Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Letters from Westmoreland

Two memoranda from the office of General William Westmoreland have gained the attention of historians. Both memos were written by Westmoreland’s senior staff, one sent out with Westmoreland’s signature, and the other with his approval: this pair of documents sheds light on a decisive moment in the war.

In late 1964 or early 1965, Westmoreland was one of the architects of “Rolling Thunder” and saw how LBJ had weakened the bombing program, reducing its effectiveness. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski report that, as Rolling Thunder failed to produce a decisive result, Westmoreland in mid-1965 advised, from his vantage point in Vietnam, that LBJ quickly commit large numbers of ground troops. Johnson gave Westmoreland almost as many troops as he requested, but placed strict rules of engagement on them, and refused to mobilize the home front either in terms of calling up reserves or in terms of the economy, a sign that he wanted “the military to fight a real war without appearing to do so.” Despite LBJ’s lack of supportiveness, Westmoreland managed some early victories by developing a “search and destroy” strategy, using the tactic of helicopter-driven mobility. Given “the superb performance of the first Marine and Army battalions,” the U.S. “threw the NVA on the defensive and sent it scurrying.” The war’s three sectors – northern provinces, central provinces, and the area northwest of Saigon – grew to four sectors as Westmoreland began operations in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. As the war grew, so did the need for troops, but LBJ continued to understaff the Army. Westmoreland made use of troops from The Army of the Republic of Vietnam; “ARVN units could show as much ferocity as their Communist brethren,” although Westmoreland saw to it that they were always supervised by U.S. units. Again, Westmoreland did well despite LBJ: he “had thrown the NVA on the defensive, but” was continually hampered by the lack of troops. In early 1968, the so-called “Tet Offensive” did not catch Westmoreland by surprise: Army intelligence had caused him to place units on alert. It did, however, surprise the ARVN. The Tet Offensive ended when “the Communists suffered a catastrophic battlefield defeat.” LBJ still refused to send the needed troops, and managed to snatch “defeat from the jaws of victory.” Westmoreland was re-assigned stateside in the same year, and drawn-out denouement began.

Historian Russell Weigley offers a similar synopsis of Westmoreland’s career. By early 1965, Westmoreland, on the ground, saw that South Vietnam would probably not survive without quick significant amounts of American intervention. Weigley’s account is similar to the one offered by Millett and Maslowski: Westmoreland never got enough soldiers from LBJ, wanted to seize the initiative and offensive, and was hindered by LBJ’s rules of engagement.

The two documents, unearthed by historian John Carland, give an inside view of the narrative summarized above. Written in September and December of 1965, they highlight Westmoreland’s insights into the situation. Carland explains:

Despite its misleading title, the first document — “Tactics and Techniques for Employment of US Forces in the Republic of Vietnam” — contains a vigorously written, well-crafted, full-fledged theory of victory. Dated 17 September 1965, it laid out the necessary conditions for achieving victory and provided to senior American commanders and units practical steps and guidance, presented in a methodical and logical way, to achieve the necessary tactical, operational, and strategic objectives to defeat their Communist adversaries. Moreover, it made clear that when military victories were won, their significance lay in the degree to which they advanced and supported South Vietnam’s pacification/nationbuilding effort. Westmoreland and his senior subordinates knew that if they failed to integrate the “fighting” war with the “other” (i.e., pacification) war, they would not succeed — their efforts and sacrifices would be for naught.

Westmoreland understood that he needed to do more than “fight a war” – that this conflict would include a political effort which would ultimately be as important, or more so, than the military effort. If the population of South Vietnam embraced the view that it had a trustworthy government, a trustworthy ally in the U.S., a very real chance of winning, and an enthusiasm for its own democratic development, they could win the war. But if the people in the south fell to communist propaganda, to pessimism about U.S. support, and to defeatism about its own cause, defeat was likely or certain. Ten years before the fall of Saigon, Westmoreland grasped the larger situation well. The September document states that “the mission” of the U.S. “to defeat” the Communists, but equally to “facilitate effective governmental control,” and that the war “is a political as well as a military war.”

The second document, issued on 10 December 1965, followed logically on the first. Titled “Tactical Employment of US Forces and Defensive Action,” it represented a critique of American ground forces’ operations and combat to date. Westmoreland concluded that despite considerable accomplishments in the war without fronts, “we are not engaging the VC with sufficient frequency or effectiveness to win the war in Vietnam.” The U.S. troops had shown themselves to be superb soldiers, adept at carrying out attacks against base areas and mounting sustained operations in populated areas. Yet, the operational initiative — decisions to engage and disengage — continued to be with the enemy. Through intelligence developed in operations and from other sources, American commanders had to find better ways to take the fight to the enemy. Only by doing so could U.S. forces make the best use of America’s twin advantages of firepower and mobility.

