By David T. Zabecki
Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., was a soldier. He also was a scholar and a military analyst, one of the most influential military thinkers America has ever produced. According to retired Colonel Chuck Kriete, one of his former colleagues on the faculty of the U.S. Army War College, "His contribution to the post-Vietnam Army was as great as any person in the country, in or out of the military." In many ways, Harry Summers was to the last half of the 20th century what British Major General J.F.C. Fuller was to the first half, in terms of Western military thought.
I met Harry Summers only a couple of times, but we corresponded over a period of more than 10 years, and I came to regard him as a one of my mentors as a military writer and historian. The first time I met Harry was in early 1991 in Washington, D.C., at a Reserve Components National Security Issues seminar sponsored by the Army War College. Harry was slated as the wrap-up speaker of the week-long seminar for prospective War College students. The morning before he was scheduled to talk, I had the pleasure of having breakfast with him and his old faculty friend, professor Otto Chaney. Among other things, we talked about some articles I had written for Vietnam Magazine.
Later that day, at the conclusion of Harry's presentation, Otto and my friend Colonel (now Brig. Gen.) Carol Kennedy stage-managed one of the greatest surprises of my life. Unbeknown to me, my promotion orders to lieutenant colonel had come through. As the final event of the seminar, my promotion orders were read and Harry pinned on my new silver leaves. A photograph of that event hangs prominently in my Army Reserve office today.
It would be an understatement to say that the U.S. Army was the center of gravity of Harry Summers' life. Both of his sons became Army officers, and one of his daughters-in-law served in the Gulf War as a Reserve officer. More than a career or a profession, the Army was Harry's calling. He was born in Covington, Ky., on May 6, 1932. He enlisted in the Army at 15 by falsifying his age. Within a matter of months he found himself in Korea, reporting to the replacement depot at Yongdungpo in November 1947.
A little more than a year later Harry was transferred to Japan, shortly before all of the remaining American ground forces were pulled out of Korea. In Japan he was assigned to the heavy tank battalion of the 24th Infantry Division. The U.S. Army at that time was a "hollow" force in every sense of the word. The 24th Division's tank battalion had only one activated company, and instead of heavy tanks they were equipped with the M-24 Chaffee light reconnaissance tank. Each of the division's infantry regiments had only two instead of three rifle battalions, and the field artillery battalions had two of their three authorized firing batteries. The infantry units were armed with 2.36-inch anti-tank rocket launchers--the World War IIera bazooka. They were completely worthless against the Soviet-supplied T-34 heavy tanks the North Koreans had.
America went to war in Korea on June 27, 1950. On July 1 the lead elements of the ill-equipped and undermanned 24th Division landed in Korea, the first ground combat unit committed to the war. Among the division's machine-gunners was Corporal Harry Summers, who had turned 19 less than three months earlier. Thrown against the oncoming divisions of the North Korean People's Army, with their superior T-34 tanks, the 24th was chewed to pieces, but it bought precious time for the buildup of American forces around Pusan. By the time it was relieved in the line by the 1st Cavalry Division on July 22, the 24th Division was down to 8,660 men, having started out with 16,000. The 24th's dead included Harry's company commander. Colonel Henry Gole, Summers' fellow Korea veteran and his colleague in later years at the War College, recalled that the thing Harry was always proudest of was his combat service as a teenage infantryman in Korea.
Summers decided to make the military a career, and in 1957 he received a direct commission in the Regular Army. In the early 1960s he commanded an infantry company at Fort Hood. In February 1966 he went to Vietnam as an assistant operations officer at II Field Forces. From January to December 1966 he was the S-3 (operations officer) of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry. After being wounded for the second time during that assignment, he returned to II Field Forces, again as an operations officer. During his 17-month tour in Vietnam, Summers was decorated with the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with V device for valor. He also received the coveted star (signifying service in his second war) to the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Following Vietnam, Harry attended the Army Command and General Staff College, where one of his classmates was Colin Powell. After Harry completed the course, he remained at Fort Leavenworth for several more years as an instructor. It was during that period that Harry Summers first began to acquire a reputation within the Army as a military writer and analyst of the first rank. This led to successive assignments as a strategic planner at the office of the deputy chief of staff for operations and then at the office of the chief of staff of the Army.
