Tuesday, June 24, 2008

John McCain's September 10th Mindset Fallacy

John McCain has a problem. Well, he's got lots of problems, but the one I'm talking about is generally considered to be his strength in this election. John McCain is strong on the issue of terrorism only if you accept the premise of the Bush administration's approach to terrorism.

If you don't, you have to wonder about McCain's use of language and his political and national security priorities.

The problem with the use of McCain's (and Bush's and Rove's) language in this area is that it betrays their true understanding of the subject. "September 10th mindset" or "pre-September 11th thinking" reflects not only a fundamental flaw in their thinking about the threats that face our country. It also exposes their thinking about the real threat posed by terrorism before we were attacked on our own soil. Before September 11th, terrorism didn't even make their list of critical threats and the question we should be asking is, why is that?

George Bush may have a better excuse -- since he admits to excesses as a "young man" -- but you have to wonder what is John McCain's excuse? McCain had only been retired for two years (and was a first term congress) when Hezbollah sent a suicide bomber to attack the marine barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983:

In the attack on the American barracks, the death toll was 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and 3 Army soldiers. Sixty Americans were injured. In the attack on the French barracks, 58 paratroopers were killed and 15 injured, in the single worst military loss for France since the end of the Algerian war. In addition, the elderly Lebanese custodian of the Marines' building was killed in the first blast. The wife and four children of a Lebanese janitor at the French building were also killed.

This was the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima (2,500 in one day) of World War II and the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States military since the 243 killed on 31st January 1968 — the first day of the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war. The attack remains the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II.

John McCain's reaction to the Beirut Barrack's bombing was basically, "I told you so." He had voted against sending in 1,200 U.S. Marines into Beirut because he "[did] not foresee obtainable objectives in Lebanon." The ramifications of this incident -- and McCain's vote -- are enormous.

I can't share John McCain's cavalier attitude about the Beirut bombings. Among the 241 marines who died was (lt.) Wayne Plymel, with whom I shared a gifted class in high school. His wife, then girlfriend, was best friends with my high school girlfriend. I was sent by the president to represent him at Wayne's funeral and various memorial services. I share the anguish expressed by his daughter, whose poignant message left for all asks:

I just became engaged, and my father wasn't here to bless me. The thing I hate most is that most people don't seem to remember the sacrifice these men, and their families, made. Where is the respect? Never forget, never forgotten.

Strangely, that's exactly what McCain did. Instead of understanding the evolving threat to this country and its interests, McCain viewed the Beirut bombings through the lens of his Vietnam experience -- just as he does the tragedy of 9-11. But there's another tragedy here, and that is that John McCain, George Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the vulcans not only ignored the threat posed by terrorists but then used it to justify their existing plans for iraq et al when they no longer could ignore it.

The evolution of the terrorist threat represented by al-Qaeda that has reached our shores and continues to germinate against us is not much different than the evolution of the internet. It shouldn't have taken an attack on U.S. soil for the president or a U.S. Senator to recognize the increasing threat posed by terrorism. A pattern of violence had already emerged where terrorists sought to take the battle to us. Little more than six months after the Beirut bombings, 18 U.S. military personnel were killed in a bombing in Spain. A disco was bombed in Berlin two years later killing two more soldiers. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. Year after year, our military was being tested, our response was being measured, our defenses were being explored. But John McCain ignored them. They were isolated incidents, unrelated to one another -- or so it was thought -- meaningless to our force structure or our threat matrix.

President Bush's and John McCain's political rhetoric tries to infer that September 11th should be seen as a wake-up call. But the use of rhetoric talking about "pre-September llth thinking" or "September 10th mindsets" should be seen as the attempt to cover up Bush and McCain's active negligence of the issue. Before al-Qaeda plowed airplanes into U.S. structures, our counter-terrorist efforts were wrapped in secrecy and constrained by the current force structure of the united states. We didn't have a terrorism strategy because terror was viewed as a weapon of nation-states from the perspective that only nation-states could represent a true threat. The threat of networked cells with a powerful ideology derived from stagnant cultures indent on preserving their traditions was completely overlooked.

