McNamara’s Folly

Throughout America’s history, no citizen with common sense ever wanted to go to war.  “We the people” do not start wars — our elected officials and bureaucrats do that.  At no time in my memory has the US government offered a compelling argument or justification for involving our nation in a foreign war.  When they try to provide a convincing reason for war, they always wrap it in a lie.  For example, the government told Americans that the United States sent combat troops to Vietnam to defend the South Vietnamese people from their authoritarian cousins in the north.  In fact, both North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem had the same aspirations: unification under their leadership.  Neither man ever gave a damn about the poor South Vietnamese peasant.  War is bad enough, but when politicians and unelected bureaucrats contrive to make things worse for the combat soldier — which is the topic of this essay, the American voter should put his or her foot down and loudly and angrily proclaim, “enough is enough!”

Some Background

Combat units of the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) began offering important lessons to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1965.  One of these lessons was that they should refrain from firing their weapons at U. S. Marines — because being shot at makes American Marines very cranky.

At the beginning of 1966, the 3rdMarDiv employed its 24,000 men against several communist thrusts into Quang Tri Province, also known as the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  The five provinces of the I CTZ were the northernmost area of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).  General William C. Westmoreland, U. S. Army, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 3rdMarDiv to defend this northern tier.  In 1966, the 3rdMarDiv was the Marine Corps’ largest (ever) combat division.  There were five infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, all of the usual supporting units, Army artillery units, Navy logistical units (including Seabees), and two Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry regiments.  The division was huge — but then, so too was their area of defense.[1]

The 3rdMarDiv’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) encompassed 1,800 square miles of Indian country.  The terrain was all rugged, elevated, menacing, and over-populated with things that hurt, such as an abundant enemy — and predatory cats.  At the far northern tip of South Vietnam, along its border with North Vietnam, was the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  Defending the DMZ was one of the division’s primary missions, but not the only one.[2]

To achieve this defensive objective, two unusual behaviors were necessary.  First, the United States had to adopt the strategy of the North Vietnamese, which was to prosecute a war of attrition.  Simply stated, the US and North Vietnamese agreed to see which of them could afford to give up the most human lives to further their political goals.[3]  Think about that for a moment.[4]  Second, for the Marines to defend the northern provinces, they had to establish a wide arc of defensive bases (euphemistically called combat bases) that would permit the 3rdMarDiv to respond to the enemy within an area of 1,800 square miles.

The main north-south highway within I CTZ was Route 1.  It connected Marine combat bases at Dong Ha and Quang Tri City in the North to Phu Bai and Da Nang in the South.  Any obstruction along this highway would disrupt vital logistical support of the division’s forward-most units; the enemy knew this exceptionally well.  So, the primary logistical highway became the Cua Viet River, which extended from its mouth on the coast to Dong Ha.

At Dong Ha, the river was about as wide as a mountain footpath.  Additionally, Route 9 linked Dong Ha with Khe Sanh.  East of Khe Sanh, the 3rdMarDiv created a series of outposts that offered some protection for Route 9 and the Cam Lo River Valley (which extended from Dong Ha to the coastal plain).  Of these outposts, the more critical were located at Ca Lu (ten miles east of Khe Sanh), the “Rockpile” (a sheer outcrop eight miles north), Camp Carroll (10 miles eastward), and “Leatherneck Square,” which was a quadrilateral region outlined by Cam Lo, Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Dong Ha.

As previously mentioned, the 3rdMarDiv’s TAOR was massive.  The division’s defense plan further divided the TAOR among its regiments and separate battalions.  Each of these had a code name, such as Napoleon, Kentucky, Lancaster, and Scotland.

The Third Marine Division defeated the NVA and Viet Cong (VC) in every engagement — but in confronting and defeating this enemy, the Marines encountered a high casualty rate.  By the end of 1967, Marine commanders were frustrated; the division lost good men and had nothing to show for it.  Between 1966-67, the division had lost 5,000 killed and wounded Marines.  It was an unacceptable casualty rate … and a direct result of the imbecilic static war concept.

