The death of Robert McNamara spurred some thoughts on Vietnam and the catastrophic American effort there. Why did one of the two most powerful nations in the world have such trouble in a country that by economic and military standards should have been nowhere near a match? There are obvious reasons, like the sheer distance from the continental United States, the essential irrelevancy of Vietnam to American interests (Cold War and domino theory notwithstanding), the resiliency of the Vietnamese opponent, and the corruptness of the Southern Vietnamese government. All of the above, however, could also be applied to the Philippines in 1899-1902 and yet the United States managed to win a mixed conventional and counterinsurgency fairly handily. Why the difference?
One large difference is that, unlike the Philippines, Vietnam had external sponsors in China and the USSR who were willing to supply her with enormous quantities of arms, equipment, and training. Those sponsors also effectively shielded North Vietnam from a conventional invasion, as the United States was unwilling to repeat the Korean experience of the previous decade, when MacArthur’s run to the Yalu had provoked a massive Chinese intervention.
In addition, both the United States and its military were fundamentally different in the 1960s than they were in the first decade of the 20th century. The society that fought the war in the Philippines was in the throes of industrialization, but was still essentially an rural society, with 60% of the population living in rural areas. The society that fought the war in the 1960s was an urbanized one, with a substantial majority of people living in cities or suburbs of cities. The military, too, had changed. In the Philippines, it was either a long-service professional military which had spent the last several generations fighting wars out in the west against Native Americans, or volunteer units put together specifically for the war, consisting largely of young men from rural counties. It was very much an ad-hoc military, with small regimental communities defining its identity and ethos. It was a military that was bad at things we now take for granted, like logistics. The military in the 1960s was a conscripted army, based on the much larger divisional communities. This military’s recent experience of warfare had been that of mass, industrialized warfare, in both World War II and Korea, and it was designed to fight another World War, albeit this time against the Soviets. It was the military of an industrial society, emphasizing the use of machines to leverage manpower into something greater: machine guns, tanks, airplanes, ships.
Bringing someone like Robert McNamara in to lead this organization encouraged the further industrialization of the American military. McNamara, with an MBA from Harvard and former President of Ford Motor Company, was the epitome of a mind shaped by and shaping industrialization and capitalism. McNamara worked to optimize the military for conventional industrial war, exactly not the kind of war it would be fighting. Those methods and that mindset proved not to work particularly well for the Vietnam War, and the U.S. effort there foundered amidst the counterproductive use of massive firepower, chemical weapons like Agent Orange, and an insistence that the enemy and the conflict conform to American preconceptions. David Halberstam explored, better than I could, many of the specific ways that this industrial mindset shaped the effort of the United States.
McNamara, the poster child of the industrial approach to war, became the avatar of a conflict he never really understood. But what is even more fascinating is that, after Vietnam, the U.S. military largely refused to learn any lessons from it at all. The experience in South East Asia was essentially airbrushed out of American doctrine in the 1970s and early 80s, replaced by a renewed emphasis on the potential world war with the Soviet Union. Teaching about counterinsurgency was downgraded at all levels of the military education system, and the military rebuilt itself as warriors in the clearness of Reagan’s America and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun. Echoing that military refusal, the memory of Vietnam in American society at large became more focused on domestic betrayal and an unwillingness to use all methods available. In this, Vietnam was not enough of a total war. What was needed were more Curtis LeMays and fewer Lyndon Johnsons and Jane Fondas. Such attitudes survived well past the fall of the Soviet Union and were only brutally shifted by the increasing catastrophe of Iraq. While the re-conception of that war by the Army in 2005-06 had the salutary benefit of focusing on the war that America was actually fighting, rather than those it wished to be fighting, there are already those arguing that the new emphasis on counterinsurgency is too much, and risks America’s abilities to fight the kind of wars at which Robert McNamara excelled.