The fall of Afghanistan within a week was met with surprise and recrimination. Yet this kind of collapse is not unprecedented. It fits the well-known pattern of a tipping point; in the sociology of crowd behavior, sometimes referred to as the theory of the critical mass.
A tipping point is especially volatile in a situation where it is risky to take part, such as a violent conflict. But when a conflict grows, it can reach the point where it becomes risky not to take part—when the danger is being on the losing side and subject to the vengeance of the winners. Tipping points are characteristic of revolutions, where the entire state breaks down suddenly, in a few exciting days when everyone’s attention is focused on the outcome. Tipping points can also occur in military battles, when one side becomes demoralized and disorganized, giving up the fight in a contageous collapse, simultaneously encouraging the intact army to launch a ferocious attack upon a fleeing enemy. Historically decisive battles have hinged on tipping points (Alexander the Great, Agincourt, etc.) compressed into a few hours. The same mechanism is seen in longer collapses of an entire army, spread over a period of weeks (the German blitzkrieg in May 1940 culminating in the Dunkirk evacuation); or months (the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore during December 1941-February 1942). In both cases, the retreating army was unable to regroup in a position to stop the high-speed attack, resulting in a pervasive feeling of defeat.
Blitzkrieg is really about a feeling of emotional momentum, of one side having it and the other sinking further and further into paralysis: French commanders and government leaders in 1940 emotionally beaten to the point of being unable to conceive of continuing resistance; British forces in 1942 repeatedly outflanked by Japanese air superiority and landings behind their front as they retreated down the Malay Peninsula. In both cases huge forces surrendered, with relatively small casualties. They were not beaten materially, but emotionally.
Not all military campaigns end in tipping points, and some revolutions are fought out in long wars of attrition. What causes tipping points to arise? And what makes some of them tip faster or slower than others? These questions call for extensive comparison of historical cases. Here I will take up a more limited set of comparisons, all involving the United States: Afghanistan 2021; Philippines 1942; Korea 1950; Vietnam 1975; Iraq 2014. In fact, all US military failures in living memory fit the pattern.
One feature they all have in common is that they are semi-proxy wars. In each case, local troops are trained and supplied by a culturally distant state from overseas. Traditionally this would have been called colonialism. The Philippines was in fact an American colony, taken over from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. But as a liberal democracy, the US has not regarded itself as a colonial power; it has called its overseas territories temporary arrangements, protectorates, tutorial periods during which we teach undemocratic cultures to become modern and eventually self-governing. We could call these tutorial-proxy states.
Some observers have called this a colonial empire in fact if not in name. (In 2003, Michael Mann called the American pattern Incoherent Empire.) Does it make any difference what we call it? In tipping point collapses, the mechanism is the same. In other respects, ideologically and economically, there are important differences. A colony tends to be economically much more valuable; its economy can be monopolized by the host country; natural resources and labor can be captured; jobs and careers are provided for colonists. (On this last point, there may not be much difference between a traditional colony and a tutorial-proxy state, since the latter is full of overseas NGOs and contractors.) The bottom line is that a tutorial-proxy state tends to be expensive for its patron to maintain; whereas a colony is profitable or at least meant to be profitable. Thus the motives for having tutorial-proxy states abroad must be chiefly ideological and political: they feed national pride, a sense of doing good, and what Weber called the power-prestige of the state. For these reasons, too, the political will to keep or abandon a tutorial-proxy state is unlikely to be steadfast.
To come to the central point: tutorial-proxy states are prone to tipping point collapses, above all because of the tendency for native proxy troops to suddenly fold when their big-brother tutors are not sufficiently in control.
There are 5 main patterns in US tipping-point collapses from 1942 through 2021:
 Large armies beaten by smaller or low-tech forces.
 Sudden collapse of native/proxy forces.
 Unrealistic expectations, setting up surprise.
 Emphasis on offense over defense, retreat unimaginable.
 Weak political commitment as crisis develops.
Afghanistan 2021. On paper, Afghan forces were 350,000, against an estimated 60,000 Taliban. Much of the Afghan troops were considered of low quality or reliability; 96,000 as effective. Much of the fighting was carried by well-trained Special Forces, operating US-style in helicopter assaults against Taliban advances, with the US providing high-tech surveillance, and air support from fighter-bombers and drones. The Taliban were armed with automatic rifles, hand-held rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades, plus IEDs and suicide bombers; transport was by pickup trucks and motorcycles. A vast disparity in firepower; but US/proxy troops had far greater logistics problems in fuel, ammunition, as well as basic supplies of food and water especially to remote outposts. As Taliban came to control most of the countryside, government supplies and reinforcements had to move chiefly by air; but helicopters were often grounded for maintenance, while the number of bases where they could be serviced shrank to Kabul alone.
US forces had operated only in a support capacity since 2014. By spring 2021, US troops in country were down to 2500. More importantly, there were 18,000 military contractors, of which 6000 were American—the rest also funded by the US. When total withdrawal was announced on April 14, these maintenance personnel were among the first to be withdrawn, as US bases were closed and equipment flown out or destroyed. Another 7,000 allied troops (chiefly from NATO countries) had no choice but to cease operations as well, since all the bases were US. The result was the high-tech core of the Afghan military was essentially crippled. Huge advantages in numbers and weaponry were negated by shutting down logistics.
Sudden collapse came almost entirely without fighting. On April 13, Taliban controlled perhaps 10% of Afghanistan, the government over 20%, with the rest contested. By mid-June, Taliban had seized about 50 of 400 districts, at an accelerating pace—the last two dozen falling in a few days around June 21. So far these were rural areas; Afghan Special Forces were still fighting back and recapturing some towns. July 1 the US evacuated Bagram air base 40 miles north of Kabul—it was an enormous fortified base set up for the surge of reinforcements in 2009-10. But since the draw-down had started in 2014, the economy of the area surrounding the base had gone into decline; by closing-time it was unused and needlessly expensive. Looters pillaged the base before Afghan forces arrived. It was meant to be handed over to the Afghan air force, but they never used it.
