How we Lost?

Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era.
by Cincinnatus.
Norton. 288 pp. $15.95.

L. Quintus Cincinnatus, a land-owning Roman who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., was famous for two things: leaving his plough to heed Rome’s call when the Sabines threatened—and then returning home after routing the enemy. Fortunately for Rome, the man was not given to ambition. As the historian Livy observes, Cincinnatus had been known to say that “the distemper of the state was not such as could be stopped by the usual remedies; that the commonwealth stood in need of a dictator.” Being made dictator was, in fact, the condition he insisted on before leading the Romans into battle. Cincinnatus took a dim view of his country’s political institutions. Still, his name has come to be synonymous with duty and selfless patriotism, and those are surely the qualities which the author of Self-Destruction had in mind when he chose Cincinnatus as his nom de plume.

The book’s jacket suggests that the author is about fifty years old, and states that he served as a private in Korea and worked his way up to field-grade officer, which means colonel. It has subsequently been revealed that the author’s real name is Cecil B. Currey, a professor of American military history and a chaplain in the Army Reserve who has had a Pentagon assignment since late 1979.

According to Cincinnatus, the army blames our defeat in Vietnam on a failure of politicians and of political will. He rejects this explanation and blames the army. Self-Destruction is for the most part a catalogue of accusations against the army’s prosecution of the Vietnam war. The book is thus a collection of stories and details drawn upon to illustrate particular military shortcomings and mistakes. Broadly speaking, what connects these incidents and data is the author’s judgment—which is not stated explicitly—that the trouble with the army is that it was, and still is, preoccupied with logistics, obsessed with statistical modes of analysis, insensitive to strategy, and corrupted by careerism.

Cincinnatus argues that our ground forces in Vietnam relied much too heavily on firepower. This is a view he shares with Ward Just, who noted in his 1970 book, Military Men, that “in one year the army fired more than a million rounds of artillery in harassment and interdiction alone.” Cincinnatus believes that this extravagant barrage accomplished little of value. Enemy soldiers simply dived for their foxholes; the unavoidable imprecision of artillery killed many innocents, and alienated the survivors.

Massive firepower has been a commonly acknowledged characteristic of the American military for a century. In Vietnam, it was used in the service of the so-called “war of attrition.” A policy of attrition is undertaken when it appears to one side that the death of adversary soldiers—as opposed, say, to starvation of the enemy’s civilian population or destruction of his primary economic areas—will bring a war to its speediest conclusion. The minimal requirement of such a policy is that the enemy soldiers be easily identifiable, usually by uniform. This was a problem in Vietnam.

As the author observes (like others before him), since the objective of the Vietcong was not to win engagements so much as to stay in the field, the real difficulty with the policy of attrition was that it ultimately depended on what the enemy was willing to pay. So long as he was willing to accept a high casualty rate, the defending army’s task was compounded. This became especially problematic in light of the advantage the Vietcong had as a guerrilla force that could choose its own time and place of attack, and hence exercise some sort of control over its losses.

The American strategy, or lack of strategy as some have termed it, thus generated its own vulnerability, which in turn played into and reinforced Defense Secretary McNamara’s weakness for statistics. To show their success in pursuing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” military leaders who could not produce a list of cities taken or miles covered in advancing a front leaned more and more on the number of enemy killed. This suited McNamara’s boundless thirst for figures and all manner of numerical analyses. A Vietnamese army officer is reported to have exclaimed, “Ah, les statistiques. Your Secretary of Defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.” In the matter of bodies counted—the surest measure of an attrition policy’s success—McNamara wanted the figures to go up, and they did.

The body count became a fixed and holy point of reference in the effort to conclude the war. In its name the most fundamental deceptions were practiced by lower-ranking officers, and these were multiplied by the self-deception of those who made the policy. Pressed to bring in higher body counts, field commanders did their best to oblige. A trail of blood would be counted as a body on the assumption that any wound big enough to cause such a trail must be mortal. Eventually, abandoned weapons were included as well. Units operating in the same area began to overlap their counts. And as pressure grew to report higher numbers, so did the belief that bigger counts meant military progress. Eventually, says the author, “such estimates took on a reality of their own, transcending anything that might have actually happened.”



