Skip to comments.We Were Soldiers — Betrayed in Viet Nam
Posted on 11/04/2003 8:55:59 AM PST by Sir Gawain
The reasons wars are won or lost are often interpreted through romantic or grandiose ideological notions to suit the personalities or intent of those holding or selling those notions.
George Patton was as serious a student of military history as anyone who ever lived so much so that he was accompanied by a large library on the battlefield. He was the only American general so encumbered. Beneath his loud bluster, which he affected for public effect and consumption, his mind was beyond encyclopedic in scope and depth. He had no romantic illusions. He repeated the assertion many times in many ways that good tactics in an army can rescue bad strategy in that army or elsewhere while bad tactics can self-defeat good strategy. Simple fundamentals determine the course of battles and wars.
War is often machinery. It's as simple as that. Quite often at critical points in history, the decisive elements in winning wars have been mechanical bits of machinery. The secret to winning war is leadership with minds encyclopedic at the concrete level able to create or utilize mechanical machinery to best advantage, and to know the limitations and dangers of that machinery in one's own military or the military of others.
At various periods there have been ultimate mechanical or quasimechanical weapons that rendered the opposition temporarily without defense and which determined the course of battle and even the course of history.
And so it was in 1346 that the British introduced and employed the longbow at the battle of Crecy. The longbow had a superior radius of effectiveness, 200 yards or more. It could shoot arrows by trained archers at what was then an incredible rate of ten times or more a minute faster than the crossbow. It had enough power to penetrate mail and armor. The consequence was that a vastly outnumbered British force destroyed a French army with a hail of arrows described as being as numerous as snowflakes. The British suffered negligible casualties. If the comments by the ever-cynical H. G. Wells in his Outline of History can be believed, the British were subsequently subdued by debilitating acute diarrhea from wholly undisciplined consumption of French wine, and from VD freely distributed from the sexually liberated French women. The subsequent celebration thus counteracted the victory.
The important critical issue to focus upon here is that it made no difference how morally right or wrong the British were, or how motivated they were. It also made no difference how morally right or wrong the French were, or how motivated they were. Such things are often irrelevant in warfare. The French army was doomed to be defeated by the superiority of the longbow and by its own obsolete troop formations and tactics.
One of the reasons the British ruled the seas for many years was their introduction of the caplock cannon on British warships. The caplock could be primed easily with the insertion of a firing cap over a nipple, then hit with the release of a firing hammer. The discharge was immediate meaning that the rocking or movement of vessels had no time to disturb the initial aim. Older cannon required extra time to pour powder into the ignition area, where it was vulnerable, and then ignite it.
The next determinant weapon was the Napoleonic cannon. Napoleon became very adept at loading his cannon with grape-sized shot instead of single large cannonballs, producing devastating effects at marvelous distances. It was the habit among armies of the period to attack in well-ordered closely arranged disciplined groups to enhance intensity of musketry fire. A relatively few cannon loaded with grape would cut such groups down like wheat. Therefore, Napoleon conquered all in his path until his armies froze to death in the harsh Russian winter a mistake repeated by Hitler some years later.
Napoleon's, and other artillery of the period, suffered from some difficulties. They suffered from lack of mobility and slow rates of fire.
The next ultimate weapon was the machine gun in World War One. The British army had a tradition of walking steadfastly into battle in broad disciplined lines against enemies as proof of bravery and determination. In World War One, proud steadfast bravery became an act of suicide as the Germans mowed British down with machine guns while they attacked in their archaic formations. The British lost 4,500,000 men in this maneuver, including a young physicist named Mosely who was one of the most promising minds the physical sciences had ever seen.
The British and French then developed and implemented their own machine guns rendering German infantry frontal attacks impossible. The result was a stalemate of armies opposite each other in trenches with none able to leave without being mowed down.
Enter then the armored tank. The original purpose of the tank was protection against small arms fire, particularly machine gun fire, while being able to advance and inflict casualties with its own small arms. Enter also a brilliant young officer, Colonel George Patton, who was a tank unit commander. The typical tank would run about 50 miles before breaking down. Patton's tanks were said to run 500 because maintenance under his command was absolute. Perfect maintenance did not, however, prevent Patton, who was ever at the forefront of everything, from getting shot in his behind while helping to extract one of his tanks from the mud. People who disliked Patton probably took considerable amusement and satisfaction in the placement of the shot, undoubtedly believing it was suitable that he feel a pain in his own behind for a while instead of just being a pain in everyone else's.
Patton was very wealthy. After the war he enlisted the aid of an engineer by the name of Cristie in Peoria to help him design and build his own advanced idea of a tank. His design worked so well that the Japanese military used his design years later in WWII to good effect. But the mood of the American nation after WWI was bring the boys home and reduce the weight of the army. Patton's designs and plans for tank attack were rejected in the U.S. military.
With the postwar reduction in military force, Patton was reduced in rank to captain although he was shortly promoted to major. Another role was sought for him. Patton's weakness was for horses. He was an avid polo player. He fell into the position of defending the role of the horse cavalry in the army. He did so with such effectiveness that it probably held up further tank development in the army. At any rate, the American military had personal career investment in areas other than tanks. But Patton never forgot tanks. He never forgot anything.
Meanwhile there was another development. The role of airplanes in WWI had begun as a glamorous amusement. At first they were used for reconnaissance of enemy lines and movements. Enemy pilots would wave cheerfully at each other as they passed by in their planes. Some pilots brought baskets of darts, similar to those used in game dart boards, to grab by the handful and throw down on troops below. While the darts produced prodigious cursing, they are not on record as having won any decisive battles. Eventually a few pilots brought pistols and sailed bullets at one another. This further escalated into the mounting of machine guns on the aircraft and the glory days of Red Barons jousting in the skies. Beyond that, the effect on the ground was minimal.
Enter a few years later a brilliant but somewhat vain and obnoxious American officer by the name of Billy Mitchell. Mitchell made an evaluation and saw the future of warfare would be determined by aircraft. It was a very unpopular view in all branches of the military. Mitchell succeeded in obtaining a demonstration of his ideas in the early '20s. He was to attack confiscated German WWI battleships with several of his airplanes. He was ordered to use bombs that were deliberately too small to do serious damage. Navy and other military high brass gathered to watch what would be an amusing demonstration of this new-fangled toy falling on its face and be done with it and with Mitchell the flyboy. Mitchell disobeyed orders and substituted his own bigger size bombs for those he was ordered to use. He sunk the ships as if they had been hit by a moon-sized sledgehammer.
This produced massive paroxysms of rage and temper tantrums, directed at Mitchell. Naval careers comfortably invested in the supremacy of the invincible mighty battleship were rendered obsolete in minutes. Naval battles had been brave glorious confrontations between great battlewagons at close quarters. In a 15 minute demonstration period it became apparent that some goof flying in from 50 miles away in a glorified kite could drop an egg on a battleship or any other vessel while its great guns were useless and there was no present defense against it. The entire big-gun battleship-based navy which had been master of the sea was suddenly revealed helpless in the face of a few toy gnats. This was to be the future. The indignant American high brass fought the idea. Japanese took notes and studied the demonstration. George Patton became an airplane pilot.
Mitchell was court martialled for disobeyance of orders. His insistence that the next war would be with Japan became a public embarrassment to the government and the military, producing an anger that contributed to the case against him.
Sometime later in the '30s an older but still somewhat junior officer by the name of George Patton was assigned duty in the somewhat relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere of Hawaii. When angered, Patton's voice would become higher and he would croak like a frog. The American army there went on maneuvers. Never at a loss for words, a furious Patton croaked at the top of his lungs, "Where are your God f*****g damned air defenses?" With that, the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere was ended. A couple good doses of Patton was more than enough to suit the accustomed life style of the Pacific command. He was somewhat hastily returned back to the United States as being unneeded with considerable sense of relief on the part of the Pacific commanders and a notation on his record, "Invaluable in time of war, but a disturbing element in times of peace." The subsequent events on December 7, 1941 need not be recounted here beyond noting that they were also disturbing. The war in the Pacific would be dominated by airplanes and aircraft carriers.
