by dr ngo
Everyone who's ever been in the military has stories to tell, and I am no exception. Mine are scarcely the best around – for one thing, they occurred about 10,000 miles from the nearest combat – but they are my own, and in this telling of them, at least, they are true, to the best of my recollection. Besides, for me most of you are a new audience, though not exactly a captive one, since you can easily skip over this. (If any of you want more stories, just buy me a drink. Any drink. Any time.)
Early in 1968 – not long after the Tet Offensive – I found myself as private (E-2) in the US Army assigned to, but not training with, an Advanced Infantry Training company in Fort Dix, New Jersey. (For a brilliant account of such training, read John Sack M . “M” company was the next company over to ours at Fort Dix, although his reportage covers 1966-67, rather than 1968.) I had actually begun training with my company, but had been forced to withdraw, due to a minor but permanent injury that prevented me from completing the physical requirements of the course.
While awaiting reassignment, I was called into the CO's office by the man himself, a dynamic black Green Beret who was probably an excellent combat leader and a forceful trainer of men, but not much for paperwork. (His First Sergeant, a position often called upon to compensate for a commander's deficiencies, was also uncomfortable in an office.)
“You went to college, right?” he said. “See what you can do with this.” He handed me a file, which turned out to contain the (slim) records of the company fund, which consisted of a few hundred dollars extracted by mandatory contribution from all the trainees. It didn't take me long to read the file or identify the problem. Most of the fund had been used to pay for a pool table for the common room – a very reasonable and justifiable recreational expense. The problem was that there had been no meeting of the fund committee to authorize this expenditure.
The solution was obvious. I typed up the minutes for a meeting that had never occurred. I figured out who should have been on the committee (the CO, the 1SG, and a couple of other NCOs), came up with a date prior to the purchase, and had someone propose buying a pool table and the rest of the committee approve it. Spaces for signatures followed: the CO and 1SG signed for themselves, and we forged the signatures of the other NCOs, who were no longer with the company. The typed minutes went into the file, and when in due course the fund was inspected, all was in order.
This all happened within the first few hours of my unofficial clerical duties in the army. Based on this small burst of creativity, the CO happily let slide – for several months, as it turned out – his obligation to urge the Pentagon to assign me for further (non-infantry) training: as a clerk-typist? a cook? a driver? Instead I became one of a group of four young men, all with at least some college, who basically ran the orderly room [company office] in the absence of instruction/interference from those in authority over us. Two were officially clerks, trained for that MOS [Military Occupational Specialty]; we other two were hangers-on performing useful, but unauthorized, tasks. E.g., I drafted and typed up the forms for “Article 15s,” military justice administered at the company level (i.e., short of a court martial). When a trainee on a march through the woods smashed the nest of a woodcock, which made one of the officers indignant, I was the one who came up with a charge for this offense, not explicitly covered in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
None of us was remotely “military” in inclination or ambition, though all of us could fake the required bearing just well enough to get by. At this particular point in time – the absolute height of the Vietnam War, when the draft was conscripting more young men, many of them college-educated, than the military could handle well – we were not untypical: caught up in the machine and trying to survive, with few if any profound views about this war (much less war in general) but a strong personal conviction that it was in our interest to have as little to do as possible with either combat or punishment for shirking our “duty.” This meant making ourselves both useful and inconspicuous, while counting the days until our enlistments expired.
The official clerks attended to the most important business of the orderly room, including preparing the daily “morning report,” one of the very few documents that the Army took seriously. Every morning, all over the world, every single unit had to report exactly how many people they had on their books, with specifics as to anyone who had arrived or left since the previous day. If this report was not received promptly, phones would start ringing and all else would stop until it was completed and sent. In theory this meant that the Pentagon knew to a man exactly where all of the millions of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen under its authority were at any minute, or at least within the last 24 hours.
We were assiduous with this task, therefore, but rather less so with other documentation. In principle everyone who arrived or departed had to sign in and out in the company register, which, in a training company of over two hundred men, in an army in flux, was a lot of movement, a lot of signatures. We never got around to maintaining this register. Thus when we were informed that we were due for an inspection in a month or so we realized we had a problem.
So we worked backward from the morning reports to figure out who had arrived and departed (rather than forward from the signed registers to the morning report, as was proper) over the previous three-six (?) months, filled in their names in the appropriate columns of a blank register, and then forged all their signatures. Hundreds of them. Four of us signed, more or less alternately, varying our signatures somewhat (I think I might have signed a few left-handed), until the register was complete and plausible if no one was looking too closely. When the inspection came, they compared the register with the morning report, and found us in perfect compliance.