The pace of collapse picked up a month later, the climax of a long crescendo, from andante pianissimo to allegro furioso. Desertions from Afghan forces mounted; local troops still held all the major towns but feeling unsupplied and cut off. On August 6, the first provincial capital was lost, in a remote area; a week later, 12 of the 34 provincial capitals were in Taliban hands. The biggest cities were still government-controlled, but the rest fell in the next 2 days, as governors and commanders made deals, fled, or changed sides. That left Kabul, where the remaining US troops had been reinforced. The Taliban had long been planning to besiege Kabul once it was isolated; they were in no hurry, but some of their locals apparently seized the opportunity for a psychological coup. On April 15 the Taliban were waving their flags in the streets – no longer detonating suicide bombs but parading openly as victors. The President, a former World Bank official with weak local roots, fled the country. It was a momentum shift, impossible to undo. The US recalibrated its goal to evacuating its remaining nationals and some of their local helpers from its one remaining airport, while keeping to its announced deadline.
Expectations among American officials (at least at the higher ranks) and top Afghan politicians remained optimistic until the next-to-the-last day, August 14. When the withdrawal deadline of September 11 was announced in April 2021, US officials estimated the government might fall to the Taliban within three years. By early July, intelligence analysts concluded it could happen within six months (Wall St. Journal, July 3, 2021). July 24 Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “voiced cautious optimism that a nascent Afghan strategy to consolidate defensive positions around important cities... along with limited American airstrikes, could enable Afghan forces to hold the line.” (New York Times, Aug. 16) The Economist (August 14), assessed the situation in the headline “Big-city Afghans are defiant in the face of advancing Taliban insurgents”, reflecting the situation August 12 when the magazine went to press. “Both Afghan and withdrawing Western commanders maintain that the Taliban are not an unstoppable juggernaut. A couple of government victories, or even battles that end in stalemate, could change the dynamic.” Defense of Kabul would be the rallying-point. On the other hand, lower-level American troops as early as April had compared the situation to “Vietnam over again,” a common disconnect between perceptions at higher and lower ranks.
A deep-seated US military style is also evident. US doctrine emphasizes offense, not defense. The aim of a military campaign is to defeat the enemy by destroying it as an organization. Especially in the era of high-tech warfare, the strategy is to attack the enemy’s command centers, destroy its communications, its ability to maneuver and to put its weapons into action. A text-book illustration was the Gulf War in 1991, when US air superiority destroyed Saddam Hussein’s aircraft on the ground; while armored and airborne troops went on a 150 mile long “left hook” out in the desert from Kuwait, patterned on Robert E. Lee’s rout of the Federal army at Chancellorsville in 1863. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the same design of lightning offensive, air superiority, and demolishing enemy organization. The priority of offense over defense goes back to World War II: the landings in North Africa, Italy, and France, most spectacularly in Patton’s armor races; MacArthur’s island-hopping strategy in the Pacific. The best defense is always an offense; the Battle of the Bulge was solved by sending Patton to amputate it.
Counter-insurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and going back to Vietnam) required a modification. But although the plan called for strategic hamlets (in Vietnam) and clearing safe areas by a surge of troops (in Iraq), it remained a tactic of going on offense. City neighbourhoods would have to be cleared block-by-block, then insulated (now with high-tech surveillance such as facial recognition) to keep the guerrillas out. It was this method that the US bequeathed to its Afghan proxies, until it foundered under logistics overloads and ever-renewed resistance.
In the tipping-point swing during spring and summer 2021, there was an additional problem: the huge numbers of internal refugees fleeing Taliban conquest. Up to half a million Afghan civilians fled from one city to another; clogging up places where air strikes might be made; putting more demands on government resources to care for them; above all, adding to the emotional atmosphere of a world falling apart. (We will see this again in the fall of Vietnam.) The Afghan army melted away into a shifting population whose psychology resembled their own; while the Taliban, a distinctive identity with their long beards and anti-uniforms that makes their photos unmistakeable, were the one solid point in the vortex. It is this swarm of refugees, augmented by the 300,000 Afghans who had been employed by the Americans, who created the chaotic atmosphere at Kabul airport in the two weeks of frenzied evacuation.
Part of the problem, of course, is that mass evacuation had not been planned for; and that bureaucratic procedures of vetting refugees for special entry permits had been snarled with the political conflicts of the Trump administration. But judging from past cases of mass refugee flows from undesirable places, it is likely that many of those who got to Kabul airport were people with enough money or connections to get there; the task of sorting out their motivations was impossible for the soldiers and employees at the gates. Photos of crowds chasing planes on the runway and clinging to fusilage and wings are reminiscent not just of Saigon in 1975 but of trains in India in past emergencies. It was a free-for-all; airport shops were looted; stray Taliban wandered around inside firing shots in the air. In short: destruction of routine social organization and its replacement by emotion-driven crowds is a contageous social disease. The smaller, more collectively self-disciplined group survives best in such situations, and even thrives on them. In this case, it was the Taliban.
Weak political commitment is high up in the chain of causes. Successive US administrations since the 9/11/2001 attacks have all hoped for speedy resolution of their plans. All have faced political dissent, some in the form of public demonstrations and journalistic opinion, some from elected officials on up to the Presidency itself. From the Afghan point of view the foreign master of their proxy army must have looked like a combination of capriciousness and inertia. A series of deadlines had been set for withdrawal, modified by later plans for temporary build-ups and drawn-downs. In 2003, President Bush announced an end to major combat operations in order to concentrate on the invasion of Iraq. In 2006, counter-insurgency warfare in both places led to a troop boost. In December 2009, President Obama ordered a surge adding 33,000 troops to the 67,000 in Afghanistan, with a July 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal. In June 2011, a month after Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, Obama announced that US troops would be withdrawn and security handed over to Afghan forces by 2014. In May 2014, Obama announced that 32,800 US troops would be reduced to 9800 by the end of the year, and to zero at the end of 2016. The trend continued but slower than planned. President Trump brought the existing 14,000 down to 5000 by November 2020, which fell to 2500 by April 2021.
