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Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American.


Immediately after George Bush took over the presidency, it was duly announced that foreign policy experts at the State Department, the National Security Council, and elsewhere in the "respectable" corridors of power were busily studying four main areas as part of the new administration's "foreign policy" review: U.S.-Soviet relations, arms control negotiations, defense policy for the 1990s, and future requirements for conventional and nuclear forces. One could almost hear Edward Geary Lansdale turning over in his grave. He would be groaning helplessly at the same time that he would be shaking his head back and forth, all the while whispering to himself, "Will they never...never...never ever learn?" Then he would return once more to the eternally uneasy sleep of "those Americans who tried to do things differently."

Who was Lansdale? To Graham Greene, he was Alden Pyle, "The Quiet American," a classic American innocent, not in Paris but in the poisoned, unfinished trouble spots of the world, nothing more than a CIA agent with "an unmistakably young and unused face." To Jean Larteguy, he was Colonel Lionel Teryman, "Le Male Jaune," a tough, brutal new American midwest version of Lawrence of Arabia. To the American writers William Lederer and Eugene Barnum Hillandale, "The Ugly American," practically the only American who understood how to mold with original hands the real and fractious world of new decolonized countries. To his brother, Benjamin Carroll Lansdale, he was always a "revolutionary." Quixotically and finally, Oliver North, totally unlike Lansdale in any sense of realism or proportion, looked upon himself as "Lansdalian."

But perhaps former CIA Director William Colby characterized Lansdale best, if uncritically: "Lansdale helped and perhaps created the best president the Philippines ever had...turned American policy away from support of French colonial rule in Vietnam to support of a non-Communist nationalist leader...he preached for Americans to support those willing to fight for themselves...." He was "one of the greatest spies in history...the stuff of legends."

Edward Geary Lansdale was born in 1908 in Dayton, Ohio, emerging out of all the parts of America he was to fight to make understand. The American century was at the heady height of its beginning. The American mission was clarion clear, and the prototypical American military men of the time were rough-riding, hard-drinking men of utter assurance about America, men like Teddy Roosevelt. By the time Lansdale died in 1987, everything had changed. America's dynamic assurance had been savaged by wars that Americans just couldn't understand--different wars in unfinished countries like Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador.

Lansdale's saga is that he, almost alone in this period of tragedies for American president after American president, did understand. The lanky American kid from Dayton with the big nose and the advertising executive's mind saw that the weapons and techniques that American was using simply did not match the demands of these new and bedeviling worlds. Lansdale himself, when he was in Vietnam in the formative 1950s, said that he had the terrible feeling that he was seeing the beginnings of World War III in these Third World conflicts. Actually, he was right. While traditional American military thinkers were out scanning the horizons for nuclear subs and missiles, the real war of out times was the one that Lansdale understood.

The happy Huk-er

First, the book.(*) There are other biographies of the biographogenic Lansdale, not to speak of his own rather emotional and unsatisfying autobiography, In the Midst of Wars. But this one will go down as the best book on him so far. It is a serious and readable book, not written with any compelling brilliance but filled with new and original materials gleaned from what is obviously a determined search for the man, his ideas, and his effectiveness by the author, Cecil B. Currey, a professor of military history at the University of South Florida and a chaplain and full colonel in the Army Reserve.

The book does lack some context that I personally would have liked. Why do Americans temperamentally not understand these new Third World conflicts? What did Lansdale accomplish in the end? How did his tactics and techniques jibe with the American character, or not jibe with it? Why was that magical and ultimately chimerical American "third force"--the search for reasonably stable democratic governments in the turbulent decolonized countries that would fall between Marxism and the Old Right--so devilishly difficult to empower and to keep in power?

Lansdale came from a rather traditional American family of farmers, construction workers, labor leaders, and small businessmen. It was a happy family, with three close brothers. Lansdale was a jack-of-all-trades for a while: he worked in advertising, wrote plays, and drew cartoons (artistic talents, it should be noted, are rather surprisingly present in many military men). But it was when he joined the army reserve that he found himself, as he began to study the U.S. military and find that it was "fighting yesterday's war all over again."

