Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with drivers.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews.  But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bit of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of “cowards” and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in as a side-car our selfishness and desire to get home and be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.



*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.








Lawyers, Guns, and Money

In his excellent work on the French Revolution, Citizens, Simon Schama makes many connections between the path of revolution and Romantic philosophy.  They came to associate monarchy with secrecy–secret plans, secret councils, and the like.  Romanticism preached openness to all things, to nature, to oneself, and so on.  Real, authentic, people had nothing to hide.   It made sense then, that real, authentic government had nothing to hide either.

The French paranoia over secrecy, Schama argues, drove much of the violence in the Revolution.  Even simple misunderstandings could be evidence of “plots,” for no true Frenchman would have anything to hide.  For example, Robespierre’s lieutenant Armand St. Just wrote some unpublished ideas for laws that would have taken his ideas of an open society to an absurd degree.  He urged that,

Every man twenty-one years of age shall publicly state in the temples who are his friends. This declaration shall be renewed each year during the month Ventose. If a man deserts his friend, he is bound to explain his motives before the people in the temples; if he refuses, he shall be banished. Friends shall not put their contracts into writing, nor shall they oppose one another at law. If a man commits a crime, his friends shall be banished. Friends shall dig the grave of a deceased friend and prepare for the obsequies, and with the children of the deceased they shall scatter flowers on the grave. He who says that he does not believe in friendship, or who has no friends, shall be banned of ingratitude shall be banished.

But all this wide-eyed optimism did not prevent the Revolution from eventually being run by the Committee of Public Safety, which met in secret.  It did not prevent informers roaming about looking for counter-revolutionaries.

With the best of intentions comes a tremendous and inevitable tension.  We expect monarchies to have secrets.  Monarchs, by definition, are not quite like normal people anyway.  They decide things apart from the people.  Democracies have different standards, which sometimes makes for more difficult choices and an unsolvable tension.

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is in some respects a marvelous book.  He writes well and so the pages turn easily.   Weiner’s pours gobs of research into his account.  He has more than 100 pages of footnotes.  Many of his citations come not from other books about the CIA, but from the agents themselves and especially from the CIA’s own de-classified documents.  Weiner works for the NY Times in his day-job reporting on national security issues, so he knows the territory for this book quite well.

Unfortunately for me Weiner rarely delves into analysis and synthesis of his material.  Maybe he wants a “just the facts” reporters perspective.  That’s his strength, and if he added analysis the book might get unwieldy in size.  Fair enough, but in the end the failure to plumb the depths of certain questions make this book incomplete in my eyes.

Weiter hammers away at the CIA, citing failure after failure, blown operation after blown operation.  Their charter called for them to provide political leadership with crucial information that could inform decisions but they whiffed on almost every major crisis.  Their most significant “successes,” such as organizing regime change in Iran in the 1950’s, backfired terribly a generation later.  We had very little success recruiting agents within the Soviet Union and often relied on the intel of our allies.  Internal reviews often pointed out the CIA’s shortcomings, but these reports almost always got buried and nothing changed.

Supposing that Weiner’s basic appraisal is true (which is up for debate), I would have liked more from Weiner on why the CIA failed as it did, but he offers only hints.

Time might have something to do with it.  We are still a young country, with a very young intelligence service.  The British, the Russians, and so on have all done  this for much longer than us and would likely do a better job than us for that reason alone.

I wondered if the level of internal criticism from their own reviews is at least a partial function of personality.  Many intelligence analysts might tend toward pessimism and obsession over detail.  Maybe they would naturally be too hard on themselves.  I stress the word “maybe.”  I glanced through Victor Cherkashin’s Spy Handler: Memoir of  a KGB Officer for a different look and he confirmed some of what Weiner wrote, especially regarding our very poor handling of some of our agents behind the curtain.  Cherkashin handled and helped recruit both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  He confirms some of what Weiner wrote about the Ames disaster (Hanssen was from the FBI). But he also mentioned some worthy adversaries and tough problems posed by the CIA for the KGB.  His perspective gives the CIA more credit than Weiner.

In one brief aside Weiner mentions that while, yes, the CIA proved almost inept at gathering intelligence, they did an excellent job of using money to buy influence, and they created some really cool gadgets that would be the envy of the international intelligence community.   I am reminded of John le Carre’s quote that one sees the character of a country most particularly in its intelligence service.*  The shoe definitely fits in this case.  We specialize in gadgets and money.

But that doesn’t mean an intelligence failure per se, it could mean a different kind of success.  For example, Weiner seems critical of the development of the U-2 spy plane.  We would not have needed to develop such a plane if we had better human intelligence on the ground.  Eisenhower worried that the plane might get shot down, and so on. True, but the plane gathered important information, some better, some worse, than an agent on the ground would have obtained.  When Gary Powers was shot down it did cause problems, but having an agent captured would also cause problems, albeit of a different type.  We made the U-2 because of our lack of human intelligence, but that doesn’t mean to me that the U-2 symbolizes failure, or is in itself a failure.

A review of Legacy of Ashes by the CIA’s historian, who makes this same point (among many other criticisms), is here.

But it’s in another aside that Weiner gets at the real root issue.  Democracies, he mentions, simply aren’t very good at secrecy, and we’re not good at it mainly because it goes against all of our democratic instincts.  Like the French Romantics, concealment means that we must be up to no good.  And if we commit ourselves to democracy then we need an informed public.  How an informed public, let alone informed public officials, and a clandestine agency should mix we have yet to figure out.  Weiner offers no solutions.  I can’t blame him, as I have none myself.  I do wish, however, that he paid some mind to this tension present in every democracy.

Part of our desire for openness gives the press more freedom in the U.S. than anywhere else.  We have no equivalent, for example, to England’s Official Secrets Act, which allows the British government to shut down almost any story they deem a threat to national security.  The U.S. cannot do this thanks to the first amendment.  Of course sometimes the government lies and the press exposes it.  But sometimes the press gets it wrong and messes up the government.  Weiner cites one such instance during Ford’s presidency.  Ford had orchestrated a dual arms deal to both Egypt and Israel via CIA backchannels.  He wanted to avoid seeming too pro-Israeli, but didn’t want Israel to know about the sales to Egypt.  However we judge it, he had the intention of setting up the U.S. as an international broker between the two countries.  But the press caught wind of the arms sale to Israel and published stories on it, but they had no information on Egypt.  Ford couldn’t say, “Well we sold stuff to Egypt too–we’re trying our best!” for that would expose the operation.

Of course as a reporter Weiner benefits from this access and freedom.  I wish he would have explored this tension. I’m not suggesting that it’s too bad that we have the first amendment, but it’s not an unqualified good. Among other things, it makes life harder for our intelligence services.  Weiner fails to take this into account in his evaluation.

In his Revisionist History podcast renowned author Malcolm Gladwell takes a second look at stories that he feels got neglected by the flow of time.  In his “Damascus Road” episode he looks at an instance involving the press and a CIA asset.  A man named Carlos the Jackal was everybody’s most wanted list.  No one could come close to catching him.  Out of the blue a man volunteered his help to the CIA.  He wanted no money, rather, he sought to try and make amends for the terrorist activities of his past, some of which had killed Americans.  He gave us information that allowed for his capture.

Under the Clinton administration the Justice Department ordered an “asset scrub” as part of the overhaul of the CIA.  How to draw a line between who stays and who goes?  It seemed simple enough to say that anyone who had previously killed Americans needed let go as an asset.

The CIA complied for the most part, but this particular asset was simply too valuable.  He remained on the books.

Eventually, however, a reporter found out about this non-compliance from a variety of sources.  He wrote the story but met with a CIA agent before publishing it.  The CIA representative got the reporter to remove some the crucial details, but not all.  He pleaded with the reporter . . . the details he left in would expose this asset and seal his fate.  The story was published, and the asset was killed shortly thereafter.

You probably guessed that the reporter in question was Tim Weiner.

Weiner argued that if anyone should be blamed for the man’s death, it was the CIA.  They broke the law (a dumb law, but the law nonetheless) and his job as a reporter is to at times expose the misdeeds of government.  He had credible sources within the CIA itself for the story.  He might further argue that he had no reason to fundamentally trust the CIA with its claims, so often did they mislead and misdirect.

I can’t see it that way.  Had Weiner not published the article, or even watered it down more, our asset would not have been exposed.  He played a role in his death.  When asked how those at the NY Times reacted to this turn of events, he said that for the most part it was business as usual.  You move on to the next story.

That argument aside, I find it ironic that Weiner should so stringently criticize the CIA for not developing foreign assets when he himself had a direct hand in exposing one of their best.

Moving on to a different argument . . . I say that “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is far and away Warren Zevon’s best song.  The song’s unreliable narrator makes this one so enjoyable and so funny.  Those familiar with the lyrics know that the protagonist always goes home with a waitress, and surprise, it doesn’t always work out.  He goes “gambling in Havanna” and–shockingly–finds himself in hot water, then calls upon dear old dad (not for the first time, it seems) to bail him out.  Yet, he remains “an innocent bystander,” who “somehow got stuck.”

Ok, the connection to all I’ve written here is weak.  Mainly, I thought the song made a great title for this post.  It’s a book about the CIA, after all.  I do not suggest that Weiner resembles Zevon’s most famous character.  But Weiner criticizes the CIA constantly throughout his work for losing track of ends and means, for never looking squarely in the mirror, for dissimulation and failure.  However true, Weiner suffers from something similar.  Legacy of Ashes paints with too narrow a brush.

Weiner’s characters almost all suffer from myopia.  Weiner might suffer from it as well.  There is no particular shame in this.  It is a human problem, and not the sole property of spies.


*Le Carre is a perfect example of the principle I speculate about in the above paragraph.  He is the former spy for the west who now is enormously critical of spying.  His cold war novels expressed an ambivalence about the two major sides, while his post-cold war work exclusively criticizes the West in general, and the U.S. in particular.  People naturally assume that this makes his portrayals more realistic, but I’m confident that’s not necessarily so.




Tolkien the Anarchist

It is easy to confuse anarchism with nihilism.

The nihilist cares for nothing but destruction itself.  He derives strength ironically (and illogically) from the “meaning” of no meaning at all.  Owlman makes this perfectly clear, giving perhaps the clearest nihilistic statement in modern times.

The anarchist has a different approach.  His desire to destroy comes with reasonably good motives and a limited scope.  He really seeks not to destroy and create  better way of life.  One senses this in the music of Rage Against the Machine.  They have passion and plenty of excessive, destructive anger, but they plead for something real.  G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant The Man Who was Thursday touches on this as well, with the character of Sunday (slight spoiler alert) serving as the chief destroyer and chief unifier of the characters in the tale.

So it should not scare us too badly that a professor from Yale comes out in favor of anarchism.

James C. Scott’s book Two Cheers for Anarchism has a bark worse than its bite.  He believes that the state has some function to play, though never quite describes how.  He reveals himself as a strong critic of the industrial capitalistic modern world, much like Ivan Illich.  His critiques hit on something amiss about our predicament.  I wish he said more about about solutions.  In fairness, the road out of our situation is long and narrow.

