Small Wars Journal

An Interview with General Jack Keane

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The Philosophy Behind the Iraq Surge:

An Interview with General Jack Keane

by Octavian Manea

Download the Full Interview: An Interview with General Jack Keane

How would you describe the US Army's mind-set in approaching the war in Vietnam?

I think we took an army whose primary focus was conventional operations against the Warsaw Pact in Europe and took it to war in South Vietnam. In the first three years of the war we were trying to use conventional tactics against an unconventional enemy. That strategy failed miserably. And it was not until General Abrams came in and took over from General Westmoreland who changed the strategy to a counterinsurgency strategy which was designed to protect the population. We saw significant progress against the insurgency and then, by 1971, three years later, it was essentially defeated.

Should we understand that World War II, the Korean War, and preparation for Fulda Gap campaigns - all this operational heritage - had an impact in shaping the mind-set of the US Military vis-í -vis executing war?


What should have been the lessons learned from the Vietnam experience?

I think we learned all the right lessons in how to defeat an insurgency because we succeeded. We lost the war for other reasons, but in terms of defeating the insurgency, I think we learned the right lessons in terms of the preeminence of and the importance of protecting the population, winning the population to your side, using minimum amount of force, dealing with a government that is not effective and dealing with a population that has legitimate grievances against that government. Most insurgencies obviously have some legitimate grievances against the government -- otherwise - it wouldn't be an insurgency to begin with. I think we codified the major tenets of the counterinsurgency we learned and it was in our memory up until 1975. When the war ended we purged it from our lexicon and put the doctrine we had developed on the shelf and embraced war against the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. I think it has much to do with how the war ended in Vietnam. The fact that it did not come out favorably to us - I think the military leaders of the time just wanted to get rid of it like a cancer.

Download the Full Interview: An Interview with General Jack Keane

Interview with General Jack Keane conducted by Octavian Manea (Editor of FP Romania, the Romanian edition of Foreign Policy).

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 7:25pm

Forget it Bob, it is a belief that is hardened into concrete.

The idea that the PRG were defeated by Abrams's so called new "strategy" and that what lost the war for the South was purely a conventional invasion by the north is just too hard to break. At least in certain forums that is. Especially, it is engrained in the psyche of the American Army.

It is like the idea that the South fought the Civil War for states rights instead of over slavery. It is a belief that will never go away.


Bob's World

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 4:25pm


Many Tajiks fight valiantly against Pashtuns in Afghanistan as well, that in no way changes the nature of the conflict or makes Mr. Karzai and his government any more legitimate in the eyes of the insurgent (excluded) segment of his populace.

You know better than I, that in the Maoist model of insurgency, of which the North Vietnamese were both disciples and masters, Phase III "Strategic Offense" is a rise to conventional combat as the ultimate climax to secure the final victory. We cannot, as the supporter of the defeated party, say "ah ha!! The we defeated your insurgency and it was only a later state on state war that defeated the South after we left"! when the rise to that very climax was the plan of the insurgency from the very start. I would argue that any insurgency that can muster Corp level combined arms operations in Phase III to rapidly sweep across an entire state is not very "defeated."

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 8:10am


You could find very similar examples in the Mekong Delta too, and other places as well, but enough of this, it is not getting us anywhere.

I understand your points and advice to me, thanks for the discussion

best of luck to you


eugnid (not verified)

Tue, 04/26/2011 - 12:14am

Perhaps if you considered where Thua Thien is located and its ethnic distinction from "les Sudistes" and how it came to be run by an exclusively NORTH VIETNAMESE infrastructure, not VC, after Tet 68; and that Hue was the capital of the Peace Movement Buddhists that wanted us to stay, not leave, you might see that it is NOT representative of the rest of SVN. I have personal reason to greatly respect Trullinger so you can imagine that I read that book closely years ago. What I tried to address is a REAL CHANGE in the war pre to post Tet due to a decade of observation over all of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and two decades of study afterward.

Prof. Gentile, my point is that if Hanoi saw two wars and Saigon saw two war-- pre and post Tet-- the two wars I saw unfold over a decade may be more than just a personal impression based on the Ngo Vinh Long thesis. You can't deny the impact of South Vietnam's shift from 85% rural to 75% urban in just a few years. Nor can you deny how that forced Hanoi to switch from VC to NVA. We have so many of the Partys operational debates in captured documents, it would be very worthwhile to read them again. That rural-->urban population shift made it a totally different war, don't you think?

Alas, the Vietnam War history I hoped to write upon retirement had been sacrificed to my WTC experience on 9/11 and what followed; recently, trying to catch up on all the molecular medicine developments over the last three decades since I last studied that field I no longer have all these materials within easy reach. My only purpose for bringing up Vietnam is to promote a reconsideration of the rural to urban revolution and how we missed it then, though we almost won it, and may be missing it now by trying to control the countryside. Were ending up killing people so as to avoid "them" killing "our" people. Wouldn't you consider that basically as a defensive position against an enemy that melts into his families in the villages? How did we end up obsessed about high "body count" (theirs) and low "casualties" (ours) again at the expense of the people we are trying to save by destroying? Abrams-- not him alone-- grasped clearly the different war against NVA after Tet, though he failed to grasp the effect of Cambodia on ARVN just while we were leaving. Lam Son 719 was a desperate act of time's up. He paid for it dearly with his reputation. Nixon called him an incompetent drunk! Nevertheless, he realized that four years of sending companies on missions as bait (70% of all firefights were at NVA/VC initiative from '64 to '67--so we were exsanguinating the flower of our youth and our national will. The post-Westy change no one discusses is that the enemy was KEPT in the countryside while the cities were protected. PROVN wasnt the change, it was rather no longer seeking out the enemy with young Americans as bait for the big units, artillery and airpower to smash.