With Patton in command there was never such a thing as peace. Neither was there any slack anywhere. All possibilities were to be prepared for. Continual absolute vigilance was standard procedure. If airplanes existed then, by heaven, there would be constant absolute watch for them and strong defense against them. Had he been in command, the air attack on Pearl Harbor either would not have occurred or would have been substantially intercepted.
In Germany two other figures evolved along with their systems of tactics. The first of these was Heinz Guderian. (Hurricane Heinz) Guderian was brilliant, irascible, relentlessly self-driving, and apt to be sarcastically insulting to senior officers. After the First World War he began studying motorization of all kinds and motorization of all types of military equipment. His first experimental tanks were wooden mock-ups on various motorized pieces of equipment. Like Patton, he designed his own tanks from the bottom up. In fact, he designed and motorized everything from the bottom up. He also visited and supervised construction and wrote manuals for operation. He could personally operate any piece of equipment.
Guderian made extensive development and use of the then novel radios such that he was able to coordinate the movement of his tanks at all times. Dive bombers could also be coordinated in attacks. The German army became very adept at developing engineering systems that would allow them to cross streams with their tanks.
Like Patton, Guderian paid attention to every detail, including maintenance. His maxim was, the engine is as important a weapon in a tank as the gun. Under his guidance the tank became a piece of fast-moving fast-firing artillery. German artillery was also to become fast-moving fast-firing artillery. He created a coordinated fast-moving powerful mobile force that he could control with his radios as if it was a heavily armed dance troop. Blitzkrieg. Lightning warfare.
Guderian's motorized contraptions intrigued Hitler during one of his lucid moments, who saw great value in them. Guderian was made full general in command of armor operations. In command of the XIX Panzers he stormed though the massive fortifications in Poland that were thought to be invincible in a few days. He went through France and conquered it in a matter of days using his own new rules of warfare. The German High command couldn't keep track of him and insisted he began going by the old rules. He disobeyed orders and conquered everything in sight, telling the high command to stick their old tactics where the sun didn't shine.
Germany had a number of infantry-based top officers who resented being reduced to secondary importance under the ever-expanding dominance of Guderian's armor. Resented is too soft a word. Guderian was hated. Guderian was fired by his superiors on several occasions, no doubt somewhat out of professional jealousy. It was one of the biggest German mistakes of the war, and one of the greatest pieces of good luck to befall the allies. It is widely believed, including by myself, that Guderian would have taken Russia. Hitler disagreed with Guderian and was more interested in the Ukraine than in Moscow. In 1941 Guderian told Hitler better timing and restraint should be used in Russia. The German army could not maintain and support an advance in that weather at that time of year. Hitler had a temper tantrum and relieved Guderian of command. Hitler then lost an entire army. Guderian was brought back in desperation after it was too late.
Had Guderian not been fired, it might have created eventual secondary problems for the Nazis. There weren't enough Germans to occupy the vast areas of land Guderian's genius would have allowed Hitler's ambitions and fantasies to conquer. Hitler was eating far more than Germany could digest and Germany would die of acute indigestion. Its forces were becoming too scattered and thin.
The problem was similar to that which we are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan and with talk about war in Iran with too small a military. It's possible to win large technologically based battles but with eventual incapability to control the won area. There is no realistic strategy.
The second German figure was Irwin Rommel. The son of a schoolmaster, he was a socially reserved scholarly man whose eyes missed nothing and whose mind registered everything. He was absolutely loyal to his son and wife. One of his personal interests was gardening. He was an apolitical officer who fought for Germany rather than the Nazis. He subscribed absolutely to an idealized code of chivalry characteristic of the knights of the round table. He was a somewhat small man of inexhaustible personal endurance who neither drank nor smoked. He was universally respected as a gentleman of the highest integrity and order.
Rommel denied his own troops full rations of water to make certain prisoners had enough to drink. The Italian army took wristwatches and other items from their prisoners. Rommel exploded in anger and made them return what they had taken. This was typical Rommel.
It is interesting to note that both Patton and Rommel were students of American Civil War confederate generals. Patton's involvement was personal. The Gray Ghost, John Mosby, visited Patton's home and instructed Patton as a boy. Patton could read and interpret military maps at age seven. Irwin Rommel devoted intensive study of the work and campaigns of confederate military genius General Nathan Bedford Forrest although from the distance of books. The study of confederate military officers would be the last thing one would expect from a German military officer. But Rommel, like Patton, was always a comprehensive, thorough student.
Rommel began his career in the infantry, and later in the rangers. During the First World War he became nearly a legend. Like Forrest, he would attack from paths and directions thought impossible. He commanded from the front line. Continuing in the German military after the war, he wrote a classic text Infantrie Greift An (Attack by Infantry) which became required reading for German officers in training. It was also seriously studied by George Patton. Rommel also kept a watchful eye on the activities and thought of Heinz Guderian.
Hitler assigned Rommel as a major general in command of the 7th Panzer Division over the strenuous objections of the general staff who voiced objection to his lack of armor experience. There was also resentment over his family background. High rank had been the private preserve of elite Prussian military families, not sons of Swabian schoolmasters. But Rommel had long prepared himself. His conception of tactics was nearly identical to Guderian's. He was immediately flexible and adept at utilizing the mobile 88 millimeter antiaircraft gun as an antitank weapon. In one day alone he advanced 200 miles during the French campaign against what was thought to be insurmountable forces. During that thrust he took 30,000 prisoners in several days.
There is a tendency among novices to ascribe Rommel's victories in France to a motivational weakness on the part of the French. However, he did the same thing to the highly motivated disciplined British armies that he did to the French. Rommel was so highly respected and admired by the British and particularly high ranking British officers that there were repeated directives not to speak of it as it was deteriorating the morale of the British forces.
Rommel's 7th Panzer became known as the Ghost Division as he would appear out of nowhere from unexpected positions behind enemy lines. Thus was the equivalent of Patton's principle of "Grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass."
Rommel was glorified by the German propaganda machine, which was demeaning and an insult to Rommel. He had gained respect and admiration by friend and foe alike on his own and propagandizing him was cheapening.
Rommel was defeated at The Battle of El Alamein in Africa by the British 8th army masterminded by Montgomery. There was no brilliance on the part of Montgomery and no defeat in the ordinary military sense of Rommel. Rommel was outsupplied by Montgomery and undercut by German mistakes elsewhere. The battle began with Montgomery fielding 1,000 tanks, many of which were new American models, against 500 German tanks along a 30 mile wide front. The British tanks were replaceable. Rommel's weren't. Hitler had neglected, or was disinterested in, taking serious control of the Mediterranean Sea. As a consequence, Rommel's fuel and other supplies lay sunk at the bottom of the sea at critical times. Rommel beat Montgomery decisively until Montgomery ran Rommel out of supplies. In spite of the superior numbers, Rommel destroyed almost as many British tanks as the Germans started with.
The British 8th Army casualties were 13,500 killed, wounded or missing, about 27,000 prisoners taken, 450 tanks destroyed or abandoned and extensive equipment was captured. At that point Rommel ran out of fuel and ammunition. Two or three shiploads of supplies would have defeated Montgomery, but they never arrived.
Before the D-day invasion, Rommel had wanted to move supporting units closer to the coastline. He was rebuffed. Had Rommel and Guderian been given more support and authority the D-day landing would have been catastrophic for the allies and a nuclear bomb on Berlin would have been required to defeat Germany.
Hitler was an interesting study in contradiction. He had periods of immediate incisive brilliance during which he recognized and promoted brilliant military and other minds. During alternate periods of madness, which incorporated an almost playful contentious demonstration of belief in his own omnipotence and superiority, he would disregard advice from those minds or would undercut them. During his dysfunctional periods he was also insulated or enabled by marginally competent synchophants at the very top around him who resented the brilliance of the second tier Hitler had appointed. The German military, indeed the German everything, became dependent upon Hitler's moods. There is a great political advantage in this as it causes the population to seize more desperately upon a leader in order to determine what will be the pseudoreality of the day. But, while this was an Orwellian political masterpiece, the result was also a military nightmare. While Germany produced two of the greatest generals of the war who will be studied in future military history, it also produced stupid blundering.