In 1965, Washington bureaucrats began experimenting with various schemes for achieving their political goals through static defensive measures.  This may be all fine and good when looking at the larger picture, but on closer examination, the cost of “experimentation” was an excessively high US casualty rate.  Most of these “good ideas” had been rejected by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because, to implement them, the US would have to increase (at least initially) its troop strength in South Vietnam.  Moreover, implementing these ideas would force the North Vietnamese to change its strategy — specifically, a full-scale invasion of Laos by the NVA, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to avoid.

Whiz Boy

Robert S. McNamara

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was known as one of Ford Motor Company’s “whiz kids.”[5]  He was one of those “good idea” people who thought he knew everything he needed to know about fighting a war.  In reality, McNamara was a bean counter who knew nothing about warfare.

One of McNamara’s schemes was constructing a defensive line along the northern border of South Vietnam and its border with Southeast Laos.  McNamara met with former national security advisor Carl Kaysen.[6]  Kaysen convinced McNamara that the key to success in static defensive strategies was establishing an electronic barrier.  Kaysen argued (successfully) that an electronic barrier would limit NVA infiltration into South Vietnam.  An electronic wall made great sense to McNamara, so he convened a feasibility group consisting of several science technologists.  They submitted their proposals in March 1966 — which McNamara dutifully passed along to the JCS for their comments.

At best, the JCS was lukewarm to the idea of an electric barrier, particularly since the barrier wouldn’t prevent infiltration and because creating the barrier would still require additional forces in Vietnam.  Moreover, it would require a significant construction effort, would involve a massive logistical effort, exponentially increasing the costs of the war.  McNamara didn’t like being told “no.” It might have been better for everyone if McNamara had any knowledge of history — specifically, of Hadrian’s Wall.

Somewhat rebuffed, McNamara then turned to the JASON Group.[7]  The JASON group had impressed McNamara by proclaiming that Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaign over North Vietnam was an utter failure.  Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command could have told McNamara that for a lot less money.

JASON recommended a two-tier defensive barrier system.  The first tier involved conventional detection/response capability inland from the coast along the southern portion of the DMZ and another system along the remote western section abutting Laos that would trigger electronic detection, air interdiction, and remotely triggered minefields.  JASON thought that such a system could be in place within a year.  At this point, McNamara had tiny electric tingles running up and down his leg.

Mr. McNamara sent the JASON proposal to the JCS for review.  Every service chief rejected it, save one.  JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler, U. S. Army, was positively enthralled with the idea.[8]  Despite the overwhelming JCS rejection of the JASON plan, Wheeler sent the report to the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command, Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, for his review.[9]  Admiral Sharp rejected the plan as impractical; General Westmoreland agreed.

With the backing of only one uniformed flag rank officer, McNamara took the plan to President Johnson, who knew no more about fighting a war than Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command. McNamara’s cost estimate — in dollars — was $1.5 billion.  Well, another $750-million (annually) for operating costs.  President Johnson, who never saw a spending package he didn’t like, approved it.[10]  In terms of combat casualties, the project would far exceed the material costs of McNamara’s Wall.

Louis Metzger

Marine Corps combat engineers began preparing the ground for the construction of Project Dye Marker along a strip of land 500 meters wide from Gio Linh westward to Con Thien in early 1967.  The Marines assigned to this project (infantry, artillery, and combat engineers) were utterly exhausted, a fact first expressed by (then) Brigadier General Louis Metzger, who served as Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv/CG 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade — because in addition to providing security for construction of McNamara’s Wall, they also constantly responded to the enemy’s initiatives in Northwest South Vietnam.  For the Marines, the project involved sustained periods of heavy combat.  Major General Raymond L. Murray, Deputy Commander, III MAF, echoed Metzger’s sentiments. “The division commander’s primary mission was the tactical handling of his troops … rather than build the damn line that nobody believed in, in the first place.” In December 1967, Murray angrily remarked, “How in the hell were you going to build this thing when you had to fight people off while you were building it?”

The actual cost of McNamara’s Wall was dear.  Not including the lives lost and the men wounded in trying to construct Dye Marker, the Marines spent close to a million man-hours and 114,000 equipment hours on the project; they had also lost more than $1.6 million in combat equipment to the enemy’s ground and artillery assaults.  Everything associated with Dye Marker became an enemy target, from convoys moving equipment forward to killing combat engineers while seated atop their bulldozers.

