LONDON—It was a hell of a place for a kid just out of the Naval Academy to find himself: the mouth of the Cua Viet River near the De-Militarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam, commanding a Swift boat in a land most Americans barely knew.
He and his Swift boat crew, going by the call sign “Red Baron” and sporting red ball caps, patrolled the waters, inserted commandos into the jungle in the dead of night, and blasted cover fire for U.S. marines fighting off the Viet Cong. He would command over 150 missions.
Vietnam in 1966 was where that Swift boat skipper, Harlan Ullman, got his first lessons in war – and why the United States fails at the ones it starts. That’s Ullman’s argument in his latest book, Anatomy of Failure, a systematic and damning look at the mistakes of judgment and knowledge U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy through Barack Obama made, entangling the United States in poorly conceived military conflicts. Ullman brings his decades of experience since Vietnam – from commanding a destroyer in the Persian Gulf to advising the Pentagon on naval strategy – to bear as he delves deep into our long history of military failure.
The key problem Ullman diagnoses is poor presidential judgment and a lack of critical knowledge. John F. Kennedy’s inability to challenge the judgment of more experienced advisors led to the Bay of Pigs – and his pursuit of an arms buildup to fill a non-existent “missile gap” with the Soviet Union created strategic insecurity in Moscow, leading directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lyndon Johnson subscribed to the catchy but flawed “domino theory” and failed to understand the history, regional politics, and the reality of the situation on the ground in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan pressed for an unaffordable and unsustainable 600-ship navy that didn’t meet our strategic needs – while initiating ill-advised military interventions in Lebanon and Grenada and allowing the Iran-Contra scandal to happen on his watch. Through each presidency leading up to the Obama administration, Ullman convincingly traces our military blunders back to failures of presidential leadership.
Though Ullman spares no one from criticism, he does hold two U.S. presidents in high regard: Richard Nixon and George Herbert Walker Bush. Why? Nixon was experienced, qualified, and had learned from defeat. Ullman praises Nixon’s use of the Sino-Soviet split to open up triangular diplomacy with both, yielding the beginning of a new relationship with China and two arms control agreements with the Soviets. These improved ties also helped isolate North Vietnam and end the Vietnam War. Bush was similarly experienced and effectively handled the “big crises” of the post-Cold War “New World Order” – though Ullman laments the Bush administration didn’t have the capacity to give the right attention to other festering crises like Yugoslavia, which soon plunged into a bloody civil war. Bush’s leadership in the Gulf War helped to “restore fully the credibility and prowess of American forces.”
These two, though, are the exceptions to the rule. Most U.S. presidents don’t understand the reasons — many self-evident given the right information and judgment – why we’ve lost every recent war we’ve started.
What can change the course of U.S. leadership after such an abysmal track record? Ullman – who also holds a Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University and is the principal author of the doctrine of “shock and awe,” which he coined in 1996 after a stint at the National Defense University of the United States – recommends what he calls a “brains-based approach to sound strategic thinking.” What does that mean? Three things. First, “complete knowledge and full understanding” of every part of the situation. Second, a “mindset that is based on the realities of the situation.” Third, “a focus on affecting, influencing, and controlling the wills and perceptions of real and potential enemies.”
Ullman, who now serves as a Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and chairman of the high-level consultancy the Killowen Group, as well as a member of the advisory boards to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Business Executives for National Security in Washington, ends his analysis with Obama, but he makes clear he doesn’t have high hopes for President Donald Trump – whom he rightly labels “the least prepared, least experienced, least ready person to enter the Oval Office in the modern age.” What’s more, he argues that the Trump presidency is taking place as the world has transitioned from New World Order – when the United States was the dominant superpower in the aftermath of the Cold War – to what Ullman calls “No World Order.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Ullman, Anatomy of Failure is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of U.S. leadership. Ullman’s thoughtful and intelligent analyses will help readers understand all of the factors that go into the success or failure of war, and provoke important questions about our strategic role and the judgment of our top leaders in a rapidly changing global order. Ullman ties all of this together with riveting stories – whether from his time in Vietnam or his talks about strategy with some of the most important military and political leaders of our time.
One story in particular stood out to me.
Around midnight on August 10-11, 1966, Ullman’s Swift Boat was on patrol near the unit’s base when two U.S. Air Force B-57 bombers fired at a vessel in the river. The vessel was the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Welcome – but the bombers had mistaken it for a North Vietnamese boat. Ullman’s Swift Boat quickly closed in and picked up survivors from the water.
Years later, Ullman found himself recounting the incident for journalist Tim Page. “Page remained stunned for a moment,” Ullman writes, “recovering slightly, he looked at me and asked, with emotion, ‘did your crew wear red ball caps?’
It turned out Page had been on the Point Welcome – and Ullman’s Swift boat crew had saved his life. After an accident caused by bad judgment, Ullman’s good judgment and leadership saved lives.
That’s the sort of leadership we should demand from U.S. presidents, whose decisions can save or destroy many more lives every day than a single Swift boat skipper.
For now, it falls to President Trump, who was carried into office by a different group of people in red caps. Trump is rumored not to read at all. Here’s hoping that a book-on-tape version of Anatomy of Failure finds its way into the Oval Office – and swiftly.