In July 1974 he returned to Vietnam as chief of the Negotiations Division of the Four Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT). The main task of the U.S. delegation was to resolve the status of those Americans still listed as missing. During one of his liaison trips to Hanoi, Harry had his now-famous exchange with his North Vietnamese counterpart. When Harry told him, "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield," Colonel Tu responded, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
As the North Vietnamese forces started to converge on Saigon in April 1975, the Americans slowly withdrew all their remaining personnel. On April 3 Harry's civilian secretary, Barbara Kavulia, was killed in the crash of a "baby lift" Lockheed C-5 transport. Harry himself flew out on the last Marine helicopter to leave the roof of the American Embassy at 5:30 a.m. on April 30. As he later recalled, "I was the second-to-the-last Army guy out of Vietnam--quite a searing experience." For the rest of his life Harry was haunted by the 420 Vietnamese evacuees the Americans were forced to abandon that day. He considered it a betrayal of the first magnitude, and he later wrote, "It was not a proud day to be an American" (see the April 1995 Vietnam).
Upon his return from Vietnam, Harry was again assigned to the office of the chief of staff of the Army. This time his assignment was to distill the findings of the huge multivolume study of the Vietnam War made by the BDM Corporation. Summers was still grappling with that task when he was assigned to the faculty of the Army War College in July 1979. In 1982, Harry finally produced On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, which to this day remains the single most influential postmortem of America's failure in Vietnam. Newsweek magazine declared it "a classic."
The thin (only 131 pages), tightly reasoned volume generated an immediate and wide range of reactions, both inside and outside of the military. Relying on the long-forgotten and ignored ideas of General Karl von Clausewitz and using the time-tested Principles of War for an analytical framework, Harry demonstrated that the cause of America's failure ultimately lay in a confused and incoherent national strategy that had no clear objective. Following this line of reasoning, Summers was able to explain the seemingly unexplainable: How could an unbroken string of battlefield successes still add up to strategic failure?
Most of the critics of On Strategy zeroed in on Harry's positive assessment of American battlefield performance. That, however, was only a peripheral element of his much broader argument. According to popular opinion then--and to some extent even today--the U.S. military lost in Vietnam because it could not adapt to guerrilla warfare. Harry turned that notion on its head by arguing that America failed because it was too successful in defeating the insurgency war being waged by the VC, and paid too little attention to the conventional war being prosecuted by North Vietnamese regular forces. As Harry pointed out, the VC ceased to be a major factor on the battlefield after they were all but annihilated in the 1968 Tet Offensive. When Saigon fell in April 1975, it was to four corps of NVA regular troops.
On Strategy also had a much wider impact on military thinking. In the 10 years that followed the fall of Saigon, the U.S. military went through a complete and agonizing reappraisal of its doctrine and its philosophy of war-fighting. According to the Army War College's Christopher Brassford, On Strategy played a key role in that process and contributed significantly to the U.S. Army's rediscovery of Clausewitz and his classical theories of war. During the Vietnam years, the Principles of War had dropped out of the 1967 edition of FM 100-5 Operations, the Army's capstone doctrinal manual. After Harry analyzed Vietnam, principle by principle, in On Strategy, the Principles of War returned to the 1986 and 1993 editions of the Army manual.
Before he retired from the Army in 1985, Summers held the Douglas MacArthur Chair of Military Research at the War College. By that point he already was in wide demand as a speaker and writer. His later books included the award-winning Vietnam War Almanac, Korean War Almanac, The New World Strategy: A Military Policy for America's Future and the Atlas of the Vietnam War. During the Gulf War, Harry acted as a military analyst for NBC News. He made more than 250 appearances on network television, and he was a frequent guest commentator on Voice of America and National Public Radio. Immediately after the Gulf War he wrote On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War.
In 1988 Harry Summers became the founding editor of Vietnam Magazine. In the magazine's premiere issue he clearly defined its mission and its principles when he wrote, "The goal we here at Vietnam Magazine have set for ourselves is to find the key to unlock [the] enigma [of Vietnam]." But as he also noted, "There are millions of 'truths' about the Vietnam War, for over three million American soldiers, sailors, air-men, marines, and Coast Guardsmen have served in the Southeast Asia theater from 1964 to 1975 alone."
