A MAJOR consequence of the American defeat in Vietnam has been a clear-cut recasting of the American military system, particularly the Army.
From the American Civil War onward, the military saw battles as the payoff, the ultimate goal of every effort, every plan, every maneuver. Advance on the enemy's capital, which he must defend; then pin him to the wall and hit him with everything you've got.
And this worked, for everyone followed the same rules. But it failed terribly in Vietnam, and the Pentagon has argued ever since about new approaches, about surprise and maneuver, and about ``smart'' bombs and wise missiles that can obliterate targets while avoiding the civilians next door.
The great virtue of James Kitfield's ``Prodigal Soldiers: How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War'' is that the author knows how to interest even those of us who don't know smart bombs from dumb ones, M-16s from M-60s. Kitfield cares far less about hardware than about men striving passionately to reinvent the institution they loved. Avoiding the jargon and acronyms that perplex most nonspecialists, Kitfield is wise enough to tell the story through people, rather than bland reports, commissions, and field manuals.
Certainly this has its costs. Kitfield's investigation of a troubled institution is essentially intellectual history, that of ideas and doctrine, and it may be that he simplifies too much.
But his accounts of individual reformers fighting their way through the military bureaucracy ring true. Their stories have long needed telling, and what is lost in subtlety is gained in readability - though Kitfield's prose can be wildly dramatic on occasion. Nevertheless, he has a sharp eye for key events, and for the memories that some of his fighting generals have of the Army's time of troubles in Vietnam and in the 1970s.
Take Jack Galvin, for example. A Bostonian, up from the ranks via West Point, and a soldier-scholar who could think, write and fight, he was in effect fired in 1966 from the famous 1st Division for arguing about a grossly inflated enemy body count in Vietnam. Major Galvin felt it was a lie, but his superior saw it differently, - the Pentagon wanted good news, after all - and Galvin had to go. Though he stayed with the Army, and moved upward to gain four stars and command of NATO, he thereafter fought to reform an army that had lost its way.
The Army of the 1970s, though impressive in numbers and equipment, was painfully weak in all the intangibles that count: morale, cohesion, training, and certainly new ideas to replace the operational doctrine that had failed in Vietnam. It was struggling against narcotics in the ranks, an angry public, and the flight of experienced officers and non-coms. And this at a time when conscription was being replaced by a volunteer system that many pessimists feared would break the traditional link to the middle class by largely attracting the poor, the black and the undereducated.
Nevertheless, the Army managed to reform itself, certainly aided by a revived cold war and the huge defense appropriations of the Reagan presidency. It was, however, the former junior officers in Vietnam, now risen in rank to two or three stars, who spurred the effort forward.
These officers appear in ``The General's War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf,'' by Michael Gordon of the New York Times, and Bernard Trainor, a Harvard academician and retired Marine Corps lt. general.
This is a dry, slightly disjointed book, jammed with undigested material derived from interviews with generals who apparently were very frank. As were many Washington political personages. All this gives the book an unrivaled authority that is likely to stand for years.
But there is excessive emphasis on the command decisions that shaped battlefield events, as though little else mattered. That is of course the way most commanders perceive things, but historians might well take a broader view. There is, for example, very little in the book on the members of the coalition, or on the British, French, or the Arab states.
Though the authors are rightly critical of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's grandstanding, other generals also were reaching for recognition, perhaps a pardonable fault for men whose ambitions the Army always had encouraged.
They did have much to boast about. American casualties had been amazingly light in the Gulf, while the American war machine proved remarkably effective. If Saddam Hussein still held power, that was no fault of the military. The American people showered affection on the returning forces, and Generals Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell became the first military heroes the nation had produced since the Korean War, 40 long years before.