Conventional wars fought on the European models developed by Napoleon involve the leadership in writing and training troops for rules of engagement (ROE). Having ROE has brought both benefits and...

Conventional wars fought on the European models developed by Napoleon involve the leadership in writing and training troops for rules of engagement (ROE). Having ROE has brought both benefits and costs, and broadly training ROE at every level of leadership right down to the foot soldiers allows every participant to make responsible decisions and accomplish the mission as the battlefield commander has declared it. ROE is a management tool with benefits to keep situations under control and aligned with the mission. And yet the ROE in General Westmoreland's command placed precise limits on what could be done and how it could be done.

The chain of command links everybody in uniformed service to those both senior and junior to them, all the way from the most junior ranks up to the President of the United States. There are a great many levels, but for this assignment we are looking at only six levels.

Looking all the way up the chain of command from the infantry soldiers in Vietnam to the President, write a short paper that will correlate the understanding of ROE with the limited war ideology and its assumptions as seen through the perspective and experiences of the six levels. Write your paper as seen from the following six points of the chain of command (a paragraph for each level plus an introduction and conclusion should be about right):

  • individual soldiers in the field;
  • batallion commanders;
  • division commanders;
  • General William Westmoreland;
  • Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; and
  • President Lyndon Johnson.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the fundamental problems in the Vietnam War was that the Rules of Engagement were not effectively designed.  They were not effectively designed because the focus of the war as well as the means through which one could ascertain victory were equally muddled.  The result is that an entire set of directives were nuanced and designed for political operation, as opposed to tactical and decisive victory.  The rules of engagement in the Vietnam war followed this unclear path, something that was met head on by the clarity of the opponent.  In this light, American failure in Vietnam can be understood.

In the early stages of the war's escalation, President Johnson believed in the control he exerted over the military operations.  He would argue that his ability to control the machinery of war was one of the reasons why he believed American victory was possible.  Johnson would often brag that "Those boys can't hit an outhouse without my permission."  A lifelong politician who established his reputation in being able to broker political deals and negotiations, Johnson believed in his ability to control the focus of the war, just as he would any nuanced piece of Senate legislation.  The President's election campaign was predicated on how he was the more "rational" choice between he and Senator Goldwater, who was depicted as more of a pro- war hawk.  The President shied away from the war in his campaign, and thus escalation into the conflict was something that he saw as nuanced and cautious. Johnson never exacted precise direction and focus in crafting rules of engagement in large part because he believed that the war would not escalate to that point.  When it did, Johnson was not well equipped to stem the tide and did not accept the need to formulate detailed rules of engagement for he still believed that each step take would be the last before an all out, protracted conflict was waged.  President Johnson never engaged in the discussion of what rules of engagement were because he believed in his political ability and sheer will to control the focus of the war.  The President also believed that he could depend on the leadership of South Vietnam to assume responsibility for their role in the conflict, and thus reduce the United States to a more of an advisory capacity.  The failure of the South Vietnamese government to effectively function as well as the need to increase American commitment to the war helped to develop a very muddled picture for the  President, who was not ready or capable to address the full onslaught of the situation.  It should be noted the forming every aspect of the rules of engagement is not his responsibility. However, as the President, he authorizes his military advisors to follow specific paths.  If the President had defined the war in a context that could allow military personnel to craft effective rules of engagement, there might have been more clarity down the chain of command.  As a result, the same narrative that impacts President Johnson trickles down to all levels of military capacity.

Robert McNamara took the President's directives as the Secretary of Defense and applied them to the Vietnam context.  Aligned with the President's desire to avoid ground troops, he conceived of "Operation Rolling Thunder," an aerial bombing campaign designed to cripple the reserves of the North Vietnamese. The rules of engagement in this phase of the war was to limit bombing raids to specific targets and not to bomb anything without approval from Washington, D.C.  (This is where Johnson's boast was applicable.)  At the same time, Secretary McNamara designed a military approach that was explicitly political.  He sought to limit American involvement so that the President would not absorb political pressure from legislators and their constituents and to ensure that geopolitical concerns were also addressed.  The rules of engagement designed for Operation Rolling Thunder were political in so far as they reflected "the fear of escalation and direct involvement of the Soviet Union or China in the war."  As a result, McNamara's operation was ineffective: "Rolling Thunder barely achieved any of the desired results -- restrictive rules of engagement undoubtedly played a major part in the failure of U.S air power in this singular black mark on the record of American military aviation."  When it became clear that Rolling Thunder was a failure, the next step was to put troops on the ground.  Secretary McNamara and leadership again failed to carve out specific and detailed rules of engagement.  Rules were established that prevented an American soldier from killing a civilian, but there was a noticeable lack of training as to what differentiated a South Vietnamese from the Northern enemy.  The result was that there became a very loose interpretation of the rules of engagement.  Secretary McNamara struggled under the weight of both shifting focus and strategic futility in how the war was progressing.  As with the President, crafting out specific and targeted rules of engagement became impossible because the metric for success and the means to achieve it were constantly being moved.  This made McNamara's function as one who could carve out specific rules of engagement a weakened one.  

