Entertaining the troops under the doubtful assumption that it will raise morale seems to be part of every war we fight.
Since the end of World War II, America lost every war it started and failed in military interventions when it did not use sound strategic thinking or have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the circumstances in deciding to use force.
The public and politicians need to understand why we have often failed in using military force and the causes. From that understanding, hopefully future administrations will be better prepared when considering the most vexing decision to employ force and send Americans into battle.
The twin causes have been the failure to think strategically and to have sufficient knowledge and understanding when deciding on the use of force.
Interestingly, this failure applies to republicans and democrats alike and seems inherent in our national DNA as we continue ignore past mistakes.
By examining the records of presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama in using force or starting wars, it becomes self-evident why we fail. And the argument is reinforced by autobiographical vignettes that provide a human dimension and insight into the reasons for failure, in some cases making public previously unknown history.
The recommendations and solutions offered in Anatomy of Failure begin with a framework for a brains based approach to strategic thinking and then address specific bureaucratic, political, organizational and cultural deficiencies that have reinforced this propensity for failure.
The clarion call of the book is that both a sound strategic framework and sufficient knowledge and understanding of the circumstance that may lead to using force are vital. Without them, failure is virtually guaranteed.
Since the official end of the Cold War in 1991, remarkably, the United States has been at war or engaged in significant military conflicts and interventions for over two-thirds of the intervening years. Tens of thousands of American Soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen have been killed or wounded in these conflicts. Wars and conflicts in Iraq in 1991; Somalia, 1992-93; the global war on terror, and Afghanistan, 2001-present; Iraq, 2003-present; and Syria and Yemen since 2016 represent a total of nineteen of the past twenty-six years in which this nation’s armed forces have been engaged in combat!
Using the end of World War II in 1945 as a second starting point and including the Korean (1950-53) and Vietnam Wars (from 1959-when the first Americans were killed-to withdrawal in 1974), Americans have been in battle for thirty-seven of the past seventy-two years, or well over 50 percent of the time. The record has not been impressive. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, vividly encapsulated by the poignant image of the last Huey helicopter lifting off the roof of the embattled American embassy in Saigon.
The only outright victory of the past six decades was the first Iraq War in 1991, in which President George H. W. Bush had the sound judgment to limit the objective to ejecting Saddam Hussein and his army from Kuwait and then to withdraw the bulk of our forces from the region.
Tragically for the nation, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, presided over arguably the greatest American strategic catastrophe since the Civil War, the second Iraq war, a conflict that led to the rise of the Islamic State and is still being waged today, without an end in sight.
The reader can evaluate the outcomes of the other interventions cited above.
Several observations that can be made about this history of repeated failure are almost as dismal the record itself.
First, few Americans are even aware of or concerned over how long this nation has been engaged in armed conflict over recent decades. It is quite a staggering length of time for a country that prides itself on its “exceptionalism” and its “peaceful” efforts to spread democracy around the globe.
Second, few Americans even ask why, given what we believe is the greatest military in the world, our record in war and military interventions is so failure prone. Third, we ourselves must ask: What can be done, in light of general public indifference, to ensure success whenever the nation employs military force in major conflicts or interventions?
This book examines the more significant American uses of force over the past six decades to understand why we lose wars (and fail in interventions) that we start. It also argues the absolute need to adopt a valid framework for making decisions, what I have termed a “brains-based approach to strategic thinking.”
While some may regard this term as arrogant, the fact is that too often we have failed to exercise fully the grey matter between our ears, with disastrous results.
To succeed, sound strategic thinking must transcend or minimize the vagaries of politics, ideologies, simplistic campaign slogans, wishful ideas, and the inexperience that have (as the forthcoming chapters will argue) handicapped the nation’s last three commanders in chief and almost certainly will affect the current one. From these analyses, the book derives means for how to win, how to succeed in applying force.
To make this argument more vivid, vignettes about major events are interspersed throughout the text. To some, they will be controversial. To others, these vignettes will underscore on a personal level the larger reasons for failure and the damning impact of the absence of sound strategic thinking. Each vignette is an accurate summary of actual events, to the best of my recollection. A few circumstances have been altered to protect sensitive information or sources.
As with any work, shortfalls and errors are the responsibility of the author alone. The only responsibility of the reader is to keep an open mind in understanding why we lose the very conflicts we start.
