In my lifetime, we have been at war five times: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts ranged in character from necessary to grudging, misbegotten and confused.
The more than two decades of turmoil and tragedy consumed by the misbegotten choices of warfare in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq make it seem as if war has been a permanent condition for America.
Was it wisdom or blind luck that got us through the Reagan ’80s and the Clinton ’90s in a state of sunny optimism and peace? In those two decades of peace did we learn how to fight only wars of necessity?
Sadly, no. Clinton had barely left town before a pistol-packin’ Texan, George W. Bush, and his belligerent veep, “dark” Dick Cheney, invaded Iraq to protect us from doomsday weapons, which were never found. Meanwhile, they turned a police action against al-Qaida and the Taliban into a shadow war in Afghanistan, which blew cold then hot and will finally end next year.
Rewinding this history with the well-researched and widely discussed new book by Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals, is a lesson in how to tell good from bad generals, but more importantly, how to understand the war you’re fighting.
A local soldier, the late Ned Almond, is fingered by Ricks as one of the bad generals. Lt. Gen. Almond had been a favorite in the court of “Emperor” Douglas MacArthur and commanding general of X Corps defeated by the Chinese in the Korean War.
As a result of bad intelligence or his aggressive temperament, Almond failed to appreciate the scale of the hordes of Chinese troops driving south who overran troops too widely dispersed to help each other in orderly retreat.
There was tension between Almond and Marine Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith, commander of a division under Almond, who advised: “The enemy who is delaying you for the moment is nothing more than remnants of Chinese divisions fleeing north. We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.”
Smith knew that Almond was inviting his division to a suicide and pulled his forces together for a narrow but successful escape from the Chosin Reservoir.
In retirement here in Anniston, Gen. Almond demonstrated that the virtue of modesty can be overdone. He placed three large stars in a field of red on the posts leading into his driveway on Sunset Drive.
Good soldiers can produce bad results if given the wrong command or because they can’t understand the war they are fighting.
An example of the right man in the right job was Chief of Staff George Marshall promoting Dwight Eisenhower over his superior George Patton as commander in Europe because Ike had the patience and diplomacy to keep the Allies fighting in unison.
Maxwell Taylor was a multi-lingual, multi-talented and brave general who parachuted with his 101st Division into France but who contributed to the loss in Vietnam by sending troops to fight an insurgency as if the invisible enemy were massed German divisions.
In the 1960s, the Vietnamese government wisely began a counter-insurgency program to win the hearts and minds of rural folk and winnow out the enemy. We put a stop to that until nine years later when it was too late.
Until we acquiesced in his assassination, we stood by in apparent approval of Catholic President Diem’s pogroms against Buddhists, who were 70 percent of the population. We trained for the wrong war while Diem warred on his own people.
Back in the 1950s, the Joint Chiefs judged Indochina to be at the far periphery of our vital interests. Maxwell Taylor, according to historians, with liberal use of deceit, muted the Joint Chiefs and allowed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to manage the war as a corporate profit-and-loss report.
Good men with good intentions bent by their own vanity, their fear of failure and misled by their exquisite training and experienced valor to fight a war totally incompatible with their knowledge and skills.
Does that explain the loss in Vietnam and the invasions and subsequent muddles of Iraq and Afghanistan? We will keep trying to explain these failures until we answer the question: We were there because …
As we prepare to enter a new era of peace, we should be prudent in spending the “peace dividends,” nimble in adapting to lost defense industries and, above all, think strategically before we are compelled to answer the question, “Is this war necessary?”
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.