“Hope Is Not A Method”

At the Army’s premier school, Vietnam is an afterthought? How did you keep that straight in your own mind? You had had this experience in Vietnam, yet in the States all you’d see was an Army interested in the orthodox styles of war. You must have known something big was happening inside the Army—and the Army might not realize it.

Well, I got that feeling when I was at Fort Knox. But I was ordered to Europe and I went to Europe and I did the job that I had to do. So I guess I’m like any soldier, schizophrenic. They said, “O.K., go to Germany, and here’s your ground-defense plan. Here’s what you have to do.” You know: “Leave Ray Barracks, go here, do this.” Tank gunnery. And that seemed like what I should be doing.

You went back to the 1st Field Force staff in Vietnam in 1968. Had much changed in the five years since your first tour of duty there?

Oh, yes. When I was there the first time, there were only thirteen thousand of us. The big war hadn’t started yet. In ’63 I felt as if I knew almost everybody there—hard to believe, but we knew each other. It was just a completely different atmosphere when we came back. It was Tet of ’68. This was big-time stuff.

You got off the plane, you were met, you were briefed, you were prepared. You went to schools. There was a whole system; the Army was there. During my first tour in Vietnam, it was more up to me to ask myself, “What is it that you’re supposed to be doing? What are you expected to do here? How do you fit into the organization?”

There were just a few of us, and our job had been to work with the Vietnamese in the province. Well, O.K., work with them to do what? Rifle ranges: You set up a rifle range. How do you do that? How do you operate the radio? It was that kind of stuff, and then we went out on combat operations, and I’d be one of those guys looking for ways to establish control, a demonstration of government control in an area that was truly not under government control. As a matter of fact, in most of the areas that we went into, the government was Vietcong. They had school buses, schools with the VC flag on them. I mean, the South Vietnamese government was not in control.

Any discernible progress?

No. I certainly think we demonstrated that we were around. We disrupted them for a while. But when we left, it was like taking your hand out of a bucket of water.

That leads pretty well to the next question. The Army, like the country itself, had a difficult time coming to grips with the experience of Vietnam. You had returned from Vietnam; you had fellow professionals to talk with, to discuss your own experiences with. What happened?

I went to Armor Branch as a personnel officer in Headquarters, Department of the Army, in 1970 and stayed there until 1973. My associates in the other branches—Binnie Peay [now also a four-star general and Sullivan’s Vice Chief], Bill Carpenter [retired as a lieutenant general], Denny Reimer [now a full general], Carl Vuono [recently retired as a four-star and Chief of Staff of the Army]—all these people were working as assignment officers. We reinforced each other. This was a period when we reduced the size of the Army by half and started to build the new all-volunteer force, so we were busy. I wouldn’t want to overstate, but we were in the business of reshaping the Army after the war.

You were conscious of doing that?

Yes, we were very conscious of it because we were told to downsize the Army, and that is in fact what we were doing, reassigning people, deactivating units. We were the ones who were on the phone with those who were leaving and those who stuck it out. So we were putting the Army back together again. We were in the business of moving people out of Vietnam, bringing them back to the United States, and putting them in school, back to doing peacetime work with a wartime focus on Central European defense. In a sense we were the front men in the Army. You know, the Army was in bad shape, when you consider the events that went on in that three-year period—My Lai, the West Point cheating scandal, drug abuse, indiscipline and racial unrest in the European units, unreadiness in Europe.

It was not a happy time. I can remember days when people would come into the office—I’m sure some days myself included—very discouraged about what was going on. It was hard seeing decorated veterans who wanted to stay in the Army being forced to leave. I think, by the way, that we’re doing better this time, that we learned our lessons and are treating people with more dignity as we reduce the Army. Anyway, we were part of the Army’s changes in those days, and we saw where the Army was going.

Did you ever think about quitting?

No, not seriously. Like any officer, I’d thought about civilian life, leaving to go make a million dollars or something. But I always felt that I had a job to do to make my particular piece of the world better, and I got on with it.