Washington, D.C. September 30, 2016
A Simple Truth Shaped By Moments of War
Presidents, politicians, and publics have failed to grasp this simple truth: for more than half a century, America has lost every war it has started. Likewise, America has also failed in military interventions it has initiated, interventions undertaken for reasons that turned out to be misinformed, contrived, baseless, ignorant, or just wrong.
In extreme humanitarian crises, especially those involving genocide and mass slaughter of innocents, decisions over whether or not to intervene with military force rather than with only aid and assistance are agonizing. More often than not, such humanitarian interventions bring temporary, not long-term solutions -the relief of the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s ultimate engagement in the Balkan wars of the 1990s being notable exceptions.
Tragically, intervention for the right reasons may still fail. Somalia in the early 1990s and, particularly, Libya in 2011 are poignant examples of failure. In some cases, administrations see no choice except to intervene, regardless of risk and the unlikelihood of success. In others, such as the catastrophe now enveloping Syria, all the options range between bad and worse.
When examined critically, objectively, and dispassionately, the reasons and factors that have led to failure in applying military force are self-evident and unarguable. However, too often we are blind to or dismissive of these realities. Vietnam and Iraq (after the 2003 invasion) are the clearest and most damning examples of failed military interventions. Afghanistan is almost certainly going to follow suit, and it is a war in which the United States has been engaged for more than three and a half decades.
Yet, the proposition that wars we start, we lose has been ignored by a succession of presidents of both parties and, for far too many decades, by the American public, especially following the great victories of World War ll and the Cold War. “War” in this book is defined as the use of military force in a major conflict, not metaphorical declarations of war against inanimate enemies, such as drugs, crime, poverty, and other social ills, “wars” that, by the way, have also failed, particularly the ill-named “global war on terror.”
The purposes of this book are to alert future leaders and publics: to inform them about disastrous wars of the recent past started by us and to propose solutions and actions to prevent such failures from recurring, or to minimize the consequences, through sounder strategic thinking. Where the use of force went badly awry, it was through the failure of decision makers, who allowed unsound and flawed strategic thinking to drive bad decisions.
This book has its origins in the Vietnam War, in 1965. I was serving as a Swift Boat skipper in the northernmost part of the Republic of South Vietnam. Over time (I was there from 1965 to 1967), even a junior naval officer could not ignore the recurring displays of arrogance, naiveté, ignorance, ineptitude, and incompetence by the senior American political and military leadership in waging that conflict. Despite the heroism and commitment of those who fought and died in Vietnam, the war, like most wars, would have been tragicomic in its idiocies and irrationalities had it not been so deadly serious.
And have no doubt: America started this war, which would turn into a quagmire.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed two votes short of unanimously in both houses of Congress in August 1964, gave three presidents virtual blank checks to wage war in Vietnam. Tragically, that authority was based on the utterly false premise that Hanoi had purposely ordered two separate attacks on American destroyers in international waters off the coast of North Vietnam, the second of which never occurred.
Battlefield tactics exploiting the massive American superiority in firepower and mobility became surrogates for strategy in Vietnam. This confusion of ends and means had fatal consequences. One was excessive reliance on numerical and quantitative measures to rationalize the tactics. This circular logic was manifest in the perverse establishment of “body count,” which became the metric of success. Because the numbers of enemy dead showed we were winning, then ipso facto, we had to be winning.
The year 1965 begins my chronicle for understanding and identifying the anatomy of failure. Like many of the millions of Americans who served in or during the lengthy Vietnam War, I was particularly affected by certain events. Three dramatize on a personal level how and why we lost in Vietnam and too often would make similarly grave errors in the future. Each demonstrates the folly of using force without understanding the interplay of ends and means or applying sound strategic thinking, failures that guarantee defeat. Of course, they also illustrate how all wars reflect human weaknesses and unintended consequences.
The first incident demonstrates that wars cannot be successfully waged in isolation or in compartmentalized fashion by individual services and agencies. The absence of coordination is inexcusable and ultimately proves fatal. The second underscores the huge gap that often exists between those on the front lines and the politicians and commanders hundreds or thousands of miles away. (It also reinforces the Napoleonic axiom that luck matters.) The third and final vignette is the most powerful:
When ends and means are not related owing to flawed strategic thinking and fallacious reasons for having gone to war in the first place, the effort will become morally and politically corrupt.
