The Lavelle Syndrome

Sept. 1, 2010
“Vietnam-era General, Wronged by Nixon, Is Vindicated by Obama,” said the Aug. 4 Washington Post. That is the preferred narrative for the case of the late USAF Gen. John Lavelle, a man who, in 1972, was stripped of two stars and forcibly retired on what now is known to be a bogus charge of ordering rogue air attacks on North Vietnam.

It is a soothing version of reality: The honorable officer, Lavelle, is done dirty by the archetypal villain, Richard Nixon, but a decent leader, President Obama, ends the extraordinary injustice, exonerating Lavelle and restoring his lost stars.

The tale, however, is incomplete. Permit us to add two inconvenient facts to the story. First, Nixon was not the only guilty party. Second, the odious treatment of Lavelle was not unusual; it was just one variation of a fairly regular practice in Washington.

In July 1971, Lavelle took command of all air operations in Vietnam. By summer 1972, he had been cashiered. Congressional and DOD investigators concluded he had sent aircrews on unauthorized “preplanned protective reaction” strikes against Hanoi’s air defenses, contrary to declared presidential directives.

Recently discovered historical records, however, demonstrate conclusively that Lavelle only followed orders—orders that came from the Commander in Chief himself. To his disgrace, Nixon chose not to own up to this fact in public.

Nixon was not alone, however. In 2007, after this magazine published a story about Lavelle, we received a letter from Melvin R. Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense. Laird wrote, “I told him [Lavelle] 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.”

This is exactly what Lavelle, to the day he died, claimed he had done—followed rules of engagement handed down by Laird, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Creighton Abrams, US commander in Vietnam. Washington seemed most concerned with the political fallout of the case.

Lavelle and the Vietnam War both faded away. However, the trashing of Air Force leaders for essentially political purposes continued. The notorious Lavelle case from the 1970s has much in common with some more recent events. One glimpses a kind of Lavelle Syndrome at work.

• In March 1989, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney publicly attacked Gen. Larry Welch, USAF Chief of Staff, for alleged “freelancing” on Capitol Hill—that is, holding improper talks with lawmakers about ICBM basing options. This was a false charge. Gen. Colin Powell, in his autobiography, said, “His talks with the Congress had been OK’d by Cheney’s then-deputy, Will Taft, and Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor.” Cheney, said Powell, “seized an early opportunity to say, ‘I am not afraid of generals and admirals.’ “

• In September 1990, Cheney abruptly fired Gen. Michael Dugan, USAF Chief of Staff, for public remarks about US plans for war in Iraq. Cheney claimed Dugan “showed poor judgment” and talked of “things we never talk about.” Did Cheney really believe this? Dugan, a highly decorated pilot who flew 300 combat missions in Vietnam, had a keen sense of operational security, and President George H. W. Bush himself said he had no concern Dugan caused any increased danger to US troops. What really seemed to rankle Cheney was Dugan’s advocacy of airpower and alleged denigration of what the other services would contribute in the war.

• In April 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin disciplined three Air Force general officers and one senior civilian for their prior work on the C-17 program. Aspin acted on the basis of a DOD inspector general’s report that already had been thoroughly discredited. The most plausible explanation was that Aspin wished to appease C-17 critics in Congress.

• In July 1997, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen chose to override the judgment of the USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, and punish Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in which 19 airmen died. Schwalier was their commander. Cohen, alleging Schwalier “could and should have done more,” cancelled his previously approved promotion to major general, ending his career. It was not enough that Schwalier had taken 130 specific actions to improve security in the year before the attack, or that two USAF investigations found no fault with his actions. According to Schwalier’s commander, Army Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, “These guys went for a political decision and ruined a young general’s career.” It was one reason Fogleman decided to step down early from the Chief’s post.

• In June 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forced the resignations of both the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, and the Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley. His stated reason: their alleged failure to ensure control of nuclear weapons, spotlighted by the flight of a B-52 with nuclear weapons mistakenly on board. Many, including this magazine, are skeptical that these political executions were really about nukes. Wynne and Moseley were outspoken. They pushed for more F-22 fighters and other aircraft and clashed with DOD over control of short-range airlift and unmanned aerial vehicles. After sacking them, Gates began methodically to shut down important Air Force weapon programs.

It should surprise no one that US political leaders, even those in the Pentagon, can at times behave in truly oily and reptilian ways. What is striking, though, has been their virtual lack of concern about the effect of such actions, on the individual, the service, or the nation.

No one seemed to ask whether it was wise to fire or undermine an officer for the kinds of actions cited. Political considerations always seemed to trump.

In a statement issued after Obama’s recent action, Mary Jo Lavelle, the general’s widow, said, “Jack was a good man, a good husband, a good father, and a good officer. I wish he was alive to hear this news.”

If Jack Lavelle could magically come back among us, he would find that his case wasn’t so unique, and that he has been joined by lots of fine airmen. Unfortunately.