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In 1987 I lectured on "American Military Leadership in the Vietnam War" at the Virginia Military Institute. The lecture was subsequently published as one of the John biggs Cincinnati Lectures. [1] By that point I had been teaching general military history for close to twenty years and a course entitled "America's Vietnam War" for nine. I had also participated in a unit on military leadership in The College of Wooster's "Leadership Seminar." The most important influence on the lecture, however, was the work I had done on army officers in the nineteenth century. The contrast between their conduct in the Philippines and that of many officers later in Vietnam was striking, particularly at the top. Blaming the army as an institution or its officers as individuals would have been relatively easy were it not for my own perceptions that many of the members of my own profession and the institutions in which they teach were not all that different.

By the 1970s careerism had replaced the nineteenth century call to service in more places than the U. S. Army, and I found that the conclusions of Loren Baritz in Backfire mirrored my own thoughts. Thus, what at first glance may well seem a harsh critique of the army alone is in reality a critique of not only the army but the society from which it was drawn. The result, of course, is a paper that was as depressing for me to write as it may be for some to read.

* * * * * *

In the age of the Great Captain, which ended more than a century ago, successful military leadership was easier to identify than at present. It may also have been easier to exercise. The Great Captains of the 18th century and earlier often had complete control, both civil and military, over forces small enough to be commanded by a single individual. They fought campaigns and battles that could be plotted on a single map and surveyed with the naked eye. Although making wise decisions in war and motivating people to fight and die in battle has always required the leader's special skills, the environment in which that activity took place has never been as incredibly complex as it is today.

Beginning in the 18th century, war began to undergo a series of changes. The effect of each was to make military affairs and the problems of command significantly more complex. National wars for survival replaced dynastic wars of acquisition. More significantly, mass armies replaced smaller professional forces, while the industrial revolution provided the means to equip and sustain them. It also provided mass produced weaponry with increasingly destructive capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, states had developed the managerial capacity to orchestrate the creation, training, mobilization, supply, and fighting of forces of immense size. Wars and the battles within them increased in scope, covering more territory, engaging more people, lasting longer and doing more damage.

By the time American military forces entered the war in Vietnam, warfare had become so complex that the exercise of military leadership comparable to that exhibited by the Great Captains of the past had probably become impossible. Whether or not that was true, the organization of the military forces fighting against the Communists in Indochina made any attempt to exercise such authority impossible.

As Marine Colonel James Donovan observed, the command structure established by the United States in Vietnam was "one of the most confusing of all wars."[2] No unified command existed to coordinate the activities of the Americans and their Vietnamese allies in the Republic of Vietnam, although the commander of the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) did control the principal non-Vietnamese units fighting within the country. He did not, however, have similar command of the naval forces in the South China Sea or the fighter bombers and B-52s flying missions from outside Vietnam. They were under the command of the Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), whose headquarters was in Hawaii. Pacification, the so-called "other war," and assorted "nation building" efforts were administered throughout much of the war by a variety of civilian agencies. The not too secret "clandestine" operations in Laos were organized and controlled by the CIA. In Washington, D.C., civilians not only supervised the war, but also engaged in making many small, day to day decisions that further prevented any commander on the scene in Vietnam from coordinating the war effort.

One has little sense of the Vietnam War as a conflict fought by individual commanders or leaders. Although General William Westmoreland's name became a household word during the war, the numerous other high ranking officers who made up the chain of command and staff elements leading from Washington to the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam remained relatively anonymous. General Earle Wheeler's name was sometimes noted in his capacity as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp gained occasional notice in his position as CINCPAC. In most cases, however, the many officers whose names appear in the post-war literature were unknown to the general public while the war was actually being fought. After General Westmoreland, Lieutenant William Calley, convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre, may be the most widely remembered American officer of the war, with the possible exception of some of the airmen held prisoner in Hanoi. Vietnam seemed to be a war fought by committee.

At one level of the war, however, one found the kind of old fashioned leadership present on the battlefields of the past, and in the work of the lieutenants and captains at the platoon and company level one sees examples of both the best and the worst of traditional military leadership. Leadership at such levels has always been anonymous, but that makes it no less important in an assessment of the quality of leadership in any war.

In Platoon Leader, James McDonough described his tour as a young lieutenant with the 173d Airborne Brigade in 1971-72. The book provides a masterful description of the elements of good leadership during a particularly difficult period of the war. McDonough, like many other young officers in Vietnam, found himself completely alone, the only officer in a one platoon camp adjacent to a Vietnamese village. A West Point graduate, he was well trained, if inexperienced, and his self-portrait exemplified the best that the army had to offer. He focused his attention on the two areas that virtually define good leadership at the small unit level: accomplishing his mission of destroying whatever military force the Communists sought to maintain in his area while doing his best to care for the men in his command.

To do his job well, he had to be attentive to a host of small details which, if neglected, would cost him and his men dearly. If he attended to them with care, however, he could transfer the costs to the enemy. Everything had to be considered, not only tactics, but the various daily routines that contributed to the maintenance of the health and welfare of the unit. Were the men eating right? Were they taking their anti-malarial medicine? Were they cleaning their feet as well as their weapons? Were the claymores well positioned and checked regularly? Were the men alert on guard duty or patrol? Did they understand their mission? The questions went on and on.

McDonough gave particular attention to the question of what his men might legitimately expect from him and what he needed to do to establish his authority over them. As he wrote, "I could not 'manage' my platoon up a hill. I had to lead them up there,"[3] and to accomplish that end he had to gain their respect. At the late date that McDonough went to Vietnam, many soldiers had already concluded that they did not want to be the last man killed in the war, and combat refusal, although not epidemic, was a potential problem facing any leader.

