I badly want our project in Afghanistan to go well, because I do believe it is important to our national interest, and personally – my son is there as I write this. Over this past eleven months of his deployment, I’ve gotten to know his fellows, their families, and the widows and parents of the heroes from his company who have died there. I want their effort, their blood, their lives – the risks he has taken and is taking today – to matter by bringing us closer to some national goal.
And yet, they’re not.
Who – seriously – believes that the path we’re on in Afghanistan today will be looked on in a decade as a victory?
The problem isn’t the troops – they are incredibly brave and competent. It isn’t even the grand tactics – CounterTerror or COIN anyone? Tactics matter, but the reality of either as applied on the ground blurs the distinctions our strategists dispute so seriously in Washington or Kabul.
The problem isn’t fate – as a nation, I reject Bacevich’s notion that we’re doomed to fail in long, costly, slow wars in far-away places.
The problem is confusion. It’s confusion between means and ends, between methods and goals, and between sending signals, winning hearts and minds, and killing bad guys. It’s simple confusion about what we’re trying to do in Afghanistan and how we’ll know we’re doing it.
I’m not talking about the Strategy-Of-The-Month club as proclaimed by our ever-changing military leadership in Washington or Kabul. That is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a symptom of a deeper failing that’s taking place at a still higher level – on the grassy axis between the Congress and the White House.
Afghanistan isn’t a new Vietnam – but we’re acting like it is. We’re making many of the same mistakes that we made in losing back in the 1970’s today.
I’ve read much of the literature on Vietnam, from A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam to The lost revolution; the story of twenty years of neglected opportunities in Vietnam and of America’s failure to foster democracy there and Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, as examples.
One book that stands out is Col. Harry Summers Jr’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. In it, he attempts to set out the military history of Vietnam, the domestic and military politics around it, and ties those back to Clausewitz.
There are a few critical ways that we’re acting like we did in Vietnam (as well as some critical ones in which we’re different).
Here are some highlights from Summers’ book, and a commentary on how and why I think the points he makes are relevant.
He opens his book:
TACTICAL VICTORY, STRATEGIC DEFEAT
“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel.
The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Conversation in Hanoi, April 1975
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Vietnam war from the Army’s point of view is that as far as logistics and tactics were concerned we succeeded in everything we set out to do. At the height of the war the Army was able to move almost a million soldiers a year in and out of Vietnam, feed them, clothe them, house them, supply them with arms and ammunition, and generally sustain them better than any Army had ever been sustained in the field. To project an Army of that size halfway around the world was a logistics and management task of enormous magnitude, and we had been more than equal to the task. On the battlefield itself, the Army was unbeatable. In engagement after engagement the forces of the Viet Cong and of the North Vietnamese Army were thrown back with terrible losses. Yet, in the end, it was North Vietnam, not the United States, that emerged victorious. How could we have succeeded so well, yet failed so miserably? That disturbing question was the reason for this book.
At least part of the answer appears to be that we saw Vietnam as unique rather than in strategic context.
So who today would say that things in Afghanistan are significantly different? We are consistently winning engagement after engagement. Even Wanat was not a tactical defeat, regardless of the cost. But is there anyone who can confidently say that we are on a path to victory? Bueller? No one?
The reason is simple; we don’t know what victory looks like. We don’t have a political-strategic context for the war we’re in, other than killing the people who shoot at us and who intermittently murder their countrymen.
That’s my core point. We have no strategic objective. That’s the basic failure that Obama inherited from Bush – who failed to build a strategic justification for the war either. What are we doing here? What will winning look like? We never set out a simple and clear “this is what we’re going to do and why” so that the generals – who are supposed to figure out the How – could do their jobs.
Instead we treated Iraq and Afghanistan – and the smaller engagements and the security measures we’re taking domestically – as if they were unique responses to individual situations, rather than part of a global strategy. What, simply put, is the militarily obtainable Objective of these wars?
