Robert H. Scales Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy and the Future of Land Wars: Conversation with Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr. (U.S. Army, ret.); March 9, 2004, by Harry Kreisler, with Thomas Barnes

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Lessons of Vietnam: Hamburger Hill

Bob, I want to take you back to Hamburger Hill. I'm captain, 105-millimeter Howitzers, 101st Airborne Division. I forget the Vietnamese name ...

Dong Ap Bia.

Yes. Another way of looking at war, a more immediate and personal way: You have been Deputy Chief of Staff of TRADOC, Training and Doctrine Command of the Army. You've been Commandant of the War College at Carlisle Barracks, which must be about the most prestigious academic job there is in the military. But all of that, it seems to me, goes back to the question of what you experienced in 'Nam. And without prying too close, in the last twenty-four hours we've been in contact with each other, more than once you've used the term "irony," you see irony ... I'm sure you've read Paul Fussell's book. That has probably has had an enormous impact on all of us. How did Hamburger Hill make all of this ... were there any epiphanies?

Yeah, there were ...

We should explain what you're referring to. This is your experience in Vietnam. Before you tell us what you learned from it, inform our audience exactly what we're talking about here.

I was the direct support battery commander; that is, I commanded the battery that supported the infantry battalions that made the charge of [Hamburger Hill] and subsequent operations there. I stayed. We continued that battle through, I guess, gosh, almost ... oh, gosh, from -- what? -- May until late June 1969. It was a long [time]; this thing went on for two or three months. It was an attempt by the 101st Airborne Division to control the routes of entry from Cambodia off the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the arteries that led into Quay and so forth. So it was a key battle, and it was fought very tenaciously because the NVA regiments that were there were very good. The 29th Regiment, of course, comes to mind. They were very professional and very dedicated -- hard, hard, hard soldiers.

I learned a couple things. One is that I remember sitting there in my battery, and shooting -- I think I told you this -- 1,000 rounds a day at that hill. I used to watch 100 sorties go in a day under that hill. This is even after the main assault; this is as late as June 1969. I could see that hill denuded because of the incredibly powerful American firepower. And at night, you would see the cooking fires come out for the enemy. You would see the vehicles go up to resupply. You would have these sensors, where you could hear the Vietnamese chatting, playing cards, catching a little fresh air before they went back in their bunkers and the whole routine started again the next morning. And so from that I said -- even thought I was a purveyor of firepower at the time, I said -- "There's got to be more here than just this American fixation on firepower. There's got to be another dimension to this war that, perhaps, we need to learn."

The other thing I learned, to your point about irony, is that in warfare, once you unleash the dogs of war, the consequences are always unpredictable. What started off as a routine assault on a mountaintop turned into a huge international imbroglio that went from France, to Britain, to the United States, the halls of Congress, and so forth. I thought to myself, "My God, just that little-bitty hill is probably going to change the course of this war." And it did. Minor actions oftentimes have huge unforeseen consequences, to my point about irony.

I guess the last thing that struck me about the thing is the enormous tenacity of the American soldier when he's put in these situations. There was no reason viscerally for the soldiers to do the things they did. It made me think, frankly, as I've told you, Tom, it made me think, "What makes people do this? What are the motives? Is it money? No. Is it the commander? No. Is it national pride? I don't think so." Many of the soldiers that came back from those assaults came back disenchanted, complaining, "This is a terrible thing. I don't know why we're doing this." And yet when you put a rifle in their hands and you put them back on the hill, they did it again.

So back to your sense of irony, what is there about the human character that has them take risks that the normal 22, 23-year-old kids would not do? I found that to be intriguing, and that is going to form the nexus of the next work that I'm writing on.

Is war the default position in our society?

You know, it's funny, during Vietnam, peace was the default position. Today, interestingly enough, I believe war is the default position.


It's the difference between a forest fire and a prairie fire. A prairie fire will last for weeks, and you can't put it out simple by stamping on the fire. Forest fire is on; it's over. What we see is a new style of warfare, not driven by us, but driven by those who seek to do us ill. They realize that they can't fight another Vietnam with us, and they realize they can't fight another war in central Europe. So the way to beat the Americans is to turn our short wars into long wars, to take wars of intervention and turn them into wars of attrition, to play to what they view as the lack of will and tenacity on the part of not the American army but the American people, to play to the press, if you will. This is part of the inheritance that we have from Hamburger Hill and other subsequent wars that we fought. After a while, the enemy gets it. They learn how to beat the Americans at their [own] game, not the American game. It's very interesting to note that since 1948, armies in the region are zero and seven against the Israelis and the United States in open conventional high-tech warfare. They're five-zero-one against the United States in unconventional warfare. The lessons are there.

What does it take to create a broader public consciousness of this complexity? Because what you're saying is that if you separate this out and say there's a war, a battle, it's over, and that's it in a limited timeframe, and then we're out of there, that you're not going to win the war.

Yes. Well, two things: Number one, because of the nature of the American people and the nature of our society, perhaps more than any other great power in history, America has to choose its wars very carefully. Wellington once said that to a great power there's no such thing as a small war. That certainly applies to us.

And Alexander the Great said that if you defend everything, you defend nothing.

You defend nothing, exactly. So one thing that this country has to do, apropos to your question, is take appetite suppression pills when it comes to picking the next fight! No, really, because, inevitably, first of all, the United States can't lose a small war. If it's Pakistan versus India in Kashmir, that's one thing -- that's a small war; it's been festering for years. But if it's the United States in -- fill in the blank -- Beirut, Mogadishu, Vietnam, Panama, the Gulf -- then it may seem lopsided, it may seem almost strategically inconsequential, and in terms of, say, drain on gross national product, it may not even appear as a blip on the screen. But internationally, when America gets involved in violence, international violence, it's very important, it's very strategic. How we perform in one determines our success in the next. It's sort of like drawing credit off of a bank -- if you establish your will and your tenacity to stick with it and to prevail, then that makes the next time we do this easier because our enemies understand that the perception of American's lacking will isn't true.

So each experience plays to the other. My point to you about Saddam's favorite movie: It was his favorite movie because the light went on when he saw that movie, and he said, "The way you beat Americans is just to kill them, and that's what we're going to do."

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