The Limits of Air Power -Mark Clodfelter
About the Author:
Clodfelter taught at both USAFA and SAASS; as well as the University of North Carolina and National War College.
Ultimately, air power’s usefulness/success must be measured by its ability to accomplish the war’s positive goals without jeopardizing its negative objectives. His argument about Vietnam suggests Johnson’s concern over his large number of negative objectives (minimizing the war’s effect on his Great Society programs, preventing escalation with the Chinese/Soviets, etc.), coupled with his ambitious positive goal of a democratic and stable South Vietnam, resulted in a tall order for air power. Further, an ill-suited doctrine of strategic bombing that didn’t fit the counterinsurgency fight in Vietnam, interservice rivalry, and poor relationships between the military and the civilian leaders resulted in a poor strategy poorly executed.
In his epilogue, Clodfelter highlights his contention that the type of war should dictate the type of force used by suggesting the US should determine how to apply force in a conflict using a construct for analyzing the conflict’s nature. By asking five questions, the US can arrive at a decision of whether to employ air power independently or as an auxiliary; and whether it should be used to affect the enemy directly or indirectly. The five questions are:
1) Nature of the enemy?
2) Type of war waged by the enemy?
3) Nature of the combat environment?
4) Magnitude of military controls?
5) Nature of the political objectives?
Stringent political control over it application was not the primary reason for air power’s lack of effectiveness in the Vietnam conflict. Instead, numerous factors doomed the efforts of US air power strategists to failure. These included the lack of direction from the administration, the lack of unity of effort and resultant interservice rivalry in the military, the president’s concern with domestic and international support/popularity, and a faulty air power doctrine that tried to apply conventional/total war concepts to a counterinsurgency/limited conflict.
He uses numerous primary source quotes, policies and military operation records/tactics/results to paint his picture.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this book is its ability to tie several different issues to the central question, “what went wrong in Vietnam?” Instead of allowing conventional wisdom to dominate the conversation, he illustrates the significant effects of major issues at multiple levels to explain the lack of success there. The broader implications of his story cause the reader to question the nature of civil-military relations in our democracy and result in the conclusion that the men who hold positions of power in our nation are no more naturally gifted or visionary than anyone else. If there is a weakness in Clodfelter’s argument, I think it is in his comparison of Nixon to Johnson. His arguments appear one-sided and use the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to chuck spears at Johnson and laud Nixon. Unfortunately, the different circumstances each president faced makes any direct comparison difficult but does question the ability of leaders to change their strategy/policies/tactics based on real-time events and developments.
This book is yet another example of how men become inflexible when they marry themselves to a theory or a strategy. Like Eisenhower’s views on the use of nuclear weapons, MacArthur’s views on warfare in Korea, the French views of Vietnam’s role in their national resurgence, and air force leader’s faith in strategic bombing, people who become intransigent in theories and strategies fail to remain objective enough to maximize the use of the means at their disposal. This intransigence has real consequences in human life, treasure and international prestige.
This book did a great job of clearly articulating how multiple things were wrong with American foreign policy in Vietnam and highlighting how no one in the Johnson administration on down was able to remedy these problems. Further, it emphasized the importance of having a trusting relationship between senior military and civilian leaders. This is not to say they have to agree about everything; but the consequences of distrust at this level of government in our country are potentially severe.
This book underscores numerous lessons in civilian leadership of the military, interservice rivalry, doctrinal intransigence, accurate situation/enemy assessment, and use of force that translate very well to today’s conflicts in the Middle East. It highlights one more in a long line of examples of how using force can actually make a situation worse; not better…despite tactical victories and overwhelming strength of force.
This book highlights the difficulty of relating political objectives to military operations.
Powerful and Brutal Weapons -Stephen P. Randolph
About the Author:
Stephen P. Randolph is a former fighter pilot, retired colonel, and currently teaches at the National Defense University.
This book essentially picks up where the last one left off, by describing the Vietnam conflict in the Nixon years. Randolph highlights the numerous important players in the Nixon Administration (Henry Kissinger--NSC, Alexander Haig—Kissinger’s military assistant, Laird--SECDEF, Abrams—senior commander in Vietnam) and the role they each played in the decision-making. By telling a great deal of the story of combat on the ground, Randolph supports and underscores his main points about the handling of the war by the administration. Specifically, he highlights the differences between the way Johnson handled the war and Nixon’s methods.
