July 2010
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The Anatomy of Incompetence

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I have been reading books on Vietnam: Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake. Herr's book gives a worm's eye view, and the other two a bird's eye view, of that most massive and forlorn of human projects, a war which makes no sense whatsoever.

Humans are supposed to have an innate sense of self preservation. In my twenties, when I was in a Paris post office while it was being robbed by men in masks with machine guns, I squatted and turned my body sideways, presenting the smallest possible target. From that day to this, I have never figured out how I knew to do that.

The mass behavior of humans at war embodies a fascinating contradiction. There are masses of soldiers in effect squatting and turning sideways, trying to save their own lives, while there are officers above them ruthlessly and often carelessly throwing their lives away, sending them into situations where they have no chance whatever. Among the saddest stories of any war are those of soldiers dying in waves to take a hill of no strategic importance. From this viewpoint, soldiers' lives are a currency like money, to be expended wisely or foolishly, but always in order to buy something: power, land, security.

Any war, including the most just and meaningful one, can be examined this way. I would be fascinated to read (and would love to write) a book called "Incompetence in World War II." The most extensive chapter would probably be on the Normandy invasion, when nothing went right the first day and extensive chaos reigned, with virtually all paratroops and glider troops separated from one another, and dropped away from their objectives. Another chapter would be about Operation Market Garden, when the radios did not work and the paratroops had to use the urban phone system to communicate with their leaders; and the plan for a highway invasion via Belgium was later declared to be a textbook case of a wrong solution to the problem of attacking Germany.

However, in this essay I am specifically interested in a rather different phenomenon, the war which is not only incompetently managed but based on wrong perceptions and pumped up by self-delusion. Vienam seems the quintessential American example, and today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may fit the bill as well.

Domino Theory

The Vietnam war grew from a simplistic and binary 1950's belief that world communism was monolithic and would promote its desire for world wide domination by knocking over one small country after another until it arrived on the borders of the larger ones it wished to dominate. This was not a schizophrenic or completely wrongheaded view; there was certainly Communist writing and rhetoric to support the idea, and Stalin's domination (permitted by the Allies) of Eastern Europe after World War II signalled a desire for expansion of spheres of Soviet control.

Sixty years later, we know that every country we imagined would march in lockstep, sooner or later opposed or even fought each other. Russia and China became hostile. China even went to war briefly with Communist Vietnam. This fragmentation should have been predictable at the outset, because much more in accord with human nature than the idea of a world of brainwashed worker bees constantly swarming outwards. Even in the '50's, there were countries such as Yugoslavia which maintained some practical independence of the Soviets.

Put aside the idea of a single violent and expanding world communism, and what we are left with was the expenditure of more than 50,000 American lives to dominate a country which (as we now know) had no strategic importance whatever. One which in the years since we ignominiously fled (unforgettable images of terrified Vietnamese clinging to the struts of helicopters) has never represented any kind of danger to us. Which is, in a small way, both an ally and a tourist destination.


In theory, it would be possible to fight a war quite efficiently in a country which had no strategic importance. Incompetence in determining strategic value should not automatically translate into incompetence in war-fighting,

Yet these two forms of incompetence seem closely related to one another. THe misperception of strategic importance contributes to the misunderstanding of the situation on the ground.

Predisposition is human nature. We acquire an investment in a particular state or outcome. One of the folkloric expressions of this is that "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Vietnam was full of officers whose daily job consisted of dealing with Vietnamese politicians and their army (the ARVN). It is utterly clear today that the biggest contributing factor to our loss in Vietnam was the true commitment and nationalism of the Communist side pitted against the venality, selfishness and cowardice of most of the powerful Vietnamese people on our side. Fitzgerald spends most of her book establishing that there was no "there there", no true nation of South Vietnam to protect. Sheehan's work is replete with stories of graft, corruption, laziness and self-protection, particularly highly placed generals stalling when they had a chance to confront Vietcong, or deliberately sending troops where no Vietcong were. The single most stunning story mentioned by Sheehan--a throw away, in a single sentence--was the sale of artillery support. Some ARVN units actually fighting the enemy were forced to pay bribes to the commanding general to get the big guns turned on their enemies.

Relatively few Americans were directly involved in the corruption. Many more turned a blind eye to it. While it was easy to rationalize that the Vietnamese' flaws must be tolerated--they were the allies we were given, the only ones we had to work with, their culture was different than ours, etc.--the most fascinating examples of American obliviousness, were the officers (like General Harkins, described at length by Sheehan) who simply refused to see what was in front of them.

This is such a classic example of human "fuckology" that it is worth close attention. I have had the experience a number of times in institutions such as businesses or law firms of words simply not being heard or responded to. For example, if I say, "You specified the wrong computers for a mapping application. The transition between maps needs to be blindingly fast, and these computers are so slow it will take forty minutes to get from one screen to another," there are a number of possible sincere and insincere responses. People in a group so heavily invested in the use of the wrong computer that they must defend it have a number of choices. They can pretend to be interested and courteous while secretly resolved to do nothing, and say something like, "We will look into it. Thank you for your thoughts." The ultimate manifestation of this behavior--the appearance of action while none is really taken--is the appointment of a commission of inquiry in the political world.

