Book Reviews

The treatment of SEAL operations is crisp, anecdotal, and often humorous. Gormly provides an excellent description of SEAL small-unit tactics as well as colorful, "been there, done that" accounts of a number of his own combat operations. He does not mince words in describing the difficulties and frustrations in gaining acceptance of SEAL operations from conventional commanders. Midway through the book, following the description of his Vietnam tours, he comments on that war and his personal experience. On this subject Gormly speaks with pride and candor, and in no uncertain terms shares the contempt he still feels for those in America who abandoned the men who fought and died there. The author unabashedly maintains that he relished serving in Vietnam and in combat, and at every opportunity he tells of the respect and devotion he still feels for those who served under him.

Gormly was the second commanding officer of SEAL Team Six. Here we are treated to a detailed account of that team's success and failures during Urgent Fury (the capture of Grenada) and the Achille Lauro incident. We also get a factual, first-hand look at the training and operations of this secret SEAL team. Perhaps more brutal and compelling are the political wars that surrounded the team and Gormly's controversial predecessor, Commander Richard Marcinko. Gormly had to deal with Marcinko in Vietnam, having followed him into Chau Doc after Tet in 1968. In this book, Marcinko is depicted as a fabricator and a coward. After relieving him as commander of SEAL Team Six, Gormly characterizes the "Rogue Warrior" as a brilliant alcoholic who constantly abused power and positions of trust for his own gain; a capable, sometimes charming SEAL officer who consistently undermined peers and misused his subordinates to further his own career.

Gormly's story is concluded with an endorsement of the U.S. Special Operations Command and an integrated, joint approach to special operations. He predicts for the reader what he feels are the future enemies of democracy—Islamic fundamentalism and drugs. He urges the use of special operations forces to counter these threats, both domestically and abroad.

Combat Swimmer is a quick, hardhitting, and factual look at a career Navy SEAL and his craft. As an authentic autobiography of a SEAL officer, it is a worthy companion to Barry Enoch's Teammates: SEALs at War (New York: Pocket Books, 1996). Combat Swimmer is passionate and direct, yet not without a good measure of dry wit. There are some great lines in the book, especially when Gormly recalls the comment of the medical officer after concluding his retirement physical. "Your problem, Captain, is not that you (a man in his early fifties) have the body of a sixty-five-year-old man. Your problem is that you still have the brain of an eighteen-year-old."

Dick Couch is a novelist who writes about SEALs and military special operations. His current work, Rising Wind , is available in softcover by Avon Books.

 

Visual Explanations, Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative

Edward R. Tufte, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1997. 156 pp. Index. $45.00 ($40.50)

Reviewed by Rear Admiral Michael Ratliff, U.S. Navy

Yale professor Edward Tufte believes that decision makers should have the information they need presented effectively and ethically. His insights can help military leaders understand the human side of visualizing data. Visual Explanations is Tufte's third volume on information design. Together with Envisioning Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1990) and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1983), as well as his seminars, this new work helps us understand how to present the information we need to make decisions. According to Tufte, good design is nearly the same as good thinking. Therefore, the first priority is to clarify our thinking. Policy makers, operators, and planners also require information depth so they can fully understand issues. Tufte argues for providing that depth instead of "dumbing down" presentations. Leaders want to make their own decisions, and they require a richness of data supported by effective information design.

The goal should be to provide decision makers as much information as possible. The human eye-brain system can take in 150 megabytes at a glance, and information displays do not operate at even a fraction of this capacity. Key challenges to information design are using two-dimensional displays to portray multi-dimensional problems, and the use of simplified graphics to support data-intensive decision making. Too often we present only conclusions, or just superficial information. Better information design should result in higher data transfer to decision makers. In addition, Tufte warns against "clutter," "visual noise," "chart junk," and "administrative bloat" in our displays.

Tufte not only diagnoses the problem in the case studies he presents—he also provides illustrations of the ways effective information design could have made a difference. Tufte provides practical guidance on a key problem of the information age. His insights into information design take us beyond talk to practical steps toward improving the visualization of data.

Admiral Ratliff is currently the J-2 (Intelligence) of USPACOM.

 

Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson's Wars

Frank E. Vandiver. College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 1997. $29.95 ($26.95).

Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command

Lewis Sorley. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998. $39.95 ($35.95).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Record

A dearth of moral courage plagued the performance of both civilian and military decision makers during the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson, though profoundly skeptical of American chances for victory in Indochina, not only subscribed to the fantastic "domino theory" but also believed that failure to make even an unsuccessful stand in Vietnam would cost him his presidency. Around his Democratic neck hung the "soft on communism" political albatross. Because Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta had "given" Eastern Europe to Stalin, and because Harry Truman had "lost" China, Johnson could not afford to fail in South Vietnam. Joe McCarthy might be dead, but the master red-baiter Richard Nixon was ever ready to pounce.

Worse still, Johnson and his senior war policy lieutenants, notably Robert McNamara (the most disastrous American public servant of the 20th century), could not bring themselves to tell the American people the truth about events in Indochina and American intentions there. Take, for example, the spring 1965 decision to approve offensive combat missions for U.S. ground forces, which LBJ denied was a major policy shift. As McGeorge Bundy later told historian Frank E. Vandiver, "One of the functions of the Commander in Chief is to lead the people. He [LBJ] was passing a bill a day and didn't want any trouble. He didn't want to explain the war—there wasn't any war. There was no change, there was only a change in what policy required."

