Wars Are Not Won by the Suppression of Truth

Shock and awe, and awesomely deadly
Shock and awe, and awesomely deadly

W.J. Astore

The American way of war has often relied on massive firepower as a way to reduce American troop casualties.  This was true of World War II and Korea, which were conventional “big battalion” wars, and it was also true of Vietnam, which was an unconventional war involving much smaller units.  The problem in Vietnam was the wanton use of firepower, to include napalm and Agent Orange as well as traditional bombs and artillery shells, which devastated the countryside and destroyed the lives of so many innocent Vietnamese.  The horror of this approach to war was recently captured in Nick Turse’s bestseller, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the American government was at pains to deny that massive firepower was being misused, even when that criticism came from within the ranks.  This lesson was brought home to me while reading Douglas Kinnard’s Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor, in which he looks back on his earlier book about Vietnam, The War Managers.  Upon publishing The War Managers in the mid-1970s, Kinnard says in Adventures (127-28) that he received the following note from an informed reader:

“Another [note received] from a colonel who had had two tours of duty in Vietnam and had tried in 1969 to publish an article criticizing the tactical conduct of the war, especially the overuse of fire power.  Indeed, any of us who were connected with the use of fire power knew it was overused, and certainly this was true in 1969.  The publication of his article in The Military Review was turned down not by the journal itself but by the office of the Secretary of Defense.  Let me point out that the turndown was not a rejection based on international policy or strategic implications.  ‘Colonel X’s article has been reviewed by this office and is returned without clearance on the basis of policy objections.  The main thrust of the article is in conflict with the announced policies of reducing US casualties and of Vietnamization of the War.  Publication of an article of this nature is also considered detrimental to the national interest in that it erroneously lends validity to charges of catastrophic death and destruction in the Republic of Vietnam.’ Signed, Roger Delaney, Deputy Director of Security Review.  The article, by the way, was a very interesting and informative one.  The turndown is incredible, but it is part of the history of the War.” [emphasis added]

It’s fascinating how the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) acted to suppress internal criticism within the U.S. Army itself that was aimed at curbing excessive firepower and its devastating impact on South Vietnam, which was after all our ally in that war.

Three factors seem to have driven OSD’s decision:

1.  Firepower (the more, the better) was linked to reducing U.S. casualties, thus making an unpopular war more palatable to Americans.

2.  Firepower (the more, the better) was used as a prop to Vietnamization, i.e. a crutch for ARVN (the South Vietnamese Army) in the field.  When ARVN didn’t perform well, massive firepower came to the rescue, which served to mask the inadequacies of Vietnamization.

3.  Even with this massive firepower, you as an American soldier were not allowed to say that it was causing widespread death and destruction, leading to the loss of the very hearts and minds that we claimed we were trying to win.  In other words, you had to deny logic as well as the evidence of your own eyes.

There’s a famous paradoxical saying about the Vietnam War: Americans had to destroy the Vietnamese village to save it.  What General Kinnard’s anecdote makes clear is that by 1969 you weren’t even allowed to say that you were destroying the village even as you burned it, since such acts so obviously contradicted the announced policy of Vietnamization as well as the idea of pursuing “peace with honor.”

But how can there be honor when honest efforts by American troops to critique deeply flawed and immoral tactics are suppressed in the name of political expediency?

In Praise of Douglas Kinnard, A Truth-telling General of the Vietnam War

My Copy of "The War Managers"
My Copy of “The War Managers”

W.J. Astore

The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings.  A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.

The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.

The survey results bear this out.  For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25)  One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.”  Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”

Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties.  This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”

Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery.  In a note on page 47, he writes:

“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery.  On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map.  Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections.  A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing.  This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”

In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.

Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army.  Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:

“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”

“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”

“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”

“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)

Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed.  As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people?  There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)

Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture.  Two quotations illustrate this point:

“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)

“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese].  This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things.  This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)

As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation.  Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.

Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard.  Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public.  From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope.  In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down.  Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)

Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam.  The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”

W.J. Astore

*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly.  In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)