Bush on Vietnam: What Went Wrong

Roundup: Media's Take

Fred Kaplan, in Slate (Feb. 9, 2004):

[Tim] Russert asked [President Bush] whether he supported that war. Bush replied that he did, sort of. The president added:

The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me, as I look back, was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is a lesson that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War.

This is the great conservative shibboleth about the Vietnam War—that we lost the war because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and to a lesser extent President Lyndon Johnson, put too many constraints on the generals, telling them which targets they could and could not hit. But it's very odd for George W. Bush to be reciting this case because the two wars he's commanded, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been, in this sense, the most"political" wars in recent American history.

While Bush himself may not have done much micromanaging of the war, his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, not only helped pick targets, but rearranged the structure of the units sent into battle. In preparing for Iraq, he ordered the removal of several heavy-artillery battalions from Army divisions. In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan, he rejected several war plans submitted by Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, until the general devised an unprecedented combination of troops and special operations commandos that conformed to Rumsfeld's concept of" military transformation " and smaller, lighter forces.

The interesting thing about this blatant intrusion into the nuts and bolts of military planning is that Rumsfeld was right . With the advent of very precise"smart bombs," aerial drones with real-time video transmissions, and computerized command-control networks that allowed for much greater coordination between air forces and ground troops, the Army didn't need so much artillery; air power could break up enemy defenses in a way that, in an earlier era, only artillery could. Or at least Rumsfeld was right in the battlefield phase of the war. He should have paid more attention to his generals in planning how many troops would be needed after victory was declared.

But the point here is that if civilian interference is"the thing about the Vietnam War that troubles" George W. Bush, why wasn't he troubled about the way his own wars were planned and fought, for better and for worse? Or has he ever really been troubled about the Vietnam War, back then or now? And was he aware of the intense internecine fighting between Rumsfeld and the Army over the war plans for Iraq? The main message that President Bush tried to send during his session with Russert was that he is a leader in command."I'm a war president," he said at the start."I make decisions here in the Oval Office on foreign policy matters with war on my mind." But in some of his remarks that followed, the president cast doubt on how much he's even in the loop.

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