Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a % 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible, the third, from my point of view, would be immoral.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality or have experienced it without thinking much about it.  Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.


*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.


“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.

11th Grade: St. Francis and 60’s Counter-Culture


This week we wrapped up our unit on Vietnam, and shifted our focus to the domestic scene and the rise of the “Hippie” counter-cultural movement.

The hippies were hardly America’s first prominent counter-cultural movement, but its visibility and impact may have been greater than others of its kind.  Some point to the baby-boom population reaching the teen years as the main reason for the disruption in the 60’s, but surely this can only form part of the cause.

To the older generation it seemed like the hippies rejected the America their parents handed them.  Their parents lived through the Depression, won W.W. II, and yet they seemingly despised their inheritance.  One must sympathize with the feelings of confusion and rejection those “over 30” must have felt.

But we should also ask what that inheritance might have looked like to many by 1967.

  • The growth of TV dramatized the Civil Rights struggle and exposed contradictions between our words and reality.
  • America had always thought of itself as a plucky underdog, but now we used all our technological advances to bomb a peasant nation thousands of miles away, as discussed last week.
  • Had the American dream been reduced to materialism?  That is, did they see their role in life to do well in school, to get a good job, to get a comfortable life, end of story?  What did America really stand for?  Could America not just give you a good job, but also feed the soul?

I shared with students a theory cobbled together from a few sources (only a theory, I stress).  Though it works better visually, I will try and explain:

  • Imagine a civilization as a series of concentric circles with a core, or nucleus.  This core represents the spiritual foundation of our law, customs, and so on.
  • From the core the circles radiate out.  Culture would closest to the center, as that involves a collective and creative process.  As you radiate out, the values of the core are less immediately obvious, but still influential.  So you might have politics next, then economics.  One of the furthest out might be the military (for the sake of argument).
  • Also, the further you get from the core, the easier that aspect travels.  You can’t, for example, get people to suddenly be jazz musicians, but you can send your military wherever you want.

What happens when the core begins to lose its strength?

When a middle-aged man sits up and wonders what it all means and then decides to buy a sports car and get a trophy wife we do not call that a sign of health.  We might call it overcompensating for a failure to deal with life’s realities.  Territorial expansion can mask uncertainty or weakness at the core, and gives the illusion of health.  For the circles to all hang together, weakness in one area must be made up in another.

This time of expansion makes a civilization vulnerable.  Since we no longer draw from a healthy core, we become imbalanced and materialistic.  “It is the bored civilization,” wrote Oswald Spengler, “that thinks only of economics.”  This lack of balance needs addressed, and herein lies both opportunity and danger.

Sometimes one has to leave home to truly discover it anew, and herein lies the opportunity with this process.  A civilization searches the world for a home only to discover that they like the one they left (the basic plot of Chesterton’s Manalive for those that might have interest).  Think of someone who grew up in the Church, left it to “find themselves” in their early college years, and then return after seeing the bankruptcy of the world.  Upon their return they have renewed dedication to home.

But. . .

That usually does not happen, because it was the core’s weakness that led to the expansion in the first place.  Usually the civilization gets enchanted with the “other” now that their standard fare no longer satisfies. At this point, the civilization begins to fill in the core’s gaps with elements from different civilizations.  Witness what happened to Rome after their expansion throughout the Mediterranean, and how they began to borrow from Greek civilization various religious and cultural ideals.  Various Roman emperors adopted a Greek fashions.  Marcus Aurelius posed as a Greek philosopher, while his son Commodus took it even further and dressed as Hercules.

Before we blame the seekers, we need to wonder what led them to seek elsewhere for answers.  I cannot claim to have a good handle on the state of the American Church in the post-W.W. II era, but I can say that if the Church identified too closely with “America,” their disenchantment with the country would impact their identification with the Church.  In the case of Rome,  many have documented how prior to their significant expansion after the 2nd Punic War, Rome politically had gone from a mostly admirable democracy to a less praiseworthy oligarchy.  Maybe many of the hippies meant well, and maybe they were right that America had a spiritual problem that went far beyond politics.