Clausewitz’s clarification of the importance of the objective was one of his main contributions to understanding the nature of war. He emphasized that war was not waged for its own sake but was waged to obtain a particular aim – what Clausewitz called the political object of war. As he said, “the political object is a goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”‘ This loss of focus also exacerbated a common American failing – the tendency to see war as something separate and apart from the political process. World Wars I and II had been not so much wars as crusades to punish evil. Even so astute a military professional as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur saw war in this light. As he told the Senate, “the general definition which for many decades has been acceptable was that war was an ultimate process of politics; that when all of the political means failed, we then go to force.” This statement reflected the rejection of the Clausewitzian belief that “it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.” The truth of this dictum was brought home with a vengeance during the Vietnam war and its aftermath.
With this framework for analysis we can now turn to an examination of how the principle of The Objective was applied during the Vietnam war. We will begin with an analysis of North Vietnamese actions using our own frame of reference. Not only are their doctrinal manuals not available, the material that is available primarily reflects North Vietnamese declaratory strategy which was designed to continue the smoke screen of revolutionary war to mask their own aggression. It was not until after their conquest of South Vietnam that they revealed (e.g., General Dung’s “Great Spring Victory”) the true nature of the war. Their smoke screen was so effective that we were blinded throughout the course of the war to the point that the majority of our analyses focused on revolutionary war and the Viet Cong. Volumes have been written on their organization, structure, doctrine and tactics. According to former CIA analyst, George Allen, one of the country’s foremost experts on Vietnam, such analysis distorted the true nature of the war:
The National Liberation Front was not … a viable, autonomous organization with a life of its own; it was a facade, a “front,” by means of which the DLD (the Vietnamese Communist Party) sought to mobilize the people in the south to accomplish its ends, and to garner international sympathy and support.
The guerrilla himself may well have believed in the revolutionary cause and have believed that he was fighting for a revolutionary government in Saigon under southern leadership. Such beliefs were essential if his Morale and fighting spirit were to be sustained. But the Viet C0119 were only a means to an end. As General Weyand said in his analysis of Tet-68:
Applying the test of cui bono (for whose benefit) it can be seen that the real losers of Tet-68 were the South Vietnamese Communists (the Viet Cong or PRG) who surfaced, led the attacks, and were destroyed in the process – just as the Russians eliminated their Polish competitors [with] the Warsaw Uprising, the North Vietnamese eliminated their southern competitors with Tet-68. They thereby insured that the eventual outcome of the war would be a South Vietnam dominated and controlled, not by South Vietnamese Communists, but by the North Vietnamese.
As we saw earlier, after Tet-68 the majority of the day-to-day combat in Vietnam was carried out by North Vietnamese troops, and the Viet Cong had been reduced to no more than 20 percent of the Communist fighting force.
Although most of the literature on North Vietnam and the Viet Cong is misleading, that is not to say that there were no analysts who were aware of the true nature of the war. The problem was that counterinsurgency dogma had so distorted our own frame of reference that such analyses did not fit the fashion of the time. For example, in 1963, a year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, P. J. Honey, a lecturer in Vietnamese at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, wrote:
The clearest statement of the long-term objectives of the Lao Dong Party which has yet come to light is to be found in a secret party document captured by the French Expeditionary Corps in North Vietnam during the spring of 1952…The ultimate aim of the Vietnamese Communist leadership is to install Communist regimes in the whole of Vietnam, in Laos, and in Cambodia …
The proof of Honey’s analysis is in what Clausewitz called “judgments by results.” A Vietnam under the domination of the North was achieved on 2 July 1976 when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) with headquarters in Hanoi was proclaimed. Hegemony over Laos was achieved when the Pathet Lao seized control of Vientiane in August 1975. In Cambodia the attainment of the objective was delayed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who seized control of Phnom Penh in April 1975. On Christmas Day 1978, Vietnam launched a multidivisional cross-border attack on Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot government. On 7 January 1979, they announced the foundation of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Although sporadic fighting still continues, Indo-China is effectively under Vietnamese control.
