Cincinatus, the historical figure, was a 5th-century B.C. Roman soldier and patriot. Cincannatus, the author of Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam era, is an American Army colonel stationed at the Pentagon. Because he wishes his identity to be kept secret, the present Cincinnatus will give only sketchy information about himself. In a recent telephone interview, he said of his age that he "has not yet reached his 50th year." He joined the Army as a private during the Korean War, then became an officer, was graduated from two Army officer's colleges and picked up three college degrees along the way, including a PhD -- "a respectable degree in the liberal arts from a respectable institution," he said. He has served a tour of duty in Vietnam and has written a book on military history.
Several years ago Cincinnatus wrote to executive editor Eric Swenson of Norton with an idea for another book. Cincinnatus proposed to explore how the Army fought in Vietnam to find out why that effort resulted in failure.
"I wasn't even sure myself what I'd find when I started researching the book," Cincinnatus said. "I wasn't sure about the state of the Army in Vietnam -- the state of its leadership. I knew about it from a microcosmic point of view. Then I read the secondary literature, studied the reports and talked to a lot more people. The results were sad."
Those sad results make interesting reading. Cincinnatus' exhaustively researched and documented work argues that the Army's inability to function effectively -- not political pressure from home -- caused the embarrassing failure in Vietnam. Our high-ranking military commanders, especially Gen. William Westmoreland -- whom Cincinnatus blames for everything from the PX embezzlement scandals to the ultimately unsuccessful search-and-destroy strategy -- are the main culprits.
"A commander is always responsible for the performance of his unit," Cincinnatus said. "And in Vietnam Westmoreland's unit was the 550,000 troops there, and they performed badly because of his direction. . . . Westmoreland, despite the fact that Time magazine proclaimed him man of the year, and despite a plethora of other laurels that came his way, was not the leader we needed. Our army came home drugged up, with wasted casualties, with morale so low that, as one man I talked to said, 'By 1972, we didn't have a unit in the Army, except possibly some technical units, capable of carrying on a firefight.' Isn't that Gen. Westmoreland's responsbility? I think so."
But wasn't destroying a highly committed, well-trained guerrilla army in its own back yard an impossible task? "I don't think we could have won it on the basis of weaponry," Cincinnatus said. "In that sense, the conflict may well have been unwinnable. But the problem was not insoluble. Had we approached that conflict with more understanding and had we really pledged to win the 'hearts and minds' of the people -- or pacification or nation-building, or whatever you want to call it -- I think we could have made remarkable strides.
"Look at what we did in the Philippines in the early 1900s. They were at least as determined and as good guerrilla fighters as the VC and North Vietnamese. And yet we went in there and built roads, drained swamps, started school, set up health facilities. We really let the people know that we were interested in them. In Vietnam there was precious little thought given toward this kind of pacification and nation-building. It's no wonder that they hated us. It's no wonder we failed to find a solution."
Cincinnatus claims that many of the Army's problems in Vietnam -- especially the tendency of officers to put their personal careers ahead of ethical considerations -- remain today. He believes that if we became involved in another guerrilla war, the problems would resurface. But these misgivings do not shake his confidence in the basic strength of today's officer corps. "I know people in the military and on the outside. In terms of our hardware, I would rather that that hardware was controlled by the officers I know than by any selected cross-section of the civilian population. The officers that I know -- and it isn't that I know a special group; I think I have a fairly wide acquaintainceship -- tend to be sensitive individuals, educated individuals. They tend to be concerned. They tend to have a real dedication and devotion to concepts of honor and responsibility. tI don't think that we get in the military the cartoon-type 'mad bomber.' We've got some mighty, mighty fine people."
Cincinnatus believes that one way to solve some of the Army's problems is to set up a Defense Ethics Institute. This institution would allow officers to meet and discuss how the Army's ethical framework fell apart during the Vietnam War (one example that Cincinnatus discusses at length in the book is My Lai) and what can be done to prevent a recurrence today. "I would really like to see some kind of institution like that set up within the military, which would take people away from their regular duties long enough to have time to reflect on the meaning of the Army and its interrelationship with ethical values," he said. "It worked pretty well with the Race Relations Institute. I think there's a place for it. I'd like to see Congress talk about it. I'd like to see the new secretary of defense talk about it."
The military usually does not respond very warmly to whistle-blowers. This is one reason Cincinnatus chose to use a pseudonym. "It was not my original intent," he said. "But as I began interviewing people for the book, a lot of them would not talk to me unless their own anonymity was assured. . . . That really had an impact on me. I finally thought about how other people wrote critically about the military and the military responded by attacking them as individuals. aOften -- not always -- the military ignored what was said.
"I don't even know if using a pseudonym was a good decision. But my editor and I decided to try it this way, hoping that people would read the book and take it for what it said rather than react to who had written it. I'm not a terribly egotistical person. It doesn't bother me that my name is not on the spine of the book."
Could the pseudonym be a publicist's gimmick to try to hype sales? Cincinnatus vehemently denied this. "I am speaking to you from the heart. The pseudonym is not an effort to sell books. I don't honestly care if the initial printing ever gets exhausted -- just as long as there are enough copies to get to the people in Congress, President Reagan (if he has time to read a book) and the Joint Chiefs. . . . I don't want people to get all hung up about the authorship. I just want them to read the book, and if they find merit in it, to think about it. That's my hope."