The Afghans Want To Solve Their Problems The Old Fashioned Way

Panjwayi Tim sent an article the other day worthy of serious consideration at the State Department if it were capable of serious consideration. It outlines a way forward in Afghanistan that has the following advantages:

  1. It would work
  2. It would reduce the amount of future fighting and dying to near zero
  3. It costs the United States nothing
  4. It would allow us to bring all our deployed units home
  5. It would not benefit Iran or Pakistan

Because quantity has a quality all it’s own lets take a look at another plan for ending the fighting in Afghanistan and bringing our forces back home where they belong. I know I’ve posted a ton on this topic before but what the hell; I’ve got nothing better to do.

The article was an interview with former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan and he states an obvious truth; even centuries of foreign presence cannot fix Afghanistan.

“The Americans should leave,” Khan said. “There can only be peace and security in Afghanistan if there is a just government in place that is backed by the majority of the people and is chosen through elections or a loya jirga (national council). It cannot be reliant on a foreign military.”

…He said foreign forces, which he described as “girls,” had failed in their fight against the Taliban.

I have written before about how the Afghan war will end and that will be when the people present a united front against the current belligerents. Historically this has been done when a militia or groupings of militia’s gain the peoples support. That is how the Taliban took control of most of the country back in the 90’s.

Ismail Khan is the one mujaheddin commander still standing who could build a coalition of Muj commanders, force an “understanding” on the Taliban, and win the support of the population. He is ready to re-mobilize his militia if given a green light from Kabul and if he can get the majority of his fellow mujaheddin commanders to do the same there is no question it would work.

Ismail Khan fought the Soviets, fought the Taliban, fought General Dostum who fought for and against both the Soviets and the Taliban and has never had allegations of human rights abuse directed at him. He is a Tajik and the former governor of Herat province who is highly regarded in Western Afghanistan, an area from which 90% of Afghanistan’s saffron crop originates. Saffron makes farmers a ton more money than opium which is why I mention it. He would need to incorporate the current Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)  and central government into the effort but that is not a hard job for prominent warlords; they have thousands of years tradition and a lifetime of experience on their side.

If the Afghans could figure out a way to link his militia to the Afghan Army and use them as auxiliaries they could probably clean up the Helmand province in a few months. Not because Ismail Khan’s militia is proficient but because Ismail Khan knows how to use the ulema (the body of Mullahs who are the interpreters of Islam’s doctrines and laws and the chief guarantors of continuity in Afghan communities) to reach the people. He carries series weight with the Afghan people and the people and the ulema are the only entities that can force peace in Afghanistan. In the context of ending the current war with the Taliban the Afghan military and central government are irrelevant.

Ismail Khan; tanned, rested, fit and waiting. (Photo from Khama.com)

The Marines in Helmand are winding down their tour and are a bright spot of good news for our military efforts in Afghanistan. Good news because they have taken no casualties while accomplishing the mission they were assigned. The LA Times ran a good story on them last Saturday; an incident described in that article is a perfect example with which to compare and contrast what would work against what is not going to work.

From the LA Times story linked above:

One recent morning, two convoys of Afghan security forces traveling south toward Lashkar Gah came under fire from a house inside the village of Malgir. Inside a windowless, high-ceilinged room at an operations center near Shorab, Marines, Afghan officers, and American civilian contractors watched footage from a U.S.-made ScanEagle drone hovering above the village.

Once Afghan troops in the area determined the shooters’ location and that there were no civilians nearby, officers in the control room requested airstrikes, which were carried out by U.S. Apache helicopters. One of the shooters was killed, two were wounded and two escaped, said Afghan army Maj. Abdul Wakil.

All that technology, all those assets, all those people deployed at lord knows what cost to kill one guy shooting small arms at a convoy? You get that with our efforts in Afghanistan and it’s old news; let’s focus on the village and read between the lines of the story.

Malgir, the village where the Marines directed an air strike with army Apaches, is in Nad Ali district near Gereshk. The area around Malgir belongs mostly to the Barakai tribe (who for the most part are pro government) with significant areas of Ishaqzai/Poplazai  (who are mostly pro Taliban) tribal dominance . There is a concentration of Shia Hazara peoples in the southern end of the district who seemed to be on the short end of the stick regardless who controls the area.

