Tuesday, March 25

Sitting Targets

I'M not sure now where I ran into this, a couple weeks back--was someone using it to contrast John McCain's commitment to civilian military leadership, or his willingness to criticize it, then and now? Anyway, it's from his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers:
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.


bjkeefe said...

There you go again, Doghouse.

What's the matter with you, introducing facts? Don't you know that the only permissible writing about Teh Maverick is hagiography?

James Stripes said...

Some days I lack the time to read Bats Left Throws Right, or to craft a coherent response. Today, this business is much to my detriment. Suffice it to say, that my neglect of needful work proved beneficial upon reading this post, if not in my failure to complete my review of Carnage and Culture by Victor David Hanson, as he seems much of a similar mind to McCain. Such truths as

Vietnamese resentment of the Western colonials and their corrupt Catholic puppets

are either ignored entirely by Hanson, McCain, and legions of Republican followers, or dismissed quickly without argument.

Such conversations always remind me of my Sunday School classes in 1975 when week after week I learned of the immense power of the F-111 (a Wing of these was stationed at the same base as my father's mobile radar battalion that year) and how the Vietnam war could have won by such planes had the politicians permitted them to do their job.

Shay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Another great post. I had no idea how incomplete my Vietnam War knowledge was. Back to reading. Thanks for filling in gaps and sparking new interest.

Jaye Ramsey Sutter said...

Of course it was the politicians' fault. If we had been allowed to use nukes, well, then there you are. We could have nuked everyone and then no one would have been left to be unAmerican.

As Peggy Noonan said, it was really Mark Felt's fault. If Nixon had been left alone we would have won. Great patriots like Calley were just wasted on politics.

If McCain thinks that the politican's only error was not allowing a full scale ground war with nuke bombing from the air--we are in for a really shitty next ten years.

merlallen said...

He was so pissed off he set fire to his own carrier? Damn.

Anonymous said...

Of course it's bullshit. I'm not curious enough to endure his book, but it would be interesting to see what conclusions McCain drew from his postwar studies of the Nixon administration's political and military decision-making, and what was gained by later, less "restricted" bombing campaigns against the North. (The actual effectiveness of strategic bombing in this type of war is a whole other story). It always amazes me when revisionist Vietnam discussions break out how rarely anyone remembers the Cold War that engendered and fueled it, and how names like China and the Soviet Union were not just shadows in the background.

You're absolutely right that there is no appeasing the more-war hawks Vietnam if-only fantasies. It's hard to tell exactly what that "little more WWII" could be. Hell, we dropped more bomb tonnage than all of WWII on fucking Cambodia for chrissakes.

Excellent piece, btw.

Anonymous said...

"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"

As we now know that criticism of our overnment's war policy is really helping the enemy, it looks as if McCain was partially responsible for our loss in Vietnam.

Rightwingsnarkle said...

Doghouse Riley is Digby. Digby is God.