In his 1973 analysis of North Vietnamese strategy John Collins, former director of Military Strategy Studies at the National War College and now a member of the Congressional Research Service, stated that
“enemy strategy can be outlined quickly, since it was simple, concise, and consistent … the opposition knew what they wanted to do, they had the initiative, and they had the winning combination…Controlling and communizing all of Indochina have always been the foe’s overriding objectives.
In contrast with North Vietnam who could focus all of their attention on the conquest of South Vietnam, the formulation of U.S. objectives was much more complex. It is difficult to recall now that at the beginning Vietnam did not occupy center stage and was only subsidiary to a number of other issues facing the American President. Domestic issues, for example, were a major preoccupation. Even in the area of national security the primary concern was not Vietnam per se but the larger issue of the containment of Soviet and Chinese communism. The result was that American political objectives were never clear during the entire course of the war.
University of Nebraska Professor Hugh M. Arnold examined the official justifications most often cited for America’s involvement in Indochina from 1949 through 1967. Compared to the one North Vietnamese objective, he found some twenty-two separate American rationales. They can be grouped into three major categories: from about 1949 until 1962, emphasis was on resisting communist aggression; from 1962 until about 1968, the emphasis was on counterinsurgency; after 1968, preserving the integrity of American commitments was the main emphasis.
How many political justifications have our political leadership set out for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? How – in the light of this confusion – can we expect the military, who are supposed to tailor their plans and activities to achieve the overriding Objective – to act with clarity, consistency, and economy? By contrast, how simple (if irrational and ultimately evil) are the justifications of our enemies?
THE STRATEGIC CONTEXT
The detailed formulation of national strategic direction is beyond the scope of this manual. Nevertheless, national military strategy, derived from national security policy, provides the basis for all operations.
THE LEVELS OF WAR
Fundamental to the Army’s doctrine is an appreciation of the levels of war-tactical, operational, and strategic-that define the entire range of military operations and the links between tactical actions and strategic objectives. The levels of war are defined more by the consequences of their outcome than they are by the echelon of involvement although, as a general rule, the higher the echelon, the higher the level of war. The levels of war apply not only to war but also to operations other than war. The strategic perspectives are worldwide and long-range. Strategy is concerned with national or, in specific cases, alliance of coalition objectives. The operational level provides the vital link between strategic objectives and tactical employment of forces. At the operational level, military forces attain strategic objectives through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations. Tactical battles and engagements are fought to achieve operational results.
We don’t have clear top-level strategic objectives, and without them, any operational or Grand Tactical effort is doomed to be simply reactive until we decide it’s not working and so is no longer valid – think about Restropo and the Korengal.
This failing isn’t the military’s – except that they haven’t stood up on Capital Hill and demanded it. It’s not only Obama’s – although he owns the problem today. Bush was equally inarticulate about why we were doing what we were doing once we deposed the Taliban and chased Al Qaeda to Pakistan. But that failure to state a clear, simple and attainable goal is the root of our problems.
Not only are we failing on the strategic level, but we’re not looking great at the operational level either. The Vietnam War was the first war that was planned by MBA’s; McNamara’s ‘Whiz Kids’ developed the PPBS (Program Planning Budgeting System) model and extended it through the military. This rationalization wasn’t without consequences for warfighting, however:
The rationalistic economic approach dominated military strategy formulation throughout the Vietnam war. It is especially ironic that this so-called new approach to strategy was actually two centuries old. As Clausewitz had observed (and as Vietnam was to prove) the economic approach to military strategy “stood in about the same relationship to combat as the craft of the swordsmith to the art of fencing.”‘ The problem was that Secretary McNamara’s Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) approach was only half of the equation. To return again to Clausewitz:
. . . We see clearly that the activities characteristic of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and war proper. The same distinction must be made in theory as well.
The knowledge and skills involved in the preparation will be concerned with the creation, training and maintenance of the fighting forces…. The theory of war proper, on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purpose of the war.
The rationalistic system introduced by Secretary McNamara–PPBS–did an excellent job in “getting control of the lines of supply.” It was and is a useful system for “preparing for war.” As former Under Secretary of the Navy R. James Woolsey wrote in February 1980:
… Systems analysis has come to be the conventional framework for decision-making in the Defense Department and in much of the rest of government as well. The catechism is familiar: objectives, criteria, options, costs, benefits, quantify as much as possible, focus on changes at the margin.