McDonough studied his men carefully. He "listened to their stories, their hopes, their gripes," not in an attempt to be their friend, but because they were his "prime resource" and because, as their lieutenant, he was expected to be interested in them.[4] He was their leader, and taking care of them was one of his primary responsibilities. Later, when he was wounded, he would remember that responsibility and recognize that "concern for myself would have to come later."[5]

Confronted with the problem of where he belonged physically (on patrol with a squad or in camp with the majority of the unit), McDonough reached a compromise, going out, on average, with every third patrol. He saw the importance of gaining first hand knowledge of both the terrain and the way his men operated in it. He also saw the importance of "sharing in the highest-risk operations" and the danger, if he did not, of slipping "into a defensive attitude" that might "eventually overtake the entire platoon."[6]

McDonough's experience was certainly not unusual, nor was it the unique province of West Point graduates. In a class at The College of Wooster, a young student asked Bob Romig, another lieutenant who had also led a platoon, what he had thought "about the war" when he was in Vietnam. Romig, a product of ROTC, answered the question as McDonough might have answered it, noting that he was too busy worrying about day to day problems such as whether the claymores were out or the men awake to think about the broader aspects of the war. He too was a good leader, doing his job well and thinking first and always about his mission and his men, even after he was wounded.

In Once a Warrior King, another lieutenant leader, David Donovan, described an incident that had "a great impact" on him before he went to Vietnam, and his story captures the essence of good leadership at the bottom of the chain of command. Donovan, a cadet officer, had asked Maj. Anthony Herbert "what was to be done if troops under fire refused to move as ordered." Herbert's answer was simple: "If your troops are down and won't move, you simply have to stand up and lead by personal example." Herbert reminded the young cadets around him that officers have special privileges, ranging from the salute to the O-club. They received higher pay and lived in better housing than enlisted people. But, said Herbert, "When all the chips are down, when the privates won't move and the sergeants won't move and fear has taken over everything, all the responsibility falls on your shoulders. . . . You took the rank, you took the privileges, now you have to pay the dues. You've got to stand up and by God lead those men! . . . You just remember this," said Herbert, "the day you have to be the first one to stand up and say, 'Follow me,' that's the day you will earn every salute you ever get."[7]

For many officers that day never comes; for Donovan it came in a rice paddy in Vietnam, when the Vietnamese troops he advised and the American team he led were pinned down under heavy fire. He followed the little voice the conversation with Herbert had put into his head, and all went well. He stood up, and the men followed. He earned his salutes. For other leaders, however, the outcome is not always so benign.

Unfortunately, the countless examples of good leadership exemplified by officers such as McDonough, Romig, and Donovan must stand beside examples of incredibly bad leadership and total incompetence. McDonough, for example, mentioned two platoon leaders very different from himself that he encountered early in his tour. One had become completely unhinged by his experience, turning into a maddened brute who found the killing "wonderful" and told McDonough that "in no time at all you'll have a collection of ears that will make those rear echelon mother fuckers green with envy."[8] Another casualty of the war, the lieutenant that McDonough relieved, was a "blatant coward," who remained in his bunker while the men, whom he viewed as expendable, protected him.[9] Nothing is more damaging to the image of military leadership at the company and platoon level, however, than the story of the My Lai massacre and Lieutenant William F. Calley. Had Calley lost control of his men, the massacre would have been horrible enough, but Calley had done something even worse. He had lost control of himself, and as a result he led his men into an evil that shocked even some people accustomed to the horror and frustration of the war in Vietnam.

In contrast, McDonough recognized that an officer's responsibility to his men was even greater than the difficult, sometimes impossible task of keeping them alive. He saw that as an officer he also had a moral duty "to preserve their human dignity." As he wrote, "War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but men must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed. And anything can happen."[10]

So far, considerable space has been devoted to the positive example of good leadership presented by McDonough for two reasons. First, one must never forget that countless individuals, most of them anonymous, exhibited the traits of good leadership described in works such as Platoon Leader and Once a Warrior King. When one hears or reads the harsh words of criticism that can legitimately be used to describe much of the military leadership in Vietnam, one must not forget those other leaders who remained true to their mission and the people under them, who exhibited the very best leadership one could hope for in any war at any level.

In no war has every leader been successful, and one has no reason to expect that to be the case. Military leaders are human beings, subject to all of the tremendous variability of the species. Collectively, they manifest to differing degrees all of the individual human traits required for good military leadership: wisdom, competence under stress, bravery, even sanity. One focuses on the McDonoughs of the war because of the stark contrast between their often superb leadership and the all too frequent examples of poor leadership at the top that was responsible at least in part for the American failure in Vietnam.

At virtually every turn high ranking American officers made decisions that hurt the war effort and led eventually to defeat. Although General Westmoreland and his high ranking compatriots were initially successful in one aspect of leadership, getting the people below them to follow their lead, they failed dismally in the other, more important aspect of leadership at the top, the setting of a wise agenda. They used their positions of command to move the people over whom they had authority in directions that were, at best, counterproductive, and at the worst, truly disastrous.

Because the officers who controlled the American war on the ground in Vietnam were so successful in getting people to follow their commands, the nature of the decisions they made has great significance. The most important of those decisions concerned the way in which the American military force assembled in Southeast Asia would be used against the Communist enemy there, and although initially one finds command references to counterinsurgency, the focus soon shifted to the large-scale operations that came to be known by the rubric "search and destroy."

As a result of the limitations imposed upon it by the President, the American ground force in Vietnam was restricted to operating within the confines of the Republic of Vietnam. It was not, however, forced by any decision made in Washington to conduct operations as it did, nor was it compelled to devote as little effort as it did to pacification operations.

For General Wheeler, "the essence of the problem in Vietnam" was "military,"[11] and General Westmoreland obviously agreed. Westmoreland's approach was to use "superior American firepower . . . to find . . . fix . . . and defeat" the enemy. "Our objective," he said, "will be to keep the combat tempo at such a rate that the Viet Cong will be unable to take the time to recuperate or regain their balance." Wheeler believed that Westmoreland's strategic approach gave "the best assurance of military victory in South Vietnam."[12] It was also an approach that seemed equally acceptable at the time to most of the corps and division commanders that served under Westmoreland.

