I recently finished reading Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, by Trump’s newly appointed National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and all I could think is “SJWs… SJWs everywhere.”
McMaster’s thesis is simple: The “leadership” styles of Presidents Kennedy and (especially) Johnson allowed Robert McNamara and his self-proclaimed “Whiz Kids” to run the war as if it were an exercise in systems analysis at Harvard Business School. (Indeed, throughout the war, McNamara would insist, Mitt Romney-like, that we were winning in Vietnam because all the metrics pointed that way).
The key event of the Vietnam War, McMaster shows, didn’t happen in Vietnam at all. Rather, the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced Kennedy and especially McNamara that the generals had it all wrong. Instead of launching an invasion of Cuba, as the Pentagon wanted, Kennedy and McNamara thought their blockade of the island “communicated resolve” to Moscow. Khrushchev backing down convinced the band of “happy little hotdogs” (as the brass sarcastically called them) running the White House that they knew war better than the professionals — “Just because a man is a general doesn’t mean his opinion on military strategy is worth a damn,” Kennedy proclaimed.
McNamara, whose only military experience was as an Air Force logistics officer in World War II, concurred. He thought wars were about signaling. His theory of “graduated pressure” relied on tightly controlled military actions, mostly air strikes, to “communicate” with the North Vietnamese. His overall objective — if, indeed, he had one after Johnson took over — was to convince Ho Chi Minh that continued support for the Viet Cong insurgency in the south wasn’t worth the pain of having some (or all!) of a list of 94 specific targets flattened by American air strikes.
McNamara really did believe that “pressure” could be dialed in — he and Johnson would sit in the Oval Office, poring over a map of North Vietnam and deciding exactly how many sorties should be flown at each individual target, and the precise value of each target as a signal to Ho Chi Minh. Thus, NVA barracks below a certain line of latitude could be hit, but not the fighter base whose MiGs protected it (and shot down several American and South Vietnamese air force jets). Throw in LBJ’s oft-stated objective to not “lose in Vietnam” before he got his Great Society passed — he regarded the war as an annoying distraction from his domestic political objectives — and the military never had a chance. For their part, the generals couldn’t get past inter-service rivalries, and so never came up with a coherent strategy either. They agreed that a massive conventional campaign was necessary, but couldn’t figure out how to wage one, and so they meekly went along with “graduated pressure,” forever hoping that McNamara would step it up to the point where they could fight a real war.
Which is why I’m cautiously optimistic in our current culture war.
Big historical changes are rarely obvious as they happen. Often victory often looks like defeat, for example, and vice versa. For instance, it’s increasingly clear that Leftism as a coherent political platform died in the Sixties, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 election — seen at the time as the final triumph of the New Left — was actually the last twitch of the corpse. As the Z Man points out, and a brief glance at Horowitz and Collier will confirm, the so-called “New Left” wasn’t about politics at all. Sure, they had some barmy ideas they called “communism,” “socialism,” whatever, but in reality they just “wanted to smash things, flip over tables and freak out the squares.” They were bored little rich kids, afflicted with equal parts white guilt and suburban ennui. At bottom, most of them were probably just in it for the free love (see the Starr Report for details).
In other words, they’ve always been about virtue signaling, and nothing but virtue signaling. The problem with that, of course, is that sometimes the enemy doesn’t get the message… and even when he does, it’s rarely the message that’s intended. Look at Ho Chi Minh. McNamara was sure he knew exactly what Ho would do, because every time he ran the numbers Ho surrendered. Meanwhile, the Army ran a different set of numbers — the SIGMA war games — and said Ho would keep fighting. By the end of SIGMA II, the blue team had 500,000 combat troops in Southeast Asia and was gearing up for a full-scale invasion of North Vietnam. Turns out that pinprick airstrikes only pissed Ho off and increased the commies’ devotion to the cause. SIGMA II was played in 1964, by the way — almost a year before the first American boots officially hit the ground at Da Nang.
What is modern Leftism’s objective? We have no idea, and that’s because they have no idea, either. Back in the 1960s, they could fight real injustices, and their tactical triumphs looked like long-term strategic victories. Because Jim Crow was a real evil, and because the Great Society was so huge, the Left’s efforts in the Sixties could be mistaken for dramatic progress towards a coherent goal. In reality, they were the New Left’s version of American “victories” in Vietnam — air strikes and napalm and artillery and choppers skimming low over the beaches blasting “March of the Valkyries” really look impressive, but when the smoke clears you’re left holding a few square miles of muck in the middle of nowhere that you’ll abandon tomorrow, to do the same thing on another patch of muck somewhere else.
In reality, the Great Society crippled the black family, dooming a majority of African-Americans to generations of poverty — as uber-liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognized as early as 1965. “Women’s lib,” as it was then called, has been making everyone’s life hell for three generations now, and they still can’t manage to get the gals a lousy 25 cent raise. And now they’re reduced to cheerleading for mentally ill men in dresses to go wee-wee in the little girls’ room.
Nothing loses a war faster than losing sight of your strategic objective… except never having a strategic objective in the first place. Social media makes it look like hitting George Soros’s list of 94 targets is really putting the pressure on the Flyover Country Cong, but….to what end? What’s the objective?
We have one. They don’t. Will their firepower beat our clear-headedness? I dunno, but history suggests the way to bet.