Harry was devoted to that search for the truth--whatever it might be, warts and all. He believed that until very recently, "the accounts from academia were so twisted and distorted by ideological bias as to be utterly useless." And while he placed great store in personal accounts and individual experiences, he had little use for the "Rambo" and "soldier of fortune" schools of military history. He believed that the unvarnished truth of combat was dramatic enough without embellishment or outright lies.
Despite his criticisms of academia's treatment of the war, Harry came to be regarded as one of America's foremost defense intellectuals in the years following his retirement from active duty. He was a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He testified on military strategic issues before both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He lectured at the White House; State Department; Central Intelligence Agency; Defense Intelligence Agency; National Defense University; the service academies, staff colleges, and war colleges of all of the armed services; and Canada's National Defense College.
Summers also lectured at many civilian universities, including Stanford, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Georgetown. In 1993 and 1994 he held the Brigadier General H.L. Oppenheimer Chair of Warfighting Strategy at the Marine Corps University, and the Chair of Military Affairs in 1994 and 1995. In 1996 he held the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Lectureship at the University of California, Berkeley--one of the epicenters of the old anti-war movement. Harry's reputation as a military thinker and writer extended far beyond the boundaries of the United States. Richard Holmes of the Royal Military College of Science said of him, "He was very well regarded by many British historians as an example of the soldier-scholar who combined sword and pen, and did so much for the revival of military thought in the West."
The depth and breadth of Harry's thinking came through clearly in his writing. Yet, he was in many ways a self-educated man. While still an enlisted man, he first completed high school and then went on to earn his bachelor's degree through the University of Maryland's extension programs. He earned his master's degree from the Army Command and General Staff College while teaching on the faculty there. He was even assigned to the Army War College faculty before he completed that course. Rather than attending the year-long course in residence, he finished the War College the hard way, through the grinding two-year corresponding studies program. He took a certain contrary pride in that fact. In the summer of 1995, Harry spoke at the final two-week, in-house session of that year's corresponding studies class. When he was introduced as a graduate of the corresponding studies program himself, the entire auditorium erupted into a thundering applause. In typical fashion, Harry just stood there with a huge grin on his face.
Summers was a fearless thinker who did not dissemble and who took firm and sometimes outspoken positions on issues. Because of that, he often drew heavy criticism from those who disagreed with him. He always defended his positions with meticulously constructed logic and historical facts, often laced with an undercurrent of wry humor. He staunchly defended the honor and the battlefield performance of the American soldier in Vietnam, but he was far from the blanket apologist some of his critics tried to make him out to be. In those cases where Americans were in the wrong, Harry did not mince words. He leveled the harshest possible criticism against the actions of Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai, and at the same time he had the highest praise for the courage and integrity of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson that day.
Chuck Kriete, who served on Harry's in-house editorial board for On Strategy, remembered him as "a brilliant but kind and generous man with a phenomenal memory and a heart as great as his mind. He was also intellectually honest and generous with credit for ideas which others helped him to recognize the value of. His insights were at times electrifying in their power to open up whole new areas of exploration." He also could be funny. Harry had a real knack for cracking up an audience, even when speaking on the most serious of subjects.
Whenever Harry spoke on the Vietnam War at college campuses, he inevitably drew the usual cast of hecklers and crackpots claiming to be Vietnam veterans. At one such event, someone claiming to have served in Vietnam stood up and confessed to the standard string of lurid atrocities and murders--all the while blaming the evil and immoral U.S. Army for his actions. After patiently listening to the tirade, Harry retorted with a point-blank sabot round: "Shame on you, you rotten SOB! I didn't do those things, and I don't know anyone who did. I didn't need the Army to teach me right from wrong--my mother taught me that much."
That was Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. Appropriately enough, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
David T. Zabecki is a writer, editor and teacher who specializes in military history. A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Zabecki served in Vietnam as an infantry rifleman, subsequently rising to the rank of sergeant first class before receiving a direct commission as a first lieutenant in 1975. His military awards include the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and Vietnam Service Medal with three campaign stars. He is the author of Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmuller and the Birth of Modern Artillery and editor in chief of World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. Zabecki was named editor of Vietnam magazine in January 2000.
Originally from Columbiad (an on-line journal now defunct).
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