Second Lieutenant James McDonough was about as green as you can get when he arrived in South Vietnam in 1970. A 1969 West Point graduate, McDonough spent the next year attending the Infantry Basic Course and then Ranger School before shipping out. He arrived in the remote village of Truong Lam, located only three kilometers from the North China Sea, both excited and apprehensive.
McDonough was the new leader for 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He choppered into the platoon’s isolated defensive position near the village of Truong Lam as dusk descended; hethen made his way to the platoon leader’s bunker where, according to McDonough, he found the man he was to replace ‘lying on his stomach in a depression….As I bent over to introduce myself he motioned for me to get down.’ McDonough spent most of the night talking to the lieutenant, neither one venturing out from the relative safety of the platoon leader’s command post. Eventually, his counterpart ‘homed in on his point….’I could have been a hero. Sometimes I even wanted to be. But I had to think of my family. You see, don’t you? Most of these boys don’t have any family. They’re just boys.” It was his way of rationalizing why he had spent his entire six-month tour avoiding combat. His troops had not mattered — victory had not mattered. All that mattered to the lieutenant was to survive for six months.
McDonough was determined to lead his men, and did so in an exemplary manner, first relying on the seasoned NCOs in the platoon, and gradually finding his own way as the platoon’s leader. But six months later McDonough also rotated out, leaving the men to a new platoon leader, also untested in combat. The motive for the Army’s policy that rotated leaders every six months, McDonough later wrote in his book Platoon Leader, ‘must have been to ensure proper exposure of all military leaders to the only war the Americans had…(but) the six month rotation of officers was predicated on the assumption that Vietnam would be a short war.’ Instead, it was the nation’s longest war, ‘but once a bureaucracy as large as the U.S. Army set a rule in place, it is almost beyond the power of mortal man to change it.’
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army used a personnel rotation policy that at first blush defies military logic. The Army rotated soldiers through Vietnam on one-year tours. Officers also spent a year in country, but only six of those months were in a troop command.
In a profession where unit cohesion, combat experience and competent leadership mark the difference between victory and defeat, the Army’s rotation policy made little sense to those who lived through it. Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, written by Major Richard A. Gabriel and Lt. Col. Paul L. Savage, was one of the more thoroughgoing and insightful indictments leveled against the Army in the years following the war. ‘The rotation policies operative in Vietnam,’ Gabriel and Savage argued, ‘virtually foreclosed the possibility of establishing fighting units with a sense of identity, morale, and strong cohesiveness….Not only did the rotation policy foreclose the possibility of developing a sense of unit integrity and responsibility, but it also ensured a continuing supply of low quality, inexperienced officers at the point of greatest stress in any army, namely in its combat units.’
The policy of rotating junior officers through command positions every six months was particularly destabilizing, they asserted, and led to an institutional climate where ‘career management becomes the ultimate means to the ultimate value — promotion. The cumulative impact…has been to bring about the rise…of the ‘officer as entrepreneur,’ the man adept at managing his own career by manipulating the system, mastering its technology…having his ‘ticket punched’ and achieving the ‘right’ assignments.’
Many others echoed similar criticisms. John Paul Vann, the Army’s maverick warrior-savant during the Vietnam War, commented derisively that ‘the United States has not been in Vietnam for nine years, but for one year nine times.’
The rotation policy eventually spawned a lexicon of its own. One of the most derisive labels of the Vietnam War was the one given to the newest members of a unit — ‘f—in’ new guy’ (FNG for short). The label illustrated the sense of alienation, fear and isolation that a new soldier felt when first arriving to a unit filled with bloodied veterans. For their part, the ‘old timers’ counted the days to their DEROS (Date of Expected Return from Overseas), when they would finally escape the surreal world of combat in Vietnam.
Given the corrosive aspects of the policy, why did the Army insist on one-year rotations?
In the tumultuous years following World War II, the United States found itself squaring off against an implacable foe, a powerful and expansive Soviet Union. The American people, for the first time in the nation’s history, accepted a large standing military and, by extension, a peacetime draft required to support it. The Cold War found American troops posted to desolate and isolated hot spots around the world, including Vietnam.