Trying to hold countryside against rural guerrillas OF the population and IN the population with FOREIGN troops, for a BS GOV that Petraeus called "a criminal syndicate" seems something of a repeat of 64-'67. We send our troops into the jaws of Hell and then desperately try to use our air force to break the jaws before they close. So much for hearts & minds... .translated into "injun country."

Had NATO since 2005 built its own modern cities, bringing Afghan youth to study, train and work there in a controlled environment, we could have had our own urban revolution to which Taliban has no answer. What did we need the villages of the South and East for? Why not create a modern class of youths and then turn the country over to it? In Vietnam we imported enough rice from Thailand and Asia to feed the cities. Peasants began to join RFs/PFs so they could sell their rice in the towns. Hanoi had no answer to that. What would the Taliban do while we attract and educate Afghanistan's youth in NATO cities? The remittances they send home would have been our best propaganda ever. Our troops would be defending a world WE created, a modernization revolution in Afghan NW and Karzai could have kept Kabul and his brother Kandahar. We really educated Saigon's youth. So, despite defeat, they now control Hanoi's economy and have for quite a while since their parents' defeat. We could have done the same in our NATO-run NWern cities.

My only purpose is to promote a discussion of how we ALMOST won in Vietnam because I think we may be almost winning now in the same way but will lose because, again, time's up. We can't do rural revolutions nor can match Sharia village justice. But nobody else does urban revolution like we can!

Taliban had a lot of Viet-Chicom materials in translation and many seem to believe that those lessons are still very useful. Unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, we burn Afghansitan and give what survived to Karzai. Does that make sense to you? I wouldnt accept my son fighting such a repeat of Vietnam. But Americans are telling themselves, "aint my kid going to war" and they let Petraeus flip his COINS his way. My case is in millions of pages of captured VC/DRV documents and post-war analyses in Asia. What Im so sad about in Afghanistan is only now available in thousands of pages of captured documents--captured by Wikileaks!

History will break the "classified" black box and our leaders will invariably be held to account by Muse Clio. Right now people dont care because theres no draft. But that also means that theyll be more willing to abandon it all because of the cost. Commands worst crime is not to have looked at lessons learned from Vietnam the way physicians and surgeons look at their procedures in wet tissue conferences; just because much of Vietnam was in CIA files rather than in those of the Pentagon, we pretended that the evidence is not there. Im sure you realize that theres a lot more Vietnam material for my case than Le Duc Thos speech. The real issue is whether, as an historian, you really want to dig, dig, dig.

Thats my opinion and, in light of event since 9/11 Im sorry I never developed it in depth. Had I suspected that wed do since 9/11 what we did, I assure you I would have devoted my life to it. To my dying day I will feel personal responsibility for the many dead we suffered. Considering how unwelcome is deviation from the party line these days, no one can be accused of entering this arena self-servingly. This is not parlor game, careerism or partisanship, Prof Gentile. I knew another colonel who took on the establishment over Vietnam. They raised him high only to dash him against the pavement. Either they parroted his words or cursed him as stupid. Alas, the us-against-them attitude got us where we are now. Were not doing too well. Theres nothing in this "war" for me but an aching feeling that four airliners were seized in about ten minutes each because the airlines felt that they didnt have to obey the rules and make the pilots cabin impenetrable in flight. Since then its been one lie after another. Though so many more lives are at stake, the military is never held to the same standards as the medical profession. I guess now its too late for all of us; all we can do is finger point, a useless exercise. I had hoped that wed engage in meaningful dialogue but with so many careers at stake and Americans disconnected by the "aint my kid going to war" mantra that will have to wait for the next generations history seminars

Bob, that may be a feel good assessment, but it is far from reality. The S. Vietnam government didn't fall due to a popular internal uprising, it fell when only when N. Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon period. The Viet Cong were defeated primarily militarly under Abram's strategy, but also through some smart political moves.

You assume this was a popular victory, but forget how many S. Vietnamese fought to the bitter end because they didn't want anything to do with the communists from N. Vietnam. There wasn't mass celebration when the S. Vietnamese government fell, instead there was mass mitigration (remember the thousands of boat people, I guess they didn't think the new government was legitimate). There are always groups in these conflicts (thus the real reason for conflict, not poor government), and the side with the best military tactics usually wins. You can continue to tilt at windmills, but it won't change history or the future.

Bob's World

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 5:36pm

The tactics and programs under both generals added up to a strategic defeat as both were forced to defend a South Vietnamese state and government of that state that both lacked legitimacy in the eyes of that segment of populace diligently supported that long war against what Gap called "French Colonialism and American Neo-Colonialism."

Kind of like arguing if it was the starting pitcher or the closer that lost the baseball game. A loss is a loss. We put both generals into a strategic situation that was unwinnable through military operations, be those operations "threat-centric" or "population-centric" either one. Thus the embarrassing walking away during the "decent interval" that Kissinger negotiated for.