Hitler was a man who became captured by the power of his own rhetoric. Probably the most brilliant speaker and intuitive social psychologist who ever lived, he found he could mesmerize, control, and motivate entire nations to accomplish the nearly impossible as if his words were magical incantations. He became progressively to believe in the magical ability of his thought and rhetoric with time. There was little to stop it for a period.
But there is a great difference between accomplishing the difficult or nearly impossible versus demanding the impossible and irrational. Hitler lost track of that difference. There is also a point at which progressively magical rhetoric and magical thought processes go beyond the influencing of people and meet a hard physical reality which can not be influenced by accustomed magical incantation. The ultimate trap is to believe capacity to influence people will also allow one to influence and change basic reality. Self-intoxication with the first can too easily lead to psychotic or nearly-psychotic delusional belief in capacity regarding the second in a leader. Intoxication by the first can lead to catastrophic delusion of the second among gullible followers, including nations.
The problem of magical thought and verbal delusion has re-emerged in recent pathologically self-centered hyperverbal, but reality-distanced, generations in America and elsewhere.
Rommel could have conquered all of North Africa and advanced up through the Middle East with little difficulty. However, Hitler was indecisive on the issue and had Rommel fighting a war of stagnation. Rommel would fume in exasperation whereupon Hitler would call him back to Germany for several days. Whatever else he was, Hitler was a man of almost irresistible personal charm and ability to manipulate when he wanted to apply it. He would calm Rommel down, then send him back to Africa.
The integrated panzer division with coordinated air attack under Guderian and Rommel became the British longbow of the late 1930s and early '40s. But only under Guderian and Rommel in the German army, and then under Patton when he was given command of American armies. Nobody else had the intelligence, experience, and study to do it.
Nothing happened by accident. It was the result of study, work, experience, breadth, solid grounding, comprehensive analysis, and little left to chance. Great generals win battles through knowledge and considerations even at the squad level of tactics.
Consideration of any military operation always begins with initial survey of fundamentals and applications of fundamentals. An advantage of your own is never to be sacrificed. No disadvantage to the enemy is ever to be eased or relinquished.
The first consideration is the terrain in which an operation will take place. Tanks can not operate in a swamp. Sharp hills and mountains intercept the trajectory of artillery shells resulting in areas not accessible to artillery support. Attack vehicles and troop formations moving along the roads and valleys between sharply formed close land formations are subject to prepared attack and fire from both sides while mechanized vehicles and armor will be unable to climb those terrain features. Helicopters and other aircraft will be vulnerable from both sides of the valley with little room to maneuver. Mortars are more effective in shooting from higher elevation to lower position than from lower positions to high positions.
The American and other success in the Gulf War was largely because the terrain was perfectly suited to high tech military warfare. Armor could move quickly over the land while plowing up mines. There was little interference of land features with small arms or artillery trajectory. There was little impediment to visibility from the ground or air.
When General Norman Schwarzkopf was asked about the prospect of military action on Serbia on TV, he answered, "Well, the terrain is different." and left it at that.
Schwarzkopf had come up as a front line combat soldier. He undoubtedly knew that because of the terrain, a war in that area of the world would be entirely different than in the Gulf. An American army would be facing an opposing army predominantly trained at our special forces level or beyond. American armored attack would be severely limited. Forget about sending cruise missiles into fancy buildings. Combat would be on the individual or squad level against highly trained long distance riflemen operating in diffuse deployment from the advantage of defensive positions. Most issued American rifles aren't even capable of use in that type of engagement. We'd have been mauled. It might have been possible to win, but the cost in American lives would have been in the tens of thousands.
A fundamental consideration in small group and individual tactics is employment of cover and concealment. In military terms concealment means just that. It means to make individuals or groups less visible to an opposing force. Concealment decreases efficiency of enemy fire. It interferes with knowledge of troop positions and movements. It increases the elements of enemy surprise and maneuver.
Cover is more substantial and apt to deflect or impede the trajectory of enemy projectiles.
From the mechanical basis, the first element to be examined is the implications of absolute, or near absolute, supremacy of air power. Here is what the supremacy of air power will or will not do for you.
In infantry tactics there is the rule of first dominant position and pinning. Given two men in opposite foxholes at a distance of certain effectiveness of rifles but beyond the distance of grenades or something similar, and who are equal in all things, the one who acts first in such a way as to make the other duck for cover wins the day. If the second man exposes himself out of his foxhole he must reveal himself to the awaiting lethal prepositioned gun sights of the first. Meanwhile, the first man has the option of moving into a new position unknown to the second which imposes a further time penalty on the second man in needing to locate the first man to place a shot. It doesn't need to be two men in foxholes. It can be any comparable situation.
The availability of dominant air power to the second man can quickly reverse the position and advantage of the two men or groups of men.
Air supremacy means the enemy can not gather in dense formations to mount an offensive. Neither can the enemy employ dense armored formations or artillery batteries. Anything of known position can be incinerated by napalm bombs covering half a football field at a time. This precludes the enemy from mounting successful concentrated attacks upon relatively permanent or fortified installations.
The final fall of South Viet Nam did not occur through guerrilla warfare. It came as a massive dense coordinated infantry and armor attack which could not be previously employed but which became invincible from the ground AFTER North Vietnamese sympathizers in America had succeeded in preventing employment of American air power and the communists were assured there would be no obstruction of their attack. Had American air power been employed at that point the entire North Vietnamese military would have been wiped out within three hours. The war would have been won and ended.
An enemy can not build serious above-ground fortifications when faced with opposing air supremacy. Concurrently an army with air supremacy can build fortified installations containing artillery, and even armor, that can reach out from those fortifications.
There is a cascading effect of weapons system superiority that is influenced by terrain. This creates a hierarchy of dominance which cascades down to secondary and tertiary levels of dominance. Given the dominance of your air power, for instance, the enemy is denied use of armor and your tanks also become dominant as they can not be opposed by enemy tanks. Tanks or other armor in terrain in which they are at all visible, can not survive air attack. Neither can artillery. Air domination gives you armor domination and artillery domination. Armor domination gives you artillery domination. All this is subject to influence of terrain.
Saddam Hussein was rumored to have had hundreds or even thousands of tanks in the Gulf War. They were made useless to him in minutes because we had air dominance.
There is a principle that should always be taken into account in considering the disposition of troops in fortifications and outside of fortifications. When facing an enemy of superior or unknown numbers the key to survival is through weight of firepower. That is, the individual soldier must employ a continuous high volume of fire at poorly defined targets. The individual soldier far out in the field is limited by the amount of ammunition and type of weapons he can carry with him. The individual soldier in a fortification is limited to large amounts of ammunition that can be stored and retrieved and by heavier weapons that can be mounted. Thus, without help from air power the rule is an attacking force should have five or ten times the number of personnel as the defending force. Even that number becomes insufficient given the throw weight of automatic weapons since the late 50s.
In recent decades it has become impossible for large infantry forces to lay siege to established fortification that are supported by air superiority and starve the fortifications out. The fortifications can be resupplied by parachute.
A correlative factor is physical impediment and distance of enemy troop traverse. In other words, when being attacked by a large number of enemy, you want to make the enemy come to you while impeding their individual physical progress over a distance to lengthen the time your high volume of fire will be effective rather than provide easy access over a short distance and find yourself in a three on one situation at close quarters. Cleared areas, barbed wire, whatever it takes. This is one advantage of a long term fortified installation.
With the development of very high rate of fire ground based equipment, relatively permanent fortified installations need fewer personnel to make them nearly impregnable given air superiority which negates the use of enemy armor. Concurrently, such fortification allows you to employ light armor in the immediate area while the enemy is allowed none.
