Monday, February 20, 2012

Bill DePuy on COIN, circa 1986

William DuPuy was the first commanding general of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which was established in 1973 as American involvement in Vietnam was winding down. GEN DePuy had commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam – he was one of those generals falsely caricatured as overly focused on attrition, a guy who "didn't get it" – but is more widely known as a significant influence on the transformation of Army doctrine through the 1970s and 1980s.

I've been reading here and there in his collected papers (pdf; part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), which were compiled, edited, and published (in 1994, two years after DePuy's death) by Richard Swain and others at Leavenworth's Combat Studies Institute. There are a great many really, really interesting things in here, and I'd encourage you to take a look if you're of a doctrinal bent. DePuy was a complex figure, a serious and original thinker who understood the political context of war and led the Army to shape its doctrine in line with that context. His views on Vietnam elide the childish distinction many have drawn between the attrition advocates in the Westmoreland mold and the enlightened pacification proponents of the Abrams school. I'm going to reproduce an extended excerpt from an article he wrote in 1986 (almost a decade after retiring), called "VIETNAM: What We Might Have Done and Why We Didn't Do It" (pdf; begins on pg. 11), that bears this out.

An editorial note: I've replaced DePuy's anachronistic abbreviation of counterinsurgency as CI with the modern acronym COIN for ease of reading. I've also narrowed the excerpt down a very little bit, not so as to change the meaning but rather in the hopes that you'll read all the way through.
The Kennedy Administration, shaken by the Bay of Pigs and threatened by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with wars of National Liberation, reached for a new initiative in foreign policy. Counterinsurgency (COIN) emerged as their response. If, after all, insurgency was the problem, then counterinsurgency must be the answer.

In the broadest sense, that may be true; but, in application, counterinsurgency tends to focus on a narrower base. In the early days, it was largely a reactive concept. Guerrillas were to be defeated, subversion was to be eliminated and nations were to be built somehow along the lines of the American model—unobjectionable, certainly, even if a bit dreamy and self-centered. One of the interesting things about COIN was that there was a role for almost every governmental agency in Washington.

A sense of movement was created as these agencies were admonished to get cracking. It is easy to issue orders in Washington. By 1962, Washington was awash in committees, seminars, study groups and visiting professors. Counterinsurgency was very much in style. For two years, no briefing on progress failed to include the proud description of a U.S. Army Engineer team which built a much-needed road in Ecuador between the peasant farmers and their market. This bit of good work seemed to resonate beautifully with the self-image of America on the march, providing a practical Yankee antidote against subversion and insurgency in the Third World.

We now know that profound and subtle political issues lie at the heart of counterinsurgency. But in 1962 the program was more grossly defined as a combination of functions and activities in which we excelled—building roads, setting up medical clinics, distributing surplus farm commodities, broadcasting anticommunist arguments and training local armies in the use of U.S. weapons. The political issues were simply assigned to the State Department on a functional basis. In short, the political issues were external to our massive structure for counterinsurgency.

In retrospect, these illusions are amusing, but there was a darker side. The theory of counterinsurgency was one thing, but the reality of Vietnam was quite another. By that, I mean that there was a huge gap between the diagnosis of causes and the reality of Vietnam. This gap persisted for years. Its traces can still be seen. In accordance with counterinsurgency doctrine, the root causes of insurgency were economic and political at the grass roots (hamlet) level. The illusion, therefore, was that remedies were to be found solely in the performance of the South Vietnamese government.

So our attention and action was focused upon that new and clearly struggling government. When things went badly, which was often, we sought the causes in Saigon. By 1963, we were so unhappy with Vietnamese government performance that we supported the ouster of President Ngo Dinh Diem (and his unintended murder) by a cabal of inept generals.

The problem, of course, was much larger and more difficult even than the admitted weakness of the government of South Vietnam. The mother cell which fed the insurgency was in Hanoi. The Politburo in North Vietnam, consisting of the world's toughest and most experienced revolutionaries, had launched a massive effort to liberate South Vietnam under the guise of a homegrown insurgency. Thousands of trained political agents and military leaders had infiltrated into the south. Arms and ammunition were being delivered by coastal trawler. The Laotian trails were traversed by carrying parties.

The National Liberation Front (NLF) [aka Viet Cong] had been established under the control and direction of Hanoi. But emphasis on the North Vietnamese involvement was unwelcome. Emphasis on the military dimensions of the war ran counter to the newly conventional wisdom. The pendulum had been given a mighty push.

If you were "for" counterinsurgency, you were "against" conventional military thinking. Military operational plans were regarded at best as unnecessary and at worst reactionary, unenlightened and stupid.

"The old generals don't understand the problem," it was said. Guerrilla war is not susceptible to conventional solutions—ARVN was organized by the U.S. military for the wrong war under outmoded concepts—we should be fighting guerrillas with guerrillas, or so went the discussions in Washington.

But while these debates went on, a combination of Vietcong skill and North Vietnamese escalation of effort, coupled with the sheer weakness of the government of Vietnam and its army, led to near collapse in late 1964 and early 1965, forestalled only by the emergency deployment of U.S. forces.

