Small Wars Journal

Prine on Abrams and Primary Sources

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 7:06pm
Carl Prine at "Prine's Line of Departure" has a very important post on the history of the Vietnam War, and specifically on the generalship of General Creighton Abrams. What prompted Carl's post was a newly released set of volumes by Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) that contain a series of discussions between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the Easter Offensive in Spring of 1972 regarding the performance of the MAC-V commander, Creighton Abrams. Pay attention to the quote that Carl cites where Nixon and Kissinger are seriously considering relieving Abrams. Their frustration with Abrams had to do with how Abrams conceived of using firepower delivered by B52s. Abrams wanted to concentrate most if not all of the B-52s to thwart the NVA offensive along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in South Vietnam, whereas Nixon and Kissinger saw an opportunity to use the B52s and massive amounts of firepower to pummel Hanoi and other key strategic points in North Vietnam in order to force a better political compromise at the negotiations table.

Carl's post and his use of the primary documents also highlights another little understood aspect of General Abrams in that he appears to have had a very serious drinking problem that rose to the level of notice by the Commander in Chief, President Nixon. This is not to spread dirty rumors about a famed American General, but to explore historically a significant factor of the man that very well could have affected his generalship. It at least warrants asking the question. Unfortunately this personal aspect of Abrams along with the deep frustration that his Commander in Chief had over his performance has been buried by the hagiography surrounding the Abrams by the works of writer Lewis Sorley and the myth of a better war in Vietnam.


Unfortunately, until Lewis Sorley started writing about this period of the Viet Nam war, there wasn't a great deal of scholarship or examination of the 5 years from '68-'72-at least in the less military trade-minded literature. Sorley may present a somewhat unbalanced view, but at least it's a researched point of view that pays attention to that period. Even Karnow's classic Vietnam-A History- leaves the Nixon years for the last 100 pages of a 700 page tome.

As for the deep frustration Nixon felt with Abrams' performance, the President was free to make a change at any time. Yet Abrams served 5 years in-country in VIetnam. Is there another theater commander who served as long in American military history? If you examine the record and look at the back channel advising of the White House by other would-be military advisers, one can only imagine that the frustration Nixon felt was reciprocal. Nixon & Kissinger? Can we really utter the names without recognizing their capacity for duplicity and manipulation?

Hagiography may be a sin, but it's forgivable. The fact of the matter is so many of the key players of that era passed away so quickly, we'll never get a chance to hear the story from their POV.


Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:55am

It would be great to see these types of articles and the subsequent comments expanded upon. The insight and additional information are invaluable to those looking back in order to help see what we should be doing in the future.

Plubius wrote,

""I liked your reply to me a lot, but I would caution you against idealizing my Vietnam Army. We had the good, bad and ugly just like every other Army's had. The one major advantage we had--and this goes to physical conditioning and overall troop quality--is that we grew up in a different time. It wasn't hard for kids who grew up in the 50s to be in shape. Fat or out-of-shape kids were rare. Plus the American educational system was at its peak. A high school graduate in 1965 was far better educated than a HS graduate today. Plus we had a different culture. Plus we had draftees, most of whom did a great job.""

I agree whole heartedly with the above. While what I wrote may have came across as idolizing, I tried to avoid that. My point wasn't that the the Army of the early to mid 60s was perfect, but that the Army of today, or the Army that executed DESERT STORM wasn't and isn't better, and I actually suspect the Army of today minus its technology superiority isn't quite as good for reasons already listed. As for the greatest generation, maybe, or maybe not, that was a label generated by a journalist that had sticking power. It was definitely an Army that eventually rised to the occassion and made incredible sacrifices, but we shouldn't forget that the Army we were first fielded was full of incompetents. One only needs to read "Army at Dawn" to get an idea of how bad of condition we were in when we entered the war. Similiar to the condition we were in when we entered the Korean conflict.

You're obviously right when you note different times, different cultures and all that implies.

In the end though, it is still the American Army, and on that note wish you all a Happy 4th!

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 07/04/2011 - 12:19am

I'll get back as soon as I can Google up an antonym for hagiogrphers. ;)

Or find that razor...


Sun, 07/03/2011 - 11:57pm

"Laird didn't fire Abrams. Nixon didn't fire Abrams. In fact, despite his horseshit posturing, Nixon made Abrams Army Chief of Staff."

Both the transcripts and Randolph's book make clear that Nixon didn't want to fire Abrams because it would become a political problem.

Nixon wanted to fire him in 1971. He wanted to fire him in 1972. From what I can tell, he lasted about halfway through the Easter Offensive and then was promoted to CSA which got him out of Vietnam.

By your logic, LBJ must not have had any doubts about Westmoreland's prosecution of the war because his fire-by-promotion made him CSA. Same with Abrams? And Casey?

As for me, I have zero interest in Sorley's thesis. It's a relic of its time, which I suppose so was Abrams.

I'm just old fashioned enough, however, to think that my profession and that of the historians' racket should try to get at the truth. And I'm a bit bemused that so many historians have been writing biographies of Abrams and unlike those of Nixon and others they seem to have neglected a little substance abuse problem, an issue so chronic that for nearly two years much of the national security apparatus apparently wanted him fired, partially because of it.

My beef, therefore, isn't with Abrams. It's with his hagiographers.

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 10:27pm

Have to agree. Publius isn't missing the point but then, due to the several reasons I stated above, I think I can understand the 'why' and thus I'm not particularly curious about the historians failure to belabor a micro point.

Back in '66 I served under a Battalion Commander there who had three Radio Operators vice the usual two. He had the two for the Bn and Bde nets -- the third guy carried a Waterporoof Bag full of iced down beer on a packboard. When Joe Wasco saw someone doing a good job, they got a cold beer. He gave me a beer the day he relieved me, briefly -- when I asked why, he said he didn't want me to be the only SOB in the Bn who could say I hadn't been relieved by him. That serendipitously saved us a lot of hassle later due to the two 106mm rounds I'd had put through some Trans Company's broken down tractor that day before pushing it into a canal to stop its inadvertent blocking of the MSR. One of his fellow Bn Cdrs each morning carried his two RTOs a cup of coffee and woke them up to start the day. The Bde Cdrs standing night order was "Wake me if all three Bns are in heavy contact."

As I said, different time, <b>very</b> different Army. Things change. As Publius said above: "<i>Back in the day, I think we enjoyed ourselves more, even in war. I know we weren't nearly so grim, so serious, so intense."</i> Amen to that...

Publius (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 10:02pm

I don't think I'm missing the point at all, Carl. What I'm seeing here is a classic doughnut and hole issue, i.e, missing the doughnut through concentration on the hole. As you of all people should know, this is a chronic issue with journalists. If you'd like, I could eat up some bandwidth with the propensity of today's journalists to focus on insider political garbage while failing to give us the straight news. Journalism has in many respects become an inside baseball soap opera endeavor; I don't want to see historical research go anymore in that direction than it already has.

This whole Abrams thing takes place with the backdrop of a time where journalists and historians actually failed to do their job. In the day, perceived personal foibles and weaknesses on the part of politicians and other prominent people were generally ignored; unfortunately, as we've learned, this self-censorship denied the American people information they should have had about persons such as John Kennedy.

Is Abrams in the same category as Kennedy? Did his drinking actually result in any harm? Did he in fact really drink any more than other accomplished men of the time? This was the time of the legendary three-martini lunch, something in which the leaders of American business and government routinely engaged in. As I've said before, I was there, and I don't recall hearing any shithouse rumors about Abrams being drunk on duty. Other generals, yes, and they were taken care of, very quietly.

