- Historic Sites
From Saigon To Desert Storm
How the U. S. military reinvented itself after Vietnam
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
And the U.S. armed forces? Weren’t they the bumblers who had been defeated outright by the Vietnamese and humiliated by the Cambodians, Iranians, and Lebanese in, respectively, the Mayaguez, Desert One, and Beirut operations? Even isolated American successes against weak adversaries, such as those in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), had been marred by serious miscalculations that suggested to many the American military was not ready for a real war.
All the American commanders in 1991 were Vietnam veterans; they had known what needed changing in the military.
Yet Operation Desert Storm went more smoothly than even its most optimistic architects could have imagined. Three weeks of air attacks were followed by a mere 100 hours of ground war that drove the Iraqis from Kuwait. It was America’s most impressive military victory since 1945. And it had been achieved with the loss of just 147 Americans killed in action and another 467 wounded, “the lowest cost in human life ever recorded for a conflict of such magnitude,” according to the U.S. Army’s official history.
How were the U.S. armed forces able to achieve such an unprecedented victory? The answer may be found in the wholesale transformation wrought in the 15 years since American soldiers had stumbled, dazed, defeated, and demoralized, out of the jungles of Vietnam.
The Human Material
One of the first priorities for post-Vietnam military reformers was increasing the quality of those in uniform. From Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf on down, all the senior American commanders in 1991 were veterans of the Vietnam War. They could vividly remember how, in the 1970s, the armed forces were racked by racial tensions, rampant drug use, and alcoholism. Many officers would not venture into enlisted men’s barracks without a sidearm; between 1969 and 1971 there had been 800 “fraggings,” or incidents in which soldiers attacked their own officers or NCOs. Things only got worse after the draft was abolished in 1973. Defense spending plummeted, and recruiting quotas could not be met. Half of the Marine Corps and Army came to be composed of high school dropouts.
This all began to change in 1979, when Maj. Gen. Maxwell Thurman took over the Army’s Recruiting Command. A Vietnam veteran, a devout Catholic, and a lifelong bachelor who, in the words of one journalist, “approached each assignment in the Army with the fervor and devotion of a Trappist monk,” Thurman pushed Congress to approve a major military pay increase as well as a new version of the GI Bill that would offer college scholarships to soldiers after they left the service, and he began to market the Army as a place to learn valuable skills, an approach crystallized in a new slogan he developed with a New York advertising agency, “Be All You Can Be,” which helped spark a recruiting renaissance.
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The other services followed Thurman while also working closely with Hollywood to help prepare pro-military movies like Top Gun (1986) and The Hunt for Red October (1990). As the armed forces began to rack up small victories, such as the invasion of Grenada, their popularity rose, and recruiters actually began to turn away low-quality applicants. By 1990, 97 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates. The glut of recruits allowed the military to raise standards and crack down on troublemakers. The Navy led the way in 1981 by instituting a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, backed up by random urinalysis tests, a policy soon emulated by the other services. The number of people in uniform using illicit drugs fell from 27.6 percent in 1980 to 3.4 percent in 1992.
At the same time, the military made a conscientious attempt to improve the integration of African-Americans and women. This was not always a smooth process, but through a combination of outreach, mentoring, and crackdowns on discrimination, the military proved largely successful in achieving racial and gender diversity. The symbol of this accomplishment was the elevation of Colin Powell, who became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. “The military had given African-Americans more equal opportunity than any other institution in American society,” Powell wrote in his autobiography.