Throughout, US airpower, including from distant bases and aircraft carriers, and with a rising use of unmanned drones as the technology developed, continued to back up proxy forces; whether from in-country bases, or from “over-the-horizon” locations. Thus the numbers game of troop reductions was always ambiguous, as long as it was backed up by US airpower, global electronic surveillance, and a willingness to pay the bills.
This last point is an important component of political will. In addition to war weariness and war casualties (the last fallen to zero in the last 18 months before the final pull-out), there are struggles over the federal budget and the military’s share in it. High-tech war, relatively uncostly in lives, is ultra-expensive in logistics and equipment. No doubt part of President Biden’s calculations were to wipe the slate clean of a trillion-dollar drain; and this must have played a part in withdrawing not just troops but the contractors who kept the Afghan military machine running.
Tipping points are a matter of timing and rhythm. Imperial powers have extricated themselves from proxy clients on occasion without causing a collapse. When things start going bad, they go bad in all sorts of ways—what is contageous is the emotional swing. Scrambling to recover from the lack of air bases not too far over the horizon, US diplomats found Afghanistan’s neighbours had become wary of granting anything, more intent of sizing up the new situation where the US was looking like a loser. Nothing is permament in the world of geopolitical power-prestige; tipping points themselves get absorbed in the long run of fluctuating forces. But in the medium run, at least, they hurt.
Philippines Dec. 1941-May 1942. Larger forces were beaten by smaller. General MacArthur had a total of 140,000 troops, including 19,000 American; 20,000 Filipino regulars, and 100,000 low-quality Filipino reserves. He also had the biggest US air force in the Pacific, with 35 B-17 bombers and over 100 advanced fighters. And Manila Bay was base for the U.S. Navy “Asiatic Fleet” (different from the Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii). MacArthur’s forces were spread throughout the Philippine islands, with the most and best in a ring around Manila on the northern island of Luzon. The Japanese invaded Luzon Dec. 22 with a main force of 43,000 north of Manila, with an encircling force of 7000 landing on the opposite coast southeast of the city. Elsewhere in the archipelago, small Japanese units quickly defeated Filipino troops.
MacArthur had a 2-to-1 advantage for the main battle in Luzon. The Japanese advanced slowly, giving him time to unite his two retreating forces: 28,000 retreating before the 10,000-strong Japanese vanguard from the north; 15,000 retreating in front of 7000 Japanese from the south-east. They united at a cross-roads outside Manila, making a 10-mile traffic jam. By Jan. 6, following 2 weeks of retreating, they took up defensive positions in the Bataan peninsula, a dense jungle comprising the southwest curve of Manila Bay. By this time there were 15,000 US and 65,000 Filipino troops, plus 26,000 civilians (more on these below). Here the defense stiffened. Japanese attacks were repulsed. Amphibious landings behind US lines on the small peninsula failed, in contrast to the early days of the invasion when few landings were even contested. Both armies had many sick with malaria. By February, the Japanese had ceased serious attacks, and even withdrew air support and 20,000 troops for an opportunistic attack on the Dutch East Indies (Borneo, Sumatra, Java, rubber plantations and oil fields that were their chief aim in South-East Asia). By early March, Japanese forces were down to 3000 on their Bataan front line.
The Americans had a 3-to-1 advantage but did not know it. Later in the month, the Japanese brought back 20,000 troops, having quickly taken the East Indies with little resistance. Their renewed offensive broke through in Bataan, where 78,000 US and Filipino troops surrendered April 9. The fortified island of Corregidor, off the tip of the Bataan peninsula, held out for another month; after 3 days of intense bombardment, a Japanese landing got ashore, and another 12,000 surrendered on May 10. The Japanese force had captured an army four times its size. It was the biggest single defeat and the largest number of prisoners taken in American history.
The proxy army of native Filipinos had a mixed record. Left to themselves, they put up little resistance to Japanese advance. Especially in the first weeks, there were many desertions. But united with US forces in Bataan, they performed just as well. The big problem in Bataan and Corregidor was food and morale. There was a shortage of supplies for the 80,000 troops, made worse by 26,000 refugees; from the beginning they were put on half rations, with the amount reduced during the 4 month siege. Air support was lost. The US Navy had withdrawn. No reinforcements or resupplies were to be expected. President Quezon, who had fled with his family to Corregidor, proposed on Feb. 8 to declare the Philippines neutral between the US and Japan. He was overruled by MacArthur, who warned he would become a Japanese puppet; on Feb. 20 Quezon and his family were evacuated by submarine, along with the Philippine treasury gold. At the end, the US were destroying military equipment, another echo for Afghanistan.
Unrealistic expectations led to being taken by surprise. It was widely believed that war with Japan was coming. The diplomatic situation had deteriorated to ultimatums; troop convoys were spotted, intelligence reports knew an attack was coming. The question was where and when. MacArthur had been promised a reinforcement of 50,000 American troops by February, although ammunition would take another six months. [Manchester 192] Almost everyone underestimated Japanese weapons quality and fighting capacity, misled by the pervasive stereotype of short-stature, underfed nonwhite people centuries behind in civilization. Ignored was Japanese modernity in recognizing the tactical use of air power, aircraft carriers (Japan had built more of them than any other country), amphibious landings, and the tactic of rapidly building forward airbases. All these would play a central role in the Japanese blitzkrieg through the first half of 1942. And no one in the US (or British or Dutch) military thought that Japan could strike simultaneously in so many directions: Hawaii, far out in the Pacific; Hong Kong and British possessions in Malaya and Singapore; the Philippines; the Dutch East Indies.