By 1965 the draft was deeply embedded in the fabric of American society. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson faced a crucial decision as he grappled with the growing crisis in Vietnam. The Viet Cong, increasingly aided by North Vietnamese regulars infiltrating south, were gradually gaining the upper hand. General William C. Westmoreland needed more troops to win in Vietnam — a lot more troops. That meant expanding the draft. Conscription legislation limited a draftee’s tour of duty to two years. With a soldier’s initial training lasting anywhere from four to six months plus a month or two of transportation time and one month of accrued leave earned for every year in the service, there was little more than a year remaining in a draftee’s tour of duty for service overseas.
Once Johnson made the decision to commit American ground forces into Vietnam, the follow-on questions were inevitable: How many troops were needed, and where would they come from? For the Pentagon brass, the answers were obvious. In order to win the war, they would need more than 1 million additional men, requiring a call-up of the National Guard and Reserve.
Harold K. Johnson, the Army’s chief of staff, was a leading advocate for this approach. In late 1964, he tried to convince President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that up to four divisions should be used to seal off the border between North and South Vietnam all the way to the Mekong River. This implied that the war would have to be extended into Laos and, according to General Johnson, also necessitated a full-scale mobilization. Calling up the Guard and Reserve, he argued, ‘would show the American people we were serious.’ Conversely, he was convinced that if the reserves were not called up, ‘the quality of the Army is going to erode and we’re going to suffer very badly,’ a conviction he stated to McNamara. By May of 1965, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were united in their conviction that the nation’s reserves must be mobilized in order to find enough troops for the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson was adamantly opposed to their recommendation, and brusquely told the chief of staff: ‘General, you leave the American people to me. I know more about the American people than anyone in this room.’ That hardly settled the matter, for LBJ’s chief advisers continued to debate the issue over the next several months. Most of those in uniform favored calling up the Reserve components, while McNamara and key voices in Congress were opposed. In order to fight a hot war in Vietnam plus a Cold War simultaneously, the latter group argued, the nation’s regular forces would have to be expanded by increasing the draft.
Ultimately, President Johnson elected not to mobilize the Reserve and National Guard. To do otherwise, he feared, would only lead to a fierce debate in Congress about the merits of the war, a debate he very much wanted to avoid for fear it would derail his domestic agenda, especially the war on poverty. Better to fight the Vietnam War with the Regular Army, a force increasingly manned by draftees.
Following Johnson’s decision, newly appointed Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor asked the chief of staff to consider extending the average soldier’s tour length in Vietnam to 15 months. That adjustment would ‘reduce replacements needed by 20 percent for Vietnam and 12 percent for Korea, while increasing unit effectiveness,’ Resor reasoned. The Army staff was divided on the issue, with the deputy chief of staff for logistics and the assistant chief of staff for force development favoring the proposal, while the powerful deputy chief of staff for operations was opposed. So was General Johnson, and he had the support of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps as well. They all feared the adverse effects on morale if a longer tour length were adopted, and warned that the decision might result in a decline in enlistments plus an increase in health problems from a more prolonged exposure to the harsh climate and living conditions in Vietnam. General Westmoreland, commander of forces in Vietnam, also weighed in, strongly favoring a 12-month tour. ‘The harsh conditions provided one of the strongest arguments for a one-year tour of duty,’ he later explained in his autobiography, A Soldier Reports. ‘The one-year tour gave a man a goal. That was good for morale.’ The 12-month policy was retained. Meanwhile, the tour for 130 senior officers was extended to 19 months, this exception applying only to general officers and other selected officers in senior staff positions.
In October 1966, Secretary of Defense McNamara declared in a lengthy, strongly stated public announcement: ‘We have no intent of changing the 12-month tour of duty….We are equipped to supply the replacements necessary to support it.’ Indeed, the military was able to support the ever growing demand for troops in Vietnam, but only by repeatedly raising the quotas it issued to local draft boards. The war’s unquenchable appetite for soldiers eventually triggered a national debate over the draft, and increasingly led to violent protests on the nation’s college campuses.
By 1968, with troop strength in Vietnam approaching 500,000, the nation was feeling the strain. Prominent military psychiatrists warned that the individual replacement system was having catastrophic consequences on unit cohesion. When called to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, General Johnson reassured the senators, ‘We have no intention of altering the length of tour in Vietnam.’
That same year, following the Tet Offensive and rising tensions in Korea, President Johnson finally approved a limited call-up of Reservists and Guardsmen. The numbers were minuscule, however, including 13,633 Guardsmen, only 2,729 of whom ever served in Vietnam.
