Sunday, February 4, 2007

Review of "The War Managers" (1977) by Douglas Kinnard

Brigadier Gen. Douglas Kinnard in September 1974 mailed a survey to all 173 Army generals who had served in Vietnam during the war there, as Kinnard himself had. He got a high 64% response rate from them. He published the results along with considerable commentary of his own in 1977 in The War Managers.

The book now provides us a fascinating glimpse back in time to the period between the Paris Peace Treaty of 1973 and the final collapse of the South Vietnamese government (GVN) and its army (ARVN) in April 1975. The Ford administration at the time continued to portray the Vietnamization program carried out under Nixon as a success while insisting on substantial American funding to assist the GVN.

Some of the results may look surprising in light of the conservative narrative of the Vietnam War that has long since taken hold among Republicans in particular, with more than a little influence on the general public's understanding of that war. That narrative holds that our infallible generals won the war but were undercut by the Liberal Press and cowardly civilians. Or, in the Dick Cheney Stomach Theory of warfare, the civilians didn't have the "stomach" to continue the killing and dying.

But 65% 64% of the generals responding in 1974 agreed with the survey choice, "Termination of the United States Army role was handled about right." This must be taken as largely an endorsement of Nixon's Vietnamization policy. It's not actually incompatible with the stab-in-the-back mythology. But it also doesn't indicate a deadender mood among them.

That conclusion is reinforced by the response of 58% that Vietnamization was "soundly conceived", with an additional 33% expressing approval slightly less unequivocally.

More surprising are the responses on whether the war was worth it in light of the results - and their responses on the war termination questions showed that they tended to share the official Nixon and Ford administration position at the time that the results were a success. Thirty-nine percent thought thatthe results were worth it, though most of them thought that the effort should have been greater. But 53% of these generals who served in Vietnam said either that the US war effort should never have gone beyond advisers (25%), i.e., that the 1965 Americanization was a mistake, or the the results were flat-out not worth it (28%).

Presumably none of the 54% of the responding generals thought they were being hostile to the soldiers who served under them. Or that they were failing to honor the dead in reaching those judgments.

Also interesting in this regard is that while 43% thought the war's pre-1969 (pre-Vietnamization) goals could be achieved, another 51% expressed some version of saying that the goals were not achievable. Since prior to 1965, the top military advisers to President Johnson took a can-do attitude that pushed for the kind of Americanization of the war that Johnson adopted in 1965, this is on the face of it fairly remarkable result of the survey. But given some of the other responses on how the war was fault, there's perhaps less than meets the eye in this one. Because that can also be a way of saying, "We generals didn't do anything wrong. It was those civilians who gave us an impossible task." The fact that there's a lot of truth in the argument makes it even more useful as an excuse for the very real shortcomings of the military in that war.

And the generals' responses reflecting on their own performance and the success of their approach to the war show a minimum of critical self-reflection on, given the fact that they that suffered a real defeat, despite the happy-face that Vietnamization put on it. Their opinion of the CORDS counterinsurgency program don't indicate a lot of critical analysis, for instance. And, not surprisingly, they didn't show a great deal of modesty in rating their own professionalism.

Nor is their low opinion of the infamous "body count" measurements surprising, although it's notable that fully 61% recognized that the body count was "often inflated". Other responses, unfortunately, don't indicate a lot of awareness of how such exaggerated claims of success undermined the credibility of military leaders with Congress, civilian officials and the American public.

On the other hand, it's striking that 56% agreed that "the will and determination of the enemy" was "not sufficiently considered." In the Stomach Theory of war, only the "stomach" of the American public was a problem.

The generals seemed to think that their tactics and forces were about right, although 51% expressed reservations about how "search and destroy" tactics were executed and 42% about the "large scale operations" like Attleboro and Cedar Falls.

From today's particular perspective, two blocks of questions are especially interesting: on Vietnamization and on the performance of the news media.


Vietnamization involved training the ARVN to take primary responsibility for fighting the North Vietnamese and NLF (Vietcong) forces. (The recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group in late 2006 were to a large extent a recommendation for an Iraqi version of Vietnamization.)

The generals were responding to the survey in late 1974, roughly half a year before the final collapse of the GVN. At that point, 8% of the officers said that the ARVN "is a very acceptable fighting force". Another 57% called it "adequate" and gave it better than a 50-50 chance to hold out against the enemy. A quarter of the officers were "doubtful" about the ARVN's ability to hold off a "firm push" by the enemy.