One primary difference between the administrations was the objective each sought. By the time Nixon came into office, he essentially had a mandate to get American military forces out of Vietnam…period. So, instead of trying to use military force to support a stable and democratic South Vietnam, Nixon was trying to obtain “peace with honor” while pulling forces out as quickly as possible.
While military experts point to Linebacker I/II as counter-examples to the political shackles placed on military leaders during Rolling Thunder, the entire character of the war had changed by the time Nixon was in charge. The North Vietnamese had transitioned to conventional war tactics instead of guerilla tactics…a changed that lent itself well to the conventional air power tactics preferred by American military leaders.
Although generally viewed as the more successful commander-in-chief when compared to Johnson, it is important to remember that 30,000 of America’s 58,000 KIAs happened after Nixon took over the war. Given the objective by this point was to get out of Vietnam, these 30,000 men and women represent the cost of preserving America’s reputation as an ally of developing democracies and the commitment that yielded benefits to the US in understanding better the nature of the relationship between China and the USSR. Hanoi became the “lever” that allowed us to affect Moscow and Beijing.
History has changed the perception of the Vietnam conflict from a tactical victory & strategic defeat to a tactical defeat & strategic victory. While the US military was unable to preserve South Vietnamese democracy, our commitment there helped further exacerbate the fissure between the Soviets and the Chinese while demonstrating American resolve in the face of communist aggression.
At the operational and tactical level, this book also highlighted the importance and benefits of precision weapons as they became available to American air power. These weapons clearly demonstrated how fewer weapons platforms could deliver the same effect due to their accuracy.
Also, Randolph highlights the lack of centralized control and the inefficient leadership structure in place that often hindered the employment of US military power. Whether examining the obstructionist effects of administration members like Laird, the lack of trust between the civilians and the military leaders, or the lack of unity of effort and interservice rivalry demonstrated by the military leaders in theater, it becomes clear that no one person can be held responsible for the failings in Vietnam.
Despite numerous problems both in theater and back in Washington, Nixon combined the instruments of power in a way that allowed the means of military force to be more aptly tied to limited political objectives. Leveraging his position in North Vietnam against the nuclear summit with the Russians and the economic relationship with the Chinese, Nixon was able to rely on multiple means to reach the end of “peace with honor.”
Numerous accounts of battles on the ground and in the air. Taped conversations between the primary actors in the White House. A first-hand account of daily life in Hanoi via British observers. Policy/Operations plans and their military results.
One obvious strength of this book was the way it wove military battles into the larger political scene in an attempt to tell a more holistic story of the Vietnam conflict. Additionally, numerous valuable history is present in this book…including roots of interservice rivalry and deconfliction/coordination between naval, army and air force air power, the effects of precision weapons on a campaign, the results of poor peacetime acquisitions manifested in the lack of a gun on the F-4, and the US military’s ability to fight and win a limited conflict with an adversary fighting a “total war” effort on their home turf.
When combined with the previous book, the more complete picture of Vietnam suggests that American leaders should not overestimate the ability of military means to achieve every politically desirable end. Whether Johnson’s pre-occupation with domestic politics and escalation, Nixon’s exclusion of several of his advisors, or the rocky relationship between America’s political and military leadership, numerous obstacles prevent an efficient use of force in a limited conflict against a determined enemy. Several of these same issues reveal themselves in the current operations in the Middle East. Further, using force piecemeal by adding a little here and then a little there can result in an insidious ramp-up of forces capable of achieving little compellence of the enemy all on its own. As displayed by the tactics employed by Nixon, the enemy’s fear of your next move is a key aspect of military strategy…and its fragile relationship with the use of force should not be disregarded.
Great book on the second half of the Vietnam conflict. A great deal of it is in the weeds of the military action, but the purpose remains clear throughout….telling the bigger story of the war. If nothing else, this book calls into question the efficiency of our government system when fighting a less-than-total war effort.
The events in this book highlight an example of synthesizing the instruments of power while also underscoring the limitations of the use of force.
In Vietnam, airmen started thinking about targets as systems.