Primary sources, Carl? How many you got? You got Nixon and Kissinger, both decidedly untrustworthy, as history has taught us. Nixon was crazy and Kissinger was trying to get Al Haig into the big time. Mel Laird? As has been pointed out, Laird was a great SecDef, so great in fact that Nixon hated him. Laird didn't fire Abrams. Nixon didn't fire Abrams. In fact, despite his horseshit posturing, Nixon made Abrams Army Chief of Staff. Nixon was an empty suit, but surely if he'd had any reservations at all about Abrams, he wouldn't have nominated for the highest job in the Army. If you believe Nixon really believed Abrams had a drinking problem, then you have to believe that Nixon was even worse than we all remember.

So what exactly is this all about? I think Abrams is being caught up in some larger historical forces, in attempts to finally nail down the truth of Vietnam. That's fine. I support those efforts. I just don't think it's necessary to impugn Abrams, who can't fight back, on the word of known liars. I also don't think it's necessary. I think the better war thesis can be easily refuted. Just ask me and millions of other guys.


Sun, 07/03/2011 - 7:47pm

"I'm with Gian in rejecting the Sorley thesis, but using the words of scoundrels such as Nixon and Kissinger to trash Abrams isn't the way to go about it."

Publius, I think you're missing the point. Both the transcripts and other scholarly writings indicate that far more in his chain of command knew about this.

Perhaps the real issue isn't that Abrams might have had a substance abuse problem. It's that historians have failed to tell us about that even when it's been in the primary sources, and I'm curious about why that is.

Publius (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 7:00pm

@ Bill M.: Wow, you are an old coot, aren't you? Forgive me, but I'll take license here, because I'm even older than you are. I liked your reply to me a lot, but I would caution you against idealizing my Vietnam Army. We had the good, bad and ugly just like every other Army's had. The one major advantage we had--and this goes to physical conditioning and overall troop quality--is that we grew up in a different time. It wasn't hard for kids who grew up in the 50s to be in shape. Fat or out-of-shape kids were rare. Plus the American educational system was at its peak. A high school graduate in 1965 was far better educated than a HS graduate today. Plus we had a different culture. Plus we had draftees, most of whom did a great job.

No, we weren't the "Greatest Generation" (TM), but we picked up a lot of the good from that generation. Lot of the bad, too, BTW. Different culture and different military today. Different challenges for leaders. A truly frightening statistic is the one where we hear that only 30% of today's youth is qualified to be in the military. I think the thing that irks me the most is hearing about poor physical conditioning, which of course sets me to wondering why general officers--who now make enormous sums of money and who can stay on active duty forever--don't do anything about it.

But it's hard to find fault with today's troops. They've had a tough road for a lot of years now. If they're out of shape, showing signs of indiscipline and all of the rest, well maybe it's just because they've been asked to do too much. Our political leadership is pretty much at an all time low, and it's also hard to find many examples of good leadership in the Army. "Perfumed princes," old Hack's derogatory term, was coined in the 90s, but it seems to apply even more today.

And thinking about troop quality, attitudes, etc., brings me back to Gian Gentile's thesis that Abrams and Westmoreland were pretty much the same. Well, I'd suggest that Gian ask himself if the MACV/USARV force Abrams commanded was anywhere near the force Westmoreland had. Westmoreland got the cream of the crop, the best and brightest as it were. And he didn't do much with it. By the Abrams took over, a president was being driven out of office, "Project 100,000" had been implemented, and the nation had hardened in its opposition to the war.

And then Abrams had to work for the criminals Nixon and Kissinger. Nixon was elected in 1968 on a platform to end the war, but then he screwed around for long years doing it, allowing Kissinger to be a jetsetter and exercise his "master diplomacy" skills with Le Duc Tho while good men on both sides were dying. You will note that casualty figures began declining under Abrams while embryonic COIN efforts were underway. What isn't often acknowledged is that as we went on and on and on into the 70s, Abrams knew that engaging in serious maneuver warfare would only be meaningless butchery of Americans and Vietnamese alike. And, oh, BTW, the NVA became far more apparent post-Tet, and that was something else with which Abrams had to contend.

America's Vietnam war ended for all practical purposes on March 31, 1968, when Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation and told us he would not run for reelection. I'd just gotten back from my second tour; I watched the president's prime time speech and I knew it was over. We all knew it. A lot of us believed in it and invested much of our youth in it. And that's what Creighton Abrams inherited. His mission was damage limitation, not winning what we now knew was not a winnable war. He had an entirely different mission than Westmoreland had. The new president pledged to end the war. And how was he going to do it? It wasn't going to be through plussing up the force; it was going to be through negotiation for "peace with honor."

COIN and reduced combat operations equated to a preemptive strike against revolt in the ranks. Everybody knew this one: "who wants to be the last to die in Vietnam?" Or, "who'll turn the lights out?" Our Army in Vietnam in the late 60s and early 70s was not a good Army. I can only imagine how it might have been if Abrams had insisted on the combat tempo of 3-4 years earlier.

I'm looking forward to Gian Gentile's book. But I'm a little disturbed that he seems to view Abrams and Westmoreland as two peas in a pod. Contemporaries, yes, but also men who dealt with the same issue in entirely different environments. I'm with Gian in rejecting the Sorley thesis, but using the words of scoundrels such as Nixon and Kissinger to trash Abrams isn't the way to go about it. The lesson that everyone in my generation learned was that those men were not to be trusted.

Again, no attempt to play historian. But reading other historians, there are differences of opinion. From Dr Richard Weitz SWJ contest-winning article, "CORDS and the Whole of Government Approach:"

"In a few months (following Tet), however, CORDS leaders realized that much of the VCI and VC military in-frastructure in the RVN had collapsed. As a result, it was easier to ensure security in rural areas while CORDS pacification efforts took hold."

"During the 1968-1972 period (Abrams takes command June '68), the indigenous VC steadily lost influence in South Vietnam due to the success of CORDS. North Vietnamese regulars had to assume a more visible role in the fighting."

My brackets were inserted in the quotes above.

So you are no doubt correct that the regular Army had not for the most part adapted COIN as you and Austin Long's RAND study "Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence" point out.

That does not mean that large elements of the ARVN and GEN Abrams, Ellsworth Bunker, and William Colby were not practicing COIN through the CORDS program....some 8,000 U.S. personnel of which 7,000 were U.S. military.

In addition, I found additional data on Vietnam deaths that appears enlightening:

.....U.S. Combat U.S. Non-Combat..ARVN...NVA/VC

Aside from the alarmingly high non-combat single-year deaths (presumed accidents/illness) often surpassing a decade of total Afghanistan troop deaths, these observations come to mind.

CORDS was not created until May 1967. Tet occurred in Jan 1968. We have the quote above that shows that following Tet, there was little remaining VC infrastructure and CORDS became more effective under GEN Abrams watch.

U.S. combat deaths continued to dwindle during the drawdown while ARVN deaths stayed high indicating greater effort in providing their own defense and security of the population. NVA deaths declined indicating probable reduction in search and destroy missions...and/or more honest or limited success in killing the enemy.

Have you been analyzing CORD logs, ARVN Army documentation, and CIA documents? I'm out.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 3:35pm

Move Forward:

I dont think you understand what I was saying about operational frameowork and Vietnam.

Except for a few exceptions, there never was a shift in terms of routine operations from search and destroy to comprehensive counterinsurgency by the US Army. Army and Marine field units supported pacification by DOING search and destroy to kill either VC main force or NVA units, but they did not do Coin as is commonly done by combat units today in Afghanistan (only be exception like the 173rd in Binh Dinh and Operations Washington Green).

perhaps we should just let it be


COL Gentile,

Finally got a chance to read Mark Moyar's Sangin study and was highly impressed. Leader-centric COIN (needs a better name) is the answer and it can't be done with a "less is more" attitude, and SOF or CT alone.

