Today in AFJ History

August 31, 2013  

1982: Slugging it out in print

A UH-1 Huey makes a delivery in Vietnam. (Army)

From the archives: August 1982

(Editor’s note: In mid-1982, AFJ hosted a running debate about the combat effectiveness of past and future helicopters between Atlantic Monthly reporter Gregg Easterbrook and retired Lt. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard, who (after inspiring the retort “Nuts!” at the Battle of the Bulge) helped develop the airmobile concept and later commanded the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam. Here are the first few paragraphs of their articles, which ran to a thousand words apiece.)

Army Helicopters: The Debate Goes On

Easterbrook:

“Early on in his assault (AFJ, May 1982, p. 58) on my Washington Monthly article about Army helicopters, Lt. Gen. Harry Kinnaird excoriates me for shoddy research and lax attention to the facts. He also, in his second paragraph, spells my name wrong. So much for his factual standards.

“Much of Kinnaird’s article carries on in the same vein. He mentions, for example, that according to Pentagon statistics, helicopters flew 36,083,696 sorties in 13,477,430 hours in Vietnam and suffered only 4,643 losses — an extremely impressive loss rate of just one aircraft per 7,772 aircraft. Yet he neglects to mention other figures that appear in the very same statistical abstracts. For instance, over the course of the war, only 42% of helicopter sorties were combat-related. That means more than half of Vietnam helicopter flights took place behind our own lines; yet the general proceeds to contrast his claimed loss rate of one per 7,702 against such brutally intense combat missions as the World War II low-level daylight bombing raid at Ploesti.

“The claimed loss rate is suspicious in other ways. Dividing 36,083,696 by 13,477,430, we get an average sortie of just 22 minutes – strikingly short even by rotary wing standards. Isn’t this because, General, Vietnam helicopter sorties statistics were routinely inflated? …”

Kinnaird:

“If Gregg Easterbrook and I are to go on ‘meeting like this,’ we will need a sequential coding for our rebuttal like R1, R2, R3, etc. On that basis, here is my R3 to his R2 to my R1 (May AFJ) of his ‘All Aboard Air Oblivion.’

“Since my ‘factual standards’ are in jeopardy because the last g was admitted from his first name, I hasten to make this up to Greggg [sic] — but only on one condition: he must promise to learn the rudiments of Army organization. My command in Vietnam was not a company; it was the splendid 1st Air Cavalry Division. Numerically a division is about 100 times the size of a company, and errors of two orders of magnitude could cast a shadow on one’s credentials as a military critic.

“Having straightened out my spelling, Easterbrook turns to my arithmetic and tries ‘to do a number’ on my numbers. But his numerical hatchet job doesn’t come off, simply because his understanding of Army helicopter operations in general, and in Vietnam in particular, rivals his knowledge of army organizations.

“For openers, Easterbrook misinterprets the Vietnam data in stating that only 42% of the helicopter sorties were combat related and that over half the flights took place behind our own lines. In the first place, there really were no enemy lines per se in Vietnam. The enemy was nowhere and everywhere – and helicopters were shot at over such unlikely places as Saigon and Danang. The 42% (actually closer to 44%) does not refer to which flights were “combat related,” but instead reflects that percentage of total helicopter losses due to enemy ground-to-air fire, wherever the helicopter was flying…”

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