It has made some contributions in Defense. In 1961, Robert McNamara had inherited a military establishment long on force structure and short on fighting capability – e.g. paper divisions with neither the material to sustain combat nor the airlift and sealift to get there. Systems analysis had laid bare and helped correct some of these problems over the years. Certain types of comparisons of competing weapons systems ave also been usefully handled this way.
But while it was efficient in structuring forces in preparation for war, it was neither designed for, nor was it capable of, fighting the war itself. As Woolsey said:
… People who only ask how much is enough, or how few can we barely get by with, tend to develop an instinct for the capillaries.
That is not the instinct it is wisest to cultivate if you want to win real – not bureaucratic–battles. There are more important questions: How can I destroy the enemy’s strategy? …How can I keep him on the defensive? Analytical offices, staffed with economists and the like, are not especially good at answering, or asking, these sorts of questions.
British defense analyst Gregory Palmer found that the rationalistic approach is “…characterized by the pretension to universality of its solutions, its intolerance of tradition and authority, quantification, simplification, and lack of flexibility. Its very efficiency prevents flexibility by eliminating what does not contribute to achieving the current objective so that alternative means are not available if the objective is changed.” The effect was that “the pseudo-economic ideology that dominated defense policy reduced the flexibility available to the President.”
The fatal flaw was that consistency was a premise of rationalist policy, and the one thing that war is not is consistent. As Clausewitz wrote:
The conduct of war branches out in almost all directions and has no definite limits; while any system, any model, has the finite nature of a synthesis. An irreconcilable conflict exists between this type of theory and actual practice.
But the systems analysts ignored this “irreconcilable conflict.” They had an educated incapacity to see war in its true light. As Palmer observed:
. . . By using the numerical techniques of economics … rationality could be assumed … In game theory, if all players make rational choices of strategy, they all do as well as possible given the total rewards available in the game, but if one player acts irrationally in terms of the game, he is sure to do worse. Therefore, when Hanoi appeared to be acting irrationally in not. accepting American terms and yet did not appear to be near defeat, it could only be assumed that they were bluffing, and a little more pressure would force rationality upon them.
Like McNamara and the systems analysts, Clausewitz too had compared warfare to economics. But Clausewitz saw that “the essential difference is that …in war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.”
This was not news to the military professional who knew that the enemy could, and often did, frustrate even the most carefully drawn plans. As Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth used to observe, “Any damned fool can write a plan. It’s the execution that gets you all screwed up.” But these “traditional” views seemed old-fashioned and out-of-date. In what was to become the bible of the McNamara years (How Much Is Enough: Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969) two of the leading systems analysts commented:
What is commonly called “military science” is not scientific in the same sense as law or medicine or engineering. It encompasses no agreed-upon body of knowledge, no prescribed curriculum, no universally recognized principles that one must master to qualify as a military professional. (The so-called “principles of war” are really a set of platitudes that can be twisted to suit almost any situation.) .. .
The point is that military professionalism is largely in the conduct of military operations, not in the analysis and design of broad strategies.
Experience in military operations was not good enough, they believed. “Modern-day strategy and force planning has become largely an analytical process….[and] civilians are often better trained in modern analytical techniques. ” From his perspective as National Security Advisor to President Nixon, Henry Kissinger commented on the impact of systems analysis on the military.
[In the 1960s] young systems analysts had been brought into the Pentagon to shake up the military establishment by questioning long-held assumptions. Intellectually the systems analysts were more often right than not; but they soon learned that the way a question is put can often predetermine an answer, and their efforts in the hallowed name of objectivity frequently wound up pushing personal preconceptions.
