Air University Review, July-August 1981
Major John Hasek
The Royal Canadian Regiment
In an Air Universal Review essay, "The Southern Duck Wants to Lie Down," Colonel James Morrison, USA, argued that deep-seated, persistent ignorance was the chief attribute of the Vietnam disaster.1 I would argue that, in the case of the U.S. military at least, this is a most unjust charge. Rather than ignorance, the chief problem was that the military could not and did not offer unified strategic advice to the President on the conduct of the war. Professional military advice on what may loosely be called military strategy was filtered through too many civilian and political levels within the defense system to retain cohesiveness and meaning, even had any unified thinking been allowed to emerge.
Vietnam has come to be associated with a massive failure of the U.S. military, but from the perspective of a foreign military observer, the only failure seems to have been the inability of the military to conform to that first and most important principle of war: selection and maintenance of the aim. Furthermore, with "an army taking the field: the first care of its commander should be to agree with the head of the state upon the character of the war."2 This also seems to have been neglected in the Southeast Asian conflict. The chief failure of the military, if it can be called failure, was an inability to project its thinking at a high enough level in the decision-making process.
When I arrived in Vietnam at the end of January 1973, the idea that the war had been lost by the United States and its South Vietnamese clients was so firm in my mind that it took several months and a great deal of evidence to the contrary to change this perception. The written "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam,"3 of which the International Commission for the Control and Supervision of the Cease Fire (ICCS) was a creature, did little to dispel the illusion of the victory of the Communist cause.
To Canadian members of the four-nation ICCS, the very wording of the protocols seemed to confirm that we were off to Vietnam merely as part of an elaborate American face-saving exercise. It was only later, after discovering that the regional team sites in Da Lat, Phan Rang, and Bao Loc and their surrounding areas were still firmly in South Vietnamese hands, that I slowly started to realize the actual situation.
The last American troops, those of the Four Power Joint Military Commission, left sixty days after our arrival. We then expected that the illusion of South Vietnamese control of the situation would become apparent, and the structure would collapse like a pack of cards. The departing Americans reinforced this expectation; some even pressed weapons and ammunition on us to put under our beds, just in case. These weapons joined the 9 millimeter pistols in our trunks for the remainder of our stay.
There was undoubted sadness among the Vietnamese to see the last of the Americans but certainly no panic or fear among the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). A month later, on 1 May, the nightly curfew was lifted for the first time in many years in South Vietnam; this confidence was fully justified.
Meanwhile, I had come to appreciate the fact that my entire region, which extended from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border and included five provinces on the coastal plain and in the central highlands, did not have any regular ARVN formations larger than a battalion and only a couple of those. The entire region was ably controlled by Regional and Popular Forces. The South Vietnamese claimed that in Region IV they owned all the occupied hamlets and most of the arable land. This was gradually being verified by the Sovereignty patrols carried out by the Canadian members of the ICCS, sometimes accompanied by their Indonesian colleagues. (Hungary and Poland, the Communist members of the ICCS, tried very hard to stop such patrols).
At this time I went deer and fox hunting with the chief of Binh Thuan province. This "hunting" was in fact what we in North America call jacking and involved the highly uncomfortable procedure of driving and walking on small jungle paths, which supposedly belonged to the Vietcong, and shining a light to pick out the eyes of the mesmerized antelope and civet cats that passed for deer and foxes and made delightful eating.
Gradually it became apparent that the Vietcong units, now called Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) units, in the jungle were filled with North Vietnamese conscripts and that they, together with those units officially listed as North Vietnamese, were in desperate straits. The majority of the cease-fire violations we investigated consisted of futile attacks by such units, easily repelled by the Regional Forces and in some instances only by Popular Forces. Many of these attacks were attempts at obtaining provisions.
Canada pulled out of the ICCS and went home after six months. The South Vietnamese were even a little sad to see us go. Through our "open mouth" policy, we at least tried to inform the press and the world of what was happening, but as we did not really understand the situation ourselves and as the press was not greatly interested, it was a somewhat forlorn effort at best. After that, except for periodic predictions of when the final offensive would come, world attention shifted elsewhere. Yet under Article Seven of the Paris Agreement, the South Vietnamese were still able to maintain their freedom. This article stated in part that:
The two South Vietnamese parties shall be permitted to make periodic replacement of armaments, munitions and war material which have been destroyed, damaged, worn out or used up after the cease-fire, on the basis of piece-for-piece, of the same characteristics and properties, under the supervision of the Joint Military Commission of the two South Vietnamese parties and of the International Commission of Control and Supervision.4
However, successful leftist agitation managed to persuade the U.S. Congress to cut even this last lifeline. From then on it was merely a matter of timeand yet it still took the maturing of two new cohorts of North Vietnamese boys and a two-year resupply effort by the Soviets before the predicted North Vietnamese offensive could begin. Without materiel replacement, without ammunition, and, above all, without friends, the morale of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam finally cracked, and the North Vietnamese conquest was successful.