There were many arguments advanced in defense of the 12-month rotation policy. Rarely stated but always looming in the background was the fact that the nation’s conscription laws gave policymakers few options when determining the length of combat tours in Vietnam. Ever since the Korean War, the 24-month tour for draftees had been embedded in American society, with Congress repeatedly renewing that policy. Only after the need for draftees swelled did the policy come under heavy scrutiny. The possibility of extending the overall time in service past 24 months was never seriously debated. The reason lay in the fact that the supply of eligible draftees far exceeded the demand, even at the height of the war. Thus, to extend the draftee’s tour length would have meant that greater sacrifice would be asked of a few unlucky draftees while the vast majority of young men avoided service entirely.
When defending the policy, the Army’s senior leaders invariably cited their desire to create an equitable system of treatment for all soldiers. That was the sentiment expressed by both Generals Westmoreland and Johnson. ‘The one-year tour was adopted primarily so that the hazards of combat might be shared by more that just a limited number of people,’ explained Johnson during an interview in 1973.
Westmoreland asserted that it’spread the burden of a long war over a broader spectrum of both Army Regulars and American draftees…I hoped it would extend the nation’s staying power by forestalling public pressure to ‘bring the boys home.” The one-year rotation policy satisfied not only the generals’ sense of fairness, but also appealed to the American public, concerned as they were with minimizing the danger to their own sons.
But this logic only went so far, for the draft, by design, excluded large segments of the available population, most notably college students, those who were married and those serving in the Reserve and National Guard. These exemptions eventually spawned criticism that the Army fought its war with the nation’s poor and dispossessed.
Another reason frequently cited by the two generals when asked to explain the rotation policy was the psychological comfort that soldiers gained from knowing their DEROS date. General Johnson told an interviewer that ‘the boost of individual morale that this policy gave…warranted and merited the one-year policy.’ Soldiers ‘need something to look forward to,’ he insisted. ‘I think that this is just a part of human nature.’ Westmoreland noted that it was ‘politically impossible’ to do otherwise, and that the existing policy was ‘good for morale.’
Senior leaders also justified the policy by insisting it countered the burnout factor that plagued the Army in World War II, when troops were in for ‘the duration.’ ‘A man began to wear out after about five months,’ General Johnson explained when interviewed in 1973. ‘He just [got] to the point of exhaustion.’ His views were based both on his own World War II experiences as a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese prison camp, and on several post–World War II rotation studies that pegged a soldier’s burnout point at 180 days. The Army’s inability to rotate personnel during World War II ‘resulted in an enormous number of battlefield fatigue cases,’ wrote Johnson. ‘The people just break down under that kind of unremitting pressure.’ The issue of burnout, therefore, resonated among the World War II veterans — the men who shaped the Army’s personnel policies in the 1960s.
Strategic planners also made other arguments for the policy, arguments rarely heard by the American public. Since the Reserves and National Guard were not mobilized, Pentagon staffers asserted, there simply were not enough units in the Army to sustain a unit-based rotation policy. The individual rotation policy took far fewer soldiers to maintain than one based on units rotating in and out of theater. The downside, however, was that personnel managers robbed units in Europe and Korea in order to feed the beast in Vietnam, leading to a precipitous decline in unit readiness.
Logic that was driven by the Cold War played out in another way as well. Since the overarching concern of Pentagon planners was the mammoth Soviet army in Europe arrayed against the United States and its NATO allies, the generals sought ways to prepare the Army for World War III. Thus, when Westmoreland opted for the six-month command rotation for young officers in 1965, he based part of his rationale on the assumption that the war in Vietnam would not be a protracted one. In the meantime, he chose to rotate the Army’s future leaders through command and staff positions in Vietnam in order to expand the pool of experienced leaders in the event of a confrontation with the Soviets. Indeed, it was the clash with the Soviets for which strategists had saved the Reserve and National Guard.
In more candid moments, many senior leaders advanced one more argument in support of six-month command rotations. The policy enhanced the career potential of the Army’s future leaders, they asserted, at the same time that it created a large pool of experienced personnel. It was this claim that exposed the Army to charges that it had unwittingly created an atmosphere that encouraged personal self-interest in the officer corps. For many young lieutenants and captains, managing their careers became more important than battlefield success or victory in the war.