In more military terms, Westmoreland knew that this would be “a war without fronts,” requiring the “search and destroy missions” by U.S. forces, but also requiring U.S. forces to defend against guerilla war. The September document notes that “the conduct of U.S. troops must be carefully controlled at all times,” in order “to minimize battle casualties among those non-combatants who must be brought back into the fold.” The December document, alerting commanders to the needs of all servicemen – quartermasters and cooks, Air Force and Navy personnel – to defend their bases and installations, and reviewing U.S. performance in the field, offers the belief that “the average American has amply demonstrated that he is instinctively an effective fighter with small arms.”

Reading fifty years after the fact, Westmoreland appears to be caught in a Kafkaesque tragedy. Although responsible historians should not dabble in counterfactual speculations (“what would have happened if ...”), yet one cannot help but hypothesize that the U.S. really could have won the war if Congress and LBJ had done a few things differently.

Many readers now living had family members and friends who served in Vietnam, were eligible for the draft, or were only a few years to young to be of age during the war. Unlike Korea and WWII, Vietnam is near enough in time that it carries experiential and emotional impact; many readers recall watching Walter Cronkite and video clips of the war. Some were too young then to understand the complex tangle of political maneuverings which informed LBJ’s policies, but looking back, they can understand why Donald Rumsfeld, a member of the House of Representatives, sponsored the Freedom of Information Act as a tool for Republican Congressmen to get LBJ to give them solid data about Vietnam.

In any case, John Carland has given us two important primary text documents which shed light on a capable military leader who was never given the chance to implement his plans.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Cautious Victory - Desert Storm

Whether wars in the second half of the twentieth century have been more politicized than earlier conflicts depends, in part, which earlier conflicts one chooses for a comparison basis. In any case, the pattern established by the Korean and Vietnam wars – the pattern in which civilian leaders in Congress and in the White House made significant strategic and tactical decisions – was continued by the brief 1991 “Gulf War” which liberated Kuwait. Historians Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh tell us that the Bush administration, leading an international coalition, was “obliged to follow a version of graduated response in order to develop a domestic and international consensus supporting direct military action.” Despite a self-conscious effort to avoid ‘another Vietnam’ – LBJ’s failure in the 1960’s

could be attributed to in part to the policy of graduated response, understood as a strategy of incremental pressure, with a series of restrictions on targets that were imposed by the politicians. At each stage, the opponent was to face a choice between compliance and further pressure until eventually its breaking point was reached. The critique of this strategy argues that these small steps merely provide the opponent with time to adjust and develop forms of counter-pressure.

Developing a command structure in which civilians had only enough information to gauge policy, but not enough to affect strategy, was part of avoiding ‘another Vietnam’ – in this structure,

to avoid charges of micro-management, civilian officials avoided amending the target list for the air campaign (which practice had been judged to be a particular fault of the Johnson administration), although the commanders were expected to show political sensitivity. It was reported that Bush was not informed of the detailed target set.

The noble intentions about keeping civilians out of the planning was compromised at certain points in time, however: “the commanders were expected to show political sensitivity” in selecting targets, and at one point, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to review target lists, and remove soft targets which “might have contained large numbers of civilians.” Thus, despite a deliberate effort to avoid civilian political entanglements which could lead to ‘another Vietnam,’ precisely that type of influence entered military planning. Happily, although it could have caused ‘another Vietnam,’ it did not do so.

Looking at the war from the other side, Saddam’s goals in the war made Iraqi resistance to coalition forces less effective. Saddam’s goals skewed the range of tactical options available to Iraqi commanders: his foremost goal was his own political survival; other goals included damaging, vandalizing, and booby-trapping Kuwaiti oil fields, murdering Kuwaiti citizens, and possibly striking Israeli nuclear facilities. While Saddam’s politicization of war goals may have constrained Iraqi commanders, one issue which did not – surprisingly – cause their defeat was technology. Despite media coverage of the U.S.’s high-tech weaponry, e.g. guided missiles hitting targets within centimeters after hundreds of miles of flight, Freedman and Karsh contend that the Iraqi defeat “was mainly the outcome of more ‘traditional’ factors, such as poor combat performance along with incompetent politico-military leadership and war strategy.” It was, then, “Saddam’s personality” which was, in the final analysis, the cause of Iraq’s defeat. General Norman Schwarzkopf noted that Saddam was neither a strategist nor a soldier. Saddam may have been lulled into expecting an easy victory against Bush’s coalition because it had experienced victories over the Iranian army. But the Iranian army was “poorly-equipped and ill-trained,” and not a good comparison basis for the international coalition. Finally, the Iraqi army faced large-scale desertions during the brief war. War is never easy, but the Bush’s coalition attained a victory very quickly, and with “extraordinarily light” casualties.