During and after the war, however, few command decisions were subjected to such widespread criticism as the search and destroy strategy implemented during the Westmoreland years. Writing at the height of the big unit war, Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Corson criticized the strategy in vivid language, observing that "We had chosen a battering-ram to get through the door to the enemy and in so doing had made a shambles of the entire house."[13] An army Lieutenant Colonel, Carl Bernard, made a similar observation, condemning "the cavalier disregard of . . . US commanders for the dictates of the 'pacification' program, in their headlong rush to 'kill VC.'"[14] Colonel David Hackworth likened the American military in Vietnam to "a blind, clumsy, superstrong giant fighting a swift little midget that was nickel and diming us to death."[15]

Eventually even officers at the top would come to realize the inanity of the American approach. General William E. DePuy, identified by General Douglas Kinnard, author of The War Managers, as "one of the principal architects of United States tactics and strategy in the Vietnamese War," admitted to Kinnard after the war that "he had not been perspicacious enough in those days."[16] General Bruce Palmer and Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., have both criticized search and destroy in their books on the war, and General Dave Palmer has even argued that the attrition strategy it represented was not a true strategy at all, only evidence of strategic bankruptcy.[17]

Colonel David Hackworth concluded that General Westmoreland just "didn't understand guerrilla warfare."[18] That may have been true. Thomas Thayer, Director of the Southeast Asia Division of the Department of Defense's systems analysis branch, noted that shortly after Westmoreland's arrival in Vietnam, the General "was heard to complain that he couldn't make much sense out of the briefings he was receiving." He asked Thayer "to develop a new system for him," but Thayer wrote that he too could make little sense of the war "in those early days." General Lewis Walt, who commanded the Marines in I Corps, claimed that, when he arrived in the country, he had a similar lack of understanding of the war and no "clear idea as to how to win it." The British counter-insurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson, also noted the "lack of understanding of the nature of the war" among the Americans.[19]

Despite the criticism, however, the war proceeded as planned, although the planning was clearly not good. When General Harold K. Johnson, army Chief of Staff, met with a group of platoon and company commanders on a trip to Vietnam at the end of 1965 he was told that moving in large units they were unable to engage the enemy. Johnson supposedly "agreed with their philosophy," but he rejected their suggestions, convinced that the army would not be able to "respond to the public outcry in the United States about casualties" if it fought the war using the kind of small unit operations they recommended.[20]

Equally distressing was the way in which programs that appeared to be successful were dismantled to sustain the faulty strategic approach selected by the high command. In 1961, for example, army Special Forces teams, operating under CIA direction, had organized Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) in villages inhabited by the hill peoples of Vietnam. By the end of 1962, the Special Forces CIDG units had secured hundreds of villages and thousands of civilians against the Communist guerrilla threat. The army high command, however, was not only distressed by the CIA control of the program, but also by its defensive nature. Even before General Westmoreland's arrival in Vietnam, the army was at work to reorient the program. Speaking for the army staff in August 1962, Lieutenant General Barksdale Hamlett told MACV, "We prefer to see special forces personnel used in conjunction with active and offensive operations, as opposed to static training activities."[21] The result, over time, was the transformation of the CIDG units into strike forces, their transfer to the control of the Saigon government, and the collapse of a successful program of village defense.

A similar disaster occurred under Westmoreland a few years later. Although General Walt may not have understood the war when he arrived in Vietnam, the Marines under his command were soon implementing an innovative program designed to protect the rural population in the I Corps area. Throughout the populated sections of I Corps, Marine squads moved into the villages to establish Combined Action Platoons, linking the Marines to local Vietnamese defense forces.

General Walt's superior, General Victor Krulak, commanding the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, was convinced "that there was no virtue at all in seeking out the NVA in the mountains and jungle." He preferred to focus Marine efforts on "the rich, populous lowlands." He believed that if the Marines could "destroy the guerrilla fabric among the people" they could deny the Communists the food, intelligence, and other support required to continue the war. If the Communists came down from the mountains to fight the Marines in the lowlands, Krulak was certain that the Marines would prevail, but "the real war," he said, "is among the people and not among these mountains."[22]

At MACV Headquarters, however, a different view prevailed. General Westmoreland wanted the Marines to participate more actively in search and destroy operations. General DePuy observed that Westmoreland was "disturbed by the fact that all but a tiny part of the I Corps area is under control of the VC." Criticizing the Marines for involvement "in counterinsurgency of the deliberate, mild sort," DePuy urged Westmoreland to direct them to launch large-unit operations. Another army general, Harry O. Kinnard, was "absolutely disgusted" with the Marine approach.[23]

Not wanting to "precipitate an interservice imbroglio" by dealing too abruptly with General Walt, Westmoreland "chose to issue orders for specific projects that as time passed would gradually get the Marines out of their beachheads."[24] Westmoreland succeeded, but at the cost of weakening one of the few American military strategies that made sense.

In 1967, the Hamlet Evaluation System showed that villages protected by Marine Combined Action Platoons were almost twice as secure on average as other villages in the region. There was also a direct correlation between the length of time a CAP unit had operated in a village and the village's security. Still, the high command at MACV continued in its commitment to the opposite approach. Other army officers were more astute, recognizing, as one lieutenant colonel wrote, that "we would have been much better off if many of our military operations had resembled a scalpel rather than a sledge hammer; if we had, for example, made wider use of the marine CAP program." He believed that the Marine approach was "far, far better than what most other American units in Vietnam were doing,"[25] a view shared by a number of authors loosely grouped into what the historian George Herring has termed "the counterinsurgency school."[26]

The bad strategic choices of the high command were made worse by the equally bad managerial decision establishing the year tour of duty with a six month rotation between staff and command positions for officers. The results of the policy were catastrophic. McDonough noted the frustration of having to leave his men in the field at the very time when he was "the most battle-experienced platoon leader in the battalion." He also noted the "hypocrisy" of leaving men who "were there for a full twelve months or until incapacitated by wounds, illness, or death . . . for a relatively safe job at the battalion base camp." McDonough was convinced that "A leader does not leave his men."[27] The high command, however, believed otherwise.