In 1967, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, warned senior commanders in Vietnam that for the Marines to succeed, they must be allowed to wage war on their terms — not as part of a static defensive strategy subject to the prerogatives of the enemy — but as a lethal force that set its terms of engagement.[11]  By this time, the NVA had already demonstrated its willingness to lose large numbers of men in exchange for a fewer number of Americans, but over a sustained period.

Krulak identified three options along the DMZ: (1) Withdraw the Marines further south of the DMZ, out of range of NVA artillery (which, while tactically sound, offered a propaganda victory to the NVA exceeding Ted Kennedy and Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam); (2) Invade North Vietnam (tactically and logistically difficult, not to mention politically impossible); or (3) Reinforce the 3rdMarDiv and intensify US air and artillery assaults on North Vietnam.  The ball was thus placed in Westmoreland’s court.  He needed to either crap or got off the pot.  Westmoreland elected to get off the pot.

At the beginning of 1968, the NVA used the western end of the barrier, from Khe Sanh, through the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, to attack American forces in that region.  Lang Vei was overrun with 309 killed, 64 wounded, and 122 captured by the NVA, and Khe Sanh was placed under a siege that lasted for 77 days.  After the blockade, Westmoreland’s replacement, General Creighton W. Abrams, ordered Khe Sanh abandoned.  Abrams also ordered the destruction of all infrastructure along Route 9 toward Laos, including all roadways and bridges.  In October 1968, all work relating to Dye Marker ceased.

In March 1968, Major General Raymond G. Davis, USMC, served As Deputy Commander, Provisional Corps.[12]  In May, he was assigned as Commanding General, 3rdMarDiv, through April 1969.  During his tenure in this position, Davis refused to leave his men in static positions where they could be targeted and slaughtered by the NVA.  Soon after taking command, he ordered his subordinate commanders to move out of their static combat bases and execute their traditional mission: locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and close combat.  Operation Dewey Canyon was how he took the war to the enemy.  With a stream of officers who agreed with this philosophy following him as the division commander, the Marines of I CTZ inflicted a terrible price upon the enemy.  At the end of 1972, the NVA began conscripting young teenagers.  The war might have turned out much differently were it not for Washington politicians (of both parties) who shocked NVA General in Chief Vo Nguyen Giap by ordering the withdrawal of US Forces.

Conclusion

I have long given up my hope that the American people will begin to exercise their sovereignty over the federal government.  They seem not to mind burying their children in massive national cemeteries — and they apparently have never learned that elections have costly consequences.  John Kennedy’s election to the presidency was one of our nation’s more corrupt campaigns. Kennedy’s running mate was one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of the U. S. Congress.  Kennedy selected McNamara to serve as SecDef; Johnson kept him on the payroll.  Who, then, is to blame for getting the American people engaged in a land war that politicians had no intention of winning?  The blame rests with the American voter.  Democrats lied — to both the American people and our South Vietnamese allies — and tens of thousands of Americans died.

President Richard Nixon was roundly criticized by the vocal American communist/anti-war/progressive movement for expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos — but this was precisely what Nixon needed to do to defeat the NVA, who were already operating in Cambodia and Laos — but progressive Democrats/neo-communists gave Kennedy/Johnson a pass for having committed troops to Vietnam in the first place.

Sources:

  1.  Brush, P.  The Story Behind the McNamara Line. Vietnam Magazine, 1996.
  2. Cash, J. A.  The Other Side of the Hill.  Army Center of Military History, 2014.
  3. Philips, W. R.  Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
  4. Prados, J.  The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
  5. Shulimson, J. And Blasiol, L. A. And others.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Marines defend the United States of America.  They do that through aggressive, overpowering combat.  There are defensive tactics in the Marine Corps, but they are designed as a temporary respite while transitioning from one attack to another.  A bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition, and neither is establishing defensive positions while waiting for the enemy to make his next move.  US Policy in Vietnam tied the hands of the Marines (indeed, all air, ground, and naval forces), by restricting offensive operations and imposing our combat forces criminally malfeasant rules of engagement.

[2] A DMZ is an area of land in which treaties or agreements forbid the establishment of any military activity (installations, activities, or personnel).  It is a buffer zone between two warring factions.  In the case of Vietnam, it was the official border area between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of South Vietnam.  The NVA frequently violated this agreement, in much the same way they violated the neutrality of neighboring Laos.