IMHO, there are problems with using Sangin as a model as it is more isolated from border reinforcement and seemed to involve primarily local tribe Taliban. The terrain also is more suitable for enemy-centric COIN than the more mountainous east. Technology still came into play with nightly video teleconferences and use of line charges for initial IED clearing.

The study tries to downplay technology saying most IEDs were detected by foot patrols and M2 eyeballs. Yet the study also states night patrols did not originally occur due to inability to spot IEDs with NVGs. See the contradiction? It's OK to get blown up walking in the day but not at night...

This led me to ask why night patrols could not occur in M-ATV with overhead UAS coverage and for that matter, why a day patrol could not be led or mirrored by M-ATV so overwatching fires were on hand.

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 1:50pm

<b>Move Forward:</b>

As I'm sure you're aware, those casualty figures reflect several things aside from the attribute you cite. The buildup of US forces to the '69 peak, the deterioration of unit capability due to the one year tour, rotations, infusion and declining Officer / NCO quality (and quantity...), changes in enemy force composition and operational patterns plus the US drawdown beginning in 1970.

So called COIN and low casualty rates may or may not be allied but COIN per se is neither always indicated or the wisest choice if, as is usual, there are several options. As <b>Carl Prine</b> notes, it often is little better than nothing; in fact it is often worse than nothing.

I agree with you that logs and reports should never be accepted as definitive, however, judiciously interpreted, they can indicate trends.

<b>gian p gentile:</b><blockquote>"only selected units like the 173rd in Bin Dinh for about a year, and a few outfits in the 101 were doing comprehensive Coin, the rest just like as they started in 65 were doing search and destroy operations in SUPPORT of the SVN led pacification campaigns which were supported by American advisors under CORDS."</blockquote>Two points:

The 173d and 1/101 were both early in-country units, benefited from a closed cycle mutually reinforcing replacement and rotation base and were units who had specialized in COIN and FID operations <u>prior</u> to Viet Nam. Both repeatedly proved they were capable of COIN efforts and of conventional force on force operations. Bears recollection and study. Seriously.

Not quite as seriously, thanks for the Airborne plug. ;)

Secondly, yet again, the GPF units were doing what they were supposed to, engaging in combat operations, supporting a COIN effort and other US organizations FID efforts.

Ol' Move Forward, BTW is correct, you are biased but that's better than being prejudiced and there's no reason for you to object to the term IMO. We're all biased one way or another.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 1:43pm

gian gentile's analysis is going to end up being proven right. Some factors that have not been brought up. One the serious drug problem in the Army and at home. At home is critical because the draft was still going on.By that time the character of the average draftee had no stomach for war, much less COIN. Abrams didn't have and wasn't going to have the Army to do COIN, so he did what he could do. Another good reason to drink.

PS. Ken is also correct about PT!!!!Cross fit?? get the book called "Combat Conditioning" by Chuck Melson.....look at the various Obstacle,Conditioning and Strength courses they had back then.


Sun, 07/03/2011 - 12:56pm

"If nothing else, COIN and technology proponents can cite lower casualty rates as anecdotal evidence of a better way. "

That would be akin to "nothing else." It's little better than nothing.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 12:14pm

Move Forward:

Those toc logs are one type of source out of many.

You really are confused when you say there was a "shift to coin tactics" during the latter years of the war under Abrams. In this case, the toc logs are critical for refutation of that assertion because they show what ground units were DOING, see my point? And they were not doing Coin; only selected units like the 173rd in Bin Dinh for about a year, and a few outfits in the 101 were doing comprehensive Coin, the rest just like as they started in 65 were doing search and destroy operations in SUPPORT of the SVN led pacification campaigns which were supported by American advisors under CORDS.

Bias is a dirty word that folks like to chuck out there when they disagree with certain historical interpretations being made. During the Cold War the term "revsionist historian" was used as a derogatory term to describe histoians who had different interpretations of the origins of the Cold War than the consensus opinion. As I have said before all good history is revisionist by nature, and that there is no such thing as pure objectivity in history, all of it is subjective, how could it be otherwise.

Since "Move Forward" seems to be your self-designated sobriquet, might you state from what base you are starting, and where you think you, and perhaps the army and military, should move forward to?


The Pap

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 12:00pm

What is interesting is that current Army doctrine (revised FM 3) calls for "commander's understanding" as a key cognitive event in the now highly marketed selling of the "mission command" construct (arguably the Americanization of Auftragstaktik).

Have we missed the irony of such arrogant assertions when we cannot even settle understanding of past wars? Heck, we are still trying to make sense of the Peloponnesian wars for crying out loud.

Recent example is Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) -- still trying to make sense of WW II!!!

Why should we vaunt in our (obviously implausible) official doctrine that such "understanding" is possible when historians still debate their interpretations of wars past? What commander actually "understands" Afghanistan (as if it were a country anyway)?

Is this nothing more than unchallenged institutional arrogance? Where's the outcry for a critical examination of our official "authoritative" assertions?

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 11:24am

<b>slapout9:</b><blockquote>"The USS Pueblo had also been captured by North Korea during this time period."</blockquote>Heh. Yes, it had been. We were at Eglin on a USSTRICOM Exercise, got called back to Bragg and were issued cold weather gear and other stuff in preparation for a move to Korea for a coordinated rescue attempt. In the event, that got scrubbed and we rapidly turned in the cold wx gear to draw Jungle Fatigues and stuff to go to Veet Nam as one of the post-Tet reinforcement elements. Just another fun week or two in America's Guard of Honor... :) <br><br>

<b>Bill M.:</b><blockquote>"...that makes more sense than claiming the Army as a whole is full of fitness fanatics (I happen to be one of the fanatics and I can assure you it can be a small and lonely crowd)."</blockquote>You poor soul. Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lay down and sleep until it goes away...

On a serious note, the best physical prep for infantry combat is an obstacle course run with equipment. That is pretty well proven but the method is avoided due to the casualty in training propensity. That is mostly due to the fact that instead of running such a course more days than not -- or undergoing realistic field training on those 'not' days -- it's done only sporadically and unconditioned bodies can't react properly or take the strain.

Some say it is not done due to the fact that old WOs and SGMs can't keep up with the kids -- a likely story...

<b>gian p gentile:</b><blockquote>"In the case of Vietnam, if Westmoreland had been told to stay on for another two years he would have done exactly the same thing as Abrams...<br>
...if Abrams got the call to command MAC-V in 64 instead of Westmoreland he would have fought it exactly the same way as did Westmoreland...."</blockquote>I totally agree and (possibly unlike you) suggest in all cases those statements should be seen as a harsh critique not of any of the individuals but of the US Army and its organizing, training and war fighting approach and talents. You ought to ponder that for your book...
It is also a much more harsh indictment of the Nation and its various Administrations that have <i>allowed</i> the Army to be a one trick pony, to have fragmented its national forces and power while misusing them and -- as you have said -- propounded and implemented flawed polices and strategies in areas of dubious national interest.<blockquote>"In Vietnam, the primary documents from battalions, brigades, divisions and corps, do not show any kind of tectonic shift in attitude or operations when Abrams took over."</blockquote>Nor should they. Why would anyone expect them to do so?

Battalions, Brigades, Divisions and Corps are essentially organized equipped and trained to close with an opposing force and destroy it. That's what they do and they do not do other things all that well, they in fact do most other things rather poorly. That only becomes a problem when they are misused.

Thus all those units were doing what they were supposed to under both Commanders. Any shift was not 'tectonic' but incremental and was applicable to elements <u>other</u> than the combat arms / GPF units in Viet Nam.

That's why the GPF should not be the force of choice or, if at all possible, even of last resort, for COIN and FID operations.

