Bureaucracies are slow, cumbersome, and self-defeating

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LBJ meeting with “Blowtorch” Bob

By Kevin Black

I just read Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: institutional constraints on U.S. -GVN performance in Vietnam by Robert W. Komer.  This is a great summary of how the US and its Ally, South Vietnam, undercut their efforts to stop the spread of communism during the Vietnam War. A ten page executive summary is available.

The message is simple, clear-cut: bureaucracies are slow to innovate as well as reluctant to reevaluate themselves. Mistakes in strategy development and decision-making are inevitable.  Here are a few of my observations from the reading:

• The US military strategy in Vietnam demanded a counter-insurgency model and yet a conventional war model was employed – one best suited for the open plains of Western Europe. Here the US and NATO had a competitive advantage against the Soviet Union. The advantage was lost in the restricted terrain of Vietnam, against and non-conventional enemy, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

•  Your operational and organizational models, no matter how successful they are, may not always be appropriate in all circumstances. Strategy and decision-making models must adapt to the particular situation and not vice-versa.

•  The overall strategic model of war, one of attrition, did not align to the nature of the US politics with its democratic roots. The probability of a protracted was real, and naturally US public opinion naturally soured over time without definitive results.

•  The availability of a new capability is not a sound justification to employ it.  A growing interest in airpower coupled with an eagerness of the US Air Force (the parent service) acerbated the wrong decision to sustain a strategic bombing campaign with little results but with unnecessary US casualties.

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