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The Pentagon Book Club

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In the spring of 1984, a young Army officer wrote a seminar paper about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era. Three years later he returned to the subject in a Princeton University doctoral dissertation titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." What "today's junior officers think about Vietnam—which is fast becoming ancient history—is likely to undergo significant change before they assume positions of power and influence," he claimed. In his dissertation, he sought to investigate the legacy of the war and its "chastening effect on military thinking about the use of force," which made military leaders, he contended, "more cautious than before." "Caution has its virtues, of course," he wrote. However, "the lessons from which that caution springs are not without flaws." Among the flawed lessons he identified were a professional aversion to counterinsurgency operations, "a new skepticism about the efficacy of American forces in the Third World countries where social, political, and economic factors are the causes of unrest" and "a widespread fear among officers that assignment to counterinsurgency, special forces type missions will be the end of their career."

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam
By Lewis Sorley
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Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972
By Lewis Sorley
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Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975
By John Prados
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Vietnam at War
By Mark Philip Bradley
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Eddie Adams: Vietnam
Edited by Alyssa Adams
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About the Author

Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at The Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award...

Also by the Author

The US military publicly insists its presence in Africa is negligible. Is that why they call it an American “battlefield” behind closed doors?

The author of those words is David Petraeus, now a four-star general and commander of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974, one year before the fall of Saigon, and he has lately consolidated his military career around trying to reverse the lessons of Vietnam. He tasted combat for the first time during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where he commanded the 101st Airborne Division and the Multinational Security Transition Command (tasked with training Iraqi military forces). In 2005-06, after his second tour in Iraq, Petraeus oversaw the revision of FM 3-24, the military's counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual. (The previous Army COIN manual was published in 1986; the Marines were still using a guide from 1980.) It was a chance for Petraeus to put his dissertation into practice by literally rewriting the book on the type of warfare American officers had shunned since Vietnam. Early in 2007, following the futile efforts of generals Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey, Petraeus took command of US forces in Iraq and aided a reeling President George W. Bush by implementing the "surge" strategy, designed to tamp down violence to a so-called acceptable level. Taking a page from FM 3-24, Petraeus offered money and weapons to Sunni insurgents in exchange for a cessation of attacks on US troops, a strategy that helped to lessen bloodshed and get bad news about Iraq off the front page. In exchange, Bush made "King David" his most influential adviser on the war (Petraeus was granted much clout at National Security Council meetings) and even took him mountain biking.

To a segment of the military establishment that Andrew Bacevich has dubbed the "Crusaders," officers who "see the Army's problems in Iraq as self-inflicted," the consequence of excessive post-Vietnam caution, Petraeus is seen as a successor to another top Army general, Creighton Abrams. A West Point grad and World War II tank commander under Gen. George Patton, Abrams assumed command of US forces in Vietnam in 1968 when his predecessor, William Westmoreland, was kicked up and out, to Army chief of staff, after a four-year run of failure in Southeast Asia. Abrams's star has been on the rise in recent years too, thanks in large part to the efforts of his chief booster, the prominent historian, retired Army lieutenant colonel and CIA veteran Lewis Sorley.

Last fall, as the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan geared up, Sorley's ten-year-old book A Better War was the pick of the Pentagon and, according to Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal, "recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates." (A Better War is also listed in FM 3-24's annotated bibliography of recommended texts, and Abrams is mentioned and quoted several times in the manual.) Sorley's book was also read and reread, according to Newsweek, by Petraeus's top commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal—a counterterrorism specialist who worked closely with Petraeus when he led the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit that The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh called "an executive assassination wing." Under this program, according to Hersh, elite units were reportedly given the authority to track and kill suspected terrorists and militants with minimal oversight, in noncombat situations and across national boundaries.