In 1965, the Vietnam War was escalating, and the Navy called for volunteers to serve in Southeast Asia. The Navy, engaged in the air battle over the North and uncertain how it would join the ground war and the fight in the rivers and offshore in the South, began with a modest (and largely pointless) operation to stop North Vietnam from infiltrating arms and men by sea. The intent of what was called Operation Market Time was to monitor the coasts of South Vietnam with a combination of maritime aircraft, warships, and small patrol craft called “Swift Boats.” Swift Boats were fiftyfoot foot aluminum-hulled craft designed by Sewart Seacraft for servicing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, especially in rough weather. Powered by two Cummins diesel engines, a Swift Boat could make thirty knots in average or better sea conditions.
Swifts carried twin .50-caliber machine guns in a forward mount above the pilothouse; an “over and under” 81-mm (three-inch) mortar that could fire an explosive round about two thousand yards; and a third .50-caliber machine gun mounted above the mortar tube. The crew was equipped with AR-15 automatic rifles, 79-mm grenade launchers, and other small arms. The aluminum skin barely kept out the sea, let alone enemy bullets and shrapnel. Crews were usually five or six, or larger, depending on the mission.
The flaw in this strategy was that North Vietnam already had an effective logistical land route to the South, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This trail, deep in the interior of Southeast Asia, did not need seaborne routes. But the Navy was anxious to get its share of the action, even though there was little action to be had.
My very modest training at the naval base in Coronado, California, included a superficial course in Vietnamese culture, a course that in my case had only one high point, a lecture by retired Army lieutenant colonel John Paul Vann. Vann was an extremely controversial former officer who later became the de facto commander of Vietnam’s II Corps area (the Central Highlands, north of Saigon) and the only civilian to be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry during the 1972 Easter Offensive. Vann was to be killed in June 1972, when his helicopter smashed into trees on a night flight in II Corps.
At this training session, Vann described the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in glowing terms and disparaged our South Vietnamese allies. When asked why he regarded the enemy so highly and our allies so poorly, he hesitated for a moment and replied, “I guess God put all the good guys on the other side.”
Classroom instruction was followed by SERE training (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) in freezing temperatures high in California’s mountains, ideal preparation for the heat and jungles of Vietnam. After that, several Swift Boat crews, including mine, boarded chartered civil airliners at Travis Air Force Base, outside San Francisco, for the long transpacific flight to the Tan Son Nhut air base, near Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam. But it did not happen that way.
Arriving at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, expecting to continue on, we were notified that our tickets ended there. Despite Priority One flight status and what we were told was an immediate operational requirement to get us in-country “pronto,” no one had bothered to book us on the next leg, to Saigon. Neither begging nor strong language had any effect. At best, the Air Force could get us to Saigon in about two weeks, following the airlift of a huge USO (United Services Organization) entourage of Hollywood and other celebrities and noncombatant personnel. (Entertaining the troops under the doubtful assumption that it will raise morale seems to be part of every war we fight.) Even worse, the bachelor officer and enlisted quarters at Clark were full up, there was no room at the inn.
“Where the hell do you expect four Swift Boat crews to stay, in tents on the parade field?” the exasperated officer in charge, me, asked a nonplussed and slightly disoriented airman.
“Oh no, by far the best place and much better than here on the base is the nicest whore house in Angeles City,” called the House of the Angels. And that is where we went, cooling our heels, if that was the appropriate phrase. While we tried our best to get to the war, persistently harassing the ticketing office to move up our flights, the crews were not enthusiastic about advancing our departure date. The rooms were quite comfortable, and unlike in the BOQs (bachelor officer quarters), their air conditioning worked. Food was good, beer and booze were plentiful and cheap, and sailors were not bored by their accommodations. With no direct means to contact naval headquarters in Saigon, we were stuck at Clark.
One of the few recreations at Clark was the Officers’ Club. There, I fell into the clutches of Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter pilots on rest and recreation (“R & R”) from the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at Phan Rang in South Vietnam.
As we Swifties had the inside track on the local scene, given our billets, a half dozen or more of the pilots joined me in a tour of Angeles City. The pilots had been flying missions in-country for about two or three months. As Americans tried to be in those days, each was overly aggressive and anxious to get back “into the fight.” After some hard drinking, the entourage returned to the Clark Officers’ Club, where there were two bars. The downstairs bar was entered “at one’s own risk” and was not too different from some of the joints in Angeles City. At some stage, an altercation broke out between one of the Air Force pilots and a Marine.