Arguably, for President Bush and John McCain, it still is.

Trying to force fit the threat posed by 21st century networked terrorists into a prism of one's Vietnam experience, as John McCain has, or an Iraq-centric prism, as George Bush and his administration did, does not allow them or us to understand the true nature of the threat, nor to consider the proper response(s) to those threats or to implement a national security policy that will truly keep America safe. Fighting the last war(s) doesn't help. And if our experience in Iraq teaches us anything it should be that not only our force structure but our national security policy must be adaptive in nature yet quick to react. You can't do that if you continue to look at the current threats through the prism of the past ones.

This election *should* allow a debate about our national security policies and how they should be changed to accommodate the evolving threats to our citizens and national interests. But the rhetoric of John McCain, George Bush and Republicans is designed to shut down debate, to prevent the intelligent reconsideration of past and current errors. You can understand why. The policies of George Bush have failed to make us safer, to free us from concerns about al-qaeda and modern networked terrorists. John McCain needs to frame debate over national security policy (current and future) by saying the surge is working. So what?

Do we really need another lazy thinker in the white house? The fact that John McCain needs to view the war on terrorists through the lens of iraq viewed through the prism of his experience in Vietnam should be disconcerting to every american. Even if the surge is working, it doesn't change the threats faced by this country. The surge's success *should* make it safer for iraqis to build their society, but what does it do for us? John McCain wants us to focus on the drop in casualties, as if few casualties of U.S. military personnel equates to a safer United States.

It's clear that John McCain simply does not understand the threats posed by networked terrorists or the alterations in force structure and deployment required to minimize those threats. Harry Reid made that clear, calling recent McCain comments:

a crystal clear indicator that he just doesn’t get the grave national security consequences of staying the course. Osama bin Laden is freely plotting attacks, our efforts in Afghanistan are undermanned, and our military readiness has been dangerously diminished.

John McCain and the Republicans want to run this election on fear. They aren't the least bit interested in a real debate about the threats posed by networked terrorism or questions about how we can make America safe again. It's almost as if John McCain, George Bush and the Republicans have devised national security policies that while they don't make us safer, they do contribute to success for republicans at the ballot box. Insisting that the surge is working doesn't alter the balance in the war on terrorists and talking about "September 10th mindsets" only tells us that John McCain doesn't take the war on networked terrorists very seriously.

We've seen this playbook before. George Bush came to office and deprioritized terror in the threat matrix. The Bush administration didn't share Clinton's obsession with finding and eliminating the terrorist threat. After 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld used the action in Afghanistan to test his theories about technology and military reform. Instead of finishing off al-Qaeda, the Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks to justify its prior plans: attacking Iraq and military reform. It should be no surprise that John McCain advocates a continuation of the Bush line:

McCain advocates high tech solutions to increase military capabilities, such as missile defense and other advanced weapons systems, an increase in the size of the U.S. armed forces, and doctrinal change to confront 21st century warfare. Many of his ideas for reform echo those of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the defense establishment who advocate (as McCain does, on his website), "a new mix of military forces, including civil affairs, special operations, and highly mobile forces…"

The problem with the Bush-McCain approach is that it is aimed at the wrong forces, does little to increase our own security and it is damaging our own military. A survey of more than 3,400 current and former military officers found this about the Bush-McCain approach:

* 60 percent of the officers surveyed say the military is weaker today than five years ago, largely because of Iraq, Afghanistan and the punishing rate of troop deployments.
* More than half say the military is weaker than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
* Some 88 percent say the demands of the Iraq war have stretched the military “dangerously thin.”
* The officers rate their confidence in Mr. Bush — who was hugely popular with the military in the 2000 election — at a mere 5.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.
* More than 80 percent of the officers say it would be “unreasonable” to ask the military to wage another major war today.
* When asked how prepared the United States is to execute a military mission against Iran or North Korea, both of whose nuclear programs are a cause of great concern in Washington, officers put both below 5 on a 1 to 10 scale.
* When asked to judge the readiness of the military services to fight, the Army, which has shouldered the bulk of the Iraq war, rated the worst score — 4.7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