How might one sympathize with a self-described anarchist?  We must first gain historical perspective and realize that the modern world looks very different from almost every other historical era.  The ordering of our lives occasioned especially by the industrial revolution make our lives much more regimented not by nature, but by our own creations, than any other time.

To work against this Scott urges us to abandon all centralized and regimented government solutions.  A simple example illustrates his point.  The Dutch tried an experiment with a notoriously dangerous and congested intersection.  They could have spent tens of millions and took several months to make an overpass.  The more obvious solution called for breaking up the intersection with more traffic lights and more centralized control.

Instead they opted for a traffic circle, with glorious results.  Accidents sharply declined and so did congestion. Traffic circles call for drivers to pay attention and make judgments, but Scott argues this is precisely why they work.  Governments need to get in the habit of giving over more initiative to the people and divesting themselves of institutional means of control, even with something as simple as traffic lights.  Plenty of other examples illustrate the same point, including

  • The superiority of the ‘randomness’ of nature to regimented/”scientific” planting of trees and gardens
  • The failures of housing projects vs. the concept of “neighborhoods.”
  • The unseen bonuses of shopping in neighborhoods as opposed to the ‘big box’ stores,

and so on.  His basic argument comes down to the concept of “small is beautiful.”

But he goes beyond this.  The “anarchist” part of the book involves his encouragement to small-scale kinds of disobedience to perverse means of establishing control.  He cites the recent example of French cab drivers suddenly finding themselves targeted for offenses of a particular traffic law.  They smelled not safety but money-making for the state as the motive.  So they banded together and decided that they would rigidly obey all the various traffic regulations.  Of course, traffic ground to a halt throughout French cities, the point being that

  • The practice of the people truly define what the law is, such as with speed limits, and
  • The state has stuffed the people full of useless and menacing regulations.  To enforce them all is impossible, to enforce most others would be arbitrary.

Scott laments when the natural actions and interests of the common man get co-opted by organizations.  Whatever their initial intentions, the imposed structure of unions, protest organizations, and the like, can never match the organic actions of the common man.  He admits that at times that state plays a useful function in giving an imprimatur, or proper force behind collective action, such as in the Civil Rights Movement.  But in general, a step towards centralization moves one closer to lifeless banality.

I also give Scott a lot of credit for recognizing that large-scale revolutionary action will make things worse.*  Every modern revolution created a more oppressive state than what it replaced:

  • After the American Revolution, British loyalists got a far worse treatment than any revolutionary against George III ever did before 1775.
  • The French Revolution made things far worse than the worst of the old regime
  • The Bolshevik revolution made Russia far worse than under the czars
  • Mao
  • Etc., etc.

We fix things, then in the steady and simple way of rejecting top-down government centralization, and looking for small ways in everyday life to assert the independence of organic communities and organic action.

So far so good, but while I realize the book merely wants to serve as an introduction, one issue in particular bothered me.

Scott states that, essentially, no possibility of a just society even existed until the political invention of modern democracy.  Ok . . . but . . . all of the worst examples of modern totalitarianism occurred in the name of the people.  It seems like democracy can, like nuclear power, give tremendous benefits but also cause tremendous damage.  Scott admits this from a structural standpoint, i.e., universal citizenship gives way to universal conscription, but misses something on the political side.

Scott also attaches himself too strongly to democracy itself, with the English Civil War as a case in point.  One can make a reasonable case that Charles I abused his power.  I think it much harder to justify his execution, done in the name of the law, in the name of the people, after a trial of dubious legality.  I know of no historian who argues that the Protectorate under Cromwell gave people more freedoms than Charles I.  In time, England begged Charles’ son to come back and rule as Charles II, and he returned to huge acclaim.  Again, it seems that the “Restoration” era under Charles II provided more tolerance and more room for localism than Cromwell and his more democratically minded Puritans.

The vision Scott argues for reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc with “distributism.”  Scott decisively breaks with left-leaning academics who despise the “petty bourgeoise,” and instead looks for just the sort of limited land-ownership and localism that this class provides.  But the closest parallel to this kind of organization has historically only come from

  • Frontier societies, whose time may be sweet but is inevitably limited, as it waits for the rest of society to catch up
  • Societies on geographical fringes, like the eskimos, aborigines, jungle tribes, desert nomads, etc.
  • The Middle Ages

Maybe modern democracy is the cause, not the solution to the problems Scott decries.  Marx himself, I believe, believed that capitalism served the purpose of destroying local traditions, a necessary step towards worldwide revolution.  Maybe we need not blame democracy for all of the problems of the industrialized state.  But at the very least, sometimes non-democratic governments do a better job of preserving localism and traditions.

I wish Scott had tackled this.

Scott also may need to choose.  Does he prefer organic localism, or individual rights, democracy, etc.  The two do not always mix, so which does he prefer?  As an anarchist Scott blames the system.  But with democracies people generally get to create the system they want. If a democracy goes bad, then, blame the people, and not the system.  We get what we deserve.


Scott will strike many as decidedly modern, but if you poke around writers and thinkers with a bent towards bygone eras we get some surprises.  The great J.R.R. Tolkien railed against the modern world with his life and work to no avail.   Yet in a letter to his son he wrote,

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people . . . .

He continued on the nature of ruling that,

Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. At least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediaevals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Grant me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way . . . .

David Bentley Hart quotes from this letter in a recent article in First Things, and Hart himself seems to get the gist of Tolkien’s meaning when he writes,

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

Scott has done a great service with his book.  If he writes again I would love for his critique of modernism to go a bit a deeper.  Lets see what he can write if he broadens his vision.



*He never gets into why this is, however, and the question is worth pondering.  Why do popular revolutions create more totalitarianism than the governments they replace?



Be Like the Fox

If you wanted to be an English aristocrat in the Victorian age (or perhaps most any age) one needed to hunt foxes.  For years this perplexed me.  Sure, foxes eat chickens sometimes and maybe cause a bit of mischief, but they posed no real threat to anyone.  They did not seem like noble quarry.  But then I realized that foxes were not hunted because of the damage they did to farms (like you would hunt wolves or wild hogs), or the danger they posed to the hunters (like lions or bears), but because they were so clever at avoiding traps.  To hunt a clever beast, one had to display their own cunning, which even the ancient Greeks admired.

Machiavelli has always beguiled his admirers and detractors alike.  Reading him can feel like a bracing tonic, but then he leaves you cold with his “Machiavellian” calculations.  He seems both clear and contradictory.  We may wonder if we can read him as anything more than a guilty pleasure.

We need not look further than his “It is Better to be Feared rather than Loved” chapter from The Prince.  In his typically realistic/pessimistic way, he says that the love of the people will never be constant, whereas fear will keep them bound to the ruler.  This seems to fit within Machiavelli’s general framework, but we should recall that as an avid student of history, Machiavelli would surely know that fear never works beyond the short-term.  The most successful rulers throughout history may not have people “love” them in the sense in which we use the word, but they did establish relationships and a series of mutual benefits for the ruler and ruled.

Erica Benner makes the bold suggestion that not only is Machiavelli giving bad advice in this notorious chapter, he knows he is giving bad advice.  In fact, he wants his audience (the D’ Medici’s who ended Florence’s Republic) to take this advice and make themselves odious to the people.  He hopes, in fact, that the Republic he loves might be restored through the stupidity of those that read him.*

Ordinarily I would suspect some show-off chicanery with this analysis, but Be Like the Fox surprised me with its even-handed and careful approach that remains accessible to someone like me.  She begins by suggesting that we should not view Machiavelli primarily through the lens of The Prince, but rather through the body of his other work, and especially, his life as a diplomat.  The book weaves biography and analysis gracefully.  Diplomats, especially Renaissance diplomats, often had to speak elliptically and carefully.  The message lay not so much in what was said but in how it was said.  Perhaps Machiavelli’s writings evidence some of this same character.

At his best, Machiavelli bring us back to questions of purpose in political action.  Benner includes an example from Machiavelli’s own life to illustrate this.  Early in his marriage Niccolo had a brief affair with his cousin Bernardo’s female servant and got her pregnant.  She admitted to Bernardo that Niccolo was the father.  From his diaries, we know that Bernardo considered carefully what to do.

Privately he approached Niccolo and mentioned the pregnancy and, in neutral tones, the accusation. “What will happen to the Machiavelli name,” Niccolo, “when word of this gets out?”  Niccolo sympathized with the poor girl and his cousin.  He blamed himself . . . because, he said, a friend of his had seduced the poor girl while he and his wife were away from the house.  Niccolo offered to try and track him down.  Of course, after a few days he reported that the “man” was a scoundrel and would never fess up.  But . . . since he recognized that the fault in the end lay with him, he agreed to provide for a large dowry for the girl so she could get married . . . quietly.  After all, no one wanted a scandal to tarnish the Machiavelli name.

If the cousin’s goal was to bring Machiavelli to repentance, this method may have hindered that cause.  If he desired a quiet solution to the outward problem itself, this worked. Would a direct attack on Niccolo bring about a quickening of his conscience, or merely a stubborn defense that would leave him (Bernardo) holding the bag for his pregnant serving girl?  Benner tells this story early in the book to illustrate the point of much of Machiavelli’s writing.

Benner supports her analysis of The Prince especially through the life of Cesare Borgia, whom many suspect Machiavelli admires on their first reading.  As the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a., Pope Alexander VI, Cesare had enormous advantages.  “Fortune loves and impetuous youth,” Machiavelli writes.  Cesare had a string of great victories throughout Italy based in part on his charisma, luck, and a talent for acquisition via dubious means.  Yet Machiavelli consistently notes that,

  • People who use deception to great effect always assume that everyone else will be honest.
  • People who thrive on conquest often have a hard time building a stable network of alliances, and making and keeping friends.
  • People who have the smile of Fortune rarely realize that Fortune has a fickle streak.  One must do the work of real relationships to create a truly stable state.

In other words, The Prince has much more implied criticism of Cesare Borgia than praise,

Benner illustrates this with other events in Machiavelli’s life.  We assume that Machiavelli just cared about results and not about methods, but Benner argues this would make nonsense of many of his experiences and other writings.  When Pope Sixtus IV (seemingly) supported the failed assassination attempt of Lorenzo and Guillamo d’ Medici, it left Florence in a vulnerable position despite the fact that Lorenzo survived.  Lorenzo’s ruthless revenge not just against the assassins themselves, but the entire Pazzi family from whence they came (which included a few clergy) gave the Pope ammunition to take control of Florence regardless of the failed plot.

Lorenzo scrambled and tried to isolate the pope by getting Naples to break free from their alliance with the Pope.  He thought he scored a major coup for Florence and saved the city.  But then . . .

