Finally, for ‘the duration’ (‘A man began to wear

Finally, during the Vietnam
War, the US Army used a personnel rotation policy that appeared to defy
conventional military logic. The Army rotated soldiers through Vietnam on
one-year tours. Officers also spent a year in the country, but only six months
of those were in troop command. In a profession where unit cohesion, combat
experience and competent leadership can be the difference between victory and
defeat, the Army’s rotation policy made little sense to those who lived through
it. Major Richard A. Gabriel and Lt. Col. Paul L. Savage argue that ‘the
rotation policies operative in Vietnam virtually foreclosed the possibility of
establishing fighting units with a sense of identity, morale and strong
cohesiveness…also ensured a continuing supply of low quality, inexperienced
officers at the point of greatest stress in any army, namely in its combat
units’. Many others have echoed similar criticisms, such as John Paul Vann, who
has commented that ‘the United States has not been in Vietnam for nine years,
but for one year nine times’. Indeed, prominent military psychiatrists warned
that the individual replacement system was having catastrophic consequences on
unit cohesion. When defending the rotation policy, senior leaders argued that
it created a desirable equitable system of treatment for all soldiers (‘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 General Johnson
during an interview in 1973), gave a morale boost to soldiers as they knew
their DEROS date, and prevented the burnout factor that plagued the Army in
WWII 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.’). For the American public, the policy
also comforted fears over their sons, believing it minimised their danger.
However, 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, ‘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 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.
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,
as adopted by Congress for the Korean War. 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. Thus, 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. Therefore, Washington indirectly limited the terms of men in Vietnam,
resulting in the military fighting with “one hand tied behind its back”, which
significantly reduced unit cohesion and undermined the chances of success in
the conflict.