Vehicle of the Revolution

The Relationship Between the Continental Army and the Militia During the American War of Independence

Monmouth

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary has five entries for the definition of revolution: the first three deal with physics and celestial bodies; definition four states “a total or radical change;” and definition five is “a fundamental change in political organization…the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another, by the governed.”   Inherent to all of revolutions of the political change-type characterized by definition five is the use of violence by both revolutionaries and the existing government, often taking place on a large scale.  This violence becomes the means by which the ideas of the revolution are transferred in to actions – the actual revolution itself.  Using terms from physics as a metaphor (in keeping with Webster’s first three definitions or revolution), the ideas espoused by revolutionaries (liberty, free trade, independence, etc.) represent the potential energy of the revolution, generating tension between the movement and the existing political structure.  When released, this tension becomes kinetic energy – energy in motion, or the action of the revolution – involving the violence necessary to overcome the resistance of forceful objection posed by the political establishment.  But unlike other expressions of violence involving large groups such as bread riots, pogroms, and lynching, which are shorter in span and more anarchical in nature, the violence of revolution (if it is to be successful) is directed, controlled, and sustained over a longer period of time and against determined opposition.  To achieve this, revolutions utilize military structure to provide the necessary means of organization and control; the kinetic energy of revolutionary violence is guided toward the realization of the revolutionary goal.  An army, then, can be considered a vehicle of revolution, giving leaders a structural mode, enabling them to drive the course of revolutionary violence toward independence.  Such was the function of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Subordination of the new military establishment to Congress was the crucial factor in enabling American revolutionaries to sustain and control the progress of the American Revolution, which, of course after 1776 defined its success solely on the achievement of independence.  As long as the British maintained a military presence within the new United States, independence could not be realized.  So long as the Americans were able to resist the British military, they would be actively pursuing independence.  This resistance could have been accomplished without a standing army, of course, and the American Revolution did have a substantial, and effective, guerrilla aspect to it, especially on the frontiers and in the South, but as Don Higginbotham, citing the German General von Clausewitz, notes in War and Society, while “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas” partisan action alone “seldom brings about total victory in war.”  Thus for the Americans to realize success, “the final blow” would have to be “delivered by large, well-organized armies working in smooth harmony.”  Higginbotham points out that this turned out to be the case when “French and American forces in cooperation with the French fleet trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown and hammered him into submission.”[1] Yet even with the realization that an army was necessary for victory, many scholars of the American Revolution consider the adoption of a regular army to be a great leap on the part of the revolutionaries given “the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of the military,” and their favoring of a yeoman militia over the danger of a standing army.[2] Don Higginbotham suggests that this glorification of the militia may be more a product of rhetoric and idealism than true practice of the time.  He states “that militia reflected the ‘country’ (or classical republican) ideology which was appealing to the revolutionists [and early American historians]” while “standing armies mirrored the ‘court’ (or Walpolian consolidated-mercantilist) ideology.”[3] The fact is, however, the colonies were keeping semiprofessional forces at the ready even in the early 1700s.  Following Queen Anne’s War, for example, “Massachusetts maintained a small, permanent military establishment, which occupied frontier posts in Maine and garrisoned Castle William,” and Connecticut had “switched from militia drafts and other compulsory steps to enlistment bounties as early as 1710.”[4]  Both instances demonstrate an acceptance of regular military practice, rather than absolute distrust.  In 1756, a young colonel Washington sought the recognition of British authorities, insisting to Lord Loudoun that the Virginia Regiment (which Washington commanded) “were not militia – for which they [the provincial officers], like Washington, had great contempt – at the same time they argued for regular status.”[5]

This is not to dispel the fact that many revolutionaries who took up the cause included a distrust of standing armies (like the one the British were maintaining in Boston and New York) in their list of grievances and as a motivation behind the revolt.  Charles Royster emphasizes in A Revolutionary People at War that for many Americans the concept of a regular army ran counter to their concepts and ideas of virtue and liberty.  Jonathan Rossie cites the 1775 writings of “Caractacus” which were printed in a Philadelphia newspaper and “not only condemned regular armies but also a paid militia – by accepting pay, a militiaman was transformed into a mercenary.”  The acceptance of pay would erode the principles and warp the loyalties of the fighting man, so the contention went, thus a “standing army would subvert and ultimately destroy the very liberties it was meant to protect.”  “Caractacus” extolled the benefits of a ready militia “capable of responding at a moment’s notice to any move of the enemy,” vigilant and virtuous, the militia embodied the ideal union of citizen and soldier.[6]