In 2009 the British launched an operation aimed at Malgir to clear out Taliban. The Taliban ‘moved in’ after the collapse of the Barakzai militia who had been running the place until 2008 when they stopped getting paid. The Barakzai had over-taxed non Barakzai locals in the area which probably had something to do with their getting their stipend from the provincial authorities cut off. There were three prominent Muj warlords in the area at that time, Haji Kadus (Barakzai/Shamezai tribe), Qari Hazrat (Ishaqzai tribe and local Taliban commander) and former provincial governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzdza (Alizai from Northern Helmand and at that time a Taliban commander).

Haji Kadus was a favorite of the American Special Forces having dime’d out all his local rivals as ‘Taliban’ (most weren’t)  which had landed them in Gitmo. When the British started planning their operation Haji Kadus divided up Malgar with Qari Hazrat allowing him to protect his communities. As the operation unfolded the British made Haji Kadus a Major in the Afghan police and then maneuvered into the village of Haji Gul Ehkitar Kalay.

The British decided to establish a patrol base in the house of Haji Gul Ehkitar (the village was named after him) and negotiated a fair rent which was paid to Haji Gul’s nephew Sur Gul, who happened to be a Taliban commander. The only Taliban mahaz commander to fight the British was Sher Muhamad’s who had been cut out of the pre-invasion deal making. Haji Gul’s Taliban did not fight but he, reportedly, used the British Army rent money to buy IED’s which he turned against his renters. Haji Kadus, who knew what Haji Gul was up to, said nothing to the Brits. When the foreigners went home Haji Kadus was not going with them so he had to make accommodations that made sense in the long game. A smart Indian doesn’t crap in his own tepee.

This is all very complicated right? But here’s the point; Muj commanders like Ismal Khan know this history and know how to put minor Muj commanders on a short leash without much (if any fighting). Know who else knows this entire inter-tribal history inside and out? BGen Roger Turner, the commanding officer of TF Southwest. The British learned from their mistakes and developed a detailed order of battle with comprehensive dossiers on every player inside their former AOA (area of operations). They spent the time and money to fly to North Carolina to bring Roger Turner and his staff up to speed.

Here’s the point. The intricate knowledge of tribal dynamics is not knowledge Gen Turner and his Marines can act on in the context of their current mission.  It is good that they know how things got to be the way they are but that hard won knowledge is meaningless to the Marines now. They are locked down on the bases focused on improving the performance of Afghan Security Forces.

Ismail Khan, on the other hand, can use this knowledge to sort out recalcitrant Muj commanders quickly. He can generate change to the local tribal dynamics in a manner that the change sticks. He would probably be able to do so without any serious fighting. If he had to fight he would incorporate local tribal fighters because that’s the way Afghans fight. Those tribes on his side would be rewarded, those against him punished, in both cases this would involved acquiring or losing land. Nothing else matters in the Helmand; land ownership and water rights are the only game that matters.

Boost airfield where the Marines working with the Afghan Police are based. There were very few houses around the airfield in 2011 when I was last there. Now there are hundreds of houses built outside the wire of the airfield. These are a problem as they can be used to shield an attacking force massing to overrun the airfield. They also impeded our ability to use supporting arms against attacking infantry given the number of civilians who would be caught in the cross fire. Another good reason to get out now why the getting is good.

Getting the Department of State to understand that offers like the one made by Ismail Khan should be taken seriously is impossible.  As Upton Sinclair famously said “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. State Department mandarins are not salary motivated but they are power motivated and giving up power is anathema to them. That is a crying shame; we’re running out of time and are already out of money for further adventures in Afghanistan. We should be giving Ismail Khan a shot a solving the Afghan problem we created. It will cost us little and is the only route to peace available now.

Saving Afghanistan

Something interesting popped up on the cover of Politico this week concerning Afghanistan. The Man who Thought He Could Fix Afghanistan is about  Scott Guggenheim, the most influential development expert that you’ve never heard of.  Apparently Mr. Guggenheim is famous for “pioneering the kind of bottom-up approach that rejects the older, headquarters-oriented style of proffering aid” in Indonesia.