Johnson might have come clean, and even fought the war differently than he did, if his principal military advisers had had the courage of their convictions. But, alas, they didn't. There was no better example of this timidity than Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson. A fine soldier who survived the Bataan Death March and was decorated for heroism during the Korean War, Johnson had no use for either Westmoreland or Westmoreland's wooden-headed attrition strategy. He also strongly opposed Lyndon Johnson's war policy of exceptional restraint, especially the White House's unprecedented refusal to call up the reserves. Moreover, like the rest of the Joint Chiefs, Harold Johnson was subjected to repeated presidential verbal abuse and displays of contempt by McNamara. (See, for example, Charles G. Cooper in the May 1996 Proceedings , "The Day It Became the Longest War," pp. 77-80.) Yet, like the other chiefs, General Johnson stayed at his post, serving what he believed was a ruinous war policy. In so doing he, like the other chiefs, will go down in history less for anything he did than for what he did not do.

Napoleon once said, with respect to a military commander's disagreement with "his sovereign," that "every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan; in short, to give his resignation rather than allow himself to become the instrument of his army's ruin." Surely a collective threat to resign, to say nothing of actual resignation, would have been political dynamite to a president whose worst nightmare was an open alliance between the right-wing enemies of his Great Society programs and a disaffected military leadership.

To be sure, Harold Johnson seriously considered resigning. And to his credit he later regretted that he didn't. In retirement he told a fellow general that "I remember the day I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the President and tell him, `You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore, I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out the door."' The strongly religious Johnson then added: "I made the typical mistake of believing I could do more for the country and the Army if I stayed in than if I got out. I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage on my back."

Lewis Sorley, a third-generation West Point graduate who served in Vietnam as executive officer of a tank battalion, has written a splendid and long overdue biography of Harold K. Johnson. Honorable Warrior sheds new light not just on the chief of staff of the service that bore the brunt of the blood and agony that was the Vietnam War, but also illuminates the tortured civil-military relations of the period. Of particular interest is Sorley's thorough examination of the origins and magnitude of Johnson's profound distrust of Westmoreland's choice of attrition, instead of the alternative population protection strategy favored by Johnson and many others in the Army (including Westmoreland's successor, Creighton Abrams). Indeed, but for Maxwell Taylor's strong push on Westmoreland's behalf, President Johnson probably would have selected Harold Johnson to succeed Paul Harkins as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Like Sorley's biography of Abrams, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Honorable Warrior is both a fine read and a major contribution to the still burgeoning literature on the Vietnam War and the way the United States waged its side of that conflict.

Frank E. Vandiver's Shadows of Vietnam focuses on Lyndon Johnson's motives in formulating and implementing his Vietnam War policies the way he did. Unfortunately, Vandiver's starting premise, namely that "Everything about LBJ's career should have made him a good war president," is faulty. Lyndon Johnson was not only ignorant of military affairs but also unwilling to heed professional military advice. On the contrary, as a southern populist he believed military men were warmongers. "It's hard to be a hero without a war," he once said. "That's why I'm so suspicious of the military."

Johnson moreover lacked the communications skills of a great war leader and, more important, as president he subordinated prosecution of the Vietnam War to the pursuit of his ambitious domestic political agenda. He wanted as much butter as he could get and as few guns as he could get away with. Backseating the war, however, reduced the Johnson administration's war aim to simply defeat avoidance, and in so doing simultaneously encouraged Hanoi and undermined American public support. Finally, Johnson (and all too many of his advisers) didn't have a clue as to the nature of the enemy in Vietnam. Even Vandiver admits that Johnson never grasped that his brilliant legislative skills were irrelevant to dealing with Ho Chi Minh: "Johnson always believed that if they [LBJ and Ho Chi Minh] could sit together, some deal would emerge."

Domestic political skill is essential to sustaining public support during a war, but it does not provide insight into how to wage a war. Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were all strategically gifted as well as superb politicians. Lyndon Johnson's only historical competition for the worst war president is James Madison, who entered and mishandled a war with Great Britain.

Shadows of Vietnam is an empathetic, well-researched, and well-written portrayal of a fatally flawed war president who, to be fair, was poorly served by the smug and reckless national security team he inherited from the Kennedy administration.

Jeffrey Record is a visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College and author of The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam , recently published by the Naval Institute Press.

 

Dick Couch is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served with the Navy Underwater Demolition and SEAL Teams in Vietnam. He is the author of twelve other books, including The Warrior Elite, Chosen Soldier and SEAL Team One. A resident of Ketchum, ID he is a frequent guest on radio and TV talk shows. He has lectured the Air Force Academy, the Naval Special Warfare Center, the JFK Special Forces Center and School, the FBI Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, The Joint Special Operations University and The Academy Leadership Forum. Recently he served as adjunct professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
7:15pm, Class of 2013 Moral Courage Lecture, Alumni Hall, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD Read More
Guest Speaker
Senior Leaders Conference, 160th Special Ops Aviation Unit (Airborne), Ft. Campbell, KY Read More

 
 

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