The generals who commanded U.S. troops in Vietnam remain critical of the way the war was fought, but not necessarily in the way one might think.
Forty-one per cent say more controls should have been put on use of herbicides; 15 per cent say B-52 bombing in South Vietnam was not worthhwhile. Sixty-one per cent say body counts were grossly exaggerated, and more than a fourth say too much close air and artillery support was used.
On broader questions, 28 per cent of the generals say the results of the war "were not worth the effort," and 25 per cent say U.S. involvement should never have gone beyond an advisory role.
These are the results of a survey of 173 American generals who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972 by Douglas Kinnard, a retired brigadier general who helped plan the Cambodian invasion. They are published in the September issue of Human Behaviour magazine.
In a study that gives a fascinating glimpse of how U.S. commander's view the war, Kinnard found a surprising uneasiness among generals over their handling of the war. More than half of them, for instance, said the search and destroy missions at the center of the U.S. strategy should have been executed better: 28 per said too much close air support was used.
But what surprised Kinnard most was the feelings of the generals about body counts. "Sixty-one per cent said the body count was grossly exaggerated, when, in fact, that was the key factor in measuring results in the war."
Asked why generals had not spoken out on this issue during the war, Kinnard, now a political science professor at the University of Vermont, said, "The only thing I think of is careerism. And I think there was a great deal of that at every level."
Many of the findings were predictable. The generals, for instance, were in wide agreement in their opinions of Washington, the media and the South Vietnamese army.
Only 8 per cent of them found their South Vietnamese allies to be "an acceptable fighting force"; 70 per cent of them said Washington ran the war badly; and 90 per cent of them said media coverage of the war was either irresponsible, sensational or disruptive of the U.S. effort.
Kinnard followed up his survey with interviews with generals at the center of the decision-making process in Washington. He reported finding a striking lack of communication between the generals and political leaders.
"I talked to a man who was on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during this period," he told Human Behavior. He was the chief of one of the services. And he said to me, 'I felt like I was a spector. I felt responsible for what was happening, but no one was asking any questions. Nor did I have much chance to give my opinions."
One of the most interesting findings of the report, however, was the lack of consensus among the generals and their sharp division over war tactics.
"I have never thought that there was a military mind in the sort of crude meaning of the words - you know, the sort of caveman notion of the military mind," he was quoted as saying.
"But it always seemed to me taht there was a sort of military mindset. And in some ways, I think probably there is. But for this group who managed the war in Vietnam, it doesn't seem to be true."
Kinnard, a West Point graduate, began his survey of Vietnam-era generals in late 1974. He received replies, often with additional pages of comment, from 64 per cent of the generals.
Taken together, they provide one of the most complete perspective ever made of how a large group of generals view how they handled a war.
"I wish we had something like this on Grant's generals or Pershing's generals or Eisenhower's generals. It would be fascinating to know whether they had such wide disagreements," Kinnard said.