How is it that we and our allies won World War II, a massive undertaking, in roughly three and one half years and have since spent ten years in Vietnam, almost ten in Iraq and ten in Afghanistan with no clear victory? The US military is not incompetent. It is inhibited—held back by its civilian leadership. In America the military is under civilian leadership and control. That is as it should be. But once committed to combat, except for direction at the highest level, civilians (particularly politicians) need to step aside.
It began in Korea when General Douglas MacArthur wanted to destroy the bridges over the Yalu River to prevent a possible massive move of Chinese Communist troops into South Korea. He was denied permission by Washington civilian leadership to take those bridges down ostensibly because it might provoke Communist China. Shortly afterward, in a move surprising to those half a world away in DC, hundreds of thousands of Communist troops poured across those bridges into South Korea, inflicting thousands of casualties on US and South Korean forces and changing the history of that part of the world.
That was the first of the Washington directives that said in effect, “You boys go in there and fight but don’t hurt anyone who is not wearing an enemy uniform and let’s not make anyone mad at us.” Such thinking was elevated to an art form in the Vietnam War and appears to be prevalent today.
There are problems with those policies. In Vietnam only the North Vietnamese Army wore uniforms. The Viet Cong did not. Further, when foreign troops come into any land no matter the reason, those whose homeland it is will not be happy about it. Our troops fought valiantly in Vietnam. Those across the ocean in the massive buildings in Washington were heavily involved too. They looked at the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border and ordered US troops not to cross that border.
The enemy we pursued and fought had no such restriction. I much preferred to ruffle diplomatic feathers than see one of my 18-year-olds shot and killed from ambush and not be able to pursue and anihilate those responsible because they had crossed the border back into Cambodia. The idiocy went on and on.
A complaint reached Washington that a buffalo herder had been killed by helicopter gunfire near the border. Directions came down to investigate this alleged incident. An investigation was duly carried out taking officers and men away from their combat duties to conduct the investigation. Records showed there were no US helicopters in that area when the incident was alleged to have occurred. A few weeks later another similar investigation was carried out. The question is why. Why were politicians directing investigations of our soldier’s actions at the lowest level? If some vicious crime against humanity in the conduct of combat has been alleged, the military commanders will be on top of it long before any politician hears of it. Politicians safe in Washington play at war. It is real for those doing the fighting.
Helicopter scouts flying reconnaissance missions in Vietnam flew five or ten feet off the ground, searching. Their job was to find the enemy and start a fight. When they saw or engaged enemy troops it was usually at close range, just feet or yards away. As commander of an air cavalry troop including a group of such scouts in late 1969, I received a direct order (of policy, not a one-time event) that my scouts could no longer shoot first. They were to radio and get permission to fire or they had to be fired on, then they could return fire. It was a death sentence. Don’t believe it? I didn’t either. But when I refused the order it was forcefully given to me again. The point is that wars cannot be won like that. Why do we do that? Those politicians running the wars are directing down to the most basic level what tactics can and cannot be used. Why do they issue such directives? Why do they bypass the judgment of their military commanders in matters of basic combat action?
The US will not win any war unless it commits itself to win. War in the manner the US now fights is lost before it begins. We have our procedure down pat: Tiptoe through the tulips, try not to make anyone angry, lose countless lives, ruin countless more lives, spend the country into bankruptcy, accomplish little to nothing.
War is a poor way to settle anything. The case can be made that war is obsolete. In most ways it is. But as long as there is evil that will come in and kill you and yours simply because it can, the ability to fight and win is a must for long-term survival.
No country should ever fight unless it is unavoidable. If war is the course, then massive might and firepower must be applied in the most devastating manner and the affair finished as quickly and decisively as possible. There is no substitute for victory. General MacArthur told us that more than half a century ago. It is time for our civilian leaders to stand up and stop playing at war. Our problem is not our ability to fight. The danger is we no longer know how to win.
Ray Kenneth Clark