Saddam Hussein’s strategy leading up to the war was first to prevent actual war – a form of extreme brinksmanship – and second, if actual hostilities began, to end them as quickly as possible. Such a strategy made sense, given a realistic assessment of Iraq’s military capabilities. In fact, the reason for which he invaded Kuwait was to try “to shore up his regime in the face of dire economic straits created by the Iran-Iraq War.” His economy and his army were not strong. Saddam made, however, two strategic mistakes which cost him dearly: first, he released hostages, hoping to buy goodwill, but instead merely giving Bush’s coalition the knowledge that it was no longer vulnerable in that way; second, he failed “to preempt by attacking coalition forces in Saudi Arabia,” a move which would have given him the operational initiative and possibly caught coalition forces by surprise. In anticipating a ground war, Saddam relied “on his defenses around Kuwait and the cost that could be imposed on coalition forces if they could be drawn into killing zones.” The enemy was to be drawn into these killing zones by forcing General Schwarzkopf to direct his forces according to “extensive fortifications along the Saudi-Kuwait border” which the Iraqis had constructed. This strategy failed, however, because the “fortifications could be outflanked by a desert attack through Iraq, so suffering the same fate as the Maginot Line.” Saddam’s forces were stretched thin, because they were deployed for “the protection of Iraq as a whole and not just the new Kuwaiti acquisition, and the threats involved did not come simply from the United States. Significant forces had to remain deployed along Iraq's borders with its Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian neighbors.” The Iraqis simply did not have “enough forces for a wide front.” Saddam’s best troops, “the Republican Guards were kept back as, at best, a strategic armored reserve,” and were so not ready to be effective at the actual point of contact when fighting started. Another weakness in the Iraqi military “was the lack of air support.” Although, on paper, “Iraq's air force was substantial,” it was ineffective because Saddam was reluctant to risk his air force, and he was timid to have it engage the enemy.

Saddam underestimated the coalition’s “precision-guided munitions,” smart bombs, and other high-tech munitions. He saw, however, his own “missiles as his most reliable means” of damaging the coalition’s forces. He hoped to direct them against Israel and against facilities in Saudi Arabia. Saddam hoped that his missile attacks on Israel would exacerbate “the prospective war's stresses and strains on the political cohesion of the coalition” by inflaming tensions between Israel and the various Arab states. In general, Iraq’s strategy relied “on deterring and if necessary rebuffing the central thrust of the enemy campaign, by” such political tensions. Saddam’s strategy was, therefore, as much political as military. He assumed that the U.S. had an “extreme sensitivity to casualties,” and would flinch in the face of actual land battles.

President Bush, meanwhile, continued his determination “not to repeat the mistake of the 1960s,” which meant “not to get trapped in an un-winnable war,” and “not allow civilians to impose artificial restrictions” on tactics and strategy. Bush kept the coalition focused on the “primary objective,” which “was to liberate Kuwait.” By maintaining focus on this goal, the U.S. could avoid ‘another Vietnam’ by avoiding the wrong goals, e.g., nation-building (‘Vietnamization’): “it would be extremely unwise to be seen to try to change the regime in Baghdad,” because it would arouse the suspicion of the Arab states and it would commit the U.S. to a long-term occupational force in the area.

Another “presumed lesson of Vietnam was that the public would be intolerant of high casualties.” Whether this assumption was true – and if true, to what extent – remained to be seen. Saddam hoped that the public would turn against the war, seeing even a small number of casualties. Coalition planners, therefore, worked cautiously and conservatively, to keep coalition casualties to a minimum. Working with a range of assumptions, planning for everything from best-case to worst-case scenarios, it turned out “extremely optimistic assumptions” would “in fact approximate the actual state of affairs.” Some planners wanted to “avoid a ground war” altogether, and thereby avoid casualties, and rely solely on air power. Among those who favored the air-only option, there were different scenarios about how such a war would go. But in the end, although the early phases of the war were primarily reliant on air power, it would not be an exclusively air war, and there would be major infantry and armored involvement. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, gave three reasons for rejecting the air-only option: first, it would give the Iraqis the operational initiative for any ground action; second, Powell saw this option as indecisive, in light of the fact that Saddam would sacrifice numerous Iraqi lives to absorb coalition bombing, and Powell probably saw it as not focused clearly on the coalition’s stated objective; third, by adding a ground element, Powell could force Saddam to fight a two-front war: air and land.