How many times are we going to have to prove that is a poor fit and doesn't work at all well?

COL Gentile,

Because GEN Abrams became GEN Westmoreland's deputy a year prior to assuming command, naturally he would hesitate to institute immediate reforms. Tet had occurred just 6 months earlier so the lethal emphasis was still understandably prevalent.

No attempt at historical refutal of your points as I'm woefully-equipped. But the casualty figures for applicable years include:

1966: 6,143
1967: 11,153
1968: 16,592 (4200+ Tet-related, Abrams assumed command in June '68)
1969: 11,616
1970: 6,081
1971: 2,357

These figures alone, coupled with the devastating death toll of search and destroy may have told GEN Abrams and civil leaders that more of the same was unacceptable. Casualties fell precipitously in subsequent years along with the drawdown, shift to COIN tactics, Vietnamization, and bombing.

To base your research on TOC logs is to have excessive confidence that they reflect ground truth and accurately understood/unexaggerated actions and body counts...the latter obviously is in doubt by up to 50%.

With due respect, you clearly have bias. Regardless of your attempts at objectivity, your searches are likely to emphasize facts supporting rather than refuting your views. If nothing else, COIN and technology proponents can cite lower casualty rates as anecdotal evidence of a better way.

The wholesale slaughter of our forces searching for an enemy that blends into the population, better understands the terrain, and has ample cross-border support was/is not a smart employment of our most valuable resource...our troops.

Plubius, my active duty time was the late 70s until now, so my knowledge of the U.S. Army during the early days of Vietnam was based on discussions with vets (still a lot of them when I came in) and my personal study. I had personal reasons for looking into this, plus I was also tiring of the constant demeaning coming from current day officers on the quality of the Vietnam era Army by relative junior (LTC and below) and all inexperienced officers during the 80s and 90s that didn't jive with my interpretation of what they accomplished, or the quality of the vets I served with that were my mentors, so I looked hard at this topic and actually found the Army that first went into Vietnam to be a darn good fighting Army, not a perfect one. Obviously things took a turn for the worse in the later years for reasons that are well known (largely due to leadership failures). IMO the officers who claimed that our Army today is better than any Army we ever had were and are simply blowhards with inflated egos. They aren't commenting on the Army, they are bragging about themselves. What we do have today is better technology.

Now that you limited your view of physical fitness fanatics to a few high visibility Generals, that makes more sense than claiming the Army as a whole is full of fitness fanatics (I happen to be one of the fanatics and I can assure you it can be a small and lonely crowd). You asked why the Generals aren't doing something about it? I suppose there are a lot reasons, to include Congress launching investigations everytime some marshmellow complains he was pushed too hard. The Generals you mentioned are at least walking the talk on fitness, but that isn't the same as holding others to realistic standards that need to be adhered to. However, we now have a system for a lot of reasons (none justifable) where it is challenging (read excessively time consuming) to hold people to standards.

I have complained previously about the Christian right's influence on the Army, which starting getting excessively bad in the 90s. By bad I mean forcing their views on everyone else. I miss the human Army I first joined also, and that isn't the Army we have today.
Many of our current leaders don't focus on combat effectiveness, instead they focus on projecting an image. I think Hackworth was right when he referred to the current crop of leaders (with some exceptions) are a bunch of perfumed princes.

Your point about the no fun league is on target, and the only reason many folks stay now is for the incentives. Of course the incentives are now out of hand and will have to reduced, and then we'll have to retain people the old fashion way by making the Army an organization they love to be in once again.

I don't agree with Gian's comments on Abrams or Petraeus. I think leaders are decisive, and when you have the "right" leader at the right place and time he or she can move mountains. To ignore that is to ignore what history tells us. I guess he would argue Ridgeway's leadership in Korea didn't change anything either?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 9:11am


I liked your post and the comments on the army of the 80s and 90s.

If you read what i said about generals in "counterinsurgency" wars, I said that they dont matter nearly as much as much of the literature makes them out to. So what I am going after here is the hagiographic literature that has sprung up around Abrams (Sorley and the better war thesis) and Petreaeus (Ricks, Robinson, Kagan, et al) that assumes, countefractually, that if these generals had not rode onto the scene things would have turned out very differently. In the case of Vietnam, if Westmoreland had been told to stay on for another two years he would have done exactly the same thing as Abrams and the war would have turned out the same, so too in the case of Iraq with Petraeus and Casey. The primary documents support this counterfactual speculation. Stretching this counterfactual to the beginnings of the Vietnam war for the US, if Abrams got the call to command MAC-V in 64 instead of Westmoreland he would have fought it exactly the same way as did Westmoreland. Again if you read what Abrams was saying in the documents when he was Westmorelands Deputy, and especially how he fought the war in his first year of command, it was the same as Westmoreland. One of the first directives that Abrams issues to his subordinate commanders in late summer 68 was to keep using the tactical method of "piling on" which applied, once contact was made with the enemy, increasing amounts of tactical units to the contact combined with massive amounts of American firepower. And to reinforce the continuity between Westmoreland and Abrams, in late 65 shortly after Ia Drang, Westmoreland issued a directive to his commanders telling them not to get too enamored with the tactical successes such as Ia Drang brought about in drubbing the NVA but to remember that the war was ultimately about the south Vietnamese population, providing protection for them so that pacification could proceed.

(as an aside to ADTS's comment, yes the importance of documents like command post logs show what units did, I say again actually did, which if Sorley is right, then in these logs very quickly, or certainly within a year or two, one should see tectonic shifts when Abrams takes over, but there were none. And what is striking is the continuity of operational framework for tactical combat outfits of search and destroy all the way to the end. Now to be sure after Tet and the opportunity presented itself for the SVN gov to increase its emphasis on pacification one can see that difference to be sure. But the way in which the field force supported pacification was largely the same. So too with Malaya. Nagl's et al model of organizational learning of an army that is fumbling and failing but then is saved by a few enlightened lower ranking officers combined with the savior general riding onto the scene, who figures it all out, resets the doctrine, disseminates it, and voila a reinvented army that goes on to win the war is pure fiction,had to have been made up because it is not supported by the primary record)

Ridgway, as you mention, was fighting a different kind of war, namely when he took over a war of maneuver. Too, the primary documents show the effect that his leadership had on the operational army. In Vietnam, the primary documents from battalions, brigades, divisions and corps, do not show any kind of tectonic shift in attitude or operations when Abrams took over.

But the counterinsurgency narrative wants us to believe that this is the case. So again, it is not that these generals of Coin wars don't matter because they do, but they are not game changing events as the narrative makes them out to be.


slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 3:34am

Ken White you should remember this and yours truly just missed going on this operation.There was also the other secret plan to end Vietnam. There was a plan being developed to use the 82nd Airborne Division and a Marine Corps Amphibious unit to go into North Vietnam. The Objective was Hanoi, the Mission was to gain the the release of all POW's. A practice operation was done in 1971 called Operation Vault. The Air Force didn't have enough airlift to drop the Division so they sent a Brigade to Korea as a test run. . That plan was under Abram's watch. That would be a good reason to start drinking heavy.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 3:05am

The USS Pueblo had also been captured by North Korea during this time period. Some top people including General Gavin thought this was going to lead to war with China. Maybe Abrahams had good reason to drink.

Ken White (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 2:18am

Laird was pretty straight and about the best SecDef ever (including Gates, who was also pretty good). I suspect that if Mel Laird had a problem with Abrams and alcohol as opposed to commenting on it, he'd have taken action. Instead, IIRC, he defended Abrams against the Kissinger assaults. Abrams relatively short tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army was one of the most productive in recent years.

