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How We Lost

Too little strategy, too much 'intelligence.'

Like that war, the trial did produce lessons for the future, but again they were obscured by the smoke from the courtroom "battlefield." The ostensible issues--General Westmoreland's honor and CBS's journalism techniques--although crucial to the protagonists, were the least important aspects of the trial. What was important was buried in the testimony: insights on the nature of the war, on the ability of "intelligence" to influence war, and on the character of America's organization for combat.

During the trial, General Westmoreland mentioned in passing that his tactics were akin to those of the Civil War. What he meant was that the objective was not the seizure and occupation of territory (as in World War II), but as in the Civil War, the destruction of the enemy's armed forces. Recently James Reston Jr. in his book Sherman's March and Vietnam also used the Civil War as a way to explain Vietnam. Although his thesis that Sherman was the precursor of "Vietnam War crimes" is a bit sappy, it is certainly true that one can understand the Vietnam War better through a reading of such classics as Shelby Foote's The Civil War than from most of the literature on the war itself.

The trial testimony of the intelligence "experts" is a case in point. They were almost a reincarnation of Allan T. Pinkerton, General George McClellan's intelligence chief in the Army of the Potomac in the early days of the Civil War. Pinkerton took a broad view of enemy strength. As McClellan was closing on Richmond on the eve of the Seven Days battle in 1862, he was convinced by Pinkerton that he was badly outnumbered by General Robert E. Lee's "200,000-man" Army of Northern Virginia. As a result McClellan failed to press home his attack. Lee, who actually had some 90,000 troops under arms, was in fact at a numerical disadvantage. But when one of his generals called this to his attention. Lee said, "Stop! Stop! If you go to ciphering we are whipped beforehand."

The Westmoreland trial made it all too clear that in Vietnam we had "gone to ciphering" from the very beginning. It colored the whole understanding of the war. The "hard numbers" on body count and enemy strength took on an importance far exceeding their actual value. The media seemed impressed by the testimony of "military officers" like Joseph McChristian and Gaines Hawkins. But to frontline infantrymen, these officials were disdainfully known as REMFs, an acronym best translated in the interests of propriety as "rear-echelon-myth-fancifiers."They were the natural successors of Allan Pinkerton.

Their expert testimony, far from clarifying the nature of the war, only distorted it. Just as many people visualize the Civil War as the cornfield at Antietam where both sides lined up in ranks and blazed away at each other, many visualize the Vietnam War as one waged by elusive black pajama-clad Vietcong guerrillas armed with bamboo stakes and primitive weapons. The truth was that after Antietam in the Civil War one side was almost always entrenched in fortified positions that the other side had to attack. The same was true in Vietnam beginning with the Battle of the la Drang in the fall of 1965. North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap kept trying to refight the Battle of Dien Bien Phu by attacking U.S. fire bases and defensive positions head-on; as a result (by his own admission) some half-million soldiers were killed by 1969. Similarly, U.S. infantry units assaulted enemy units well dug in and camouflaged and armed with sophisticated AK-47 automatic rifles and machine guns. They too suffered astoundingly high casualty rates.

But the argument about numbers is largely meaningless. Even if the Order of Battle had included every one of the experts' disputed numbers, it wouldn't have made any difference. As CIA witness George Allen admitted in 1982, it wasn't the numbers that did us in, "it was a fundamental question of the soundness of our policy, of our whole approach to the war."

There is a connection between intelligence reporting and "the soundness of policy." During the Civil War, frustrated by the incompetence of his generals in the Army of the Potomac, who were continually spooked by inflated intelligence reports, President Lincoln attempted without success to manage the war directly from Washington. Finally, in desperation, he turned to the one Union general who was not frightened by such arithmetic--General Ulysses S. Grant. According to his most trusted lieutenant. General William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant never worried about an enemy he couldn't see. On March 9, 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant to be general-in-chief. Grant left Washington and took firm control of the field operations of the Army.

