More cognitive challenges of war – LBJ and Vietnam

I’ve just enjoyed reading David’s recent post on Vietnam. It struck a chord (though as a reformed economist, I can’t abide rational choice models). My question – did the senior civilians, leave alone the military, properly understand the concept of operations needed for Vietnam? I suspect not. Here’s Robert McNamara, writing in his memoir that he was at a loss to explain the lack of strategic adaptation during Vietnam. He contends that the military never properly debated the strategic options, but critically that the civilian leadership shared responsibility with the military for failing to properly assess their shared strategic assumptions:

Although I questioned [the senior military’s] fundamental assumptions during my meetings with [Westmoreland] and his staff, the discussions proved superficial. […] I had spent twenty years as a manager identifying problems and forcing organisations – often against their will – to think deeply and realistically about alternative courses of action and their consequences. I doubt I will ever fully understand why I did not do so here.

Why did Mr Systems fail? The best theoretical framework for me would be psychological. The available record shows that McNamara is broadly right. Policymakers and senior military figures viewed the utility of force through a powerful conceptual lens, focused overwhelmingly on conventional military means. Overall there seems to have been surprisingly little debate about the strategy adopted by the senior field commanders. For much of the time, the discussion among policymakers focused not on how to employ the troops, but on how many to employ. When the how was explicitly considered, the sway of dominant strategic culture was often evident.

Consider the big escalation in 1965. As I understand it, the ‘concept’ for military operations was explicitly laid out in a June 1965 memo from Westmoreland, ahead of the major decision to significantly increase combat troops that summer. It recognised that security of the population was central, but abrogated that job to the Vietnamese, explaining that the  ‘concept is basically to employ US forces […] against the hard core DRV/VC forces in reaction and search and destroy operations’. The memo, according to George Kahin (in his book Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam) was not seen by Johnson prior to his decision to escalate, but it was nonetheless certainly reflected a 20 July options paper, written by McNamara, which he had seen. In that paper, McNamara argued that American forces should be used to ‘take the offensive – to take and hold the initiative … keeping the enemy at a disadvantage … and pressing the fight against VC/DRV main force units in South Vietnam to run them to ground and destroy them’.

In the key policy meetings to decide on a large increase in troops in July 1965, George Ball, the single prominent sceptic throughout, asked, ‘Isn’t it possible that the VC will do what they did against the French – stay away from confrontation and not accommodate us?’ General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs replied, ‘Yes, that is possible, but by constantly harassing them they will have to fight somewhere’. In the next meeting, that afternoon, Ball tried again: ‘The enemy cannot even be seen in Vietnam, he is indigenous to the country. I truly have serious doubt that an army of westerners can successfully fight orientals in an Asian jungle’. ‘This is important,’ President Johnson acknowledged, ‘I want McNamara and General Wheeler to seriously ponder this question’. The conversation, however, meandered on, without apparent resolution of the point, and Johnson, leaning towards deployment, seems not to have forced the issue in subsequent meetings. Those transcripts, incidentally, are all in Kahin.

Now a psychologist would have fun with this – the decision looks to have been made already, perhaps on some intuitive basis, perhaps as Yuen Foong Khong suggested, by drawing on analogies with earlier, dramatic, emotional events. Rosen again has much to say on this in his book War in Human Nature. We’re not rational actors, we decide emotionally, in the context of things like appeasement, losing China, safeguarding JFK’s legacy and so on. Add in some pressure of time, a dose of stress and what you don’t get is a considered, rational discussion of how force might best be used.

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