Kissinger was trying to get his former Deputy Al Haig a job. He godfathered that guy for no discernible reason other than, perhaps, to thumb his nose at the Army which generally despised Haig (who tended like a couple of other more recent GOs to take umbrage with every other GO as being lesser mortals). I suspect the 'Abrams and booze' thing was more excuse for advancing Haig than it was real reason for concern. Not that anything would be changed were I incorrect in that guess...

Randolph's AWC monograph is interesting. Another paean to "airpower could do it all if we'd just allow it..." Subtle one though.


Sun, 07/03/2011 - 1:27am

Reading the Randolph book today, Publius, it seems that it wasn't just Nixon, Kissinger and CJCS who knew about Abrams and the bottle but also SecDef Melvin Laird.

So it wasn't just Nixon.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 1:07am

As the first SWC irregular detective and having spent alot of time investigating people's backrounds. Here is my Joe Friday suggestion as to what to look for. You need to find evidence of Abraham's baseline behavior. How much did he drink before his assignment to Vietnam? The records may still be around. If there is any difference in the quantity while he was assigned to Vietnam that is behaviorally a very significant factor and it would certainly affect his Military Judgment.

ADTS (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 11:38pm

The first question and also the fifth question bear directly on the main thrust of the thread. However, since I feel like Bill M. tacitly gave me permission to ask questions that deviate a little from "Prine on Abrams"...

1) Gian Gentile. You've specified a logical way to test whether the better war hypothesis or narrative is a logical one: if Abrams was different than Westmoreland, then logs ought to reflect this. It's a reasonable argument even though, like all arguments, there are counterarguments. I'm just impressed by the logic, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, and if you're willing to give any more previews, what other sorts of "tests" are you contemplating or conducting?

2) Chris Paparone: In what sense are you using the term constructivist? I only know it in its IR context. What context are you using it in? I saw your Amazon review of "The Policy Paradox" - would you say Stone is a constructivist (policy "problems" are socially constructed)?

3) Chris Paparone, Gian Gentile, Carl Prine (I think that's everyone.) Gooch and Cohen. I'm surprised at how much everyone seems to have liked the book. I found the taxonomy conceptually confusing (what's the difference between failure to learn and failure to adapt?) and the flowcharts particularly irritating - impenetrable to comprehension and entirely superfluous. Is military history that devoid of books which place emphasis at levels above individuals, e.g., organizations sans reference to the people (leaders especially) who comprise them?

4) Bill M. (and others, if appropriate) To this civilian CrossFitter, the program on the main CrossFit website and organization seems extremely military-oriented - they really seem to relish their connection with the military. Hence I'm a bit surprised by your use of the word "few." For what it's worth, if one is concerned about the physical fitness of the military, CrossFit would seem to be a pretty good way to get people in shape, in my opinion.

5) Publius, Gian Gentile, Carl Prine, Ken White (and others): regarding the personal peccadilloes of presidents, I was just reminded reading this post of Michael Beschloss introduction to "The Crisis Years," about the ways in which the President's Daily Brief was modified for Kennedy's style (I'm sure this happens for every president, admittedly.) I think he was implying, or even stating a bit explicitly, that it (the PDB) could get pretty gnarly in both its content (leaders' wives' mistresses shot) and style ("tough guy").

Apologies if this is derails the threat too much; if so, please take appropriate action (e.g., ignore).



Publius (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 11:21pm

@ Bill M.: Yeah, you really are going down the wrong path. This thread is about a guy named Abrams, who was really pretty damned great, but who was also human. In that, he was emblematic of the Army in which I served: human, to include drinking and smoking and doing all manner of things no longer permissible in today's Army. Those were the types of armies we had throughout the Republic's history--drinking and all the rest. Today's Army has chosen a different tack, but it's pretty clear that the results haven't been any better, while the sanctimony and hypocrisy meters have done melted.

It ain't about today's Army. But now you mention it, it's hard to escape the impression that today's Army is pretty much preoccupied with showtime, i.e., no drinking in combat zones, wear of fatigues in Washington, D.C., and, of course, the widespread publicity given to senior officers who sleep three hours per night and obsessively work out all of the time. This is the image civilians get; this is what the Army is stuck with. That retirees from another generation and other veterans snicker sometimes isn't our fault. If troops aren't in shape, then why aren't the generals who sleep three hours a night doing something about it?

And, BTW, Bill, you write "we're" in addressing today's issues, and then you write about the Army "we" sent to Vietnam. Which is it? You can't know a lot about both. I'll be the first to admit that I know very little about today's Army, but then I'll say I know a whole bunch about the Army in the early days of Vietnam. You're right about that Army that first went to Vietnam, but I wonder how you know. Me, I know too much about it. What's funny about those days was that we never had to seriously work at staying in shape or being disciplined. We grew up in a different society. Today's leaders have far greater challenges than ours did.

As a guy who's been retired from the Army for many years now, I relate to old-time professional football players who term today's NFL, where everybody's rich, the "No Fun League." Not surprisingly, today's players often agree. The old guys didn't make the money, but they had a lot more fun. I think the Army is the same way. Back in the day, I think we enjoyed ourselves more, even in war. I know we weren't nearly so grim, so serious, so intense. Abrams sure wasn't. All he wanted was your best. Abrams wasn't chickenshit or nasty. He had that real leader ability to make you want to go out and do really stupid things for your country.

Bill M.

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 10:12pm

I don't want to take this down the wrong path, but I'm not sure what Publius is talking about. We're all PT fanatics now? The reality is some folks (same as it has ever been) are P.T. fanatics, but across the ranks the average fitness level is much lower now than it was in the 70s and 80s, especially in the infantry. We may have more body building types now that workout for show not function, and we a have few crossfit fanatics, triathletes, etc. but by and large it is disgusting to view the average fitness level of our younger troops in the Army. Less than 20 y/o and obese and frequently can't pass the P.T. test. If you recall the Army delayed the requirement for passing the P.T. test just a few short years ago as a requirement to graduate basic training, because they didn't have enough time to get these kids in shape. As for drinking, while the Army may not encourage anymore, you would be wrong to believe that alcoholism is not a problem in our ranks, and as Bob stated some people for reasons that we have no right to pass judgement on. The Army we sent to Vietnam in the early days of the war was one of the best Armies we ever fielded when it came to fitness, functional discipline (I really don't care if they chase whores and drink when they're not at work), and tactics.

Robert C. Jones (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:33pm

(My last post might better go under the Toxic Leadership thread...)

Robert C. Jones (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:28pm

"we had a drinking culture.."

Over 500 KIA per month, a draft, platoon leaders on 6 month tours (and most not surviving them), BN CDRs on 3 month tours (and most surviving just fine as they C2'd from their helicopters overhead). No shit we had a drinking culture.

A friend of mine did two tours as a scout helicopter pilot, one as a warrant, and back as a 1LT, was shot down 6 times, earned 3 silver stars, 4 DFCs, and a bucket load of lesser awards. He still drinks hard, and I don't judge him for it. Similarly with my first BN CDR who was a PL in the 173rd at hill 875 in Dak To in '67.

We levy a different kind of stress on our guys today, less get killed, but the stress of going in and out of combat, fear of getting killed, etc all pile up enourmous stress. No booze allowed though. Pickett's charge, Pattons push across Europe, all were fueled by alcohol. No longer. Just let the guys grind that stres against raw nerves.

I hope one lesson learned from all this is that "2 beers per day" and cheap plentiful clubs is not some evil, but rather is well earned and a necessary outlet for our guys at the point of the spear.

bring on the booze, but that is not why we lose such interventions.