  • The Pope was still furious because of the treachery of Naples
  • Venice, as an side player in this whole affair, got angry that no one included them in the conversations and joined the Pope against Florence.
  • Meanwhile, Naples had only signed a non-aggression pact with Florence, which meant that they offered no military assistance, leaving Florence in exactly the same position as before.

Slipshod diplomacy made for now diplomacy at all.  Thus, Machiavelli concludes that, “One must things by their methods, and not merely by their results alone,” a conclusion that may surprise us.**

In his fun From Barbarians to Bureaucrats Lawerence Fairley makes the point that companies go through  many of the same life-cycles as civilizations, and uses A.J. Toynbee’s analysis to aid him.  One stage belongs to the “Barbarian.”  Fairley writes that one may be a “barbarian” leader if,

  • You love competition, and the ‘thrill of victory.’  You cannot shrug off losing.
  • You are action-oriented.  You don’t care so much for ideas or systems, but results.
  • You like being in charge and like making decisions
  • You may not have come up with the vision, but want badly to see it through and have definite plans for doing so.
  • You don’t have tons of patience for those who seem to be standing in the way of your mission.
  • You see the ‘struggle’ in absolute terms of us/them, good/evil, etc.

Certainly Cesare Borgia fits this bill, as I think, does our current president.  Fairley points out that we can have good and bad “barbarian” leadership, with each style obviously having its strengths and weaknesses.  Cesare Borgia’s problems came directly after the fighting stopped, as did Alexander the Great’s, as perhaps did Donald Trump’s?  With Cesare, Machiavelli seemed to indirectly counsel that the worst thing one could do with a barbarian was prolong the fighting, which plays directly to his strengths.  The true barbarian, however, will never handle peace well.  Let Cesare stumble over his own feet.  Let Fortune abandon him.  Perhaps Machiavelli would counsel Trump’s political opponents to lay low and let Trump defeat himself.^

In hindsight, of course, some of Machiavelli’s advice looks less and less “Machiavellian.”  In  Debriefing the President, John Nixon writes of his experiences at the CIA and especially about his time spent with Saddam Husssein.  In the midst of his criticism of Clinton, Bush the Younger, Obama, and George Tenet, he makes some revealing personal changes in his opinion.  He admits that he thought the best intel the U.S. possessed pointed to a stockpile of W.M.D’s, and so initially supported the war.  But he concludes that Iraq and the Mideast would be much better off today with Saddam in power.

Well, obviously.  But Nixon makes this claim more interesting with Saddam’s own words and history, much of which he missed himself as an intelligence analyst leading up to the war.  Saddam’s greatest threat was not the U.S., he argues, but Sunni-based Islamic terror, because he relied on the Sunni’s for nearly all his power in Iraq.  Thus, Saddam would have opposed Al-Queada and especially ISIS, as mortal threats to his regime.  Perhaps the fighting would have happened regardless, but Saddam may have appeared vulnerable enough for more open fighting, which would have played right into the U.S.’s tactical and technological advantages.

Maybe so, though this is much easier to say in 2017 than it was in 2003.  Still, I surmise that Benner would concur with Nixon that the best policies come from taking a lesson from the fox, who lives not by paying attention to ideology, but by finding the best way to avoid traps.^^


*Other aspects of The Prince suggest something similar.  He discusses in one chapter that there are two kinds of kingdoms. One type is easy to conquer because they are divided, but this same type of kingdom is all the more difficult to hold precisely because of its divisions.  Was this a word of warning for his D’ Medici enemies who had taken advantage of Florence’s internal divisions?

**Machiavelli argues that Florence survived only because of the serendipity of Turkish activity right at this moment.  The Italian city-states agreed on little besides the fact that Turkey was their greatest enemy.

^This is the conventional view.  But it may be that Trump is actually doing a good job fulfilling his basic promises, as the irrepressible and always enjoyable Camille Paglia points out in her interview here.

^Here I speculate on Benner’s and Nixon’s position, and do not necessarily mean to give my own.  Machiavelli’s work forces one to answer many questions about Christianity’s relationship to politics–but I haven’t come up with an answer yet!

“Kill Anything That Moves”

Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves is not a comfortable book.  I did not read the whole of it, and I cannot imagine the depression that would set in for those who did.  Turse continually hits the reader over the head with atrocity after atrocity that Americans perpetrated in Vietnam.  By midway through, one feels a bit numb.

Turse’s subject matter hits hard, but only skin deep.  There is not enough context, not enough logical build up, and this may be the reason why his book may not have the impact Turse hopes for.  The work bears the mark of solid research and urgency but not sober reflection. Apparently Turse has recently come across some documents just made available from the army, which kept them secret for many years.

Kill Anything that Moves bears the hallmarks of someone desperate to share something that they have just discovered.  It comes out all at once.

I know that in my experience as a teacher I am at my worst when newly excited about something.  I remember how I rambled incoherently through the French Revolution for three weeks with students just after I read Simon Schama’s excellent Citizens (This happened!  And then this!  And then Danton did this!  And Robespierre did that!  Are you getting this down?).

Turse’s basic contention is that what happened at My Lai was not an accident, but a direct result of standard policies and orders routinely given by the military.  That is, My Lai’s happened frequently, if perhaps on a slightly smaller scale.  Of course untold thousands of civilians died due to the blanket B-52 bombing runs.  But troops also deliberately targeted civilians on their “Search and Destroy” missions.  “Kill anything that moves,” comes from typical scenarios where troops received orders to do this almost literally.  Telling friend from foe on the ground posed terrible difficulties.  They solved it by the simple formula, “If they run from our helicopters, they can be shot as enemies.”  Civilians killed by mistake could be given a weapon and called “VC.”  No one asked too many questions higher up because of their interest in body counts.

The book also details the “Destroy the village to save it,” strategy that we clumsily employed in various sectors.  The strategy had some merit and history behind it, which Turse should have brought up.  A typical mantra of insurgent warfare is that, “The peasants are the sea in which the fish swim.”  If you dry up the sea, the fish perish.  So if the peasants all came to our refugee camps, the VC would slowly suffocate.  I believe that Alexander the Great used this strategy effectively against the Bactrians.  Some say Vercintgetorix should have done this in Gaul against Caesar.   The British used this with at least short-term benefits against the Boers.  The fact, then, that U.S. tried some variation of this strategy should not shock us, and Turse should have discussed this.  It is symptomatic of his narrow focus that he did not.

However a significant difference existed between the U.S. and these previous armies.  Not every army can attempt every strategy.  For a strategy to work it needs to have consistency with the society in which it originates.  An army that fights against the values of its own culture will not march with any weight or support behind it, and will almost certainly lack real effectiveness.

Alexander and Vercintgetorix did not rule from consent.  People expected them to do as they pleased.  In South Africa the British interred not their allies but their civilian enemies.  Also, the Victorian British army represented not a democratic consent-based society but an oligarchic “father knows best” ethos that could allow for more “dramatic” treatment of civilians.

The U.S’s strategy with Vietnamese peasants had nothing to recommend it.  In theory the U.S. was a democratic, consent based society.  For its army to then willy-nilly take peasants from their land had no internal rationale.  Secondly, the U.S. had no history in Vietnam, and thus no build-up of goodwill from which to draw.  And third, the U.S. executed the policy in such a clumsy and morally lazy way that it had to fail.  The British at least knocked door-to-door like proper gentlemen and provided an escort.  Though I do not praise the British in this strategy, at least they attempted some personal connection and took measures to protect Boer civilians, whereas the boorish Americans simply bombed and torched villages and then expected the locals to go to their refugee camps by default.  Add to this, their refugee camps were dirty, unsanitary places.  Nothing about this policy matches a society based on equality and consent, and everything about this policy suggests a people and an army that wanted nothing to do with this conflict in the first place.

Turse details many such blunders and moral darkness.  His most compelling chapters detail the army’s policy about weeding out combatants from non-combatants.  Being able to tell them apart in Vietnam would have required a great deal of patience and “on the ground” intelligence. Instead troops routinely received orders that ordered them to shoot at anyone who ran away from their helicopters.  If they ran, they were VC.  If they made a mistake, no problem.  Put a gun in their hand, take their picture, and add them to the body count.  Air Force pilots patrolling the Ho Chi Minh trail had orders to blow up anything moving south, be it man or machine, indiscriminately.  God could sort them out in the end.

These chapters hit the reader in the gut but don’t get at the roots of why this happened.  He doesn’t go for the head, only our emotional reaction.

So why did this happen?  I have a theory. . .

Vietnam was a war no one wanted.

Johnson inherited the problem from Kennedy.  No one “wants” a war, but Johnson seemed specifically ill-suited to foreign policy.  It was not in his wheelhouse.  He often commented how he wished Vietnam would go away so he could do what he really wanted to do — the Great Society.

Congress did not want to deal with the war either.  With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution they signed away their responsibility and oversight to the president.

At least at the beginning of the war, we drafted troops from sections of society without much political importance, another way to pass the buck and avoid domestic conflict over the war.

Every manual on leadership prescribes leaders sharing burdens and sharing space with those they lead.  In Vietnam, very few higher officers ever patrolled with their men.  They led from desks.  They too wanted nothing to do with the messiness the war entailed.  So it is no coincidence that when they received casualty reports that in no way matched the weapons troops recovered, they looked away.  They were already “looking away” by sitting at their desks.

With all this, we should be slow to place the brunt of the blame on the ground troops themselves.  All of America owned this problem, and all of America contributed to these atrocities.  Turse makes a valuable contribution to the literature on Vietnam, but I think it will take an historian with a more prophetic bent to make the most of his findings.

Inventing Vietnam

Like most Americans, I root against the New England Patriots.  It is nothing personal, but Americans root for the underdog, and the Patriots have been so successful they are never the underdog.  And yet, I can’t help but admire the brilliance of Bill Belichek.

He confirmed my admiration during a particular playoff game against the Steelers many years. ago.  The Patriots held a slim lead early in the game but the Steelers had a built a nice drive.  They resided just out of field goal range and faced a 4th and 1 somewhere around the Patriots 40 yard line.  The Steelers decided to go for it, and their home crowd cheered.

At this time the Steelers built their identity around a “smash-mouth” style of play and relied heavily on running back Jerome Bettis.  Everyone knew the Steelers would want to run the ball.  The Patriots of course also knew this.  They stacked the line of scrimmage and their defense sold out on the run.  I don’t recall if they had any safeties behind the line of scrimmage.  Their defensive formation triple-dog-dared Pittsburgh to pass.

I remember yelling at the TV for Pittsburgh to call a timeout.  They were obviously going to run, but if they had just flared out a tight-end it could have gone for a touchdown.  But Pittsburgh went ahead and ran the ball anyway.  And of course New England, having every single player right at the line of scrimmage, stopped it easily.  After taking over on downs Brady promptly completed a long pass for a touchdown and broke the will of the Steelers.

Game over.  In the first quarter.

