When I was first on the Forrestal, every man in my squadron had thought Washington’s air war plans were senseless. The target list was so restricted that we had to go back and hit the same targets over and over again. It’s hard to get a sense that you are advancing the war effort when you are prevented from doing anything more than bouncing the rubble of an utterly insignificant target. When President Johnson ordered an end to Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968, the campaign was judged to have had no measurable impact on the enemy. Most of our pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless. In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion of what it took to win the war. I found no evidence in postwar studies of the Johnson administration’s political and military decision-making during the war that caused me to revise that harsh judgement.
We'd like to avoid calling this complete and utter bullshit; in order to do so, Senator McCain needs to admit that the reason he found no post-war evidence to revise the judgment is that he never looked for any, this being the only possible way it works.
Meanwhile, we'll just pass over the question of how McCain comes to know "what it takes to win a war".
John McCain's combat assignment in Vietnam began in the spring of 1967. The active phase ended when he was shot down on October 26.
For entertainment purposes only, here's a brief timeline of the bombing restrictions imposed on Operation Rolling Thunder (which began on March 2, 1965), which McCain was a part of:
• Until May, 1965, American bombing attacks were confined to the area south of the 20th Parallel unless there was special authorization.
• President Johnson lifted that restriction in May, but maintained a thirty-mile restricted zone around Hanoi and the Chinese border, and a ten-mile zone around Haiphong.
• In April 1966 restrictions were lifted on the rest of the North. In June, petroleum storage facilities in Hanoi and Haiphong were added.
• In February 1967--that is, before the Forrestal was assigned to Operation Rolling Thunder--restrictions on all other Hanoi-area targets was lifted. (John McCain would be shot down over Hanoi.)
In all of this the emphasis was on so-called "armed reconnaissance" missions, in which pilots were free to choose any promising target they found. In 1966--with greater restrictions on choice of target than McCain would experience--only 1000 of our 79,000 sorties were aimed at targets directed by the White House. We flew 108,000 bombing missions in 1967.
There was a restriction on the total number of targets we hit in North Vietnam; we were able to identify fewer than thirty major industrial targets in a country which was basically agricultural. In the event we managed to hit in total nearly a hundred industrial and military targets in the North. This points out something that is seldom remarked upon: not only did we drop more than three times our WWII bomb tonnage on Vietnam, we did so in pursuit of every available target, not the selective bombing of the European theatre.
Oh, it gets better. McCain's "postwar studies" seem to have failed to include a few well-understood aspects of civilian control, such as, oh, the general philosophy behind bombing of the North.
One does not have to be an admirer of the program, or the people behind it, in order to understand it, just as one need not read too far into military history (or any other type of history) to recognize there is often a minimum of two sides per story. Similarly one need not read too much about American involvement Vietnam to get the sense that rewriting that history in an effort to excuse or exonerate the military brass (such as Admiral John S. McCain, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command from 1968-1972 was directly responsible for all bombing north of the DMZ) for its abysmal performance has been a growth industry for most of the thirty years since we left.
The game continues, incrementally adjusting itself over time to unpleasant realities that were undeniable to everyone else forty years ago. We're still fighting over the petty jealousies aroused by Kennedy returning Maxwell Taylor to active duty and eventually making him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (see H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty), even though he retired again (to become ambassador to South Vietnam) before we began bombing the North ("officially" should be understood in almost any statement about that war). Taylor supposedly chose ingratiating himself with his civilian masters over relaying the more aggressive approach favored by the "real soldiers" of the Joint Chiefs, which supposedly created a retroactive power vacuum that Johnson/McNamara moved into. It's the classic stab-in-the-back routine, which manages to ignore--in the interest of persuading the uninitiated, apparently--the fact that the Johnson administration nevertheless, in technical parlance, still bombed the living shit out of the North. The much-derided "political considerations" it factored into the equation consisted of a) trying not to provoke a million Chinese from entering the ground war, b) intending to convince the North that we were serious and intended to stay for the duration, which we took to be the bête noir of their ignorant peasant hopes, and c) maintaining the primary targets in the North until last, so that the Viet minh had something worth salvaging to bring them to the bargaining table. That these considerations were met with derision (or simple ignorance) by McCain's squadron, if true, is one reason we do not conduct military affairs on the basis of a straw poll among fighter jocks.
That this did not work in no way invalidates it as strategy, and, if anything, it points to the fact that a more compact schedule--more compact than the ten months between bombing above the 20th Parallel and essentially removing all restrictions--would have been a bigger failure still. Hanoi anticipated that the US would avail itself of the Big Zoom Zoom Big Boom Boom approach as less costly economically and politically than using infantry (which, of course, we'd manage to do as well). Petroleum storage was already underground before Rolling Thunder began. In places there were ten alternative routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once the US destroyed a steel bridge it was replaced with a pontoon bridge which could be hidden during the day. Industry was moved into the mountains and the jungle; the population of Hanoi decreased by three-quarters. These were a largely agrarian people not just used to throwing out foreign invaders--they were used to dealing with monsoons.
The political and military leadership of the North understood the war to be primarily political. We didn't, and we still don't. We never understood the Vietnamese, or how to fight an insurgency; our commanders tried to refight WWII. Our largely indiscriminate bombing program in the South, and ham-fisted relocation efforts, served to magnify Vietnamese resentment of the Western colonials and their corrupt Catholic puppets. And yet some of us are still trying to argue that if we'd only fought a little more WWII we'd have won. Like the tout sheet says we were supposed to.
And that, really, is all the answer you need.