I was with Gen. John Lavelle when he died.
On July 11, The Post reported Gen. Lavelle's death with a brief summary of his career. Most of the report covered his relief from command, reduction in rank, and retirement from the Air Force for directing a series of unauthorized missions against targets in North Vietnam. With the passage of time, although facts remain the same, perspectives become clearer. It was disappointing that The Post did not think this worthy of comment.
If the Vietnam War was difficult for americans, it was horrible for our Vietnamese allies. Policy direction came from an American government that literally did not know what it was doing. At the height of our discontent, one commentator, when asked about our policy in Vietnam, paused, then replied, "Well, it isn't to win and it isn't to lose; so it must be to stay there and kill people." It makes little difference that this was not our policy, for this is what we did for almost 10 years before physically and diplomatically retreating and leaving our allies to the tender mercies of an invading Communist army.
Thousands of Americans lost their lives. As far as I know, this was the first war in which the flexibility of commanders to take action to save lives was severely curtailed. Jack Lavelle believed that there was an immediate North Vietnamese threat to Americans under his command, and he believed that he had tacit approval to respond to that threat. There was substantial evidence that the threat was real, but no evidence other than Lavelle's statement that he had approval to neutralize the threat.
Gen. John Lavelle may have made mistakes, but these were made in the interest of saying American lives in a hopeless war in which Americans were constrained by arbitrary rules while fighting an enemy that knew no rules. In history's judgment, his mistakes will seem small when measured against the intellectual mistakes of a civilian leadership, which committed this nation to a catastrophic course and lacked the wisdom to change that course.
Jack Lavelle wrote no books, made no speeches, bore no animosity toward a country and an Air Force he loved. He was a professional military man who served his country with a distinction not described in his obituaries.