If we continue to debate generals and tactics we will never learn the lessons that really matter most in such situations. We miss-understood the threat that Communism as an ideology presented to America, and we rationalized some major compromises of our national ethos and principles in committing ourselves to the denial of a victory by a side employing that ideology.

We risk making similar mistakes in the Middle East and North Africa today with our misplaced fear of Islamist Ideology and similar willingness to compromise what we profess to stand for in order to ensure that any side employing it might prevail.

We just need to return to our roots in terms of principles; we need to ease up on our desire to control every outcome; and increase our willingness to work with people and governments as we find them, not as we shape them to suit our sense of propriety at that time.



gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 5:14pm


thanks for the comments

take care


Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 5:11pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

I do not dispute that the 'better war' myth exists and I certainly see it and acknowledge that it is a myth -- I just do not think it matters <i>nearly</i> as much as you seem to...

We can continue to disagree on Westmoreland and Abrams. What I can and do assert is that having been there at change of command time, there was a rapid and beneficial change in the overall command climate, in operating policies and in guidance to units in the field. Was it sweeping, a major readjustment? No, not at all -- but it was better. And it continued to get better.

Grant also was purported to have a serious drinking problem. As was Daniel Morgan. Neither Lincoln or Washington seemed too concerned. Sorry, but I see no relevance at all in a gossip item. What's your point?

As for this:<blockquote>"you have been the one who continuously lets me know that you were there which then carries the implicit suggestion that I should defer to your assessments of the war and accept your critiques of what I say."</blockquote>You know what they say about assumptions... ;)

Do not look for implicit subtlety in my comments, there is none. Many of us have not suggested that you defer to our critiques, merely that you <i>might</i> at least consider them.

Most accept that you do not intend to do so and move on. I also accept that; your prerogative; but do find it an interesting anomaly in a searcher for truth.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 4:19pm


Fair enough, a few last points if I may.

You say I have a "fetish" with this better war thing. But the truth is that it has power, it really does.

Go to almost any Commander's reading list in the US Army and under History and the Vietnam War you will find Sorley's "A Better War." It is alive and well in the popular conscious. Or go read Nagl, or Krepinevich, or many others and tell me if there isnt a "better war" thing going on. Lastly have a look at the bevy of articles that came out when McChrystal took command in Afghanistan which refered either explicitly or implicitly to the idea of a better war in Vietnam under Abrams. You may not see it Ken, but it is there and is alive and well.

I disagree that Abrams was qualitatively better than Westmoreland. Both had their strengths and weaknesses in their own ways. Abrams was charismatic, like a football coach. Westmoreland on the other hand was a cold fish. Both generals, however, in their generalship--or how they fought the war--were very similar. There is also a lot of very credible anecdotal evidence that Abrams had a serious, serious drinking problem, but this of course has never been developed in the historical literature.

As to the "personal" nature of my critique, come on man, you have been the one who continuously lets me know that you were there which then carries the implicit suggestion that I should defer to your assessments of the war and accept your critiques of what I say. Go back and re-read some of your posts to see what I mean.


Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 4:03pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

Your ability to unnecessarily turn a minor comment or suggestion into a full bore argument is still impressive.

The issue is not that 'I' was in Viet Nam or that 'You' were in Iraq and that either of us therefor has an encyclopedic knowledge of events in those wars. We do not. It is simply that several people (generic) who were someplace at a time suggest further consideration of a pertinent issue or two is warranted by others (generic) who know of those issues only through the written word with all its potential ambiguities and biases.

It would seem that those others might, just might, give the suggestion at least a bit of thought before categorically rejecting it. YMOV.

You're making something personal that is not personal. That seems quite unnecessary.

As for this:<blockquote>"Are there any histories out there that you agree with? Or are you just skeptical to the point of rejection of all histories?"</blockquote>I've read several but not all those you cite including competing views and in my view all have general merit. I do not reject any of them in toto but do realize that several have a pronounced bias -- in several directions -- and I know you are smart enough to recognize that.

That said I am not skeptical to the point I reject all histories, in fact I accept all of them to a quite large degree, discarding only those <u>very few things</u> that I deduce, based on personal experience, <u>may</u> be incorrect, misstated or just a biased or ideological view. In my observation, that selective discard is rare, applies to most history (and other non-fiction) I have read to one degree or another and is subject to later amendment if new facts are identified.

I have frequently agreed with you on aspects of Viet Nam but we seem to continually disagree on two issues:

First, we have agreed that Abrams pursued most of Westmoreland's version of Harkin's 'strategies.' The three were after all products of 1945 NW Europe so there's nothing strange about that...

However, that Abrams did a vastly better job is also correct. That is a fact that you sometimes acknowledge but bristle at unless it is couched to your satisfaction. I'm unsure why that is...

Secondly, you've got a fetish with this "better war" thing. There's no such thing as a better war, all of 'em are bad. Some are better pursued than are others and in some, Viet Nam being but one example, subsequent Commanders do better than their predecessors. That also is a fact.

