Vietnam Lessons Live On
Emeritus professor and former general's classic book on war management reissued because of Iraq parallels
By Thomas Weaver Article published September 11, 2007
Doug Kinnard went underground. For a just-retired U.S. Army brigadier general beginning pursuit of his second career on a college campus in 1970, it seemed a wise move. Kinnard decided not to tell his fellow Princeton graduate students about his graduation from West Point on D-Day, his 38 months of combat experience, or his two tours in Vietnam.
But they saw him in class and wondered, inevitably, “Who the hell is that old guy taking notes?” One day at lunch another doctoral student probed with questions about how long Kinnard had been at Princeton. “Were you here during the riots over Cambodia last year?” he asked.
Recalling the conversation years later, the UVM professor emeritus of political science sighs: “It was the punch line of a lifetime.”
Underground no more, the general turned grad student delivered: “No, I was in Cambodia.”
One can only imagine the silence that followed if Kinnard chose to elaborate on the particulars of what “in Cambodia” meant. Looking back years later, Kinnard says he had doubts about the mission in Vietnam following his first tour, but a strong sense of military duty carried him into his second tour in the war, which included helping to plan the Cambodian incursion. “I knew pretty much what was going on by the end of the first tour, but you do the best you can do with the job,” he says. “When you have 8,000 troops from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, that’s your worry — not you.”
A different sense of duty — to document and assess the war in Vietnam from the perspective of the generals who commanded the American forces — drove Kinnard to research and write the most notable publication of his career, The War Managers, originally published in 1977. This month, Naval Institute Press will release a thirtieth anniversary edition of the book, its fourth printing.
Kinnard’s credibility within the military aided his research efforts as he conducted the surveys and interviews at the heart of the volume. “I was able to phrase the questions in the generals’ ‘language,’” Kinnard said in an interview at the time of the book’s initial publication. “Because I had been in their boots, they were all the more willing to respond.”
Kinnard began work on the The War Managers in 1974, early in a UVM career that spanned 11 years, ending when he left the university in 1984 to become the U.S. Army’s chief of military history. From his very first visit to Vermont, Professor Raul Hilberg would be a mentor and close friend. His bond with the eminent Holocaust scholar was strengthened by Kinnard’s personal experience as a soldier in General Patton’s 71st Infantry Division during World War II. The unit pushed farther east in Europe than any other American force and Kinnard was there for the liberation of Gunskirchen Lager, an Austrian concentration camp where 18,000 Hungarian Jews were imprisoned. “I was not an expert on the Holocaust,” Kinnard says, “but a witness.”
Lessons from Vietnam?
Kinnard’s dual expertise as a military veteran and academic, though, brought considerable weight to his analysis of the strategic failure of Vietnam. Because of this and the facts the book revealed — such as that nearly 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objective — The War Managers drew wide media attention. Kinnard shared a national television audience on “Good Morning America” with General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces during the peak of the Vietnam War. Later, “Westie,” whom Kinnard had served as chief of operations and analysis in Vietnam, sent the professor a hand-annotated copy of his book, noting points of agreement and quarrels.
Kinnard, sounding at age 86 as if he could lead a graduate seminar at a moment’s notice, recently spoke with the view from his home in Chambersburg, Pa. Asked if people tend to call him professor or general, he replies, “Actually, most people call me Doug.” Recalling the spotlight of The War Managers’ first release, he says, “We all get our 15 minutes of fame and that was mine. Frankly, I was a little startled. It was one of those things that came out at the right time.”
The time is again right, it seems, for The War Managers. Kinnard says he believes parallels between Vietnam and current situation in which the U.S. military finds itself played a role in the publisher’s motivation to print the anniversary edition. The word “Iraq” doesn’t appear in the preface Kinnard recently wrote for the new edition, but he closes with the final message from the CIA station chief as the last Americans lifted off in helicopters from the roof of the embassy: “The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies which have characterized our participation here. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Saigon signing off.”
Speaking in late August, the general/professor is less subtle: “If Bush knew the real lessons of Vietnam, he would get out sooner than stay.”