Jonathan D. Caverley has quite an interesting piece on Vietnam and what it really says about counterinsurgency in the latest issue of International Security. Consider this another sequel to Andrew Krepinevich’s study, The Army and Vietnam. Krepinevich made the argument that ‘Big Army’ was unable and unwilling to adapt to the operational realities of counterinsurgency and therefore persisted with the ‘Army Concept’ – conventional warfare – even when the situation on the ground called for something else. If you pardon this sequel analogy, the second instalment is typified by Dale Andrade’s ‘Westmoreland Was Right‘, published in Small Wars & Insurgencies, in which he argued that, because of the coexistence of an insurgent and a conventional threat, it was reasonable, even justified, for Westmoreland to concentrate on the latter at the expense of the former.
Both of these texts are relevant to today’s campaigns, because, in Krepinevich’s case, it shows institutional intransigence vis-à-vis COIN and, in Andrade’s case, the difficulties of drawing lessons from history without due attention to specific historical context. Caverley’s piece is a sequel in the sense that it adds a third interpretation of what happened in Vietnam, and of what it means for today’s wars.
His thesis is that Vietnam was fought conventionally rather than through COIN because such was the preference of the U.S. electorate, which would rather send hardware (capital) than men (labour). Keenly aware of this preference, President Johnson acquiesced, even though doing so compromised U.S. objectives in Vietnam.
The article, entitled ‘The Myth of Military Myopia Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam’ is old-school academic: it oozes primary sources (or just sources in general), successfully locates itself within the existing literature, throws in some statistics for good measure (if you haven’t already, read Abu M’s recent post ‘Quantitative Analysis Manifesto’), uses models, and has a clearly defined sample space (democracies vice autocracies). In terms of historical analysis, Caverley convincingly shows how Johnson and McNamara persisted with a strictly ‘conventional’ approach all while seemingly aware that it would fail to counter the insurgency. In his own words, Caverley ‘offers a theory of how a rational actor, the average voter in a democracy, can favor what appears to be a nonstrategic policy’.
It is an interesting read, one that leans heavily on economic theory (rational-actor voter; ‘capital’- versus ‘labour’-driven wars; ‘cost internalisation’ etc.). Also, the historical research should offer something to those well versed with the Vietnam War. For example, Caverley cites Westmoreland as stating to his Pentagon colleagues that the U.S. military was fighting the war too conventionally, that ‘Vietnam is no place for either tank or mechanized infantry units’. Similarly, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold Johnson is quoted as saying that ‘The presence of tank formations tends to create a psychological atmosphere of conventional combat’. To Caverley the generals’ understanding of operational requirements was dismissed by an administration more concerned with appeasing an electorate instinctively resistant to the deployment of additional troops to Vietnam. In a similar vein:
Contradicting both McNamara’s recommendations and the claims of the military myopia argument, Westmoreland proposed a new concept of operations in August 1966 that devoted “a significant number of the U.S./Free World Maneuver Battalions” to pacification missions, which “encompass base security and at the same time support revolutionary development by spreading security radially from the bases to protect more of the population. Saturation patrolling, civic action, and close association with ARVN, regional and popular forces to bolster their combat effectiveness are among the tasks of the ground force elements.
This, certainly, is another interesting addition to the overly crude dichotomy of Westmoreland as the Vietnam baddie and Abrams as the saviour of U.S. strategy (until the rug was swept away from under his feet). As the same time, how significant are these quotations? Another general to whom history has not been so kind, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, recommended in an August 2003 interview that rather than mount repeated raids, U.S. troops ought to adopt a ‘cordon and knock’ procedure by which they would ‘seek permission to enter accompanied by an Iraqi representative, instead of breaking down the door’. He also correctly assessed that U.S. heavy-handedness had ‘in this culture [created] some Iraqis that then had to act because of their value systems against us in terms of revenge, possibly because there were casualties on their side and also because of the impact on their dignity and respect’. People really do say all sorts of things.
For me perhaps the most interesting reason to read this article was for its broader implications. Caverley makes the voter’s interest the prime determinant of military strategy, as the ‘government assesses military doctrine in light of public preferences over outcomes… and the costs in blood and treasure’. Because the electorate favours capital-driven (machines) rather than labour-driven (soldiers) wars, the government is in a self-imposed straitjacket, leading to bad strategy being consciously implemented. Even more bleakly, whereas the Krepinevich perspective could plausibly envisage an organisation doing better, learning, adapting, Caverley concludes that ‘short of reducing the average voter’s influence, a democracy is unlikely to “learn” to conduct effective COIN’. So we’re all doomed.
For example, Caverley concludes, ‘fixating on reforming the armed services (or even the civilian tools of foreign policy) in an effort to improve democratic performance in small wars is its own form of myopia’, as ‘if a rational, fully informed electorate views [an unsuccessful] military doctrine as its best option, the prospects for change are’ minimal. From this, Caverley draws the obvious conclusion: ‘the distribution of costs and benefits affects not only how a state should fight a small war, but whether it enters such conflicts in the first place’.
Certainly food for thought, but it bears noting that there are some pretty questionable aspects to the argumentation here. First, how new is this apparently revolutionary finding? Clausewitz himself wrote of ‘triniterian wars’, encompassing that special relationship between the government, the military and the people. That the people in a democracy limit the alternatives available to the government is the way it has always been; in fact, isn’t it the way it is supposed to be?
But more importantly, the article is at times in danger of getting lost in its own assumptions and in its use of Vietnam as its one case-study. For example, if a government can coolly calculate public support when designing its COIN strategy (or lack thereof) why would it intervene in the first place? Consider the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Can we seriously contend that the Bush administration consciously screwed up the ‘post-conflict’ phase because he was scared of losing votes? Wouldn’t a more ‘labour-‘ as opposed to ‘capital-based’ approach to the ensuing insurgency have served him better politically? Certainly, despite adhering strictly to a ‘capital’-dominated way of fighting, the Republican lost heavily in the 2006 Congressional elections, primarily because of the mismanagement of the war in Iraq… How does this square with Caverley’s argument?
Second, assuming voter preferences militate against proper COIN, how do we explain changes in strategy toward COIN, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in previous campaigns too? What public rhetoric, what change in voter preference, determines the change? In fact, most COIN campaigns are marked by an initially botched effort. It is historically typical. We can ascribe that trend to profit-calculating politicians counting the vote deficit of conducting proper COIN or to institutions that are ill-configured for and unfamiliar with the complex challenge of political violence. Take your pick…
Finally, and most damningly, how can the Johnson’s administration’s war in Vietnam, which cost the U.S. a combined total of almost 36,000 lives be seen as as ‘capital’-driven, or as concerned with losing machines rather than men?
I suspect my main problem with the article is that it uses the economic theory of the ‘rational actor’ to understand not only voter preferences but also the selection of how exactly to prosecute a war. Even presenting the latter as a matter of ‘choosing’ one strategy among many is to reduce the complexity of war-fighting to a caricaturesque degree. The article is too theory-driven and too clever, but in the sense that it will provoke and maybe challenge established wisdom on Vietnam, it is worth reading. In another sense, it is simply a very sophisticated and perhaps overly academic explanation for why ‘muddling through’ is such a popular recourse in COIN.