Although the origins of the policy and the exact reasons for implementing it are obscure, its negative impact was readily apparent. As one major declared, "All those who have talked with me about the six-month-command, six-month-staff concept agreed that it was crap. . . . a commander never really got a handle on his unit . . . by the time he was competent, he was moved."[28] As another officer observed, "Westmoreland couldn't have found a better way, if he had tried, of guaranteeing that our troops would be led by a bunch of amateurs."[29] The statistics would seem to support the charges; the rate of battle deaths in battalions in combat under experienced leaders were roughly two-thirds the rate in units with commanders who had less than six months' experience.[30]

Whether the rotation of officers in combat commands was done to increase the number of officers with combat experience or to enable more officers to obtain important experiences needed to enhance their careers, the results were the same. As one artillery captain observed, if you were really effective as a combat leader, you got six months. If you were the village idiot and couldn't do anything except to fly around in a helicopter and ask the troops if they were getting their mail, you still got six months."[31]

The short tours also distorted the military effort in Vietnam in another way. Of the infantry riflemen in Vietnam in 1969, only 2 percent were career soldiers; 88 percent were draftees and the other 10 percent were first-term enlistees. Most of the officers and NCOs leading them were similarly inexperienced.[32] One platoon sergeant, decrying the personnel policies that rotated men in and out of units as individuals, observed that "the makeup of my platoon changed almost weekly." As a result, at the end of two months, the sergeant "had more experience than half the men in my platoon."[33] In the 1986 symposium on the Indochina War, sponsored by the army 's Center of Military History, Ronald Spector summed up the problem by noting that "The system produced constant personnel turnovers, broke down unit cohesion, and ensured that, at any given momement, a platoon or company 'in the bush' would be made up largely of inexperienced newcomers."[34] A personnel policy decision that itself exemplified bad leadership at the top thus worked to create a situation that perpetuated inexperienced leadership at the bottom as well. In a 1977 article in the Military Review, Lieutenant Colonel David Holmes noted the demoralizing effects of the rotation policy. Noting that "The short-tour policy . . . undoubtedly contributed to the instances of mutiny, corruption, drug abuse and fragging," he added that "It also probably reinforced the ticket punching careerist syndrome still visible in today's officer corps."[35]

A good leader takes care of the troops, but American commanders in Vietnam confused care with indulgence. The result was a proliferation of elaborate bases with air conditioned quarters, posh clubs, and giant PXs filled with luxury goods. Lieutenant General Joseph Heiser, who commanded the army 's 1st Logistical Command in Vietnam, complained that "Too many luxuries burdened an already heavily taxed logistical system."[36] After the war General Hamilton Howze also criticized "the practice of providing too many luxuries in base camps," observing that "We fought World War II without these and they were not necessary in the soldier's short twelve-month tour in Vietnam." The result, wrote Howze, was that "Our base camps became too elaborate, soaked up too much manpower, diverted our attention from the basic mission and lessened our operational flexibility."[37] The system also fostered corruption and scandal.

Even worse, however, the contrast between the grunt's life in the field and the life of the full-time inhabitants of the bases may have eroded morale. Animosity between combat troops and support troops in safer billets has frequently been evident in war, but decisions made by the high command in Vietnam seemed to have accentuated the divisions while adding little to the ability of the American military forces to fight the war successfully.

The elaborate bases and luxuries of the Americans also had a negative impact on the Vietnamese people. American luxury items flooded the black market, while the tastes of free-spending GIs in search of sex and fun distorted the job market and fueled inflation. Instead of helping to win hearts and minds, the misplaced policies worked to destroy Vietnamese culture and self-respect.

The military's self-indulgence also combined with the emphasis on the use of firepower to restrict operations in the field. As the logistical tail of a military force grows, the number of troops able to patrol and fight on the ground declines. It is a simple problem in mathematics; each soldier diverted to supervise a club, repair an air conditioner, serve as an officer's valet, or perform some other, militarily unnecessary task is a soldier that might have been used in the field. Even the efforts of individuals tending crew-served weapons, maintaining them, and supplying them with ammunition or fuel may be misplaced if the primary war should be taking place on the ground in the bush or in the villages. Although the estimates vary, the number of combat troops available for deployment in sustained ground operations when the United States had 536,000 service personnel in Vietnam may have been as low as 80,000.[38]

In the realm of strategic decision making, in personnel policies, and even in that most basic aspect of leadership, taking care of the troops, the high ranking officers of the American military machine failed to exhibit the wisdom that is the essence of good leadership. Perhaps even worse than the poor decisions made originally, however, was the systematic self-deception that prevented the reevaluation of those decisons. The stubborn commitment of the high command to error defies belief, but the evidence of it would seem to be overwhelming.

Self-deception was apparent from the beginning of the American military commitment. A classic example from the advisory period came in 1962, when Lieutenant General Paul Harkins, then MACV commander, claimed that the South Vietnamese units clobbered at Ap Bac had actually won the battle because they had "taken the objective."[39] American officers advising the ARVN units in the field knew that was not the case, but their criticisms and recommendations were ignored, leading Andrew Krepinevich, Jr., to conclude in his book on the army in Vietnam that the army was "uninterested in information questioning its approach to the war."[40] Such self-deception continued throughout the conflict. Lieutenant Colonel Bernard, for example, told of a 1969 case in which two officers, both Senior Advisors, were "dumped unceremoniously at the insistence of the US Division Commander" because they had complained to American troop commanders about "the misbehavior of their troops, and the malcomprehension of pacification by the subordinate commanders and staffs."[41] David Halberstam concluded from his personal experience as a reporter in Vietnam that staff officers were "intuitively protecting the commander from things he didn't want to see and didn't want to hear, never coming up with information which might challenge what a commander wanted to do at a given moment."[42] Corson was convinced that "our dissembling" had "become institutionalized," with the result that "by lying to ourselves" we "played into the enemy's hands."[43]