After three terrible years of trial and error, the Union had discovered Clausewitz's insight: that war had two complementary dimensions, both of which were critical to battlefield success. The first was what Clausewitz called "preparation for war [what today we would call the administration and logistics of war] . . . the creation, training and maintenance of the fighting force." The second was what he called "the conduct of war proper [what we would label military battlefield operations]. . . the uses of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of the war . . . [for] fighting itself."

These two dimensions, which together make up the whole of war, rest on entirely different philosophical foundations. Administration and logistics depend on fixed values, physical qualities, and unilateral actions. They can be programmed, quantified, and (today) computerized. Military operations rest on uncertainty, variable qualities, psychological forces, and the continuous interaction of opposites. Here intangibles are paramount, because in its essence "war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will," and it is on this will that everything on the battlefield ultimately depends. With Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to manage the administration and and General Grant to direct military operations in the field, President Lincoln soon won the Civil War.

This same organization was repeated in World War I, 50 years later. Under the overall control of President Wilson, Secretary of War Newton Baker supervised procurement, administration, and logistics; General Tasker Bliss and later Peyton March took charge of overseeing military operations. Again in World War II, under President Franklin Roosevelt's watchful eye. Secretary of War Henry Stimson managed procurement and supply and General George Marshall ran the operational side of the war. In fact, Roosevelt told Secretary Stimson that he wanted "to make it very clear that the Commander-in-Chief exercises his command function in relation to strategy, tactics, and operations directly through the
Army Chief of Staff."

But, as General Bruce Palmer Jr. recently pointed out in The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam, all of this changed after World War II, when a secretary of defense was interposed between the president and his military advisers. The change was not apparent in the Korean War, both because the secretary of defense was former Army chief of staff George Marshall and because the Army was named "executive agent" to oversee the war in Korea (a system abolished soon after the war was over).

But the structural framework for disaster had been laid. When President John F. Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara as secretary of defense, America had one of the most capable executives in its history in charge of "preparation for war." With his experience as one of the Army Air Force's "whiz kids" in World War II and as president of Ford Motors, his grasp of statistical analysis and modern management techniques was unparalleled. But McNamara not only filled the traditional role of the secretary of war charged with "preparation for war." He was also America's "general-in-chief" charged with the "conduct of war proper." His educated incapacity for that latter role was not immediately apparent. His initial task at hand was not fighting a war but getting control of the defense budget, and by extension getting control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Determined to put its own stamp on the government and sweep away the old fogies and stodgy ideas of the Eisenhower years, the Kennedy administration prided itself on new and innovative thinking.

For the Army the name of the game soon became the social-science-derived dictates of counterinsurgency. Old-fashioned notions that the purpose of the Army was to defeat the enemy on the battlefield so as to break his will to resist were swept aside. General Maxwell D. Taylor, President Kennedy's special military adviser and for a time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would later tell the Senate that the United States was not trying to "defeat" the North Vietnamese, only "to cause them to mend their ways." He scoffed at the concept of defeating the enemy as being like "Appomattox or something of that sort."

Those who resisted, such as Army chief of staff General George Decker, a World War II combat veteran, were eased out of office. The new Army chief of staff. General Earle Wheeler, was a team player who had built his reputation as an administrator and manager and who was untainted by battlefield experience in either World War II or Korea. By July 1964, a month before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that took America to war. General Wheeler had become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Washington-level organization for the conduct of the Vietnam War was in place.

By law the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not in the chain of command. The Army chief of staff, who in both world wars had been the president's principal military operational adviser, saw President Johnson privately only two times between June 1965 and June 1966. Instead of turning to the military professionals, McNamara's civilian aides, as Stanley Karnow relates in Vietnam: A History, "canvassed several prominent scholars . . . who in turn assembled forty-seven of their academic colleagues . . . for deliberations throughout the summer of 1966 [and their study] confirmed McNamara's . . . reservations about the direction of U.S. policy in Vietnam."