I thought to myself, “How did Belichek know Pittsburgh would run?”  Of course he didn’t really know, but his defense said to me that he knew.  What Belichek, knew, I think, is that under stress, we revert to our comfort foods.  We can’t help it.  In a regular season game, with stress levels lower, maybe Pittsburgh calls a different play.  But in the playoffs?  He knew they would stress-eat the Ritz crackers and run Jerome Bettis over left-tackle even when a voice inside them probably told them to eat carrot sticks instead.  They couldn’t help it.

Civilizations contain a vast aggregate of personalities, but have a undeniable personality and predelictions all their own.  When we picture someone wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans, of course it fails to cover everything about America, but it covers enough.

Toynbee believed that western civilization reveals itself in its passion for mechanics.  He wrote,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s, just prior to the Industrial Revolution]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

I thought of Toynbee’s analysis reading James Carter’s Inventing Vietnam.  A lot about this book revealed little about the Vietnam War that I had not read elsewhere.  I thought Carter missed some important opportunities to illumine the conflict.  But his basic thesis, that America essentially tried to invent, i.e. “call int0 existence” a country that did not really exist makes sense.  South Vietnam had no real governance, no real culture, no real identity at all, apart from some lines on paper at the U.N.

Carter demonstrates that we tried to create South Vietnam in the only way we knew how.  We went to our comfort food . . . lots and lots of mechanical stuff.

Everyone recognized fairly early on that South Vietnam occupied a precarious position in Southeast Asia.  President Diem failed to inspire confidence.  The North had nearly all the best political leadership.  The major battles of the war against France, and thus, the major political infrastructure to handle the war, happened in the North.  Even in the late 1950’s we realized the South Vietnam could collapse not so much because of the actions of North Vietnam but under its own weight.  Castles cannot built on air.*

But for many reasons, some well-intentioned and justifiable, and some not, we felt that we had to try.**  We sought to modernize their economy, and give thousands of South Vietnamese jobs through our massive construction projects.  We could maybe, just maybe “fast-track” their way towards gaining some kind of statehood.  If nothing else, in attempting this we stayed on familiar territory.  We knew how to provide material goods and benefits.

While Carter’s book disappointed me overall, he proves his main point.  Our efforts to “create” South Vietnam massively undermined our stated goals.

  • The massive surge in U.S. dollars in South Vietnam destabilized their economy
  • South Vietnam’s economy and infrastructure could not absorb the massive inflow of goods, which created a black-market economy almost immediately.  This “shadow economy” further eroded governmental authority.
  • Most significantly, construction projects facilitated the expansion of our war effort.  The expansion of the war effort led to more bombing in South Vietnam, and more troop activity.  The more war South Vietnam experienced, the more disruption they faced, the less chance the South Vietnamese government had of establishing themselves.

Each of these problems served to ensure that the South Vietnamese government had no control over its own destiny.  Many in the State Department and military realized this, but could do little else but press on.  We couldn’t help ourselves.  This is what we knew how to do.  We can reasonably assume that if we had defeated the North Vietnamese militarily, the overall strategic situation would have changed hardly at all since the 1954 Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam in the first place.  South Vietnam would not have been an independent country.

When our war in Afghanistan seemingly went well in late 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a media darling.  His “transformation” doctrine of war, which emphasized smaller troop levels and increased use of technology, seemed to work.  But by 2006 Iraq was a mess, and by 2009 the situation in Afghanistan had significantly eroded.  In truth, much of the Rumsfeld doctrine hardly broke new ground.  It appealed directly to our comfort food of believing in, and relying upon, bigger and better stuff to solve our problems.  Hillary Clinton taps into this again with her pledge that new green technologies will solve economic problems.  If we looked closer we would see that our weaknesses, and of course also our strengths, have deeper roots than this.


*Marine General Victor Krulak commented in 1966 that, “Despite all our assertions to the contrary, the South Vietnamese are not–and have never been–a nation.

For a postscript below, Raymond Fitts’ article entitled, The Uses and Abuses of Technology in War


“The American effort in Vietnam was the best that modern military science could offer. The array of sophisticated weapons used against the enemy boggles the mind. Combat units applied massive firepower using the most advanced scientific methods. Military and civilian managers employed the most advanced techniques of management science to support combat units in the field. The result was an almost unbroken series of American victories that somehow became irrelevant to the war. In the end, the best that military science could offer was not good enough . . .”1

How is it that such a paradox developed? How could a world Super Power lose a war to a third or forth rate military power? The answer has many parts. One part of the answer must lie in the difference between military science and military art. The more technology a country has developed, the more it seems to depend on military science in stead of military art. Another part is in the make up of the combatants and their outlook toward warfare.

Despite the many analyses of the Vietnam war produced by the military, none has adequately considered the fundamental question of how the U.S. could so completely dominate the battlefield and yet lose the war. Senior military officers have published books and memoirs about Vietnam. They have all nearly ignored the insurgent portions of the war and devoted themselves to the conventional side of the conflict. The most celebrated analysis of the war made by a military officer was produced by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr. His basic treatment of the entire war was as it ended, i.e., in a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. He ignored the guerrilla tactics and insurgent strategies of the war. All these personal accounts of the war seem to be best summarized by the adage “If they has just turned us loose in 1965, the war would have been over quickly.”2 It is clear that had the war been nothing more than a conventional one, the US should have been more successful than it was.

A clue to understanding the Vietnam paradox lies in the term “military science.” No one can doubt the importance of military science to the success of military operations in today’s world. The firepower provided by today’s weapons dominates the modern battlefield. The procurement of those same systems is a complex science in itself. However, successful military operations are a combination of the application of military science and military art.3

As the term implies, military science is a systematic body of knowledge about the conduct of military affairs. It deals with issues that can be quantified with a considerable degree of precision. It generally deals with what one can or cannot do in military operations–the technical aspects of developing and employing military forces.

Military art is the systematic study and creative planing and conduct of military affairs.4 It involves strategy (including tactics), political-military affairs, leadership, and morale. In short, it deals with the inexact side of military operations. It is concerned with what military forces should or should not do and why. It is learned through a study of history.

Successful military campaigns are the result of some sort of balance between the two. The balance may, in fact, depend on the status of the opposing forces–their equality. Reasonable equality may not exist between opposing forces. The weaker side must then depend on superior military art to achieve victory.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were forced to depend on the use of military art because of the overwhelming resources and superior technology of the U.S. The Communist confused the Americans with a package of political, psychological, economic and military warfare.

There is a considerable body of literature that suggests that the warfare of the future, especially with the end of the Cold War, will be on the low-intensity end of the conflict spectrum. If indeed such is the case, then the U.S. will need to rethink how it uses its technology to fight at this end of the spectrum. But to understand what constitutes the low-intensity conflict some definitions are necessary. Applications of technology in this environment will be explored to evaluate the effects of the use of technology.


Low-Intensity Conflict

The American military establishment considers low-intensity conflict to be manifested in four different ways: (1) counterterrorism (assuming there is a terrorist to counter); (2) peace keeping: (3) peacetime contingencies (quick sharp, peacetime military actions like the air raid on Libya in 1986); and (4) insurgency/counterinsurgency. The inclusion of some of these terms in the definition of low-intensity conflict is debatable. Terrorism can be considered a tactic that can be used in any type of warfare. Peace keeping missions are meant to prevent the outbreak of a conflict. The essential difference between war-fighting and peace-keeping missions is that one makes the maximum use of force while the latter is committed to the minimum use of force. Direct action missions tend to be high in intensity but short in duration, a situation that is particularly unsuited for the term “low-intensity conflict.” We are thus left with insurgency and counterinsurgency claiming any legitimacy to the title “low-intensity” conflict.6 A low-intensity conflict includes not only the unconventional aspects of warfare but also economic, political and psychological warfare.

There is an important aspect about low-intensity conflict that needs emphasis. The level of intensity is a relative thing. For the soldier in the trenches, combat is always intense–he’s the one getting shot at. For the United States, Vietnam was not a highly intense conflict because it did not require the full resources of the country. For the North Vietnamese, the war was a high intensity conflict because it involved all the nation’s resources. The level of intensity is usually associated with the probability of occurrence of a certain level of conflict. Terrorism is at one end of the spectrum and is highly probable while all-out nuclear war is at the other end and is least likely.

Partisan vs. Insurgent Warfare

The difference between partisan warfare and an insurgency is what the guerrilla is trying to do to the government. The partisan is merely interested in throwing out a conquering power. The partisan may need help from an outside source. An example might the East Europeans trying to expel the Germans during World War II. An insurgent is trying to overthrow an existing government by any means. Insurgencies are the more insidious of the two in as much as it has no definite beginning; its origins are not military, they are political, economic, and psychological. The insurgency is self-sustaining; and does not need outside support. An insurgency sneaks up on the existing government slowly and quietly.

Successful insurgencies have a number of elements in common. Four characteristics are particularly important for the American military: the protracted nature of the war; the central role of the insurgent political infrastructure; the secondary role of the insurgent military; and the use of guerrilla tactics in military operations.7 An insurgency represents the total integration of political and military factors with the political factors always in complete domination.

Conditions are ripe for insurgencies in many parts of the Third World. They all have several things in common: the stark contrasts between incredible poverty for the vast majority of the population and the extreme wealth for the ruling elite; a small to non-existent middle class that can be a stabilizing influence and a conduit for the upwardly mobile; these same areas often times sit astride important trade routes or trade-route chokepoints; they might contain important deposits of raw material vital to the industrialized world.8 The insurgencies of the twentieth century have been scattered all over the world and have been the result, for the most part, of real or imagined inequities in political and economic power coupled with the perception of minimal opportunity for reform, either political or economic. When taken together, the unique aspects of insurgent warfare suggests that such struggles are different from conventional warfare.

The most important aspect of an insurgency is time. Both the French and the Americans found that their enemies used time as a weapon against them. The Vietminh and later the Vietcong purposely made the struggle longer waiting for the Americans and French to get tired of the endless blood letting and look for a way out of the conflict.

The rebels also need time to build up their political support and military strength relative to the government they are trying to overthrow. Time works for the insurgent in another way: every day the rebellion exists is another day that discredits the government and its ability to govern and control its own destiny. The defeat of the insurgent military threat is only an adjunct to buying time for the government to implement reforms and for those reforms to work..

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is the classic ploy of the weaker against the stronger. The conventional European military operations are planned to obtain a quick victory while guerrilla warfare tactics are geared for the long haul. The guerrilla attempts to avoid a decisive defeat at the hands of the stronger enemy. They operate in small groups to avoid presenting tempting targets for government forces that usually have vastly superior firepower for its use.9

In fact, a guerrilla wins by not losing, while the government loses by not winning. In short, there is no room for the status quo. Each side must discredit the other by some means whether it be political, economic, psychological, or military. Generally, it is s combination of all these elements. The military aspects usually are fought to make space for the other aspects to work on the minds and pocket books of the population.