Mr. Guggenheim has a solid track record in the humanitarian aid community. He has the proper credentials  (PhD from John Hopkins), has spent his professional life working for the World Bank and most importantly he has a unique relationship with Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani who he has known since 1981 when both were if grad school. Mr. Guggenheim seems to be a decent, smart, motivated guy and if there is a chance that America can help get Afghanistan develop into a functional state  he would be the linchpin of our effort. From the article:

He has been called “the brain of Dr. Ghani,” but in interviews in the months after the election, he was at constant pains to deflect attention. His business card contains just his name and a Gmail address. This is deliberate. “Ashraf likes having someone who has no political or economic ambition,” Guggenheim told me. He sees his role not as a consigliere but as a kind of a fixer for Ghani, the executor to the president’s blue-skied vision. “Ashraf has a pretty clear agenda. I always thought my job was to help him realize it,” Guggenheim said.

My buddy Boris and I have a lot of experience at implementing bottom up aid and were chatting about the article over the weekend. Here’s his take on Guggenheim:

“…he represents the actual US government-its informal wing. Like there’s a military and paramilitary institutions, there are parts of the government which are technically not governmental. Pure power, no responsibility, but also no clear decision-making authority or processes-rule by committee. In other words, cancer.”

The cancer is in our foreign policy establishment which has proved to be unable to generate positive change in our rapidly changing world. They have no answers for what is plaguing Afghanistan so empowering experts like Mr. Guggenheim is their best option. But it is not going to work because trying to nudge the Afghan President to be more democratic and less authoritarian is not the answer.

Further along in the article our current answer to Afghanistan was presented when ” In the absence of civilian leadership, the generals stepped in.” Again from article:

“McMaster was also good at calling out whoppers. “Our side would try some standard bullshit on how we have great plans to fix everything,” Guggenheim said, “and McMaster would say, ‘I heard all this in 2012. Tell me what’s new.’”

The bluntness of General McMaster is appealing. The current strategy of maintaining a military life line to the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) until they can stand on their own is a reasonable play. But it too is not going to work because of this: sixteen years of fighting in Afghanistan and we are still bombing wedding parties and killing innocents. Last month we dropped more ordnance than we have since 2012 yet the casualties sustained by ANSF  are up by 52%. And that’s not counting the Afghan police we killed in our latest drone attack.

Why would our military shoot a Hellfire missile at a few guys shooting their AK’s off into the air? That’s a rhetorical question, there is no logical answer to that kind of stupid. The guys shooting off their AK’s could have been Taliban instead of off duty Afghan police and it would still be a stupid move coupled to an egregious waste of money.

This is why the only rational course of action was the contractor modeled championed by Eric Prince and poo poohed by all the elites in DC and the media. Contractors don’t shoot Hellfire missiles at random gunmen who are shooting their rifles in the air. Contractors, under the Prince model, would have been working for and at the direction of the ANSF; improving combat performance while realizing billions in savings. Contractors would  not have spent 500 million dollars on planes that could not fly in Afghanistan and were sold for scrap at 6 cents a pound.

And contractors who know how to operate in Afghanistan (meaning they’re armed) and stayed long enough to develop strong relationships (because they were armed) can do bottom up reconstruction work without losing money to bribes or dodgy subcontractors (because they’re armed and thus taken seriously by all the players). Boris and I know this because, being plank owners in Ghost Team, we did it, for years, without drama (because we were armed).

USAID hated us being armed but tolerated it because we delivered. The Karzai government hated us being armed because it allowed us to be successful thus depriving them of another chance to siphon off aid money into their Dubai bank accounts. The provincial governors loved us being armed because it enabled up to travel to every job site and keep people honest while ensuring projects were on track and on spec. The local people loved it too because nothing brought more calm to turbulent lands than a couple (or just one) armed westerner showing up with the monthly pay roll. If you are working in a warrior society it is most helpful that you too are a warrior. Afghans respect men who take responsibility for their own protection and don’t pay other Afghans, from outside the local area, to do it for them.

