Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

That Westy Top 10 list: Col. Daddis says war is more complex than Sorley thinks

I don’t always agree with guest columns I run on this blog, and this (below) is an example. I disagree with the thesis Col. Daddis offers, mainly on Clausewitzian grounds. The Prussian teaches us not that war is complex, but that it is simple — yet so difficult that even the simplest tasks become hard ...

I don’t always agree with guest columns I run on this blog, and this (below) is an example. I disagree with the thesis Col. Daddis offers, mainly on Clausewitzian grounds. The Prussian teaches us not that war is complex, but that it is simple — yet so difficult that even the simplest tasks become hard to execute.

Likewise, strategy is difficult to formulate well — but if formulated successfully, its results tend to be reducible to a something easily understood. So, in World War II: "Europe first." Two words with enormous implications. I think writing a top 10 list tends to focus the mind, to force the writer to prioritize and make choices, to distinguish between the essential and the merely important — and this is the essence of strategy.

This all brings to mind the conclusion of a memo Eisenhower and an aide sent to Marshall in March 1942. The three primary goals of the global war, they wrote, had to be "the security of England, the retention of Russia in the war as an active war ally, and the defense of the Middle East." (P. 205, Chandler, Papers of Eisenhower, The War Years.) (Holding the Mideast prevented the linkup of Germany and Japan and also kept open the supply line to Russia, at a time when keeping Russia in the war was essential.) Everything else, including the defense of Australia, was secondary, they noted, in a classic summary of the nature of strategic decision-making: "All other operations must be considered highly desirable rather than in the mandatory class."

And also, as Col. Daddis observes, a top 10 list certainly can provoke a good discussion. So here he is:

By Col. Gregory A. Daddis
Best Defense guest respondent

Based solely on the responses to Lewis Sorley’s Oct. 11 posting on this blog ("The top ten reasons Gen. Westmoreland lost the war in Vietnam") one reasonably could conclude that the Vietnam War continues to incite informative discussion, even passionate debate. These are positive signs for a war which has so much to offer historians, policy makers, and general readers. If there is anything good that can come from war-likely a point in itself worth debating-Vietnam suggests that a reflective reading of the history of armed conflict provides insights for those looking to the future, a place in which war undoubtedly will reside.

Perhaps that is what is so troubling by Lewis Sorley’s posting and his larger biography of William C. Westmoreland. If anyone is truly to profit from the study of the Vietnam War, they must embrace the complexity of that conflict. By reducing the outcome of the war to one man’s failure, and by reducing that failure to a "top ten" list of mistakes, such commentary oversimplifies an amazingly complex war. Certainly, it is the historian’s task to disentangle the past, but not to the point of elementariness. If one accepts the unsophisticated thesis that Westmoreland singlehandedly lost the war in Vietnam, he or she is adopting the same flawed methodology for which Sorley maligns his target-turning one’s back on the war’s complexities, disavowing alternate possibilities, and underestimating the difficulties of a long and unpopular war.

In truth, most all contemporary officers and civilian leaders understood that the Vietnam War presented unique problems for a nation so imbued with conventional approaches to warfare. Westmoreland, like all of the US Army’s officers, obviously was a product of his time. To argue, however, that neither the general nor his peers in uniform understood the war’s intricacies is disingenuous and not supported by the historical record. An examination of professional journals in the 1960s such as Military Review reveals an officer corps willing to learn about and experiment with a form of warfare in which they had little experience. Doctrinal concepts mirrored the complexities being discussed in the armed forces’ professional journals. (Those questioning the army’s understanding of counterinsurgency would be well served by reading the 1967 version of FM 31-16, Counterguerrilla Operations.) More to the point, a review of Westmoreland’s own concepts of operations and command guidance similarly exposes a commander who recognized that Vietnam would not be won by military operations alone. In June 1965, as an example, Westmoreland outlined his operational concept which noted clearly that the "insurgency in South Vietnam must eventually be defeated among the people in the hamlets and towns."

Nor should Westmoreland’s use of the word attrition validate assertions that the American campaign strategy in Vietnam was singularly focused. In fact, it seems plausible to argue that MACV’s commander formulated a "one war" approach without using the label later popularized by his successor. Creighton W. Abrams understood the political-military interrelationships of the war in Vietnam, but so too did Westmoreland. "Probably the fundamental issue is the question of the coordination of mission activities in Saigon," the MACV commander opined in early 1966. "It is abundantly clear that all political, military, economic, and security (police) programs must be completely integrated in order to attain any kind of success in a country which has been greatly weakened by prolonged conflict and is under increasing pressure by large military and subversive forces." Far from being an officer unwilling to learn about unconventional warfare, Westmoreland considered the issues of land reform, improving the South Vietnamese armed forces, limiting civilian casualties, and facilitating population security in the countryside.

The merits of Westmoreland’s generalship will long be debated, as well they should. We all can profit from reading about how a senior officer in the United States Army during the 1960s approached a political-military revolutionary war that at once could be considered a civil war, a proxy war in the larger Cold War, and a war of northern aggression. Still, we should debate Westmoreland’s merits from a position which embraces complexity. Carl von Clausewitz understood this better than most and we should turn to the Prussian theorist as we consider how to approach a study of the Vietnam War-or any war for that matter. Clausewitz warned that relying on mathematical factors to understand war is a problematic endeavor. "From the very start," he cautioned, "there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry." War is not a simple affair and in the end "top ten" lists do little to further our understanding of a complex human phenomenon.

Gregory A. Daddis is an Academy Professor at West Point and author of No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1