We Were Soldiers
The difficulty in explaining the strategy and tactics used in a war to people who were not there, and sometimes even to people who were there, lies in presenting the realities of that war. An earlier portion of this series dealt with the Viet Nam war. At the time it was written no documentation of certain realities was available in a form easily accessible to readers.
Since that writing a film was made and released supporting the contentions asserted in the Viet Nam war series which appeared here. The film, We Were Soldiers, is a nonfictional account of one out of a series of battles in Viet Nam beginning in 1965. It is basically an acted out deposition and documentary. The principle figures portrayed are then Lt. Colonel Hal Moore and Sergeant Major Basil Plumley. Moore later became a Lt. General. Moore was so well loved and respected by the top noncommissioned officers in the army that he was made an honorary platoon sergeant by decree of those NCOs. Plumley was a legend who was known as one of the toughest men ever to exist anywhere at any time at any place in the United States military. He is still mentioned on military internet sites. It was, and is still said to this day, if there is a God he would look like Plumley but Plumley is tougher than God. Plumley is still brought in to address officer graduating classes.
The movie, which is readily available on VCR and DVD, should be studied after reading this analysis.
The basic tactic which was implemented by decisions from higher position in the chain of command was to insert groups of roughly 400 men, small segments at a time, using helicopters as the equivalent of horses in something paralleling a cavalry attack. Presumably, the effectiveness of such attacks would exact an attrition upon enemy forces.
At this point let's turn to the movie, and the event, to look for critical points. Let us begin with an initial survey of basic principles as they existed then.
Let's take a look at the Ia Drang situation and the movie.
In the first place, helicopters need clear areas to land. When helicopter blades hit tree tops or rugged terrain features the helicopter crashes.
So you are dumping people out into an open area with little cover or concealment and damned little doubt about their position in the minds of the enemy watching them jump off the machine. The only people with any cover or concealment were the numerically superior enemy. Consequently, the American command violated several tactical principles right there.
It should also be noted that comparing helicopters to cavalry horses, while emotionally exhilarating and romantic, is seriously inexact. Horse cavalry can wait patiently, somewhat hidden, in close position. Helicopters can not. When a horse was lost it resulted, sometimes, in the loss of one man. Bedford Forrest had more than twenty horses shot out from under him as little more than a matter of inconvenience to himself, not the horses. Getting a helicopter shot out from under you at 500 feet in the air is more than an inconvenience. When a helicopter is hit it results in the loss of a group of men.
Small American units were faced against a numerically superior force with no impediment to enemy attack and little cover. The statement of absence of impediment should be amended to state the American forces could direct accurate artillery fire upon the clear area 150 yards around their position, but artillery fire beyond that radius became of questionable accuracy and effect. Air support could also be called for. So for practical purposes the equivalent number of American troops was multiplied within a small zone, more precisely a ring, of advantage in which outside effect could accurately be directed against infantry attack.
Since it is impossible to blow up the entire world with a finite number of artillery pieces, expanding that ring follows approximately a square law of necessary capability and expenditure of resources. With increasing indeterminant enemy position and increase in cover and concealment over distance from the American position, expansion approaches a cube law penalty in that situation and terrain.
Fortunately, the North Vietnamese colonel was inexperienced and not too bright. That's what saved the day for the Americans. He should have made a initial quick attack, or several quick attacks, inflicted heavy casualties, then quickly withdrawn half a mile or a mile away leaving American supporting artillery firing uselessly into unoccupied areas. Similarly, air support would have found itself facing an empty field instead of a field packed full of enemy soldiers. Close continuous attack passing through the American ring of advantage would be suicidal and should not have been attempted.
When you think about it, even several hundred men separated in a clear landing zone may be an offense to somebody's pride and temperament, but they are no real threat to anyone. What can they do there? At best they can wander around in the field waiting to get shot at. In order to do anything other than that they must leave the landing area and go into the surrounding wooded areas. Each yard into the surrounding woods takes them a yard further from their base of supply and reinforcements, and from their place and method of exit. The foliage and uneven ground obscure detection of the enemy while offering him cover and concealment. At that point the American forces would have been further violating the basic principles of infantry tactics. They would have been moving in inferior numbers with limited ammunition from and in a known position against an opposing force of indefinite position. They would be moving close enough proximity to the enemy that artillery would have been useless. Moving against a five to one, or even two to one, numerical advantage at close quarters where small arms are the principally employed determinant weapons is suicide.
Furthermore, to effect movement and attack, the American forces would need to relinquish cover and concealment while the enemy would not. The enemy has time to position itself to advantage.
As was shown in the movie, one platoon did move into the wooded area and was annihilated. It would have required light armor to save it after it was pinned down. There was none available under the plan. Had the North Vietnamese colonel played his hand properly instead rushing in like a jackass and exposing his men, the entire American battalion would have been annihilated.
The Americans were trapped by poor tactics in a moronic plan into occupying a useless position which they couldn't leave without being annihilated and in which they were vulnerable to periodic attack. This should have been evaluated at the beginning at higher levels of command. Had evaluation been done competently, the plan would have been scrapped.
One of several key dialogues occurred early in the film when Moore told Plumley he had serious misgivings about dropping of 60 men in the middle of enemy territory for one half hour before there could be reinforcements or supplies. Moore explained the plan was to pursue the enemy and kill them. Moore then comments, "It smells like an ambush."
Ambush was correct. Pursuit of the enemy would have meant moving, quite visibly, a number of troops inadequate to do anything through areas mined with pockets of concealed prepared enemy who if pursued after inflicting casualties, could be drawing the pursuers into traps set by larger numbers of enemy. (This is essentially what the French officer did at the beginning of the movie.) Calling for an artillery shell to selectively affect someone shooting at you from a concealed position 25 feet away is contraindicated. Pursuit would have been endlessly devastating to the pursuers. That's what should have been obvious at all higher command levels.
There are several considerations which must be considered at this point. There are considerations in which an enemy may or may not engage in dispersal of its forces.
Why disperse forces? It makes observation and characterization of enemy position difficult. It decreases effectiveness of artillery and aircraft attack. Dispersal only works in rugged and/or vegetated terrain. Scattered forces on flat barren land will be run down by light armor followed by mobile infantry.
Large concentrated forces are necessary under certain conditions. They are necessary to take large sharply defined enemy positions or fortifications. They are necessary under certain conditions of defense and maintenance of military capability; i.e., you may need numerically large forces to prevent capture of your capitol, capture of your leaders or institutions, capture or destruction of supporting industry, interdiction of your supply lines, capture of your equipment, and so forth.
In the case of the North Vietnamese their leaders were guaranteed safety in Hanoi, which was also guaranteed safety at the time. Their AK47s and other equipment were manufactured thousands of miles away and given to them. Their supply lines were diffuse and to great extent in areas prohibited to attack. They were using few large critical pieces of equipment that could be captured. If attacked by large units the North Vietnamese could refuse to engage and temporarily relinquish the area leaving the attackers with nothing to do. Moderate dispersal of forces was an option without serious penalty.
If a smaller numerical unit attempts to pursue a large force which disperses itself to reduce visibility and effectiveness of artillery attack, in order to pursue the larger force the pursuing unit must break itself up into smaller groups lest it end up wasting its time and resources pursuing only several enemy. A battalion is too small a group initially in that type of concealment and terrain to allow breaking up into groups large enough to defend itself against a numerically superior enemy. These small groups become extremely vulnerable. A few well-placed shots from concealment and the small unit is gone. Five or six good well-positioned riflemen with semiautomatic weapons can tear an advancing platoon to pieces, then move away. What essentially exists is something like pursuit of a dispersed mass of piranha fish moving through obscuring underwater weeds, but which can regroup into suitably sized cohesive units on occurrence of the chance to devour smaller forces, or even significant forces, that would pursue them.