As we scan the news of the day we can see the Internet has collapsed the Narrative and laid bare the corruption of Hollywood, politics and the media. This is causing the long-term loss of the progressive elites authority when it comes to lecturing the rest of us from a pretended position of moral superiority. Change is in the air but will not happen fast enough to help the people of Afghanistan. Men like Scott Guggenheim, who has his picture on posters scattered around Kabul with the caption  Ghani ba ehsara-e en shakhs meraqsad: (Ghani dances on the order of this man); are not the answer.

The answer for playing the Great Game in a region full of cut throats involves being a cut throat. Advocating for an independent Pashtun home land and one for the Baluch while staying on to keep an eye on China would be a great example and one Michael Yon just wrote about. That kind of thinking would place American interests first and I know that’s a great idea because John McCain was in Annapolis yesterday lecturing the midshipmen of the folly of putting America first.

Mr. Guggenheim needs to come home and stay home or he will be killed by the players in Kabul who are jockeying for attention from the President. America needs to listen intently to the words of Senator McCain and do the exact opposite of whatever ridiculous prescription he’s selling at the moment.  The man is an idiot as seen by the “plan” he came up with for Afghanistan a few months back. Afghanistan needs to hang tough until they get a leader strong enough to force his will on the various factions that comprise Afghan leadership while understanding a strong central government operating out of Kabul is never going to happen.

For now all we can do is wait, hope that enhanced training and access to American combat enablers keeps the ANSF in the fight and pray that somehow we have learned enough to never repeat the mistakes we made in Afghanistan. Given the recent drone attack that may be expecting too much…but a man can pray.

G-Men

One of the distinct pleasures of football free Sundays is reading  good books. I just finished another classic from Stephen Hunter about Bobby Lee Swaggart’s grandfather and the FBI which is apropos as the FBI is currently the subject of many different story lines in the 24 hour news cycle. There is the inconvenient story about our Russian obsessed media, unable to push the fake Russia collusion narrative, trying to provide cover to the democrats Fusion GPS opposition research firm. That would be the firm the FBI paid to get a fabricated dossier written by an alleged Brit spook. That would also be the firm who had several high ranking members exercising their 5th amendment rights in front of congress.

Then we have what is now termed the Uranium 1 scandal where the FBI spent years investigating –

“Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business.

But that’s just the beginning. Based on both an eyewitness account and documents, The Hill report goes on to say that federal agents found evidence “indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow.”

Isn’t that called bribery?

Who supervised this Russia investigation? Rod Rosenstein. Who was the FBI director when the Russia probe began in 2009? Robert Mueller. Who was running the FBI when the case ended with a whimper and an apparent cover-up? James Comey. And now these same guys are at the center of an effort to dig up dirt on President Trump? In what parallel universe does that pass the smell test? 

I have little faith that justice will be served in the cases above because I have little faith that the rule of law applies to all citizens evenly. For example; Comey, while reading an indictment that would have seen me locked away for the rest of my life, then pulled the “but there was no intent” lie right out of his behind to clear Hillary Clinton. When he did that the fact that there are two sets of laws, one for the little people and one for connected elites was confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt.

What has me a little mystified is the FBI joining the investigation into the deaths of four SF soldiers in Niger.  I understand that the FBI does, on occasion, handle investigations into the deaths of Americans overseas. I’m not sure why given the constraints of FBI overseas operations.

My suspicions are based in experiences like one I had in Kabul back in 2009. I saw one of my former students from the Marine Corps infantry officer course during a trip to the American embassy and we had lunch the next day to do a little catching up. He was now an FBI agent working our of Southern California and was TDY (temporary duty) to the American Embassy for a 90 day stint. I asked him what he hoped to accomplish in 90 days and he replied that’s the way it was for the FBI adding that his wife would kill him if he stayed longer. He then asked if I could help recover the body of an American citizen who had been kidnapped and then killed by the Taliban in 2008. I told him the best way to accomplish this was to check into the City Hotel in Kandahar, have his contacts and my contacts offer a reward for the body, no questions asked, and we would have the remains of Cyd Mizell in under a month. The catch being we would need a way to confirm it was her quickly as we would probably be receiving dozens of bodies.

