Analogies at War

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Subject

Khong, Yuen Foong. Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam decisions of 1965. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1992.

Summary

One of the big problems with government and military organizations is that they are always fighting the last war; by which I mean it is always applying lessons learned from one conflict to another. This is not always a bad thing, but as author Yuen Foong Khong, tells us in his book Analogies at war: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam decisions of 1965, it does create systemic problems. According to Khong, these problems begin with how applicable the historic case is to the current dilemma and include the difficulties associated with breaking the relationship between the past and present conditions when the consensus of a given group holds an inverse opinion.

Khong, informs his readers that human intelligence is structured to utilize the analogy and the schema. The analogy is the establishment of a logical link between one event and another, while the schema is the deduction of a conclusion based on past experience. The human mind uses these concepts to drive fit current events into the framework of historic experience; experience here applies to personal and societal levels. The danger of this approach is that it fosters top-down thinking, which means forcing a conclusion drawn from experience onto a set of facts which may or may not support it. Discrediting a specific top-down conclusion requires one of two actions: use of bottom-up thinking, which requires evaluation of a group of facts from an objective stand-point to form a conclusion, or the adoption or the successful introduction of a different conclusion/schema, which would in turn produce a different conclusion. Bottom-up thinking may hold a certain degree of conceptual virtue, but it tends to be deliberate in a way that is not conducive to decisive leadership. Substituting a different analogy/schema is much faster but it requires the recipient to disregard an analogy/schema which their own mental processes have already adopted. In so doing the recipient is forced to acknowledge that their own mental processes were at fault. For some leaders, this sort of acknowledgement is difficult if not impossible.

Khong describes Harry Truman's mental processes towards the Korean War as a schema. As Truman saw it, the lack of a strong response to military adventurism by Germany and Italy in the 1930's and the appeasement of the Munich conference, had encouraged those nations in way which eventually led to a general war; the conclusion being that aggression must be countered, otherwise the aggressor will be encouraged to greater and greater incursions. For Truman this meant, America must come to the aid of South Korea, or risk a greater conflict.

In the early 1960's, president John F Kennedy inherited the problem of a Southeast Asia---particularly Laos---that was seen as sliding towards communism; a situation which in the minds of many Washington officials required the commitment of US troops to the region. In Kennedy's mind, the commitment of US troops to Southeast Asia to counter a guerilla insurgency was analogous to the fighting in Malaysia , Greece, and the Philippines. In those bloody conflicts, the armed services of serial western powers had been sorely vexed by opposition which was everywhere and nowhere. Given this conclusion, Kennedy limited the US role in the region to that of military advisors.

By 1965, the situation in Southeast Asia was far more serious. During the week of July 21-27 of that year, President Lyndon B Johnson conducted policy meetings at the White House, to establish a military policy for the region. Since February, American air power had been conducting retaliatory strikes against communist targets, but the overall situation on the ground had not improved. Five options were under consideration:

1. Cut losses/withdraw. 2. Continue present course. 3. Send 100,000 combat troops. 4. Use Strategic Air Command air power in an all-out offensive on communist targets across Vietnam. 5. Call up military reserves, and declare a national emergency.

McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara argued degrees of options 3-5, while George Ball argued for options 1, or 2 at the worst. Khong states that the former group was using arguments that were founded on a Munich-Korean analogy while Ball was trying to get them to adopt a Dien Bien Phu analogy. At Dien Bien Phu a well-equipped French military force had been beaten by communist insurgent forces; the schema being that conventional western forces were vulnerable to guerilla attack…which made a military struggle in Vietnam all but unwin-able. Ball was arguing at a disadvantage since his analogy not only questioned the reasoning powers of the other men present, but also seemed to question the fighting ability of the United States. This struggle between Munich-Korean and Dien Bien Phu analogies was the central contest in the mind of Lyndon B Johnson. Eventually concerns over credibility and the proper response to aggression led Johnson to support the Munich-Korean analogy, and option 3 was adopted.

But the Dien Bien Phu analogy did not go away. In private discussion, it remained the worst-case scenario that nagged at American policy-makers, particularly by 1967 when US troop commitment had grown and the communist insurgency showed no sign of collapse. Matters reached a head during the siege at Khe Sanh. This American military post in Northeastern South Vietnam had been cut-off by communist forces, and was in danger of being overrun. Johnson was determined that Khe Sanh was not going to be America's Dien Bien Phu , which led him to focus American military attention on that place until it was relieved. Khong informs us that it was unlikely that Khe Sanh would have become another Dien Bien Phu since communist forces weren't interested in making it one, but were rather intent on using Khe Sanh as a device for drawing American attention away from preparations for the Tet offensive. When the Tet offensive erupted in the winter of 1968, the analogies which had supported the American war effort collapsed, Dien Bien Phu became the de facto framework until Richard Nixon's Vietnamization.

Commentary

Khong work is a cross between a psychology textbook and a history of the decisions which lead to American involvement in Vietnam. Several chapters of the work are strictly concerned with the mechanics of Cognizant Psychology, which function as the foundation for the later chapters. These later chapters make for interesting reading once the reader has forced his way through the preliminaries. As with other historians, Khong has no problem is berating President Johnson for bad decision-making; but he at least tries to understand why Johnson did what he did.

The lynch-pin of Khong work is the acceptance of the reader of his whole psychological argument relating to analogies and schema. If the reader considers this interpretation of historical action as being too much of a stretch, he will find little value in this work.

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