In recent weeks we’ve seen numerous supporters of the war point confidently to positive indicators and to benchmarks being met or neared. And we’ve also seen numerous critics of the war assert just as confidently that there’s been little if any progress. It all makes me think back to events long ago.
Late in the Vietnam War, I occasionally came into contact with a special forces captain. He stopped by to look at the militia units I worked with and we spoke often and in time informally. A former NCO, he had been in Southeast Asia intermittently for over nine years going back to the late fifties, mostly with S. Vietnamese (ARVN) units. I doubt anyone knew them better. Before he left for the states, after the usual farewell conversation I asked, “How long will this country last after the American troops leave?” The question was not if the ARVN would hold – any 19-year-old corporal could see they wouldn’t – but how long until the N. Vietnamese and Viet Cong inevitably overwhelmed them. It was a guileless if tactless question, and pondering it was unpleasant to someone who had worked with the ARVN so long and devotedly. He exhaled then began his reply.
There were many good units – the First Infantry, the airborne and marine brigades, and the ranger battalions he had worked with especially closely. But the rest. . . . There were too many inept officers, personal animosities, corrupt generals; and unit cohesion was quite poor. They would not hold. They’d crumble before N. Vietnamese or main force Viet Cong attacks, and the few good units could not be everywhere to shore things up. Saigon, he grimly concluded, would fall about two years after we left.
Well, the captain’s bleak scenario played itself out in the Spring of 1975 and Saigon fell two years and five weeks after the last GI left. But now to my point. Not long ago, I spoke with a former Pentagon analyst who had read the official reports on ARVN units coming from headquarters in country. They were optimistic. They pointed to great professionalism and cohesion in almost all ARVN units. The South, they confidently concluded, would hold.
I was dumbfounded, as were the several veterans I relayed this to, guys whose encounters with ARVN units on joint ops had left poor but lasting impressions. How could there have been glowing reports on an army that routinely balked at going into combat and on generals who lined their pockets in ways that would have appalled Clausewitz and Boss Tweed alike? It came to me. American officers out on the advisory teams could hardly report to superiors that their year-long tours had led to nothing. Of course they had instilled professionalism and dedication. Of course, operations were showing significant improvement. Of course the soldiers were coalescing into spirited fighting forces. Of course. . . .
And of course the careers of those US officers depended on reporting progress. And of course any careless hints of ineptitude and corruption were skillfully redacted by superiors who then sent their reports up the food chain, in increasingly confident wording, to the leviathans in Washington who devoured them then sat back, proud, sated, but deluded.
Similar dynamics are likely at work in Iraq today as military and political officers charged to make Iraq an outpost of progress file report after report of goals being reached. At least a part of the problem we face in Iraq is the reluctance or inability of personnel, in and out of uniform, to provide the administration, lawmakers, the public, and even the generals with dependable information. Perhaps someone with a sense of history will find a moment of dark humor in wondering if self-serving and deceptive reports haven’t been coming out of the region since Ottoman banners flew over it.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org