But were the two, militia and Continental, so dramatically different?  Were the militia truly composed of yeoman farmers while the Continental Army was drawn from the dregs of society, ready to follow any general promising enough pay and trounce upon the very liberty revolutionaries were fighting for?  Royster acknowledges that through “careful collation of enlistment rolls and civil records, scholars are drawing composite pictures of” the class of men who filled the ranks of the regular army.  He draws particularly upon the work of Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits: The Peacetime Career of the Revolutionary War Private,” which examines the muster rolls of recruits in Maryland in 1782.  They conclude that the majority of the men in their study “enlisted in the army not because of a sense of duty or patriotism, but because Maryland society offered few other opportunities for employment.”[7]  Taking exception with this premise, Royster contends that “able-bodied young men who sought their own material well-being above all else had alternatives better than service in the Continental Army,” among which were privateering and farm labor.  Faced with the threat of death or disfigurement by combat or disease, Royster asserts, “the distinguishing feature of the [regular] recruits was their willingness” to serve in the army.[8]  John Resch, in Suffering Soldiers, concurs with Royster and disputes the conclusions of “most historians” that “Continental soldiers came largely from society’s poor, propertyless, transient, and marginalized,” taking particular exception with the “forceful” position of historian Charles Neimeyer that the majority of regulars were “low class.”  Resch bases his contrarian position upon his study of the Revolutionary soldiers from Petersborough, New Hampshire, “Continental and non-Continental.”  “Rather than being segregated by class,” he contends, “enlistments from Petersborough throughout the war represented a cross section of the town’s society.”[9] Essentially both Royster and Resch, and to some extent Richard LaCrosse in Revolutionary Rangers, suggest that the men who joined the ranks of the Continental Army, though serving for pay, demonstrated just as much patriotism as the state militiamen who mustered for only brief periods.  The advantage for the militia was that once the operations concluded, they were able to go back to their homes and resume their employment.  Those regular soldiers serving longer enlistments followed the enemy as the war progressed southward through the states, leaving homes and the ability to earn money outside of the military behind.

It is important to note that only in rare instances did the American’s face their enemy with a force composed solely of either militia or Continental troops.  A few notable victories such as Bennington and King’s Mountain stand out as examples of militia only successes, but the majority of campaigns fought by the American army required the contributions of both elements.  Don Higginbotham notes, that “in Washington’s view, the Continentals and militia had separate, although mutually supportive roles to play.”[10]  The militia were best at hit-and-run tactics, and though there were times when they were required to support the Continental line in formal engagements, “performing against redcoats in open combat” (a function in which, Higginbotham notes, the “militia were at their worst”), the “amateur” soldiers proved extremely successful at denying extensive British and loyalist areas of control and creating a generally hostile environment which forced the British to receive substantial amounts of their “supplies and provisions…from the mother country.”[11]  The Continental line would provide continuity to the war effort, following the British as the war moved from theater to theater.  As Higginbotham writes, “the presence of the Continental Army intact offered Americans a symbol of unity” creating a “national feeling” and presenting “a sign of conventional military strength” to the new country and the rest of the world, “where patriots hoped to get tangible support.”[12]  Militia participation, not surprisingly, would increase and decrease with the threat posed by the enemy in a particular region.  Here John Resch’s study of the Petersborough soldiers provides a convincing illustration of the wax and wane of localized participation in the Revolution.  After the initial wave of enlistments at the outbreak of war in 1775, the Petersborough “contribution to the war effort dropped substantially in 1776 following American defeats in Canada and British evacuation of Boston.”[13]  The following year, in which Burgoyne invaded New York, saw the “highest proportion of Petersborough men at any period of the war” under arms, bolstering the militia at Bennington and Saratoga.  In the subsequent years, as enemy action progressed further south, the participation of Petersborough men likewise decreased.  This increase and decrease in participation by militia demonstrates its part in the “mutually supportive roles” of the militia and regular army, as noted above.

Petersboro-Resch

Consider the physics metaphor I introduced at the beginning of this essay.  If the violence required for the revolution were transformed into a roller-coaster car, converting potential energy at the top of the coaster into kinetic energy (the action of the revolution) then guiding the violence of the revolutionary effort would be accomplished by the rails of the roller-coaster (the regular army providing the necessary continuity).  The rails of a roller coaster can not stand alone, so vertical girders lend elevation and stability for the guiding rails, just as the militia contributed reinforcement to the Continental line and secured the area of military operations from British domination.

 

RollerCoaster

 

 

In comparing the contributions of the militia and the Continental line to the outcome of the American Revolution, it is easy for historians to place more credit upon one over the other.  Higginbotham offers a sagacious caution that while “the pendulum has swung back toward a more favorable image of the militia and their contributions to American Independence…we may wish to halt its movement before it swings too far, before it denies Washington’s Continentals their just desserts.”[14]  I would contend that the two are elements of the whole.  The army of the American Revolution was comprised of both Continental regulars and militia units, directing the energy of the revolution through the crucial violence necessary to affect a break from England, both serving “mutually supportive roles” as a vehicle of the revolution.

Pendulum

 

[1] Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 149-150.

[2] Rossie, Politics of Command, 213

[3] Higginbotham, War and Society, 36

[4] Ibid., 28-29

[5] Ibid., 33

[6] Rossie, Politics of Command, 63

[7] Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson, “General Smallwood’s Recruits,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., XXX (1973), 117-132

[8] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 268

[9] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 9-10

[10] Higginbotham, War and Society, 115

[11] Ibid., 118-119

[12] Ibid., 115

[13] Resch, Suffering Soldiers, 25

[14] Higginbotham, War and Society, 123

The Battle of New Market and New Market Day at VMI

 

175px-Vmiflag

The Shenandoah Valley, or Great Valley of Virginia, is one of the most storied geographies of the American Civil War.  As noted by historian William C. Davis, the Valley was “second only to the Mississippi River in its strategic importance to the Confederacy,” and was “one of the most hotly contested areas of the war.”  It was in the Valley that the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson was born, as Confederate Major General Thomas Jonathan Jackson performed his tactical masterpiece by defeating three Unions armies – each outnumbering his own force – simultaneously.  Because of “Stonewall” the Union feared the Valley as a potential invasion route leading right up to Washington, DC.  Because of its natural bounty, the Valley has often been referred to as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” and thus was a crucial theater of the war.[1]

In May of 1864, however, the great “Stonewall” Jackson had been dead for a year, and now Union Major General Franz Siegel began marching his army of about 9,000 from Winchester, Virginia, up the Shenandoah Valley.  To the east, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were grappling one another in the grand chess match of Grant’s Overland Campaign.  To support the Union strategy, Grant assigned Siegel the objective of Staunton, Virginia, some 90 miles south of Winchester.  This would draw manpower away from the main army of Lee and destroy vital logistical support that the Valley provided.

shenval civil war map                                           520px-New_Market.svg

The challenge of stopping Siegel and defending the Valley fell to John C. Breckenridge, former Vice-President of the United States turned Confederate Major General.  Breckenridge cobbled together a force of roughly 5,000 Confederates, including 258 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, located in Lexington, Virginia, and met Siegel near the sleepy hamlet of New Market, situated about midway between Winchester and Staunton. [2]

The Battle:

On May 15, the two armies engaged one another.  Despite mismanaging his force, Siegel gained the upper hand by mid-afternoon.  As the Union artillery played upon the Confederates, a gap appeared in the center of their line, near the Bushong farmhouse, between the 62nd Virginia and 51st Virginia regiments.  A staff officer alerted Breckenridge to the danger, warning that Siegel was sure to charge and exploit the weakness.  Something had to be done.  Breckenridge’s initial response was to try to shift the line inward to close down on the gap, but as all units were heavily engaged, this was impossible.  The staff officer urged Breckenridge to send in the reserves consisting of the VMI cadets.  The general demurred, reluctant to utilize the cadet corps in such a manner because of their youth (the average age of the cadets was 18, one was as young as 15).  At last, realizing the desperation of the moment, Breckenridge relented – “Put the boys in…and may God forgive me for the order.”

newmarket

The cadets rushed forward, plugging the gap, and Siegel’s infantry were repulsed.  With the momentum now decidedly shifted, the Confederates charged.  In the rain soaked field near the Bushong farmhouse, a number of Confederate soldiers and VMI cadets had their shoes sucked from their feet as they charged through the mud.  But onward they pressed, across the “Field of Lost Shoes,” and up Bushong’s Hill, driving the Union forces before them.  The cadets captured one of the cannons of Union Captain Von Kleiser’s battery, as well as at least sixty, perhaps one hundred, of their opponents in the chaos of the Union retreat.  Breckenridge’s victory was complete.

As the action slowed and the Confederates cleared the field of the fleeing Union troops, Breckenridge rode up to where the cadets were positioned.  He halted and spoke to them.  “Young gentlemen, I have to thank you for the results of today’s operations.”  He would ever after refer to the men of VMI as “his cadets.”

 

“Died on the Field of Honor, Sir”

Virginia Mourning Her Dead

Ten cadets died during, or from wounds sustained from, the Battle of New Market.  Each year since 1866, the VMI Corps of Cadets pays tribute to these fallen New Market Cadets in a parade that includes a solemn, moving ceremony.  Roll is called for the ten New Market Cadets, and in response a current cadet (usually a First Classman) replies, “died on the field of honor, Sir!”  A wreath is then laid at the memorial statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead [3], situated on the VMI campus, and the VMI Chaplain recites the New Market Prayer.  A twenty-one gun salute is fired, followed by the haunting echo rendition of Taps.  The Cadet Corps then passes in review.  As a graduate of VMI, I have had the honor in marching in the New Market Day Parade four times.

The New Market Cadets, listed in alphabetical order:

Samuel F. Atwill

William H. Cabell

Charles G. Crockett

Alva C. Hartsfield

Luther C. Haynes

Thomas G. Jefferson

Henry J. Jones

William H. McDowell

J. Beverly Stanard

Joseph C. Wheelwright

 

May 15, 2014, marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of New Market.  It was a small engagement relative to the more famous battles of the American Civil War (Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc.), but New Market is significant for several reasons.  “Seldom,” wrote historian Douglas Southall Freeman, “did a small victory have so large an effect.”  It was the last Confederate victory in the Shenandoah Valley, which, having secured the 1864 harvest, enabled the Confederacy to fight on for one more year in Virginia.  The battle is also unique in that the VMI cadet corps fought as a unit – earning for the school the distinction of a battle streamer, one of the few colleges in the United States awarded such an honor.

Battle Streamer

Notes:

[1] See William C. Davis, The Battle of New Market, (Doubleday & Company Inc., Garden City, NY, 1978).

[2] For more on VMI and the Battle of New Market, see the Institute’s excellent archives section on the school’s website: http://www.vmi.edu/archives.aspx?id=3911

[3] The statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, was sculpted by Sir Moses Ezekiel, VMI class of 1866 and himself a New Market Cadet.

When Technology Fails

The Giant Versus the Gnat

On October 3, 1993, the war-torn and tattered city of Mogadishu, Somalia, erupted with a violent fury that transformed what was already the most dangerous city on earth, and a challenging operational area for the United States military, into a full-fledged bloody chaos.  Only some nine months earlier, in December 1992, U.S. Marines had waded on to the beaches south of the city center unopposed, with CNN camera lights shining on their faces – perhaps one of the most surreal amphibious landings ever performed by the American “leathernecks”.  The cameras were now gone, replaced with assault weapons in the hands of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Somalis massing in the burnt-out streets to fight off members of the Army’s Second Ranger Battalion and Delta Force who were attempting to capture members of a Somali Warlord’s inner circle.  What began as a high-speed special operation, performed by teams of America’s most elite soldiers, rapidly disintegrated into a basic fight for survival ending with 18 American dead, 84 wounded, 1 prisoner of war, and images of two crumpled Blackhawk helicopters which would forever characterize the American experience in Somalia and remind us that sometimes superior technology fails.[1]

Over 25,000 U.S. troops were initially deployed to the Horn of Africa as part of the U.S. and United Nations’ attempt to resolve a looming humanitarian disaster in Somalia.  The mission for the American forces was to provide security for U.N. and non-governmental organizations’ (NGO) personnel and the famine relief supplies pouring into the war-torn country.

"The United States in Somalia, 1992-1994" CMH Pub 70-81-1

“The United States in Somalia, 1992-1994”
CMH Pub 70-81-1

 

Operation Restore Hope was a success, the country was being rebuilt and fed, and by late May 1993, the majority of U.S. forces, specifically combat elements and maneuver units, were returned home.  Operational control was formally handed over to the United Nations and its multinational peacekeeping force.  Within a matter of weeks following the handover, however, Operation Continue Hope (the name of the U.N. mission) evolved into an attempt to resolve the Somali civil strife and to build a nation out of the ruins.[2]  General Mohamed Farah Aideed, head of the Somali National Alliance and one of the principal actors in the previous civil war which ousted former Somali dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was at the time working to muscle out rivals for control of Somalia, and was therefore determined by U.N. and U.S. policy makers to be the primary obstacle to Somali stability.  What then occurred was a phenomenon in military operations, which has since become the object of extensive study at all levels of U.S. military strategic planning.  The phenomenon, known as “mission creep,” is the evolution of initial objectives into a greater and far more complex involvement that struggles to keep pace with shifts in diplomatic, military, and political focus. As a result, operational planners quickly find the force package available to them at the outset of operations is no longer adequate to match the new objectives.  In the case of Operation Continue Hope, the “peacekeeping” mission evolved into a “nation-building” mission, which itself mutated into a manhunt for Aideed, who, though out-gunned and technologically disadvantaged, fought back.

America in the early 1990’s was newly emerged from the Cold War flushed with the optimism of victory, as seemingly overnight the Eastern Bloc threw off its shackles and the Soviet Union itself crumbled from within.  A further boost came in the form of the spectacular display of U.S. military prowess in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  Iraq, which at the time was in command of the fourth largest military in the world and armed with many of the Soviet weapons systems American forces had been preparing to encounter in Europe, was handily defeated.  Therefore, despite the threat of post-war budget cuts and the looming military Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative, there was a confidence that the U.S. could handle any military challenge faced as the “New World Order” dawned.

Somalia was different.  Instead of facing, head on, the conventional power of the Soviet Union or the Iraqi army, the operation in Somalia was more “Vietnam-esque” in its lack of clear strategic objectives as well as the relatively primitive state of the opposition.  The contrast between Somali and American forces and military technology was as striking as it was stark:  rubber-sandaled Somalis could look up to see AH-1 Cobra and UH-60A Blackhawk helicopters hovering overhead; Somali herders driving camels with sticks along the side of roads would be passed by American soldiers driving High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV or Humvees).  Yet the disparity in technological ability and the lack of modern infrastructure may have actually contributed to America’s troubles in Somalia, as Vernon Loeb, writing about the CIA’s activities in that country, alludes to:  “…it’s hard to play the classic espionage game – stealing another government’s secrets – in places that have no government.”[3]  This, of course affected the U.S. ability to gather intelligence in preparation for military operations.  Furthermore, once the operation on October 3 began to go sour, the U.S found that “the foe was willing to expend prodigious amounts of human lives in densely packed assaults,”  In his essay on asymmetric conflict, Kenneth McKenzie notes that “because of the unanticipated loss of a helicopter, the [American] force became trapped in an urban maze that made it difficult to exploit technological advantages.”  He asserts that U.S. operational planners’ confidence in “an elite and highly capable unit led into a situation where it became vulnerable to the Somalia National Alliance (SNA), which had studied U.S. tactics, waited for an opportune window of vulnerability, and sprung an impromptu but lethal counterstroke.”[4]

The Somalis, specifically the SNA loyal to Aideed, had proven their ability to find and exploit the weak point of their technologically superior opponent – namely the American unwillingness to endure casualties.  Eric Larsen, in his RAND study on the affect of casualties on the American public, writes that “with the 18 deaths in Mogadishu in early October, the costs [in American lives since August, 1993] had more than doubled again, resulting in high-levels of congressional and media criticism and further declines in public support.”[5]

Aideed’s forces had scored a master stroke.  Although, as McKenzie points out, the SNA could not have predicted that America would withdraw so quickly (within six months time) and so completely from Somalia, “they knew good things would flow from U.S. casualties.”[6]  Here was an example of a tactical loss resulting in a strategic victory for a technologically inferior force, for as McKenzie notes, “often overlooked is the fact that the [U.S.] operation was a tactical success: it accomplished its objective.”[7]  But as images flashed on television of dead U.S. soldiers being dragged naked and broken through the streets of Mogadishu by throngs of cheering Somalis, the reaction in the United States made it clear that the cost of that tactical victory was far greater than was deemed acceptable by the American public in an operation that offered virtually no strategic benefit for the country.  This “cost-benefit” analysis, to put it crudely, lies at the heart of the concept of asymmetric warfare, wherein technological superiority can be overcome, even defeated, by a disadvantaged, yet more determined opponent.

What is Asymmetry?

Lloyd Mathews, editor of Challenging the United States Symmetrically and Asymmetrically: Can America Be Defeated? defines asymmetry in his introduction “as any militarily significant disparity between contending parties with respect to the elements of military power broadly construed.”[8]  The study of asymmetric warfare has developed in recent years within the context of the study and debate over the “so-called” Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) which itself manifested around the period of the 1991Persian Gulf War.  Proponents of RMA are of the opinion that advances in military technology enhancing stealth, communication, weapons guidance and tracking systems, avionics, etc. “have combined to raise warfare to new levels of lethality.”[9]  Opponents point out that the evolution of warfare to what they call a “Fourth Generation,” which is characterized by decentralization and initiative and wherein “the state loses its monopoly on war” to “non-state opponents” such as al Quaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) has negated the relevance of the proposed revolution in military affairs. [10]  The debate over RMA notwithstanding, the significance of asymmetry is agreed upon by nearly all concerned, especially in light of the probability, which Mathews points out, that “American armed forces are unlikely to encounter a mirror image (i.e. symmetrical) opponent on the battlefield in the near to mid term.”[11]

This realization, however, does little to mitigate the fact that for the latter half of the 20th Century the United States did indeed prepare and train itself to meet a symmetrical foe in the form of the Soviet Union.  The Cold War stand-off served to enhance the existing mindset of the industrialized West regarding warfare.  Mathews elaborates:

…there has been a consistent leaning by Western observers toward the complacent conviction that great national wealth; large, technologically advanced forces; and a proud martial tradition will automatically translate to victory over the untutored, unwashed warriors of the lesser world.  However, since contemporary forces are trained and equipped to fight forces much like themselves, when they encounter instead a markedly asymmetric foe – one judged to be objectively inferior – they have frequently shown an inability or willingness to make the adaptations, adjustments, and compromises needed to cope with the unfamiliar modes of resistance.”[12]

The historical record since World War II bears this out, as Mathews notes.  Consider the French failure in Vietnam and Algeria, the American experience in Vietnam, the Soviet Union failure in Afghanistan, and the U.S. misadventure in Somalia.  (And with regard to the decade-long involvement of U.S forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the debate among historians, journalists, policy makers, and other scholars continues.)

Vietnam:  A Classic Example of Asymmetric War

It is the example of the United States involvement in Vietnam from 1959 to 1974 which probably best illustrates the “complacent conviction” Mathews describes above, and is the most cited example of asymmetrical warfare in the modern era.   In terms of lives, national treasure, and time spent by the United States in the prosecution of military operations in Southeast Asia, Vietnam overshadows all other “hot conflicts” waged during the Cold War.  Its impact upon the American psyche, whether the military or the public in general, resonates as strongly and profoundly today as it did when the U.S embassy was evacuated nearly 40 years ago.  It remains the great hobgoblin now lurking in every foreign policy move as planners and pundits warn that the U.S. must “avoid another Vietnam.”  Consider this from General Colin Powell in his autobiography:

Many of my generation, the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned in [Vietnam], vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support.[13]

Clearly the specter of Vietnam haunts America still.  It haunts the country because of what it represents: defeat despite overwhelming technological superiority and the inherent American belief in that superiority.  “American soldiers went in to action in Vietnam with the gigantic weight of American industry behind them,” writes Stanley Karnow in his history of Vietnam.  “Never before in history,” he asserts, “was so much strength amassed in such a small corner of the globe against an opponent apparently so inconsequential.”[14]

What was the nature of the “strength amassed” by the United States that gave it such an apparent asymmetrical advantage?  Karnow sums it up best, noting that “with the exception of the nuclear weapon, nearly every piece of equipment in America’s mighty arsenal was sooner or later used in Vietnam.” [15] One of the most significant advantages enjoyed by the United States was command of the skies over Vietnam.  Donald Mrozek writes that “among the most salient characteristics of the Vietnam War was that the United States enjoyed air control over South Vietnam and air superiority throughout Southeast Asia during the entirety of the conflict.”[16]  B-52 bombers, F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers, fixed-wing gunships, and the emerging technology of precision guided munitions all contributed to the American mastery of the skies.  Furthermore,  beyond air-power alone, air-mobility (the use of the helicopter to maneuver troops on the battlefield) also aided American war fighters by facilitating rapid concentration of mass and firepower.

Across the board, the United States appeared superior in all conceivable categories.  For instance, in terms of the most fundamental component of combat, the infantry rifleman, the United States held a seemingly clear advantage.  Karnow points out that the “American infantryman could rely on the latest hardware,” And while his Vietnamese foe moved nearly everything by foot, the American “was transported to the battle scene by helicopter and, if wounded, flown out aboard medical evacuation (medivac) choppers.”[17]  While at the other end of the spectrum, the asymmetrical advantage favored the United States in “technology so sophisticated it made James Bond’s dazzling gadgets seem obsolete by comparison.”[18]

In his book, The Closed War: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in the Cold War, Paul Edwards describes one of these high-end technological applications: the Infiltration Surveillance Center (ISC) and Operation Igloo White executed by the U.S. Air Force in Nakhom Phanom, Thailand.  Technicians, primarily young airmen, inside the ISC monitored thousands of sensors all along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.  Controlled by IBM 360/65 computers, Edwards explains:

“the sensors – shaped like twigs, jungle plants, and animal droppings – were designed to detect all kinds of human activity, such as the noises of truck engines, body heat, motion, even the scent of human urine.  When they picked up a signal, it appeared on the ISC’s display terminals hundreds of miles away as a moving white “worm” superimposed on a map grid.”

The technician at the ISC would be able to coordinate fire from a Phantom F-4 fighter jet to where the “worm” was located on the map, a process, according to Edwards, that “normally took no more than five minutes.”[19]

In addition to the sophistication of high-end technologies such as the Igloo White application, chemical herbicides and defoliants, and munitions of every variety, the United States employed a systems analysis approach to the conduct of operations in Vietnam never before experienced in previous wars.  Indeed, as Karnow points out, “no conflict in history was studied in such detail as it was being waged.”  The war in Vietnam offered Cold War think-tanks like RAND and Stanford Research Institute a practical environment in which to apply the concepts developed in years of preparation for the theoretical “hot” conflict with the Soviet Union.  “Weapons technicians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, agronomists, biologists, chemists, and public opinion pollsters,” to name but a few of the fields from which specialists were drawn, were called upon to collect, compile, pour over, study, scrutinize, hypothesize, and recommend.  As a result of the intense study, the specialists had volumes of data.  But as far as solutions go, Karnow surmises that try as they might to quantify and measure “the statistics somehow failed to convey an accurate picture of the problem, much less offer solutions.”[20]

Asymmetry Analyzed

            What was the “accurate picture”?  America clearly held the technological advantage, why then was it not able to win simply by overwhelming the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies?  There are several factors.  For instance, many cite the manner in which the war was fought and how U.S. force and technology were applied.  In the title of his article in Airpower Journal, Kenneth Werrell asks, “Did the USAF [United States Air Force] Technology Fail in Vienam?” then answers this question with the assertion that , “what failed in Vietnam was not the technology, but a broad understanding of the power and limits of both airpower and air technology.”  But far from laying this lack of understanding squarely at the feet of civilian administrators, Werrell admits that “the Air Force came into the Vietnam War woefully unprepared for the war it had to fight.” [emphasis added] He notes that although “it is true that air operations were constrained by civilian-imposed restrictions, the Air Force had also limited its abilities by its concentration on nuclear war.”  America since 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb was in constant fear of the very power that it had unleashed, a fear which then manifested itself in the form of the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union after the test of its first atomic bomb and the subsequent arms race that followed.  Consequently, ”thinking in terms of a massive nuclear exchange,” Werrell points out, “the airman planned, equipped, and trained for nuclear war.”  The conflict in Vietnam was not what the Air Force, nor any of the other armed services, had “envisioned.”[21]

Once committed to action in Vietnam, however, and as that commitment grew, American forces responded by adapting slowly, reluctantly and this was in large part due to the incrementalist approach of senior civilian leadership.  In his paper, “The JCS 94-Target List: A Vietnam Myth That Still Distorts Military Thought,” Charles Kamps writes that “[President Lyndon] Johnson’s failure to authorize striking the port targets and rail links [in North Vietnam] meant that efforts to achieve air superiority to prosecute the campaign were subject to intensifying opposition” by the Vietnamese.[22]

The campaign Kamps refers to here is Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from early 1965 until October 1968, and was advocated by the civilian advisors in the Johnson administration (most of whom were holdovers from the Kennedy administration), as a “progressive slow squeeze” combining overtures for communication with Hanoi and “graduated military moves against infiltration targets…then against other targets in North Vietnam.”[23]

Such an approach in asymmetrical warfare, however, nearly always fails for the technologically superior participant, as Ivan Arreguin-Taft explains in his paper “How the Weak Win Wars.”  Time generally favors the weaker party, according to Arreguin-Taft, who suggests, “in asymmetric conflicts when strategic interaction causes an unexpected delay between the commitment of armed forces and the attainment of military or political objectives, strong actors tend to lose.”[24]  Arreguin-Taft presents two reasons for this.  First, for the stronger nation, expectations tend to be higher for victory.  “If power implies victory,” he writes, “then an overwhelming power advantage implies an overwhelming – and rapid – victory.”[25]  As warfare “drags on,” political pressure for promised success increases, forcing further escalation on the part of the strong actor “or risk looking increasingly incompetent.”[26]  To illustrate this credibility factor, consider the U.S. efforts to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge, located about 70 miles south of Hanoi and a key target, initially, in the interdiction of supplies moving from North Vietnam south to support the Viet Cong.  Don Mrozek explains that from the operation’s beginning “difficulties abounded, and benefits were suspect,” as six U.S. aircraft were lost in just the first three missions, while with the passing time North Vietnamese defenses at the bridge were being hardened.  He concludes that “the longer the bridge remained undestroyed, the more it came to symbolize the limits of U.S. capabilities – and so, too, the more its destruction became more a psychological than a military matter.”[27]   Essentially, destroying the bridge became necessary only as a means of demonstrating “American resolve.”

The second reason, according to Arreguin-Taft, as to why increased duration favors the weaker opponent can best be summed up in the axiom “time is money.”  Escalation of commitment on the part of the strong actor results in increased cost to the state in the form of casualties, funding for more mobilizations, increases in taxes, spending of political capital, etc.  If the strong state is not willing to incur such costs, the probability that it will “simply abandon the war effort, regardless of the military state of affairs on the ground,” increases significantly.[28]

That the Johnson administration intentionally embarked upon a strategy of “graduated military moves” and “a steady deliberate approach” designed to “demonstrate resolve, send diplomatic signals, and influence North Vietnamese will,”[29] seems counterintuitive given the premise of Ivan Arreguin-Taft’s study as noted above.  The evaluation put forth by Kamps reinforces this sense of folly in the war-planning of the period.  He notes that “although Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara acknowledged that the country [North Vietnam] had no industrial war-making potential, he continued throughout the conflict to prohibit air strikes against the ports which were the receiving areas for the enormous input of communist-bloc industrial and war-making equipment and supplies.”[30]  North Vietnam received all of its support from China and the Soviet Union, with out which it would not have been able to mount serious military actions against the south and United States forces there, let alone arm the Viet Cong.  Kamps charges that the failure to eliminate the source of war fighting capability for the North Vietnamese (and the Viet Cong via the Ho Chi Minh Trail) by striking the ports in the north served to perpetuate the war.  Furthermore, the bombing campaign itself, which did little to diminish combat capability, actually increased the opposition’s resolve, according to Karnow.  “American planners had predicted that it [the bombing in Operation Rolling Thunder] would drive the enemy into capitulation, yet not only did the North Vietnamese accept the sacrifices, but the raids rekindled their nationalistic zeal, so that many who may have disliked Communist rule joined the resistance to alien attack.”[31]

The bombing campaigns in Vietnam serve to illustrate not only the limits of technology but also the classic asymmetrical, American approach to fighting a less technologically sophisticated foe.  Earl Tilford further articulates this approach in The Revolution in Military Affairs: Prospects and Cautions.  “Our national fascination with technology in the 1950’s,” he writes, “transferred to Vietnam in the 1960’s, where the Air Force, and to a lesser degree, the Army, searched in vain for a technological silver bullet.”[32]  As mentioned above, high-end technologies like “Igloo White”-type surveillance, herbicides, defoliant, and napalm, all contributed to a great deal of destruction in Vietnam, but in the end, “sophisticated weapons proved no substitute for strategy.”[33]  War planners, however, both military and civilian, were wed to the idea that the technological superiority of U.S. forces would prevail, a conviction adhered to from the earliest days of the American involvement in Vietnam, due to a “general acceptance of the notion that unconventional or limited war was merely a subset” of a larger conventional or nuclear war for which the United States was prepared.[34]  Tilford notes that in 1962, “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, claimed that forces constituted for war in Europe could just as easily fight and win against guerrillas in Indochina.”[35]  This remained the official mantra of the United States for the next twelve years, and indeed the statistical analysis employed by McNamara and his “whiz kids,” an extension of “the managerial ethos…institutionalized [in the U.S. Department of Defense] in the 1950’s” promoted an illusion of victory through running tallies of truck counts and body counts.[36]  But what looked good on paper statistically did not necessarily equate to victory in actuality.  In developing a strategy for resistance of Japanese incursion into China in the late 1930’s, Mao Zedong observed how industrialized nations might be defeated by guerrilla tactics.  Donald Mrozek elaborates, writing that “the longer the war and the wider the distribution of forces in pursuit of an elusive enemy,” the more vulnerable the industrialized invader is.  Mao saw that the “commitment to resist indefinitely coupled with the idea of ‘trading space for time’ was to exhaust the Japanese.”  Mrozek notes that this concept was “still at work a quarter century later in Vietnam.”[37]  Thus even as U.S. forces prevailed in “specific symmetrical battles” with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, the technical defeats “still contributed to strategic victory because, even when battles themselves were fought in a largely symmetrical manner, they served asymmetrical strategies so that a string of ‘defeats’ really constituted a victory in the making.”[38]

Conclusion

Given that premise (as noted above) that increased duration in an armed conflict favors weak nations over stronger opponents,  it stands to reason that all the communists in Vietnam had to do was survive.  “By contrast,” according to Mrozek, “the United States and its South Vietnamese allies needed an affirmative victory that would produce lasting change on the ground.”[39]   Unfortunately for the United States the “affirmative victory” never materialized and resources of every type continued to be expended in the hope that somehow a demonstrated American resolve would “send a message” to the government in Hanoi.  “But what message was really sent?” asks Mrosek.  “Was it that technology can eventually be brought to bear to solve all problems, or that the United States might be counted on to complete tasks at costs too high for their value?”[40]  Understanding this technological ability versus cost relationship will no doubt prove vital for both the United States, as well as its potential enemies, in the future.  Consider this observation by Tilford:

Since World War II, U.S. military failures have come at the hands of opponents who had little or no air or sea forces and whose ground forces were composed largely of light infantry…[and] employed a combination of unconventional strategy and tactics with a willingness to sustain higher casualty rates.[41]

History bears out the evidence that in asymmetrical warfare, the superior power can be defeated, often in dramatic fashion.  The Romans in the TeutoburgForest, the British in its American colonies, the French in Indochina and Algeria, The United States in Vietnam and in Somalia, are all examples of overwhelming power being defeated by a weaker, yet determined, opponent, and always on the weaker opponent’s home ground.  What is unique in the asymmetrical conflicts of the Twentieth Century is the initial attempt on the part of the superior power to fight a limited war, through the introduction and use of technology to “minimize cost” in lives and treasure.  The irony of this approach, as we have seen, is that the superior power becomes more and more committed as it encounters stiff resistance on the part of the weaker foe, who, generally having a greater incentive to fight and incur loss (due for the most part to nationalism), is able to overcome a technological shortfall and demonstrate a staying power causing the duration, and/or cost, of the conflict to exceed what the superior power was initially willing to spend.  If the weaker opponent is willing and able to endure tactical losses (which is often the case) the probability for strategic victory becomes greater so long as he does not attempt to engage the superior opponent solely in the conventional realm.  Henry Kissinger summarized the relationship best: “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win.”[42]

Asymmetric Conflict & The Other Superpower: A Post Script

In December 1979 the Soviet Union rolled into Afghanistan with armored tanks and mechanized infantry to prop up the pro-Soviet government in Kabul.  Situation A, as the handwritten memorandum signed by members of the Politburo refer to the deployment, lasted ten years and resulted in over 14,000 Russian dead, uncounted Afghan casualties, and a Soviet Army shocked and demoralized and, suffering from lack of funding in a bankrupt economic system, teetering on the brink of collapse.  The Soviet Union was an industrialized superpower.  Afghanistan was a semi-feudal, agrarian state.  According to Robert Cassidy in Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya: Military Strategic Culture and the Paradoxes of Asymmetric Conflict, “the Soviets brought the entire repertoire of an industrialized power’s military technology to bear against the Mujahideen and the Afghan people.”  They tested new weapons systems such as the self-propelled mortar, a new armored personnel carrier, new helicopters, and multiple launch rocket systems.  “However,” notes Cassidy, “despite all this technology, Afghanistan was a war for the light infantry and the Soviets did not have light infantry,”[43] prepared as they were for the expected conflict in central Europe.  The Mujahideen, demonstrated a greater willingness than their Soviet adversary to endure casualties in what they viewed as a life and death struggle, rather than a simple political contest.  Their guerrilla tactics, utilizing the challenging terrain, empowered them when conducting ambushes against a foe encumbered by heavy equipment and unable to maneuver.  The fact that the Soviet Union was a superpower bogged down in an operation that seemed to hold no clear objective or achievable victory drew the inevitable comparisons with the American experience in Vietnam, despite Soviet protests to the contrary.  The Russian invasion of Afghanistan clearly represents an unbalanced match up regarding the sophistication of the opposing forces, and for the purposes of this essay, illustrates yet another example in asymmetric warfare where superior technology failed.  With over a decade having past now since America’s entry into Afghanistan, one has to wonder if the outcome of our experience will be any different than that of the Soviets (or whether the results will differ from those of the Vietnam Conflict) when the final tally of treasure and blood is recorded.

Notes


[1] The definitive account of the Battle of Mogadishu remains Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Berkley: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999).

[2] I was deployed to Somalia in May, 1993, as a platoon leader in a US Army Transportation Truck Company in support of Operation Continue Hope.

 [3] Vernon Loeb, “Deadly Assets: The CIA’s Failure in Somalia,” The Washington Post, 27 February, 2000.

 [4] Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., The Revenge of the Melians: Asymmetric Threats and the Next QDR (NationalDefenseUniversity, 2000) ch.1.

[5] Eric Larsen, Casualties and Consensus:  The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations (RAND, 1996) ch.2, p.44.

[6] McKenzie, Revenge of the Melians, ch.1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lloyd J. Matthews, Challenging the United States Symmetrically and Asymmetrically: Can America Be Defeated? (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, July1998), p.20.

[9] John F. Guilmartin, Jr., “Technology & Asymmetrics in Modern Warfare,” in Challenging the United States Symmetrically and Asymmetrically: Can America Be Defeated?, p.25.

[10] William S. Lind, “On War #11 and #12: The Four Generations of Modern War” listed on http://www.wbal.com/shows/smith/ , April 16, 2003.

[11] Matthews, Challenging the United States, p.21.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Colon Powell, My American Journey, p.149.

[14] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p.435.

[15] Ibid., p437.

[16] Donald J. Mrozek, “Asymmetrical Response to American Air Superiority in Vietnam” in Challenging the United States Symmetrically and Asymmetrically: Can America Be Defeated?, p.95.

[17] Karnow, Vietnam, p.436.

[18] Ibid., p.437.

[19] Paul N. Edwards, The Closed War: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in the Cold War (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p.3.

[20] Karnow, Vietnam, p.254.

[21] Kenneth Werrell, “Did USAF Technology Fail in Vietnam?: Three Case Studies,” Airpower Journal, Spring 1998.

[22] Charles T. Kamps, “The JCS 94-Target List: A Vietnam Myth that Still Distorts Military Thought,” Airpower Journal, February 2001.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ivan Arreguin-Taft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” International Security, vol.26, no.1 (Summer 2001), p.105.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mrozek, “Asymmetric Response,”  pp.102-103.

[28] Arreguin-Taft, “How the Weak Win Wars,”  p.105.

[29] Kamps, “The JCS 94-Target List”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Karnow, Vietnam, p.458.

[32] Earl H. Tilford, Jr., The Revolution in Military Affairs:  Prospects and Cautions,  (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, June1995), p.10.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p.7.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[37] Mrozek, “Asymmetric Response,” p.90.

[38] Ibid., pp.93-94.

[39] Ibid., p.103.

[40] Ibid., p.102.

[41] Tilford, The Revolution in Military Affairs, p.13.

[42] Henry Kissinger, “The Vietnam Negotiations,” Foreign Affairs, vol.47, Jan 1969, p.214.

[43] Robert Cassidy, Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya: Military Strategic Culture and the Paradoxes of Asymmetrical Conflict, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, February 2003), p.18.