The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings. A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.
The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.
The survey results bear this out. For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25) One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.” Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”
Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties. This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”
Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery. In a note on page 47, he writes:
“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery. On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map. Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections. A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing. This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”
In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.
Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army. Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:
“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”
“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”
“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”
“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)
Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed. As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people? There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)
Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture. Two quotations illustrate this point:
“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)
“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese]. This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things. This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)
As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation. Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.
Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard. Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public. From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope. In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down. Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)
Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam. The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”
*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly. In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)