[3] Never before in US history had the government of the United States adopted an enemy’s game plan.  Whether this was Westmoreland’s idea, or one imposed upon him from Washington, the result was the devastating loss of 58,000 American lives in a conflict that they could not win. 

[4] The aggressive nature of USMC combat operations has always been to save lives, not waste them.  If the United States must fight a war, then the sooner the enemy is defeated, the better.  Washington/Westmoreland denied this proven strategy to the Marines during the Vietnam War.

[5] McNamara served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, gaining a commission as a captain, and achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel before the end of the war.  During the war, he served in the Office of Statistical Control where he analyzed the effectiveness of bomber efficiency.  In 1946, McNamara and ten others of the OSC joined Ford Motor Company.  Collectively, they became known as the Whiz Kids because they helped reform a money-losing FMC.  McNamara became the first president of Ford Motor Company outside the Ford family.  Kennedy appointed him as SecDef at the beginning of his administration.

[6] Kaysen (1920-2010) was an academic advisor in the Kennedy administration, a “specialist” in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  His field of expertise was nuclear warfare, foreign trade, international economic policy, and international security policy.  Presumably, Kaysen was an architect of the “Mutual Atomic Destruction,” which essentially changed forever the psychological characteristics of American society.

[7] The JASON Group was established in 1960.  It is affiliated with the MITRE Corporation, which operates seven Federally funded research and development centers at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Consisting of between thirty and sixty scientific technologists, JASON focuses on the development of military technology, with additional interests in global warming and renewable energy.  The term JASON came from “July-August-September-October-November,” the months in which the group typically met.  They are also skeptically known as “Junior Achiever Somewhat Older Now.”  Most developmental ideas originating from JASON were costly failures, shepherded through Washington bureaucrats by theoretical physicists, biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer geeks.  They no doubt had a hand in the creation of unmanned naval ships that currently sail the nation’s oceans.

[8] “Bus” Wheeler was a career staff officer and school instructor with active service between 1924-1970.  The Vietnam War may be a direct result of appointing a non-combat officer to head the JCS, particularly one who simply could not kiss enough political ass inside the Washington beltway.

[9] Admiral Sharp served as Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet from 1963-64, and as Commander, U. S. Pacific Command from 1964-68.  Sharp was Westmoreland’s boss.

[10] Johnson’s only military experience occurred during World War II when he served as a Congressman/Navy Lieutenant Commander in the Public Affairs Section in Washington, D. C.  The 1965 epic war film In Harm’s Way based the character of LCdr Neal Owynn, a sycophant congressman, on Lyndon Baines Johnson.  When the project’s classified code name was leaked to the American press, Operation Practice Nine became Operation Illinois City and then later Project Dye Marker.

[11] Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPac) (1941-Present} is the largest maritime landing force in the world.  The general officer commanding reports directly to the Commander, U. S. Pacific Command, and exercises command authority over all subordinate commands of the Navy/Marine Corps expeditionary units operating in the Pacific, from California to the Far East.  During the Vietnam War, the CG FMFPac did not exercise operational control of Marines in Vietnam, but he nevertheless had something to say about how the Marines were employed within USMACV.

[12] Raymond G. Davis (1915-2003) served as a U. S. Marine from 1938-1972.  He participated in the Guadalcanal/Tulagi landings-campaigns, Cape Gloucester campaign, and the invasion of Peleliu.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart while commanding 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.  During the Korean War, Davis commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, during which time he was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the two Silver Stars, Bronze Star, and two Legions of Merit.


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

4 thoughts on “McNamara’s Folly”

  1. Not only was I there, but I have read scores of books and journals that go into great detail IRT all the things you wrote about above. Bottom Line: You and most of the other writers (who told the truth) were/are entirely right. I was and remain, shocked at how corrupt and ignorant our politicians and some senior military personnel were. It is all about power and greed and to hell with the cost in lives and treasure. I also agree that the voters of America are easily led by clever marketeers and lying politicians. Look around today, it seems worse than in 1965. Thank you Mustang for leaning into these subjects. I doubt it will do much good, but worthy of your efforts.

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