It was in the Philippines, where he was sent with the army in 1945, that Lansdale was thrown into what was to become his life's work. Filipino democracy should have been a shining new hope for Asia, but it wasn't, because a group in Central Luzon calling itself the "People's Anti-Japanese Army," or the "Huks," were ready to communize the former colony. The Huks, Lansdale was to find, "fought with amateur intensity, despised wealthy fellow countrymen who collaborated with their enemies, and assassinated many collaborationists." They soon became Lansdale's military responsibility, and, in conformance with his nature, Lansdale immediately decided that this problem was not even primarily military. It was in 1945, Currey tells us, that Lansdale "made a decision that would influence his thinking for the remaining years of his career. Knowing that his men would give him accurate reports of official plans and knowledge, Lansdale decided he needed an additional dimension of knowledge. He would study the conflict from the inside."

From the inside! That voyage is the mark of the good reporter and the good writer. It has not been the insignia of the "good" military man, who most often believed in imposing force from above and from the outside, in the tradition of Czar Nicholas in World War I sending his Russian soldiers out to fight with swords and axes against the new German artillery. Having decided to work "from the inside," Lansdale did an amazing--and a new--thing. He went out into the mountains of central Luzon. He camped out on their trail and waited for the Huks. He insisted that "it was not so dangerous. I was the one person sitting there and they were an armed group. I would smile and give them something or some food or did anybody want a drink? They would come up and say, 'Yeah, I'd like a cigarette,' instead of shooting me. You didn't kill a guy laughing, being nice to you."

Fake vampires

Little by little, working from inside ("there was no military school on psychological operations," Lansdale noted at this time), he learned that the situation was actually remarkably little like what was blithely assumed in American and Filipino military headquarters. It was the infamous "Makabulos Massacre" of August 20, 1950 that finally convinced him of the need for observing these new insurrections not militarily but psychologically. That day, a small group of Huks appeared to go berserk in the town of Makabulos. They attacked a small hospital and killed everyone, even the innocent patients, by hacking them to death. It was not foolish for this to seem a sure and severe setback for the Huks.

But when Lansdale went there--observing from inside again--he found the situation totally different from what he expected. He found that the townspeople regretted the attack but that the "most vivid memory of the people was how polite and thoughtful the guerrillas had been...." Some of the guerrillas had gone to the movies, where they waited. At dark, they took over the streets, asking the people politely to remain indoors. "It was the polite and courteous warnings of the Huks, many of them relatives, that people remembered. Lansdale was glad he had not trusted official or press stories."

How could this have happened? Lansdale decided that it was a classic example of the military principle of economy of force, and of effective strategy and tactics. Meanwhile, "while the Huks were running a revolution," Currey concludes, "the Philippine government was fighting them as though they were formal enemy armed forces...and the military saw themselves as separate from their people."

Lansdale was sent back to the Philippines in 1950 with an incredible mission. In just three months, Currey writes, Lansdale was to protect American interests in the Philippines, consolidate a power base for Ramon Magsaysay, make progress in the war against the Huks, revitalize the Philippine army, and urge political reform. He employed every psychological trick in the book. Using the old "system manipulation" and "motivation analysis" that he had learned in advertising, he used everything from the fear of vampires (he had his trained Philippine soldiers fake fatal attacks by the feared vampires against Huks in the countryside) to the organization of voter groups. At one point, his tactics tricked the Huks into withdrawing from a crucial election, thus in effect giving the vote to the government. He took the night away from the Huks in the countryside, and finally he took the revolution away from them, but only because by that time he had found a superb politician, Ramon Magsaysay, to become the president in 1951.

What were Lansdale's personal abilities? Above all, he was very personable. His bad ear and tongue for languages didn't seem to make much difference because he had a special look in his eyes, a look of empathy, and "an ability to try to communicate without words." Asians remembered, even after many years, that Lansdale never ordered people, he always "suggested, in the most disarmingly nice way." They said, with uncannily almost the same words that Cubans use about Fidel Castro or cult followers about cult leaders, that Lansdale would sit quietly and listen to you talk and then he would "sum up in his own words and with his own emphasis what had been said. Says one awed follower of his, "Suddenly you are getting a revelation. You think, `Oh, my God. Why didn't I think of this?'"