Many who comment on your Viet Nam war positions note that it wasn't better, wasn't anything that good about it. They simply point out that all history is subject to reinterpretation, revision -- and bias. I'm also unsure why that upsets you.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 3:18pm

Now of course I assume you know that it was in the internal political interests of Tho and others to downplay the role of the VC (later PRG)in the defeat of the South which had more to do with post war Vietnam political power sturggles than what actually happened during the war.

But OK, fair enough, I will re-read Tho, but might i humbly suggest to you Eugnid that you pick up a copy of Trullinger's "Village at War" which was a contemporaneous account, based on contemporaneous interviews, of the situation in Thua Thien Province in 1974. And in that book there is clearly no reason to think that the PRG, both military and infrastructure, had been defeated.



eugnid (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 2:59pm

May I recommend you get a translation of Le Duc Tho's 1984 account to the Party's Historic Branch on how the VC was gone, only a minor nuisance to ARVN, and only PAVN won the war by its large unit actions. There's an awful lot of material. But as you say, "whatever...." as it's your version!

Sometimes Viet sources know better than we big Americans, and this might be said for Afghanistan too!

We didn't lose then and are losing now because we're so much on top of things!

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 2:11pm


I humbly suggest to you that simply because you were there at certain points of the Vietnam War you do not hold the key to the historical truth of it. As I have pointed out to you before with that logic, nobody should ever dare question me on the history of the Iraq war because I was there twice and experienced it first hand. But that would be silly for me to do, right?

I do give thought to what you say, as I do with others who experienced that war either through interviews, diaries, etc. But simply because what Ken White says to be the truth about Vietnam becasue he was there does not make it so. To be sure personal experiences of war are critically important for history, but they are not the only contributing sources, there are many others, and sometimes they conflict.

I also give thought to a wide body of historical research, Ken, which by and large does not accept the better war thesis. And in that wide body of historical research I like to think that I do my best to view the war from the various sides, not just the American.

And lastly Ken, can you suggest to me a history of the Vietnam War that you think is worthwhile? Would it be Moyar, Nagl, Krepinevich, Spector, Race, D. Elliot, Brigham, Young, Clarke, Hunt, Weist, M. Elliot, Herring, Bergerud, Cosmas, Birtle, Andrade, Sorley, somebody?

Are there any histories out there that you agree with? Or are you just skeptical to the point of rejection of all histories?


Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 1:12pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

Sigh. Once more to flog the poor horse's carcass.

Two points for you. First, I'm sure you've considered that the "facts from the Vietnamese side of the war" may not be...

Secondly, If I were a historian, I'd like to think that if I expressed a view my studies indicated and I continually got pinged on that view by people who were actually involved in a war -- and most of whom express strong skepticism on the merits of said war -- I might give that some thought.

<b>Carl Prine:</b>

Exactly. Well said and we emphatically are not.


Mon, 04/25/2011 - 9:07am

The general proved unserious after the initial paragraph. This was painful to read yet it perhaps explained the strategic deficit that has so plagued our GOs since the advent of these wars.

Where were the adults when generals such as Keane were blathering their inanities? Why have we defaulted to their understandings of blood and treasure and allowed our military overseas to be tethered to their professional motives?

It's long been said that America deserves the politicians we elect, and their supine oversight of these wars has contributed to the ongoing debacles.

But after reading this, can we not also suggest that we get the generals we deserve, too?

I suggest that the former (weak, ineffective, supine Congress) begets the latter. I'm not convinced that our nation has been the better for it.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 7:23am

Whatever eugnid;

but the facts from the Vietnamese side of the war do not in any way support your contention that things were working and as you say we had a "counter revolutionary" method in place. It is true that there were seeds in the larger urban areas of a budding SVN national identity and the possibility of a stable middle class, but that came too late and could never develop into a force that could overpower the endemic problems of corruption and dysfunction of the SVN government and military.

Things did change in the countryside, radically, by 1972. But those changes came about not because of a better war under Abrams with a "counter revolutionary strategy", or even because the North and VC were successful with their revolutionary strategy (in this sense and as brilliant as his book is, Race was wrong about Long An) but due to the death and destruction caused by the war itself. As historian Andy Birtle has said, war was "the driver of change."

It is you who are frozen in the past, a mythical past that remembers Vietnam as America's second "lost cause." But in this one the "lost cause" is the myth of a better war under Abrams.

Sadly and like the first "lost cause" war for America, the myth of Vietnam wont go away anytime soon. Just like folks continue to want to believe--wrongly--that the Civil War was fought over states rights instead of slavery, so too do folks want to believe that there was a better war in Vietnam under Abrams--there was not.



eugnid (not verified)

Mon, 04/25/2011 - 12:57am

Gentile seems to have a frozen view of Vietnam after Westy. FACT IS that Abrams distinguished between security for URBAN Vietnam and seizing the villages. He knew Hanoi had no power in the cities and no counter "revolutionary" urban economy-- the Dang Lao Dong never had one since 1929! He was going to destroy the PAVN big units while allowing the urbanized peasants to send their young cousins in the countryside to kill Charlie as PFs/RFs so they could get their produce to market in town.

PROVN indeed was as unreal as Petraeus/McChrystal on taking the Afghan countryside with a "surge." But fact is that in Vietnam-- finally but too late-- we had a counter-REVOLUTION to Hanoi's (only an empty promise of "land reform" from a Communist regime in a nation that went 2/3 urban!!!) as opposed to a deadly counter-INSURGENCY that just kills people who cooperate with whomever knocks on their doors at night AND SPEAKS THE LOCAL LANGUAGE because he's NOT a foreigner.