Sadly, the self-deception was not only the result of bureaucratic wishful thinking, but also of outright fabrication of information. Nowhere was such willful misinformation more apparent than in the statistical reporting of body counts. Although some commanders such as Lieutenant General Julian Ewell, commanding the 9th Infantry Division, seemed to believe in the validity of the body count, the generals surveyed by Douglas Kinnard took a more skeptical view. Only two percent of them believed that the kill ratio provided a valid measure of "progress in the war," and over half of them thought it was "misleading." Over 60 percent noted that the body count was "often inflated."[44]

More significant, perhaps, were the subjective comments accompanying the responses to Kinnard's questionnaire. One general called the body count "A fake--totally worthless." Another called it "Gruesome--a ticket punching item," while a third said that "often" the counts were "blatant lies." One general found "the immensity of the false reporting" to be "a blot on the honor of the army," while another said it was "a great crime and cancer in the army in the eyes of young officers in 1969-1971."[45]

The lying, however, was not limited to the body count. One brigade historian observed that "battle news is edited and revised until it's acceptable to higher-ups," and he claimed that he "had to retype battle reports . . . turning an NVA victory over superior American forces into a U.S. victory."[46] Another retired officer has spoken of "a West Point classmate and friend" who admitted that "he had to be dishonest to 'do well' as a battalion commander in Vietnam." He claimed that "Everyone else was doing it," and he maintained that "he had to be corrupt" to be promoted.[47] For Corson, however, the problem indicated the "erosion of moral principle within the military."[48]

Although at the bottom one finds evidence of courage, self-sacrifice, and exemplary leadership, at the top one sees little of any of these key elements. During the Vietnam War, the lack of wisdom on the part of the American military's best and brightest was truly frightening, and the moral decay that accompanied it was even worse.

By mid-1969, William McCaffrey, Commanding General, U. S. Army, Vietnam, reported that "discipline within the command as a whole had eroded" and that "within the chain of command . . . communication has broken down."[49] Two years later a correspondent, Robert Heinl, Jr., would charge that "the morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces" was "lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States."[50] Frequent news stories about racial incidents, drug abuse, fraggings, desertion and combat refusal seemed to substantiate Heinl's claim that the nation's armed forces were in a state of collapse.

Heinl blamed "leadership which is soft, inexperienced, and sometimes plain incompetent."[51] Other critics concurred. In Crisis in Command, Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage observed that "disintegration seems to be clearly associated with the large numerical expansion of the officer corps to levels previously unknown."[52] Corson observed that, despite having lowered its educational requirement for officer candidates from a bachelor's degree to two years of education beyond high school, the Marine Corps was about 800 new second lieutenants short of its 1969 target of 3,000. The army abolished its post-secondary education requirement entirely, and both services also lowered their physical requirements for officers.[53] In 1970, the Commander in Chief, U. S. Army, Pacific blamed "the requirements imposed by Vietnam and the rapid promotions that have occurred" for "a general decline in the quality and consequently prestige of our junior officers."[54]

As the demand for officers increased, the supply of high quality material was contracting. ROTC enrollment for all the services shrank from 230,000 to 123,000 between 1960 and 1969,[55] and a number of campuses ended their programs. Spector noted that "output of Army Officer Candidate Schools increased by a factor of six during the first year of the Vietnam buildup," July 1965-July 1966, from 300/month to over 1,800. The next year the monthly average was 3,500.[56] The attrition rate in the army 's OCS program fell from 42 percent to 28 percent between 1965 and 1967, meaning that, at the very time that the program was becoming less selective in its admissions standards, it was also lowering its graduation standards.[57] As one retired officer observed, "When an army is required to fight a war without the support of society, it is forced to commission its Calleys."[58]

The debilitating increase in the officer corps, with the accompanying decline in leadership, might have been avoided, however, had leaders at the top been willing to approach the war differently. Descriptions of the Marine CAP program indicate that considerable responsibility could have been left in the hands of NCOs, and a leaner force structure, without a luxurious tail, would have needed fewer officers, as would a force in which officers remained in country longer than a single year. Although many of the problems of poor leadership at the bottom may have been the result of an increase in the number of new, inexperienced lieutenants, the need for that increase was a function of bad decisions made higher up the chain of command. No matter how bad leadership became at the bottom, leadership at the top was generally worse, if only because the adverse consequences of a single bad decision made at a high level could be so much greater.

One can not end the litany of command failure without a brief comment on the question of war crimes, for as General Westmoreland himself said, "any time there are atrocities it is the result of bad leadership."[59] No single example in the war proves the point better than the events surrounding the My Lai massacre. The company involved and other units in the Americal Division were ill-disciplined. Incidents involving the mistreatment of Vietnamese civilians had preceded the events at My Lai but had gone unpunished. The troops involved were not only inexperienced, but also led by men who lacked the judgment and self-control required of leaders in such difficult circumstances. The result, in the Pentagon's euphemistic words, was "a tragedy of major proportion."[60]>

The problem, however, was again a result of command failure at the top as well as the bottom. Although the Rules of Engagement set down by General Westmoreland were impeccable in their attention to the need to minimize destruction and damage to civilians and their property, when violations of the rules went unpunished, the authority of the rules and the rule makers was lessened. A similar erosion took place as a result of the lavish use of artillery and air power. As Guenter Lewy observed in America in Vietnam, "the constantly repeated expressions of intense concern of MACV with the question of civilian casualties can be read as an acknowledgment that rules aimed at protecting civilian life and property were, for a variety of reasons, not applied and enforced as they should have been."[61] For Lewy, the absence of significant action against violators of the rules of engagement until after the My Lai incident constituted, at the very least, a "dereliction of duty" on the part of the officers in command at MACV. Clearly the bad leadership responsible for violations of the rules of engagement was not limited to officers of low rank.