The American Way of War

There are several deep-seated reasons for the condition of the American armed forces: military men are still highly regarded in Europe but not much here; the European tradition of martial exploits is missing in America; a technological bias to create weapons that can kill from a distance; and a failure to create a well-motivated, well trained military force.10 Most Americans have not had to come to grips with the central role that military forces play in international settings Americans have not had to confront war as a political act.

Its long span of oceanic-based isolation has led the Americans to think of war as an aberration, a failure of political policy Americans see warfare as a great crusade to over-come a well defined enemy who was definitely evil. Simplistic approaches to political military problems are also indications that Americans have not been forced to deal with the role of force. Despite obstacles, Americans have expected to achieve their goals; the spirit of “can-do” has been a permanent part of their collective psyche.11

The Civil War was the first American conflict observed by professional European soldiers. The British, French and Greater Prussian General Staff sent representatives to observe both sides at war. The observers noted, with some distain, the American penchant for standing off at some distance from each other and throw enormous amounts of lead at each other, often times for hours on end. This method has become ineluctably part of the American way of war.

This proclivity to conserve lives has been all the more difficult because of a distinction in the military tradition: the population has always distrusted a large standing army, it has thus developed a strong militia to fight its wars. American armies have had to learn to fight by fighting. The U.S. has been willing to compensate for what it lacked in preparation by spending its national wealth. America’s war industry has overwhelmed its enemies with weaponry.12

The U.S. military has concentrated on the sciences of developing, deploying, and employing America’s overwhelming resources since the Civil War. The military has, as a result, not had to be very clever in the military arts because it could overwhelm its opponents in a sea of men, weapons, firepower, and logistics.13 This ability has lead to a 20th Century American trend in American thinking: modern American strategists and tacticians have sought to substitute fire and steel for American blood.14 General James Van Fleet, then commander of the Korean based 8th Army in 1952, is a good example of this mode of thinking. He was determined to use his artillery as a substitute for U.S. infantrymen.

The basic aim of the U.S. military, it seems, in peacetime is to buy hardware rather than use it. The main aim of each service is to get from Congress as much money as it wants. The peacetime emphasis has moved from fighting skills to procurement and the management of technology. The best way to a promotion is through running a successful procurement program in the Pentagon. Leadership in the field is a secondary consideration. What the American military has developed is a distorted sense of priorities and a general lack of seriousness about warfare. It has fallen into a push-button mentality that has a developed a passion for hardware to the neglect of strategy, tactics, and the intangibles of warfare.15 We have done a marvelous job of preparing for the next war only to find that we cannot afford to fight it.

In spite of all this high-technology, it has never been the decisive factor in any American war. The struggle to use technology and to deal with the enemies technology has been much more important.16 Using history as a guide, the American record with military aviation technology has been mixed at best. In World War I, the U.S. flew European designed and, for the most part, built aircraft. World War II showed the Japanese Zero was better than any U.S. front line aircraft at the beginning of the war and the MiG-15 was a superior surprise during the Korean conflict.17

The French Experience

France was the last of the European imperial powers to resist, by force, the loss of its colonies following World War II. The wave of independence following the war swept over all of the former European colonies. The wave gave the colonies a moral advantage that made the war in Indochina increasingly unpopular in France.

The French experience in Indo-china finally ended with the signing of a treaty between the Viet Minh and the French. The treaty divided the country into two halves: one half went to the Vietnamese communists, the other went to what became the Republic of Vietnam. The political turmoil over the next decade brought the U. S. into a war that the French could not win. The final disaster for the French was at a small town in northwestern Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu. Hot on the heels of Vietnam was another colony of France: Algeria. It seems that the French didn’t learn enough from Vietnam because they went through the same traumatic experiences in Northern Africa that they had in Asia. The two places were very different, but the guerrilla war fought by France in both countries contained the same French military responses to the insurgents.


The French experience in Vietnam lasted eight long years. The Viet Minh experienced tactical defeats with huge losses when faced with the terrible destructive power of the French firepower. The Viet Minh accepted their losses and learned from their mistakes. Over time, they succeeded in dominating Indochina except for a few French “safe areas” around Hanoi and its immediate vicinity.

The only real advantage the French had was their mastery of and ability to conduct European-style machine warfare. They believed to the very end that the enemy could be crushed and Indochina subdued by concentrated firepower. Early on, they also learned that artillery and airpower had little effect on an elusive enemy that avoided a fight. What the French wanted was a large-scale battle of attrition that would grind the Viet Minh into the ground under a final massive avalanche of bombs and artillery fire. The strategy has two fatal flaws: (1) the French were frustrated by their inability to find and fix an enemy in an inhospitable environment; and (2) the French assumed that they alone possessed the ability to apply firepower in a battle of attrition.

Giap keep the pressure on the French by infiltrating soldiers into the Delta lowlands around Hanoi thus tying down French units. He initiated local attacks against the French units creating havoc in the colonial heartland. Giap also conceded to the French their superior firepower and willing spent lives to accomplish two things: first, to maintain his offensive and secondly to buy time to build a firepower base that could challenge the French in open warfare. To accomplish such things, surprise and secrecy were essential.

The Viet Minh learned from experience that under no circumstances should a column be caught in the open to be devastated by French firepower. They traveled by night in small groups to lessen the probability of being detected. They stayed in areas firmly under their control. Limited attacks outside of their protective base areas were planned carefully and by moving to and from the objective area without delay. If they were caught in the open, the men would scatter and hide before the French were able to adjust in and mass artillery fire on the position. The elusiveness of their tactics in combination with the difficult terrain greatly reduced the killing power of French firepower.

The Viet Minh also learned something about the application of airpower. Initially, it frightened the green, inexperienced insurgents and forced them to break off attacks. The French could rarely afford to send more than single aircraft to turn back attacks. The Viet Minh learned quickly that airpower employed in small doses possessed little destructive power. They also effectively dissipated French firepower by using a “hugging” tactic that began with a concentrated recoilless rifle, mortar, and machine gun attack on a fire base with the express intent of knocking out the defender’s radio–the sole means of calling for friendly fire. They then moved the entire force within the barbed wire outside the fort. Fortress and firepower proved to be no match for cunning, patience, courage and a willingness to sacrifice lives to achieve an objective.

Close air support became more effective as time went on. The pilots got to know their assigned areas of responsibility. They could bomb and strafe with particular destructiveness because they did not need to worry about the location of their own soldiers.

The French lost the first round of the war when they lost effective control over most of the territory and population in North Vietnam. The lesson to be learned here was that no amount of firepower or fortification can be effective against an insurgent without first obtaining the support of the people who inhabit the country.

The most effective innovation in firepower control was the use of light observation aircraft, specifically the Morane, to control supporting fires in support of an infantry unit in heavy contact. Such control often meant the difference between victory and defeat for the supported unit. The pilot had to be able to put the fire at very close ranges to the friendly forces.

The American observers present were not particularly impressed with the French airsupport system. It had airplanes dashing about from one fire fight to another in small groups (often only a few planes at a time). It was not their idea of a concentrated air campaign because it seemed so disorganized and without purpose. The close air support provided by the French air force, however, was sufficient as long as the enemy restricted himself to low-level hit-and-run tactics.

Both sides were learning from the battles. Giap learned that his forces were too lightly equipped to slug it out with the French and their overwhelming firepower. He therefore resorted to guerrilla warfare tactics using irregular forces against enemy strength and main forces against French weaknesses. He committed his forces only when there was a high probability of success.

On the positive side, Giap learned that the ability to stand up of French firepower increased with experience. A few well hidden machine guns made the effectiveness of French air attacks decrease appreciably. Giap did not have to match French firepower gun for gun to reduce its effect.

Giap also realized his own impatience with his early attempts at open warfare. He then decided that he would fight on his own terms. He sought to draw the French away from their bases thereby weakening the French ability to project and supply large fire-power intensive forces. He then attacked when the right combination of circumstances (weather, lines of communication, terrain) and available forces reduced or eliminated the French firepower advantage.

For the French, their victories convinced several commanders that the war could be won by fighting a decisive set-piece battle of attrition. They therefore sought to lure the Viet Minh into attacking well-prepared positions thus letting the enemy bleed to death in the face of French firepower. In doing so, however, the French made two critical mistakes. The first was to assume that their firepower was more effective than it really was. It was indeed effective early on, but as the enemy became better able to avoid it and developed their own firepower base more and more ordnance was needed to achieve significant results. Their second mistake was in not realizing that unless the attacker has an overwhelming advantage in firepower, causalities were likely to be about the same on both sides.

The French infantry effectiveness began to decline as a result of an accumulation of all of these factors. The French soldiers, because they were often green or shaken, needed more and more concentrations of firepower to keep them effective. The guerrilla retains the strategic initiative because he can determine the level of the conflict whenever the enemy’s firepower proves to be too destructive.

The French left and the Americans began to replace them only to have to learn the same lessons the French had, but without the benefit of consulting the French.


The Indochina war was hardly over when fresh trouble broke out in Algeria, France’s colony in Northern Africa. Trouble had been brewing there for some time, just as it had in Tunisia and Morocco. France had settled both of the latter problems by granting them independence. But Algeria was part of metropolitan France and would always be French.

Extensive European land ownership and a local Moslem elite that controlled the economic and financial structure while the bulk of the population went hungry and landless made Algeria look a lot like Vietnam. The French never ruled comfortably and force lay just below the governmental facade.19 Algeria was not France: 90 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 10 percent of the population, nearly a million people were unemployed while nearly two million were underemployed.

Both sides in the rebellion understood much about the other. The French refused to realize the strength of nationalist feelings while the rebels did not recognize the obstinacy of the Europeans or the French military against them.20

French military forces numbered about 50,000 when the rebellion started on the 1st of November, 1954. By May of the following year there were 100,000 French soldiers in Algeria. The military commanders were not worried about “bandits” who would yield rather quickly to the superior power of the French army; they thought nothing of sending mechanized columns to subdue them. Apparently the lessons of Vietnam had not yet sunk in because any Vietnam veteran could have told them that mechanized columns sent anywhere did little more that provide convenient targets for guerrillas.

The French aggravated their situation with the measures taken by the police; numerous arrests for nearly arbitrary reasons and the brutal treatment of the detainees just fed the fire. Further French counter tactics remained the rebels best friend. The build up was still under way and the military commanders did not have the forces to carry out the traditional pacification tactics. The Army was in a particularly dangerous frame of mind after the losses in 1940 and Indochina left it with a monstrous inferiority complex.21 The French guerrilla warfare doctrine applied to Algeria was doomed from the start because the French had ignored the aspirations of the population –in Mao’s doctrine the very first lesson. In spite of their revolutionary doctrine, and the results in Vietnam, the French army continued to rely on the traditional techniques of fighting the Algerian war.

Despite their inept military activities, the French did have some advantages: approximately 400,000 soldiers in Algeria; the factious nature of the rebellion; and the lack of rebellion’s internal cohesion played a disruptive role amongst the rebels.22

The Battle of Algiers occurred after the 10th Parachute Division took over counterterrorism duties. The division was not kind in its tactics. The battle that followed was an outgrowth of their brutality that left many dead behind. Controlled genocide as policy seemed to work though. The rebel infrastructure in Algiers was destroyed and the French efforts in the countryside seemed to be working. The battle in Algiers sent more moslems into the arms of the rebels.