McCain's view of the current conflicts through the prism of his experience in Vietnam, as well as his effort to incite fear, uncertainty and doubt into this election is a step backward, not a step towards addressing the threats posed by networked terrorists. John McCain's accusation that Barack Obama has a "September 10th mindset" stiffles debate and does nothing to build a broad bipartisan consensus on how to defend against the terrorist threat. It's no wonder that McCain's advisors think that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him." It might be smart political strategy, but it's bad politics. We should take national security policy more seriously than does John McCain and his campaign...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama, McCain and "The National Will"

To be blunt, I have absolutely no interest in re-runs of the Vietnam war or the cultural conflicts that have emanated from it since. So I'm thrilled when Barack Obama talks about rejecting the "politics of the past." But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn something from it. In fact, there are very good reasons to believe that Barack Obama will be a better Commander in Chief, a smarter Commander in Chief, than the former naval officer. I've long argued that Obama is exactly what we need in our next Commander in Chief, in our next president who will have to navigate foreign and national security policy in the 21st century.

Barack set the stage for this in 2002.  Asked to speak before a rally against invading Iraq, he opened with these words:

Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don't oppose all wars.

That historic speech placed Barack Obama squarely within the just war tradition.  It also created a strong contrast between the presumptive democratic and republican nominees.  But more importantly, it gave us insight into the thought process of Barack Obama and the confidence that he could be a great Commander in Chief given the unique set of problems and crises we face in the 21st century.

This may seem counterintuitive.  John McCain is older, served in the military and has been around Washington since the late 70s.  Even if these traits are considered attractive in a potential Commander in Chief, McCain has squandered them by failing to adjust to the realities of the 21st century.  In fact, McCain is trying to apply what he learned from studying the Vietnam war in the war college and force fit it upon Iraq and our national security policy:

Although McCain was held and tortured for the same cause, he never saw the situation the way Hagel did. In his view, the American effort began to turn around with the promotion in 1968 of Gen. Creighton Abrams, who adopted the tactics favored by counterinsurgency experts like Fall. Abrams pulled back the search-and-destroy teams and instead focused on winning the "hearts and minds" of South Vietnamese villagers. His goal was to encourage the South Vietnamese military to take over their own defense -- the process that came to be known as "Vietnamization." McCain maintains that Abrams's strategy was working, but it was undercut by the fact that, by that point, the American public had already rendered its verdict, and the drawdown of troops continued until the war's chaotic end.

The lesson McCain and other conservatives took away from this version of history is that America was driven from Vietnam principally because the voters, discouraged by dire reports from a skeptical media, lost their will. McCain has said in the past that he felt the war could have been won had the right strategy been followed sooner.

The problem with this analysis is that it isn't true.  The American people didn't fail our military, then or now.  There was a deliberate decision -- then as now -- not to build a broad public consensus behind the war.  When the war was brought home to the American people (as in the Tet offensive), they were unprepared, and duly shocked by it.  In fact, I'd argue that the Tet offensive represents the battle line between the conservative and liberal view of the Vietnam war.  The conservative view focuses on how we won the battle, the liberal view on how we lost the war.  But that's not my point.  Because even in 1968, public perceptions mattered -- and in 2008, their import is even more important.  In the months before John McCain was taken as a prisoner of war there was a decided attempt to affect public expectations on Vietnam:

In the latter months of 1967, after more than two years of bitter fighting in Vietnam, many Americans believed that the war had degenerated into a bloody stalemate. Gen. William Westmoreland, the senior commander, did not see it that way; by his primary metric -- the body count -- American and allied forces were making significant headway. Under criticism by the growing antiwar movement at home, President Lyndon Johnson decided to make General Westmoreland's optimism the focal point of an information campaign to convince the American people that we were winning the war.

In mid-November 1967, he brought the general home to make the case. Upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, General Westmoreland told waiting reporters that he was "very, very encouraged" by recent events. At an appearance on "Meet the Press" two days later, he said American troops would be able to begin withdrawing "within two years or less." During an address at the National Press Club, he claimed that "we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view." He consistently gave an upbeat account of how things were going in the war, clearly believing that a corner had been turned.