“We can’t check into a civilian hotel in downtown Kandahar” was his response. I told him that was too bad as they had the best chicken shawarma in Afghanistan. And then told him he could pay me an I’d sort it out for them. “We can’t pay you to do it….we’re supposed to do it”.  I wasn’t surprised. I remarked it was too bad Cyd Mizell didn’t come from a family with connections or I’d be down in Kandahar making sure her remains came home.

This story highlights the fact that the FBI cannot contribute to an investigation into the ambush of military members. Due to their conservative (to be polite) force protection posture they will not be allowed into the bush to see where this ambush went down. With their limited time on station (coupled with restricted movement outside the embassy security bubble) they will not develop the relationships or sources required to contribute to an inter-agency investigation.

I no longer trust the FBI to be an impartial arbitrator of legal vs illegal activity. The FBI is now a political operation with an agenda focused on protecting its senior members from the consequences of attempting to protect a criminal political class. It’s a shame; I have known and interacted with many FBI agents during my time in the Marine Corps and they were, to a man, dedicated, hard working professionals. But a fish rots from the head and there is clearly too much rot at work in the FBI.

The current level of interest in what happened to the SF team in Niger is as interesting as it is repugnant. The press and members of our ruling class are using it to score political points. The circumstances they are harping on are revealing. The SF team was traveling in unarmored trucks, they were outside the envelope of American supporting arms and tac air, they were recovered by contractors, nobody thought the mission important enough to brief John McCain who has become the most unpopular vet serving in the senate these days. That’s saying something given the stolen valor bragging of another vet senator, Richard Blumenthal, who fraudulently claimed service in Vietnam.

The one thing of which I am certain is that the Sahel region, which is the  biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south, has a serious Jihadi problem. This is another perfect set up for the use of contact military outfits (PMC’s) because they can spend years, not months in the area, they are orders of magnitude less expensive then American military and would prove much more effective for those reasons. There is a currently a huge increase in contractors being used in Afghanistan but there are not PMC contractors, they are contractors holding American security clearances and are assigned to every geographical command for use as targeting specialists, counter intelligence, training and maintenance and aviation support. The military cannot function without them but they are embedded inside the military support bubble and thus do not bring the cost saving found in PMC contracts.

There is no reason why the same companies supplying this manpower could not also supply mobile training teams that deploy into harms way. It’s cost effective and makes sense plus when these teams inevitably take some casualties they do not become political footballs to be kicked around by morons (like Frederica Wilson) who grandstand on the bodies of servicemen to garner political points and media attention.

At some point in the near future the PMC solution will be implemented because the Pentagon is currently broken. The navy can’t drive its ships, the Marine Corps can’t fly its aging air fleet, the Air Force is forcing  retired pilots back onto active duty because it cannot keep enough pilots on active duty and the army is lowering it’s recruiting standards. Combat readiness is at historic lows but mandated training on sexual harassment, women in the infantry, acceptance of trans-gendered service members, suicide awareness, homosexual integration, alcohol and tobacco use….all the important stuff is 100% across the board.

It is almost funny that Secretary Mattis has asked congress to not send anymore Pentagon reorganization requirements to the Pentagon until the Pentagon has had the chance to reorganize the old reorganization requirements. Isn’t that something? Here we have the congress reorganizing the unreorganized Pentagon but they can’t do anything about health care or tax reform. It would be refreshing to see congress start leveling reorganization requirements on the FBI given it’s disturbingly partisan efforts concerning Russia and connected democrats.

Heroes: The Legacy of The Vietnam War Series

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet not withstanding, go out and meet it.

THUCYDIDES

Jeff Shaara uses this quote at the beginning of his trilogy on WW II, The Raising Tide, setting the tone for his examination of the men who fought that war. It obviously applies to men like Karl Marlantes who fought like a lion in Vietnam despite being against the war. It includes men like Tim O’Brien who harbors a life long regret for not having the intestinal fortitude to escape to Canada, choosing by default  to fulfill draft obligation by being a grunt in Vietnam.