Publius (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:20pm

Huh. Ken White reminds of something I meant to post, but forgot (old guy syndrome). Ken's already noted that Abe was known as a drinking "man's man" in an Army that was full of them. I agree. It was the times and the culture. And just as an aside, without going into the hoary old Lincoln tales about Grant's drinking, I would note that there's scant evidence in our recent Mideast adventures that soldiers who aren't permitted to have some booze do any better than their forebears who were allowed to partake of the grape.

We have a fielded military that doesn't drink, is discouraged from smoking and is fanatic about PT. Today's military has generals that are fetishists about physical conditioning and who undoubtedly don't even like cussing. Yet, what is the net result? If Gian wants to lay the blame for Vietnam at General Abrams' doorstep because of his drinking habits, will he attribute lack of success in Afghanistan to General Petraeus for his ascetic values? For the prohibition on drinking? Just wondering.'s what I really wonder. And Gian should wonder this, too. Where did Nixon get his information about Abrams' drinking? Gee, you think it might have been one Alexander Haig? The sleaziest, slimiest general in the U.S. Army at the time? You think? The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Gian needs to check his sources a little better. Nixon undoubtedly got the word about Abrams from Kissinger, Mr. Metternich wanna-be, and the only uniformed source Kissinger could have had was Haig. Kissinger was despised by the military; Haig was Robin to Kissinger's Batman, and he is undoubtedly the source for Abrams' drinking.

Does Gian Gentile truly appreciate what a snake pit the White House, the Pentagon and the whole NCA apparatus was during the Nixon years? To put this issue in perspective, we need to heed historians who've opined that the republic was threatened more during the Nixon years than at any time since the Civil War.

Richard Nixon and his gang of thugs endangered the United States. We were lucky to have a honest Congress in those days; the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Mr. Nixon in a bipartisan vote. He resigned before the full House could impeach him and the Senate convict him, but it was a foregone conclusion. Nixon was a criminal and the unfortunate reality is that many who served him were equally deficient in personal qualities. Alexander Haig is numbered among them. He was a water bearer in the White House and he did not distinguish himself in subsequent higher office, include Army vice chief of staff and Secretary of State, when he embarrassed himself by demonstrating his ignorance of the Constitution.

Gian has the truth about Vietnam, but trying to reinforce his argument by bringing up scurrilous comments about Abrams by scoundrels such as Nixon and Kissinger is weak brew. Gian needs better sources to convince me. The Nixon White House is not a credible source. Sure, the tapes are what they are, but they're not credible. Not when you realize that the actors were busily engaged in subverting the nation.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 8:48pm


I agree with your point about Westmoreland, although I would change your word choice of "mediocre" to simply competent. But in that light, I would apply the same description to Abrams, competent and nothing more.

Certainly he was not the savior general who rides on to the scene, immediately transforms the ground force, and goes on to win the war, only to have it lost by protesting hippies and weak politicians (this is in fact the Sorley better war thesis).


Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 8:21pm

<b>Carl Prine:</b>

Thanks for posting your update -- I had completely forgotten that Kissinger at the time was strongly pushing his protege, Al Haig for ComUSMACV as a prelude to the CofS job (at which the Army would likely have mutinied had it occurred; almost did over the Vice Chief job...).

As I said, I'd never buy a used car from him...

<b>gian p gentile:</b><blockquote>"So what are we to do, just completely disregard these facts because Nixon himself had serious personality problems as well? Come on, that would be like saying forget any of the criticisms that Lincoln had of McClellan because Lincoln himself might have been suffering from some form of depression."<blockquote>Well, seems to me that Lincoln's criticisms of McClellan may also well have been politically induced -- or enhanced...

As are many things.

On an allied note, one of Nixon's last acts before his departure was to get a very successful and competent Bn Cdr replaced very early is his tour so that his soon to be former senior Army Aide at the WH could get his 'dream job.'

Few thing is Washington -- as in the ME -- are what they seem. One cannot discoount the politics in all such 'revelations.' Face it Gian, Wetmoreland was mediocre. He was not responsible for the 'loss' of Viet Nam but he did contribute significantly to the problems therein. Abrams may not have been a war 'winner' but he was definitely an improvement in the eyes of too many people who served under both. However, I expect you will certainly keep flogging. ;)

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 7:36pm


these are fair points that you make, especially the one of causing "collateral damage" to Abrams. Although one wonders how much "collateral damage," unfairly too, has been brought onto Westmoreland over the years. Do you know what the title of Sorley's soon to be released biography on Westmoreland is? "Westmoreland: The General who Lost Vietnam." What chutzpah, what arrogance of history, to think that just one little old general can lose and entire war. The notion is nothing less than preposterous. Which builds on your important point about Abrams and his drinking problem and to answer your question in line with what i say above, of course no that does not mean why we lost the war. We lost the war not because of failed operational commanders on the ground, nor because the army didnt get coin, but because we failed at strategy and policy.

The fact though is that Richard Nixon was commander in chief in 1971 and 1972 when he had serious criticisms of his commanding general in Vietnam. So too did Kissinger. So what are we to do, just completely disregard these facts because Nixon himself had serious personality problems as well? Come on, that would be like saying forget any of the criticisms that Lincoln had of McClellan because Lincoln himself might have been suffering from some form of depression.

It is a bit naive I think to throw this possible drinking problem that might have affected his ability to command under the rug by saying everybody at that time was drinking like that. Moreover, just because you didnt hear about it didnt mean that it didnt exist. Certainly, something percolated its way up to the highest levels of civilian leadership to suggest that possibly he did.

What I and others are looking for here is some kind of adjustment and balance to the history as it exists now, which for the most part, and intentionally so, has buried these important items in order to continue the gloss of Abrams of the savior general who actually won the Vietnam war.


Publius (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 7:17pm

To set the record straight, I am not one of those who venerate General Abrams, although I do believe he was a better general than Westmoreland, especially as Chief of Staff, something I've told Gian Gentile. I've also told Gian that I support his efforts to refute the Sorley thesis: as someone who lived it and who also understands the tenor of the times, it's my thesis that Vietnam was just not "winnable." Bitter pill, that, for those of us who were involved, but I can't find a construct that supports a favorable outcome. Further, as the years go by, I don't know that it matters anyway. Yes, Ho and company were "communists," but, importantly, they were also nationalists. Nasty, shitty nationalists who did foul things to their own people, but, as we've seen, they didn't like the Russians or the Chinese any more than they liked us.

We backed the wrong horse in Vietnam. The North wanted it unified under its terms more than the South wanted to defend a way of life--democratic self-government--that was alien to its citizens. The North wanted it more. The leaders in the South were too concerned with feathering their own nests to pay attention to their citizens. But as it turns out, monolithic communism was a chimera. Now here we are in 2011, where we call our former Vietnamese and Chinese adversaries "authoritarian," and where Russian males have a life span 20 years less than American males. Yep, those of us who survived Vietnam and the Cold War will live a much longer and better life than the former officers and soldiers of the Soviet Union. And as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, one question: would you rather be a Vietnamese or an American?

So we know who actually won Vietnam. And the Cold War as well. Sorley and company can flannel mouth all they want, but the fact is that it was the better system that did it. We've always had a fairly good military--and yeah, I think we generally did well in Vietnam even though we were spinning our wheels--but the fact is we've got a lot more things going for us than the military. And that's the Vietnam lesson for me.

What prompted my comment in response to Gian's post about Abrams and the Nixon comment about Abrams drinking was my knowledge of the history of Richard Nixon. And that of Henry Kissinger. And my sense of where both of these evil-doers belong in American history. Gian used the terms "Commander in Chief, "president," and "national security adviser," when referring to Nixon and Kissinger and whatever they may have said about Abrams on tape. These are terms of respect and he uses them to legitimize what the individuals said about Abrams. After all, "president" and "national security adviser" are important and respected terms in our nation. But what happens when the occupants of those offices are frauds, when they are people undeserving of that respect? Can we trust anything they say?

