Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War, by Larry Cable. New York: New York University Press. 307 pp. $30. Along with its terror and destruction, war for some is a learning experience, with commanders and staffs applying, refining, or transforming military doctrine to meet new circumstances: Witness the young Napoleon, Rommel in North Africa, and MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific. Their intellectual baseline was the body of doctrine found in military manuals and treatises, which attempt to inform officers where, when, and how to train, organize, maneuver, attack, defend, consolidate, and all the rest.
Which brings us - in Larry Cable's provocative book - to the Vietnam fiasco. He suggests that it owed a great deal, not merely to disarray at home, nor even to Communist machinations, but to the failure of the American military to understand what they were facing and how to adjust by developing a new doctrine. It is not men, money, and weapons, but ideas, imagination, and inquisitiveness on which Cable, a kind of intellectual historian, is focusing.
The evidence he finds is in the field manuals of the 1950s and early 1960s. He performs a textual analysis, demonstrating how the Marine Corps and especially the Army built ``the lessons'' of Greek (1946-49), Philippine (1946-54), and Malayan (1948-60) civil wars into a simplistic doctrine that proved disastrous in Vietnam.
Cable's book follows on ``The Counterinsurgency Era'' (1977), Douglas Blaufarb's important account of Washington's obsession in the 1960s with crushing radical revolutions, particularly in Southeast Asia. Blaufarb's concern was political and operational, on Saigon, Vientiane, and the villages between. Cable complements that book by centering on the Pentagon and Forts Bragg and Benning, where reports from the field are read and manuals written.
Those reports were comforting and optimistic: Some minor adjustments to standard doctrine would suffice to defeat Communist insurrections, which were perceived - following the World War II experience with resistance movements - as heavily dependent on foreign support, without which they would wither away. Partisan movements are indeed closely linked to the outside, but insurrections draw heavily on indigenous sources. This distinction was lost in the anti-Communist mood of the 1960s.
Cable identifies further problems. Chief among them is an American military tradition that dates back to the Civil War and relies on massive firepower to annihilate the enemy (and unlucky civilians as well), and to which the British constabulary and policing model, with its precise identification of the opponent and its discriminating use of firepower, is quite foreign. That the British, after centuries of experience with subject populations, should have learned the appropriate do's and don't's, is hardly surprising.
By contrast, Americans are only beginners whom Cable shows are prone to emphasize one element of a complex counterinsurgency program, while underestimating the others. Hence the failure to realize that Vietnam was not Malaya, when applying the strategic hamlet program that had worked so well in the latter, but which completely failed against the Viet Cong.
Have things changed? Though Cable's book tapers off by 1965, it is obviously relevant to current American policy in Angola and particularly El Salvador. There is some evidence in the military journals that younger officers are at least thinking about the constabulary ideal, rather than that of the big battle.
Policing is, however, slow and frustrating (the Malayan emergency lasted 12 years), and it requires thorough knowledge of local conditions. Can the American military, already stretched globally and between nuclear and conventional capabilities, add another role to its repertoire?