Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Viewpoint: Could one man have shortened the Vietnam War?

A figure from Vietnam War history that was unfamiliar to me.  But doesn't this have a ring of familiarity?  
The morale project grew out of the Pentagon's great problem in the early part of the Vietnam War. The US Air Force was bombing North Vietnam because they wanted to stop the North Vietnamese communists from supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam led by the Viet Cong. 
The idea was to break the will of the North Vietnamese. But the Pentagon didn't know anything about the North Vietnamese. They knew nothing about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese history, Vietnamese language. It was just this little speck in the world, in their view.
But this is a useful anecdote for any analyst and something we have had drilled into us – insurgents do not have to win, just not lose.

Everyone believed what Goure said, with one exception - Konrad Kellen. He read the same interviews and reached the exact opposite conclusion. 
Years later, he would say that his rethinking began with one memorable interview with a senior Vietcong captain. He was asked very early in the interview if he thought the Vietcong could win the war, and he said no. 
But pages later, he was asked if he thought that the US could win the war, and he said no.
The second answer profoundly changes the meaning of the first. He didn't think in terms of winning or losing at all, which is a very different proposition. An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all. 
Now why did Kellen see this and Goure did not? Because Goure didn't have the gift.
But I think this is an important lesson about listening.  It should not need to be a "gift."
Listening is hard because the more you listen, the more unsettling the world becomes. It's a lot easier just to place your hands over your ears and not listen at all.
V/R
Dave
8 July 2013 Last updated at 19:58 ET

Viewpoint: Could one man have shortened the Vietnam War?http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23037957

Konrad Kellen was an unknown defence analyst who might have changed the course of the Vietnam War if only people had listened to him, argues Malcolm Gladwell.

Listening well is a gift. The ability to hear what someone says and not filter it through your own biases is an instinctive ability similar to having a photographic memory.

And I think we have a great deal of trouble with people who have this gift. There is something about all of us that likes the fact that what we hear is filtered through someone's biases.

There are many examples of this phenomenon, but I want to focus on the story of Konrad Kellen, a truly great listener.

During the Vietnam War, he heard something that should have changed the course of history. Only it didn't. And today no-one really knows who Kellen was - which is a shame because his statue should be in the middle of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC.

About the author

  • Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist and author
  • Hear more on this story in Radio 4's Pop-Up Ideas, broadcast on Tuesday 9 July at 09:30 BST and repeated on 10 July at 20:45 BST
Kellen was born in 1913. His full name was Katzenellenbogen - one of the great Jewish families of Europe. They lived in splendour near Berlin's Tiergarten. His father was a prominent industrialist and his stepmother was painted by Renoir, a family friend.

Kellen was tall, handsome and charismatic. He loved Ferraris. He could quote long sections of Thucydides from memory. One of his cousins was the great economist Albert O Hirshman. Another was Albert Einstein.

He lived one of those extraordinary 20th Century lives. When he was quite young, he left Berlin and moved to Paris where he became friends with Jean Cocteau. On a ship, the America, he was offered a job by the gangster Dutch Schultz. And when he got to the US, he met the author Thomas Mann and became his private secretary. Then he joined the US Army during World War II.

After the war was over, a young woman came up to him in a Paris cafe and asked if he'd do her a favour: "My father is an artist and I need someone to take his work back to America." He agreed. The woman was Marc Chagall's daughter.

Kellen was the kind of person that people went up to unannounced in cafes and asked great favours of. He had that gift.

Konrad Kellen

  • Born 1913 in Germany
  • Fled Nazi Germany for New York aged 20
  • Worked for US Army intelligence unit in WWII and awarded the Legion of Merit
  • Policy analyst at Rand Corporation in California
  • In 1969, he and Rand colleagues wrote an open letter to the US government recommending US troops be withdrawn from Vietnam within a year
  • Died aged 93 in 2007
After the war, the army sent him back to Berlin where his job was to interview German soldiers to find out why they kept fighting for Hitler long after it was clear that the war was lost. Then he went to work for Radio Free Europe. Again he had the job of a listener, asked to interview defectors from behind the Iron Curtain to get a flavour of what life was like under the Soviet regime.

And finally, in the early 1960s, he joined the Rand Corporation, a prestigious think tank in California started by the Pentagon after the war to do top-level defence analysis. And there he faced the greatest challenge of his career - the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project.

The morale project was started by Leon Goure, who was also an immigrant. His parents were Mensheviks. They escaped from the Soviet Union during one of Stalin's purges. Goure was brilliant, charismatic, incredibly charming and absolutely ruthless, and he was Kellen's great nemesis.

The morale project grew out of the Pentagon's great problem in the early part of the Vietnam War. The US Air Force was bombing North Vietnam because they wanted to stop the North Vietnamese communists from supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam led by the Viet Cong.

The idea was to break the will of the North Vietnamese. But the Pentagon didn't know anything about the North Vietnamese. They knew nothing about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese history, Vietnamese language. It was just this little speck in the world, in their view.

How do you know that you're breaking the will of a country if you know nothing about the country? So Goure's job was to figure out what the North Vietnamese were thinking.

He came into Saigon and took over an old French villa on Rue Pasteur in the old part of the city. He hired Vietnamese interviewers and sent them out into the countryside.


The job was to find captured Viet Cong guerrillas and to interview them. Over the next few years, they came up with 61,000 pages of transcripts. Those transcripts were translated into English and summarised and analysed.
(Continued at the link below)

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