Thus the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise; but it did not raise alarms elsewhere. In fact, it was taken to mean other potential targets had a temporary breathing spell. News of Pearl Harbor reached the Philippines at 2.30 a.m. on Dec. 8 (being on the other side of the International Date Line). MacArthur and his officers turned the attention immediately to their long-distance B-17 bomber force at a base 65 miles north of Manila. But their concern was offense, not defense: whether to retaliate with a raid on the nearest Japanese air base in Formosa. While discussing this and waiting for orders, a Japanese air attack arrived 9 hours later; it caught the entire air fleet on the ground refueling and destroyed most of the planes. American air superiority was destroyed even more thoroughly than the crippling attack on the Navy at Pearl Harbor.
During this time MacArthur went into an uncharacteristic mood of depression, even paralysis. [Manchester 206-7: “numbed; gray, ill, exhausted”] Usually so confident and dynamic, he seemed unsure what to do. No follow-up Japanese attack came for two weeks until the landing Dec. 22. Grasping at straws, he gave ear to vague rumours of Japanese defeats; Hong Kong had been besieged on Dec. 8, but it would not fall until Dec. 25. The Japanese were leap-frogging down Malaya, but Singapore would not fall until Feb. 15, with 100,000 British prisoners taken and the Royal Navy lost. What was the matter with MacArthur was probably that his deeply held strategic sense was being contradicted. Asked once by a reporter for his formula for defensive war, he had said: “Defeat.” [Manchester 168]
He well knew that the decades-old plan for the defense of the Philippines was to pull back into Bataan and the island-fortress of Corregidor, and wait until relief came. It was a labyrinth of layered tunnels, with supplies for 10,000 troops to hold out for 6 months. But MacArthur scorned the plan. Realistically, he expected the Japanese to land in various places on Luzon and the other islands; the best defense must be offense, hitting the landings in progress; at worst, holding them on the beach and driving them back into the sea. He had positioned his forces for this eventuality. His huge quartermaster depots were dispersed to where they could back up his offensive forces aimed at the beaches.
This would come back to haunt him in two different ways. When it turned out the Japanese got ashore anyway, and began converging on Manila, MacArthur had to wrench his strategic gestalt into reverse; he would have to go back to the Bataan/Corregidor defensive plan that he hated. On top of this, was the problem of supplying his huge army—far more than anticipated—out of diminished stocks; plus the mass of refugees. As in Afghanistan, these must have created an atmosphere of gloom, even panic. MacArthur was close to the Philippine upper class; he and his wealthy wife habitually had socialized with them, more than with Americans. As in most disasters, the elite are always those best equipped to get out first. To be surrounded by them must have been demoralizing for MacArthur. He became overly pessimistic, over-estimating the numbers of Japanese against him; mired in defense on Bataan when he actually had an opportunity to break out by taking the offensive. Pessimism was pervasive at all levels. Already on Dec. 14 the US command had pulled out the remaining B-17s and fighters; while the Navy withdrew its ships from Manila Bay, leaving MacArthur only a few submarines and torpedo boats.
March 10, MacArthur personally was ordered to evacuate to Australia, to take over as Commander-in-Chief. It was another psychological crisis; MacArthur was proud of his reputation for bravery under fire on the Western Front in WWI; he hated the idea of retreating, and wanted to die with his troops. Convinced that it would be a propaganda victory for the Japanese, he left, swearing to return. His departure lowered morale even further among the troops on Bataan, who lasted another month.
Which brings us to political commitment, or lack of it. Roosevelt and Churchill had already agreed that defeating Germany took priority; the Japanese war must wait. And within the Pacific strategy, the Philippines were furthest from home, hardest to defend and resupply. The decision was quickly made to cut further losses. This became even more adamant as Japanese conquests flowed on; Rangoon fell March 8, the British being driven out of Burma; Java fell in 7 days on March 10. Australia would be next. Strategic priorities again. The Philippines was unusual in that 20,000 Americans were lost in the final collapse, a fraction of them surviving as prisoners. For the native proxy troops, losses were over 100,000, near total.
Korea 1950. We have to go back a few years before the North Korean attack on June 25, 1950, to get the picture of South Korea as a tutorial/proxy for the US. Korea had been a Japanese colony, in fact the springboard for its conquest of Manchuria and China in the 1930s. In 1945, Russia suddenly entered the war and took the half above the 38th parallel; the US quickly responded by sending troops to the southern half. The ROK (Republic of Korea) army was trained and armed by the US military government. In 1949, the US deemed the new civilian government capable of defending themselves and pulled out, leaving only a few hundred officers.
The North Korean army [KPA, Korean People’s Army] originated in a guerrilla force allied with the Chinese Communist Party in their north China stronghold. After 1945, they were armed by the Soviets and encouraged by the CCP. The latter were mired in their own civil war until autumn 1948, when the Nationalist government lost a huge battle to drive them from Manchuria; Nationalist forces crumbled in another big tipping point, the CCP swept south and the remnants fled to Taiwan by the end of 1949. The Korean war was a continuation of the tide of conquest. Historically, Korea had been part of the Chinese empire, and under the banner of communism it might become so again. The new People’s Republic of China sent 50-70,000 Korean ethnic veterans to augment some 100,000 armed by the Russians. North Korea had a population of 10 million and South Korea 20 million; but for the moment the KPA was considerably bigger than the ROK. The invading force was perhaps 100,000, with tanks and artillery; the ROK total was 98,000, but lightly armed and unable to stop the armored attack. Seoul fell in 4 days, as the army collapsed. Masses of soldiers defected to the KPA, leaving the the ROK with about 22,000, fleeing southward. July 5 US forces began arriving from Japan by air, but were initially unable to stop the rout. By the end of July two US divisions had arrived, but were forced to retreat along with the ROK to a perimeter around the port of Pusan, at the south-east tip of the Korean peninsula, 250 miles south of Seoul.