Of course, sometimes this process of shifting core identity brings blessings.  Think of the Roman ethos giving way to the Christian Middle Ages.  Also, all of us are made in God’s image, so every culture will reflect something of God’s truth.  Because of sin no culture will do this perfectly.  In the case of America and Western Civilization, Christianity obviously had a lot to do with its founding.  But even from the beginning, contradictions like slavery embedded itself deep within our identity.  We did not perhaps fully understand what “liberty” was supposed to mean.

I think Donovan’s “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” as illustrative of this principle, from 1965:

Here are the lyrics:

Better get into what you gotta get into
Better get into it now, no slacking please
United Nations ain’t really united
And the organisations ain’t really organised

Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

(Every)body who read the Jungle Book knows that Riki tiki tavi’s a
mongoose who kills snakes
(Well) when I was a young man I was led to believe there were organisations
to kill my snakes for me
i.e. the church, i.e. the government, i.e. the school
(but when I got a little older) I learned I had to kill them myself

(I said) Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone
Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more my love
Riki tiki tavi mongoose is gone

People walk around they don’t know what they’re doing
They bin lost so long they don’t know what they’ve been looking for
Well, I know what I’m a looking for but I just can’t find it
I guess I gotta look inside of myself some more

oh oh oh inside of myself some more
oh oh oh inside of myself some more

Here he expresses something typical about growing up and the need to find one’s own identity.  He needs to “own” his way in the world, as he realizes that what he trusted in his youth isn’t all its cracked up to be.  So far so good. But his solution (“look inside of myself some more”) is very Eastern and bound for disaster.

Herein lies the seeds of the failure of the Hippie movement.  They could point out flaws, but could lay no other positive foundation merely by looking “inside of myself some more.”  It is worth noting that while, say, the Civil Rights Movement had its apex with the March on Washington and the subsequent Civil Rights Act, the Hippie counter-culture peaked with a concert at Woodstock.   Great music, but little actual impact on society.

As a brief aside, one can see some historical parallels in that civilizations which experience a “time of troubles” often develop inward looking philosophies/religions, which tend to have a strong individualistic core.   We can think of the aforementioned stoicism in Rome mentioned already, or the growth of Platonic philosophy after the Peloponnesian War in Athens.  We can add to the list Babylonian obsession with dream interpretation during and after the time of Nebuchadnezzar.  Interestingly, this inward drift happened after victorious expansion in all of these civilizations, just as it happened with us after W.W. II.  If we could call these periods “Times of Troubles” in ancient world, might we say that America is experiencing a similar “Time of Troubles” today?

This sentiment of blurring reality by looking inward gets taken about as far as it can go in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Here the song urges you not just to refashion reality in your own image, but to escape reality altogether, and many used drugs to do just that.  The song not only has an overt Eastern message, but expresses it partially in an Eastern form.

Many former “hippies” lament the fact that their dream died and turned back into the materialism the movement initially rejected.  Part of this happened, I think, because many of them grew up, got married, had kids, and inherited all the attendant responsibilities that families bring.  But another reason for this I think was the fact that “looking inside ourselves” for answers will not lead to anything very satisfying, and none of us are interesting enough for anyone to enjoy it for very long.  The experiment had a built in short shelf life.  Many of them returned to the only thing they knew, the “materialism” of their parents generation.

Unfortunately they did a great deal of damage, especially in the realm of sexual ethics.  In looking inward, they reduced much of life to self-expression.  Sex too got included in personal self-expression, which meant that not only would sex be divorced from marriage, it could be divorced from the other person entirely.