In his provocative assessment of the American effort in Vietnam, On Strategy, Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., claimed that "as far as logistics and tactics were concerned we succeeded in everything we set out to do," and he wrote that "On the battlefield itself the Army was unbeatable."[62] Unfortunately, Summers' perception is inaccurate.

The picture of the operational performance of American units provided by Shelby Stanton's very detailed work in The Rise and Fall of an American Army is not as affirmative as Summers led his readers to believe. In 1966, for example, the army's own data indicate that "88 percent of all fights were being initiated by the NVA or the VC, and half of these (46 percent) began as ambushes." As Stanton observed, "The NVA and VC forces were able to seek or break off combat with relative freedom." The initiative on the battlefield was in their hands, and "green" American soldiers were "faring poorly as a result."[63] Later in the war, although more successful, the army, in Stanton's opinion, was still "fighting well below its potential." After the order to begin a withdrawal of American forces was issued, "Morale and discipline caved in on an escalating basis, and combat performance declined."[64]

One finds a similarly dismal assessment of American battlefield performance in General Dave Palmer's work on the war. Palmer pointed in particular to the American tendency to use its own troops as bait, arguing that "the time-honored technique of fire and maneuver had switched over to one of maneuver and fire." As a result, descriptions of military engagements in Vietnam are filled with references to American troops "pinned down" by "heavy fire," unable to "maneuver decisively." As Palmer observed, "The utter dependence on firepower represented a failure of the U.S. system of fighting in Vietnam."[65] Put another way, it represented a complete failure of American military leadership at the tactical as well as the strategic level.

Of the army generals who responded to Douglas Kinnard's questionnaire, 62% "thought that the tactics employed could have been improved in a major way."[66] A problem of particular significance was what Edward Luttwak has termed the military's "tactical self-indulgence," in which high performance jet fighter bombers struck peasant huts and sampans and artillery barrages were brought to bear on individual snipers. Said Luttwak, "The grossly disproportionate use of firepower became the very theme of the war--and its imagery on television was by far the most powerful stimulus of antiwar sentiment."[67] Despite Colonel Summers' claim that the Communists were defeated "in every major engagement,"[68] American tactical decisions in Vietnam were hardly better than the strategic ones, particularly given the disastrous impact of the firepower-intensive approach on the pacification program.

One finds good and bad leadership at all levels in war, but America's Vietnam War may be exceptional in terms of the extent of the problems evident. American military leadership, particularly at the top, was significantly flawed. Not only did American commanders fail to find a strategy or tactics that could succeed in accomplishing their mission within the limitations placed upon them by the President, but they also failed to maintain the cohesion and fighting spirit of their forces as their strategic and tactical failure became apparent.

Unfortunately, identifying problems is not synonymous with explaining them. Although the lack of wisdom evident at the top provided shocking evidence that something was radically wrong with the American military system, the difficult task of delving into the causes of the problems remains.

In part, the problems of leadership faced by the American military in Vietnam may have been a function of the growing complexity of warfare and the various adjustments made to deal with it. Management and the bureaucratic organization that sustains it is necessary. Indeed it is essential in modern war, and much of what the American military accomplished in Vietnam was incredible, particularly on the logistical side. Even the flawed search and destroy strategy and the lavish use of firepower that accompanied it would have been impossible to implement had not many officers performed their assigned tasks with great competence. As Colonel Summers has said, "'management enabled the United States to move a million soldiers a year half-way around the world, and then to feed, clothe, shelter, arm, and equip them at a historically unprecedented level of abundance."[69]

But an institution can become over managed. Charles J. Ryan, a professor of engineering at Stanford University, has observed that initially an institution can obtain a competitive edge and improve the quality and quantity of its productive forces by adding a layer of management. As additional layers of management are added, however, increases in productivity do not continue. Instead, a kind of managerial hypertrophy sets in that eventually leads to a decline in efficiency.[70] One result of that phenomenon seen in Vietnam was what Luttwak called "bureaucratic deformation," in which the increased size of the military bureaucracy "drastically reduced the true number of combat troops in the country to a fraction of the ostensible troop level."[71] Another result appeared within the chain of command, where time that should have been devoted to innovative thought and decisive action was devoted instead to shuffling paper within the bureaucracy.

As layer upon layer of middle management was set down within the military services, the ability of officers to lead well at both ends of the chain of command was curtailed. The flow of information upward was distorted, and the ability of leaders on the spot to exercise individual judgment was restricted. Doctrine, forms, and set operating procedures became a substitute for thought. In the end, the decisions made, particularly at the top, were doomed to fail because they were the flawed product of a flawed system. Once set in motion, however, the machinery to implement the decisions worked at its managerial best, no matter how damaging the results.

The highly bureaucratic structure of modern military institutions also works in a second way to make the exercise of good leadership difficult. Robert Komer, the civilian coordinator of the American pacification program, focused much of his critique of the American effort in Vietnam on what might be termed the bureaucratic imperative, the tendency of bureaucracies to "play out" their institutional "repertoires." As a result, wrote Komer, "Such institutional constraints as the very way our general purpose forces were trained, equipped, and structured largely dictated our response."[72] In developing doctrine, tactics, equipment, and tables of organization the American military focused on the problems of relatively large-scale, conventional war, particularly war in Europe against the Soviets. Having developed their individual ideas of how a war should be fought, each service proceeded to act upon those ideas in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the greater the bureaucratic imperative to implement a given doctrine, the greater the difficulty will be for leaders within an institution to change direction.