Gian Gentile isn't after Abrams; he's after Sorley and the better war thesis. But Abrams has now become collateral damage. As Ken White points out, we had a drinking culture in the military then--alien to the ascetics in today's military--but I don't recall ever hearing anything negative about Abrams' drinking habits. And the word gets around. We all have juicy stories about senior officers and civilians we knew in the day. We usually don't repeat them. Never heard anything about Abrams, other than that he was a man who liked to drink, liked his cigars and liked the troops. We heard a lot more about Westmoreland and his tennis and having his wife in Saigon than we ever did about Abrams.

To repeat, citing Richard Nixon as any kind of a primary source flies in the face of American history. The sames tapes that give us Nixon's negative comments about Abrams yield evidence of criminal activity. And Kissinger? Well, we all know Henry has always been all about Henry. Sucking up is his life. And then Gian cites Moorer, as at least acquiescing in Nixon's tale of Abrams. Well, hell, how many chairmen and chiefs do we have to see sucking up to presidents before we learn the lesson about human nature?

Colonel Gentile is plowing new ground. No historian has suggested that Abrams' judgment might have been impaired by drinking. Is that why we lost? And Gian uses Nixon as the source. Good luck on that one, Gian.

Backwards Observer

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 5:00pm

<em>What did Japan do? They demonstrated that Asians could defeat Europeans (important psychologically, maybe even gave them the audacity of hope lol).</em>

May be germane to Bill M's point above:

<blockquote>The Sook Ching massacre (Chinese: 肅清大屠殺) was a systematic extermination of perceived hostile elements among the Chinese in Singapore by the Japanese military during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, after the British colony surrendered on 15 February 1942 during the Second World War. Sook Ching was later extended to include Chinese Malayans as well. The massacre took place from 18 February to 4 March 1942 at various places in the region.</blockquote>


<blockquote>According to the <em>A Country Study: Singapore</em> published by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress:
All Chinese males from ages eighteen to fifty were required to report to registration camps for screening. The Japanese or military police arrested those alleged to be anti-Japanese, meaning those who were singled out by informers or who were teachers, journalists, intellectuals, or even former servants of the British. Some were imprisoned, but most were executed.</blockquote>


<blockquote>Germaine Foo-Tan writes in an article carried on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) website:
While the speedy defeat of the British in Singapore was a shocking revelation to the local population, and the period of the Japanese Occupation arguably the darkest time for Singapore, these precipitated the development of political consciousness with an urgency not felt before. The British defeat and the fall of what was regarded as an invincible fortress rocked the faith of the local population in the ability of the British to protect them. Coupled with the secret and sudden evacuation of British soldiers, women and children from Penang, there was the uneasy realisation that the colonial masters could not be relied upon to defend the locals. The Japanese slogan "Asia for Asians" awoke many to the realities of colonial rule, that "however kind the masters were, the Asians were still second class in their own country". Slowly, the local population became more aware of the need to have a bigger say in charting their destinies. The post-war years witnessed a political awakening and growing nationalistic feelings among the populace which in turn paved the way for the emergence of political parties and demands for self-rule in the 1950s and 1960s. The war and the Japanese Occupation will always remain etched in our memories that just as we must ourselves defend our homeland, only we can chart our own future.</blockquote>

Sook Ching Massacre - Wikipedia

Bob's World

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 4:06pm

No question the British Military ran solid counterinsurgent operations from the start. Done well, this will indeed suppress virutally any insurgency. We've seen this most recently in Sri Lanka, and time and again in recent years in Algeria and the Philippines. None of those cited examples, however are resolved like Malaya is. Dare to ponder why.

The British realized that the cost of their pre-WWII model of colonial control execeeded the benefits in the post-WWII envirornment; so they gave up on that political construct and adopted a new one that shifted their role from one of master and protector to that of mentor and protector. Big difference. IMO it is this sea change of political / policy context that is critical.

For the US during the Cold War, and now during what we (rediculously IMO)call the "War against al-Qa'ida" we still cling to a perspective that is far too controlling in nature and that also has costs (and higher order effects in terms of trans-national terrorism) that far exceed the benefits. We have not yet learned the lessons that the British learned before us (at least judging by the recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism).

School is in session, however, so we still have time to learn before the bell rings.


Related to the Chin Peng comment and underlying causes, etc. it is important to point out that the communist insurgencies in Malaya, Vietnam and China were aided indirectly and directly (at the end of WWII) by Imperial Japan. All the communist insurgencies were adequately supressed throughout East Asia prior to WWII starting in East Asia. Mao was almost completely defeated, and all likelihood would have been if Chang's Army didn't revolt on him and demand that he partner with the communists to help fight the Japanese. Chang wanted to defeat Mao first, and then start fighting the Japanese.

What did Japan do? They demonstrated that Asians could defeat Europeans (important psychologically, maybe even gave them the audacity of hope lol). More importantly they disrupted the existing power structure that was in place (the power structure that adequately suppressed these movements), which gave the communists more relative power (at the end of the war they were battle hardened, politically organized, and they expanded their ranks). When the war ended many in the Japanese Imperial Army decided to support the communists in China, Vietnam and Malaya because ideologically they were still committed to removing European influence from East-Asia. They provided weapons, training, and many Japanese soldiers joined their ranks. This was decisive for Mao and Ho, and less important for Chin Peng (but still a factor).

The fact remains that relative military and economic power (if there is the political will to employ it) will generally defeat lesser foes.

It would be interesting to see how design would capture all these factors, because most history books seem to skim over these important factors and focus on the hearts and minds aspects of the conflicts.

As for the Brits learning in Malaya, I remain suspect of that comment also. No doubt they became increasingly proficient (that is a normal result of prolonged fighting in most cases if you're an organization capable of learning), but Briggs set the tone for the outcome early in the conflict. Templer didn't change Brigg's strategy, but Templer did an easier go of it when the insurgents assassinated the British High Commissioner and he filled that role in addition to being in charge of the military, so now he was able to more effectively coordinate and synchronize both civilian and military actions with less opposition.

Malaya received its independence in 1957, they achieved a victory of sorts over the communists in 1960, but the reality is they ceased to be a real threat many years prior to that.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 2:45pm

Sheesh. 1:42 PM is obviously me. Timed out on me.

Gian make me wax on, if not eloquently...

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 2:42pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

As I said, always entertaining. I too read Sorley's books and didn't come away with the impression he thought Westmoreland was a monster. Not sure how anyone could do that. Westy was a courtly gentleman always. No dummy he but no military genius either. As one who's also briefed him and watched a lot of others do that when he was the 187, 101st, XVIII and MACV Commander, all (and he almost never forgot a face...), subordinate Commanders did not always level with him, he did not always fully grasp -- or care to hear -- what he was told and all units are prone to tunnel vision. Not that I would suggest that Generals may also have that problem on occasion...

One point for your consideration:<blockquote>"...That notion is pure fiction and not supported by the primary record. As i have said before I have spent lots of time in the archives reading the daily Toc logs from battalion up to corps from 65 to 72 and the operational framework for the entire time remained search and destroy."</blockquote>May I respectfully suggest you may be looking at the wrong issues? Reading the Journals of US Combat units is going to consistently point to combat missions and not to pop-centric or COIN involved stuff. That's what combat unit do, fight. The pop-centric stuff was shifted to the CIA and USAid run CORDS effort, units had little real involvement with that. The difference issue between Westmoreland and Abrams -- and neither was fully responsible for what he did or did not do -- was the amount of resources and emphasis on CORDS by the individual <i>and their staffs</i>.