The Tet offensive laid bare the inherent optimism of those expectations:

The Americans had won a tactical victory. But the sheer scope and ferocity of the offensive and the vivid images of the fighting on the nightly television news convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration had lied to them, and the president's credibility plummeted. Perhaps more important, the offensive shook the administration's own confidence and led to a re-evaluation of American strategy. When General Westmoreland asked for an additional 206,000 troops to "take advantage of the situation," the president balked.

Barack Obama said that he was against "dumb wars."  But what we learned from our Vietnam experience is that the American people are against bullshit.  We don't share the unit cohesion lesson embedded in the military men of the greatest generation.  So our elected leaders shouldn't try to bullshit us into going to war.

This is not a new observation.  In fact, it several centuries old.  The moment that armies started being reflections of national populations, the "National Will" became central to military success or failure.  In On Strategy, Col. Summers writes:

there was one thing that did not fit into the computer -- national will, what Clausewitz calls the moral factor.  We have seen earlier that President Johnson deliberately avoided mobilizing the national will so as not to jeopardize his Great Society programs.  The North Vietnamese, after their experience with the French, had every reason to believe that American morale could be our weak strategic link.  Knowing they did not have the military means to defeat us, they concentrated on this weakness.  It was not a new strategy.  "When we speak of destroying the enemy's forces," Clausewitz wrote, "we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: The moral element must also be considered."

The failure to invoke the national will was one of the major strategic failures of the Vietnam war.  It produced a strategic vulnerability that our enemy was able to exploit.  Consider this explanation of Tet 1968, written by Clausewitz 150 years earlier:

Not every war need be fought until one side collapses.  When the motives and tensions of war are slight we can imagine that the very faintest prospect of defeat might be enough to cause one side to yield.  If from the very start the other side feels that this is probable, it will obviously concentrate on bringing about this probability rather than the long way round and totally defeat the enemy.
 pp. 18-19

It is this factor, the need to create a broad national consensus (or will) around a new national strategic framework, that drew me originally to Barack Obama.  While John McCain may mock Barack for his ability to fill large arenas (and outside venues), give a speech and hold the audience's attention, I don't really see any other way to shape public opinion or build broad consenses -- at least not in this era.  At a time when the world -- and our place in it -- is undergoing a gut-wrenching transformation, the ability to draw an audience for one's ideas is not a secondary consideration.  It's a primary one, and it is one that clearly makes Barack Obama a stronger candidate in terms of who will be the better Commander in Chief.

The problem with McCain, though, is not that he can't give good speech.  It's that he doesn't see the need.  For McCain, there is nothing that can't be solved by his leadership.  McCain blamed American politics for our failure in Vietnam.  But Summers viewed it it differently:

The main reason it is not right to blame the American public is that President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people -- to invoke the national will -- for the Vietnam war.  p. 12

If this feels familiar (even though the neo-cons go apolectic from comparisons to Iraq and Vietnam), it should.  George Bush called for the American people to "stand against terror by going back to work," and to "Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."  No sacrifice, no mobilization, no appeal to the national will to get behind the fight against terror.  Return to normal, Bush advised.  Go shopping (this was actually said by Jeb Bush, not George).

George Bush and John McCain have tried to force the national will in their direction by appealing to our fears, not giving us direction.  In doing so, even though they went in the opposite direction as LBJ, they made the same mistakes that we had made in Vietnam.  Summers wrote, "If the Army is to be used wisely, the American people should have some idea of military strategy." (p. x iii)  Yet if there was an explanation about why we should be in Iraq, it was centered around the misguided attempt to find WMDs (which would have been better suited to the Hans Blix or the IAEA) or the neo-con program of imposing democracy elsewhere.  John McCain insists that we stay in Iraq, but for what reason, other than friendship, he's not clear about why.  "We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq," he says.  "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the IraqI people."  And yet:

[War] requires for its successful pursuit the mobilization of a moral consensus of the legitimacy of both the objectives of violence and the means by which these objectives are pursued.  (Chaplain (Colonel) Charles F. Kriete; quoted in On Strategy, p. 34)