Military officers, however, were as much victims of their own individual ambition as of the bureaucratic constraints of their service branches. The evidence of opportunistic, careerist behavior on the part of officers in Vietnam is truly shocking. The U. S. Army War College Study on Military Professionalism, completed in 1970, noted a significant divergence within the officer corps from "the idealized climate" of military professionalism, "characterized by: individual integrity, mutual trust and confidence, unselfish motivation, technical competence, and an unconstrained flow of information." The study described "the existing climate" as one characterized by the "ambitious, transitory commander--marginally skilled in the complexities of his duties--engulfed in producing statistical results, fearful of personal failure, too busy to talk with or listen to his subordinates, and determined to submit acceptably optimistic reports which reflect faultless completion of a variety of tasks at the expense of the sweat and frustration of his subordinates."[73]

The specific comments of officers surveyed in the Army War College study were particularly damning. One lieutenant observed that "the willingness of an officer to assume responsibility for his own plans and actions seems to vary inversely with rank up to the rank of general."[74] A captain found that "military personnel, primarily career types, are too concerned with promotions, efficiency reports, and conforming to the wishes of their commander." Another captain charged that "too many officers place the value of a high OER [Officer Efficiency Report] over the welfare of their men," and a colonel noted that "everyone is afraid to make a mistake," with the result that "authority and ability are diluted at every level." A colonel spoke of "endless CYA [Cover-Your-Ass] exercises" that he believed "create suspicion and distrust on the part of juniors for the integrity and competence of their superiors."[75]

The study identified "the striving for personal success" as the cause of such counterproductive behavior.[76] As a National Guard officer who served in Vietnam later said, "regular-army officers I knew were always very career conscious, often constrained." He was "very disappointed in the caliber of those active army officers because so many gave the impression of being far more concerned with their careers than they did with doing what needed to be done from the standpoint of their troops."[77]

As one of the generals surveyed by Douglas Kinnard observed, "There were too many battalion and brigade commanders getting their tickets punched rather than trying to really lead."[78] Kinnard himself was equally critical. Speaking of the many problems plaguing the military late in the war, he wrote "It is easy to blame the quality of the enlisted men or the lack of support on the home front for all this. But let's state it straight--the problem, where it existed, was one of ineffective leadership, in large part because many leaders made a career out of their own careers rather than a career out of leading their own units."[79]

A few officers like David Hackworth resigned, fed up with the "ticket punchers, who run in for six months, a year, and don't even know what the hell it's all about,"[80] but most did not. Instead, said one officer, "opportunism appeared to be the accepted rule." As a major observed, "the professional officer went into the war to get what he could out of it." Another admitted that "many of us (me included) used the war as a vehicle for enjoying the only war we had."[81] Very few officers spoke out and fewer still resigned, even though many of them saw that careerism was not only undermining the military effort in Vietnam, but also threatening to destroy the nation's military institutions.

As the debate concerning the proper role of the military officer developed, some participants based their arguments on the false assumption that officers in the late-19th century had benefited from an isolation which served to protect them from the corruption of their professional military ethic by materialistic civilian influences. For example, in Military Review in 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Frederic J. Brown, argued that "the stimulus to overinvolvement" in civilian affairs was "the greatest current danger to the Army," and he opted instead for "the traditional isolation which has served to preserve the professional ethic." Even civilian social scientists who argued that isolation was impossible or undesirable tended to believe that officers in the past had been isolated. Thus Charles C. Moskos, Jr., for example, could reject the notion that isolation would be beneficial to officers in the post-Vietnam period while accepting the view that before World War II American officers had lived and worked in a "self-contained institution markedly separated from civilian society."[82]

Beginning with a faulty premise, more than one author concluded that officers should seek a rebirth of professional commitment through increased isolation from civilians and civilian-type tasks. But there were no "good old days" in which splendid isolation from civilian America contributed to the professional growth of the officer corps and strengthened its commitment to "Duty -- Honor -- Country." The Golden Age of professional development in the army noted in Chapter Four occurred during a time of continuous interaction between officers and the civilian elite, when officers frequently performed jobs that were more civilian than military.

Descriptions of convergence between civilian and military roles in the 20th century may be accurate, but they are also overdrawn. The convergence has not been as great as assumed because significant divergence did not exist prior to it, and problems within the officer corps at the time of the war in Vietnam appear related instead to the fact that since World War II the officer corps had become much more representative of American society in general.

Many of the problems apparent during the war in Vietnam were by no means exclusive to the military. Like the problems of bureaucratic deformation and the bureaucratic imperative of the repertoire, the problem of careerism is readily apparent throughout the institutional structures of the United States, in its colleges and universities, its corporations, its government agencies, and at every level. It is a problem plaguing civilians as well as military officers, and civilian institutions have been as unsuccessful in solving it as has the military.

In 1985 Loren Baritz published a book that does much to explain the crisis in leadership facing the United States in Vietnam and at home. His thesis is summarized in the title: Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. American bureaucracies, wrote Baritz, "hire people sufficiently self-interested to focus on technique, not goals; on self-advancement, not group loyalty; on the career, not tradition; on their own futures, not politics, not policy."[83] With the new professional attitudes well represented in the military, the war in Vietnam became "the most professionally managed war in history," and that, concluded Baritz, "is why it was misguided from the start and futile at the end."[84]

Baritz's critique is a harsh one, but it should not be ignored. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, and simple-minded arguments that place the responsibility for the defeat entirely on civilians or America's Vietnamese allies will not do. As Baritz noted, "the ticket-punching careerist officers were not invented by civilians. . . . The strategy of attrition and the dizzying rotation of officers were not made in Washington. The cover-ups and deceptive optimism were the military's own. The interservice rivalries were not required by politicians."[85] His list goes on, but the point is already obvious. The military officers who made the decisions that hampered military performance in Vietnam must take responsibility for their actions. More important, the military institutions that produced them must reform themselves if positive leadership at the top, so absent in Vietnam, is to emerge in the future.

Unfortunately, the military must work under a severe handicap, for the careerism and bureaucratic imperatives that helped foster the poor leadership evident in the Vietnam War are apparent throughout American society. The nation lost in Vietnam, and in the future it may well lose other conflicts: the war against poverty in America, the fight against foreign competition here and abroad, the struggle to maintain a position of world leadership.