The US relied heavily on its Air Force. There were no paved roads except in a few cities; only two railroad lines; only one airport with sizable paved runways, and that had been captured at Seoul. This posed a problem because the US Air Force was in the middle of a transition to jets, which required smooth runways and a lot of maintenance. MacArthur, the C-in-C, quickly determined to bring back obsolete propeller planes like the P-51 Mustang, since it could use dirt runways. The immediate problem was to stop the KPA attack; jet fighters were ill-suited to providing combat ground support, using up more fuel at low altitudes, and operating from bases in Japan could remain in their target area as little as 20 minutes. (With a different arithmetic, these were the same problems as providing “over-the-horizon” air support in Afghanistan.)
By September 1, the MacArthur’s reinforced army around Pusan had hundreds of tanks and outnumbered the KPA 180,000 to 100,000. He had solved the problem of poor morale among the ROK troops by integrating them with Americans in a “buddy” system, one-to-one. But instead of a grinding offensive from the bottom of the peninsula, he had already planned a landing behind enemy lines; choosing Incheon, the port of Seoul, at the narrow waist of Korea near the North Korean border. Sept. 15 the invading force of 48,000 men (called X Corps, comprising an Army and a Marine division plus 8000 ROK), successfully landed. On Sept. 25, Seoul was recaptured. Simultaneously the Eighth Army (at Pusan) broke out of its perimeter on Sept. 16, and drove diagonally up the peninsula to reach Seoul Sept. 27. KPA forces were already suffering at the end of their logistics lines, and lost most of their tanks and artillery to air attacks; it was their turn to disintegrate, only 30,000 reaching North Korea.
At this point the numbers advantage had reversed. U.N. forces totalled 230,000 combat troops, including 80,000 ROK (apparently reorganized since their disintegration 3 months ago), with the vast majority of the rest American. Officially it was the “United Nations Command”, since the initial force had been authorized by the UN Security Council; but unlike other UN peace-keeping operations, no UN staff ever existed [Urquhart 120]. It was just another title for MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo. He kept the Eighth Army advancing up the west coast of North Korea, capturing the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 26. His landing force, X Corps, was reembarked and “water-lifted” around to the east side of the peninsula, landing at Wonsan and Hungnam (100 and 150 miles above the 38th Parallel), and heading towards the Yalu River 200 miles north—the Chinese border.
The Chinese now intervened again. 300,000 were already at the Yalu. Around Oct. 19, 200,000 were sent into Korea, moving stealthily by night, camouflaging by day, maintaining strict silence when aircraft appeared. Their light weapons were carried by bicycle and pack animal, relying on sheer numbers—and as we shall see, emotional momentum—to make up for deficiency in heavy weapons. The crinkled and creviced mountainous terrain helped, along with the onset of winter.
US forces were optimistic. Nov. 24 MacArthur launched a two-pronged offensive, Eighth Army and ROK up the west side, X Corps up the east side, divided by a spiny mountain range. Soldiers called it the “Home by Christmas Offensive.” Chinese forces hit the western prong on Nov. 25. Two days later, on the eastern side of the spine, 1st Marine Division advancing up a narrow mountain track around the Chosen Reservoir was ambushed and surrounded in freezing weather. It was the low point of the war. President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared another Dunkirk, and by Dec. 3 began planning to evacuate all forces from Korea. With air support and supply drops, the Marines/ X Corps were able to retreat to a defensive perimeter at the Hungnam port by Dec.11, where they were evacuated by sea by Dec. 24, back to Pusan. Back to square one.
It was a war of sudden collapses, each side taking turns. Seoul changed hands four times. The US/ROK side was like a yo-yo up and down the 500-mile peninsula: down to the bottom in a month, up to the top in two months, collapsing again in December and January when all its forces retreated below Seoul before stabilizing its lines. After the second collapse, MacArthur was replaced by General Ridgeway who reverted to traditional straight-ahead slogging, playing defense until accumulating enough forces to retake Seoul; from February 1951 to July 1953 the front line oscillated around the 38th parallel, the yo-yo running out of momentum. By the end, US forces totaled 1,780,000; China almost 3 million. The great majority of their casualties (US 36,000 killed and missing; ROK 162,000; China half-a-million to a million; KPA 200-400,000) were during the stagnating end-game.
The US first played blitzkreig offense, then World War One-style attrition. The Chinese countered both with guerrilla war on a massive scale. Because of US air superiority and its tactic of using heavy bombers to destroy enemy supply lines and havens, the Chinese relied on infiltrating huge numbers of lightly armed troops across expanses of territory hundreds of miles wide—the endlessly convoluted hills of the north being ideal for this—then attacking local points with overwhelming numbers, swarming from all sides at night to the noise of bugles and gongs. The US lost ground, hundreds of miles of it in the panicky retreat around New Years 1951, abandoning weapons along the way; then less and less as troops became accustomed to Chinese tactics. Superior US firepower was good enough for stalemate, but not for victory. The main Chinese weapon was its willingness to take heavy casualties and continue sending reinforcements, playing the psychological game of greater perserverence until the enemy gave up.
Unrealistic assessments and over-optimism were widespread, especially in 1950. In June, the US commander in Korea said any North Korean attack would be “target practice” for the ROK. The CIA reported troop movements but interpreted it as another small-scale clash like those between communist guerrillas and the ROK in past years. After the advance into North Korea in October, it became apparent that Chinese forces were massing at the Yalu and even crossing it. MacArthur met President Truman in the middle of the Pacific to tell him that the Chinese would be slaughtered by US air attacks if they tried to retake Pyongyang. Air Force commander Gen. Stratemeyer wrote up what he believed would be his final report on lessons learned. The offensive near the Chinese border planned for late November was known among American troops as the “Home-for-Christmas Offensive” echoing MacArthur’s remarks to the press. [Manchester 606] MacArthur was confident enough to make a personal inspection by flying the length of the Yalu River Nov. 24. Flying at low altitude, he saw no signs of troop movements, no anti-aircrack flak, no Russian MiG-15 jets. If troops had passed that way, their tracks were covered up in the snow. His giant pincers attack was launched the next day; the Chinese ambush began two days later.