When the scrape was broken up, the Marine was quick to disappear and the Air Force pilots were escorted out of the bar by a bevy of large bouncers. The pilots were not happy with their dismissal and tried to reenter the bar forcibly. Fights broke out with the club bouncers. The Air Police were summoned. Being slightly more sober than my comrades, I attempted to separate the combatants. The APs arrived. Bad language led to a further exchange of blows, and a three-way donnybrook broke out among the Air Police, the bouncers, and the pilots. The APs and bouncers outnumbered the pilots and manhandled each of them, one by one, into the waiting paddy wagon. Realizing this would not be good for my new friends, I demanded that the senior airman summon the officer in charge.
Though I was seemingly coherent, and wearing a Navy tropical white uniform that was not commonplace on an Air Force base, the young Air Police officer in charge was confused. Exploiting that confusion, I invented an outrageous story about how these pilots were soon off on a highly classified, above-top-secret, extremely hazardous mission over North Vietnam. This could be their last fling, so to speak. That was the soft sell. For the hard sell, I, as a representative of Gen. Marmaduke Smedley, had the authority to place everyone in custody if need be.
The “we who are about to die” line may or may not have worked. But the threat of awakening the general with such a bizarre name (the first to come to mind) surely did. Fumbling to find the imaginary phone number in the right pocket of my tropical white shirt, I said, “Here’s the general’s personal phone number. He will not like being disturbed this late.” Whether the young officer believed me or not, he chose leniency rather than the threatened wrath of my general. The officers were released -and, being young and dismissive of authority, waited only a few minutes before reentering the bar. This time they were on their own.
(I later exchanged very occasional letters with one of them. Thirty-five years later, long after I’d forgotten the incident, that pilot, then 1st Lt. Gene Quick, turned up in Washington and called. We arranged a get-together, and after Gene and his wife arrived, he got around to telling the story. My wife was disbelieving. Yet I suspect some elements were true. Welcome to Vietnam, almost.)
After much pleading and begging, finally we were airborne, landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut air base ten days late. It was 3 am, and Vietcong mortars were peppering the field, already illuminated with star shells. Our only orders were to call “Tiger 345,” headquarters of Commander, Naval Forces Vietnam, on an antiquated field phone. The other two hundred or so passengers were quickly collected and hustled away to safety. We remained huddled in the empty hangar, hungry, frightened, and tired, listening to mortars exploding nearby and automatic weapons occasionally firing while I cranked on the phone, which was straight from a World War II movie, desperately trying to reach Tiger 345.
Wars in those days were obviously fought, in Saigon, on an eight-to-five basis. Thus, there was no answer from Tiger 345 until well after the sun had risen and the mortar attacks had subsided. A soft, female Vietnamese voice answered the phone. The way she pronounced “Tiger 345,” with both a Vietnamese and English lilt, is etched into my memory. An hour later a dilapidated yellow school bus arrived, with mesh wiring over the windows to prevent someone from lobbing a hand grenade or Molotov cocktail into the ancient vehicle.
The briefings in Saigon were as useful as our SERE training had been. Soon we were flying north to “I Corps” (that is, the zone assigned to the South Vietnamese army’s I Corps, the northernmost of four) in Da Nang and PCF Division 101. All of us were new to Vietnam and to war. We officers were young, arrogant, invulnerable (we foolishly thought) to the enemy, and thoroughly inexperienced and unprepared for war.
The first of my three vignettes was an incident that occurred on the evening of August 10-11, 1966. Three Swift Boats and four crews had been detached to a small base just inside the mouth of the Cua Viet River in the northernmost reaches of I Corps, almost in the shadow of the Demilitarized Zone separating the South and North. A Vietnamese junk base located a few kilometers away was supposed to provide some security. But the most worrisome part of a generally defenseless position was that we were colocated with the U.S. Marine Corps’ largest fuel depot of petroleum, oil, and lubricants (collectively called POL) in that part of the country, protected by an understrength guard unit.
Had a North Vietnamese or Vietcong rocket hit the fuel dump, the smoke, we joked, would have been visible in San Francisco. Still, despite the presence of local enemy units, no one in the chain of command seemed particularly worried about security. There was very little boat or junk traffic in the canals or to seaward on the ocean. As officer in charge, I dedicated one boat to “over-watch” duty, patrolling at night a few hundred yards from the base as added security. Its task was to detect any infiltration against either our undefended base or the vulnerable POL site and, if necessary, shoot on sight.
On that night, our boat drew over-watch duty. The only radar contacts were two U.S. Coast Guard WPBs -eighty-two-foot-long cutters-also on patrol. Around midnight, two jets overflew us. These could only be American, as the North Vietnamese air force never ventured south. Moments later, fire erupted in the vicinity of one of the WPBs. It appeared that the jets were strafing the boat-USCGC Point Welcome.