Powell rejected, however, any frontal assault or over-the-top type of ground attack. Ground action would follow extensive aerial bombardment, and more sophisticated ground strategies would minimize casualties.

Bush’s international coalition had several strategic advantages: access to ports, petroleum, and airfields; lack of harassment by Iraqi troops as Saddam held off in his strategy of waiting; time to prepare and organize as Saddam refused to begin the fight; and shortages of critical war material in Iraq during the embargo. The coalition faced two unknowns: although they knew that Iraq had not yet developed nuclear weapons, it was known that they had chemical weapons; would they use them? A second unknown whether Saddam’s missile force was as well-developed as he claimed. In sum, the coalition’s “priorities would be to achieve air superiority, eliminate missiles and Iraq's small fleet of fast patrol boats, interdict supply lines, and then engage in a fast and mobile desert campaign based on maneuver rather than attrition,” and to utilize “flanking maneuvers rather than direct assaults on Iraqi fortifications.”

The war began on January 17, 1991, with massive aerial bombardment by the coalition, and little reaction from Iraq – only a small amount of relatively ineffective anti-aircraft fire. Electronic countermeasures reduced Iraqi anti-aircraft fire further. The main tactical question at this time was targeting: “The dividing line between civilian and military targets was a thin one. There were clear rules on avoiding religious and cultural sites.” But the distinction was not always clear-cut, especially in Saddam’s fascist or totalitarian state. Bad weather, and Iraqi missile strikes against Israel and Saudi Arabia, stretched the planned air campaign from thirty to thirty-nine days. Iraq took a pounding, with little retaliation.

“To salvage his strategy Saddam would have had to draw the coalition into a premature ground offensive in Kuwait to bring the war into a quick end, even at the cost of many Iraqi lives,” but he did not orchestrate any provocative ground action. He did initiate one small raid, on the Saudi town of Khafji, which had already been evacuated. His raiding party was decisively defeated, but as Freedman and Karsh report, the coalition did not take the bait and “play into Saddam’s hands” by prematurely beginning a major ground offensive.

In the air war, there were few civilian casualties. Paradoxically, because there were so few civilian deaths, these fatalities received all the more media attention. An attack on Amiriya left a number of civilians dead in a command bunker, but the distinction between civilian and non-civilian was again blurry, inasmuch as these were employed in a military command station.

The air war having been so successful, the ground war which followed it lasted one hundred hours!

In sum, the coalition leaders – Powell, Schwarzkopf, and Bush – planned cautiously, while Saddam Hussein was rather unrealistic. The victory of Iraq was amazingly swift and decisive.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Underfunded and Micromanaged

In hindsight, the U.S. government’s handling of the Korean War – a “police action” – was perhaps in some ways negligent, inasmuch as funding for the military was not directed toward ensuring that the war effort was maximized. Historian Russell Weigley writes that “government and military leaders generally agreed that the growing funds available for national security must be used to seek a larger security beyond the immediate demands of the war,” and that “therefore they early proposed to use much of the enlarged defense budget to make better preparation for the all-out Soviet aggression they still thought likely.” On a policy level, this may or may not have made sense, but to the individual soldier in a foxhole in Korea, had he known, this might have seemed like lack of support.

Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski report that the Truman

administration eventually spent 60 percent of the FY 1951 – 1953 defense budgets on general military programs and 40 on waging the war. In fiscal terms defense outlays became two-thirds of all federal spending. Supplemental appropriations brought FY 1951 defense expenditures to $22.4 billion, followed in the next two fiscal years by outlays of $43.9 and $50.3 billion. Although budgets fell short of Department of Defense requests, the administration approached a "holiday" on defense spending in its relations with Congress that approximated the halcyon days of World War II.

There was plenty of defense spending, but not much of it was going toward the effort in Korea.

William Donnelly analyzes the effect of this under-funding on the concrete details of combat. Because both civilian and military leaders saw the Korean conflict as draining resources away from the main mission – a strong defensive force in Europe – the most visible effect of underfunding the Korean conflict was a lack of manpower. The Eighth Army – the main U.S. force on the ground in Korea – found that the “cohesion of combat units” in its forces was “at a lower level than” in the Seventh Army, which was in Europe at the time. This was because the Department of the Army “churned a unit’s personnel at a faster rate.” To attempt to make up for the manpower shortage, the army scaled-back the resources it devoted to two other missions: continental air defense over the U.S., and building a strategic reserve. Despite diverting energy from these two missions, the manpower shortage remained significant, demoralized the troops and eroded the quality of leadership as less-experienced men were promoted to higher ranks. Many of the men had not volunteered – the draft – and it was clear that the political leadership was looking for an armistice, not a victory; the effect of these circumstances was “corrosive.”