Gian P Gentile (not verified)

Sun, 04/10/2011 - 8:59am


What you say about North Vietnam ready to quit the war is fiction and not supported in any way by primary evidence.

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Sat, 04/09/2011 - 10:34pm

Charles, I don't want to fight the Viet-Nam war over again, but we did mine Haiphong Harbor in May of 1972, albeit, a bit late perhaps.

Gents: I think you all are missing one major point. Vietnam was lost because of the gutless politicians. Not because of the way we fought. Did we mine Haiphong Harbor? No. Did we do any number of things to prevent what happened in the end? Hell the North Vietnamese were ready to throw in the towel and we began pulling out. Very sad.

Jack Keane was a superb leader and I would follow him anywhere.

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 6:23pm

"Publius, come on my friend, I have not just read two old dusty bios of the two generals and from that drawn my conclusions. I have poured over thousands of contemporaneous documents to come up with these arguments."

Sorry, Gian. Some clumsy wording on my part, I'm afraid. I'm well aware of the hard work you've put into your project; I certainly did not mean to give you impression that I don't appreciate what you're doing.

But, man, when I see someone like Keane, a four-general, a guy who, slick as he is, will inevitably be able to get someone in power to listen to him, demonstrating that he hasn't learned a thing over the years, it really gets to me. If Keane and his fellow travelers are able to successfully peddle their particular brand of horseshit (and face it, the audience isn't comprised of the sharpest knives in the drawer), my fear for the nation's future rachets up still another notch.

My God, we can't just keep fucking up. Even this, once the best of all nations, won't be able to keep dodging fate's bullets, not if we stay on our present course.

Messrs White Jones make excellent points about the absolutely crappy systems that persist as hangovers from Vietnam. Hey, Keane was Vice. And doesn't the Vice "run the Army," as we used to say? Well, that's a fine job General Keane did in getting the system in order. Probably too busy nursing his grievances about Vietnam.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 5:57pm

<b>Grant Martin:</b>

I know. Started a little over 40 years ago and has progressively worsened.

Your comment on our narratives lauding our efforts struck a chord -- witness my comment above on the AARs and SitReps that talked a good fight often without too much regard for what actually transpired. Aside from the integrity issue, that's militarily dangerous as it can lead to a false picture -- and the wrong lessons...<blockquote>"...we are usually good for now and the politicians will take most of the flak."</blockquote>True, they're not only often ignorant, they're a bit masochistic and we shift blame quite well. :<

Too well. Yet another integrity AND performance issue. The Army effectively got away with major screwups in Viet Nam (and Korea...) -- that escape from responsibility did more harm than good and we appear on track to do much the same thing with the Iraqi and Afghan ops. We're not going to fix our flaws if we do not acknowledge them. We're not going to fix the Personnel system if it "must work right, after all, look where I am..." pervades the ranks of those who are charged with oversight of defending the nation.

One of my favorite Marines once said "<i>We're lucky. Most of the people we fight are even more screwed up than we are</i>..."<blockquote>"I hope we aren't burning the bridges of "future necessary action" today by not being a little more honest with ourselves."</blockquote>His comment and yours are really the crux of the issue. I've met a lot very senior people who privately will express doubts similar to his, yours, mine -- and many others.

Publicly, however, they cannot or will not go there and as you note that institutional inertia and its allied cover up mentality is a major failure.

It instigated the post-Viet Nam failure to reform and has been and is the root of all the problems we've cited and more...

G Martin

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 1:27pm


That our own leaders echo what you stated-

"We need to rectify the Personnel System, to stop worshipping at the altar of seniority, to emphasize merit and competence, to inculcate innovation, flexibility and initiative and to fix training. A first step in so doing is to simply acknowledge that what we have been doing in those areas has fostered mediocrity and inculcated a lack of trust that permeates the Army."

- is still not enough, IMO, to make me feel hopeful change will take place. The guys in charge and rising up currently didn't get there by doing those things or changing much. Now, you wouldn't know that by reading evaluations or listening to rhetoric, but the rank and file know it and aren't confident that anything will change- and in the end it doesn't even matter.

The sad truth is that we can still, as an institution, give off the perception of success no matter what happens- as our effects are so long-term that it is near impossible to connect the dots between what we do now and what ends up happening for future generations. As long as the narrative we spread lauds our efforts, we are usually good for now and the politicians will take most of the flak. I'd argue that is mainly the case due to guilt from how soldiers were treated after Vietnam and a possible paucity of other institutions for our people to feel good about (as opposed to us being great in and of ourselves).

My question is how long will we be able to milk that sentiment?? I think there are many nations in Western Europe and elsewhere that don't have as much confidence in what their militaries can accomplish. I hope we aren't burning the bridges of "future necessary action" today by not being a little more honest with ourselves.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 12:02pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

No sense in boring everyone with quibbles, however, I will point out that no one <u>here</u> is arguing that Westmoreland and Abrams did different -- just that Abrams did it better. Also note that all your research cited focuses on the Army, thus my comment that State, Aid and others changed post-Westmoreland and that Abrams controlled the Staff instead of being controlled by them are unaccounted for.

