Another Spook Passes

June 15, 2017–Every so often there’s a spy story that brings back the (supposed) romance of the second oldest profession. These are the kinds of narratives that enthrall kids and make them want to grow up to be spies. It may be that the age has passed–the machine spies, the computer hackers, the drone pilots, the faceless bureaucrats of the modern spyocracy do little to evoke the foggy streets and dark alleys of classic espionage. Samuel Vaughan Wilson is today’s story. He passed away a few days ago. For someone who roamed five continents and the seven seas, Wilson made it full circle to die at 93, in the same small Virginia town where he was born in 1923. Wilson was the real thing.

It was 1940, with war clouds on the horizon and Europe already enveloped in World War II, when Sam walked seven miles in the rain to enlist in the Virginia National Guard. Soon enough the Guard were mobilized. Wilson rose to sergeant before he was selected for officer candidate school, from which he emerged in good form. The Army sent him to Burma with the 4507th Provisional Infantry Regiment, famous as “Merrill’s Marauders.” He became regimental intelligence officer to Brigadier General Frank B. Merrill. Wilson personally scouted behind Japanese lines to prepare Merrill’s first attack. When Hollywood made a movie about the Marauders in 1962, Wilson actually appeared in the film, using the name Vaughan Wilson to play Merrill’s aide.

Army troops in Burma had a very close, almost interchangeable, relationship with the spooks of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which had a unit there called Detachment 101. Wilson made his first contacts with a number of people he would encounter again later. He spent roughly a third of his career on detached service with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), starting with four years with a Russian-immersion unit called “Detachment R.” That prepped him for assignment to the CIA base in West Berlin. Wilson occupied a place perhaps just one step below the CIA’s top Soviet case officers, George Kisevalter and Richard Kovich. Wilson became the agency’s first case officer for Igor Orlov, an agent whom people variously view as either an important spy or a Russian mole. There were other espionage assignments too. In 1963 Wilson was assigned to the Pentagon office supporting the CIA and its Project MONGOOSE aimed at Fidel Castro. In his later guise as a college president Wilson recalled browsing book stalls in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo; and strolling through the marketplaces of Baghdad, Marrakesh, Samarkand, and Ulaan Bator.

Then there was the Army.  It sent him to South Vietnam. As a colonel when Henry Cabot Lodge was the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Wilson served as military adviser to South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh. In January 1964 Khanh launched a coup that overthrew the junta of the time. Colonel Wilson became the man on the spot, funneling spot reports to Ambassador Lodge on ops of the South Vietnamese airborne brigade, Khanh’s securing of the command compound at Tan Son Nhut airbase, and his schedule. When Maxwell D. Taylor succeeded Lodge, Colonel Wilson became the U.S. military attaché. Over the holidays in 1964-65 Taylor, held in high esteem by President Lyndon Johnson, assembled his country team to consider whether to support the dispatch of American troops to South Vietnam. Wilson opposed that. He returned to Vietnam in 1966-67 as head of pacification under the Agency for International Development. Successes and failures at pacification further soured Wilson on the war.

In 1971 Brigadier General Wilson went to Moscow as U.S. military attaché. Even that late in his career the general is reported to have attempted on-the-street recruitments on behalf of CIA. The Soviets did not ignore him. Wilson is said to have been the target of a Russian “swallow,” a female spy who recruits using her wiles. Returning to the United States in 1973, Major General Wilson won assignment to head the Directorate of Estimates at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Following a year there, in September 1974 Wilson returned to the CIA as Bill Colby’s deputy to liaise with the other members of the intelligence community. He held that job until May 1976, when Lieutenant General Wilson became the director of DIA in his own right. Wilson is quoted as telling his people that Sherlock Holmes had become a better role model than James Bond.

The Carter administration took office in January 1977 and it made a start on new special forces and tactics, in the style of Detachment 101 and Merrill’s Marauders. General Wilson advocated for the initiative and put in the good word. He also furnished valuable advice to Colonel Charles Beckwith, originator of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. That unit, the Delta Force, was in the works as Sam Wilson retired in the fall of 1977. In the Iran Hostage Crisis the Delta Force carried out the rescue mission that failed at Desert One. Sam Wilson came out of retirement to serve on the Pentagon panel that reviewed the execution of Operation EAGLE CLAW, as the mission had been known. Wilson remained in demand as a consultant, and educator, and he circled back to his boyhood town. Altogether an interesting trajectory.

H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction

May 17, 2017–Now the truth stands revealed. When then-Lieutenant Colonel McMaster published his book Dereliction of Duty in the middle 1990s he got an extremely friendly reception. He rode that to generals’ stars, command in Iraq, scuttlebutt finding him a suitable candidate for chief of staff of the United States Army, and more. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster is national security adviser to the President of the United States. On the White House podium yesterday it all came tumbling down.

There were some more doubtful observers of the McMaster parade, me among them. I always thought McMaster’s argument about the Vietnam war a cheap shot. I said so in historian circles and in my book Unwinnable War. The thesis in McMaster’s book was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and NSC staff at the time of the Vietnam war played the inexcusable roles of enablers by going along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s strategy–partial, cautious steps, fragmentary escalations–instead of demanding action on their real, much more forceful menu of operations. By McMaster’s lights this left the United States on an uncertain, wavering course, meandering through history to defeat in Vietnam. I thought McMaster wrong both in general and in detail. It was not true the JCS never held out for their “large solution” operations. What was true was rather that each time a major strategic review occurred the Chiefs argued for the large solution. Lyndon Johnson, acutely aware of the dangers war in Vietnam could morph into war with China or Russia or both, consistently resisted the maximum escalation. While LBJ staged scenes to denounce and embarrass the generals they never, in fact, gave up their underlying strategy. They were never guilty of dereliction of duty in the sense that H. R. McMaster (and the U.S. military) use the term.

The generals (and NSC staff) did act to preserve the dignity of the president and his office. They did not complain of the president’s high handedness. Only one, Army chief Harold K. Johnson in 1967, contemplated resigning in protest (hoping LBJ might agree to war mobilization and an invasion of North Vietnam to dissuade him). He didn’t do it–and he, too, kept his silence on what had happened.

McMaster’s prescription in his book was that an official, faced with such a dilemma, must resign in preference to dereliction of duty. Yesterday, in reality, the general met his Waterloo. Elevated to national security adviser, Hal McMaster serves Donald J. Trump. The president blocked his national security adviser from ousting staff who made trouble, prevented McMaster from keeping offensive rhetoric out of Trump’s public comments, and kept silent as the president called him a “pain.” In the past week the general no doubt watched in horror as President Trump fired the FBI director even as evidence of an attempt to manipulate a federal investigation began surfacing. Then, a few days ago, Mr. Trump blabbed to visiting Russian officials of secrets given the United States by an intelligence ally, reportedly Israel. This violation of every protocol regarding handling of classified information, Mr. Trump defended with the bland defense that, as president, he can declassify any intelligence.

General H. R. McMaster stood up for President Trump. He denounced the Washington Post’s report that Trump had leaked classified information, “It didn’t happen.” Why not? Not because it did not happen but because a president can decide to declassify secrets. Yesterday McMaster took the podium at the White House. He made more excuses for Trump. “The president wasn’t even aware,” the general said, “where this information came from.” The president had an “absolute right,” the general said. Nine times the general insisted that what President Trump had done was “wholly appropriate.”

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster did not resign in protest. He did do precisely what his forebears had done during the Vietnam war–act to preserve the dignity of the office of the president. General McMaster seems to have discovered appropriate dereliction of duty.

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.