Misuse of systems analysis apart, there was a truth which senior military officers had learned in a lifetime of service that did not lend itself to formal articulation: that power has a psychological and not only a technical component. Men can be led by statistics only up to a certain point and then more fundamental values predominate. In the final analysis the military profession is the art of prevailing, and while in our time this required more careful calculations than in the past, it also depends on elemental psychological factors that are difficult to quantify. The military found themselves designing weapons on the basis of abstract criteria, carrying out strategies in which they did not really believe, and ultimately conducting a war that they did not understand. To be sure, the military brought on some of their own troubles. They permitted themselves to be co-opted too readily .. .
Throughout the 1960s the military were torn between the commitment to civilian supremacy inculcated through generations of service and their premonition of disaster, between trying to make the new system work and rebelling against it. They were demoralized by the order to procure weapons in which they did not believe and by the necessity of fighting a war whose purpose proved increasingly elusive. A new breed of military officer emerged: men who had learned the new jargon, who could present the systems analysis arguments so much in vogue, more articulate than the older generation and more skillful in bureaucratic maneuvering. On some levels it eased civilian-military relationships; on a deeper level it deprived the policy process of the simpler, cruder, but perhaps more relevant assessments which in the final analysis are needed when issues are reduced to a test of arms.
That remains true today. While the limitations of rational warfighting are well-discussed among military academics, and while the senior most leadership (Mattis, anyone) understands the deficiency, what does that look like in the field?
Here’s Lt. Matt Gallagher, in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War
Higher developed an obsession with quantifying every aspect of the war effort. PowerPoint slides and pie charts and information overload for the sake of information overload became our raison d’etre – the more of those things we did, the more we were left alone to conduct legitimate counterinsurgency operations the way we knew how. The mass quantifying reached a personal apex when I tracked “nose time,” the number of minutes a military dog spent sniffing for explosives over the course of a mission.
Here’s Jonathan Vaccaro in the New York Times:
Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.
Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.
At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.
This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: “I can’t come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission.”
The decision has been made to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there, is expected to speak to Congress this week about his strategy for the war. Our troops can win the war, but they will be more effective if the bureaucracy is thinned.
In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act. In the first half of 2009, the Army Special Forces company I was with repeatedly tried to interdict Taliban. By our informal count, however, we (and the Afghan commandos we worked with) were stopped on 70 percent of our attempts because we could not achieve the requisite 11 approvals in time.
For some units, ground movement to dislodge the Taliban requires a colonel’s oversight. In eastern Afghanistan, traveling in anything other than a 20-ton mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle requires a written justification, a risk assessment and approval from a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and sometimes a major. These vehicles are so large that they can drive to fewer than half the villages in Afghanistan. They sink into wet roads, crush dry ones and require wide berth on mountain roads intended for donkeys. The Taliban walk to these villages or drive pickup trucks.
The red tape isn’t just on the battlefield. Combat commanders are required to submit reports in PowerPoint with proper fonts, line widths and colors so that the filing system is not derailed. Small aid projects lag because of multimonth authorization procedures. A United States-financed health clinic in Khost Province was built last year, but its opening was delayed for more than eight months while paperwork for erecting its protective fence waited in the approval queue.
Communication with the population also undergoes thorough oversight. When a suicide bomber detonates, the Afghan streets are abuzz with Taliban propaganda about the glories of the war against America. Meanwhile, our messages have to inch through a press release approval pipeline, emerging 24 to 48 hours after the event, like a debutante too late for the ball.
I’ve communicated with a lot of other parents and family members of deployed soldiers in the last year, and I can tell you that these kinds of stories are so common that they become banal. Tragic…but banal.
Here’s a Christian Science Monitor story as cited by Tim Lynch (go see the photos he attaches on the linked post – he’s an amazing ex-Marine who runs a reconstruction program in Jalalabad) from the exceptional Free Range International:
The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America’s “clear, hold, build” Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.
“In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. “What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you’ve done.”