Where, then, was the American military failure? The U.S. military blunted the strength of the North Vietnamese, and Vietnamized the war just as they had intended. They perhaps failed to communicate to the political leadership and certainly to the opinion makers and public in the United States and in the West what they had done. But more than this, the aim of the war, which presumably had been to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam, changed. The character of the war, never very clear, became lost altogether. The United States did not lose the Vietnamese War, it merely changed its mind. The only loser was South Vietnam, and it did not lose primarily in Southeast Asia but in the minds of U.S. opinion makers and their allies.
In The Pentagon Papers5 and elsewhere, there are indications that various individual U.S. generals warned of the dangers of American involvement in Southeast Asia and attempted to contribute to strategy formulations at other stages of the war. However, no mechanism exists whereby the U.S. military, as a professional body, could formulate strategic advice. The term general staff is vague and emotionally loaded, but nevertheless it describes a certain place given to the thinking of the professional officer corps in a society, a function which the U.S. officer corps seems to lack. This gap has been filled to a certain extent by the numerous civilian think tanks, of which the Rand Corporation is the archetype, but it is filled less than adequately and at great cost to the United States. At the heart of the professional officer corps, or in its general staff, the collective memory must exist which, while it may not be able to devise the methods to fight future wars, at least can prevent the relearning of old lessons with new blood. While ideally this collective memory will function at the level of strategy, I should also function at other levels.
The British military have never produced the general staff function in their officer corps either, but the collective memory of the British Army lives down at the regimental level, and it is largely the unwritten traditions that counter the alienation and anomie.6 It seems that it is not so much that military thought does not exist in the United States; rather, that the end product is massaged too soon and too often by managerial, political, or bureaucratic hands, and usually the message either gets changed, distorted, or diluted out of existence.
Let me give two arbitrary examples from opposite ends of the problem. First, at the level of strategic thinking. The enmity of the U.S.S.R. for the United States and the Soviet military buildup are both facts of long standing. Yet the strategies built up and discarded around this enmity are as changeable as a spring day. At one time it is the fashion to credit the Soviets with the most benevolent of motives and downgrade the threat and next to look at Soviet strength without accounting for the weaknesses.
Arnaud de Borchgrave of Newsweek magazine has charged that Western leaders have long been falling prey to the disinformation spread by the U.S.S.R.7 This disinformation promotes the idea of the innocence of Soviet intentions. In his speech, de Borchgrave illustrated how hollow were the protestations of peace and goodwill preached by the Soviets. However, at the same time he missed the second, equally strong side of the Soviet propaganda effort, which attempts to create the impression of power, strength, and invincibility of the U.S.S.R. and its unshakable conviction of purpose.
It has become fashionable, in order to demonstrate the danger, to enumerate Soviet successes in the Middle East and Africa without showing the larger list of failures and to point to some of the major events as demonstrating Soviet successes when there is no evidence to show that, in fact, the long-term effect of such events may be extremely negative to the Soviet cause. Western security is similarly challenged by demonstrations of the magnitude of the Soviet military buildup without indication of the growing economic, agricultural, energy, and financial difficulties that accompany this buildup. Even if only the military picture is painted, surely the weaknesses should be shown as well as the strengths. Although this would not make the situation any less critical, it would at least prevent the possibility of defeatisms replacing the complacency of yesteryear.
Whereas vacillations at the strategic level have led to policy changes that affected the armed forces in an indirect way, the U.S. military forces have bowed to the pressures of fashionable thinking in more direct ways. Major Daniel Jacobowitz warns of the dangers of military disintegration in the face of alienation and increasing permissiveness in the forces. His fears are echoed and demonstrated at a less theoretical level by Captain Samuel J. Barlotta, who shows how some of the prime elements of basic training, those very elements designed to mold the alienated individual into a proud team member, have been eliminated from the training of army recruits.8
Indeed, changes must occur and the military must reflect the society it serves, but the changes must be complementary to those in the society at large so that the military can function as a distinctive part of the society. The societal changes must not be merely transferred from the democratic society at large into the nondemocratic sub-society of the military.
That changes had to be made in the forces was well recognized as the Vietnam War came to a close, especially in view of the imposition of a volunteer force on the U.S. Army. An interesting discussion of how some of these changes could be brought about can be seen in an article by Major General Robert G. Gard, Jr., written for an Adelphi Paper of that period.9 Many of the changes cited by Captain Barlotta as destroying basic training can be traced to the views expressed by General Gard in 1973, yet other ideas in the Adelphi Paper, ideas which would have put the whole into context, have not been effected. Ideas for the general liberalization of the U.S. Army which could be enforced in isolation seem to have been adopted, but some of the complementary changes, which may well have made the whole package work (such as educational benefits for completed service and some form of GI preference in civil service jobs) have not been acted on.