Political will was shaky throughout, but MacArthur’s successes temporarily stilled most worries. Truman and the Pentagon agreed the invasion of South Korea had to be resisted. But they had just gone through a large reduction in the military budget; the Air Force was converting to jet planes, especially their new weapon, long-range strategic bombers carrying atom bombs. Soviet Russia had the A-bomb too, and the big concern was not to provoke them into an atomic war; at the same time, a Russian invasion of western Europe was the main priority. MacArthur would have to make do with what forces he had in Japan; though some armored units were sent to Korea to counter the KPA’s Russian tanks. MacArthur aggressively pressed his advantage into the North—determined not to make the same mistake twice (as in the Philippines when he was thrown on the defensive), similar to the 2003 rationale for going all the way into Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime, rather than a limited goal like retaking Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
New restrictions were given: only ROK troops could go above the 38th parallel; US could only follow their advance; only ROK could approach the Yalu. But as logistics lines stretched into the primitive tracks of the North, the war relied on air power to supply US forces, and to destroy enemy logistics. Argument centered on Chinese territory across the river as staging area and safe haven. When MacArthur launched his “home for Christmas” offensive in November, it was with the ambiguous understanding that he would stop at a buffer zone below the Yalu.
A new element entered the picture in early November, when Soviet MiG-15 fighters began to appear over the Yalu. As if by tacit agreement, they did not come much further south, but would dart into Korean territory, attack the B-29 bombers, and retreat to Chinese air space. MacArthur and Stratemeyer wanted the right to “hot pursuit” while chasing them across the river, but this was denied by the Pentagon. The MiG-15 was superior to any US fighters then in Korea, flying at a higher ceiling, faster, with greater firepower. The USAF had a similar plane, the F-86, but it was reserved for homeland defense against Soviet nuclear bombers. In the emergency of mid-December, the Pentagon relented and sent the F-86s; and in the latter years of the war they would prevail in the dog-fights over “MiG Alley”. For the time being, with the collapse of US forces in the north, F-86s were limited by the need for high-quality runways, and these were lost with the retreat below Seoul, leaving them with a long flight from Japan—the “over-horizon” issue again.
MacArthur’s insistence on taking out enemy bases beyond the Yalu led to his being fired in April 1951. By this time it was a last grasp. Truman and the Pentagon had gotten over their New Years panic but their concerns morphed into worries over a Pearl Harbor-like attack by Russia, and an escalating nuclear arms race as both sides acquired the hydrogen bomb. Costly as it turned out to be, the Korean War was regarded as a side-show that shouldn’t have happened, but from which it was impossible to extricate oneself without loss of prestige and security. The election of Eisenhower in 1952 with a promise to end the war brought an armed truce lasting for the next 70 years.
One more similarity to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth mentioning. The US Air Force in 1950 was badly prepared for the kind of war Korea turned out to be: it needed close air support in the age of jets, conventional bombing and escort protection in the age of the H-bomb. Thus it had to call back to active duty reservists and veterans of World War II; and to assign them long quotas of bombing missions. For Iraq and Afghanistan, the repeated tours of duty for reserves and National Guard troops extended even longer. But what they felt mattered less, since it was no longer an army of draftees but a smaller professional force, with a thin network of relatives among civilians at home. The Korean war was the first really unpopular war, setting the pattern for wars to follow.
Vietnam 1975. First the numbers. South Vietnam forces grew sharply and steadily from 240,000 in 1960 to 1 million at the time of the US withdrawal in 1973. About half of these were ARVN (Army of Republic of Vietnam), trained and equipped by the US. The other half were local self-defense militias; also trained by the US, who distributed half a million weapons to them in the late 1960s. The US took over military support after the French colonial regime pulled out in 1954. President Kennedy sent 16,000 “advisers” by 1963 and set up a Military Assistance Command, which attempted to cut off communist guerrillas from their base by moving rural populations into “Strategic Hamlets”. Lyndon B. Johnson sent the first US combat troops, 54,000 in 1965, rising to 390,000 at the end of 1966; 495,000 end of 1968; and a peak of 543,000 in April 1969. Thereafter “Vietnamization” of the war became official policy; numbers dropping to 335,000 in late 1970; 157,000 end of 1971; and 69,000 in April 1972.
On the other side, the North Vietnam Army (NVA) as of 1968 was about 500,000; the Viet Cong guerrillas about 200,000. At this point in the war, the balance of power was heavily on the US/S.Vietnam side: about 1.5 million to 700,000. Air superiority was almost total, with US heavy bombers and combat helicopters; N.Vietnam had Russian-built jet fighters that tried to protect the north but were shot down at a high ratio by US fighters.
Vietnam is a curved banana shape 1000 miles long, widening at the top around Hanoi and at the bottom below Saigon. The two halves are bordered on the west by Laos and Cambodia, a jungle and mountain range through which ran the Ho Chi Minh trail. It played a similar role as Pakistan in the Afghanistan war, foreign territory used for military supplies and covert troop movements; diplomatically out of range but de facto terrain of secret (really just unofficial) border violations. Vietnam became a spill-over war, as communist guerrillas gained strength in Laos and Cambodia; and as the jungle trail developed from foot-path taking 4 months to traverse in the early 1960s, to a North Vietnamese military highway by 1975 (when US air power no longer threatened it).
The war was a combination of conventional battles between the NVA and US troops in the northern border areas (artillery, mortars, bombers, armored vehicles); and guerrilla war in the south, helicopter-supplied US outposts, strategic hamlets, and search-and-destroy missions. These were carried out by the high-tech of the time, armed helicopters, sudden troop landings, plus fire-bombing designed to destroy the jungle. Strategy and tactics were at US initiative. ARVN units never carried out coordinated operations with the US (unlike in Korea). It has been argued that ARVN was made passive by US hogging the initiative; and its officers were split by political factions, involved a series of coups since the 1950s. Above all, ARVN was notoriously corrupt; there was a huge black market in US weapons and supplies, in Saigon and throughout, where weapons changed sides. (Same problem with US-supplied forces in Syria and Iraq in period since the Arab Spring in 2011.) No doubt US officers were loathe to share plans with ARVN, assuming they would reach the enemy.