The Marine Corps Combined Action Platoon program was one of the many facets of the Vietnam War ignored by PBS

The quote above does not describe every man who served in Vietnam. In that conflict, as in every conflict, there is a percentage of participants who game the system to avoid or reduce exposure to risk. John Kerry is the most famous example of this type of participant from that war. Combat veterans from  every prior and subsequent conflict know the type well. Not everyone has what it takes to do what is asked of them in combat; that’s not a sin, it just is, but there remains a subset in every military organization who will go to great lengths to hide the fact they were not up to the task.

The men who demonstrated by their deeds the spirit of the Thucydides quote are special. They embody the classic hero narrative, which can be found in stories from every civilization throughout history. Entering the world of Mars is terrifying, those who do so with resolution, those who can function and even excel in that world are not only special but a requirement for any civilization to survive and prosper.

What I remember most from the days of Vietnam was the creation of an anti hero narrative that stigmatized the Vietnam Vet. It is clear that the Vietnam Vets who were featured in the series had been selected because their views of the war were aligned with the narrative Burns wanted to tell. No Vet who was unapologetic about the war or thought his time there well spent was included. The only exception was General Merrill McPeak who was a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots always get a bye in the media and Hollywood because the job is so inherently cool.

Medal of Honor winner Melvin Morris

What about  the career officers;  the men who went on to build a broken American military into the most functional, politically popular segment of the federal government? Where were the Tony Zinni’s, Frank Libutti’s, or Colin Powell’s?

How about enlisted men who did their time willingly and then came home to build impressive careers despite the scorn from their fellow citizens and with little to no help from the Veterans Administration? My friend and Radio Hall of Fame inductee Jim Lago is one of thousands of men who came home, had a turbulent reentry, self corrected (with the help of other Vets) and built a wonderful career as a radio DJ. Authors  Michael Archer. and John Del Vichhio are two more ground pounders who came home, mastered the hard work of novel writing, and wrote popular counter narratives about the men who fought in Nam.

The common denominator for the Vets named above is they are unapologetic about their service in Vietnam, they’ve built successful lives without any remorse for their time served. They represent the anti-narrative and I believe also represent the bulk of Vietnam combat vets. I’m not the only writer with this view.

1st Sgt (ret) Melvin Morris today

The coolest story about Vietnam I’ve heard over the past two weeks came from Michael Archer during another great All Marine Radio interview . Compare this story with what you heard over the 18 hour slog that was The Vietnam War and you tell me this wouldn’t have made for riveting television.

Michael Archer lost his best friend from high school, Corporal Thomas Patrick Mahoney III, on a patrol outside Khe Sanh and wrote a book about his search to find out what happened to him and recover his remains. Mike was in Khe Sanh for the duration of the siege of that fire base. He was a communicator by training and was at Khe Sanh village with an SF detachment on day-one of the battle. Having gone back to Vietnam to conduct research in the NVA historical archives (which he describes as being incredibly thorough) he discovered the reason he survived the massive attack on the small SF base at Khe Sanh village. The NVA regiment assigned to attack the outpost (well outside the wire of the Marine base) got lost the night before. The sappers supporting that regiment also got lost and never showed. The NVA arrived after sun up (not at 0200 as scheduled) and decided to attack anyway but were decimated by artillery and tac air.

But that’s not the cool story – his determination to find the remains of his best friend and bring them home was. In the course of his investigation into what happened to Tom Mahoney he actually met and interviewed the man who shot him. They correspond to this day. Mike also discovered in the NVA documents concerning the Khe Sanh operation that up until the last day of the siege the NVA was absolutely committed to taking the base just as they did at Dien Bien Phu.

The narrative in the Burns series was wrong on that point  just as John Del Vicchio contends in this excellent post on the PBS production. But that’s a minor point; here’s a major one. Could you imagine and interview with Mike and then another with the NVA officer who killed his best friend? How cool would that have been if only Burns was interested in the best stories available and not just the ones backing the narrative he wanted to tell.

John Del Vechhio in Vietnam

When John Del Vecchio published the novel The 13th Valley he received hundreds of letters from army and Marine grunts who told him that what he described in his book was their unit in Vietnam. That their experience was one of competent leaders, proficient NCO’s, hard fights where they prevailed. The popular narrative of the war never reflected that fact. Hollywood fed the public a concocted false narrative that was the foundation of movies like Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter,  Coming Home and Platoon.