MacArthur vs. Mickey Mouse
Douglas MacArthur executed a brilliancy during the retaking of the Philippines that is still studied to this day. Two massive Japanese forces occupied opposite North and South positions where potential amphibious landings could occur on a major island. MacArthur launched a large invasion to the North. The Japanese generals knew they could bring their Southern army to the North to unleash a second wave that would overwhelm the American army there while the Northern Japanese army remained in strong defensive position. Decisive victory was in their grasp. But, just as the Southern Japanese army began to move North to reinforce the Northern army MacArthur landed the mobile 12th Corps, if I remember correctly, at the South portion of the island. It was perfectly timed. The Southern Japanese force was unable to reoccupy its strong defensive positions and was too pressed to reset itself into new strong defensive positions. MacArthur chased the Southern Japanese army all the way up the island, leaving a trail of dead Japanese, destroying the last of the army as it reached the Northern force with minimal American casualties. The Japanese Northern force then found itself facing attack by a strong American force at its back. It's described in texts as having been devastating.
That's pursuit. It was perfectly timed, perfectly manned, and perfectly equipped. The plan Moore and Plumley were saddled with was amateur Mickey Mouse.
Pursuit suggests movement of one group in chasing another. In cases such as Viet Nam landing zone Xray the pursuers rapidly become, for practical purposes, the pursued, although the enemy is not moving but is handing off the pursuers to other enemy up the line. The enemy that has made the hand-off can then attack from the rear.
The enemy colonel's proper task was to conduct an initial attack, withdraw, then make quick unpredictable hits upon the American position, then quickly withdraw again before outside artillery and, particularly, air support could be made fully effective, or in the case of air support, be effected. When the air support returns to base, hit the American positions again. Executing feints will keep air support in constant flight and confusion. The co-alternative was to let the American forces follow their original plan and enter the surrounding area where they would be subjected to constant periodic ambush in places of the enemy's choosing which were less vulnerable to aircraft support. As occurred to the French forces earlier in the film, not one American leaves alive. Either one of, or a combination of both, scenarios win for the enemy colonel with much less exposure of this troops.
The enemy tactic should have been a parallel of Patton's maxim, "Grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass." The enemy colonel should have poked 'em in the nose and kicked them on all sides when they followed orders and stuck their nose in further. He had a ready-made death trap for the Americans.
But the enemy colonel, possessed by anger and God knows what else instead of logic, gave away his advantages, rose to the bait, and continued to move large concentrated waves of men across an open area that was vulnerable to artillery and napalm. He moved his troops across areas, and in concentrated formations, such that American artillery and air attack would be maximally effective. Thus, he converted an easy win for himself into a loss of his men.
The American losses are not reflections upon Moore, Plumley, or the bravery of the American soldiers. Moore and Plumley were the finest leaders imaginable. However, they were carrying out horribly incompetent and destructive orders. British bravery was unquestioned as they followed incompetent orders and marched steadfastly into German machine guns and killed 4,500,000 of their own men.
Being in the combat military is often a bit like being married to a spouse who makes serious mistakes or who sometimes may not be competent, but still has enough attraction to hold you. While the abstract nobilities and allegiances of an idealized military may hold a powerful sway, the realities are subject to incompetence and corruption.
Moore and Plumley were present to advise the making of the movie. The dialogue and events should be viewed as accurate. One of the patterns that existed throughout the movie was that at no time did Moore express enthusiasm over the plan other than the initial motivational speech to his men about riding into battle on helicopters. On the contrary, he expressed continual private serious misgivings.
"It smells like an ambush"? It was either an incompetently thought out or maliciously conceived suicide mission that could produce no useful result. On some level Moore, we are driven to believe, knew it, but could not aggressively verbalize it by force of personal inhibition or by adherence to the officer's code of conduct.
Under certain circumstances you meet a rare officer who has a complex standard of morality incorporating a high allegiance to the military chain of command as well as a high allegiance to a type of brotherhood and care of his men. When this happens, that officer will knowingly undertake a command which is to do a useless job, which is nearly suicidally destructive to the unit, but he will do so in the belief that he will save some of his men while an inferior officer will lose the entire command. I think such was the case of Colonel Moore. From the discussion, Moore and Plumly knew, however consciously or subconsciously, that the orders approached suicide. Moore and Plumly were put in the position of having to rescue or salvage as many men as possible from the incompetence being imposed upon them from the top levels of the chain of command and the top levels of government.
The specific battle is the one that happened to be portrayed in the book and the movie. It was not the only such battle that took place. There was a repetition a few days later at a place called landing zone Albany. The results were a reported 403 North Vietnamese dead and an estimated 150 wounded. Total American casualties at Albany: 155 killed and 121 wounded. That's close to a 70% overall American loss rate. Some companies of men were suffering 93% casualties in these tactics. For those who are interested, lists of the dead can be found at various memorial internet sites beginning with a search under Ia Drang. The territory was relinquished back to the enemy afterward resulting in no accomplishment or control over the area.
While the number of enemy dead in the Albany engagement was more than double the number of American dead, if we can even believe the numbers, the battle was a disaster for the American side. Even given the optimistic two to one kill ratio, the prospects of losing 500,000 American lives to obliterate a 1,000,000 strong army of psychotics in their own area of the world are going to present enormous difficulty.
A free and rational society is not like Islam where people cheer ecstatically at being told to kill themselves for Mohammed. No rational army can maintain any morale or confidence when units are taking 70% and 90% casualties for unproductive reason. When the word spreads, as it will, that military will collapse. Neither can the civilian population back home maintain morale, confidence, or support under such circumstances. We will return to this paragraph later.
In a competent military and under a competent national leadership, none of this would have happened. It shouldn't have happened.
Evolution of Tactics
It should also be understood that military confrontations and tactics evolve. The chopped liver offense in chess hasn't worked in more than 100 years except against easily-rattled novices because it has an inherent weakness such that the cool trained analytical mind will win against anyone employing it. The communists were at the beginning of a learning curve during the battle documented in the movie. The American tactics had multiple inherent serious weaknesses. The helicopter, particularly as it was in the early '60s, is a very complex and vulnerable piece of equipment. Its first use in the situation described was a surprise for which the enemy was lacking in simple equipment the first time. During WWII there was a small light prone shoulder-fired 20 mm bipod antitank gun. Ammunition for it was easy to transport. It wouldn't penetrate tank main armor, but it would blow the tread off a tank and stop it. The thing was even for sale as surplus during the '50s in gun magazines. Helicopters aren't as tough as tank treads. It would be devastating to helicopters. Had someone in the enemy command realized simple 20mm antitank or recoilless rifles would be devastating to helicopters in the same way that Rommel realized antiaircraft guns were devastating to tanks, any second wave of helicopters in a battle would be shot into the ground before being able to land. If such a weapon were distributed into the countryside, the countryside would become one gigantic mine field for helicopters. If there were any competence in the enemy command it would be a matter of short time before helicopter survival would be zero in employment of the American plan. With simple changes in equipment and armaments the day of the helicopter would have ended in Viet Nam. Fortunately, the communists were seriously remiss in incisive military creativity.
A lack of connection frequently exists between weapons development and distribution/supply versus the fighting on the front line. In a top functioning army and supporting civilian structure, weapons will be quickly designed creatively according to quick accurate perception and then employed creatively by line troops. In the kind of environment and tasks existent in Viet Nam, enemy employment of obsolete light antitank weaponry would become devastating to a helicopter cavalry. Or a slight redesign and upgrading, with subsequent employment, of existing old designs would also be devastating.
It would also be a matter of time before the enemy began to adopt the other winning tactics which have been described here. Enemy officers might continue using the self-destructive tactics employed by the colonel in the movie in the same way the British lost 4,500,000 men in the first world war. However, at some point some competent officer would be likely to make an obvious correction with exponentially escalating American losses.
There is an important basic military principle which is absolute but is never to be uttered or scarcely even to be thought as it violates allegiance to the civilian and other command structure, for it ultimately provides for mutiny. Mutiny, once becoming justified as allowable under any circumstances, can rapidly become casually and unpredictably justified under any circumstances, resulting in a military that is unreliable or even dangerous.
