Friday, March 08, 2013

The U.S. war in Vietnam: habitual lying wins out

Vietnam resupply
For people in my age cohort (early baby boomers,) the war in/against Vietnam was what broke our trust in information from "authoritative" sources -- politicians, the media, and the military. We were led along, promised the "light at the end of the tunnel" that always seemed to recede from realization, fed reams of reports that asserted that all was going just fine -- all the while we watched the images on TV and heard from the young men we knew a completely contrary story.

Many of us have never regained much faith in what government and leaders tell us. That's okay with me.

Two of the books I've been writing about lately -- Karl Marlantes' What It Is Like to Go to War and Thomas Ricks' The Generals tell the story of Vietnam as a war of lies from different points of view, the bottom of the military in the former and the top brass in the latter.

Here's Marlantes explains vividly how young soldiers learned to lie about body counts in Southeast Asia:

The teenage adrenaline-drained patrol leader has to call in the score so analysts, newspaper reporters, and politicians back in Washington have something to do. Never mind that Smithers and his squad may have stopped a developing attack planned to hit the company that night, saving scores olives and maintaining :control over a piece of ground. All they'll be judged on, and all their superiors have to be judged on, is the kill ratio.

Smithers's best friend has just been killed. Two other friends are missing pieces of their bodies and are going into shock. No one in the squad knows if the enemy is 15 meters away waiting to open up again or running. Smithers is tired and has. a lot of other things on his mind. With scorekeepers often 25 kilometers away, no one is going to check on the score. In short, Smithers has a great incentive to lie.

He also has a great need to lie. His best friend is dead. "Why?" he asks himself. This is where the lying in Vietnam all began. It had to fill the long silence following Smithers's anguished "Why?"

So it starts. "Nelson, how many did you get?" Smithers asks.

PFC Nelson looks up from crying over the body of his friend Katz and says, "How the fuck do I know?"

His friend Smithers says, "Well, did you get that bastard that came around the dogleg after Katz threw the Mike-26?"

Nelson looks down at Katz's face, hardening and turning yellow like tallow. "You're goddamn right I got him," he almost whispers. It's all he can offer his dead friend.

"There's no body."

"They drug the fucker away. I tell you I got him!" Nelson is no longer whispering.

… The patrol leader doesn't have a body, but what are the odds that he's going to call his friend a liar or, even more difficult, make Katz's death meaningless, given that the only meaning now lies in this one statistic? No one is congratulating him for exposing the enemy, keeping them screened from the main body, which is the purpose of security patrols.

He calls in one confirmed kill. ...

Just then PFC Schroeder comes crawling over with Kool-Aid stains all around his mouth and says, "I think I got one, right by the dogleg of the trail after Katz threw the grenade."

"Yeah, we called that one in."

"No, it ain't the one Nelson got. I tell you I got another one."

Smithers thinks it was the same one but he's not about to have PFC Schroeder feeling bad, particularly after they've all seen their squad mate die. … the last thing on Smithers's mind is the integrity of meaningless numbers.

The message gets relayed to the battalion commander. He's just taken two wounded and one dead. All he has to report is one confirmed, one probable. This won't look good. Bad ratio. He knows all sorts of bullets were flying all over the place. It was a point-to-point contact, so no ambush, so the stinkin' thinking' goes round and round, so the probable had to be a kill. But really if we got two confirmed kills, there was probably a probable. I mean, what's the definition of probable if it isn't probable to get one? What the hell, two kills, two probables.

Our side is now ahead. Victory is just around the corner. … [then the artillery has to claim their own additional kills…] By the time all this shit piles up at the briefing in Saigon, we've won the war.

Having reported how lying became the norm, Marlantes has thought hard about why this happened:

This nonsense went on in Vietnam for several reasons. Probably the most important was that the president and a group of advisers insisted on running things from Washington with no clear military objectives to pursue. So they had to have something upon which to make decisions, because, after all, if they didn't make decisions, what the hell were they doing in charge? The second factor was military careerism, in both competing with statistics and not blowing the whistle on their stupidity. This happened all the way up the line. And finally the lying took place because the kill ratio statistics were so totally out of line with the ordinary grunt's psychology that lying about it was a trivial and meaningless act for him.

Rick's book looks at Vietnam from the top, from the angle of the generals. He locates the ongoing adoption of lying in the particular weakness of the man who was the longest serving commander in that adventure. He's scathing:

William Westmoreland himself was a new thing in the Army, an organization man more educated in corporate management than in military affairs. He was an odd combination of traits: energetic and ambitious, yet strikingly incurious, and prone to fabrication even as he considered himself a Boy Scout in his ethics… He did well in World War II as a battalion commander… Yet in his subsequent career, he would embody the empty approach of looking good rather than being good … For example, in his memoirs he depicted himself as a student of military history, someone who always kept a few classics at his bedside. This was untrue. "He simply doesn't have any interests," Charles MacDonald, the military historian who helped Westy write his memoirs, told [his biographer Lewis] Sorley. "I would venture to guess that the man has not read a book from cover to cover in a hell of a long time." … Westmoreland told people he had no idea that he had been invited to address a joint session of Congress while in Washington in April 1967, yet in fact he had been notified of this before leaving Saigon and had prepared for it for weeks.

Such minor instances of mendacity probably were harmless, but the habit carried over into his conduct of the war and his defense of it for decades afterward. He provided false evidence in 1967 that his attrition strategy was working, telling the president during his April trip that "the crossover point" had been reached and claiming on Meet the Press that November that North Vietnamese "manpower cannot be replaced." As Sorley notes, this was "in no way accurate." As Army chief of staff, he oversaw the preparation of a history of the Vietnam War that was laden with omissions and evasions, yet he would assert to the editor of Readers Digest that "the fact remains that this is the only authentic publication on the war." … Ultimately, the habit of saying whatever sounded good at the moment would catch up with him when he sued CBS News for libel, only to have the network's defense lawyer read to him passages from his memoirs that undercut his testimony.

Lies, lies and more lies ...

Photo: U.S. Army Flickrstream. Caption: An UH-1B[D] helicopter prepares for a resupply mission for Co B, 1st Bn, 8th Inf, 4th Inf Div, during the operation conducted 20 miles southwest of Dak To. December 10-16, 1967

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