As an aside, I'm sure you're aware of this but it bears repeating: no volume of reports will ever contain all the nuances that occur on the ground; and AARs, SitReps and the like are written by those who too often elide the mistakes and opt for creative writing that protects themselves, their bosses, the unit and the institution -- as the writer sees the need to do those things...

As for the rest -- Infantry Battalions kept doing Infantry Battalion stuff. Amazing. Who knew. ;)

I agree no one should buy into the myth that "everything changed" because it did not -- nor have I ever claimed it did -- but folks also should not buy into the equally dangerous myth that nothing changed because many things did...

<b>Robert C. Jones:</b>

While I totally agree that insurgencies are rarely likely to be defeated in the absence of of a series of ever vicious and hereditary Khans and I also agree that we learned the wrong lessons from Viet Nam, I will note one are of difference in that latter issue.

You contend we learned the wrong political diplomatic and strategic lessons from that war. I agree -- however you and many others, I believe, seem to miss that the US Army learned many bad administrative, tactical and operational lessons that are embedded in the force to this day.

That is a terribly important point that should never be overlooked. It affects today's actions and does that quite adversely. The bad habits learned or reinforced from similar errors in other wars affect today's operations and -- <b>this is important</b> -- lead to gross errors in strategic planning.

We need to rectify the Personnel System, to stop worshipping at the altar of seniority, to emphasize merit and competence, to inculcate innovation, flexibility and initiative and to fix training. A first step in so doing is to simply acknowledge that what we have been doing in those areas has fostered mediocrity and inculcated a lack of trust that permeates the Army.

- - - - - - -

For both of you esteemed gentlemen; you're broadly correct. You also tend to see forests but run into trees. Strategic visionaries tend to get tripped up by the 'little stuff' -- it's that 'little stuff' that gets people killed unnecessarily. To have a successful armed force, competent leaders are an absolute necessity. If one is to be that, one does not have to "sweat the small stuff" but one had better be intimately familiar with it, aware of it and never, never ever discount it...

Else one can draw the wrong lessons. Lot of that going around...

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 11:28am


That is an excellent comparison between Tunnell's proclamation that he "defeated" the taliban in his AO last year with the idea that the VC and PRG were "defeated" in South Vietnam. They were not.


Bob's World

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 10:30am

Gen. Keane misunderstands the Vietnam war because he buys into the US myth that this was a war of "Northern Aggression," a state on state conventional war between North and South Vietnam, coupled with a nationalist insurgency in the South.

The fact is that the entire US era in Vietnam was but the final phase in a decades long struggle by Vietnam to throw of what they saw as "French Colonialism and US neo-colonialism."

The fact that a line was drawn and new states formed following the French defeat did not transform the nature of conflict, it merely created a legally recognized sancutary from which the insurgency could base its operations as it continued to work to consolidate a nation-wide solution.

Keane also overstates that we "defeated" the insurgency. Insurgencies ebb and flow like the tide, certainly we suppressed the insurgent arm in the south, but that was a temporary effect created and sustained by our presence alone. The insurgency quickly "flowed" once again after US power was withdrawn.

In a similar, but smaller scale example, COL Harry Tunnell told me he and his STRYKER BDE had "defeated the Taliban in the Arghandab" last year. Suppressed? Absolutely. Defeated? Not even close.

The sad fact is that we learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam, but believe them to be the right ones.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 8:13am

Look, I get the problem with historical truth and that truth plays itself out in histories, in memory, and in myth, and the three often collide. One can easily find many men, like Publius and Ken, who were on the ground fighting the war with memories of both Abrams and Westmoreland. I spoke just a few days ago to a former marine rifle company commander in An Hoa from 67 to 68 who then became a PRU leader in 69 and he agreed with me that Abrams was more like Westmoreland than not. So it is the historian's job to sift through these various sources, primary, memory through remembrances, secondary etc to come up with a reasonable interpretation of the past which can be referred to as historical truth.

My assessment of the Vietnam war is based mostly on primary historical research, and a thorough reading of the secondary literature, and discussions and interviews with people who served there at the time. This is what historians do. This is what i did to support the statements i made in my first post. I spent months in the archives (National, CMH, and AHEC)reading through command posts reports and aars from brigade up through Force in Vietnam. From that historical record came the sense that operationally things did not change under Abrams. If you look for example at a daily log from a Brigade in the 4th ID from late 66 and then move through the daily logs until the early 70s you will see very little change in terms of how they conducted operations on a daily basis. This is what i mean by operational framework. To be sure there was a significant change of policy with Vietnamization and the reduction of American troops in Vietnam, but the operational framework of search and destroy remained the same from 65 to 72. Popular writers like Sorley can assert all they want that once Abrams took command "everything changed" but then that assertion should find some reflection in the primary record, but it does not.

Moreover the same argument of continuity based on primary evidence can be made with regard to Westmoreland and Abrams. The outgoing message traffic of both generals (westmoreland from 64 to 68 and Abrmas from 67 to 72) show that in terms of how they fought the war, each were very similar. Moreover, the weekly meetings that Abrams held with his staff and commanders really does show that he simply was not that interested in pacification. Publius, come on my friend, I have not just read two old dusty bios of the two generals and from that drawn my conclusions. I have poured over thousands of contemporaneous documents to come up with these arguments.