One need not be a Clausewitzian to see how important the our political leaders take the American people into their confidence about our national security policy, its goals and the means we will use to attain them.  Even Jomini agreed:

but it is the morale of armies, as well as of nations, more than anything else, which makes victories and their results decisive.  pp. 162-63

Yet McCain does not do this.  He talks of honor and moral responsibility, not objectives or strategic goals.  What is to be achieved by our presence in Iraq?  George Bush and John McCain cannot tell you.  They prefer to force upon us a gut check.  Strangely, this John McCain does seem to remember the old John McCain:

"The biggest factor in a man's ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation's foreign policy," Mr. McCain wrote in a 1974 essay submitted to the National War College and never released to the public. Prisoners who questioned "the legality of the war" were "extremely easy marks for Communist propaganda," he wrote.

Americans captured after 1968 had proven to be more susceptible to North Vietnamese pressure, he argued, because they "had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the antiwar movement in the United States."

To insulate against such doubts, he recommended that the military should teach its recruits not only how to fight but also the reasons for American foreign policies...

Hell, at least those who shared cells with McCain in north Vietnam had the domino theory to hang their hat on.  Is John McCain really going to try to tell us that "Iraq is the central front" to the war on al-Qaeda?  Not even our fighting men and women in the military believe that.  As Capt. Collins writes:

America is now engaged in three undeclared wars. The first, the Global War on Terror, has no nation-state or regime as its target. It has become a nebulous mix of security assistance to an odious jumble of nations and murky intelligence operations.  Some of these operations have resulted in detentions on questionable legal ground called renditions. In Yemen, the war has also resulted in at least one incident of the ultimate international relations taboo, assassination. The second war, against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, has settled into a long-term peacekeeping and nation building expedition with a hodgepodge of UN, NATO, and NGOs working with, or at least, adjacent to, a US-led coalition.  The third, in Iraq, has become one of the largest counter-insurgencies in American history, fought by a "Coalition of the Willing." It would appear that the era of the declared war has come to an end.

Yet the official process for declaring war, Summers argued, was exactly how the American people -- the National Will -- gained confidence in what was our military/political strategy:

For most of our history, the support of the American people was built into our very force structuring.  The Army consisted of a rather small standing force, backed up first by the reserve forces of the National Guard and Army Reserve, and ultimately by nationwide conscription.  The American people had to give their approval through their elected representatives in Congress before this Army could be mobilized and deployed.  p. 13

After World War II this connection between the Army and the people was weakened in the name of insuring more rapid response to threats of American security.  For the first time in our history a large standing military was maintained in peacetime and our reserve forces declined in importance.  The unwitting effect of this was the creation of a neo-18th century-type Army answerable more to the Executive than to the American people.  p. 14

the requirement for a declaration of war was rooted in the principle of civilian control of the military, and the failure to declare war in Vietnam drove a wedge between the Army and large segments of the American public.  p. 22

Even though McCain seems to understand that "if you were going to use the American military to end a dispute or displace a foreign government, then you had to have the American public firmly on your side," he doesn't seem inclined towards the steps that can achieve that goal.  In fact, I'm going to argue that Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to build the broad national consensus required for transforming our national security policy to face the threats on the 21st century.  Barack is correct when he says that:

Nearly all these threats have grown over the last 8 years because of the policies of George Bush, which I believe have left us less safe and less respected in the world. There's going to be a clear choice in this election: John McCain wants to continue the Bush-Cheney foreign policy. I want to turn the page.

"Instead of adhering to a rigid ideology, I want to get back to a pragamatic tradition of American foreign policy which has been so ably advanced by the people in this room.

We face a dynamic juxtaposition of global threats to our interests in the 21st century.  The sheer incompetence of the Bush administration to categorize and then address those threats leaves us almost paralyzed on how to move forward.  I would suggest that the threat posed by al-Qaeda and networked terrorists is similar in its nature to the original threat posed by the Soviet Union in the 1940s.  The onset of the Cold War was unfamiliar, required a fundamental change in tactics and strategy and necessitated a thorough and insightful analysis of the nature of the new threat.  Thus, George Kennan's "Long Telegram" was followed by the so-called X article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, (reprinted here) which was followed five years later by NSC-68, the formal institutionalization of our Cold War strategy and emerging national consensus (reprinted here).  Contrast this to what the Bush administration has done, and what John McCain proposes.

