‘Happy Talk’

January 26, 2004 | by | Topic: The Global ChallengePrint Print

Chief Weapons Inspector David Kay’s resignation and announcement that, in all likelihood, Iraq did not have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program at the time the U.S.-led war began is bad news for the Bush administration. Like a pack of famished wolves closing on a wounded goat, the Democratic candidates will pounce on President Bush, accusing him of using the threat of a non-existent WMD program as the primary casus belli behind the invasion of Iraq.

Let me be clear, I do not think President Bush purposely misled the American people. The Clinton administration also was convinced Saddam Hussein had a viable WMD program. Furthermore, such a lie, if exposed, might lead to impeachment. At the very least, it would preclude a second Bush term and likely allow Democrats to regain control of both houses of Congress. Such deceit would constitute a mistake of Watergatesque proportions. Unless President Bush is into political seppuku, the more likely answer is US intelligence erred. It would not be the first time our intelligence services misled rather than informed.

From 1970 to 1971, I served as an Air Force intelligence officer in Southeast Asia. My job was to compile and deliver the daily intelligence briefing for the general in charge of air operations in Laos. Briefing officers delved into a vast array of sources, most of whom told us the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos had not stemmed the flow of troops and supplies moving into South Vietnam.

Our briefings to the general, however, told a very different story. Taking our cue from a song in the popular 1950s musical “South Pacific,” we dubbed it “Happy Talk.” Because Happy Talk meant no negative reports got to the general, we were proscribed from using words like “defeat,” “lost,” “retreat” or even “ambushed.” Although we thought the war was lost, any negativity was met with enjoinders to “get with the program.”

The briefings I delivered had Air Force four-engine AC-130 gunships, in their nightly forays over the Ho Chi Minh Trail destroying up to 300 trucks per mission. In one six-month period we briefed more than 12,000 North Vietnamese trucks destroyed … several times the number of trucks in North Vietnam and Laos combined. In effect, we told the story of an unbroken string of unmitigated airpower victories. Truth was the war was lost. But from a policy standpoint, for Vietnamization to work and the American withdrawal to continue, U.S. forces could not seem to be losing on the battlefield. Happy Talk had a political face.

The general I briefed then Happy-Talked his superiors at headquarters, Seventh Air Force in Saigon. Seventh Air Force briefers, in turn, Happy-Talked Gen. Creighton Abrams at Military Assistant Command, Vietnam. Eventually, Happy Talk made its cheerful way through Pacific Command to the Pentagon then blithely blithered its way across the Potomac to the Oval Office. Vietnamization was on track! Withdrawal continued. In Vietnam, everything was great and getting better. “Hap, Hap, Hap Happy talk ….”

At each level it was easier to tell the boss what he wanted to hear. Bad news prompted questions. The further the information got from analyst, the less was known about the facts that comprised the intelligence. Since it is human nature to nod approvingly at good news and to question bad, it was better to tell your bosses what they wanted to hear than it was to hassle with their displeasure. Ultimately, at the end of the information line, the President heard what he wanted to hear: his policy of disengagement was working. Nixon could keep his campaign promise to disengage from Vietnam before the end of his first term.

In my next assignment, at Headquarters — Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Bellevue, Neb. — things were no better. For instance, a colleague charged with keeping track of Soviet sea launched ballistic missile (SLBM) submarines concluded that missiles launched from the two or three Yankee class (Polaris equivalent) Soviet subs off each coast would obliterate SAC bases with their alert force of B-52s before those bombers could take off. That the bomber leg of the strategic triad was vulnerable did not qualify as Happy Talk to SAC generals, bomber pilots intent on perpetuating the manned bomber as the centerpiece of the nuclear deterrent.

If the B-52s on alert were vulnerable, the much sought after B-1 bomber replacements would be as well. Unwilling to face the ire of SAC’s leadership, branch chiefs and deputy directors squelched bad news. Everyone got with the program. Unfortunately, pleasers and appeasers are more welcome that the bearers of bad news, and far more promotable.

Integrity is absolutely essential when it comes to the life and death matters of national security. Happy Talk is the stuff of military disaster. It costs lives; in its latest iteration, some 515 and counting. Because politics and war are commingled, Happy Talk can also have political consequences, as the President may soon discover.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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