The most extreme response, shown either by those who are very sure of their power, or completely burned out, or both, is to say nothing. To act as if the words were not spoken, or were uttered in a foreign language. In the example above, the nonsequitur response would be something like, "When can we get the machines delivered?" or "Lets move on to installation issues". This was the experience zealous younger officers often had, trying to inform their superiors about Vietnamese corruption and nonperformance.

People whose job was to turn the ARVN into an efficient fighting force would have been confessing failure if they said it couldn't be done. Because there was no "there there"--no country or culture that anyone wanted to fight for--it really couldn't be done in the South. Sheehan describes incidents of mounting frequency late in the war when ARVN units unable to avoid confrontation, simply melted away. .


Mark Twain's amusing and oft-quoted aphorism was that there are three kinds of untruths, lies, damn lies and statistics. A fascinating sidelight on the Vietnam war was the use of data points, invented during World War II, for keeping track of success or failure in battle. Anyone who reads about war is sure to encounter, and probably be fascinated by, accounts of people who have an intuitive talent for it-- Napoleon, Hitler, Rommel, U.S. Grant, people who can look at a battlefield and know where to be and what to do. Contrast this with the work of bureaucrats who specialize in "knowing" how the war is going by counting the shots fired, comparing body counts, etc.

Particularly notorious in Vietnam was the use of a ratio of enemy soldiers killed to ARVN and US losses. As we all knew even at the time, the data itself was false, with gross inflation of the number of dead enemies. However, even had the underlying data been more accurate, a ratio of enemy to our dead told us nothing about the difference in will power, the fact that soldiers on the other side were much more willing to risk their lives than those on ours.

Statistics made a heavy contribution to the fact that we thought we were winning in Vietnam until shortly before we lost the war.


I had the insight recently that the norm in free markets is bubbles and slumps, that these are not extraordinary interruptions in the course of free markets. A similar insight about war may be that all wars are actually wars of attrition, and that the romantic mythology of brilliant commanders, midnight raids, coups of espionage, etc. may be the exception and not at all the norm of war. The Allied campaign in Europe confirms the theory, that it wasn't generals or strategy that beat Hitler, but simply the ability to keep pouring in more men and machines against a nation which was overextended, fighting on too many fronts, and rapidly losing manpower.

Sheehan says that North Vietnamese and Vietcong units were actually much smaller and more scattered by the time we decided to leave Vietnam. Secret intelligence reports indicated we could win if we hung in another five or ten years, at the cost of how many more U.S. lives is unknown (another 50,000? 100,000? More?). When we lost the war of wills, we were winning the war of attrition--but this was no longer important.


An important factor in our defeat in Vietnam was democracy in America. There was never any doubt we could have won the war by committing and losing many more soldiers, or by bombing North Vietnam "into the stone age" as some recommended. The American electorate stopped believing in the war, nor would the opinion at home or internationally have tolerated the even more widespread slaughter of Northern civilians to eliminate their country as an adversary. In general, the only wars democracies can fight effectively are life and death conflicts with comic book supervillains like Hitler. Small tactical wars may make sense in principle, but nobody really wants to die in one.

Lying to ourselves

The most disturbing trend I see in our society is that of losing any comprehension of the difference between words and actions, words and results. Once upon a time, there were people of action who understood the importance of rhetoric, of spin. They planned how to win wars first, then how to communicate their decisions and the corresponding implications. Today, we have people who believe that wars are won in the words themselves, and actually don't understand that the external world (which includes consequences of actions, but also accident and chance and the "fog" of war) is not directly affected by our words. The latest President Bush seemed to live entirely in this zone of self-deception, with "Mission Accomplished" and "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job".

Today's politicians seem to believe that declaring victory is the same as winning, if done properly. But wars, like hurricanes, are immune to rhetoric.

Sheehan identifies a phenomenon he relates to our victory in World War II. It is partially the military folly under which generals always re-fight the last war, instead of really understanding the current one. But it is more than that: he also saw a perception in Vietnam that the country which beat Hitler couldn't possibly be losing to a minor player like Ho Chi Minh. Regardless of what the evidence showed.

Perhaps the Roman Empire died for a similar reason: the Romans started believing their own press. They had been so tough, smart and merciless in the past that they continued to believe in themselves even when they had lost all those qualities.


Each of the factors these authors identify which contributed to defeat in Vietnam appears to be applicable today. In the governments we are propping up in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no "there there", no core of people with the same fierce nationalism and self confidence as the adversary. There is a lack of public will at home, a lack of willingness to sacrifice, a lack of knowledge how to fight people who are much more willing to die than we are. There is a war of words, of statistics, that masks an underlying uncertainty, why we are there, what we are doing, whay it is important.

You can analyze other major "external world" debacles, such as Katrina or the BP oil spill, the same way. We used to be good at doing things. Now we seemed to have moved on to pure rhetoric. We can't win that war or cap that well, but we can sure as hell talk about it.