“There is a deadly correlation between corruption at high levels in an administrative system and the spread throughout the system of incompetence, as higher-ups encourage and promote corrupt subordinates, and protect them from the consequences of poor performance of duty or direct disobedience of orders. Such a system demoralizes and ‘selects out’ the able and the dedicated who do not play the game.”
An author of that paper and the principal drafter of the section on corruption was Frank Scotton, one of the longest-serving and most knowledgeable U.S. officials in Vietnam. Writing on that theme in his memoir, Uphill Battle, Scotton quoted a Vietnamese general who told him that “he could name many corrupt officers, but not a single one who was both corrupt and an effective commander.” That general was eventually fired for his criticisms of the regime and sent into exile.
The study group put a “marked reduction of corruption” first on its list of recommendations for necessary reforms in South Vietnam. But in my time there, beginning nearly six years after that memorandum was written, the South Vietnamese system I observed still perfectly matched Scotton’s description.
Exactly as he had noted years earlier, the most honest and capable officers I met were also the most frustrated and demoralized. By the time I left in the final evacuation from a defeated South Vietnam nearly three years later, I was convinced that corruption was the single biggest reasonthe Saigon government had lost the war. Nothing I’ve learned since has changed my mind on that.
Return of the ghost soldiers
I don’t have the same firsthand knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan. But even from afar, it’s hard not to hear history rhyming, if not repeating itself.
Occasionally, news from those wars comes with a shock of absolute recognition, as when it was revealed — after the Islamic State offensive in Iraq exploded in the fall of 2014 and city after city fell to relatively small groups of militants — that the American-trained Iraqi army’s real strength was far lower than its strength on paper.
That was because as many as 50,000 of the troops on that army’s rosters — the equivalent of four full divisions — were “ghost soldiers,” men who did not actually exist or had deserted but were still being paid, with their commanders pocketing their salaries.
The city of Mosul, for example, was ostensibly defended by 25,000 government troops when the Islamic State militants attacked. The actual number was less than half that many — in some units, an even smaller fraction. This, it should be noted, in a force that had received something like $25 billion in U.S. support in the decade after the 2003 invasion.
The same practice — along with the broader pattern of corruption that it exemplifies — has been evident in Afghanistan. In one contested province, officials acknowledged in 2016 that almost half the soldiers and police on government payrolls did not exist or were not present for duty — even though improving the effectiveness of Afghan security forces was supposed to be a top priority for the Americans offering training, advice, and funds.
The story in Vietnam, for all intents and purposes, was identical. In an army where every dollar of soldiers’ pay, as well as every weapon, vehicle, bullet, and pair of boots, was funded by U.S. aid, the Vietnamese had names for two variations of payroll padding. “Ghost soldiers,” men who had been killed but whose deaths were not reported so that their commanders could keep collecting and pocketing their salaries; and “flower soldiers” — that is, ornamental ones — who stayed home with their families while kicking back their pay to their superiors.
That meant South Vietnam’s real fighting strength was considerably less than official reports indicated. Routinely, battalions that nominally had 300 men had only half or a third of that number on hand — exactly as in the case of those Iraqi units filled with “ghost soldiers” that were defeated in Mosul.
The broader parallels between the army and government we supported in Vietnam and those we have backed in our twenty-first-century wars are also clear. In all of them, corruption and poor governance in general were rife and would prove crippling obstacles to achieving U.S. objectives. And in all of them, Americans were almost completely ineffective in doing anything about either problem.
As journalist Douglas Wissing wrote in his book Funding the Enemy, a massively researched report on far-reaching corruption in Afghanistan, instead of taking any meaningful action against corruption, the U.S. government for the most part “either ignored it or enabled it.” That conclusion is borne out, though phrased more diplomatically, in numerous reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.
After describing one of many ways the Taliban were able to tap into American funds, Wissing noted that all the money they got their hands on was spent for weapons, motorcycles and mobile phones. Their religious scruples stopped them from keeping any of it for themselves. Mordantly but aptly, Wissing added, “at least the Taliban made honest use of the U.S. taxpayers’ cash.”
The world of 2018 is vastly different from the world of a half-century ago. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are very different countries, and the wars in each reflect different origins and circumstances. The U.S. military today bears almost no resemblance to the American force that fought in Vietnam. So comparisons are hardly simple.
Still, the boiled-down narratives of those wars look strikingly similar. Large-scale U.S. military forces with limitless firepower are sent to defeat a far more poorly armed enemy and spend years trying to do so; meanwhile, American aid officials dole out hefty amounts of money and advice intended to create a good government and a prosperous country, or at least good enough and prosperous enough so that most citizens will choose the side of the war we want them to support.
In the end, however, the goal the Americans fought to reach — a stable local regime that is able to effectively defend itself, legitimate in the eyes of its citizens, and friendly to U.S. interests — is not achieved. Eventually, after we stop trying to accomplish the mission ourselves, we assume we can help a client force reach the same objectives by teaching them how to fight essentially the same way we did, except with even slimmer resources.
Not surprisingly, that policy doesn’t work so well, either.
It’s hard to fathom why those scenarios weren’t more quickly and widely seen as illusory, especially the second or third time around. In part, no doubt, it was a case of being lowered into water reaching the boiling point too slowly to realize what was happening. And Washington’s and the Pentagon’s thinking surely also reflected the sugar coating Americans tend to spray over painful memories — the Pentagon websitecommemorating the Vietnam War is a prime example — to avoid remembering them accurately.
Even so, after Vietnam you’d think military professionals and the rest of us wouldn’t have gone on as long as we did in subsequent conflicts without realizing that America’s very idea of war in these last decades needs reexamination and so do the stories U.S. commanders keep telling themselves, their superiors, and the rest of us about our accomplishments and our allies’ capabilities.
As is almost always the case, describing the problem is easier — much easier — than solving it. This one will take a big and wrenching change in deeply rooted structures and beliefs, and in personal and institutional perceptions of self-interest. We have already paid a monumental price for our faulty understanding of war and of the real world. Failing to learn those lessons, even at this late date, will only drive that price tragically higher.
This article by War is Boring originally appeared at War is Boring in 2018.