Guerrilla war was transformed by the Tet offensive at the end of January 1968. It was an unprecedented, coordinated attack on cities throughout S. Vietnam, by 70-85,000 NVA and Viet Cong. The scale of the attack was a shock, following a stream of reports that the counter-insurgency war was going well. The NVA openly used their heavy weapons; the Viet Cong came out in the open. If it was intended to trigger a collapse of the regime in a revolutionary uprising, it failed; ARVN for once fought well, with US forces leading the operations. In five weeks of heavy fighting, communist forces lost half their strength, killed or captured (reported numbers are inconsistent: variously cited as 50,000; or half of their prior strength of 240,000, which would be 120,000). Whichever the numbers, communist forces must have relied heavily on psychological shock, since US/ARVN could muster 1 million against them, plus total air power. The Viet Cong was virtually annihilated; the war now was carried almost entirely by the NVA.
Tet did, however, have a political effect where it counted most: in American politics. The Tet offensive ended March 7. On March 31, LBJ announced he would not run for re-election; and simultaneously a pause in the three years-long bombing of N. Vietnam, to get negotiations going. The program of Vietnamization was announced—although it would take another 2 years to get it going. Paris peace talks began May 1968, dragging out until a truce was agreed in January 1973. Like Presidents Obama and Trump in Afghanistan, negotiations went on at the same time that troop cuts had been announced and a schedule for withdrawal was being carried out. This gave away the main leverage in negotiations; the US assumed that a combination of bombing campaigns plus ARVN strength would be enough to force an agreement.
Fast forward to 1973. The Paris Accords, signed in January, allowed both sides’ forces to remain in place at the armistice. This left 160,000 NVA inside S. Vietnam; presumably US negotiators felt this was adequately balanced by 1 million total ARVN plus militia. US agreed to pull out all remaining troops by April, which were already down to 16,000 non-combat advisers and administrators. US air power would be replaced by the American-trained S. Vietnam air force, the fourth largest in the world. In material resources, S. Vietnam was prepared to stand on its own.
During 1974, NVA and ARVN fought intermittently, more or less to a standstill. By this time Nixon was out of office; President Gerald Ford in January 21, 1975 announced the US would not re-enter the war. March 10 the NVA launched a full-scale offensive, 3 days later forcing ARVN to abandon the Central Highlands. In another 3 days, the cross-roads city Pleiku was evacuated, while refugees from the big northern cities Hue and Danang began to crowd the roads. In two weeks, Hue and Danang fell. Two million refugees clogged the escape routes. Of 60,000 ARVN troops, only 20,000 got through, no longer combat effective. A General described the evacuation of Danang in terms echoed at Kabul in August 2021: “The airfield was besieged by a frantic crowd, deserters included, who trampled the security force, overwhelmed the guards, swamped the runways, and mobbed the aircraft. It became so unsafe for the jets themselves that the airlift had to be suspended.” (Summers 198) Other generals fled or committed suicide.
|Airport near Saigon April 22, 1975 (Summers p.200)|
Early in 1975, ARVN had outnumbered NVA two- or three-to-one in combat troops, tanks, artillery, and had 1,400 virtually unopposed aircraft. Why the collapse? One explanation, similar to Afghanistan, was that much equipment was inoperable due to lack of spare parts and maintenance personnel; but ARVN had been holding its own up to the final offensive, and it seems likely another factor was responsible for what shortages existed: the black market had already made its bet on the likely winner. The military collapse from the Central Highlands to the coastal cities down to Saigon was a cascade, an emotional tipping point exacerbated by the tidal wave of refugees. Not only were the soldiers demoralized; at the time, officers noted “the family syndrome”—troops would go looking for their families to help them escape, military organization dissolving into a chaotic human traffic jam resembling what we recently observed outside Hamid Karzai International Airport.
On April 21, as remaining ARVN forces retreated into Saigon, President Thieu resigned, making a bitter speech accusing the US of betrayal. Four days later, he flew to safety in Taiwan. By this time, forces at Saigon had withered away to 30,000, while 100,000 NVA surrounded the city and closed the airport. This set off a last wave of panic to get out. The city fell with virtually no resistance; the new President—yet another general—surrendered on April 30, and the war was over.
I will not review the many unrealistic assessments made during the long war from 1962 through the U.S. Ambassador’s last-minute claim that Saigon could still be held. The Vietnam War was unusual in how many Americans rejected the official rhetoric. There was an anti-war movement already in late 1965, intensifying in 1967, culminating in a march by 50,000 protestors including Vietnam veterans on the Pentagon in October 1967. This was a spill-over of civil rights demonstrations and urban uprisings during those years, which also had their effect among American troops in Vietnam. Race-riots broke out at Danang and other military bases; navy ships offshore had unofficial no-go zones on their decks between black and white sailors; in the combat zone, hundreds of officers were killed in “fragging” attacks—throwing a fragmentation grenade into an officer’s tent. The atmosphere of military discipline had broken down.
A contributing cause was the Pentagon policy of calculating the progress of the war by statistics. In a war without front lines, victory was measured by attrition, and that required estimates of how many enemy were being killed until they ran out of replacements. And since it was war of guerrillas, wearing no uniforms and hiding among civilians who looked just like them, and inflicting casualties from ambushes and and booby traps, troops were suspicious of everybody. American troops developed a sardonic attitude: "if it’s dead, it’s red." Higher command wanted a high body count; officers’ performance was based on it; all incentives were to count every dead body as Viet Cong, whether man, woman or child—in the experience of helicopter-transported grunts, some of them were. Aerial bombing with napalm to burn enemy hiding places produced unidentifiable bodies. Soldiers might perform altruistic acts at one moment and callous ones at another; a combination that created the most alienated military veterans in US history. One reason some officials became willing to pull troops out was the realization that their army was going to pieces if they continued to fight in Vietnam.