To be sure in terms of personalities the two generals were very different: Westmoreland was impersonal to the point of being a cold fish and Abrams was a football coach, sometimes chewing butt then giving a slap on the tail of encouragement right afterwards. But their generalship in terms of how they fought the war was very similar. As I said already both were most comfortable with using massive amounts of american firepower to achieve their objectives, the latter admittedly changed due to policy adjustments during Abrams command.

There to be sure are many ways to interpret the Vietnam War. But I do believe strongly that the better war myth--as General Keane regurgitated--needs to have a silver stake driven through the middle of it and put to death. It has done nothing but harm to our collective understanding of the war. Moreover the better war myth of Vietnam is a critical pillar in the Coin narrative that has field armies in modern coin wars fumbling then failing, but then, once a better general comes on board who reinvents the field army, the war is changed due to so called better generalship and improved coin tactics. It is this very narrative that plays itself out today in Afghanistan (read comments from senior American generals that "finally we have the right inputs in place) and one worries may cause folks to see Benghazi through the prism of the promise of better tactics rescuing failed strategy, or no strategy at all.

Thanks for the discussion


Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 1:43am

Publius, my friend, I am with you totally on Keane, on Gian, on the fact that we were pretty good, knew how to do it and generally got it done.

I also agree on the fact that there are indeed many truths. You may recall the Troops "it don't mean nuthin" from back in the day -- but whatever 'it' was, it most always did mean <i>something</i>...

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 1:13am

@Ken White: Ken, you always find the truth. I appreciate your thoughts very much.

I don't care about Jack Keane. Keane is what he is. He is not and will not be what I believe to be any sort of reliable source. I do, however, care about Gian Gentile, the man who is trying to tiptoe through all of the BS from the Keanes and from me and from everybody else who wants to influence what people who live long after we are dead think about us.

What I always want Gian, the historian, to realize is that there are many truths when it comes to Vietnam, the nation in which we lived and the army in which we served. Gian, the difficulty for the historian is that he did not live the times; I encourage you to seek out contemporaneous accounts, to actually interview people who lived it. Relying on dusty old histories of Westmoreland, Abrams, etc., won't cut it. Gian, it is still alive in us. Talk to the living. It is a story with so much relevance to today's blunders that it must be told.

Following along with you, Ken, I would say that the Vietnam-era Army in which I served (and where I decided to make it a career) was a great Army in many respects. I think of some of the folks with whom I served, and I think, what wonderful people. And, yeah, we knew how to do it. We were good, but as soldiers, we ended up being tainted by a national command authority that had put us in harm's way without ever thinking about why it was being done.

For Gian: You'd think that after 35 years, we'd know it all, but the truth is the definitive story about Vietnam has yet to be written. And, sadly, it's still being written in Afghanistan today. And, please, my friend, do not ever listen to the Jack Keanes.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 12:34am

<b>Publius:</b><blockquote>"The real problem all of us Vietnam guys have is that we want to ameliorate the truth about our war. We want to somehow find meaning in all of it."</blockquote>Not to go off thread or to argue but just as a point of interest (and for Gian... ;) ), that has not been my observation. Admittedly, <i>most</i> of my peers and seniors with whom I talked and talk had also been in Korea but my observation of (again) <i>most</i> other than the Kids who did a tour and left the service is that it was just another job but with more bugs...<blockquote>"Unfortunately, there is no greater meaning in Vietnam ... It was not America's shining hour."</blockquote>However, Most would agree with that. I do. It was an ill conceived war with uncertain purpose, no strategic goal or plan and it was poorly fought by an Army that was arguably just slightly more competent but far better equipped than were the opponents.

The sad thing is that while there were bad everythings in country, there were also good units, great commanders and even great Generals there -- unfortunately our poor processes didn't keep those in place long and insured that the good were rotated elsewhere. The good news is that those that most who went did their thing really better than anyone had a right to expect in spite of all the impediments thrown at them.

The Kids pull it out in spite of their seniors screwups -- they always have...

PUBLIUS (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 12:12am

That comment above was mine.

Anonymous (not verified)

Wed, 04/06/2011 - 12:11am

Gian Gentile and I have gone through this before, with me taking the Abrams side and Gian pointing out that old Abe, a man whom I greatly respected--unlike Westmoreland, a man whom I didn't respect at all--wasn't all that much different than Westy. I've reluctantly concluded that Gian is right. Abe wasn't really all that much different. And the older I get, the more it appears that whole thing about how we're all hostages to our past is pretty much on target.

The real problem all of us Vietnam guys have is that we want to ameliorate the truth about our war. We want to somehow find meaning in all of it. Unfortunately, there is no greater meaning in Vietnam. We went there. We did our thing. We got our medals and promotions. We killed a lot of people, theirs and ours. And then we left. End of story. It was not America's shining hour. Vietnam turned out to be very important to me personally. Were it not for the whole Cold War sense of mission thing, I would almost certainly not have stayed in the Army, would not have advanced from NCO ranks to officer status, and would not have stayed in for a career. Vietnam was a life changer for me, just as today's wars are for other young people.

Vietnam today is an authoritarian state that is fast learning how to be capitalists. They're probably no worse off than if our side had won. What might be kind of interesting for younger folks reading these things is what happens after, after the war. Well, look at today's Germany. Look at Vietnam. Maybe you get a sense that everything works out in time. I don't know.