There is a disturbing feeling of déjà vu in reading Captain Barlottas article. He has read recent history and quotes from Eugene Kinkeads In Every War But One10 to point to the similarities between the current destruction of military methods in basic training and the liberalization imposed by the reforms following the Doolittle Board Report of the late 1940s. The failure to socialize soldiers to the discipline and order of the army enabled the Chinese Communists to break down group cohesiveness among American POWs, and this in turn led to the breakdown and high fatality rate among individual prisoners in Korea.
It is thought-provoking to see that while Major Jacobowitz is recommending the introduction of tried and true methods of maintaining combat unit cohesiveness such as unit, instead of individual, rotation, the basic training of recruits is instead emphasizing the maintenance and protection of the individuality of the recruit, thereby supporting the alienation and anomie of the troops instead of combating it.
A letter dated 6 August 1979 from the Department of the Army TRADOC Headquarters, on the subject Initial Entry Changing Policies, states in part:
- Only stress that directly results from the trainees performance of tasks will be allowed. The stress will be positive, cumulative, challenging and oriented toward goals that are attainable.
- Nonproductive stress created by physical or verbal abuse will be prohibited.
- The operative philosophy is to train soldiers by building on their strengths and by shoring up their weaknesses. It is not to "tear them down and build them up again. . . . we will assist the soldiers in attaining these standards.11
It is all reminiscent of another generation of young Americans:
What they lacked couldnt be seen, not until the guns sounded. There is much to military training that seems childish, stultifying, and even brutal. But one essential part of breaking men into military life is the removal of misfitsand in the service a man is a misfit who cannot obey orders, any orders, and who cannot stand immense and searing mental and physical pressure.
For his own sake and for that of those around him, a man must be prepared for the awful, shrieking moment of truth when he realizes he is all alone on a hill ten thousand miles from home, and that he may be killed in the next second.
The young men of America, from whatever strata, are raised in a permissive society. The increasing alienation of their education from the harsher realities of life makes their reorientation, once enlisted, doubly important.
Prior to 1950, they got no reorientation. They put on the uniform but continued to get by, doing things rather more or less. They had no time for sergeants.12
The periodic semidestruction of its army by the worlds greatest power may not seem an unhealthy phenomenon from the perspective of democracy as a whole. However, the changers posed are probably greater than the seeming benefits. For contempt of the military can reduce the perceived and actual security of the United States to the point where America appears vulnerable to attack. This vulnerability makes the application of nonmilitary power more difficult and costly. Moreover, such perception can, by the pendulum of public opinion, rapidly swing from contempt to jingoistic overreaction and the mobilization and brandishing of awesome strength. World security is ill-served by both ends of the pendulums swing. When perception of strength is at the ebb, the pinpricks of peripheral attacks all have the germ of escalation in them. While, when the drums are beating loudest and the flags flying proudest, the chances of a desperate attack by a Soviet empire, conscious of its rapid decline and fearful of disintegration, must increase dramatically; especially so when the flags, the drums, and yellow ribbons are still backed only by the promise and not the fact of a massive increase in military capability.
1. Colonel James L. Morrison, Jr., USA (Ret), "The Southern Duck Wants to Lie Down," Air University Review, March-April 1979.
2. Baron Henri de Jomini, The Art of War (Philadelphia, 1862), p. 59.
3. "Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam," signed at the International Conference Centre, Paris, January 27, 1973.
5. The Pentagon Papers, the Senator Gravel edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).
6. Major Daniel W. Jacobowitz, "Alienation, Anomie, and Combat Effectiveness," Air University Review, September-October 1980.
7. Arnaud de Borchgrave, Address to Sea Link 80 at Annapolis, Maryland 19 June 1980.
8. Captain Samuel J. Barlotta, USA, "Basic Training: The Verge of Destruction," Military Review, November 1980.
9. Major General Robert G. Grad, Jr., U.S. Army, The Future of the Military Profession, Adelphi Paper No. 103, 1973.
10. Eugene Kinkead, In Every War But One (New York, 1959).
11. Barlotta, pp. 49-50.
12. T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: A Study in Preparedness (New York, 1963), pp. 460-61.
John Hasek, The Royal Canadian Regiment (B.A., University of Ottawa; M.A.,
University of New Brunswick), is Staff Officer, Regional Operations, Canadian
Forces Base, Toronto. After a tour as a member of The Skyhawks, the Canadian
Forces parachute team, he served in the Directorate of Strategic Policy
Planning, National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa. Major Hasek is a graduate of
the Royal Military College of Canada, an Honor Foreign Graduate of the U.S. Army
Special Forces Officers Course, and a Distinguished Graduate of the Canadian
Forces Staff College. He is a previous contributor to the Review.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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