Historians differ in how they evaluate the movement.  One went so far as to call St. Francis, “the hippie of his day.”  Well . . .St. Francis actually built something enduring based on charity, whereas the Hippie movement had an almost exclusively negative character.  St. Francis sought to transform reality out of love, not escape from it.  First Things has a good rebuke to the “St. Francis as a Rebel Hippie” idea here.  The comment about St. Francis as a Hippie does hint at one truth: both St. Francis and the Hippies gave a spiritual critique of their societies.  But St. Francis looked out at God and the World, not inward, and therein lies a crucial difference.

St. Francis

Many thanks,


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.

11th Grade: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at Home”


This week we continued our look at the Vietnam War, but also focused on the Civil Rights movement.

Vietnam has many controversial aspects, including the way we fought the war.  I think our massive bombing campaigns attracted Johnson for political reasons.  He campaigned in ’64 on a “I don’t want to want to get too involved in Vietnam,” platform and won easily. Bombing allowed us to do something while committing relatively few men and risking relatively few lives compared to other options.  At the same time, our bombing could send the message to the North that we meant business.

But our military actions have a meaning to them that extends far beyond their direct military impact.  Bombing proved disastrous in a number of ways:

  • Bombing, while low-risk, comes with great expense.  As Martin Luther King said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.  They destroy the chance for us to create a decent America.”
  • In jungle terrain, bombing had little to no effect on enemy movements or their ability to fight
  • Bombing makes us look like a bully.  Here we are, the most advanced society on earth, dropping explosives from a safe distance upon a peasant society.  Human nature loves an underdog, and perhaps Americans especially loves them.  Our tactics made the North Vietnamese look like the team a neutral observer would root for (we need to think in similar ways about our use of drones today — how are drone strikes interpreted by the global population?)
  • Finally, one could argue that bombing sent a message not of the strength of our resolve, but of our lack of it.  We know that Johnson wished desperately that the war in Vietnam would “go away.”  Bombing brought little domestic fall-out initially, because it would mean relatively few casualties for us. Ho Chi Minh could easily have interpreted bombing as Johnson’s way of trying to avoid the hard questions Vietnam brought.  It appears that they did just that.

We lost the battle for public opinion in the war by around 1967.

General Westmoreland’s tactics of “Search and Destroy” proved strategically ineffective in the long run.  We like to think of our armed forces as tool for good.  We understand that that might mean violence, but most of don’t want to think of our military primarily being used to kill others.  Westmoreland did not focus on protection, but on “body counts.”  How many of the enemy did we kill?  This does not have the same ring, as “How many innocent lives did we protect?” though obviously that could involve killing the enemy.

The North Vietnamese certainly committed atrocities — more of them than we did and with greater scope.  They usually treated civilians much worse than us, sometimes intentionally using them as human shields.  Their atrocities did  not get equal media attention.  But I suspect that even if such atrocities had been well-reported, it may not have made much difference.  We expected others, the “them,” to be the bad guys.  Nothing in our national psyche or identity prepared us not to like what we saw in the mirror.  One sees this self-delusion in those that said, “The only thing that can defeat America is America,” which asserts that we can attain omnipotence if only we will it.

De Tocqueville and many others have commented that when democratic armies have the support of the population they become very difficult to stop.  Democratic armies naturally seek to draw strength from the people.  But when they cannot do this, their effectiveness gets diminished.  This is something that democratic societies must bear in mind in a way that dictatorships, for example, do not.  In Vietnam, I believe that most historians would agree that we did not fashion a “way of war” that lent itself to gaining the support of the people.  The North Vietnamese realized our predicament long before we did.  Le Duan Thoc, a North Vietnamese strategist, commented fairly early in the war,

[We can win no matter what the United States does.]  They will fight far from home and will be regarded as an old style colonial invader, in a climate to which they are not accustomed, against indigenous forces backed by China and the Soviets.  If they invade the North they will face 17 million of us, and potentially hundreds of millions from China.   If they use nuclear weapons the Soviets will retaliate.  The more they risk, the more they alienate the international community and erode support domestically – the more too they are vulnerable to a crisis in other parts of the world.   The enemy is in a weak position.

