Domineering Donald Rumsfeld may be gone from the Pentagon, but his legacy lingers.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was often compared to a predecessor, Robert McNamara, another strong personality with a habit of making up his mind in advance of events. As the Vietnam War unfolded in the 1960s, McNamara, an accountant and statistician, fixated on quantitative measures of progress. Attrition was the order of the day, enemy body counts and weapons captured the measure of progress.
The Department of Defense has for the first time revealed statistics on the numbers of Iraqi insurgents killed since the U.S. invasion. Previously, the Bush administration resisted such requests, the secretiveness of this White House reinforced by a reluctance to highlight a very controversial approach from the Vietnam period. The about-face came in response to a request from USA Today.
On the surface, the data seem to provide evidence of progress. A total of 19,429 insurgents are reported killed, compared with 3,800 Americans and 300 others, largely British. In releasing the figures, the military stressed that 4,882 insurgents have been killed this year, a 25 percent increase over last year.
In the Vietnam War, body counts were often inflated to please the brass. Pentagon politics and public relations corrupted information. As that war became ever more frustrating and controversial, critics seized on this problem. The aftermath of the war included a bitter lawsuit between Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and CBS News, over what he said was a biased documentary on the bloody numbers game. In fairness to the Defense Department, in Iraq there has been sustained emphasis from senior commanders on the vital importance of accurate information.
But there is a more subtle and profound problem with the body-count approach. During Vietnam, U.S. Army iconoclasts such as Col. John Paul Vann argued that the McNamara measures were based on false premises. Given the enormous scale of American firepower, increasing body and weapons totals simply meant the enemy was growing in numbers. There were more targets to kill.
During McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon, officers who questioned the approach were not only summarily rejected, their careers were in jeopardy. Vann, ultimately vindicated, became extremely influential and effective in Southeast Asia as a civilian official of the Agency for International Development, the U.S. foreign-aid program. He still carried a weapon and supervised military operations. Literally unable to let go of Vietnam, Vann was killed in a helicopter crash late in the war.
Every armed conflict carries tremendous collective as well as individual dangers. Even very well-planned operations easily spin out of control due to human and equipment failures, the vagaries of weather, the frustrations of geography, the moves of the enemy, and other unforeseen events. In this sense, there is no such thing as “limited” war.
Dwight Eisenhower was particularly mindful of these dimensions in conflict, and it is no random coincidence that he was able to lead the United States to total victory in a total war. As supreme Allied commander and also as president, he worked relentlessly to develop a complete portrait of enemy strengths, weaknesses and other important factors.
President Eisenhower, obsessed with the possibility of another Pearl Harbor-style attack, initiated the top-secret U-2 high-altitude spy plane. Thanks to the resulting surveillance photos, he clearly saw the reality of Soviet strategic weakness, despite Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear-weapons bluster and threats.
In war, our most primitive undertaking, beware of the illusions spun by applying preconceptions to the evidence.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)