President Truman had given four missions to the Army as mentioned above: European defense, Korean police action, American air defense, and the creation of a strategic reserve. Yet Congress did not give the Army the men and the money it needed for these tasks. One might inquire whether Congress or Truman is more to blame, but the results were dispiriting in any case.

The manpower shortage was seen in the rotation of troops between Korea, Europe, and “the Zone of the Interior” – the “ZI” was the military’s name for the forty-eight continental states. Men were normally stationed in the ZI for several months of training before being sent into combat – in this case, to Korea. But shortages dictated that both men and officers spent a shorter time in the ZI before shipping out to Korea; this meant that they arrived in the combat zone with less training and less organizational experience. Experienced officers were drawn from the ZI for combat leadership roles in Korea, which meant in turn that the officers in charge of training in the ZI had less experience, and training suffered accordingly. As morale fell, reenlistment rates did also. Infantrymen lost motivation as they saw that their “actions appeared to have no effect on the course of the war.” To counteract this demoralization, the Army offered combat pay for ground troops, enjoyable ‘rest and relaxation’ leaves in Japan, and an appeal to live up to the glorious history of the unit. The threat of punishment for soldiers who did not fight well lurked in the background, but was not often implemented. There were instances of ‘mass combat refusal’ – mutiny.

The secondary effects of the manpower shortage led to an ‘erosion of trust’ – lower level officers were not trusted by their men because they had too little experience; higher level officers were not trusted by the men or by the junior officers because they tended to remain out of the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) as the front was known. Senior officers, with little work to do once the front had stagnated, antagonized the men by means of “oversupervision” – too much paperwork and red tape. There were too many inspections, and any type of plan had to be approved by an increasing number of officers. The Eighth Army was turning into a bureaucracy.

Given that the Eighth Army’s objective – to “hold the line” until an armistice could be negotiated – was one which could demoralize men in even the best circumstances, it was even more dispiriting to face that objective with grudging draftees, inexperienced officers, longer tours in the combat zone, and a lack of unit cohesion as manpower shortages caused more individual rotations.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When Financing a Campaign is More Important Than the Candidate's Ideas

Critics from both ends of the political spectrum have noted the increasingly important role of fundraising in modern elections. Several legislative attempts at reform have been made, but still enormous focus and energy is devoted to finding sponsors who will contribute money to fund a candidate's campaign. When a prospective elected official spends that much time looking for donors, saying what he must in order to persuade them to contribute, the question arises - is the democratic process being sidelined, if the candidate has less time to study issues, less time to speak directly to voters, and the temptation to listen more to donors than to voters?

Because the electoral process is currently driven by a candidate's ability to raise funds, modern politicians have become experts at raising money. One of the best is Barack Obama. Gathering donors prior to his 2008 election to the presidency, and his 2012 reelection bid, he showed himself adept at finding ways to persuade them to give. One example is the LightSquared company, a business owned by the Harbinger Capital investment group.

Knowing that LightSquared and its owners were inclined to support him, Obama needed to find a way to direct funding to the company. The owners would take their share of the company's sales as their profit, and would donate a percentage of that profit to Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. So LightSquared needed to make some big sales prior to the 2012 campaign season. Obama arranged for government contracts to be handed to LightSquared.

This is a pattern: use the government budget to buy services and products from companies whose owners will use their income - their share of the profit from sales ot the government - to fund Obama's campaigns. This tactic has been highly successful. Historian David Limbaugh writes:

Four-star general William Shelton testified at a classified congressional hearing that the White House pressured him into changing a political briefing to reflect support for a wireless project by Virginia satellite broadband company LightSquared, a Democrat-backed firm, despite the Pentagon's concerns that the project could interfere with GPS. LightSquared is owned by Harbinger Capital hedge fund, which is led by billionaire investor Phil Falcone. According to the National Legal and Policy Center, after Falcone visited the White House and made large donations to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the FCC granted LightSquared "a highly unusual waiver that allows the company to build out a national 4G wireless network on the cheap."

This pattern would be quite successful as Obama directed federal contracts - and millions of taxpayer dollars - to companies whose owners would donate to his campaigns. The Solyndra affair would follow a similar pattern. Obama demonstrated himself as quite skilled in the modern art of campaign finance.