Some argue that, in fact, we could never have won in Vietnam.  Eventually we would go home, and they would remain.  Others counter with the argument that, had we fought in a way that focused on security for the South rather than killing the enemy, we could have won over public opinion and given the South Vietnamese government a chance to work.  We in fact began to try this strategy in 1969 when General Abrams replaced Westmoreland, but by then America had given up the fight in our hearts and minds.  Of course, some believe we could have won if we had fought differently, either with more bombing in Cambodia and Laos, or with a different style of fighting (perhaps fewer men and more covert operations).

We also looked this week at how the Civil Rights movement transformed over time.  The enormous moral force of those that demonstrated for equal treatment overwhelmed opposition.  Television brought the issue to the forefront of American homes across the country, much as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 moved the slavery question from the abstract to the real for many Americans.  The movement peaked in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.

But then something happened.  Violence erupted in many cities across America over the next two years, beginning with the Watts riots in Los Angeles.  Student protests spiked sharply.  The fringe “Hippy” movement went into the mainstream.  How did this happen?  At the moment when it seemed that America had become more of the kind of country it was supposed to be, why did so many subsequently turn to violence?

This paradoxical question will occupy us next week.  What I suggest for now is that King’s words above may not have  been merely metaphorical.

Many thanks,


11th Grade: “The Center Cannot Hold. . .”


This week we looked at the beginnings of the Vietnam war under Kennedy and Johnson, up until the significant troop buildups of 1965.

One of my main goals with this unit is to avoid finger-pointing.  Hindsight is so often 20/20.  In truth the conflict in Vietnam posed questions that no one would wish to answer.  Vietnam’s dilemmas give no good answers, only hopefully less bad solutions.  When I think of the controversy surrounding the conflict, I am reminded of a comment of a monk named Columba Cary-Elwes, who wrote to a friend and professional historian in 1940,

I find we live in so criticizing an age that I spend my time summing people up — public figures, judging the motives of their actions and though I had the whole thing mapped out before me, as God must have, and I certainly have not.  We are always being given vulgar and crude and unkind judgments of people and peoples in the newspaper, and it becomes second nature.  I am going to try and not get caught up in this perfidious habit.  This arose out of Fr. Dunstan’s reminder that we are “near nothing” and we ourselves must try and imitate God, who is infinitely merciful.

We ourselves bear culpability for what happened in Vietnam, but to understand this we need to understand events in Europe in the aftermath of W.W. II England led the way in divesting themselves of their colonial empire.  To be fair, England emerged from the war with its reputation generally intact, whereas France humiliated itself in its capitulation to the Nazi’s.  Much of our modern image of France comes from this singularity, but for the previous 1000 years, France had the pre-eminent military in Europe, with luminaries such as Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, St. Joan of Arc, and Napoleon to their credit.  Their post-war agenda did not leave room for looking any weaker than they already appeared.  They were keeping their empire, thank you very much.  That included Indochina.

Some within Indochina looked to the U.S. for aid in their bid for independence.  After all, we too rebelled at one point from a European colonial power.  We declined.  Truman felt it more important to appease France (who wanted very much to join NATO to keep them out of the communist fold).  Unfortunately for us, (though not perhaps for the Vietnamese), this came back to bite us when France lost in Indochina and left NATO anyway.  A possible golden opportunity slipped away.

Historians debate the nature of this turning point in Asia.  Some assert that if FDR had lived, he would have made a different choice.  There are some intriguing quotes from FDR about how Europe was basically dead and how Asia represented the future.  But all we can do is speculate.

In the aftermath the U.N. created four nations, Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam.  The division between north and south was certainly artificial, done for political reasons and not historical or cultural ones.  Was Vietnam within the purview of our strategic interests?  What kind of aid should we give them?

To understand our commitment to Vietnam, we need to go back to the Korean conflict.  Many believe now, and believed at the time, that our neglect to publicly proclaim our commitment to South Korea may have encouraged the North to invade.  We wanted to learn from the past, and so Eisenhower made our commitment to South Vietnam plain.  This, we hoped, would forestall an invasion from the north.