Cincinnatus implies that this removal from the day-to-day facts of the war was the natural result of a broader isolation at the staff level. Nowhere was this more pronounced and destructive than in the unforeseen results of the elaborate rotation scheme the army worked out to insure that officers received combat experience. As others have written (most notably Paul Savage and Richard Gabriel in their 1979 book, Crisis in Command), ever since the end of the Korean war the military has been busy remaking itself in the corporate image. Efficiency, managerial techniques, and computerized battle models have come in; duty, leadership, and strategy in the historical sense have gone out. What used to be known as war has come to be called “combat experience,” something like the sales experience which management trainees are required to undergo regardless of their ultimate corporate responsibilities. As one of Cincinnatus’ sources put it:

Vietnam was the only war we had. You needed a combat tour, you got one. The main thing was to have the right ribbons on your chest when the war ended. If you were the village idiot and couldn’t do anything except fly around in a helicopter and ask troops if they were getting their mail, you still got six months. The justification for the six-month command was . . . that after the war the army would have a lot of people . . . who had “commanded” in combat.

Good officers were pulled out too fast, too many mediocre officers were put in, and few officers were left in charge long enough to develop the crucial rapport needed in combat units. One of the most dismal consequences was that some career men looked first to their personal safety, and led from helicopters above the engagement instead of on the ground in its midst. A soldier recounts, “overhead would be circling our battalion commander. Above him would be his brigade commander. Higher than both would be his division commander and hovering over him would be his corps commander.”



The analysis of the army put forward by Cincinnatus is not entirely original—in fact, it has been argued with considerably greater cogency and force by, notably, Edward N. Luttwak in these pages.1 What is new is that the points should be made from within the Pentagon. This is certainly a welcome development, but unfortunately it does not lead very far in the direction of an improved outlook for the future.

Cincinnatus proposes a number of solutions to the problems he describes; they are longer on good intentions than on good sense. Trying to steer away from the combination of massive firepower with minimal sensitivity to politico-military strategy, the author urges an overall computer record of military action. In Vietnam, for example, he would have computerized the French experience and made it available to field commanders. But this is just a refinement of the military’s dependence on technology—the idea being to replace big guns with big computers. In Vietnam such a plan might have provided a constant and thus beneficial reminder that European-style tactics would not do—but it could not have told anyone what would work. The answer to that problem is more likely to emerge from direct experience and the study of military history. And the latter is a subject the army has never been keen on, preferring instead to tilt officer education in favor of engineering, quantitative analysis of battle scenarios, and multifarious behavioral approaches to personnel problems.

Cincinnatus does deal with the importance of military education in correcting the ills he has located. But he is unwise on this subject as well. “Let there be no doubt about it,” he writes, “the basic problem from which all else arose was an ethical one.” What he means is that “ethical” men would not lie about body counts, or take part in an outrage like My Lai, or countenance the most flagrant excesses of careerism. His solution is a Defense Ethics Institute which, in a nod to the current ethics fad, would teach not how one ought to behave but those standards which civilized society acknowledges. The author proposes that the officers who attend this institute will return to their services and form discussion groups—and chaplains will run it all!

Perhaps, in light of the author’s identity, this proposal is merely self-interested—but nothing so exotic is in fact needed. The issue raised by the body count was not essentially one of dishonesty, nor was the practice in and of itself debilitating. It arose as the natural and practically unavoidable response of subordinates to the ill-conceived plans of their superiors. Studying ethics will never repair the want of good strategy, nor are ethical considerations likely to restrain men like Lt. Calley. In a healthy military, however great the need to expand the officer corps, it is never so great that a man like Calley should be made an officer—and even then, it is a major point of discipline to prevent incidents like My Lai from taking place. Similarly with the problem of careerism, which encourages officers to worry about ticket-punching and the next rung up the ladder instead of about the men under their command.



But the chief flaw in Self-Destruction is not its useless recommendations. Rather, it lies in the thesis, which is that the army was responsible for losing the war. The explanation is a tempting one, but it is wrong. The army fought hard, in many cases well, and at crucial junctures successfully. Just about every military analyst agrees that the Tet offensive was ruinous to the enemy (though the army may indeed be guilty of not having pursued the routed North Vietnamese forces). The press, however, chose to see Tet as an American failure, and the country as a whole believed that account; after Tet, anti-war sentiment grew and, more important, popular support began to slip. The causes of the United States defeat in Vietnam are numerous, interwoven, and still hotly debated. But it is inexcusable to overlook the fact that the nation was divided over the war and that popular sentiment for it steadily dwindled—for which the army cannot be blamed.

At the battle of Antietam during the Civil War, North and South lost 27,000 men in a single ghastly afternoon—about half the casualties of the entire Vietnam war and a much more significant fraction of the total population. Yet the war ground on. If the man who calls himself Cincinnatus were really interested in understanding why we lost in Vietnam, he should listen to Lincoln: “With popular support, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

1 “A New Arms Race?” September 1980.

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