The tools of rational planning – somewhere between vital and useful in managing logistics – have taken over our vision of warfighting. Here’s Summers:
Colonel Albert Sidney Britt III, Department of History, United States Military Academy, noted that “the modern philosophy of limited war derives in part from the practice of the 18th century.” Colonel Britt’s observations were borne out in the classic critique of 18th century warfare, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. His 150-year-old description of “the art of war” closely paralleled the conditions bitterly attacked by such critics as Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage in their widely quoted book Crisis in Command (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978) – an army more concerned with management than with military strategy. Describing these conditions, Clausewitz said:
[In the 18th century] the terms “art of war” or “science of war” were used to designate only the total body of skill knowledge and that was concerned with material factors. The design and use of weapons…the internal organization of the army, and the mechanism of its movements constituted the substance of this knowledge and skill.’
Using this criterion for the art and science of war, it can be argued that the system worked, that it did everything that it was asked to do. Such arguments are the Army’s version of Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts’ analysis of the Vietnam-era political-bureaucratic system. Examining the structure of the system, they found that it did everything that it was designed to do. If the Army is, as some would have it, merely a logistics and management system designed to “organize, train, and equip active duty and reserve forces,” it was an unqualified success.
The illogic of such an analysis springs from a faulty understanding of military theory. In his clarification of military theory Clausewitz said. “The activities characteristic of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparation for war, and war proper.” All that is required from the first group, he said, is “the end product” – trained and equipped fighting forces. “The theory of war proper, on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of the war.” During the Vietnam war we confused these two activities. There are those who would have it that the reason was that there were so many conflicting definitions of “strategy” that we lost our way. But such an excuse is not supported by the facts. According to the joint Chiefs of Staff Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, the official definition of military strategy is “the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force, or the threat of force.” As we saw earlier, the “missing link” in strategy was the failure to address the question of “how” to use military means to achieve a political end.
So we are mounting 18th century armies – professional armies driven by hosts of bureaucrat-officers – using 20th century tools – PPBS and PowerPoint. And the same quantitative, data-driven model of command controls the midlevels of our military, between the warrior-monks like Petraeus at the top and the field grade officers like Matt Gallagher and Jonathan Vaccaro who are trying to obey orders, keep their men alive, and do what’s ne3cessary to complete their missions.
It’s like we turned the military over to the DMV.
Another impact of this rationalization of war is in the language we use to describe the war itself.
As we go back and read the writings of the political scientists and systems analysts on limited war, they are noteworthy for their lack of passion. The horror, the bloodshed and the destruction of the battlefield are remarkably absent. Clausewitz warned about those who would “exclude all moral factors from strategic theory and…reduce everything to a few mathematical formulas.” The academics could be excused for this omission, but we in the military knew better. It was the job of those of us who had seen war firsthand to add this missing dimension to their academic theories. We knew the true nature of war. We knew the truth of Clausewitz’s observation that:
Kindhearted people might…think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, [but] pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed…It would be futile even wrong – to try and shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality.
But through fear of reinforcing the basic antimilitarism of the American people we tended to keep this knowledge to ourselves and downplayed battlefield realities. In order to smooth our relations with the American people we began to use euphemisms to hide the horrors of war. We became the Department of the Army (not the War Department) and our own terminology avoided mention of the battlefield. We did not kill the enemy, we “inflicted casualties”; we did not destroy things, we “neutralized targets.” These evasions allowed the notion to grow that we could apply military force in a sanitary and surgical manner. In so doing we unwittingly prepared the way for the reaction that was to follow.
We had concealed from the American people the true nature of war at precisely the time that television brought its realities into their living rooms in living color. As a result, to many Americans Vietnam became the most destructive, the most horrible, the most terrible war ever waged in the history of the world. This viewpoint has persisted in the face of all historical evidence to the contrary.
The contradiction between what was being told to the American people, and what they saw in their newspapers and on television was too great to leave the powers that be with any shred of legitimacy or credibility. People could see for themselves what war was like, and because what they saw was filtered through a small window – the media – what they saw was unrelenting horror (sound familiar?).
Instead it inflamed American idealism and further eroded public support for the war.