With their authority eroded and cut out of both the planning and the direction of the war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in what in retrospect seems almost a fit of pique) abdicated their responsibilities and abandoned the war to their civilian overseers. When Clark Clifford became secretary of defense in March 1968, he questioned the Joint Chiefs of Staff and found to his amazement that "we had no military plan to win the war." But his surprise was misplaced. It was his own office--the Office of the Secretary of Defense--not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had arrogated the authority for such plans and concepts. That they did not exist shows the degree to which operational concerns had been lost in the quantified, computerized world of the McNamara Pentagon.

Even more telling is the comparison between the United States organization-for-combat and that of our enemy. General Westmoreland is still seen by many as the American counterpart of North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap. Nothing could be further from the mark. If Westmoreland had such a counterpart it was Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra, the North Vietnamese army field commander. General Giap's true counterpart was McNamara. Both men were ministers of defense; both sat on the highest political council, Giap on the Politburo, McNamara on the National Security Council. Both were "generals-in-chief" of
their country's armed forces. But there was one important difference between them: the will to win the war.

General Giap told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1969 that even though he had already lost more than half a million killed on the battlefield, he would continue to fight "as long as necessary—ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years." McNamara testified at the CBS-Westmoreland trial that "I reached the conclusion the war could not be won militarily no later than '66 . . . [and] may have reached it as early as the latter part of '65."

This is an appalling admission. America's "general-in-chief" had lost the will to win in 1965, when the war had only begun. Congress, by law, has said that a soldier who loses his nerve on the battlefield "shall suffer death, or such other punishment as a court martial may direct." It has said nothing, however, over what should be done about a feckless leader who would order those soldiers into battle even though convinced beforehand that they could not win.

Perhaps one reason there is no such law is that such a loss of will was unprecedented in American military history. Only one example even comes close--General George McClellan, unnerved by Pinkerton's statistics, whose heart was never in the prosecution of the Civil War, and who in 1864 in the midst of that war ran on the Democratic Party platform calling for an immediate end to hostilities. Fortunately for the Republic, Lincoln had the good sense to remove McClellan as "general-in-chief" early in the war, not keep him in office until the war was lost.

The CBS-Westmoreland trial could have brought us full circle. As we have seen, the examples of McClellan and his successors led America to an efficient organization-for-combat that provided for civilian direction and control by the president and for the complementary military tasks of administration and logistics by the secretary of war and operational battlefield command by the Army general-in-chief (later chief of staff). This organization led us to victory in two world wars, only to be discarded in 1947 in favor of a return to the disjointed system that caused Lincoln so much grief in the early days of the Civil War. These structural defects can be bridged by the force of personalities, as they were during the Korean War and as (from all accounts) they are today with the harmonious, if largely untested, working relationships among President Reagan, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and General John Vessey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But as the CBS-Westmoreland trial again reminds us, the Vietnam War demonstrates that we cannot count on such a fortuitous conjunction of personalities to overcome these basic structural flaws. When America's "general-in-chief" is a political appointee, it should not surprise us that there is pressure for his subordinate military commanders to become politicized as well. One of America's most distinguished military strategists, General Matthew B. Ridgway, warned in 1956 that "under no circumstances, regardless of pressures from whatever source or motive, should the professional military man yield, or compromise his judgment for other than convincing military reasons. To do otherwise would destroy his usefulness." When it was revealed in the trial that enemy strength figures were manipulated not for "convincing military reasons" (even though a good case could have been made for opposing the higher figures on those grounds alone), but for purely political purposes. General Westmoreland's case fell apart.

Nevertheless, CBS can take little comfort in that fact. The trial also revealed the shallowness of television's "investigative journalism." Instead of using the "first step" of the politicization of enemy battlefield statistics as a way to probe the potentially fatal flaws in the Pentagon command structure, CBS frittered away its time and its credibility on sensational charges of "conspiracy." The CBS-Westmoreland trial thus made it even more difflcult for us to learn where America's organization-for-combat failed us in Vietnam.

By Harry G. Summers, Jr.