Justice Rejected

March 1, 2011

John Lavelle and Terryl Schwalier should have been vindicated by now.

Lavelle, the commander of 7th Air Force in Vietnam, was sent home and forced to retire with a double demotion to major general in 1972 for allegedly ordering unauthorized air strikes against North Vietnamese military targets. Lavelle insisted he had authorization for the air strikes, but died in 1979 with his reputation in shambles.

In 2007, newly declassified recordings proved President Nixon knew of and authorized Lavelle’s actions. Last August, President Obama nominated Lavelle for posthumous promotion to full general, his final rank in Vietnam. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pledged to act quickly on the nomination.

Lavelle’s supporters are still waiting.

In December, Levin and McCain announced the Senate Armed Services Committee would not vote on Lavelle’s nomination because they had too many unanswered questions. In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, they said declassified documents “contradict the conclusion” that Lavelle had authority to conduct so-called protective reaction strikes.

Many things from the Vietnam era are contradictions, but rather than use all of the available information and take a vote, the senators took the easy way out and kicked the nomination back to DOD.

Rules at the time prohibited US aircraft from hitting North Vietnamese targets unless engaged first, but Lavelle had been told repeatedly to more aggressively interpret the rules of engagement. He decided to consider the North’s always-on ground control intercept radars “enemy action,” allowing the US to attack. The absurd alternative was to repeatedly fly aircraft over targets and let the North Vietnamese shoot at them so the US could then strike back.

Lavelle ordered a few dozen protective reaction strikes against enemy targets and told his subordinates to always report enemy action. Lavelle considered the enemy GCI radar enemy action, but did not clearly communicate this to his subordinates.

Paperwork regulations led some subordinates to overzealously fabricate attacks against them. Still, there is “no evidence Lavelle caused, either directly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence,” DOD announced last August. “Once he learned of the reports, Lavelle took action to ensure the practice was discontinued.”

Levin and McCain may be looking for clarity, but Vietnam rarely offered it. The rules of engagement constantly changed, cover stories obscured the truth, top officials’ public and private statements were frequently different, and outright lies were common.

Numerous White House tapes show Nixon was aware of and even authorized the strikes. “You don’t have to wait till they fire before you fire back,” Nixon said at one point. “Remember, I told [Defense Secretary Melvin] Laird that. And I meant it. Now Lavelle apparently knew that.”

Laird wrote Air Force Magazine in 2007 to say, “In my meetings with Gen. John Lavelle I told him that my order on ‘protective reaction’ should be viewed liberally. … The new orders permitted hitting anti-aircraft installations and other dangerous targets if spotted on their missions, whether they were activated or not.”

Lavelle never denied the strikes or the orders he gave to protect his aircrews.

Like Lavelle, Schwalier’s case ran into roadblocks. Schwalier was the man in charge in 1996 when terrorists used a massive truck bomb to attack Khobar Towers, a US military housing complex in Saudi Arabia. The attack killed 19 airmen and injured 240. Newly installed Defense Secretary William Cohen made Brigadier General Schwalier the scapegoat for the attack by overturning a previously approved promotion, besmirching his name and effectively ending his career.

Schwalier twice appealed the decision, and was twice supported by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records—once on technical grounds and once to correct an “injustice.” By law, the board’s decisions should be final, so the matter seemed settled: Schwalier would get his second star and would no longer be blamed for the deaths of airmen killed by terrorists.

Nothing was settled. Schwalier still awaits redemption, because both the 2004 and 2007 Air Force decisions to promote him in retirement were overturned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Schwalier is now suing to get his honor back, and has asked a US District Court to reinstate the should-have-been-final Air Force decisions restoring his rank.

Several Khobar Towers investigations found no American at fault because the real problem was faulty intelligence. But in 1996, America did not yet appreciate the danger of international terrorism, so a lynch mob mentality seized much of Washington after the attack.

Someone had to be responsible, the mob brayed, so Cohen settled on Schwalier. Even though he had put 130 security improvements in place during his year in the desert, Schwalier should have done more to protect his troops, Cohen said.

The subsequent years made clear terror attacks are not security lapses but acts of war. Terrorists bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and attacked the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000. Like Schwalier, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, Cole’s commander, was later denied promotion.

Most people’s perceptions of terrorism changed for good after the 9/11 hijackings, but both Lavelle and Schwalier continue to be judged by the absurd standards of earlier eras. In Vietnam, appearances were often treated as more important than airmen’s lives. In 1996, Americans did not appreciate the terror threat or fully accept the fact that terrorists are the ones to blame for the people they kill.

The Senate and the US District Court for the District of Columbia, respectively, should act now to clear the names of Lavelle and Schwalier. These sordid affairs have gone on far too long.