I have a hard time with General Keane. Last I looked, he was back dooring the NCA to take care of some of his boys. I think Keane is too political and that's why I don't trust him. It's legal and all that, but I wish he wouldn't do it. I like to think four-star generals won't do that kind of thing. And if he'd like to discuss it, I'd be more than willing to do so.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 04/05/2011 - 10:30pm

The program timed out -- that's its fault.
The typos, alas, are my fault -- sorry.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 04/05/2011 - 10:28pm

Timed out on me -- the 9:27 is me.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 04/05/2011 - 10:27pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

Why, Gian -- fancy meeting you here... ;)

Yet again, you dispute one who was there based on the questionable 'data' yielded by OpReps and such -- and 'learned' by historians who were not there. Tch, tch...<blockquote>"There was no change in operational framework when Abrams took over."</blockquote>Ambiguous phrase -- what, precisely, is an "operational framework?" Never mind, rhetorical question.

There were numerous actual, on the groiund, changes when Abrams took over and corralled the MACV Staff to which Westemoreland had been far more accommodating. Among those changes were more trust pushed downhill, greater latitude for Commanders on the ground, fewer to no Helicopter borne Star wearing Squad Leaders plus the rise of the dreaded Interagency. Abrams supported all that, Westmoreland -- or the Staff under him -- had discouraged it...

The Army took a back seat in the development business and State / Aid took that over while the famed OGA got heavily involved in CT etc. I was there at the time and there were beaucoup changes...[quote]In fact the primary documents show that Abrams really didnt care about pacification and was most comfortable blowing the crud out of the NVA on the trail.[/quote]I doubt that those documents prove that; they may hint at it or even flatly say it but they do not <i>know</i> what he had on his mind -- nor do or can you or I.[quote]Throughout the entire war from 65 to 72 as reported in the hundreds of thousands of pages of daily command post logs and aars the operational framework for the American Army remained search and destroy.[/quote]Heh. If you believe all AARs you read, you may wish to buy this Bridge I own...

Was that what happened? Not how I recall it but I'll take your word that's true for units of which I wasn't aware. Might have been.

Or did the First Team leave in late 66 as they were replaced by the Second string -- then the third came, then the fourth; ever decreasing levels of competence...

Many historians do not understand the significant damage wrought upon units by the one year tour, the infusion program and the Per Community's desire to rotate CPTs and above through two jobs, minimum, in the year. The Personnel system was b-r-o-k-e-n. Has been for years. Is stil...

When the Brigade I was in arrived in '68, we, by direction, within weeks lost a good S3 to another unit and received in his stead a heavy mech infantry guy. He was smart, articulate, nice as he could be -- and totally clueless about what light infantry was and could do; he knew the AO for the Americal but was lost in Phu Bai.

And all of those units, infused and confused, did what they had trained to do and adapted only poorly to a war they did not want to fight and did not know how to fight? That was not the fault of Abrams -- nor even, really, of Westmoreland -- it was the result of too narrowly focused training , inflexibility and unwillingness to adapt. Nope, the General (both) erred but the big problems were the Army's fault, poor training, bureaucracy and conformism.

Suffice to say that both Westmoreland and
Abrams fought the war they were most comfortable with -- western Europe in 1944-45. Unfortunately, they fought it poorly in the paddies of SEA. I vastly preferred Abrams because he did try harder to and did dare to be different.[quote]The idea that Abrams reinvented the american army to one focused on counterinsurgency is pure fiction and not supported by the primary record.[/quote]I don't disagree with that; I for one have never claimed that he did -- though I have said and do believe he trended more that way than did William. C. All in all, there's little doubt that Abrams did a far better job than did Westmoreland -- and if he did nothing better than rein in the Eurocentric MACV Staff, that was a major plus...:D

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 04/05/2011 - 7:29pm

There was no change in operational framework when Abrams took over. In fact the primary documents show that Abrams really didnt care about pacification and was most comfortable blowing the crud out of the NVA on the trail. Throughout the entire war from 65 to 72 as reported in the hundreds of thousands of pages of daily command post logs and aars the operational framework for the American Army remained search and destroy. The idea that Abrams reinvented the american army to one focused on counterinsurgency is pure fiction and not supported by the primary record.

Abrams was much more alike Westmoreland than not. They were both old school world war II generals most comfortable with using massive amounts of American firepower. Abrams used to quip that the B52s at his disposal were his strategic reserve.

There is a robust bevy of scholarship from both the American and Vietnamese side that shows quite conclusively that pacification failed. Much of it is contained in the Armys own and excellent Green Book Series on the history of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately General Keanes remarks seem to suggest that the American Army doesnt read its own history. Instead it still falls prey to the better war thesis, which again is fiction and myth combined.

The general ought to have started the interview with a better sense of history rather than partaking in the better war myth of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was lost not because the American Army didnt do coin correctly. It lost the war because it failed at strategy and policy. No amount of better tactics--coin or otherwise can rescue failed strategy. As Sun Tzu so correctly stated:

"Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory" but "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

The American Army today hasnt learned a thing from the 1980s. It is still an institution that is most comfortable in the world of tactics and operations. Coin is just the same old wine but in different skins.