Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Management decision-making in an incident from the Vietnam War

This article about an incident in the Vietnam War is a good application of the management concept of "groupthink":  Groupthink, Politics, and the Decision to Attempt the Son Tay Rescue by Mark Amidon Parameters (US Army War College) Autumn 2005.

The Son Tay raid was conducted in November 1970.  It was an attempt to free American POWs that intelligence had shown were there.  But when the rescue party got there, the POWs were all gone.

Amidon looks at the way groupthink among the decision-makers led them to minimize the risks and to overlook or under-value information that wasn't what they wanted to hear.

He defines groupthink this way:

Author Irving Janis first described groupthink in 1971 as part of his ground-breaking study of the Kennedy Administration’s conduct of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Groupthink happens when individuals allow a desire for solidarity and unanimity within a group to override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.35 Groupthink has been repeatedly cited as a contributor to calamity, most recently in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters.

In the face of a confused and deteriorating intelligence picture, Secretary of Defense Laird recommended a mission “go” to the White House. This recommendation came despite the fact that “the US military had not conducted a successful POW rescue since the Civil War. The experience in Southeast Asia had been particularly bleak. Between 1966 and 1970, US forces had mounted forty-five raids in Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam to rescue American POWs and had freed one. He died shortly after [rescue] of injuries his captors inflicted moments before he was rescued.”

The Son Tay raiders executed their mission perfectly, yet disaster lurked close at hand. Had the lucky mistake of assaulting the Secondary School not intervened, the raiders would likely have met considerably more effective enemy resistance and less tactical success. [What Janis described as] groupthink played a classic role in Pentagon decisionmaking[.]

In addition to being a valuable case study of groupthink, Avidon also mentions something that relates to rightwingers' preferred narrative about the anti-Vietnam War movement:

Just before the launch of the mission, he writes:

The next day, word arrived via peace activist intermediaries that six POWs had died while in captivity in North Vietnam, adding further urgency to the decision process.

He doesn't go into more detail about this aspect of it.  But it reminded me of war fans still ranting about Jane Fonda's trip to North Vietnam years ago.  Her trip did produce an image for Republicans to demonize, apparently from now to eternity.  I'm not sure her particular trip produced any kind of useful information.

But the trips of activists to North Vietnam did provide one more channel of communications between the North Vietnamese and American governments.  Most of them were not going there as spies for the US; I don't know that any were, although it wouldn't surprise me to find out that some actually were spying.

So, while people may differ about whether it was the right thing or a smart thing for Americans to travel to North Vietnam as peace activists, doing so was not inherently anti-American, much less treasonous.

That one sentence caught my eye because it does provide some useful context to attempts to trash the antiwar movement of those days.

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