europe to a large extent the U.S. was simply a junior partner to the British in France and elsewhere.

    Prior to WWII most of the American experience with insurgencies and revolutionaries had been of either the gun-boat diplomacy nature in Latin America or in the Philippines – and that was more in the nature of conventional warfare with American forces.

    America was simply not an established imperial power, with the body of experience (good or bad) with insurgencies. It came onto the stage as a true “imperial” geopolitical power courtesy of WWII so its doctrines were largely forged in that most recent experience. As to nation building, our history there was related to defending American corporate interests overseas – back to the gun boat diplomacy. It was Rostow and company who created a new model for nation building in the late 50’s and early 60’s, which proved hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful, but at the time it was new, shiny and tempting – viewed primarily as a strategic wepon against Communism.

    Which brings in the other factor, the U.S. counter insurgency response was most often seen not as a local matter but part of the overall global war against the spread of Communism with Russia and China being the real enemy – which was why the Joint Chiefs continually tended to view insurgency as a peripheral issue and push for going head on against the real enemies. They assuming the insurgencies would die a natural death if we just nuked China sufficiently….sigh. Their was simply no ability to differentiate cultural and nationalist motives from the perceived advance of world communism.

    Anyway, that’s my simplistic take..

  6. John F. Davies says:

    In his book “Dereliction of Duty”, H.R. McMaster discusses a lot of what has been said above and points out the grave identity crisis that was occurring throughout the U.S. Army at the time . Because its manpower and missions had been cut back by Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policies, Army Chief of Staff General James Gavin resigned in protest, and many in the Army reacted by supporting a more active role for conventional forces in the nuclear age. The Army’s most vocal advocate was future Joint Chiefs Chairman General Maxwell Taylor, whose book “The Uncertain Trumpet”, strongly advocated this policy. When Johnson committed U.S. Ground Forces to Vietnam, Taylor’s protégé General William Westmorland was there to put Taylor’s theories on conventional war into practice, in spite of the fact that the French had done the very same thing before and failed.

    Also, one of the most little known controversies of the Vietnam War was the open conflict between Westmorland and Marine Expeditionary Force Commander General Lew Walt on battlefield tactics. The Marines and the Army had completely different philosophies when it came to fighting the VC and NVA. The Army emphasized unleashing massive firepower on contact with the foe, and using infantry to just go in and mop up. The Marines on the other hand, emphasized infantry fire and maneuver to close with the enemy, using artillery and aviation in a more supportive role. Also, using the Marine Corps’ experiences in the Banana Wars and the Pacific, Walt began an active program of pacification in I Corps, something former artilleryman Westmorland considered a waste of resources and who preferred designating areas as “Free Fire Zones”.

    This lack of a unified plan for tactical operations was one the major flaws of America’s Vietnam policy and was also one of the major reasons for its defeat.

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