On Soldiering in the U.S. Military

COL Henry G. Gole, USA (Ret.)

COL Henry G. Gole, USA (Ret.)

Daniel N. White

Henry G. Gole, a retired U.S. Army colonel, published a fine book, Soldiering (Potomac Press, 2006) that deserves a much wider readership than it has earned to this date.  Gole, son of an immigrant father from a German-speaking part of Slovenia, joined the Army in 1952 and went off to Korea as an infantryman.  He made sergeant before his discharge in 1954.  Back in civilian life, he went to college, got a bachelor’s and master’s in history, and taught high school until 1961.  Bored with teaching high school English, with itchy feet, and inspired by the John F. Kennedy inaugural, he rejoined the Army as a lieutenant.  Posted to Germany, he transferred over to Special Forces after three unhappy years in an infantry unit.  He served two tours in Vietnam, made colonel, and retired in 1988.

His book is a good read for anyone interested in the working life in the Army during the Cold War.  Gole is honest about himself and his failings, and writes well, quite rightly admiringly at times, of the men he soldiered with along the way.  Much of the book is his telling stories of them.   

Gole initially had a good time in the Army, but he wasn’t pleased with the Army he came back to in 1961, after being out for seven years.  It was a different Army than the one he had left in 1954, as Gole writes on pp. 113-4:

The building of the [Berlin] Wall in 1961 turned the Cold War up a notch but there was much bumbling and stumbling in the integration of the new gear into the hyper-conservative post-Korea US Army that attached more importance at the troop level to painting rocks white, shiny boots, and short haircuts.  Stupidity, blended with supreme confidence, produced arrogance.  Conscription was the substitution for leadership.  Bad leaders had an almost unlimited supply of manpower, suggesting to me that what was free was not valuable.  And form defeated substance, to our later discomfort.

From the perspective of one who was a sergeant in Korea, and a lieutenant in Germany in the early 1960s, the Army we took to Vietnam was a well-tanned body that contained a cancer.  The cancer was centralization that crowded out individual initiative.  Sergeants were pushed aside as junior officers took up their tasks.  And the junior officers were bullied by the mindless residue personified by the post-Korea Reduction in Force (RIF).  The sickness would be exposed.  Meanwhile, incompetence and mental rigidity in training killed soldiers who didn’t need to die.

Gole goes on to write about why the U.S. Army performed poorly in Vietnam, as well as wider institutional problems he saw in Germany in the early 1960s:

I had more latitude as a leader when I was a sergeant in 1954 than as a lieutenant in 1961.  I’m not certain, but I think the RIF after the Korean War is the probable cause.  The survivors learned from the turtle to be very careful about sticking out their neck.  It seemed to me at the time that to be a major, one needed to be fat and stupid.  Of course, I was wrong.  It was enough to be stupid.  And many of the super careful types didn’t remain majors forever.  The tendency to centralize all decisions continues to rob junior and middle grade leaders of initiative and creativity at the beginning of the 21st century.  In 1961 the most evident change was that officers did what soldiers used to do, such as supervising the maintenance of vehicles and giving bayonet practice.  Taking authority from sergeants and inordinately emphasizing appearance struck me as very bad ideas with serious consequences for the spirit of my Army.

Between the wars in Korea and Vietnam, my army became hyper-conservative organization attempting to regulate all activities by checklists imposed from on high.  Fear of failure, even in training, caused a zero-defects ethos to permeate the system.  Individual initiative at the lower end of the chain of command and risk taking by sergeants and company grade officers surrendered to appearance, resulting in white rocks in peacetime and body counts in wartime.  Leaders lied about readiness and deaths.  One sees the hand of Robert S. McNamara in the systems approach and quantification that sucked the heart and soul out of the Army.

We lacked the complex and beautiful ships and impressive aircraft of the other services, and we made do with mostly conscripts, but that didn’t prevent that Army from using business models stressing nonhuman (if not inhuman) efficiencies and cost-effectiveness. 

Gole blames Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara for destroying the ethos of military service in the Army, but he’s wrong about this.  Certainly McNamara was part of the problem, but he was more symptom than cause.