How our Cold War strategy unfolded conformed with our Clausewitzian strategic doctrine.  "As Clausewitz said, we should not 'take the first step without considering the last.'" (p. 185)  Further:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.  This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (clausewitz, on war, I:1 p. 13)

Barack Obama, uniquely among the presidential candidates, has done the analytical work and put forward a strategic framework.  To my mind, it's not sufficient for institutionalization, but it's a beginning.  Barack Obama brings to the challenge of being Commander in Chief a curious mind, a sharp intellect, an openness to differing views, a decisiveness that can be shocking, a commitment to the just war tradition and the ability to not only build and communicate with the American people, but to excite them and build the needed national consensus.  There are no better traits to expect in our next Commander in Chief...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

McCain: Learning the Wrong Lessons from Vietnam

I blame "the greatest generation." Well, not really. But, it seems to me, one of the things that emerged after World War 2 is that we as a nation were shaped by the war, with a large number of men who shared a unifying experience in the military. The military has an interesting survival ethos that demands that you trust your buddies before all else, your unit after that, etc, until you get to: trust your service before/then, trust the military before/then, trust your country. I'll never forget the words of major I taught who believed "when you go to war, you die for your buddies, you don't die for your country." Unit cohesion is central to military success.

This has always been the case. But the generation of Americans who grew up in the Second World War retained that outlook throughout their lives -- certainly through the time of the Vietnam war. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that John McCain learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam. But the fact that he did should make us all the more concerned about the prospect of a McCain presidency.

We don't need to re-fight the Vietnam war or all the cultural conflicts that it left in its wake. Time to turn the page.

McCain's view of Iraq -- and what to do next -- was irrevocably shaped by his experience in, and with, Vietnam.  It is a sad fact that the boomer generation has never been able to escape the ghosts on Vietnam, the ghosts that haunt both sides of the cultural conflict over it.  But McCain's perspective is rather unique.  As a prisoner of war for five and a half years, McCain entered a time warp.  Cut off from an evolving culture in the world, he would only see the results of those changes from the P.O.W.s that followed.  McCain left this country while it still was in it's "father knows best" phase.  But he returned to the country changed dramatically during McCain's time at war -- and he never seemed able to accept that.

WHEN CAPTAIN McCain returned home from HanoI in 1973, a grateful Navy gave him and his fellow P.O.W.'s their choice of assignments. McCain rather audaciously chose one normally reserved for higher-ranking officers: study at the prestigious National War College. The war in Vietnam collapsed during the five-plus years of his imprisonment, and McCain needed to understand what happened. He absorbed the writings of military historians, most notably Bernard Fall, a veteran of the French resistance who was a sharp critic of the American military in Vietnam. Fall, who lived (and died) among American troops in Vietnam, didn't quibble with America's strategic decision to intervene in the country, but he did lambaste its tactics: hunting down guerrillas in search-and-destroy patrols, trying to draw the Vietcong into traditional military battles. Fall believed the Americans did not learn from the failure in Indochina of the French, who insisted on fighting a jungle insurgency as if it were the Second World War.

He would write in Faith of My Fathers, "In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn't have the least notion of what it took to win the war."  His views before he was shot down already dove-tailed with what fall had written.

Fall was an interesting figure in his own right.  His family had fled Hitler annexation of his birthplace, and then came to fight in the resistance in France.  His mother died in Auschwitz.  His description of insurgency tactics in Vietnam sound familiar even today:

Guerrilla attacks in Vietnam, however, were not limited to the roads themselves but also included the convoys that circulated on them. Ambushes generally took place in an open stretch of field broken by some bushes or hedges, or an old pagoda. Hand-triggered mines were used to disable the lead vehicle, thus immobilizing the convoy. The rear-guard vehicle was dealt with similarly, or was destroyed by rocket launcher (bazooka ) or mortar fire. Once the convoy is pinned down, the stage is set for its general attack.