But the French off-set their gains with their garrison concept that took the bulk of their forces. The concept left the countryside to the guerrilla (a failing seen in Indochina). Several other factors degraded the effects of French tactics: the use of inexperienced conscript soldiers, an inadequate force for the mission (again a notion left over from Indochina), guerrilla reinforcements coming in from neighboring sanctuaries, rebel determination to throw them out, French barbarism, and finally the overall extent of the destruction of the country.23 The French barbarism even reached into neighboring Tunisia when an air force colonel ordered a Tunisian village bombed on the pretext that machine guns fired at French aircraft–some three miles away in Algerian skies.24

The French attempted to seal off the Tunisian border with a fortified barrier that was 40 meters wide and just over 250 kilometers long. The Morice Line used an electrified fence as its core. It was surveyed by radar and human patrols, covered by searchlights and artillery in places, and had its approaches mined. It still had its disadvantages: it was expensive to build, it required thousands of soldiers to patrol, it was a far as 50 miles from the border in some places and it could be outflanked.25

French tactics eventually became more effective and more mobile with the use of helicopters. But by this time President Charles de Gaulle realized that the French could fight in Algeria for a hundred years without resolving the issues that brought on the conflict in the first place. He finally put an end to the madness by granting Algeria its long awaited and much desired independence. Algeria wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least it could set its own course.

The American Experience

Americans have had a love affair with technology since the inception of the country. It helped to develop a new continent from coast to coast through the train and the telegraph. Technology made up for the lack of people in developing a new country. That very love affair carried into the way Americans fought their wars. They took it with them to all of their wars since the Civil War. In a recent example it contributed mightly to their undoing.

Gadgets in Vietnam

The Vietnam experience was a bewildering disaster for the U.S. military. The battlefield effort gave the U.S. military an almost unbroken string of victories. On the one occasion, Tet Offensive of 1968, that the enemy stood and fought the American forces in a conventional style, the enemy was so badly beaten that it could not launch another major offensive for four years.26 The U.S. still did not win the war. Apparent military success could not be translated into political success in the larger war. The United States is so dominated by its technologies and its wealth that it has lost touch with people. The United States believes it can spread democracy and maneuver politics by technology and money only. This may well be a fatal error in the life of our nation.27 The loss of China to the communists and the French loss in Indochina made for rather unpleasant news in the U.S. about a new type of warfare coming onto the world scene. Insurgency was a type of warfare that was wholly unknown and unanticipated in America. This isn’t too surprising because the Americans lacked a number of overpowering attitudes that were, and are still common in the Third World: the depth of belief that comes from desperation, a tradition of humiliation that begets hatred; the immediacy of wide spread starvation in the face of corrupt plenty; the zeal of the patriot in the face of foreign invaders and finally a basic lack of interest in war.28

In tune with their propensity to use gadgets, the Americans invented “think tanks” to think up new devices and ways to use them; the think tank was supposed to devise new policies that would allow the U.S. military to fight an insurgency war. The think tank was a development that followed the end of World War II when the Department of Defense didn’t want of lose all of the scientific talent it had accumulated during the war. Insurgency provided the think tank’s biggest challenge after the Korean war.

So we sent our soldiers to Vietnam unprepared for what they were to face. They were so unprepared, that even the soldiers responsible for intelligence gathering could not speak Vietnamese. They had to hire Vietnamese to translate for them. The translators were as ill-prepared for their task as the American intelligence specialists were; some could only barely speak English at all let alone translate Vietnamese into intelligible English. Given such a starting point, it was hardly unlikely that the wrong story got told, especially with the Oriental propensity to tell a Westerner what he wants to hear.

The toughest technical problem was to just find and identify the enemy. The VC and the NVA did not, as a rule, fight in regiments and divisions. The lengths to which the U.S. gadgeteers went to solve this problem are truly awesome.

The U.S. tried bedbugs to sniff out people.29 The bed bug is supposed to be able to smell human food from a long distance. It then moves around making some small noises. The noises were what the gadgeteers tried to use to operate a meter showing the proximity to people. The think tanks devised a machine to be carried by one soldier and operated by four or five bed bugs. The sniffing tube was pointed at a suspected ambush site thus providing a sign to the soldier that somebody was hidden there. The machine failed combat test.

A “people sniffer”, using a chemical-physical apparatus, did have some successful field tests. The machine was supposed to be able to detect body odor of concealed guerrillas from 200 yards away.

Small infantry units had a small personnel radar that could detect moving human beings and alert defenders in the dark of impending attack. The attacks happened anyway.

The starlight scope turned out to be a useful gadget. It allowed a soldier to see in the dark by concentrating the light of the stars. Aircraft were even using them.

Sound was also used as an indicator in several gadgets: one gadget detected the sound of clothing rubbing against clothing; sensors were used on the Ho Chi Minh trail to detect the sound of trucks and other vehicles. Seismic detectors were used to detect the trembling of the ground as heavy trucks and tanks drove by. Infrared detectors were developed for use to find heat sources beneath the jungle canopy. Special photographic films were developed to detect the dead vegetation used as camouflage.

American gadgeteers seldom reckoned with the propaganda effects of the usage of their gadgets. The bed-bug episode drew a wave of negative editorial comments in the Vietnamese press.

Then their was Operation Ranch Hand. The operation was designed to defoliate the jungle hide-outs of the VC and NVA. It was eventually used to destroy the rice crop. The trick back-fired in a big way because of the special status of rice in the Oriental mind: to waste it is a cardinal sin. Westerners killing whole fields not only deprived the owner of the rice but handed the Viet Cong a propaganda coup of the first magnitude. The destruction of the rice fields drove more peasants into the hands of the waiting VC. The VC then used it as the basis of a charge of germ warfare to exterminate the Vietnamese people.30

The Americans tried tear gas to disable people. The U.S. news men got a hold of the idea about “non-lethal” gas warfare in South Vietnam. The story drew instant and hostile reactions. Napalm also drew adverse reactions from the American public. Despite its military value, it provided a propaganda coup for its detractors.

The M-16 rifle that the infantry used in Vietnam generated a lot of controversy. There was its propensity to jam blamed on the users not keeping it clean while Marines died because of the defects. There was a controversy over the ammunition used–the contracts for its manufacture were suspect. And again the user did the dying.

Other gadgets included such things as the M-26 and M-79 grenade launchers, Claymore mines, airborne miniguns and the AC-47 that used them, Aluminum dust that was sprayed on trails so that radar could follow them, navigation systems for aircraft, Snake-eye bombs, CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] that generated propaganda for the enemy because unexploded bomblets killed and maimed civilians that stumbled upon them, the Bullpup missile, special jungle clothing, a computer (IBM 1430) to help the intelligence specialists gather and sort data, and finally, of all things, lie detectors.31

The Army tried to use its old technology to provide target information. It brought in the AN/PQ-4 counter-mortar radar. The radar tracked an incoming mortar shell and back plotted its trajectory. A skilled operator could plot the mortar position to about 50 meters. Unfortunately, it was too old and easy to fool. It had a very narrow sector scan and the operator eventually got tired of looking at the screen. The enemy put his mortars where the radar wasn’t looking and fired when the operators were least likely to be alert.

The AN/TPS-25 ground surveillance radar was more modern and could detect a moving vehicle up to six miles away. It was meant for use in a conventional European war and couldn’t pick up small groups of men at a walking pace.32

Ground sensors were used as an aid in the search for targets. But for them to be effective, they had to be precisely located. Most of the sensors were dropped from slow-flying airplanes thus making them hard to locate accurately.

The enemy learned, in time, to counter the sensors in some fashion when he could not avoid them altogether. The sensor system was only effective when used in conjunction with other methods such as patrols, radars, scout dogs, and aerial sightings. Yet the system was all that provided the precision target information with the consistency necessary for effective target engagement by indirect fire.

There were some technological success stories. The AC-47 with its mini-guns proved to be great operational success. A few dedicated individuals managed to develop a system appropriate to the war being fought in Vietnam despite the Air Force’s denigration of the ideal of using an obsolete aircraft for anything (it wasn’t fast enough or the latest in technological innovations). The gunship was used to provide a large volume of firepower in a very small area for infantry engaged in heavy combat, especially at night. Other aircraft used in the gunship role, the AC-130 and AC-119, also saw action. The AC-130 saw action along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.33

Americans have had a plethora of mechanical devices or military hardware in Vietnam. Unfortunately, in this war the relations between human beings and abstract ideas were decisive. Our gadgets were superb but just not enough.

Gadget Driven Tactics

Not long after the siege of Plei Mei (early in the war), in the Central Highlands, General Kinnard commanded the 1st Cavalry Division. He was instructed, by General Westmoreland, to destroy the forces that had attacked Plei Mei. The situation was considered perfect for the Division’s style of air mobile warfare. Kinnard moved his artillery into the battle area by helicopter so that it could support his infantry as soon as they touched the ground. General Kinnard hoped that his scattered units would lead the enemy to believe the units could be defeated in detail. Kinnard planned to use the units not engaged as a reserve to be moved by helicopter to reinforce any units in contact with the enemy. Holding terrain meant little in his style of warfare. The heavy lift helicopter gave isolated units the reassurance that they would and could be supported with an inexhaustible supple of artillery guns and ammunition.34 A road bound relief force could itself become a victim of an well planned ambush. The enemy commander, Colonel Ha, had learned that all he had to do to even the match was to separate the Americans from their firepower.

Another battle that made news was the battle of the Ia Drang. The lesson learned there was that firepower would be the pivotal factor in the tactical battle. The Americans goal was to use his firepower quickly to gain the advantage. (Throughout the war experienced infantry commanders were the loudest proponents of fighting battles with firepower.) The enemy’s objective was to separate the Americans from their firepower or to strike quickly and get away before firepower could shift the odds against them. The Ia Drang battle also taught the Americans that the only way to bring a reluctant enemy to battle was by sending out platoon sized units to search him out. Then the enemy was attacked with standard tactics. Unfortunately additional maneuver forces in the enemy’s rear didn’t mean that the enemy was trapped. In the jungle it was easy for him to disappear thus braking contact at will.

When an enemy base camp was found deep in the jungles and marshes of Vietnam, the conventional wisdom for attacking it was to determine its dimensions, isolate it with a strong cordon and then pound it with firepower. Occasional forays were made into the area to check on the results of the attack by fire, then the fire was repeated. This cycle was repeated as often as desired or needed. The preservation of soldier’s lives was the overriding tactical imperative.

Artillery became the fire support system of choice in Vietnam. It was always available in any weather or at any time of day. The artillery was scattered all over the countryside and concentrated by firing more shells at the enemy. Reinforcements from the Air Force and Army aviation ensured that overwhelming firepower would eventually be achieved. And despite the observer’s opinions of the French methods, the Americans learned to use spotter aircraft just as the French had during their stay in Vietnam.

Close air support from fighter aircraft was, and still is, the best way to deliver overwhelming firepower quickly and precisely against tanks, fortifications, and bunker complexes. Such bunker complexes made up enemy base camps in the deepest parts of the southern swamps and under the jungles of the rest of the country. But the enemy did not always stay at home. Often times, when major offensives were run against such base camps, it was found to be lightly defended or empty altogether. When the enemy did stay at home, a major battle ensued and airpower served its purpose very well.

Airpower in Vietnam followed a phenomenon of recent origin; a trend among Western nations to expect too much from aerial firepower, an expectation that might well be the product of our search for a technical means to win wars without expending lives.35 It took one 105 mm light artillery battery to fire 2000 rounds over a two hour period to equal the effects of a single pass of a flight of F-4s against a target thus making it more desirable for the Infantry to want to see the fighters work for them.

A major problem for fire support efforts was the acquisition of useful intelligence. A guerrilla force had to be found, fixed, targeted, and engaged with a fury of concentrated firepower that was timed to overwhelm it before it could break and run. All major ground forces eventually employed small patrols to destroy the enemy guerrilla with long-range fire power.

North Vietnam’s Giap finally realized the American public did not differentiate between front-line casualties and support troops. He then went after the fire bases used by the artillery. This did two things for him. It reduced the firepower available to the Americans and it caused casualties. Reducing the artillery available was an advantage to him because the Americans rarely moved against the NVA when the engagement was beyond the range of artillery. The less there was of it, the smaller the advantage to the enemy and the smaller the territory he could control. The enemy attacked the fire bases using a “hugging attack” that was launched from within the perimeter wire or from within the garrison itself. These tactics lessened the effectiveness of artillery and air strikes. The growing causality lists sapped morale and national will at home.

Giap tried to use tactics against the Americans that had worked against the French. The Americans fortified their fire bases to withstand the heaviest assaults and succeeded where the French had failed because of their overwhelming firepower.36 But military forces that concentrate on protecting itself forfeits the tactical and strategic initiative to the enemy. As the U.S. forces dug in, they also undermined their own offensive spirit.37

It was common practice to fire artillery at points in the jungle that were supposed to be enemy points of interest: assembly points, way points to elsewhere, temporary base camps of various sized units, and communications nodes. The Army fired and fired and fired with results that are still unknown. This type of fire was known as Harassment and Interdiction fire. Artillery units made very little effort to assess their H & I programs by early morning surveillance or the dispatch of ground patrols to investigate an area recently engaged. Perhaps this failure serves as the greatest indicator of the confidence fire planners placed in the value of H & Is.38

The Russian Experience

The Russians have not been immune from involvement in insurgencies as the counterinsurgent. They spend many years supporting “wars of national liberation” with advisors, equipment, money and weapons to make life difficult for the Western world. They were successful at making life difficult alright, but the results of the insurgencies were mixed.


The Soviet love affair with the tank soured quickly with their involvement in Afghanistan. Soviet tactical doctrine directed that tank forces operate as part of a combined arms force with mechanized infantry, artillery, and engineers. Yet in Afghanistan tank units went into combat with out the benefit of mechanized infantry. The tank’s clumsiness in rough terrain makes it vulnerable to ambushes when they have lost the advantage of surprise.

The actual invasion was the easiest part for the Soviet Army. It was, however, an army geared for conventional offensive warfare. Once in Afghanistan, it proved to be a lumbering beast better suited to fighting in the European low lands rather than the rag-tag civilians in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. The Soviet 40th Army rolled across the border after an airborne brigade landed at airports to take such places for themselves and to deny them to any resistance. The invasion was swift and surprising. It was planned for winter time when Western countries were preparing for Christmas and New Year’s Day. The weather was bad making guerrilla activity difficult.

Riots broke out in Kandahar. The rioters attacked anything representing either the Soviets or the new government. Soldiers sent in to control the riots couldn’t do so. MiG-17s were sent to strafe buildings and open areas but the Afghan pilots couldn’t attack their own people. The Russians sent in the 66th Motorized Division into Kandahar after the riots. The Soviet air force followed with a fleet of helicopter gunships and attacked positions in the nearby mountains almost immediately.

The Russians had tried initially, to overawe the resistance by a massive display of armor: six divisions in 4500 tanks, T-54s and T-64s, heavy artillery and APCs rolled into Afghanistan after the Airborne takeover of key locations. Afghan units were expected to subdue the rural resistance and keep it to a minimum. Bad planning was obvious from the beginning. Casualties were very high from the start and the population was not overawed. In fact, the resistance became more effective as the winter snows melted.

The Russians discovered that their main battle tank could not fight guerrillas entrenched in high mountain passes because the guns could not be elevated high enough or traversed far enough to fire at the enemy positions. The uneven terrain made it difficult to fire accurately and their engines overheated in the hot, thin air. Inexperience drivers often times snapped the treads trying to negotiate the difficult trails of the country. Some of the early battles were disasters for the round bound Soviet forces.

The Soviets also found it difficult to support their maneuver forces with firepower. Their doctrine was too firmly rooted in meticulous planning and deliberate bombardment by artillery and airpower. Obsessive obedience to a central authority permeated the higher reaches of the command structure. Change in the Soviet army came from the top down as befits a structured, autocratic society. Lower level commanders were driven by strict regulations and tactical “norms” in extreme detail. The result is a rigid method of warfare that leaves little to chance. When things go wrong, commanders excuse failure by showing his fidelity to the planned concept of operations. It is the operational norms that are at fault, that is, the scientific calculations are wrong. The solution was to change the norms.

The rebel leaders learned that they could, very often, attack a Soviet formation and get away without taking any artillery fire at all. This may well have been due to the cumbersome fire support system that was too inflexible to respond. It might well have been due to the reluctance of the ground commander to ask for the support unless it had been planned ahead of time. Not only was the system too “preplanned” oriented, it was also meant to support the main effort and not to save lives.

As in the Indochina wars, firepower played a key role in the protection of Soviet facilities and lines of communication. Mine fields were laid around major installations to such an extent that the Mujahideen did not dare attack the installations. By the summer of 1980 the ubiquitous fire base appeared as the Soviets and reliable Afghan forces sought to extend their influence farther and farther into the countryside.

The Soviets failed to solve the problem of convoy protection. The distances involved were to great for an interlocking, mutually supporting network of position artillery to cover main supply routes. The supplies had to be flown to their destination or sent by heavily protected convoy. Convoys were extremely vulnerable to ambushes without aircraft overhead. The Soviets paid a high price in men and equipment to supply their outposts because the Mujahideen ambushed so many convoys. That left a limited number of fuel and ammunition for the outpost to spend on local combat operations. Too many soldiers were tied up in convoy protection.

The Soviets experimented with various means to add more flexible firepower to their convoys: they tried putting a 4-barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft gun in a truck. They mounted a 30 mm grenade launcher in BTR-60 and some BMP vehicles. They also sent self-propelled guns with their convoys.

Two things became apparent to the Soviet commander: a war that had started out as a war of intervention had become a war of attrition, and a major transformation of Soviet tactical doctrine was necessary if the Army was to prosecute the war with any degree of proficiency. One change was their version of the forward detachment with its own organic firepower. They also decentralized their control of the artillery by splitting it up into less than the usual battery of 18 guns. They also learned that the most important single weapon in a war against a guerrilla was the helicopter–something that could well have been apparent from the French and American experiences. They also learned that to conduct a counter guerrilla campaign they needed to rely on the initiative and self-reliance amongst the junior leaders–the very things a centrally controlled army cannot deal with.

In a war without fronts or a clearly defined enemy, an infantry commander rarely knows what fire support he will need ahead of time. He must find and fix the enemy before he can employ heavy firepower with effect. The Soviets attempts to achieve decisive effect using ground delivered firepower was hampered by an obsolete and inflexible fire support doctrine. They also relearned that soldiers who are dug-in and defending mountainous terrain are nearly impossible to dislodge with indirect firepower.

The Mi-24 Hind was the Soviet version of the attack helicopter. It could carry a wide range of weapons and the pilots could talk directly to the ground commander. It could even carry a squad of infantry into a battle area. The Mujahideen learned to fear the Hind. It was the only weapon in the Soviet repertoire that could thwart effectively a guerrilla operation in the field and cause substantial casualties amongst the rebels. The Hind was the centerpiece of the firepower system in Afghanistan.

Soviet interdiction campaigns do not seem to have been very successful in reducing the fighting strength of the Mujahideen. Such campaigns have little effect against a light, mobile and thinly scattered guerrilla force despite the effects such a campaign might have against a conventional force. The Soviets could not stop movement of supply caravans along the borders or inside the country for the first three years of the war.

Several other reasons might also explain the ineffectiveness of the interdiction campaigns. Soviet munitions proved to be unreliable in the mountains.. The pilots were unable to exercise any initiative at all. They attacked what they were told to attack even if a village, for instance, was uninhabited and the rebels were driving down the road just a few miles away. There were numerous reports of such events. The pilots even flew, nearly right over, past rebel bands in the open without firing a shot at them.

The Soviets employed two basic tactical methods when they ventured into rebel-held territory. The first was to cordon off an area and then search for rebels from the population. The second was to organize “kill zones” (sounds like the Russian counterpart to the American “free-fire zone” of Vietnam) and then attempt to push the rebels into it and overwhelm them with firepower. The Soviets still lacked preparation: they used reserve soldiers who lacked even enough training to take cover from sniper fire; their officers had no maps of their routes; the officers weren’t briefed on the kind of resistance they might encounter; and the units were better versed in the local languages than they were in military tactics.

Despite their overwhelming military strength, the Soviet forces could not conquer Afghanistan. The cities, main roads, and the airbases were taken in a matter of days. Their mechanized army of more than a 100,000 made little progress in reducing insurgent control over the countryside and its control over the cities and the roads was increasingly challenged. They found that shock tactics based on massive air and armored firepower can hurt and scatter the guerrilla groups but not destroy them. The difficult terrain and fighting qualities of the Mujahideen made it evident that pacification would take more forces that the Soviets had deployed.

Road blocks made travel difficult and hazardous. Convoys were necessary with no garantees of their arrival at their destination. The effectiveness of the so-called bandits emphasized the failure of the Soviets to impose control. The Soviets were forced to use terror and destruction in order to crush the opposition. They depended on massive amounts of firepower in conducting search-and-destroy missions and punitive bombing attacks. They used gas and napalm in reprisals against resisting villages. There were many cases of indiscriminate slaughter as a result of bombing, strafing, artillery fire and helicopter attack. Terror weapons brought no advantage because the Soviets had too few soldiers to secure areas decimated by gas or bombing attacks. The population learned to anticipate such attacks thus lessening the effects. But the costs guaranteed nothing but hostility for use of such weapons.