If we Americans are ever to regain our stature in the world and solve the problems in our own homeland, we must first recognize the root of our problems. As Baritz observed, "We are what went wrong in Vietnam."[86] Thus, if we expect to have better institutions with better leaders, civil or military, we must change our attitudes toward work and our definition of success. We must recapture the old idea of a "calling" and abandon the materialistic, self-serving idea of "career." We must think less about what our bosses want, and more about what is right, not for our own careers, but for our country, its institutions, and the world in which they reside. The successful leader does more than move followers in a direction. The leader must also set the direction of movement. Ultimately the success or failure of leadership rests on the judgments made regarding the wisdom of the agenda rather than the leader's effectiveness in moving toward it.

[1] John M. Gates, "American Military Leadership in the Vietnam War," in Henry S. Bausum, ed., Military Leadership and Command: The John Biggs Cincinnati Lectures, 1987 (Lexington, VA,1987), 185-208.

[2] James A. Donovan, Militarism, U.S.A. (New York: 1970), 148.

[3] James R. McDonough, Platoon Leader (Novato, Calif.: 1985), 61.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] David Donovan, Once a Warrior King (New York: 1985), 144-145.

[8] McDonough, 18.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: 1986), 37.

[12] Ibid., 166.

[13] William R. Corson, The Betrayal (New York: 1968), 74.

[14] Cincinnatus, Self-Destruction (New York: 1981), 51.

[15] Newsweek (July 5, 1971), 34.

[16] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers (Hanover, N.H.: 1977), 41.

[17] Bruce Palmer, The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (Lexington: 1984); Harry G. Summers., Jr., On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (Washington: 1981); & Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet (San Rafael, Calif.: 1978).

[18] Newsweek (July 5, 1971), 34.

[19] Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Boulder: 1985), 3.

[20] Krepinevich, 172.

[21] Ibid., 72.

[22] Jack Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: An Expanding War, 1966 (Washington: 1982), 13.

[23] Krepinevich, 175.

[24] Shulimson, 13.

[25] Cincinnatus, 194.

[26] George C. Herring, "American Strategy in Vietnam: The Postwar Debate," Military Affairs, XLVI (1982), 59.

[27] McDonough, 183.

[28] Cincinnatus, 252.

[29] Ibid., 157.

[30] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York, 1978), 118.

[31] Cincinnatus, 137.

[32] Ronald H. Spector, "The Vietnam War and the Army's Self-Image," in John Schlight, ed., Second Indochina War Symposium (Washington, 1986), 179.

[33] Ibid., 180.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Cincinnatus, 157.

[36] Edward Doyle et al, The Vietnam Experience: A Collision of Cultures (Boston, 1984), 34.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Thayer, 94.

[39] Krepinevich, 79.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Cincinnatus, 52.

[42] David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: 1973), 661.

[43] Corson, The Betrayal, 244.

[44] Kinnard, 74-75.

[45] Ibid., 75.

[46] Cincinnatus, 85.

[47] William R. Corson, Consequences of Failure (New York: 1974), 100.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Spector, 170.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Richard A. Gabriel & Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army (New York: 1978), 62.

[53] Corson, Consequences of Failure, 85.

[54] Spector, 173.

[55] Thomas D. Boettcher, Vietnam: The Valor and the Sorrow (Boston: 1985), 391.

[56] Spector, 177.

[57] Ibid., 173.

[58] Michael Maclear, The Ten Thousand Day War (New York: 1981), 275.

[59] Lewy, 165.

[60] "Conversations Between Lieutenant General William R. Peers and Lt C Jim Breen and Lt C Charlie Moore," unpublished ms., US Army Military History Institute Senior Officers Debriefing Program, Carlisle Barracks, 1977.

[61] Lewy, 241.

[62] Summers, On Strategy, 1.

[63] Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973 (Novato, Calif.: 1985), 86.

[64] Ibid., 365.

[65] Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet, 144-145. For a more recent but no less critical assessment of the American performance on the battlefield see Ronald H. Spector, After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

[66] Kinnard, 44-45.

[67] Edward N. Luttwak, The Pentagon and the Art of War (New York: 1985), 36.

[68] Harry G. Summers, Jr., "The Army after Vietnam," in Kenneth J. Hagan & William R. Roberts, eds., Against All Enemies (Westport: 1986), 367.

[69] Ibid., 366-367.

[70] Charles J. Ryan, "The Overdeveloped Society," The Stanford Magazine (Fall-Winter 1979), 58-65.

[71] Luttwak, 32.

[72] Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder: 1986), 48.

[73] U.S. Army War College, Study on Military Professionalism (Carlisle Barracks: 1970), 13-14.

[74] Ibid., 14.

[75] Ibid., 15.

[76] Ibid., 23.

[77] Cincinnatus, 137.

[78] Kinnard, 111.

[79] Ibid., 112.

[80] Haynes Johnson & George C. Wilson, Army in Anguish (Washington: 1972), 76.

[81] Cincinnatus, 162.

[82] Frederic J. Brown, "The Army and Society," in Richard G. Head and Ervin J. Rokke, eds., American Defense Policy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), 603, 610. Charles C. Moskos Jr., "The Emergent Military: Civil, Traditional, or Pluralistic?" in John E. Endicott and Roy Stafford Jr., eds., American Defense Policy, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), 528, 535. For similar views by other officers and civilian scholars, see William L. Hauser, America's Army in Crisis: A Study in Civil-Military Relations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), 202; John H. Garrison, "The Political Dimension of Military Professionalism," in Endicott and Stafford, 578; Philip S. Kronenberg, "The Greening of the Brass: Emerging Civil-Military Relations," in John P. Lovell and Philip S. Kronenberg, eds., New Civil-Military Relations: The Agonies of Adjustment to Post-Vietnam Realities (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1974), 322-23, 338.

[83] Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (New York: 1985), 334.

[84] Ibid., 337.

[85] Ibid., 345.

[86] Ibid., 349.

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Last updated: Nov. 2002
John M. Gates