Well, it failed to do, which left us with a series of terrible dilemmas.

  • We could let South Vietnam collapse.  But what about then, our pledge to defend it?
  • We could give aid to the South and try and “prop them up.”  But how much aid should we give, and what form should it take?  Moreover, would the aid we gave them really solve the problems that South Vietnam had?

Johnson and his advisors knew full well that any aid to South Vietnam might be counter-productive.  We couldn’t keep them on life-support forever.  But eventually a new idea emerged.  Perhaps military engagement might force the South to get its act together.  If that didn’t happen, our military involvement might at least slow the North down and create a level playing field between the two nations.  While the South might not be better off, at least the North wouldn’t pose as much of a threat.

Such is the logic of war.  What I hope the students recognize is that not every story needs a dastardly villain.  Sometimes nations, as well as individuals, face only a series of bad choices, and have to make the best of it.  This, however, is not to say that the U.S. did in fact make the best of a bad situation, as we shall see.

We also looked at the 1960 presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, important for many reasons in our political history.  Most that heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.  Those that watched on TV (the majority) believed Kennedy won.  We saw a brief clip of the debate and discussed why that might be the case.

  • Nixon wore no makeup, while Kennedy did
  • Nixon looked much less comfortable on camera.  He shifted his eyes and smiled awkwardly.  Of course it’s not hard to miss his infamous sweating (towards the end of the clip).
  • Nixon wore a blase grey suit, Kennedy the classic politician dark blue.

This may also have helped originate many common tactics of candidates in debates, where candidates try to “stay on message” no matter what the question.  If you watch the clip, you see this perhaps more with Kennedy than Nixon.

Many of us lament the current state of our political discourse, and nearly all would agree that our modern presidential debates hardly dignify the word.  But the reality of our situation raises some interesting questions:

  • In the modern era, to what extent do we need presidents to be “actors,” and project a certain image?  Should it be an unwritten qualification for leadership?
  • TV is an inherently visual medium, and thus does not do well communicating written or spoken words (this was one of Neil Postman’s point in his Amusing Ourselves to Death).  Whether we like this or not, it is a reality of our culture and not likely to change soon.  Do we adjust the way we think of politics because of it?
  • If this concern for image has at least some legitimacy, what has it cost us as a democracy?

Thursday we switched gears and looked at the changes in music as a mirror for the changes in culture between W.W. II – Mid – 60’s.  I wanted the students to see our transition from broad based group oriented culture to a more individual/niche orientation.  Think for example of Glenn Miller.  He headlines, but the band is the star, and not him.  The music aims for a broad acceptance of broad cross-section of the population.  Culture in general happened on a big, broad scale.  Think of Cecil B. DeMille movies with their grand sets and dramatic scores, or Fred Astaire pictures with their big dance numbers.  Fewer African-Americans were bigger stars than Cab Calloway, but look how quickly he steps aside for the Nicholas brothers incredible dancing in this clip (certainly worth watching in its entirety — Fred Astaire himself called this the greatest dance number ever filmed):

Here is Fred Astaire himself in perhaps his most famous clip, a tribute to Bojangles.

The swing music of Glenn Miller, most popular in the 1940’s, showcased the big, broad, ensemble sound.

Overall, the theme here is akin to the summer movie blockbuster.  Go big or go home.

As we move into the late 50’s this begins to change, and we see this change first beginning in jazz music.  Ornette Coleman comes up with a different idea of what a musical note is. Coleman’s ensemble allowed for the musicians to each put their own individual, emotional interpretation on the music.

Thelonious Monk’s angular rhythms hit anything but the broad middle.  He created a sound totally his own.

In general, we see soloists rise in prominence in music, and this will presage the rise of individuals in society as a whole.  We should be careful.  The difference between an ensemble based sound and a preference for solos is not a moral one, so much as a change of emphasis.  We exist as members of groups and as individuals.  Both have importance, and our cultural expressions reflect both of these realities.  But, the change in emphasis does reflect broader changes in general.