As combat veterans Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage stated in their 1978 book, ‘command positions came to be valued not for the purpose of producing effective fighting units, but as a ‘ticket’ that had to be punched in order to sustain the drive toward career advancement.’ David Hackworth, perhaps the most vocal of the postwar critics, referred to it as the ‘command musical-chairs rotation policy,’ arguing that it led to a perversion of Army values. The quintessentially American emphasis on the individual had replaced the soldier’s ethos of selfless service, an ethos that called for soldiers to subordinate their own selfish interests to the welfare of the group.
By the end of the war, there was a profusion of voices willing to condemn the stupidity and the destructive aspects of the rotation policy. The most common criticism was that it impaired unit cohesion and therefore contributed to the Army’s declining performance on the battlefield. It eroded the soldier’s will to win, said the critics, and replaced it with an all-consuming focus to survive to the end of his tour. As another critic wrote, there was ‘an unspoken compact between ‘lifers’ and ‘grunts.’ The rules were simple — stay alive, finish your year, and go home.’ In other words, take no risks. The Army’s rotation policy had eroded the soldier’s bond with his unit, and replaced it with self-preservation.
The most scathing criticisms, however, focused on the policy that rotated officers through six-month command tours. That policy, plus the inevitable casualty rate among the Army’s inexperienced young officers, many of whom were ’90-Day Wonders’ (untested products of Officer Candidate School), led to an alarmingly high turnover rate for platoon leaders and company commanders. In combat units where leadership experience and a sense of camaraderie were inexorably entwined with unit cohesion, and where unit cohesion marked the difference between success and bloody failure on the battlefield, the rapid turnover of officers was devastating. One young grunt’s experience was all too typical. ‘During my year in-country I had five second lieutenant platoon leaders and four company commanders….We were more experienced than any of them. Yet they acted like little gods.’
Lieutenant Colonel David Holmes, writing in Military Review a few years after the war, asserted that ‘the short tour policy…undoubtedly contributed to the instances of mutiny, corruption, drug abuse and fragging.’ Another more senior officer was even more blunt, calling the six-month command tour ‘the worst personnel policy in history.’ With that, they laid much of the blame for the Army’s rot in the waning years of the Vietnam War squarely at the feet of the senior brass. They were at fault, so the argument went, because of their ‘flawed’ rotation policies. It was, to use the soldiers’ own vernacular, a self-inflicted wound.
Why was the military during the Vietnam War so strongly committed to a personnel rotation policy that proved, in retrospect, so detrimental to the war effort and today is almost universally denounced by the veterans themselves? Ultimately, the military’s rotation policies were driven by the nation’s Selective Service legislation that limited draftees to a two-year tour of duty. Once a recruit was trained and shipped to the theater, soldiers had little more than a year remaining to serve. Congress had opted for a 24-month tour of duty for draftees during the Korean War because of the public’s traditional concern for equity and fairness — it was a policy in concert with the spirit of the American people.
And when President Johnson decided in 1965 not to mobilize the Reserve and National Guard units, relying instead on the Regulars, he essentially eliminated the Army’s ability to rotate units through the war zone. Military planners were left with little choice but to rotate individual soldiers. Johnson’s decision was inherently a political one; specifically, he feared that a debate on mobilizing the Reserves might undermine his domestic agenda. While Johnson’s decision protected America’s traditional citizen-soldiers from overseas duty, however, they soon found themselves fighting the war on a different front — on America’s streets and college campuses.
The generals had their own reasons to support the rotation policies. They sought to maximize fairness and equity for individual soldiers, a rationale that inevitably placed a higher priority on individual soldiers at the expense of the soldier’s unit, and by extension, the nation those soldiers served. The generals’ support was also driven by the logic of the professional soldier. General Johnson was convinced that the rotation policy would actually reduce casualties in the long run, since it avoided the burnout factor that had proved so costly in World War II.
In the final analysis those arguments were incidental, for the reality was that Congress dictated the nation’s draft policies, and those policies left the military few options. There simply were not enough units to enable units to be rotated through the war zone; this left the generals with no other choice than to rotate individuals.
Ultimately, then, the military’s one-year rotation policy grew out of a powerful combination of factors. At the core were the nation’s Selective Service system and LBJ’s decision not to call out the Reserves and the Guard. Those factors plus the generals’ genuine concern for the welfare of their soldiers combined to create a policy that had remarkable resiliency despite its obvious flaws. In a democracy, it could hardly have been different.
This article was written by Mark DePue and originally published in the December 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today.