On the other hand, the unfortunate reality is that the array of characteristics useful or necessary to campaign for president and affect crowds is a peculiar superficiality which bears little or no relationship with whether or not a person can actually BE president. This is true not only of American presidents, but of leaders in any nation throughout the earth.
Never ever trust a president until he has proven himself. Never trust a general and never trust a secretary of defense or their equivalents. Secretaries of defense are appointed by presidents who may be ignorant demagogues or crowd pleasing dilettantes. Generals and other officers may ascend untested by anything but officer's club politics.
The American civil war illustrates the problem. Lincoln was a competent man, although this will be debated by some who argue about states rights and constitutionality in what they call the war of northern aggression. At the beginning of the civil war Robert E. Lee's major force was trapped in Richmond. His opposite, Union General George McClellan was a man of courtly and impressive manner and speech except on post where he acted like a pompous strutting Napoleon. He had a good academic record. He was an excellent engineer. West point educated officers as engineers in those days. He was a magnificent military politician, and so achieved rank. Eventually he ran for the presidency on the same basis through which he made general. But he had no military concepts.
Lee was outnumbered and poorly positioned. Lee could have, should have, been defeated at that early point in the war. The civil war would have ended then and there. But McClellan would not engage his troops, even upon Lincoln's repeated urging. McClellan provided fancy but contentless arguments as to why he couldn't. The truth was, he was incompetent as a general. He was competent as a talker and self-promoter, but he was incapable as a general. Thus, the war went on for years at a cost of tens of thousands of lives.
After his failures McClellan continued talking. He issued stern caustic declarations blaming the War Department, Lincoln, and war department secretary Stanton, for the problems.
Union General Ambrose Burnside was an honest decent man and a tragic figure in military history. He was very well liked by everyone. He was a West Point graduate who had left the regular army to invent and attempt to sell a breechloading rifle. He ended up in a state militia from Rhode Island, as an untested colonel and then brigadier. Lincoln was desperate for generals and tried to appoint Burnside in command over an army. To his credit Burnside declined the command many times saying he was unqualified. Lincoln, desperate for commanders, finally forced the command upon him in spite of Burnside's equally desperate pleas for Lincoln not to do it. Burnside made a mistake similar to that of the North Vietnamese colonel but worse as his mistake affected more people. At Fredericksburg Burnside expended large waves of men attacking a large superiorly-positioned force of confederate artillery and crack marksmen. In so doing, Burnside lost nearly an entire army.
It took Lincoln time and trial and error to find Grant and Sherman. The nation suffered until then.
The first and most important task in winning any war is not one that will be found in any military training manuals or most history texts. It consists of weeding out the marginal and politically ascendant leadership so that the Pattons, MacArthurs, Guderians, Schwarzkopfs, and Rommels are in command. Germany lost WWII because among other things, Hitler was half genius and half madman, being one or the other on alternate days or alternate moments. The topmost members of his controlling general staff had ascended by catering to his condition. Some of the best German military minds were fired to insulate that condition.
Like McClellan, Jack Kennedy was an attractive looking man who could glibly talk the birds out of the trees. Like McClellan, those were sufficient qualifications to obtain the position in the TV sitcom which became and continues to be American politics, but not the qualifications to perform in the position. To this day many people with emotional mentalities susceptible to superficial charm confuse the first set of qualifications as being irrefutable evidence of the second and refuse to believe Kennedy, while a glamorous presence in the new televised media, was completely unqualified to be president.
Kennedy inspired as much blind adulation, and as much hatred, as any president in history. On one side, pseudointellectual fops sitting in armchairs were ecstatic over Kennedy's quips, staccato speech patterns, and repartee. The ignorant and stupidly emotional were also captivated. On the other side, there were those who looked at Kennedy as a superficial psychopathically glib opportunist. There were those who looked at things more deeply and analytically. And there were those, such as soldiers in the field, who were directly affected by Kennedy's deficiencies.
Kennedy was basically a photogenic playboy airhead dependent upon advisors. He hadn't the capacity to choose or judge his advisors, who were mostly chosen on the basis of superficiality and hollow impressiveness and credentials. The Kennedy administration was a self-infatuated boys club with a group of self-impressed little kids given the entire government as a playground. The median age of mental maturity in the Kennedy administration was about 16, beginning at the top with a president who went through up to five women a day, sometimes two or more at a time. It was like a hoard of five year olds turned loose in Toys 'R' Us with the nation being the toys.
Toys 'R' Us McNamara
Toys 'R' Us kid Robert McNamara got the United States military as his toy to play with and show his brilliant behind with. He had no real military experience. He was volunteered out of Harvard to teach simple statistical methods to civilian and military personnel during World War Two. Upon reading his book I am nagged by the conclusion that Dean Dornan of Harvard had tolerated as much as he could of Robert McNamara and wanted to get him the hell out of there. He found a clever way to do it that appealed to McNamara's ego. McNamara might well have remained a civilian in his task. He connived, and/or it was connived for him, to receive an army officer's commission at advanced rank to sooth his ego and puff up his resume.
McNamara shamelessly tries to fabricate an aura of heroism and danger in his military service by talking about how a plane similar to the one he was ferried around in comfort crashed in Spain or someplace. The chances of that happening to McNamara were approximately one over two to the 12th power. He was basically riding around on the equivalent of a civilian airliner.
McNamara's book, In Retrospect, while filled with carefully arranged braggadocio, is filled with holes that glare out to the astute and experienced mind. There is name-dropping and lists of positions, pretension and social climbing, but little specific substance.
McNamara was an unqualified blowhard who was able to bully and terrorize the military. He was egged on in this by a foppish public that delighted in seeing what they thought were pompous egotistical generals taken down a few notches and humiliated. It was celebrated how McNamara would ask generals a question. Upon getting an answer he would ask them how they knew. They would answer that it was on the basis of their experience. McNamara would dismiss their answer and demand statistical explanations or some other nonsense to the cheers of the crowd.
However, the word experience is a shorthand for a lifetime of specific diffuse learning which can't be conveyed to ridiculing challenges from the village jackass in minutes, days, months, or even years, particularly if that jackass has an investment in things other than learning. After having looked at Norman Schwarzkopf's autobiography and seeing him crawling through minefields and personally carrying wounded men off a battlefield, I can only barely imagine what goes through his mind in seconds when appraising a military situation.
Many people, most people, are very naive and susceptible to posturing, costume, and theatrics. McNamara was a very theatrical figure in constant costume. A writer during the early McNamara period, whose name I have forgotten, said one look at McNamara with his stern looks, his rimless glasses, his hair style, and you kept your distance. McNamara had an actor's ability to imitate stern intelligence or act intelligent without being intelligent in depth. His role, including in the Viet Nam war, became one of egoistic showboating of a stern superintelligent facade. His voracious ego was willing to believe his act. If there was any one thing I gathered from his book, it was that it was an argument as to how supposedly brilliant and centrally important he was.
When conning easily tricked novices and the naive it's easy to re-center the dialogue into an arcane area of focus to dominate and/or intimidate them. It's a little like the amateur chess player who could never come close to beating a Morphy, Fischer, or Spassky, but who invents a novel three dimensional game in which only he is familiar with the exact rules and combinations to sucker in potential befuddled opponents. He proclaims it to be the only game worthy of demonstrating superior intellect.
People can be overwhelmed with unfamiliar babble and pressure, to keep up with it can mislead them into believing they are dealing with someone far over their head. McNamara knew it and practiced it. With Kennedy and Johnson it wouldn't take much to put them in over their heads. Johnson made his way in the world by combining the aggressiveness of a pit bull with a Huey long type populism. Beyond that, he was thoughtless. Kennedy was a C student taking guts courses who received graduation honors due to his father manipulating in the background and teams of people helping him. Rattling off numbers to verbose goofs who could barely count was enough to make McNamara king of the hill.
