Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

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