That said, you bring up an interesting point on keeping staffs honest. I have seen, too many time, staffs with a few power players, some thwarted would be commanders, others Patton-style staff types, who tried to influence Commanders by skewed briefings -- and, as I've mentioned before, the MACV staff was notorious to the units in the field for trying to do that and running with their own agenda. That was quite obvious when Westmoreland commanded, they were reined in a slight bit after Abrams took over but the Staff was far too large as was the ComUSMACV job for true synchronicity to be achievable.

The key was (is???) better delegation and trust of subordinates. That was lacking then (and is so apparently now) but is admittedly quite difficult to obtain in the very large US Army. A large number of very senior people have a tendency when possible to bring in or surround themselves with a few highly trusted people they know. I watched it for years, still see it (check out both Afghan and Iraq higher levels...) and it is is still a bad practice. In a major war, drawing in the syncophants won't be possible -- it is never desirable. If the pipeline does not provide what's required, the pipeline must be in need of repair. We really need to work on that...

As one who's prepared and read a lot of Toc Logs, AAR, ORLs, OpSitReps, etc. best advice I can give anyone is do not think of those as gospels. They tend to be very much tailored in too many cases with an eye to what higher ( or the Commander...) wants or History might say...

Along that line, you as a Historian should be interested in what happened to 24th IDs Journals for the last three days of Desert Storm...

<b>Rod Coffey:</b>

As a minor aside and as not a COIN fan, it can be worth a lot. The questions that should be asked are "Is the effort required to be successful in this campaign possible, is the force available properly trained and adequate, is the campaign necessary and is it and affordable in all terms?" I suggest that if <u>any</u> of those are answered in the negative, strong consideration should be given other means to achieve the attainable goals. Counterinsurgency or the aiding of it is not always an inappropriate strategy -- but it frequently is one. Viet Nam IMO was such an inappropriate case.

Your last paragraph is on the money...


Sat, 07/02/2011 - 2:14pm

According to Chin Peng, the British didn't need to "get smart in midstream," Bob. They got it right in the beginning and broke the revolution in Malaya beyond repair.

Bob's World

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 1:49pm

I think key to remember is that for any intervention in the insurgency of another, if the political / policy context is proper, then yes it is within the hands of the General in charge to either succeed or fail.

If, however, as is both Vietnam and Afghanistan, if the political / policy context is improper, then the only thing within the control of the general is what the ulitmate failure will look like.

Or, in the importal word of Comedian Ron White: "You can't fix stupid."

Far too often we debate the wrong matters. It is quite natural for the military to debate leadership, tactics, strategies, etc in both on going interventions and in post-mortems of past ones. But the opportunity for success is cast before the first boot hits the ground.

Granted, as per the example of the Brits in Malaya, one can get smart in midstream and adjust the political / policy context from a failing one to a winning one; but that is the exeption rather than the rule.


Rod Coffey (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 1:42pm

hmmmm Criticisms of Romanticism over success? Counterinsurgency as not worth it ?

Abrams dramatically changed US operations in Vietnam because he was a better student of military history than Westmoreland.

Of course taking over from Westmoreland and working for Nixon is such a bad situation Abrams can probably be faulted for not drinking enough.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 12:52pm


Fair enough and nice points, although your view of Westmoreland and the purpose of his command visits contrasts significantly with one of his main briefing officers in 67 who said that Westmoreland would return from his visits to subordinate units in the evening, hear the evening brief from him, then at times would politely point out contradictions from what he heard from commanders on the ground and from what his staff was telling him. This from my own experience is a good commander's technique of viewing first hand things on the ground while at the same time keeping one's staff honest. This briefing officer also said one time late at night as he was getting ready to start the briefing with Westmoreland, the first thing the general asked him if he had had his supper yet. At least in this singular bit of anecdotal evidence, Westmoreland was not the monster that Sorley and others have made him out to be.

I think that in Vietnam the Army did reasonably well, it had its ups and downs to be sure, but there was not some kind of tectonic shift operationally when Abrams took over. That notion is pure fiction and not supported by the primary record. As i have said before I have spent lots of time in the archives reading the daily Toc logs from battalion up to corps from 65 to 72 and the operational framework for the entire time remained search and destroy. Too, if Sorley is right that within 15 minutes of assuming command Abrams had changed "everything" then one would think that that kind of tectonic shift would be reflected in Toc Logs, AAR, ORLs, etc. But it is not. Nor was there such a shift in the British Army in Malaya as well.


Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 12:15pm

<b>gian p gentile:</b>

You're always entertaining, Gian.

We can agree on this:<blockquote>"There is evidence, at least at this point mostly anecdotal, that Abrams did not get out nearly as much as Westmoreland did and was pretty much holed up in his hooch by early afternoon. The President and National Security advisor thought so, and not just in the heat of the moment of the Easter Offensive but years later both felt it important to mention these things in their memoirs."</blockquote>Both appear to be factual. Westmoreland was the quintessent politician and showman -- not that he was incompetent, he wasn't that bad, Eurocentric but not all bad by any means, He believed in 'presence' and got out and about -- didn't do much but get a quick briefing and make few comments then fly off to another unit when he did that but he was often seen in most units. Abrams, OTOH -- the guy who is quoted as saying the very apt "Generals should be noted for their silences..." -- didn't feel the need to impress that Westmoreland seemed to have. Different strokes, as they say -- different command styles, no more. Though of course one could read something else into that if one wished.<blockquote>"But what I have seen over the years as a practicing historian is that when folks dont like a certain historians interpretation or use of sources he is labeled a "revisionist" or worse accused of having an "agenda." But the fact of the matter is that all good history is revisionist by nature, if it wasnt history would stay the same and never change, no new sources would be considered and new interpretations offered. I am sorry that Carls use of primary sources, and his interpretations of them, and mine to boot, go against the way some remember personally the war, but good history moves forward and is not stuck in a block of concrete."</blockquote>We can agree on that as well. We also agree that Viet Nam was a stupid, poorly fought war and we lost. We may or may not agree that the US Army as an entity did not do well in that conflict though I certainly think that, noting also that most in that Army did the best they could in the circumstances. We do agree that all good history is revisionist by nature. I for one have no problem with your interpretations of primary sources, I have merely cautioned that some of them, as is true of the then President and his then NSA, might have agendas even if you did not. They say that recurring emphasis on particular points is often indicative of an agenda. Possible, I suppose.

I do not put complete faith in most that I read, over the years I've found too much of it to be everything from a minor inadvertent misstatement to ideologically tuned selectivity to flagrant plagiarism to an outright lie. So I read multiple, hopefully conflicting, sources and attempt to seek a balance. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not. I do find the 'truth' is generally somewhere between poles. YMMV..

The Pap

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 10:04am


Our staff and war colleges are founded on a realist worldview (that objectifies factors, variables, level and other fabricated structures, such as leadership).

This is why I am drawn to the literature that deals with social construction of knowledge (to include the idea that "strategy" itself is an extended metaphor).

I know of only two/three faculty members in our staff/war colleges that are articulate in the constructivist argument (or other paradigms for that matter). Most are realists to the point they mock constructivists as some sort of radical postmodernists. This is a shame and is indicative of the monistic frame based in a reified paradigm that the colleges perpetuate (and how's that working out?).

Would encourage you to write an article on this issue.


Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:55am

I just read a rough draft of an essay by a strategist on that very issues, Chris Papa.

I agree with you completely that too often some historians and -- especially -- journalists like to distill complex social forces into dominant personalities, creating a cult of leadership.

This has been an ongoing problem I've had with the so-called "Surge" narrative, a point Doug Ollivant's brief paper this week also explored.

That said, Gian also is right that command during battle (the clash of martial, hierarchical bureaucracies?) is important.