It should be noted that McNamara and President Johnson lacked the necessary military credentials to be able to fully write and develop rules of engagement. This might have contributed to a political focus in a war where a strategic emphasis was necessitated.  After McNamara, the personnel involved reflected the political failure to adopt a militarily strategic focus in crafting out the rules of engagement.  No one can really escape responsibility for the American failure in Vietnam, in particular with regards to the rules of engagement. However, the political shortcomings seen at the highest levels of governance trickle down to the solider in the field.

General Westmoreland reflected the political challenges in being unable to fully craft a larger vision for success in Vietnam.  Westmoreland argued that complete commitment to the cause of victory in Vietnam was essential to its success: "In evaluating the enemy strategy...it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve. ... Your [members of Congress] continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission. ... Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination, and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!"  Westmoreland reflected the political challenges in Washington in his failure to develop comprehensive training on the rules of engagement.  For example, Westmoreland praised the unit involved in the My Lai massacre for doing "an outstanding job" because "U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists [sic] in a bloody day-long battle". Westmoreland emphasized the removal of Communists in part of a larger war of attrition, in which the enemy is slowly withered of resources and strength.  This was counter to the approach Washington was advocating. Westmoreland's failure to account for the Tet Offensive might have played a role in not emphasizing the need for specific and guided rules of engagement.  Westmoreland was in such a dire search for "positive indicators" that establishing the rules of engagement in a firm and defined manner was not as important to him.  It is in this regard where Westmoreland's failure to account for how the rules of engagement impacted the daily life of the soldier on the ground is essential.

For the division commanders and the battalion commanders, failure at the highest levels translated to them, as well.  There was little being relayed to them in terms of what constituted the rules of engagement and thus, there was even less for them to relay to their soldiers.  The battalion and division commanders initially believed that United States' role in the war would be a small one and that there was a plan for victory.  When it became evident that the plan and metrics for success were both in flux, it impacted their ability to coherently articulate such realities to the soldiers who depended upon them.  Attrition was a tough concept to actualize and communicate to the soldiers on the front lines.  The Tet Offensive made it even more difficult to effectively guide action.  Seeing that both commanders were strictly adhering to policy crafted in Washington, and that such policy was already flawed and not clear, it makes sense that the rules of engagement were not emphasized.  It was not surprising to see battalion or division commanders make instant decisions on the ground which were wrong, primarily because their guidance from above was wrong.  This resulted in zippo raids, where villages were burned to the ground on suspicion of giving aid and comfort to "the enemy" as well as incursions through guerrilla attacks which matched the style of the North Vietnamese, but lacked the institutional follow through because it was not emphasized from the higher orders of leadership.  The exact rules of engagement were not emphasized because the highest echelons of leadership failed to account for them, and thus commanders of the division and battalion rank were unable to communicate this to those on the front lines.  The idea of "following orders" is effective when the orders themselves are effective and crafted out of a clear understanding of the situation. Given how this was absent, it makes sense that these leaders' instructions on the rules of engagement were also absent.

Finally, the individual soldier in the field paid the price.  The manner in which the war was conceived did not impact the individual soldier in the field.  They represent the essence of what it means to follow orders, and when those orders are lacking, it makes sense that their efforts also do not resonate as clearly.  The lack of clear and effective rules of engagement contributed to much in way of confusion in the soldier's mind and reduced their effectiveness.  Lack of effective training in who was "the enemy" resulted in split second decisions that almost amounted to a 50/50 shot, or gave way to some gruesome violations of rights.  In this regard, one sees the destructive net result of failed political leadership, skewed military construction, and lack of coherent communication about the rules of engagement. 

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