The X factor

Lansdale did not wear white gloves; he knew people were going to die in what he did, and he was satisfied to see the enemy die. He understood that Oriental insurgencies had their own rules of warfare and combat. "The rules are as different as the difference between Wars I and II," he said, typically. "Because so many of us haven't understood the rules, we have lost thousands upon thousands of square miles of real estate, millions of people have been brought under subjection by the enemy, and we have expended great material wealth in the struggle. The little guys, the rice paddy farmers, know far more than the policymakers. Theirs is the simplified wisdom of the victim."

Lansdale's early euphoric victory in the Philippines soon faded into increased frustration. Ultimately, in his later years, it turned to desperation. The beloved Magsaysay died in the horror of a small plane crash in 1957, thus thwarting his Filipino democracy before it could really take root. Meanwhile, Lansdale's voyage through the early American intelligence agencies is interesting reading here, but it is also frustrating reading, as the bureaucrats held tightly to power--and to outdated and unworkable ideas. We see an increasingly hopeless Lansdale sent to Vietnam in the late fifties, where he railed against our policies of support for the French and where he tried to create a new Magsaysay in the priestly and guileful mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem. John F. Kennedy often called upon Lansdale for personal advice, for Kennedy had at least some unformed ideas about "irregular warfare" or "low-intensity warfare" and all those fashionable phrases that Lansdale's wars came to be called. But when Lansdale warned desperately and correctly against the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy to his sorrow paid no heed. The rest of the "best and the brightest" were far worse. Once during the Vietnam years, Lansdale tried to tell Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that Vietnam could not be won as it was because of the "X" factor. What was that? McNamara asked with the customary disdain he showed in those days for anyone who suggested anything beyond his vaunted military hardware playthings. "The `X factor' represents the feelings of the Vietnamese people," Lansdale told him. "That is the vital element in a `people's war.'" McNamara only grimaced at this suggestion and asked him sarcastically how he could get a reading on people's feelings?

Lansdale was no angel. He took an important part in the CIA's "Operation Mongoose" to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He strangely went against his own most treasured rules in Vietnam, when he was trying desperately to build support for Diem, by bribing generals of the many sects in Vietnam to bring their men behind Diem. In his own book, he then lied about this, an unpalatable act that was later revealed in the Pentagon Papers. And yet he knew things and he represented ideas and possibilities that were so far beyond the rigid and stratified--and, as it turned out, tragically unsuccessful--military thinking of his time that he remains a lone and original operational giant of modern warfare and America's role in it.

As Lansdale moved toward his death in 1987, he tried to call America to the real world of irregular conflict by recalling Continental troops at Valley Forge, officers and men under American guerilla leaders like Marion or Greene. He talked of the motivation of modern insurgent troops, of the use of propaganda. When Richard Nixon, who respected Lansdale, asked him in 1984 for some of his brief thoughts about modern wars, Lansdale wrote that "conventional operations are more apt to widen the problem or to be more cosmetic than a cure." The people were the true battleground of war and "whoever wins them, wins the war."

Lansdale was not a systematic thinker, however, as his own book reveals. He brought no original body of thinking to life, he applied only old and hoary guerrilla concepts that one can easily find in history. That, of course, makes it all the more amazing, and aggravating, and ultimately tragic that American military "thinkers" have been so opaque about these modern wars that are indeed the World War III that they kept looking for in other places.

CIA chief William Colby, who was more open to the Lansdalian ideas, wondered once, "How do you deal with a maverick-artist in a large institutional bureaucracy? There aren't any easy answers. We need the large institutions. We need the discipline they have. We also need the geniuses. How do you patch them together?"

The tragedy for America is that we have not even now learned "how to patch them together." In the end, the sorrowful truth is that our military failed over and over and over in these new-style wars, and there is no assurance that they are past.
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Author:Geyer, Georgie Anne
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Previous Article:About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.
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