Small Wars Journal

U.S. Combat Advisers in Vietnam Knew the Score and Got Ignored

U.S. Combat Advisers in Vietnam Knew the Score and Got Ignored by James A. Warren - The Daily Beast

While attending the Armed Forces Staff College in late 1964, just as the U.S. Army was gearing up to deploy its own combat forces to Vietnam, Col. Volney F. Warner attended a speech by the Marine commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene. Before he began his talk, Gen. Greene asked his audience of a hundred 100 majors and colonels a pointed question: “How many of you think that U.S. forces should be sent to fight in Vietnam and draw the line against communism there?”

Virtually everyone in the audience raised their hands enthusiastically. Then Greene, a decidedly hawkish member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked a second question: “How many think we should stay out of Vietnam?”  Six officers raised their hands … hesitantly. Warner was among them.

“There are a few cowards in every bunch,” quipped the commandant.

But those six officers weren’t cowards. They were soldiers and Marines who had recently returned stateside from tours of duty as advisers to South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) combat units. They knew from firsthand experience what the senior leadership of the American armed forces did not: That the ARVN officer corps, like the government it served, was riven by nepotism, corruption, and indifferent to the plight of the peasantry it was supposed to protect. Moreover, the ARVN was fighting a decidedly unconventional, “people’s war” against small units of guerrillas with tactics and doctrine developed by the U.S. Army for conventional conflicts between regular armies. Not surprisingly, it was losing.

And finally, the advisers had come to understand, much to their dismay, that the top generals and admirals in Saigon and Washington clung tenaciously to this conventional way of war, despite paying lip service to the counterinsurgency training and doctrine that the war in Vietnam seemed to require…

Read on.


Bill M.

Sat, 02/03/2018 - 1:58pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

I couldn't agree more with this comment, "I have known NCO advisors on the ground who have a better grasp of the "big picture" than many inside the beltway." Good luck in getting those NCOs and their chain of command to provide those insights to those in higher level HQs who can only gain a nuanced understanding of ground truth from the feedback they get from our human sensors forward who are interacting minute to minute over a long period of time with the operational ecosystem. They know first-hand why something isn't working.
That is just the military side of the equation, getting that feedback to the real decision makers in the beltway without watering it down is another challenge. I can't recall how many times I heard we can't say that, it sounds too negative, so the assessment gets artificially inflated in the belief it will appease the puppet masters in D.C. Every level of command that gets to chop on an assessment before it lands on the desk of the Chairman injects its own degree of bias, so truth to power normally remains an elusive goal. This is one reason GEN Petraeus stood up team Phoenix, so these young, talented officers would report ground truth directly to him, irking battle space owners who wanted to control the narrative.
In the end though, I often wonder if it really matters? Allison and others have known substantial work on how decisions are made in the beltway, and seldom do experts in the field make a difference. Whatever the political agenda is, and what option supports that agenda is determinative, not a seasoned NCO or officer on the ground who can provide informed insights on the realm of the possible. As Sun Tzu wrote, if you know your enemy and know yourself you need not fear a hundred battles (or something along those lines). In our case, knowing ourselves sadly won’t lead to victory, but it will explain why those in the know are ignored. The article could and maybe should have addressed how this decision-making process continues to this day, with assumptions about going to war in Iraq being rejected if they didn’t fit the political narrative, how Cheney’s circle of village idiots rejected the idea that there was an insurgency in Iraq until it couldn’t be ignored, and of course the false assessments of our progress in Afghanistan. We’re potentially at a more dangerous period of time considering the decisions being weighed now for a number of significant threats.
Part of the problem in the military assessment process is that it is has been overly influenced by business processes with their use of the inappropriately labeled SMART objectives. For the business world they make sense, but they have limited utility in developing and assessing the effectiveness of strategy for big or small wars. As Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." How many times have these inappropriate objectives, the associated effects, and MOP assessments led us to believe we were winning when we clearly were not? How many times have those in the ranks heard, we can't say that, the boss doesn't want to look bad? Maybe more than any other factor, moral courage is ultimately determinative in small wars.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 02/03/2018 - 11:53am

I am always amused when those who make assessments from the tip of the spear are dismissed because they do not see the big picture. I have known NCO advisors on the ground who have a better grasp of the "big picture" than many inside the beltway. Their voices should be heard and considered (emphasis on considered because they provide an important view and assessment of the situation - but like everyone else they are feeling the elephant with a blindfold on - sometimes though they are better able to peek under that blindfold than those back in the beltway).


QUOTE The U.S. military’s searing experience in Vietnam did, of course, prompt a great deal of soul searching within the services about the way they had conducted business, and about the dangers of manipulating—or ignoring—candid reporting from its soldiers on the ground. Since the fall of Saigon, all the services have placed much more emphasis on collecting uncorrupted information from the field, and incorporating lessons learned there into training and doctrine. And there is a widespread awareness from the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down through the ranks that the skills and tactics required to fight insurgencies and other “asymmetrical conflicts” are vastly different than those required for conventional war.

Whether the U.S. military packs the gear to win “political wars” remains a much-debated question.END QUOTE