There is much for the Crusaders to like about Sorley's account of the often neglected latter half of the Vietnam War, especially his assertion that by late 1970 "the fighting wasn't over, but the war was won" by the United States. Abrams had achieved this victory, Sorley contends, through a kinder, gentler strategy of pacification operations and population protection that stood in abject contrast to Westmoreland's ineffective "search and destroy" missions in the countryside. As Sorley explained in a New York Times op-ed published in 2009 when President Obama was weighing his options in Afghanistan, "Abrams decided instead to try 'clear and hold' operations, in which small patrols were sent to villages to protect the populace." According to Sorley, Abrams recognized that under Westmoreland US forces had been "causing undue 'collateral damage' to the South Vietnamese people and their property"; thus enlightened, Abrams "reined in the use of heavy firepower like artillery and tactical airstrikes." Defeat, however, was snatched from the jaws of victory when the United States cut its support for South Vietnam's Saigon government—a stab in the military's back by weak-willed politicians and a war-weary public back home.

In 2004 Sorley took an up-close-and-personal approach to his hero in Vietnam Chronicles, a collection of passages selected and transcribed by Sorley from tapes of high-level meetings chaired by Abrams in 1968-72. The book is a tremendous resource, yet one gets the feeling while reading it of being not a fly on the wall but the object of a concerted propaganda campaign. In the spring of 1969, for instance, we hear Abrams yukking it up over cigars he had imported from Hong Kong. At the same time, in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta, his World War II buddy from the Siege of Bastogne, Gen. Julian Ewell, was coordinating a civilian slaughter during Operation Speedy Express, which was executed with the same heavy artillery and tactical airstrikes Abrams had supposedly shut down [see Nick Turse, "A My Lai a Month," Dec. 1, 2008]. During the operation, Abrams publicly praised Ewell's performance. Behind closed doors not long afterward, he laughed off his subordinates' bloodthirsty talk while warning Ewell to consider how a proposal of his to kill Vietnamese civilians for petty crimes might look if Newsweek got wind of it.

In 1971 two reporters from Newsweek discovered much worse: namely, that as many as 5,000 noncombatants—ten times the number killed during the My Lai massacre—had been slaughtered during Speedy Express, according to one US official. When one of the Newsweek reporters, Kevin Buckley, brought the results of the investigation to Abrams's attention and asked for comment, the general claimed to have no information and denied Buckley an interview. What Buckley couldn't have known, and what goes unaccounted for in Vietnam Chronicles, is that Abrams knew a lot about Speedy Express. He learned of reports about mass killings in 1969 from US advisers who charged Ewell's division with having driven up the enemy body count by killing civilians with helicopter gunships and artillery. Then, on a 1970 trip to Vietnam, Army Secretary Stanley Resor, on the advice of the Army's acting general counsel, discussed with Abrams reports of widespread civilian killings provided by a different source, a whistleblower from Ewell's division who had witnessed the bloodshed firsthand. Buckley and his Newsweek colleague Alex Shimkin learned about the carnage from still other US and Vietnamese sources during the meticulous investigation they conducted over a period of months. A Pentagon-level cover-up and Newsweek's desire not to upset the Nixon administration in the wake of the My Lai revelations kept the full results of their work under wraps. The publication of a severely truncated version of Buckley and Shimkin's original article allowed the Pentagon to ride out the coverage without being forced to convene a large-scale official inquiry of the sort that followed public disclosure of My Lai. A secret Army report, commissioned in response to Buckley and Shimkin's investigation but buried for decades, concluded:

While there appears to be no means of determining the precise number of civilian casualties incurred by US forces during Operation Speedy Express, it would appear that the extent of these casualties was in fact substantial, and that a fairly solid case can be constructed to show that civilian casualties may have amounted to several thousand (between 5,000 and 7,000).

In both his books Sorley ignores the carnage of Speedy Express. Consequently, his readers, including McChrystal and other Crusaders in the Pentagon book club, taking notes for their own pacification campaign in Afghanistan, are left with a counterfeit history of Abrams's bloodless "better war."


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