McNamara was a student of what was then an arcane area, statistics, which allowed him to cow those who were unacquainted with the field and who were unable to question the relevance of his numbers. It was never questioned. Part of his pattern contained a peculiar element of destructiveness which, when adopted by other people, demonstrated his power and superiority over them as well as validated his self-delusions about his self. Those around him, including presidents, catered to his condition. Having lived through the period I can remember when generals were doing push-ups in Pentagon hallways as much as anything else as acts of frightened submission. One way or another, McNamara, like Hitler, had the propensity for convincing people around him to act like smitten fools.
Like Hitler, McNamara had great capacity to persuade and influence people, combined with an attempt to overbelieve in his own capacities. The word "attempt" is used here because there is serious question in my mind as to whether McNamara, beneath his facade, was on an eternal quest to compensate for and deny his own doubts and deficiencies. McNamara was obsessed by determination to convince the world of his superior controlling intelligence in a continual theater of the absurd. Personally, I have yet to be convinced.
McNamara was a complicated man in the sense of having complicated and perhaps unresolved emotions and motivations. However, he didn't seem to have complicated depth and diversity of knowledge. In the latter he seems simplistic and undeveloped. Unresolved emotions and motivations create personal agendas and distort perception of reality.
To quote a line from an old Jimmy Stewart movie, little men with their slide rules will inherit the earth. My primary impression of McNamara was that whatever else he was, beneath the surface he was a fraudulent, controlling, manipulative, immature, subversive, evil small petty man albeit a somewhat clever and studied one. He would be perceived as such by anyone of stature. Men of stature don't beat their own drum as loudly and long as Robert McNamara. McNamara was at best a joke, but not a funny one to those attempting to survive under his command. But my primary impression of McNamara was that he was also peculiarly malicious.
Healthy intelligent people don't do what McNamara did. Warped, subversive, stupid, or vindictive people do. Take your choice of various weighted combinations of the above.
Upon his repeated failures in Viet Nam, some or many of which I suspect were intentional on some level within the labyrinth of McNamara's twisted mind games, McNamara was faced with two alternatives. He could admit he was too inexperienced and incompetent for the job. (Like Burnside, he should have declined the position and responsibility in the first place if he were honest about the welfare of the nation. However, McNamara was not as honest, humble, or big a man as Burnside. McNamara's ego wanted the position.) Admitting deliberate calculated subversion or maliciousness was out of the question. Or . . . like McClellan, he could externalize the problem of his creation away from possibility of exposing his own disastrous deficiencies or intentions. This presented complex difficulties for him. Unlike McClellan he could not issue stern caustic denunciations of the Department of Defense, two presidents, and the secretary of Defense. The presidents in question had touted him as a genius and had been his enabler. And, after all, he WAS the Secretary of Defense.
There was only one path to avoid realistic self-appraisal and accountability. Eventually McNamara would pronounce the war as having been unwinable. It's not that the war was being run by pretentious self-impressed goofs and amateurs, including McNamara. The real problem was that with McNamara and the other Toys 'R' Us kids in charge, we would have been beaten by a troop of girl scouts.
The question is whether it was McNamara's underlying purpose to make the war appear unwinnable from the start. McNamara's creation of a prolonged crisis out of the Viet Nam war also made himself centrally important and the power behind the throne.
McNamara would have enthusiastic support from the radical left in this declaration and they would embellish all the supposed reasons, for it made their case.
McNamara fed the radical left exactly what it wanted and needed. So it turns out we supposedly lost the war because we were unable to fight an idea a romantic interpretation and an idea which leftist supporters and embellishers had already adopted and had been attempting to sell. This interpretation continues unchallenged in the media and in academia to this day.
Lyndon Johnson was basically a Huey Long type primitive who made the presidency a hog-calling contest. He was as dependent as Kennedy was upon advisors. He kept McNamara as Secretary of Defense.
"We Cannot Be Defeated"
The movie replayed the Lyndon Johnson speech before the American people in which he proclaimed the policy of showing the enemy, "We can not be defeated by force of arms in Viet Nam." The showing "We can not be defeated" theme became the thrust of military tactics. It is uncertain how much of that declared goal was McNamara's programming of the witless Lyndon Johnson, or how much of it was Johnson, or how much it was both of them.
Can not be defeated covers a lot of ugly territory including passivity and too-passive reactive resistance which will eventually produce failure. That which is being reacted to in reactive resistance can be destructive beyond survival. But "We can not be defeated," argued with a determined tone, became the order of the day. The firmness of tone in which the strategy was enunciated served to obscure its underlying excruciatingly destructive weakness.
The British lost 4,500,000 men in self-destructive tactics which were a declaration that they would not be defeated. However the terrible cost they paid would eventually send much of a generation to graves. It took the American army to rescue them. In one sense, the policy during the McNamara period was much like the policy of the British army. The stupid argument is that simple steadfastness will convince the enemy he can not win. But, on the contrary, the reality is steadfast stupidity and incompetence convinces the enemy he can, and will, win. Steadfastness stresses the patience of a rational military and rational civilian population more than it does the enemy. There is only a limited amount of deaths that can be tolerated in a military campaign which supposedly attempts to wear down the enemy through providing him with an endless supply of targets.
Demonstration of ability to take punishment in battle is no substitute for not taking casualties and winning.
Steadfastness can approach a type of masochism and a warped masochistic blindness. I notice in reading accounts of old British battles by British authors that the losses endured by their military units are listed with a certain pride and indication of the tenaciousness of the enemy. Indeed, I get the impression that those losses are almost welcomed as a badge of heroism and determination in the survivors. In that sense, absorbing a beating takes on a type of satisfying masochistic satisfaction. But good armies don't fight for heroism and steadfastness. Good armies fight smart. Fighting smart doesn't result in the number of casualties I read about. On occasion I have met American commanding officers who boast of the tradition of their unit's having taken objectives while losing a high percentage of their men. Good commanding officers don't lose those percentages of men. The unit has cultivated a twisted tradition of being fools and being awarded medals and citations for doing so. Suicidal determination becomes a poor compensation for poor training, poor tactics, and poor commanding officers.
Football coaches are not in the habit of telling their players their purpose is only to show the other team that we can not be defeated. Fulfillment of that goal would not require their team move the ball beyond its own 20 yard line. Little threat would be implied to the other team. Eventually, if the game went on long enough, through a fumble, through fatigue, the other team would get the ball over the goal line and score a victory. One of our fumbles was to drop 60 men at a time out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by enemy. Public fatigue and fatigue in the military lost the Viet Nam war by 1968.
I find it difficult to believe that there wasn't a McNamara plan of defeat for America in a type of twisted vindictive egoistic proof of his capacity for superior brilliant dominance. In reading McNamara's writing I get the impression he is laughing at us.
Incompetence at the Top
The first priority in war is to cull out incompetence and/or subversion at the very top. Then, incompetent generals need to be replaced and so on down the line. Incompetent or lazy civilian elements must also be culled out. This was not done in any reasonable period of time, for a variety of reasons, one of which was too much of the public allowed itself to become sidetracked in the new virtual reality of glamorous superficiality. By the time the very top was replaced, meaning presidents and secretaries of defense, the military was demoralized, treading water, or losing became a way of life; the home front was worn down and demoralized; supporters of the enemy were self-confidently dominant. There was no salvaging of the situation even though the war could easily have been won.
Let's make it clear that the diffused employment tactics of the North were not unbeatable. Some countertactics were discussed here earlier. Hanoi should have been hit for reasons explained earlier in this series. If there were to be a ground war in the South a different system of tactics and specially trained units was required to beat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
In the elephant valley of Viet Nam, Marine snipers Carlos Hathcock and John Burke wiped out much of an entire NVA company, one by one, over a period of 5 days. On the fifth day they called in artillery to destroy what was left. Hathcock and Burke were hunters, trackers, stalkers, and shooters.
Airborne solders are good people and good at jumping out of airplanes. They can confront classically formed concentrated enemy groups. But they are not hunters, trackers, stalkers, and shooters in the style and capacity of a Hathcock. Special forces are special in doing whatever they do. There aren't enough of them.
