The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel