Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series on the Vietnam War offers a timely lesson about what might happen when people impressed by their own smarts — the “best and the brightest,”as David Halberstam called them — run a war. Despite their smarts, experts can make unwise decisions that spell disastrous consequences when your nation is engaged in military conflict.
Just think of the Pentagon’s so-called Whiz Kids flocking around then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: In their quest for clean data-driven solutions to the war, heavily influenced by systems thinking, they embraced deeply flawed metrics (e.g., body count) to gauge success on the battlefield, which made them recommend ever more escalatory policies ultimately causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands. (The defense secretary was also an early convert to the gospel of technological solutionism: McNamara and his team tried to raise the IQs of low-aptitude recruits in the U.S. military by using advanced technology — namely, videotapes. They failed.)
The cold rationality of bureaucratic abstraction is encapsulated in this 1965 memo from McNamara’s closest advisor, John Mc Naughton, then a senior official in the Pentagon, about U.S. aims in the war:
70 percent –To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).
20 percent — To keep SVN [South Vietnam] (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
10 percent — To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
The U.S. primarily fought the war for reputational reasons, which at a certain theoretical level may make sense. After all, the conflict in Vietnam occurred at the height of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. However, fighting a real war based on an abstract idea is a different story. “No 19, 20-year-old kid wants to die to maintain the credibility of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon,” a Vietnam War veteran says in the documentary. Or as George Orwell once noted about another academic argument that defied common sense: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
Of course, bashing intellectuals serving or advising the U.S. government has been en vogue ever since the establishment of the national security state in 1947 and the influx of academics. This has recently been taken to another level with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the sidelining of the traditional Washington D.C.-based foreign policy elite primarily recruited from a handful of American academic institutions.
The PBS Vietnam War documentary painfully illustrates what happens when national security generalists run a war without the insights of regional experts. Walt Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara were all talented and highly educated people. But they had no expertise on Asia and limited military experience. (The U.S. military leadership itself at the time was engulfed in anti-communist sentiments repeatedly pushing to escalate the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.)
This lack of experience and expertise in the higher echelons of government was amplified by the fact that most Asia experts had been purged from the U.S. government by the McCarthy witch-hunts triggered by fears of communism in the 1950s. As a result, there were no regional experts on board who “might have been able to provide that rarest of contributions in government: real expertise at a high operational level,” Halberstam writes, if the best and the brightest were of course willing to listen (not a given).
The vacuum left by regional experts had to be filled by national security generalists and the military. Consequently, “there was no real attempt, when the new administration [Kennedy-Johnson] came in, to analyze Ho Chi Minh’s position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what Diem represented, to determine whether the domino theory was in fact valid,” he adds.
What the example of the Vietnam War shows is that there is a fundamental difference between national security generalists and regional experts. The former lean toward theory and abstraction embedded in ideology (e.g., Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy), the latter focus primarily on culture and empirical evidence underpinned by on-the-ground experience (e.g., John Paton Davies).
Based on Dan Drezner’s definition of the terms, national security generalists tend to be thought leaders, whereas regional experts have the attributes of public intellectuals. As we have repeatedly seen in the run-up to wars including Afghanistan and Iraq, national security generalists are much quicker to formulate an ostensible coherent theory (‘the big idea’) why military action is or is not necessary, while regional experts usually fall into the “on the one hand… on the other” category.
In order to be a national security generalist one has to be impressed with one’s own intellect (e.g., Henry Kissinger), otherwise it is impossible to display the confidence necessary to comment with ostensible authority on a wide range of national security issues. Presenting recommendations to solve the South China Sea maritime dispute, while providing insights into Taiwan’s military capabilities, next to offering advice on North Korean sanctions runs contrary to the empirical approach of most regional experts.
National security generalists — steeped in international relations theory, military history, and ways of the Washingtonian bureaucracy — do not suffer from these empirical and geographical limitations. (The same is true for some regional experts.) As a result, given the current public policy and media environment in Washington DC favoring soundbitey ideas, the national security generalist receives more attention from the government and the media than the regional expert residing outside the capital.
This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Some of the best analysts out there are what I would call national security generalists. Yet, if there is one lesson to be taken from the Vietnam War it is to distrust the judgement of national security generalists and to be wary of their overarching theories if they run contrary to the general consensus of opinion held by regional or country experts; or, as was the case in the 1950s and 60s, be highly suspicious when they are made in an expert vacuum.
Generalism breeds (unwarranted) confidence and certitude.
As Lord Raglan said in the 1968 film Charge of the Light Brigade, “It will be a sad day for England when her armies are officered by men who know too well what they are doing ‑‑ it smacks of murder.” The lesson of Vietnam permeates his statement: National security professionals who are too confident and too schooled in what they are doing are often the henchmen of disastrous policies. A warning that the “best and the brightest” of the 21st century should heed.