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?

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