- - Tuesday, October 8, 2013

BLOWTORCH: ROBERT KOMER, VIETNAM, AND AMERICAN COLD WAR STRATEGY
By Frank Leith Jones
Naval Institute Press, $52.95, 416 pages

During the early stages of America’s occupation of Iraq in 2003, in my capacity as a special adviser to the Defense Department, I briefed Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, our proconsul in Baghdad, and attempted to persuade him to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy. During one presentation, I cited an example from Vietnam. At that point, he abruptly interrupted me and said: “I don’t want to hear about Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam.” I responded that not everything we did in Vietnam was a failure. That terminated the meeting. One of the good things that came out of Vietnam was the counterinsurgency concept of pacification through interagency civil development. Vietnam did not fall to the Viet Cong insurgents; it fell to regular North Vietnamese Army armored columns. A version of Robert Komer’s vision would eventually be applied successfully in Iraq, but not until long after Mr. Bremer was fired. Komer, the father of that program, is the subject of Frank Leith Jones’ fine book.

Komer came from an upper-class Missouri Jewish family with a patriarch who wanted his son to go into the family business. Young Bob wanted nothing of it, and used Harvard as his escape mechanism. He would claim in later years that he developed his signature loud and brassy voice to communicate over the family din.

He excelled at Harvard. In one precocious pre-World War II paper, he developed a philosophy that would remain with him for life when he advocated that the nation should go to war using all elements of national power, not merely the military, in a coordinated effort. He would implement this strategic vision in Vietnam three decades later. During World War II, Komer was drafted out of Harvard Law School, and was assigned to the Italian front. Although his job was to write a history of the campaign, he could often be found on the front lines gathering information. He recalled that his war experience was one of the most formative events in his life.

After the war, he finished Harvard Business School and joined the newly formed CIA as an analyst. He rose quickly in the ranks and was recognized not only as a superb intelligence officer, but as a canny and ruthless infighter. The young Kennedy administration recognized his talent and drive, which fit in well with its action-oriented agenda, and he soon had the president’s ear as an adviser on Middle Eastern matters. His crucial advice during a thorny crisis in Yemen and an Indian-Chinese border clash made him a valuable administration asset.

However, it was his close relationship with Lyndon Johnson, the often outcast vice president, that catapulted Komer to true White House insider status when Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination. As the war in Vietnam dragged on, Komer found himself being drawn into the maw of the conflict. By 1966, Johnson decided that he needed someone to run the “other war,” which was the pacification of the population. Komer was understandably reluctant to take on this Sisyphean task, but Johnson insisted.

Komer attacked the job of making the various civilian bureaucracies involved in the pacification process work together with his usual enthusiasm and ruthless determination. U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge gave him the nickname “Blowtorch” — which Komer relished. He broke a lot of crockery, but he got results. His great accomplishment was to realize that the civilians needed military security and logistics support to succeed, driving the creation of the interagency Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) organization with Komer as a direct deputy of the overall military commander in Vietnam. If CORDS had been created in 1963 or 1964, it might have altered the course of the war. However, its true value was to serve as the foundation of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine. His efforts were not appreciated then, but they are now.

This is not a biography; it is a case study of how to obtain and use power in the American governmental system, particularly in wartime. The book should be required reading in security studies courses. The author deliberately skips those portions of Komer’s life not relevant to his role as a bureaucratic infighter. Komer was a consummate practitioner of strategic art. He was not lovable, but he was effective.

Following Vietnam, Komer continued to contribute. His efforts strengthened both NATO and U.S. Middle Eastern policy. NATO’s ability to operate effectively in Kosovo and Afghanistan is a tribute to his drive. Love or hate him, Blowtorch Bob was an American original.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, has served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is currently on sabbatical in Afghanistan.