Especially given the idolization of the military that became the norm in the United States in the three decades following the Vietnam War, these results are of special interest. Because the actual performance of the ARVN was giving at best mixed signals in terms of their adequacy as a fighting force. The 1973 peace agreement established an NLF- and North Vietnamese-controlled Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in the South, whose area of control was defined over against that of the GVN. Both were to maintain their own position until free elections could be arranged for all of the South.

The GVN under President Nguyen Van Thieu had retaken certain areas from the PRG, about 15% of the PRG's area under the peace accords. It was in May of 1974 - several months before Kinnard's survey of the generals - that the PLAF (People's Liberation Armed Forces, i.e., the PRG forces, essentially the North Vietnamese army) began retaking those areas seized by the Thieu government. At the time of the survey, the PLAF's offensive operations had successfully pushed the ARVN back from all the area's it had taken in 1973-early 1974.

Gareth Porter described the increasinly sad state of the ARVN in 1974 in A Peace Denied:The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (1975):

Despite its massive size and modern armaments, the Saigon army's morale had long since declined to a point where disintegration was an ever-present danger. ARVN was not held together by any commonly held aspirations or cause, nor by any personal bonds of respect and affection between officers and men. It had been able to survive until the Paris Agreement under the umbrella of American power, on which ARVN troops had come to depend. The absence of US air support after the agreement and the growing military potential of the PLAF had created profound doubts that the ARVN could resist a determined offensive effort by the Communists ...

Finally, due to soaring inflation, ARVN troops had been reduced more and more to robbery and pillage for their daily economic survival. By mid-1974, 92 percent of the soldiers surveyed by the US Defense Attache's Office said their pay and allowances were not adequate to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families. The DAO concluded that the economic crisis had caused a "deterioration of performance, which cannot be permitted to continue, if [the ARVN is] to be considered a viable military force."

Accommodation and outright desertion or defection to the PLAF were rampant in 1974. One ARVN outpost, originally carrying 129 men on its rolls, lost all but twenty-three of them in desertions and defections before it was finally abandoned. When ARVN tried in 1974 to assign local militiamen to the regional forces, which were expected to fight farther away from home within the same province, the result was mass desertion. In one newly formed battalion of six hundred men drawn from the local forces, only three soldiers were left after a few weeks away from their home villages. (my emphasis)
Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History (1983) also describes the conduct of the ARVN toward the population in the GVN areas, conduct which is generally not optimal for military-civilian relations:

South Vietnam's crumbling economy eroded army morale, which had been surprisingly high until then. A survey conducted during the summer of 1974 by the U.S. mission in Saigon found that more than 90 percent of the soldiers were not receiving enough in wages and allowances to sustain their families. Inflation was onlyone cause, however. Corruption was now exceeding all bounds as commanders robbed payrolls and embezzled other funds. Quartermaster units often insisted on bribes in exchange for delivering rice and other supplies to troops, and even demanded cash to furnish the fighting men with ammunition, gasoline, and spare parts. Officers frequently raised the money by squeezing local villagers, whose support they alienated in the process, and many traded with the Communists privately. The American report cautioned that the "deterioration" had to be halted "if the South Vietnamese military is to be considered a viable force." Ambassador Martin dismissed the warning with a tired cliche: "a little corruption oils the machinery." There was nothing he could do, in any case. Thieu's wife and cronies and their wives, indifferent to the danger, were reaping fortunes in real estate and other deals, and they set the code of misconduct for the entire officialdom. Or as an old Vietnamese adage put it: "A house leaks from the roof." (my emphasis)
And it was at this point in time that the generals were giving such a favorable picture of the state of the ARVN! What does it say about their judgment that only a quarter of them were "doubtful" about the ARVN's ability?

Kinnard doesn't address that question directly. But he does write that once the end came for the ARVN in April 1975, "if it had not previously been evident enough" - which it clearly was not for most of his respondents! - "the final rout exposed Vietnamization for the fraud and deception it was."

Kinnard's survey indicates that that many of the generals who served in Vietnam were themselves defrauded and deceived by the Vietnamization program. This is a remarkable fact, and an indication of the mindset in which the top military leaders were developing their own practical "lessons of Vietnam". It's understandable, if not exactly desirable in the abstract, that politicians would want to portray Vietnamizations as some kind of victory strategy. But in reality it was a way of managing the consequences of defeat for the US, however unpleasant that may sound to nationalistic pride. Yet the generals who presumably were most knowledgeable about the situation in Vietnam were expressing such a Pollyanna attitude this late in the war in anonymous survey responses!. It's amazing, really.

The role of the media

The survey results on the two survey questions relating to the performance of the American news media in the Vietnam War were sadly unsurprising. Regarding newspaper coverage, 51% of the respondents rated it, "Uneven. Some good but many irresponsible." Another 38% chose, "On the whole tended to be irresponsible and disruptive to United States efforts in Vietnam."

The judgment on television coverage was very similar: 52% chose, "Not a good thing since there was a tendency to go for the sensational, which was counterproductive to the war effort." And 39% selected, "Probably not a good think in balance because such coverage tends to be out of context."

Clearly, coming out of the war, these generals had a strongly unfavorable opinion of media coverage of the war.

The actual record of media coverage during the Vietnam War doesn't come close to justifying this negative assessment. This is the strongest indication among the responses in this survey of a tendency to scaepgoat someone for the failures in the Vietnam War. This has long since been integrated as a key part of the rightwing narrative about the Liberal Press, a narrative whose delusional character has not prevented it from becoming widely influential.

Kinnard's commentary on the result to the media questions helps establish some context:

There was a great deal of commentary on these questions. It can be grouped into clusters. Several of the respondents felt that the reporters had made up their minds in advance that going into Vietnam was a mistake and were out to prove their point. Many generals attributed a lack of support of the war by the American people to the media. One senior general said that the media conducted "a psychological warfare campaign against the United States policies in Vietnam that could not have been better done by the enemy." (my emphasis)
Maybe it's obvious, but that statement is accusing American reporters and news organizations of treason. However popular this attitude is among today's authoritarian Republicans, its disturbing that there's even one general who would make such a dishonest comment representing such a radical, anti-democratic outlook.

A large number of respondents commented on the media's representation of the war, some saying that the reporters simply did not understand the war, and in othercases that reporting was distorted for effect. In some instances editors at home were blamed for distorting stories or writing misleading headlines. A former Chief of Staff studied combat photography closely and was convinced that much of it was staged. One Division Commander tells of seeing a telegram from one of the major TV networks to a field reporter in his area which read, "Get footage of American soldiers misbehaving." [Kinnard does not cite an independent source for this anecdotal claim.]

Not all of the generals were critical of the media. A minority saw shortcomings in the military's handling of reporting the progress in the war. One respondent put it this way: "We placed too much emphasis on the positive, and were over-sensitive to criticism, while engaging in false reporting to cover up setbacks. This, in time, led to our losing credibility." (my emphasis)
Kinnard also makes a couple of valuable observations, especially in light of the stab-in-the-back mythology's treatment of press coverage of the Vietnam War. One is about the general nature of public support for wars:

Generals Howze and Walt are not the only high-level officials, military and civilian, who have taken the media to task for their handling of the Second Indochinese War. In examining the role of the media in the war, it is well to keep in mind that the American home front has seldom been highly enthusiastic about wars, except at the very beginning. Thereafter — and this is true of all American wars except World Wars I and II — opposition has developed in Congress, the press, and the pulpit. In part, this can be attributed to the media of the day, in part to economic problems, and in part to a perceived lack of progress over time, along with continuing draft calls and mounting casualties.
I'm coming to thing more and more that the best thing about democracy in the end may be the fact that most ordinary people do harbor deep reservations about war. Generals, bloviating politicians and Big Pundits may see wars in war-glorifying images. But most people do not. And in a democracy the politicians must ultimately answer to those voters, not to war-loving TV talking heads or warmongering academics at rightwing think-tanks.

And he reminds us how the generals' military perspective tends to make them inherently suspicious of media coverage:

One would expect the military managers of the war to have a negative attitude toward media coverage of events in or concerning that tragedy. Aside from problems of waging the war itself, there are more fundamental reasons. The traditional authoritarian nature of military services requires a tight control of all events, including news distribution. The professional expertise of officers concerning military operations permits them to be more critical of news coverage of such matters than civilians. Also, their deep involvement in military matters causes them to evaluate the treatment by media of matters concerning the military. (my emphasis)
This factor is even more important today, when the Internet makes it much more likely that disinformation placed in foreign news sources are much more likely to be injected into the information stream Americans receive.

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