The Collapse of Generalship in the 1960s – Thomas E. Ricks

Synopsis:

The American institutional paradigm of strategic mediocrity at the highest levels of command became most recognized during the Vietnam War. Journalist Thomas E. Ricks believes the strategic incapacity is rooted in careerism, bureaucratization, byzantine promotion practices, institutional arrogance, and negligence at finding fault within the high command. According to Ricks, post-Vietnam American generalship has fared no better, because the military – particularly the Army – has focused on perfecting operational rather than strategic command.

Excerpts:

“A popular myth, persisting even in today’s military, is that senior civilians were too involved in the handling of the war. In fact, the problem was not that civilians participated too much in decision making but that the senior military leaders participated too little. President Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert McNamara treated the Joint Chiefs of Staff not as military advisers but as a political impediment, a hurdle to be overcome, through deception if necessary. They wanted to keep the Chiefs on board with policy without keeping them involved in making it or even necessarily informed about it.

“Unlike FDR, Johnson never really explained his war to the nation. ‘At no time that I was aware,’ wrote Joseph Alsop, who became almost the last ‘hawk’ among prominent journalists, ‘did President Johnson or his advisers seek to prepare the American people for the grim consequences of a protracted military battle, nor did they adequately explain to the public the reasons for the fight.’ Neither the president nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff did their duty during the Vietnam War.

“Pentagon analyst Thomas Thayer recalled being told by the French defense attaché in Saigon – a veteran of fighting in Vietnam who was chosen for the diplomatic post because of his excellent English – that during the first eighteen months of his assignment, only one American had visited him to inquire about the lessons the French might have to share. Even more strikingly, when Army Special Forces troops under a CIA program began training villagers to defend themselves, the program worked, with armed locals posting ‘a record of almost unbroken success’ against the Viet Cong… Maxwell Taylor, by then the American ambassador, directed the CIA to turn the program over to the U.S. military, resulting in a major drop in the effectiveness of the mission.

“Firing senior officers would have been seen as a confession of failure. Furthermore, in a hazy war with a muddled strategy, what constituted success was less clear, so rewarding it and punishing failure became even more difficult. The result was that by the arrival of the Vietnam War, firing a general officer amounted to an act of dissent, a public questioning of the way the Army worked, because it involved someone who had risen through a demanding process over two decades. To say that he was not fit for a position was tantamount to a rejection of the process that had produced him. So where relief was once a sign that the system was working as expected – rewarding success and punishing failure – it had become seen inside the Army as a hostile critique of the system.

“The relatively new technology of the helicopter might have enabled generals to try to escape their roles. Instead of trying to improve strategy, generals and colonels climbed into aircraft and became what one general called ‘squad leaders in the sky.’ They found themselves in a situation where the fundamental task of a general – to understand the nature of the fight and adjust his force to it – may have been all but undoable. When strategy becomes inexplicable, the natural tendency is to retreat into tactics.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Penguin Group LLC.

Strategies of Deterrence and of Action: The Strategy Intellectuals – Russell F. Weigley

Synopsis:

The immediate post World War Two strategic landscape in the United States was dominated by the development of nuclear weapons, and their application. In his book on American strategic thought Russell Weigley includes a chapter on the ascendancy of the civilian national security establishment amid the primacy of the early nuclear age. As the Cold War progressed these civilian ‘strategy intellectuals’ would become influential on American strategic doctrine.

Excerpts:

“Choosing among weapons systems, however, necessarily required judgments among various possible strategies. Making choices among future weapons systems and strategies would necessarily also involve choices among forms of military organization. And choices involving strategy and organization would carry the analysis far into the realms of policy. The expanded form of operations analysis which began with the effort to analyze the uses of future as well as existing weapons came to be called ‘systems analysis.’

“As Kissinger saw it, the strategy of deterrence when expressed as the doctrine of massive retaliation was the strategy that really forswore the diplomatic and strategic initiative. It amounted to a renunciation of the use of force except to counter the most unambiguous forms of aggression, because the weapons to be employed were too horrendous to be fired in any less circumstances.

“The search for a new strategic doctrine must not be confused with the search for a better weapons technology and with technical answers to technical questions. To seek refuge in technology from hard problems of strategy and policy was already another dangerous American tendency, fostered by the pragmatic qualities of the American character and by the complexity of nuclear-age technology.

“More than Ridgway, Taylor renewed the argument that without adequate capacities for limited war, America not only would face defensive disadvantages but would be unable to seize initiatives, unable to secure positive advantages that must be won in the battle for a better world. Massive retaliation, General Taylor reiterated, ‘could offer our leaders only two choices, the initiation of general nuclear war or compromise and retreat.’ A strategy of flexible response, in contrast, ‘would recognize that it is just as necessary to deter or win quickly a limited war as to deter general war.

“Therefore Morgenstern recommended a new application of sea power: to use sea power to ensure an invulnerable capacity for nuclear retaliation against the enemy’s homeland. He recommended the acceleration and enlargement of the Polaris program, so that nuclear submarines in constant movement could serve to launch the American missile force…The endurance capacity of nuclear engines would minimize the dependence of both submarines and seaplanes on fixed bases; except for occasional refueling, their supplies could be replenished from ships themselves moving in random patterns.

*All excerpts have been taken from The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Russell Weigley, Indiana University Press.