What needed to be done was train entire regiments and even divisions as hunters, trackers, stalkers, and shooters. They would have needed to been given specially designed weapons and radio access so as to call for artillery if the enemy coaleased into large units to defend themselves. The artillery would need to be stationed in a matrix of dispersed overlapping small relatively permanent fortifications. Driving tactics would need to be employed by such units which will not be described here. This isn't the place for a book on specialized tactics.
Such people can not be trained in several weeks of basic training or boot camp. A certain disposition and background help. They'd have needed to be long term professional military.
As an aside, many years ago there was an army rifle training system called trainfire where troops in training would shoot at man-shaped targets at various distances. The target would sense when it was hit. I had bad eyes and only partially corrective glasses. One morning, in disobeyance of training protocol, using an M1 Garand with straight iron sights, I hit 46 out of 48 man-targets at 300 yards directly in front and off to the side. It required from two to two and one half seconds per shot. At 350 yards it became difficult with glasses .5 or more diopters below full correction for vision. If I could get a glint of some kind from it, it would often get hit. Nothing survived at 300 yards. Given even a crummy ordinary four power scope, anything within 600 yards gets hit.
I read accounts of actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I am appalled. I can't imagine what these kids or the military think they are doing over there. Basically, they are helpless.
In one instance about three Taliban were in the open throwing rocks at our troops in mockery and defiance. Mortars and air strikes were called in.
Had I been there with a decent rifle instead of one of our plastic pea-shooters, when one of these clowns bent over to pick up another rock he's get a new butthole entering in the approximate region near where nature originally installed one, then exiting out the top of his head. By the time his buddy who had been egging him on in this enterprise turned his head to find out the reason his pal grunted, a second bullet would already be halfway on the path toward his cruller.
From everything I read, today's army is ineffective with rifles. Individual enemy or entire groups who should be taken out in minutes are getting away or are holding up our units while their buddies get away. If attackers are near a civilian population where air strikes can not be called in, they are safe as nobody knows how to shoot back at them with rifles. American tactics are also lousy. We are now fighting returning infiltrators in Afghanistan who should never have survived the initial coalition thrust into the country. In one battle alone a small detachment of Taliban with small arms held off an American army while 6,000 of them escaped out the back door.
To return to the main point, if the national leadership or/and the chain of command are incompetent, the battlefield soldier can find himself fighting for survival against two groups of enemies, the one against which war has been officially declared, and a second within his own army and country. In order to save his life, he must fight one enemy and mutiny against the other. This is essentially the situation which existed in 1965 in Viet Nam.
But a dedicated officer such as Moore would find the idea of mutiny unthinkable. The end theme and conclusion of the movie where it was said the men fought for each other is the closest that could be said to thinking and stating the unthinkable. It implied a justifiable loss of faith and respect for the chain of command and the American political leadership. The American men were alone betrayed and abandoned. They fought to survive incompetence and betrayal.
The lack of emotional and other healing for many Nam vets, and for the nation in general, has been the result of being asked to believe unbelievable lies devised by the architects of the failure and betrayal as the mode of therapy. That is precisely the opposite direction to go for healthy healing, not pathological denial, to occur. Healing will require ending that lie.
This just about sums it all up, doesn't it. Today, it's even worse -- the prospects of losing 500 American lives to obliterate an army of 1 million in their own area of the world doesn't sound like a very good trade-off.
...All a function of course, of whether we will succeed in securing liberty in the Middle East, in which if we fail, our own society will implode and the world will descend into chaos.
A relatively few cannon loaded with grape would cut such groups down like wheat. Therefore, Napoleon conquered all in his path until his armies froze to death in the harsh Russian winter a mistake repeated by Hitler some years later.
Guy7 has no idea what he's talking about- napoleon did not owe his success to the use of grapeshot, and he lost the bul of his men in the russian invasion during the SUMMER, not the winter.
Napoleon's, and other artillery of the period, suffered from some difficulties. They suffered from lack of mobility and slow rates of fire.
uhh...yeah, realatively speaking...but you're compeltely missing the point that Napoleon took steps to increase the mobility of his guns, so they could be moved about the battlefield, and brought to bear at critical points.
Again, the guy doesn't have a clue.
Goodness, a genius level military historian, and a super-sniper as well!! What a neato guy, to be able to hit targets with a "decent rifle" at over 1500 meters away!
Who is this dildo, and why should we listen to any of his babblings?
After losing the final and most famous battle at El Alamein, Egypt, General Field Marshall Erwin Rommel disobeyed Hitler's orders and began his five-month retreat. The grueling twelve-day battle had been a tragicomedy of errors for the Axis powers. In fact, when the battle began, Rommel was at a mountain resort in Austria, recovering from liver and blood-pressure problems. He arrived two days late, only to find his panzer army out-manned almost two-to-one by British General Bernard L. Montgomery's crew of 195,000 soldiers. Rommel also realized that food was running short and only seven issues of gasoline remained to supply his hundreds of vehicles. Weakened by constant British air attacks and a dearth of supplies, Rommel radioed Hitler of his intention to retreat on November 3. Hitler denied him with this rather unrealistic response: "It would not be the first time in history that the stronger will has triumphed over the enemy's strong battalions. You can show your troops no other road than to victory or death." Rommel was stunned. While the British army continued pummeling his troops, he fumed. He finally ordered a retreat in mid-afternoon of the next day, without Hitler's approval. But the damage of delaying retreat had been costly. Rommel later admitted that his obedience to Hitler's "victory or death" order was his one mistake of the battle.
MacNamara and Johnson were evil without any mitigation. America's greatests enemies of their generation. That Johnson was elected to office proves the bankruptcy of American "democracy".
There are some who learn from their experiences, defeats, and disappointments, even when it turns out what they know is true just ain't so. Not Johnson and MacNamara!! We call this ability Johnson and MacNamara lack "intelligence". Patton and MacArthur had it, but Eisenhower was comparatively a dunderhead. As MacArthur described him, "the best clerk I ever had."
I could go on and lecture boringly on human nature, and loose my audience completely, because I rarely learn from my foolishness very well, and continue to act as if I knew what I was doing when I on some level know I don't!! Human nature, amazing indeed!!!
The Brits were worried sick that the Germans would tumble to their Enigma traffic being compramised. Tons of "maskirovka" and deception operations. A good fictional treatment of those days is in Stevenson's _Cryptonomicon_. Great book, IMHO.
Hmmm. The Japanese? I Could've sworn it was the Russian T-34 which was based on Cristie's design.
I agree. But at the top of my list of McNamara complaints is his restrictions on the air war over N. Vietnam, keeping most of the important targets off limits. Also right up there is allowing supplies to flow down the Ho Chi Minh trail, attempting only an ineffective air interdiction. His main battlefield tactic was attrition, deliberately taking and relinquishing the same piece of real estate several times over, in the insane belief that he could win a war of attrition against an Asiatic country on the mainland of Asia. McNamara was told initially by the Chiefs it would take about 600,000 troops to win a ground war, but he and Maxwell Taylor browbeat the Chiefs into changing that so he could lie to the American people about what they were getting into, getting into a war for which he had no true mandate. I gotta stop, McNamara is definitely a hot button for me.
We need every good man we've got. Welcome home.
Like the Bourbons, they forgot nothing and learned nothing.
Ahem. I meant to say "Who is this person that is mistaken, but is probably a nice fellow..."
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for posting this and if you have personal contact with RLK please extend my sincere gratitude to him.
"... it was said the men fought for each other(hits the nail on the head) is the closest that could be said to thinking and stating the unthinkable. It implied a justifiable loss of faith and respect for the chain of command and the American political leadership. The American men were alone betrayed and abandoned. They fought to survive incompetence and betrayal."
"The lack of emotional and other healing for many Nam vets, and for the nation in general, has been the result of being asked to believe unbelievable lies devised by the architects of the failure and betrayal as the mode of therapy. That is precisely the opposite direction to go for healthy healing, not pathological denial, to occur. Healing will require ending that lie."
Says it all.
Thank you again.