The North Vietnamese were quick to seize the strategic advantage provided by this erosion of public support. Author Tom Wolfe commented on what he called “the Johnson Administration’s attempt to fight a ‘humane’ war and look good in the eyes of the world”:
There was something out-to-lunch about it, however. The eyes of the world did not flutter for a second. Stories of American atrocities were believed by whoever wanted to believe them, no matter what actually occurred… If the United States was seriously trying to win the battle of world opinion – well, then, you had a real bush-league operation. The North Vietnamese were the uncontested aces. After describing a raid on the Iron Triangle in North Vietnam, Wolfe notes that:
The North Vietnamese [were] blessed with a weapon that no military device known to America could ever get a lock on. As if by magic…in Hanoi…appears…Harrison Salisbury! Harrison Salisbury – writing in The New York Times about the atrocious American bombing of the hard-scrabble folks of North Vietnam in the Iron Triangle! If you had real sporting blood in you, you had to hand it to the North Vietnamese. They were champions of this sort of thing…. it seemed as if the North Vietnamese were playing Mr. Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.
“And yet,” Wolfe concludes, “it couldn’t simply be blamed on Salisbury. No series of articles by anyone, no matter what the publication, could have had such an immediate strategic effect if there weren’t some kind of strange collapse of will power taking place back in the States.” Wolfe’s closing comments are important. There is a tendency in the military to blame our problems with public support on the media. This is too easy an answer. Certainly there were some like Salisbury who reported enemy propaganda, but the majority of on-the-scene reporting from Vietnam was factual – that is the reporters honestly reported what they had seen firsthand. Much of what they saw was horrible, for that is the true nature of war. It was this horror, not the reporting that so influenced the American people.
There is an important lesson in this for the Army. Any future war will more than likely be as bloody as the war in Vietnam. It will probably also be carried into American living rooms by television reporters, for that is the nature of their craft. As we have seen earlier, attempts to hide the realities of war from the American people only inflame the problem. Censorship is not the answer. How then do we square the circle of the battlefield and the idealism of the American people?
In his analysis of the Vietnam war General Weyand pointed out the conflict arising out of American idealism and counseled what we must do in the future:
As military professionals we must speak out, we must counsel our political leaders and alert the American public that there is no such thing as a “splendid little war.” There is no such thing as a war fought on the cheap. War is death and destruction. The American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We. believe in using “things” – artillery, bombs, massive firepower – in order to conserve our soldiers’ lives. The enemy, on the other hand, made up for his lack of “things” by expending men instead of machines, and he suffered enormous casualties. The Army saw this happen in Korea, and we should have made the realities of war obvious to the American people before they witnessed it on their television screens. The Army must make the price of involvement clear before we get involved, so that America can weigh the probable costs of involvement against the dangers of uninvolvement…for there are worse things than war.
And that brings me to the final point Summers makes: that the ultimate declaration of America’s ability to wage war is made by the people, not by our leaders or our military.
As will be seen in subsequent chapters, placing the blame on General Westmoreland was unfair, but, unfair or not, it did spare another innocent victim – the American people.
The main reason it is not right to blame the American public is that President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people – to invoke the national will – for the Vietnam war. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Phil G. Goulding commented, “In my four-year tour [July 1965-January 1969] there was not once a significant organized effort by the Executive Branch of the federal government to put across its side of a major policy issue or a major controversy to the American people. Not once was there a ‘public affairs program’…worthy of the name.
Having deliberately never been built, it could hardly be said that the national will “collapsed.” According to his biographer, President Johnson’s decision not to mobilize the American people was based on his fears that it would jeopardize his “Great Society” programs. As he himself said:
History provided too many cases where the sound of the bugle put an immediate end to the hopes and dreams of the best reformers: The Spanish-American War drowned the populist spirit; World War I ended Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom; World War II brought the New Deal to a close. Once the war began, then all those conservatives in the Congress would use it as a weapon against the Great Society….
And the generals. Oh, they’d love the war, too. It’s hard to be a military hero without a war. Heroes need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic. That’s why I am suspicious of the military. They’re always narrow in their appraisal of everything. They see everything in military terms.