Afghan Mujahideen tactics conformed to the classic requirements of guerrilla warfare. There were small group actions at night in territory remote from centers of power and within a supporting population that inflicted damage on the entrenched authority with vastly greater military resources. The Mujahideen were felt everywhere but lacked the weapons and organization to seriously threaten the Soviet position.

The rebels had a several things going for them in their fight against the Russians. They had the difficult countryside and their expertise with light weapons; their attacks often times took place at night while they hid in the general population when they weren’t actually fighting. They had their own stamina and ability to improvise that worked with their growing ability to organize themselves. Their motivation for the fight was a mixture of fatalism and dedication unique to Islam. They accepted the hardships of defending their way of life and religion.

Such were the conditions upon which they accepted the mission of holy warrior defending what is virtuous and meaningful against the destructive infidel. To die for such a cause was a good thing. The entire population faced massacres, weapons that it could not cope with and the presence of a superpower with a seemingly endless supply of manpower and firepower without letting up its resistance.

When the following spring arrived, the population rallied to fight the Soviets along with refugees who slipped back into the country. They fought with a hodge-podge of weapons that ranged from left-over WWI British Lee Enfields to home made flintlocks. The Soviets brought in seven motorized rifle divisions and the 105th Airborne for a total of 85,000 men. They also introduced five Air Assault brigades. By the end of two years, the Soviet force was at 105,000-110,000 soldiers. By 1985 the total stood at around 115,000 soldiers.

Their failed assault on the Kunar Valley despite overwhelming military superiority (200 MiGs, Su-24s, and helicopter gunships) left serious questions about their ability to contain, let alone destroy, a tightly organized and reasonably equipped resistance front.

The Soviets realized that more soldiers were needed but the Kremlin was unwilling to send them. They needed newer tactics and did manage to develop some that worked. The Russian Special Forces were respected by the Mujahideen for their ability to fight.

In the end, the Russians too left their insurgent war with a bad taste in their military mouths. They had the enemy outmanned and outgunned several times over but could do no better than the French and Americans in Indochina.


The Russian experience of insurgent warfare wasn’t over just yet. The people of Chechnya wanted and demanded their own independent state. Their demand was the result of the break up of the former communist ruled USSR. Once again the Russians sent in the high technology equipment.

The Chichnians used classic insurgent warfare tactics in their conflict with the Russians. Only this time the rebels had a much better complement of high-technology equipment than the Afghans had. The Chechens made wide use of ambushes and good use of communications and intelligence from covert agents.

When the Russians sent their air force into the fight, the pilots had only a poor understanding of Chechen tactics. Part of those tactics included controlling mobile air defense weapons with radios and celluar phones and constantly changing the weapons systems positions. Because they had no reliable data on the disposition of Chechen weapons, the pilots were forced to operate from maximum possible ranges when using their weapons.

The Russians had learned to use a system developed in Indochina by both the French and Americans. They had learned to use the Forward Air Controller (FAC) to direct the aircraft in their attacks on the rebels. One of the primary Chechen targets for intelligence was the FAC. This mitigated the already disappointing results of the Russian air force.

Against no credible threat, other than a few ZSU-23/4 air defense artillery pieces, the Russian air force was unable to make any major impact on the course of the fighting. The performance of the air force against a lightly armed guerrilla force was less than sterling for several reasons: the rough terrain in which the combat took place; the harsh weather conditions; a general lack of training time for the pilots; old equipment; and finally poor stocks of supplies. One helicopter in ten was lost while one in four was damaged. One Russian Colonel blamed pilot performance on the tactics of retaliatory strikes against an enemy who used hit-and-run tactics constantly. Such tactics took the initiative away from the pilots; such a loss led to belated responses to rebel attacks thus reducing combat capability.

Results and Some Lessons Learned

The results of the intervention of France, the U.S. and the Russians were decidedly one-sided. The super powers of the First World overwhelmed their opponents with technology, equipment, and manpower and still lost the war. In the war of ideas its really true that the pen is mightier than the sword and ideas are harder than bullets and bombs. The wars were settled politically with the major powers leaving the country over which they fought–with the single exception of Checnya. Chechnya was unique in that it was surrounded by Russian territory; the rebels had no where to hide and no one to help them. While they made life difficult for the Russian military they would have a very difficult time obtaining their goals.

A common error in the cases studied here is readily apparent: the intervening power did not consider what it was that the people living in the country wanted for themselves. The major powers seemed to think that they already know what was best for the common people of the country when in fact the politicians had no real idea what was wanted at the grass-roots level.

For the Americans, their political objectives were poorly understood. The military strategy and tactics were designed for a very different sort of war. Morale in the field declined and support for the war disappeared because of the growing casualty list with no end of the war in sight. The problem was that the American version of reality no longer fit the real world.

A nation should never consider intervention in a small war without first considering what firepower and technology can do and what its limitations are. Modern nations have consistently overestimated the worth of their technology and the destructiveness of their firepower. Their expectations were greater than the machines they used could deliver. No matter how good the technology of target selection is, it will never be able to locate an irregular force in dense enough numbers for firepower to have a decisive effect.41

It is also apparent that such a lesson has not been learned. There are senior officers that still think that small detachments will escape detection but that larger, battalion size and bigger, will be found and decimated because when insurgents launch conventional operations they become exposed to crushing defeat.42 Experience dictates otherwise: the Chinese smuggled a quarter of a million men into Korea without anyone being the wiser; in Vietnam, 90 percent of the Viet Cong attacks were made with less than battalion sized units. The NVA moved down the Ho Chi Ming Trail in an uninterrupted, and increasingly large, stream despite the American interdiction campaigns against such traffic. At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh decimated the French while at Khe Sanh it was the NVA and VC that was crushed. A mixed bag of results does not make a golden rule.

The unsuccessful American effort in Vietnam illustrated two important topics: the overwhelming tradition and the U.S. fascination with technology, it was supposed to be more efficient but efficiency does not equal effectiveness; victory on the battlefield does not necessarily mean victory in war.43

At best, modern firepower is an indiscriminate thing especially when used in populated areas. A misplaced artillery round can do more harm than good. It takes a disciplined and limited use of firepower to be effective. The fire controller must know when enough is enough and turn off the rain of destruction when that point has been reached. Firepower must be apportioned to the intensity of the conflict. It cannot compensate for bad strategy.

The American, French and Russians all discovered that there seems to be a relationship between the quality of the maneuver forces and the quantity of firepower necessary to make them effective in combat. In counterinsurgent warfare, massive firepower and large unit operations can be counterproductive. The Americans and Russians should have learned this from their search-and-destroy missions. The lesson seems to be that small units are what are needed for an effective counterinsurgency.

Another lesson all three powers should have learned from their experiences was that there is a premium placed on simple and durable equipment that requires a minimum of maintenance. The equipment must be cheap enough to be affordable by Third World countries or to be given freely by the U.S. Perhaps this is the reason the gunship did so well in Vietnam.

All three countries should have noticed that the insurgent is not without several tactical advantages: knowledge of the terrain: a very short logistical tail; they know the people who provide unlimited intelligence data; to win, the insurgent needs only to survive; the insurgent discovers that napalm is not the atomic bomb; shells do no harm when they are dropped in the wrong place; and many now enjoy having first-rate weaponry.44

In short, there is much to be learned by studying the history of insurgent warfare. Chief among them is that technology is not the answer to everything a country tries to do. In the end it is the human element that will persevere; it is the human element that makes the difference in winning and losing an insurgency. Without recognizing this, technology will be to no avail.

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier

History comes to us in many forms.  Most historians try and make sense of their time directly, or perhaps try and 6314understand their time through understanding the past. In his diary, Jakob Walter only seeks to relate his own experience.  He doesn’t even really attempt to understand  his experience in context.  He has no comments on Napoleon and his policies, wars, and treaties.  His field of vision concerned himself only.

This certainly does not make Walter a selfish man, or even a narrow one automatically.  Walter came from Germany, an area conquered by Napoleon probably around 1807.  When his army got pressed into Napoleon’s service, his main concern became hoping that he and his brother (also a soldier for Napoleon) would stay alive.  He likely cared nothing for Napoleon himself or any grand moral or political scheme Napoleon may have had.  It was not his war.

So his narrow focus has no moral overtones necessarily, but this narrow vision of Walter’s writing has occasional parallels in his actions.  We know the invasion of Russia made for a hellish retreat for Napoleon’s army.  Walter lets us know that even in the initial months of advance into Russia supplies were scanty, at least for the “allied troops” like Walter.  This meant foraging, which the Russians made difficult by hiding and burning their own supplies.  Walter writes,

If they had voluntarily removed the simple covers [of their storage areas] much of their household furniture would have remained unspoiled.  For it was necessary to raise the floors and the beams in order to find anything, and to turn upside down anything that was covered.

Walter may have cared somewhat for Russians, but his argument boils down to, “If only they wouldn’t hide their food we wouldn’t have to destroy their homes to find it.”  He doesn’t concern himself at all about the larger picture, only the practical aspects of staying alive.  Limiting oneself to purely “practical” concerns will likely have moral consequences.

Most anyone with a vague familiarity of the Russian campaign will know of the terrible retreat. Walter’s details of Napoelon’s withdraw bring out the ghastly nature of his experience.  All semblance of unity and order broke down in the quest to stay alive.  I remember years ago reading Elie Weisel’s Night, a great book that should be read, but one I never wish to read again.  What made Weisel’s experience so tragic and terrible for me was not just the inhumanity of the Nazi’s.  Instead, Weisel’s descriptions of how the prisoners often turned on each other for bread or “good” jobs really devastated me.  Perhaps, I thought, had the prisoners united against the Nazi’s they could have redeemed the situation to some degree, but in Weisel’s account they rarely, if ever, did this.  Obviously the retreat from Russia is not the same thing, yet I was reminded of Night when reading how Napoleon’s army turned on each other, stealing food and horses from their comrades in arms with no hesitations.  Hobbes might say that this is what happens to human nature when the veneer of civilization gets stripped away.

Napoleon's Retreat

While Walter had a narrow vision some larger aspects of Napoleon’s empire reveal themselves.  The FrenchRevolution proclaimed “The Rights of Man,” at least in theory.  In practice it tended to mean rights for those who agreed with the Revolution’s shifting meaning of what it meant to be French particularly, not human generally.  After Robespierre’s execution much of this petered out, and Napoleon helped end it.  But though Napoleon was in some ways an ambassador of the French Revolution’s ideals of universal equality, the “French” emphasis made itself evident.  Whatever supplies Napoleon could muster from headquarters went first to French troops (especially his Imperial Guard), then to the “Allied” troops.  In the Russian campaign, supplies were scarce enough that there was never a “then” at all.  The sham flimsiness of Napoleon’s alliance gets indirectly exposed in Walter’s account.  That many of the “allies” Napoleon fought with in Russia in 1812 would turn on him in 1813 makes perfect sense.

So perhaps sometimes narrow keyholes can open up a vision of broader vistas.