John Del Vechhio today

Hollywood tried to pull that same trick with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan producing PC driven garbage that, unlike the films above, failed dismally at the box office.  The only movies that were hits were pro military, American Sniper (which I understand was an accurate portrayal) and Lone Survivor (which was not accurate; Ahmad Shaw was a low level punk with 6 guys not 100’s and the SEAL’s didn’t kill any of them in the mountains of Kunar that day).

Another curious phenomena that speaks volumes about Vietnam Vets is there are only 3 million of them yet 3 times that number claim to have served in the war. The number of frauds who leveraged bogus claims of daring-do to get media coverage, political office, sympathy from women or federal benefits was revealed by B. G. Burkett in his book Stolen Valor. Mr. Burkett had to self publish his book because nobody in the big media/infotainment complex wanted to hear what he had to say.

Sitting in with Jim Lago on KKTX 1360

The Vietnam War was an impressive series despite leaving out the large cohort of the Vietnam Vet community who did not fit into the liberal progressive narrative of that war.  The biggest unintended consequence of this project have been the change in perception in today’s military men of their Vietnam era forefathers. Mac has talked about this repeatedly on All Marine Radio. I have picked up some Vietnam Vet followers recently too and I want to highlight a point I hope they appreciate.

The men (and women) who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq sucked up rocket attacks, mortars, booby traps (we called them IED’s)  and both near and far ambushes. They know what it’s like to have rockets slam into their perimeter, they know the feeling of helplessness when mortars start to drop in around them. What they do not know and could never imagine (until now) is how that would feel if the impacts numbered in the hundreds and went on for weeks on end. If you were hit by three rockets in one volley in Iraq that was an unusually heavy attack. Mortar attacks in Afghanistan might involve four rounds but normally were just one or two.

None of us could imagine parking our asses on a firebase inside the range fan of enemy artillery and getting shelled for months on end. On 25 September 1967, 1,190 mortar rounds, artillery shells, and 122mm rockets fell inside the wire of Con Tien. That is unimaginable to the modern soldier or Marine. It makes the indirect fire we faced overseas seem like a cake walk. We are not worthy when it comes to bitching about indirect fire.

Judging from the emails that have poured into All Marine Radio, the emails I receive and comments I’ve read in various critiques of the series; Ken Burns has made the Vietnam Vets into legends in the eyes of today’s American military.

Vietnam Vet’s never got the welcome home they deserved; there were no parades, no celebrations there was only shame.  The only welcome came from protesters milling outside the gates of military airfields to spit at and insult Vets and their families who were driving them home after their 12 or 13 month tour.  There is now a segment of America who will never look at them the same way again. The segment that is fighting overseas today, the segment that has served combat tours for the last 16 years. The segment which has a few tough fights under its belt but now know that what they did wasn’t squat compared to their Vietnam predecessors.

That is not a large cohort of the American people but it is (I suspect) the one cohort that matters to Vietnam Vets. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future. Like Mac, when I think about the amount of serious fighting Vietnam Vets did with such primitive fire support, communication and weapon systems I’m amazed. When you add the individual replacement system, the fact these men didn’t train together or know each other; that they lacked cohesion or trust in their chain of command (which are built in pre-deployment training) their performance is beyond amazing. These men should have been legends all along; and now, thanks to Ken Burns, they have become legends to the men and woman who understand just how remarkable they were.

What Are We Fighting For?

Don’t ask me  I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.

I loved that song when I was a kid. I didn’t agree with the sentiment but it was easy to sing, simple to remember, witty and had a fun beat to it. It expressed the dominant narrative of young Americans from the Woodstock generation. They continued to feel strongly about the war and the draft until there was no draft. Once the risk of interrupting and then risking their lives by being drafted into the Armed Forces was removed they started feeling strongly about other things.