What the military needed to tell our Commander-in-Chief was not just about battles and bombs and bullets. They needed to tell him that, as Clausewitz discovered 150 years earlier, “it would be an obvious fallacy to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act on the part of the Government and to consider war as gradually ridding itself of passion.”
They needed to tell him that it would be an obvious fallacy to commit the Army without first committing the American people. Such a commitment would require battlefield competence and clear-cut objectives to be sustained, but without the commitment of the American people the commitment of the Army to prolonged combat was impossible.
Unfortunately, this fallacy was not obvious to either the military or its Commander-in-Chief, for the limited war theorists had excluded the American people from the strategic equation.
And, sadly, they have done so again. In the bickering and infighting between the COINdinistas and the CT doorkickers, the important party – the American people – has been left out of the discussion. That is, to a large extent deliberate, because to a large extent everyone in the military is playing hide-the-pea and trying hard to whistle past the critical point that it would require clear-cut objectives – an Objective – in order to make the American people support the effort necessary to militarily win a war like this.
Here’s what I wrote in 2003:
What they said, all the way. And I’ll echo Kevin strongly in disagreeing with Den Beste and Trent (and other commenters who have supported Trent here); it is critical that Bush articulate and sell his vision for why we are at war and what the war will look like – not tactically or diplomatically, but historically – and a clear vision of what we are really fighting and what we are fighting for. Because we will win this war with ideology, belief, and determination, and the role of the leader is in no small part to express those and to embody them so that the rest of us will internalize them and come to act on them. It is a high standard, but we have had wartime Presidents – including the rich, spoiled sons of privilege – who have met it, and by the time we win this war, we will have had one or more Presidents who have met it. The challenge isn’t beyond Bush, and I hope that he can grow to meet it.
I was wrong about Bush, and so far, about Obama as well.
Summers makes a much wider and richer set of arguments than I’m pointing out here. One of them goes to the decline of strategic thinking in the military of the 1970’s – a decline that (from my reading, anyway) appears to have been well reversed.
But mapping the core similarities – the lack of an understandable and expressible Objective; the mismatch between available means and desired ends; the focus on the symptoms of insurgency and not the causes of global conflict; the belief that war is a manageable project; and finally, the belief that the American people don’t need to be engaged in a conflict and that we can somehow shield them from the awful reality of war.
These are hard problems. But our national leadership must be up to them.
Because at this point, it looks as though we’re going to keep paying a price in blood – and getting little in return – for key failures by our national and military leadership.
Those failures are:
* Failing to establish a clear Objective for the war – which is why the strategy for the war keeps spinning like a weathervane.
* Failing to check the rise of the administrative/bureaucratic military over the warrior military.
* Lying to the American people about the real nature of the war – trying to paint the war as ‘bloodless’ and ‘surgical’ when like any war it is anything but.
* Distrusting the American people by trying to keep them from being aware of and involved in the war and in the cause the war is being fought in the name of.
These are disastrous failures, not glitches. They are, in large part, the failures which led to the disaster in Vietnam (Summers points out others which go to the weakening of the Army’s self-understood role – but those have been largely remedied). But they are failures we can still fix, if our political leadership can summon insight and courage – or be summoned to it by us.
My son deserves it…all our sons and daughters deserve it. How do we make it happen? Or do we just take our ball and go home and wait for the consequences?
Here’s Gulliver, over at the Ink Spots blog:
As I’ve told you before, the way we formulate national strategy is all kinds of effed up right now. The QDR should really be informed by a National Military Strategy that’s nested within a National Defense Strategy that’s nested within a National Security Strategy, all of which should coherently articulate American interests, strategic objectives, means, choices, and associated risk. But let’s be clear: the QDR is not a strategy, per se; it’s a strategic review. The QDR is overlaid on the various strategies, articulating how the various tools of national power housed in DoD will be applied to threats and strategic challenges. The NSS hadn’t yet been published when the QDR came down the pike, and that’s a problem. (Of course, the NSS sucks so badly that it wouldn’t have helped to produce a better QDR anyway, so I’ve always found the bleating on that note to be sort of silly.)
Make sure you click through the link in the quote as well…