Other minor skullduggery was also taking place, of course. We were supposed to have copies of all the General Orders that had come down since the last inspection, but our holdings were woefully incomplete. So someone went to the next training company over and borrowed their complete set, which we passed off as our own. Then on the day of the inspection our supply sergeant filled up a “deuce and a half” (2.5 ton) truck with equipment we possessed beyond our authorization and told the driver to drive out to the firing range and hang around until late afternoon, by which time we would be certified as having exactly what we were supposed to have, no more and no less. Our surplus could then be returned to storage with no one officially the wiser.
I'm not sure we were actually fooling anyone, particularly since the inspectors were old-timers who had probably engaged in some sharp practices of their own back in the day. Clearly the whole inspection routine was designed not to test whether we were really “strack” all the time, but whether we were capable of faking it, given adequate notice. No one wanted to slow things down or mess things up. If you could make a decent show of military competence, that was enough. I am sure our company was somewhat below average, as well as far below official expectations, but I don't believe we were extraordinarily inept or corrupt. We had no Sergeant Bilko and were not competing for The Wackiest Ship in the Army. This, put simply, was how elements of the US Army operated at the height of the Vietnam War.
So what did I learn from these and other episodes of REMF [Rear Echelon M___ F___] life? Well, for a start, I came to understand how large organizations work and communicate. For a historian, this was an invaluable insight. The first thing to note about any document was not what it “said,” but who wrote it and for what purpose. The default assumption, with regard to the latter point, was what the army referred to as CYA – Cover Your Ass. Only if and when a given document does not obviously perform that function does one begin to take its contents seriously. But seeing the whole system from the inside also proved valuable later in my life, both in my doctoral research on 19th-century Spanish colonialism (you've seen one bureaucracy, you've seen them all) and in my personal experience as a staff member of universities in the United States, Australia, and Hong Kong. (The last of these combines the Byzantine rituals and lack of urgency of the British colonial service with the intricate, often unspoken, conventions of the traditional Chinese mandarinate.) You don't need to be an army clerk to appreciate how such systems operate, but it helps.
The other important lesson was this: the United States Army was lying to itself – systematically, routinely. As questions began to arise over the success or otherwise of the US mission in Vietnam and the validity of the “body count” and other metrics by which it was measured, it soon became clear to most people that from General Westmoreland on down (and on up, for that matter) there was considerable deception going on, a point made by virtually every competent journalist (e.g., David Halberstam The Making of a Quagmire or Neil Sheehan A Bright Shining Lie) and critic at the time and ever after. Just a month ago there was yet another a long thread on this theme in Crooked Timber “Vietnam and Historical Forgetting” prompted by Nick Turse's recent book, Kill Anything That Moves.
But what all of these indictments of the dishonesty of the war tended to assume was that somebody actually knew the truth, and was covering it up, perhaps under political or bureaucratic pressure. Westmoreland was a good candidate for Deceptor In Chief, since he was clearly a man with more ambition than integrity, and eventually was publicly nailed by CBS for his lies. But there was plenty of blame to go around, right up to SecDef Robert McNamara and the White House.
My insight, I felt, was far more profound: No One Knows. No one knew because dishonesty was baked into the system, even stateside, even where there was no particular political or bureaucratic pressure, even in an army scarcely at war. It was a system designed – perhaps unintentionally – to generate “correct” answers to all questions, rather than truthful ones. We had lied to ourselves so often, so long, that we had no idea what the truth was.
Westmoreland, I have little doubt, would have sworn that day was night and up was down if he had thought it would advance his career, but even the most honest general in the army could not have told The Truth about what was happening in Vietnam. Because whoever he was, he would have to depend on information from underlings who got their own information from those further and further down the food chain until it got down to those (like me) who understood that their function was to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear. All the way, all the time. Without this understanding, the whole military enterprise would have ground to a halt. The Vietnam War was merely a conspicuous, embarrassing, and tragic example of this universal tendency.
Now this took place nearly half a century ago, and I am told that the new volunteer army is a much better one, and in any event all of the old soldiers and bureaucrats are now retired or dead, so maybe these little anecdotes are nothing more than shards of memory of a distant and irrelevant time. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." But whenever I hear our leaders arguing that we should attack Panama, or Nicaragua, or Bosnia, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, because WE KNOW what they are doing, I cannot help but wonder: how do WE KNOW? How do we know what “WE KNOW”? And why should we, the public, believe the government story any more this time than we foolishly did in Vietnam?