According to American practice in such a case - which was also French practice in the early stages of the war -- the escorting units of the convoy detrucked and took cover in the road ditch opposite to the apparent line of enemy fire. In Vietnam such a procedure usually led the detrucked unit into terrain that was either mined or heavily spiked with caltrops of a crude but very effective model, and also exposed to enemy fire from a secondary base. If panic ensued, the convoy usually could be considered a total loss.

Like McCain, Fall shared the soldiers' criticism of the civilian leadership of the war.

At the end of the book Fall began to evaluate the Second Indochina War of South Vietnam and the United States. He explicitly criticized the way American authorities failed to learn from the experience of the French in such things as the conduct of Viet Cong ambushes. The rest of the book is a thinly veiled criticism as well. Observers of the American war could not fail to notice the similarity of U.S. operations to such French ideas as the mobile group, riverine forces, commando counterinsurgency cadres operating behind enemy lines, and strings of mutually supporting strongpoints. Above all, however, Fall decried the Western reliance on mechanization, firepower and tactical air support to win the war. Because armored forces were confined to roads, the footsoldiers of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong could range more freely on foot. Possessing such mechanized forces, however, both the French and the Americans continued to conduct conventional World War II-style operations that rarely succeeded in finding the guerrillas opposing them. Artillery and tactical air power were of little utility except in pitched battles, which the Communists were not often willing to fight. Fall knew that the French had tried all of those orthodox ideas and found them lacking. He seemed to be taunting the American unwillingness to learn from the French experience.

In discussing Fall's work with McCain, I found that he had a specific perspective rooted in his personal experience in Vietnam.  Instead of reading fall as a critic of american strategic doctrine, tactics and operations, McCain argued that it came down to the problem of civilian control of the military.  Although not in the terms of the social conservative's perspective of the culture war, there was still a sense of betrayal by american political leadership.  Fall's criticisms, however, where much broader.

A LOT OF McCain'S fellow veterans in Washington seem confounded by what they see as his obvious failure to absorb the lessons of Vietnam. Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvania congressman and decorated Vietnam vet who became an early and outspoken critic of the war, told me that watching Iraq unfold convinced him, for the first time, that American troops could never have prevailed in Vietnam, no matter how long they stayed. "These kinds of wars cannot be won militarily," he said flatly. Another Democratic congressman with a Purple Heart, Mike Thompson of California, told me that promises of victory in Iraq sounded painfully familiar. "When I was in Vietnam, the members of Congress knew that we weren't going to be there forever, that we would have to redeploy, and in the time between when they knew that and when we redeployed, a lot of boys were injured and killed," Thompson said. "I think Senator McCain has been an outstanding public servant, but I think he's wrong on this."

In McCain's mind, however, there is a different kind of symmetry linking Vietnam and Iraq. Talking to him about it, you come to understand that he has, indeed, applied lessons from the first war to the second -- but they are the lessons that he learned not in combat or in the HanoI Hilton but in the pages of the books he read at the National War College in the 1970s. To McCain, the first four years of the Iraq war, as prosecuted by the Bush administration, seem strikingly similar to the years in Vietnam before Creighton Abrams arrived on the scene.

"It's a little bit eerily reminiscent, in that search-and-destroy is basically the same tactic that Rumsfeld, Casey, Sanchez, et al. employed," McCain told me, referring to George Casey and Ricardo Sanchez, the two previous generals to command coalition forces in Iraq. "Go out, kill bad people and then go back to base. That's basically what search-and-destroy was. We obviously failed to learn that lesson in history." In McCain's war, then, David Petraeus, the more innovative general who took over in 2007, is now playing the part of Abrams, pursuing a winning strategy that needs only the patience of the American people and their government to ultimately succeed.

"After nearly four years of a failed strategy, the difference in one year is dramatic," McCain says. "If they make that same progress in the next year," he predicts, "I think it's going to be quite impactful on American public opinion, as well as, more importantly, events on the ground."