We also saw how the niche of blues music morphs into the mainstream with rock and roll.  Artists like Elvis and the Beatles obviously gained huge followings.  But some of the British groups like The Who and The Kinks foreshadow disenchantment with the prevailing ethos.  Listen to “Everybody’s Going to be Happy,” and you can feel the intensity.  It’s not, “Everyone’s Going to be HAPPY! (YAY!) but “EVERYONE’S Going to be Happy.”  The Who appear to be harbingers of zany disregard for everything.  The song is called “Happy Jack,” and there are happy-sounding “la-la-la’s,” but the mood of the song gives a different message.

The music no longer aims for the broad middle.  As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem, “the center cannot hold.”  Why did this happen, and what will be the results?  We will explore these questions next week.


Dave M

Command and Control

In the Soviet edition of Marxism-Leninism on War and Army published in 1972, a section reads,

Soviet military doctrine proceeds from the assumption that the imperialists are preparing a surprise attack against the USSR and other socialist countries.  At the same time, they consider the possibility of waging military operations escalating into military actions involving the use of nuclear missile weapons.

What struck me about this passage are the assumptions it makes and the consequences of those assumptions.  The Soviets assume we are the imperialists and will strike first. Would we want to forestall such an occurrence and strike first ourselves?  Perhaps we should.  Naturally, we would object to being called the aggressors in the Cold War.  From our perspective the Soviets showed their true colors in the closing days of W.W. II when they kept for themselves territory they took from the Germans.

But, if the Soviets thought that we would strike first, they might consider striking us first to prevent it.  Should we then strike them pre-emotively to prevent the Soviet’s pre-emptive first strike to forestall our first strike?

It all seems like a bizarre vaudeville routine, or one of Shakespeare’s mistaken identity comedies.

Nuclear weapons are of course very real, with extremely real consequences for their use.

And yet, I have always thought that a certain kind of unreality has always existed around nuclear weapons.  Children were told to “duck and cover,” and wrap their necks with newspaper for protection against nuclear attack.  We developed evacuation plans for cities that would never be used, for no such plan could have worked with 15 minutes notice before the bombs hit.  We never wanted to use the weapons, but they only had value if the other side actually believed we would use them, hence Nixon’s “I’m a madman” gambit to try and end the Vietnam war.  Nixon said to H.R. Haldeman in 1969,

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Command and Control gets at the heart of both the reality and unreality of the existence of  nuclear weapons.

A brief example . . .

The Titan II missile carried a destructive power 3x greater than all the bombs dropped in W.W. II combined . . . including those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   But the weapon wasn’t very accurate, and very difficult to keep properly maintained. Still, because these weapons were our most powerful they had potentially significant deterrent value in the Cold War.  So that meant that they needed to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, as their silos would likely be some of the first hit in any massive first strike by the Soviets.

That in turn meant that they needed to be fueled and ready to go at 15 minutes notice, which meant they needed a special kind of fuel, Aerozine -50 .  I can’t imagine a fuel more volatile, as contact with leather, wool, rust, or other average products could cause it to combust.  That made the missiles prone to accidents with potentially horrifying consequences, and one such accident forms the backdrop of the book.

By the 1970’s Henry Kissinger, among others, wanted to make a deal with the Soviets.  We’ll get rid of our Titan II’s, you get rid of your big missiles.  But our Titan II’s were not as good as the Soviet’s comparable missiles, and the Soviets knew this.  No deal.

Kissinger wanted the Titans gone, but no one wanted to decommission them outright.  To take the missiles offline for nothing would show weakness, and lessen the amount of bargaining chips we had the next time we negotiated.

So they stayed.

But if they stayed, they needed to stay operational or it would be the same as giving them away for nothing.  So . . . no one liked the inaccurate, accident-prone, massively powerful weapon, but in the logic of departmental budgets and global politics, their silos stuck around.

