The disaster of Vietnam and the men who can’t get over it

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

Many wars have outsized and enduring effects on the societies that fight them, but for Americans the Vietnam war has one attribute that guarantees its longevity as a suppurating wound in the national psyche: it was a loss.

Analyses have been numerous and perennial, from David Halberstam’s contemporary portrait of the policymakers who led the country into war, The Best and the Brightest, to last year’s mammoth ten-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War. Now Brian VanDeMark, a historian at the United States Naval Academy who had working relationships with the two secretaries of defense who managed the war — he co-authored Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect and was research assistant on Clark Clifford’s autobiography — offers his own study of America’s ‘descent into Vietnam’, with Road to Disaster.

Like Halberstam, VanDeMark is fascinated by the apparent paradox that highly educated, intelligent, and otherwise successful men could be responsible for such a costly and sustained policy failure. To this question he is excited to apply the benefit of ‘groundbreaking research conducted over the last three decades into how we make decisions based upon neuroscience, psychology, and other behavioral investigations’. With these tools, he hopes to unpick the tangled knots of critical policy decisions, and to show us where things went wrong.

He makes a promising start. After a fascinating discussion of the Bay of Pigs debacle, VanDeMark unpacks the Cuban Missile Crisis, drawing out step by step the assumptions and evolving viewpoints of both Kennedy’s team and Khrushchev’s. He shows, for example, how the cooling of passions after the initial discovery of missiles in Cuba helped Kennedy open his mind to advice from people familiar with Soviet thinking, understand that the missiles were defensive in intent, and then craft a quiet deal removing US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. In doing so, he successfully bridged the ‘empathy gap’ (as it would be later characterised by MIT’s Emile Bruneau) that bedevils so many real-world negotiations.

As the book moves on to consider the much more complex Vietnam war, however, it becomes clear that VanDeMark’s definition of a decision-making error is not a failure to follow a rigorous thought process, but rather a failure to avoid fighting the war. He believes the war was fundamentally unwinnable, and on this assumption every step towards it (and deeper into it) was obviously a mistake: the sending of combat units, the bombing of North Vietnam, new troop requests by American commanders — all these decisions he inspects for cognitive failures and untested assumptions. Unsurprisingly, he finds them.

Yet while he rightly criticises President Johnson’s national security team for failing to put more options on the table, VanDeMark himself sharply truncates the list of strategies available for the reader to consider in assessing what a better path might have been: dismissing two hawkish alternatives (a full-scale invasion of North Vietnam, or a ‘genocidal’ bombing of it), and taking America’s actual strategy as a proven failure, he does not mention any of the other strategies proposed by commanders at the time that might have proved more effective than a defensive war of attrition — and he is therefore able to position ‘negotiated settlement’ as the single reasonable alternative that most of the book’s main characters must come to accept. Presenting a preferred choice alongside only extreme choices, however, is a classic exploitation of the ‘framing’ effect described by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely. I wonder if VanDeMark was aware that he was using it.

Perhaps not, because similar cognitive problems crop up repeatedly in the book. The author shows ‘selection bias’ in accepting at face value CIA reports sceptical of progress in the war while critiquing more positive military assessments. He deploys confusing and contradictory evidence in support of larger arguments: to bolster the idea that North Vietnam could always outlast the US, for example, he asserts both that its forces carefully followed the Maoist guerrilla doctrine of limiting casualties, and that they ‘continued to bleed the Americans, albeit at enormous cost to themselves’. VanDeMark even falls into the same ‘empathy gap’ that Kennedy managed to escape: to him, civilian policymakers make tragic mistakes but are always thoughtful and well-meaning (unless they’re hawks), yet military commanders ‘hate’ policies they disagree with, engage in ‘turf wars’ (never debates), and make decisions distorted by ignorance, narrow-mindedness and racism. Clark Clifford is a man who knows ‘how to get things done’ in Washington; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler, is ‘Machiavellian’.

Although not altogether new as an area of inquiry — Clausewitz wrote with great insight about psychology and command decisions under the pressures of conflict in his chapter on ‘military genius’ in the first book of On War — there is real potential in VanDeMark’s overall ambition of using modern cognitive science to help political and military leaders make better choices. But doing so successfully will require the next historian to apply its analytical rigour not only to the decisions made by their subjects, but to their own thinking as well.

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