The lesson McCain drew from Vietnam all those years ago is that you cannot turn your back on a war when at last you figure out how to win it, and he is determined not to let that happen again. Far from having failed to internalize the legacy of Vietnam, as some of his friends in the Senate suspect, he is, if anything, entirely driven by it. "I don't think you can isolate John's views in Iraq from his experience in Vietnam," Gary Hart told me. "Whether he is aware of it or not -- and I want to tread carefully here, because I don't like psychologizing people -- I don't think he can separate those things in his mind. In a way, John is refighting the Vietnam War."

The problem is that McCain didn't learn the same lessons from Vietnam that his "fellow veterans" did.  He got stuck in his "father knows best" perspective and never seemed to realize that it was the common (and shared) experience for soldiers at the small unit level to believe that things were fucked up beyond all recognition.  He may even have believed that his generation was the first to face this problem.  He certainly acts as if this is so.

In contradistinction from McCain's view -- one shared with american conservatives -- the U.S. military relied on the analysis derived from Col. Harry Summers.  It would be an understatement to say that his book, "On Strategy: a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam war," was influential.  And it's lessons apply today, both to the way we treat the Iraq quagmire and the future of national security policy.  Instead of McCain's belief that "our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn't have the least notion of what it took to win the war," Summers argued that:

When we look at the objectives of the Vietnam War, we see that Hugh Arnold of the University of Nebraska found twenty-two separate objectives for why we were in Vietnam, several of which were mutually exclusive. So there was never any clear-cut political goal to be obtained. And because there was no political goal, the military strategies and policies built on that foundation -- someone said it was "a great logical edifice built on a foundation of gas" because there was just nothing there. The great tragedy of the Vietnam War was all of this military effort, great bravery and sacrifice and everything else, was totally unfocused because of the lack of a goal. And because it was unfocused, it failed to achieve the objectives of US foreign policy.

Whereas McCain was quick to blame the "civilian commanders" for what happened in Vietnam, Col. Summers was far more nuanced.  Summers was critical of our military leaders for the strategic framework under which the Vietnam war was fought and critical of our political leadership for their failure to mobilize the "national will" behind the military's mission.  but you won't find Summers calling the latter idiots.  indeed, Summers understood the complexity of mobilizing the public behind war:

Their basis of power rests with the American people, and therefore they have got to be responsive to the wishes and desires of the American people. So what we would see as domestic politicking, they would argue is sort of the nature of the beast. Richard Neustadt wrote a book on alliance politics, and in talking about the Suez Crisis, he said that all politics is domestic politics -- there's no other kind -- because politicians get elected or defeated at home, not abroad. So that every action, international action or military action, has a domestic political edge to it.


It's interesting that Clausewitz goes into this a hundred and fifty years ago. He said that military counsel in the councils of wars is the least important of all, that the political counsel, what he calls "the interaction of peoples and their government," is the governing factor in war. The military's job is just to execute the policy that the people and the government come up with. We don't want to involve the military in domestic politics. Part of Johnson's problem, and it was Kennedy's problem, is that he did that with Maxwell Taylor. When John Paul Vann came back from Vietnam to testify that things were screwed up in Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor forbade him to talk to the Joint Chiefs, and General Bruce Palmer said it was obvious that he and McNamara were playing domestic politics because the presidential election was coming up. That should be intolerable. As General Ridgeway, who was our leader after the Korean War, had said, a military advisor's job is to tell the president the truth in clear and unvarnished terms and not cut his advice for any reason.

Both Summers and McCain derived their conclusions about what went wrong in Vietnam from Bernard Fall.  But while Summers stuck closely to Fall's formula, McCain went in a radical direction.  He sought not only to blame the "civilian commanders" but to question their legitimacy (although not their authority) over military commanders.  McCain's criticism is subtle, but he attacks a central premise of our democracy: civilian control of the military.  Even if the politicians in charge of Vietnam were idiots -- and we might find some agreement with McCain on this -- American tradition calls for a change in the political leadership, not the undermining of their authority.  McCain's preference for the advice of the military commanders on the ground fits with his "father knows best" time warp.  While McCain's campaign may be accusing barack obama of having "a perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10th mindset," I am more disturbed by John McCain's pre-1968 mindset.  What chance do we have of getting out of Iraq if John McCain wants to substitute success there with what he perceives as failure in the war he fought 40 years ago?