As a friend of mine put it, a conspiracy of circumstances made madness look sane.  In a world where the image/symbolic value of nuclear weapons may have meant more than their reality, Kissinger’s stance makes perfect sense.  Indeed, as much as we might like to blame someone for this state of affairs, who would it be?  Even if we step all the way back and blame those that invented the weapons, we must then confront the possibility ca. 1941 that the Nazi’s might be building them, and we might want to get there first.  We all stepped through the looking glass more or less together from the Manhattan Project onwards.

When I first started this book I looked online at “nuclear weapons accidents.” I was utterly dumbfounded.  How could there be so many?  And given these accidents, how did nukes play such a large role in our policy?  This forms the bulk of Schlosser’s work.  Command and Control could have been just a laundry list of one accident after another, and  readers would be mere gawkers on the roadside.  Schlosser makes the book valuable because he looks behind the curtain (with massive amounts of footnotes) to show how the logic of nuclear policy developed.

At the heart of our possession of nuclear weapons lay a dilemma.  On the one hand, the weapons posed great dangers not just to those on whom it might be used, but to those who kept them.  Accidents happen, so naturally we should take great precaution to make sure we don’t have a nuclear accident.  So far well and good.  But the more safety restrictions one put on the weapons, the harder they became to use.  If they became too hard to actually deploy, they had no deterrent value.  If the weapons existed accidents would happen.  But how much effort should we put into preventing accidents if each safety measure made them less valuable as an actual weapon?  And again, if they didn’t function as weapons, deterrence broke down and the world became less safe.

Or so it seemed.

Different aspects of society had different opinions on this.  Scientists stressed safety, the military stressed the efficacy and availability of the weapon.  For example, a congressional committee reviewed security at Minutemen missile sites and found it lacking.  They mandated that access to the missiles be granted only with proper code identification.  The Air Force didn’t like it.  In event of an attack they would need quick access to the missiles, and who could tell who might need access if the normal command structure at the base broke down?  But in the end they complied with the congressional order.

They made the codes for all Minuteman sites 000-000-000.

Having a ready made deterrent also meant that we needed a lot of nukes in the air on planes, especially in the first 20 years or so of the Cold War.   Before we developed rockets and guidance systems the only way to get deliver the weapons was through planes.  The planes had to have the range to stay in the air long enough to get deep inside Soviet airspace.  This meant extensive use of the B-29 bombers, planes with a wobbly safety record.  The record is actually not that wobbly on paper, but we must factor in that these planes had to stay in the air constantly in case of surprise attack by the Russians   So if you expect a mishap once every 10,000 mission hours, that small number adds up quickly.  Every time a plane crashed or caught on fire meant a potential nuclear disaster.  Sometimes bombs got lost, sometimes they exploded, scattering radioactive material.  Sometimes the fact that the nuclear material did not detonate itself may have been a matter of chance.

Can we blame someone for this?  In my opinion, not really.  Accidents happen as part of life, sometimes no matter the precautions, and this means that nuclear accidents may be inevitable.

But there can be no doubt that the logic of the Cold War itself, along with departmental budgets, made accidents more likely.  For example, when various people or agencies raised safety concerns often little got done.  Acquiring new weapons was always preferable to fixing old ones, and this makes sense.  But rarely did older weapons get discarded.  More often than not, Kissinger’s logic mentioned earlier kicked in (of course this went way beyond Kissinger himself).

Yes, the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction no longer form part of the strategic calculus.  But Schlosser points out that the weapons still exist, and we must still deal with them.  To do so we must bring them firmly into reality.

One can’t help but wonder that if things were this bad in the United States, what were they like in Soviet Russia?  What about places like Pakistan today?  Amidst the confusion of alternate reality created by nukes, one things seems clear to me:  the fact that we have yet to blow ourselves up must be evidence that God exists, and that His mercy endures forever.