Knowing these were not North Vietnamese fighters, we rang up flank speed and closed the cutter. We arrived too late. Two Air Force B-57 Canberra bombers had, incredibly, mistaken Point Welcome for an enemy PT boat and made several strafing runs. The skipper, Lt. David Brostrom, had been killed while heroically shining a searchlight on the cutter’s U.S. ensign, hoping the aircraft would see it. A second crewman, Engineman Second Class Jerry Phillips, had also been killed.
We began picking up survivors who had jumped overboard. Meanwhile, our Vietnamese allies ashore had seen the attacks and, thinking we were the enemy, began firing at us with .30 and .50 caliber weapons. Fortunately, and courageously, Coast Guard chief petty officer Richard Patterson had taken command and fought to save Point Welcome, managing to turn on enough lights to convince our allies to stop shooting. A second WPB joined us in dealing with wounded.
Charges were filed against the Air Force pilots. “Friendly fire” was unfortunately the rule, not the exception, and virtually no coordination existed between the different services operating in the region. The Air Force needed pilots, and the charges disappeared. Other friendly-fire incidents occurred, particularly ashore. Miraculously, no one among our crews was killed or wounded by friendly fire during my tour, either at sea or operating close ashore (although I was almost sunk by a misdirected broadside fired, ironically, from the destroyer USS Uhlmann).
Thirty-one years, to the month, after the Point Welcome tragedy, a very close American friend living in England arrived in Washington with combat photographer Tim Page. They were in town for the CNN/Newseum salute, a huge exhibit, to photojournalists on both sides who died during the Vietnam War.
Over dinner and drinks, Tim, inquiring about my time in Vietnam, asked what had been my most harrowing experience. I recounted a summary of the Point Welcome episode. Page’s face went ashen. “Tim, are you all right?” my friend asked worriedly. Page remained stunned for a moment. Recovering slightly, he looked at me and asked, with emotion, “Did your crew wear red ball caps?”
I looked at him askance. “I beg your pardon?”
“Yes,” he replied, his color returning. “Red ball caps. And didn’t you go by the call sign ‘Red . . .’ something or other?”
“Ah yes, Red Baron . . I said, and then I was speechless. “Yes, Tim, I did, and l was.”
Tears running down his cheeks, he said in a voice filled with awe, “You saved my life! I was aboard Point Welcome.”
As with Gene Quick, sometimes events catch up with you. The larger failure was clear even to a young “jaygee.” Vietnam was fought as three or four separate wars by at least four different armies and air forces and operational commanders. Coordination was avoided by setting geographic boundaries to prevent or reduce friendly fire, rather than addressed by operational requirements. The Central Intelligence Agency further confused coordination. Throughout the country, the agency maintained a separate air force and paramilitary ground forces, as well as a small contingent of patrol boats, operating out of Da Nang.
A subset of the lack of coordination and command was the absence of fire discipline, exacerbated by a gross excess of available firepower. The body count became the metric for success and, too often, the basis for medals and good fitness reports. Aggressiveness was the order of the day. Hence, Air Force pilots were incentivized to mistake Point Welcome for a North Vietnamese PT boat even though none ever ventured south. “Shoot first” may not have been the explicit order of the day, but few units acted otherwise.
The lack of jointness and of a single, integrated operational chain of command would be addressed twenty years later with the Goldwater-Nichols Act, passed in 1986. However, integration of all crossagency capabilities in what would be called a “whole-of-government approach” still has not been fully addressed. Future failures would arise in the Afghan and second Iraq interventions, where underresourced civilian agencies were unable to deal fully with the “What next?” questions involved in bringing stability and security to those regions. “Stovepiping” of departments and agencies still persists, limiting the effectiveness of U.S. policies when all arms of government are vital to success.
The second vignette was an incident that spoiled Christmas Eve, 1966. A supposed truce was meant to halt fighting over Tet, the lunar new year, a well known Buddhist holiday coinciding with Christmas. The command in Saigon issued strict orders to return fire only when certain the enemy had fired first. But wars, especially this one, rarely celebrate holidays. We in the field knew that the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army (NVA) had often disregarded truces and that we had to be prepared for any attack or probe, no matter the orders from Saigon. PCF Division 101 was based and housed on a floating barracks barge. The barge, an APL in Navy jargon, was anchored in Da Nang Harbor, about five hundred yards from the nearest shoreline.
Anatomy of Failure. Why America loses every war it starts
by Harlan K. Ullman
get it at Amazon.com