Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez entered the Army as a new lieutenant in the wake of the Vietnam War, when the terms "hollow force" and "broken Army" meant rampant drug use, race riots, and serious violence in the ranks. Sanchez describes these things on page 29 of his book as he tells of his arrival at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a new lieutenant in October 1973. He also gives us a glimpse into his beliefs about the Army, Vietnam and civil-military relations:
We had discipline problems, leadership problems, racial problems, alcohol problems, and drug addiction problems. It was common for us to hold surprise health and welfare inspections in the barracks and find all kinds of illegal drugs. It was all very disturbing for a young, idealistic officer like me.
I eventually came to realize that I was seeing what we would later refer to as the "broken Army" in the wake of Vietnam. By this time, we had stopped reinforcing our troops in Southeast Asia, which is why I had not been deployed. But the long-term effect of that campaign proved absolutely catastrophic for the military. What caused it? For starters, civilian leaders in the White House micromanaged many aspects of the Vietnam War. They did not allow the U.S. armed forces to utilize the full extent of its resources to achieve victory. Instead, the military was forced to fight incremental battles that led to a never-ending conflict. And the Army itself descended into a dark cloud almost totally focused on Southeast Asia. That, in turn, resulted in it being overextended in virtually every area that one could imagine.
Ah yes, the "stabbed in the back narrative."
This narrative is popular among American military officers of a certain age, who believe if only they'd had gutsy political leadership, support from the homefront, and a willingness to steamroll North Vietnam with overwhelming force, we might have won the war.
It's a good story, but it's wrong. No amount of America firepower could have crushed the North Vietnamese people's will. It's true that we made many missteps in waging the Vietnam War, and that we might have achieved a better outcome in the short term had we backed better South Vietnamese leaders, implemented smarter counterinsurgency strategies sooner, and pursued Vietnamization earlier. But the ultimate outcome was ordained long before 1973, and probably long before American combat troops arrived in 1965. Most of the histories I've read suggest the die was cast sometime around when the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. We didn't lose the Vietnam War because of any "stab in the back." We lost because we failed to see the strategic environment correctly, and we chose a war of a time, place and manner that we could not win.
This narrative came to mean a great deal to the cohort of American military officers who shepherded the services through the post-Vietnam years. They vowed to never again fight a war like Vietnam. These generals embraced the Weinberger-Powell doctrine prescribing when, how and why they would fight. They rejected counterinsurgency efforts and small wars, choosing instead conventional wars with defined objectives and familiar features. And they rebuilt the Army with capabilities to fight these wars, marginalizing those who thought about small wars and pushing them into the special forces, civil affairs, military police and intelligence communities. Even during the 1990s, when the Army deployed for peacekeeping operations around the world, these missions remained peripheral.
On the very next page, Sanchez criticizes the decision to send "unprepared and improperly trained soldiers" into the "guerilla warfighting conditions" of Vietnam. He appears to miss the connection, however, between his misunderstanding of the Vietnam war and the Army's lack of preparedness for Iraq, which flowed from that deeply flawed view.
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