Change is inevitable and organizations must learn to adapt. Author Andrew Krepinevich, Jr. asserts in this work of history and analysis of the United States military experience during the Vietnam War that the army failed prepare or adapt to new circumstances. Instead it prepared and proceeded to fight the type of war to which it had become accustom, a war like that of World War II in a European theater.
Krepinevich asks a remarkable question worth repeating.
“How could the army of the most powerful nation on Earth, materially supported on a scale unprecedented in history, equipped with the most sophisticated technology in an age when technology was assumed the role of a god of war, fail to emerge victorious against a numerically inferior force of lightly armed irregulars?”
Analyzing this question gives the book its purpose. His conclusion is that the nation’s civilian and military leadership failed to adapt. In so doing they ensure that the “United States Army was neither trained nor organized to fight effectively in an insurgency conflict environment.” At issue is what Krepinevich calls “The Army Concept” of war which he defines as “the Army’s perception of how wars ought to be waged and is reflected in the way the Army organizes and trains its troops for battle.” A key conclusion is that the army’s previous experience, which would help to inform “The Army Concept,” simply didn’t prepare it for a counterinsurgency. While the U.S. Army became masterful at the World War II form of battle, it did not prepare for the deployment of light infantry formations, firepower restraint, and the need to resolve political and social issues with a country targeted by insurgents. Interestingly, Krepinevich also concludes that the ability to adapt to this type of war should have been maintained in the collective military for we had been insurgents ourselves during the American Revolution. Likewise, America fought the equivalent of an insurgency against Native Americans, and guerillas during the Philippine War. But the author contends that Army leaders chose to focus rather on more conventional forms of war.
Krepinevich structures his text chronologically into three parts. The first reviews the period from 1954 – 1965 when the United States served as advisor to the South Vietnamese. The second part covers the period from 1965 – 1968 during which time the U.S. had committed a significant number of troops. His final section covers the years of withdrawal, 1968 – 1973. The author provides a thorough notes section. This work’s intended audience is broad. It’s appropriate for military historians certainly, as well as today’s military and civilian leadership and strategy makers. Given the evolution of counterinsurgency as the norm for warfare in today’s world, the lessons to be learned all the more urgent. The author of the forward for the work, Colonel George K. Osborn III, also points out an additional audience, students of organizational change within large bureaucratic organizations. I couldn’t agree more.
Dr. Krepinevich is a graduate of West Point and at the time of the book’s publication was a Major in the U.S. Army. He holds an MPA and Ph.D. from Harvard University and is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He presides over the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute established to promote innovative thinking about defense planning and investment strategies for the 21st century. He is both author and lecturer on U.S. military strategy and policy. His recent works include Strategy for a Long Peace; Transforming America’s Alliances; The Quadrennial Defense Review: Rethinking the U.S. Military Posture, and How to Win in Iraq. His has published work in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Issues in Science and Technology, Joint Forces Quarterly, The Naval War College Review, and Strategic Review. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and has appeared on each of the major networks, National Public Radio, and The McLaughlan Group. He has lectured at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, the U.S. Military Academy, the Air University, the Army and Naval War Colleges, Europe’s Marshall Center, and France’s Ecole Militaire. His book, The Army and Vietnam, received the 1987 Furniss Award. Krepinevich’s book is sure to be provocative. As an overview of America’s engagement in Southeast Asia and the lessons learned there, it is excellent.