Anti-war demonstrations did not sway the majority of Americans; anti-war candidates lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968; Nixon defeated an anti-war opponent for re-election in 1972. Nevertheless, Nixon’s concern about anti-war opponents inside the political establishment led him to the Watergate scandal, and to being forced from office. LBJ’s reaction to the Tet offensive—which could have been regarded, from the military point of view as proof of US success on the battlefield—was in keeping with US news media swinging to the anti-war side, seeing Tet as further evidence of war atrocities and cover-ups. In 1970, the Senate repealed the 1964 resolution authorizing US involvement, and prohibited US ground troops from going into Laos (spill-over around the Ho Chi Minh trail); by 1973, it passed an amendment preventing any further US military involvement in South-East Asia. In 1974, it refused to appropriate funds requested to bolster the South Vietnam military. By 1975, President Ford was openly saying the war was over, as far as the US was concerned. He reiterated it on April 23; Saigon fell within a week.
Note: A 1977 Pentagon assessment said the US could have protected S. Vietnam with half as many divisions, if it had put them in fortified positions around its borders, instead of fighting a guerrilla that could be left to ARVN. (Summers 187) But this would have been abandoning offense for defense; not in American military doctrine or tradition.
Mosul, Iraq, 2014. June 2014 saw a sudden ISIS offensive in northern Iraq, not the usual guerrilla ambushes with IEDs, but openly aimed at capturing territory. The main target was Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, population 1.5 million. Mosul was defended by 20,000 US-equipped Iraq soldiers, but they melted away in the face of 1500 ISIS fighters on pickup trucks. Since 2011 the US had turned over fighting to the Iraqi army it had trained, some 300,000 strong. But these disintegrated against an ISIS force of no more than 10,000. ISIS took over a large territory in north Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a caliphate with its capital at Mosul, collecting taxes and violently enforcing Shariah law on the population.
The sudden collapse of the Iraqi military was blamed on lack of fuel for its vehicles and ammunition for its weapons, unpaid soldiers and low morale. The underlying problem was embezzlement of US-paid funds by Iraqi officers, and a Vietnam-style black market in weapons and fuel, selling them off to the multiple factions fighting in Syria, and even to ISIS.
It took two years under renewed US guidance (and spending) to reconstitute the Iraqi army. In Oct. 2016 a force of 100,000 Iraqi troops started to retake Mosul, bolstered by 3000 American advisors and airpower. ISIS had about 5-8000 fighters plus local militia, a total of 12,000. They held out for 9 months, fighting block-by-block. ISIS used captured drones for surveillance, and armored vehicles camouflaged as civilian but actually carriers of suicide bombs; it was US high-tech abandoned by Iraqi proxy forces and turned against them. In the end, much of Mosul was destroyed, by US air strikes, Iraqi artillery, and eventually armored bulldozers burying ISIS positions. With the US temporarily back in command, the tutorial/proxy army won by weight of numbers and equipment. Again we see rapid tipping-points where the weaker beat the stronger; and advance of the strong by grinding attrition.
The enormous destruction at Mosul was largely overlooked by the news media, since US troops were not obviously involved on the ground. The media were another political factor in the war of hearts and minds. On the whole it was played out not for the loyalty of local civilians (in this case the Iraqis who lived there), but for insurgent recruitment, like the surge of volunteers to ISIS-held territory; and for the flux of political support, war-weariness and war-outrage among a distant American audience.
Take-away: Can unrealistic expectations and wavering political commitment be avoided? Over-optimistic assessments are in the nature of the beast; most engaged leaders believe in what they are doing, and successful military commanders are usually aggressive. (At least on the side of conventional armies; insurgents’ best strategies are persistence and patience, along with willingness to take enormous casualties. But we’re not playing that hand.)
Political commitments to any particular war policy waver both because conditions change, and because democracies are by definition a combination of the people, not a single personality. This is especially true when a war is distant from home, and conducted with a heavy dose of tutorial/proxy forces that don’t do well on their own. Spectacular challenges, defeats, and atrocities can bring near-unanimous political support for a war, but this lasts only 3-to-6 months before disagreements reemerge; and after that the war gets carried on by organizational momentum and a certain amount of Machiavellian manipulation by officials. Diplomatic concerns about what will provoke other states to come in against us loom large in the tug-of-war between military aggressiveness and restraint: Korea and Vietnam hinged on what to do about safe havens and reinforcements from across borders, and Afghanistan was difficult, or doomed, by unwillingness to treat Pakistan as an enemy collaborator. And there are always alternative battlefields than the one at hand, calling away resources and posing choices of what risk has greater priority.
Above all, politics in democracies are shaped by the two great eternal parties, the Ins and the Outs. The Ins always have to be more Machiavellian, more duplicitous, more culpable for surprises and dashed expectations. The Outs batten on these failings, and get to take the most virtuous line, until they get into office to implement it. The only realistic conclusion is that political wavering over foreign wars is built in; unless the war is successful, and quick.
On tipping points:
Thomas Schelling. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict.
Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver. 1993. The Critical Mass in Collective Action.
Sources on Afghanistan: Associated Press; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; San Diego Union-Tribume; The Economist Magazine.
B.H. Liddell-Hart. 1970. History of the Second World War.
John Keegan. 1997. Atlas of the Second World War.
John Davison. 2011. The Pacific War Day by Day.
Saburo Hayashi. 1959. Kogun. The Japanese Army in the Pacific War.
William Manchester. 1978. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964.
Wikipedia. “Korean War.”
John Andreas Olsen/Thomas Keaney. 2013. Air Commanders. (pp. 199-222 on Korea)
Brian Urquhart. 1987. A Life in Peace and War. (Under-Secretary General of the United Nations)
Harry G. Summers, Jr. 1995. Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War.
James William Gibson. 1986. The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam.
Wikipedia. “Fall of Saigon.”
Military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq:
Anthony King. 2019. Command: the Twenty-first Century General.
Anthony King. 2021. Urban Warfare in the Twenty-first Century.