U.S. forces were deployed slowly and tentatively at first, with numerous and nervous restrictions on their employment. The very first ground forces (Marines at Danang and the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Bien Hoa) were sent to defend the airfields from which retaliation air strikes against North Vietnam were being launched. By late 1965 and throughout 1966, the inflow of U.S. troops accelerated. By this time the 1st Cavalry Division, with great valor, had fought the North Vietnamese army in the Ia Drang campaign, and the Marines had met a North Vietnamese army division south of the DMZ. It is interesting to note the missions which U.S. forces were expected to perform. At Honolulu on 1 July, 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara outlined six major operational goals:
  • Eliminate 40 to 50 percent of all Vietcong/North Vietnamese army base areas in South Vietnam.
  • Open 50 percent of all the main roads and railways in South Vietnam.
  • Pacify the four priority areas specified in the joint U.S./South Vietnam directive AB 141 (Saigon, central Mekong Delta, Danang area, Qui Nhon area).
  • Secure 60 percent of the South Vietnamese population.
  • Defend the military bases, the political and population centers, and the main food-producing areas under government of Vietnam control.
  • By the end of 1966, Vietcong/North Vietnamese army forces were to be attrited at a rate at least equal to their replacement capacity.
The first five were classical counterinsurgency goals. But these objectives were patently beyond reach without defeating the rapidly growing Vietcong/North Vietnamese main forces. This problem was addressed tangentially by the sixth mission.
One could say that these missions taken together amounted to placing our priorities on setting the dinner table while the kitchen was on fire. Under this strategic guidance, MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) went to the only possible course of action—defend what needed defending and go after the main forces of the enemy with aggressive search and destroy operations. But "search and destroy," starting in 1966, lost its only hope for decisive results when both the Vietcong and North Vietnamese divisional and regimental formations moved their bases into Cambodia, Laos and the North Vietnamese panhandle north of the DMZ. These were facts which Washington was loath to accept.
Mr. McNamara expected a level of attrition which would put a ceiling on the strength of combined Vietcong main force and North Vietnamese army elements; but aggressive U.S. operations were frustrated by the withdrawal of their quarry to sanctuary where he reconstituted, retrained and reentered South Vietnam only when he was ready for battle and could afford another round of losses.
By controlling those losses, he put the attrition goals beyond reach. By the time the sanctuaries were attacked in 1970, the U.S. force was in the midst of its massive withdrawal.

The great power of counterinsurgency on the minds of decision makers arose out of its obvious importance. It dealt with security and social progress at the lowest levels—levels where the people lived and worked. Under the aegis of Ambassadors Komer and Colby, the COIN effort reached high levels of effectiveness. Its baleful influence on sound military planning stemmed from the persistent misconception that COIN could do it alone. This view was just as specious and unrealistic as the opposing notion that COIN was irrelevant in the presence of a gigantic clash of national armies.
Before leaving the subject of COIN and its impact on U.S. operational planning, it is worth mentioning that the U.S. effort also foundered on the political track. The ultimate measure of effectiveness of the whole U.S. effort simply has to be an assessment of the comparative national political strength of the South Vietnamese government and the North Vietnamese regime.
This subject is so vast and complex as to deserve a whole shelf of books but, against the bottom line, we never quite induced the growth of a strong independent government of South Vietnam. It was a shaky structure girded and propped by a pervasive American presence.
An external American ignition harness extended to every level. The power generator lay outside the machine itself. When it was withdrawn, the spark plugs no longer fired. It is difficult for this democracy of ours to deal with the political dimensions of insurgency. The kinds of measures and risks that need to be taken – the arbitrary (and often undemocratic) controls which may be required – do not go down well back here at home where the value system is unique and to a large extent nonexportable.
Our Congress is in a continuous state of dither and shock over the vaguest suggestion that we are selecting, installing and supporting strong leaders; yet, when we do not, the other side does. At least, by now we should recognize that we may be reasonably competent in the economic and military fields and even have something to offer on the plane of counterterror, but in the center ring – the political heart of the matter – we are self-constrained by our own history and political processes and are, therefore, vulnerable to failure.
It's impossible not to perceive parallels to our modern counterinsurgency debate, but the most interesting thing for me is the way this reflection undercuts the Krepinevich/Sorley/Nagl narrative about the Army's refusal to recognize the situation and adapt. The Army certainly made mistakes in Vietnam, but for the most part they weren't a product of some stubborn refusal to accept that pacification was a necessary element of the war.


  1. Regarding your last paragraph, Gulliver, doesn't COL. Gentile make the same point?

    - Madhu

  2. COL Gentile does make that point, though it's usually as part of a more complicated, less coherent, and apparently contradictory polemic about the Army later adopting a counterproductive doctrinal culture. But it's a fair point.

    Bumper sticker slogans, oversimplification, and one-eyed, monocausal history aren't serving us well, regardless of the side that employs those tactics.

  3. Oh, I see. I admit, the doctrinal arguments confuse me.

    - Madhu

  4. Toward the end of "Triumph Forsaken," Moyar paints, to me, a *reasonably* - not completely, not totally, but reasonably - compelling portrait of a Westmoreland circa 1964 (in other words, pre-large-scale US involvement) who "got it" in terms of COIN, pacification, etc. I would want more evidence. Thus, I think if I were disinclined toward "Bumper sticker slogans, oversimplification, and one-eyed monocausal history," a potentially profitable enterprise might be to go into the sources (i.e., footnotes and citations) that form the basis of Moyar's portrait, and determine whether said portrait is deserved or cherry-picked.


  5. Vitesse et PuissanceMarch 7, 2012 at 12:36 PM

    What is interesting and sad about this is that we seem to be conducting the postwar debate over Iraq and Afghanistan be redoing the post-Vietnam controversies. Not to jettison the "Lessons of Vietnam" - but can we please get over it ? One has to admire General Depuy for having left us such a lucid and well-grounded postmortem. But the worst reason in the world to fight a counterinsurgency campaign is to provide a counterproof as to why and how the last counterinsurgency campaign failed...a rather persistently recursive argument, I'm afraid.