The causes were deeper and traceable to a sociological sea change in American society in the post- World War II years.  Neil Sheehan wrote a superb passage in his superlative book, A Bright Shining Lie, about the ARVN/US defeat in the company-sized engagement at the small village of Ap Bac in Vietnam in January 1963.  In that passage, Sheehan explains why Paul D. Harkins, the first US commander in Vietnam, was a man of his times.  A bumbler, Harkins earned four stars despite his blindness toward the obvious defeat of Ap Bac.  His sloughing off his responsibility for that defeat (indeed, he declared it a “victory”) was no fluke and demonstrated a complete lack of integrity that was, along with a wide range of other personal and professional failings, the rule rather than the exception for the American military in Vietnam.

Sheehan’s explanation is that the United States came down with victory disease, not just in its armed forces but throughout American society, in the years after World War II, and that the failings of the US military and of Paul D. Harkins, and of so many sectors of official America are best explained by this disease afflicting them.

Gole’s writing confirms that diagnosis, and gives us a timeframe when exactly it occurred.  Unfortunately, we don’t get any explanation of why it hit us, and why it manifested the symptoms it did.  We obviously still have it as a society, despite our loss of economic and manufacturing preeminence, and despite our defeat in Vietnam.  Just look at the patriotic drivel about Word War II that has been spread around before, during, and no doubt into the endless future, to justify our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does victory disease explain our continuing pointless wars?  Or does that painfully obvious failure come from a different set of problems?  Sociologists, historians, and political scientists are all missing the boat in not looking at our current conditions from that vantage.

Gole’s book is worth a close read by anyone interested in life in the recent Army, and for its excellent stories of the Vietnam and Korean wars.  His observation of the change in the Army, and what it meant, and when it happened, is crucial.  We badly need more sociological study into that change and we need to think about developing a cure for the ailments it has brought us.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

3 thoughts on “On Soldiering in the U.S. Military

  1. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. But I have to say I’m a little tired of books by retired commissioned officers! My memoir, nearing completion, describes Army life of the late 1960s/early ’70s from the perspective of a guy who rose “all the way” to Spec. 4th Class, was busted to Pvt. E-1 for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, and returned to E-4 by time of discharge. I don’t recall officers having any role in teaching bayonet fighting in Basic Combat Training. We troops didn’t have all that much contact with commissioned officers, though they were definitely on hand to supervise the firing range and administer CS gas to us (what a joy!). [I realize there are variations in training units; my experience is from Ft. Jackson, SC.] I am certainly not the first enlisted man to produce a memoir of those years, but I think my story is pretty different. Did US command policies produce needless American casualties in VN? Indubitably. However, “boots on the ground” are required to seize and hold territory (not much to brag about there, in that war); you can bomb and bomb and bomb, but once you’ve obliterated a nation it becomes a little difficult to convince the world at large that you’re trying to “help” the folks who live there. You insert your ground troops into an environment they’re totally unfamiliar with and, yes, they’re going to be at a disadvantage. And that’s the whole point: the US had no business being there, invading a smallish country halfway around the world and butchering its inhabitants to “prevent a domino from falling.” The US military, like the French before them, was defeated by Gen. Giap and People’s War. At a terrible, terrible price, but victory was rightfully theirs. I hold that the US learned nothing from this war, except how to concoct preposterous “excuses” like: “Politicians back home tied our troops’ hands behind their backs; they weren’t allowed to really fight.”

    U.S. Army, 1967-71, “Retired”

    • Very interesting. I was a Marine Corporal in Korea, wounded on Bunker Hill August 52. Had some very good officers
      and NCOs and a few not so good. Great Bn. Commander. Never experienced a problem with the command structure, or the training before we went to Korea. Weapons were fine. Never understood what happened to the army in Vietnam .
      Have known Hank since I was 8 and am very incline to accept his observations.
      I did spend three years in the region 68-71 as a civilian. Had interaction with US military. Always wondered why we lost.

      • I imagine that you will go to your grave convinced that the US War Against Korea was justified, as was the War Against Southeast Asia (bearing in mind the destruction wreaked on Cambodian and Laotian territory in addition to Vietnam), because “Communist aggression” had to be stopped in its tracks. This “aggression” consisted of the effort by the peoples of Korea and Vietnam to reunify their nations, which had been artificially divided into “north” and “south” by the United States. I think it is normal, psychologically, for veterans of military conflict to seek justification for the killing and maiming in which they have participated. (A generalization, of course, since for all I know you may not have killed or maimed anyone directly, personally.) The expression “never the twain shall meet” describes the loggerheads between those locked into that mindset and my own view of US military actions perpetrated in my lifetime.

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