As The Vietnam War series continues we’ve been offered several examples of why the men who fought there served. Karl Marlantes interrupted his Rhodes scholarship work to resolutely serve as a Marine rifle platoon commander. He had strong reservations about the war but they did not trump the obligation he felt he incurred when he accepted a ROTC scholarship and attended Marine OCS. His combat record was exceptional and he showed no regret about his decision despite being haunted about killing an NVA soldier at close range during a fierce battle when his blood lust was up.

Karl has made several appearances with Mac on All Marine Radio. He tells a story about bonding with his platoon which is too good not to share. Shortly after his arrival he had demonstrated the tactical savvy and leadership Marines in combat appreciate. He knew this when he and his Marines were cleaning their weapons shortly after he had took over his platoon. One of his squad leaders walked up to him and asked; “Sir is it true that you went to Yale and are a Rhodes Scholar”?  Karl admitted that was true. The Marine replied “and now your here? Sir you have to be the dumbest fucking Rhodes Scholar there ever was”.

Karl laughed, his men laughed; Karl sheepishly admitted you could make that case. He knew at that time he had just been accepted as their leader, the one who would now make the decisions on which their lives would depend. That had to feel good. Considering Karl’s feelings about the war that achievement was beyond impressive.

We also heard from Tim O’Brien, a draftee who served as an army infantryman and is the author of the excellent Vietnam book The Things They Carried.   Tim also was against the war and also carries significant guilt; not about what he did in Vietnam but for not having the intestinal fortitude to go AWOL and escape to Canada. I don’t understand that sentiment but respect the man for having the courage to admit it.

When talking about Canada Burns mentions in passing that over 5000 Canadians joined the American armed forces to fight in Vietnam. My first 1st Sergeant in Charlie 1/9 was one of them. 1st Sgt Daily had his own office between the company commanders office and the platoon commanders bull pen – a large office area where each lieutenant had a desk and access to a shared typewriter. There was a hole in the wall next to the 1st Sgt’s desk with a piece of wood which he could slide back and forth. When the wood slide open and the words “Mr. Lynch, a word with you sir” boomed out from the 1st Sgt’s office I knew the fitness reports or other reports I had just submitted had been found lacking. The ensuing corrective lecture was going to be brutal; the smart lieutenant kept his mouth shut and took it like a man.

I once asked 1st Sgt Daily why he left Canada to serve in the Vietnam war. We were in the field and the 1st Sgt had things to do so his answer was terse. “There was a shooting war going on lieutenant where would you want to be”? I didn’t press him on the point knowing that I would get a 15 minute lecture on the deficiencies of young infantry officers who waste the valuable time of their company 1st Sgt when they should be attending to more important duties. When the 1st Sgt wanted to sit around and BS (which he did often) it was best to wait for him to come to you.

I never questioned his motivation; I felt the same way as did all my peers. Iraq wasn’t that different from Vietnam in the sense that the military was committed  for spurious reasons while ham strung by constraints imposed for political expediency. It would appear we learned nothing from the Vietnam experience, Rumsfeld was no different then McNamara, the Joint Chiefs were again sidelined in the decision making and rolled over just like their Vietnam era predecessors. Yet when Mac and I were discussing this on his show one day my response was “there was a shooting war going on Mac, where would you want to be’?

There are no longer antiwar protests of note which I attribute to there no longer being a draft. That fact puts the antiwar protesters in a less favorable light than the Burns documentary portrays but (as the grunts in Vietnam would say) there it is. We have an all volunteer force (actually a professionally recruited force), only around 0.4 percent of the citizens serve in the military. That may account for the lack of protests. Not many Americans have skin in the war game anymore so what is there to protest about?

Many of the officers I know didn’t agree with the reasons, force levels or tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan yet none of them had a problem joining the fight. Why?

I’ve been thinking about this for several days and found a partial explanation while reading the latest post from John Del Vecchio concerning the Burns documentary. Check this out:

Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

John was writing about the photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan I discussed in my prior post. Now consider these three iconic photographs from three different wars:

World War II  (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Vietnam War Photo by (AP Photo Eddie Adams)
Iraq Conflict (photo by Michael Yon)

The Rosenthal photograph was controversial when it was published. Many thought it had been staged propaganda knowing it to be the second flag raised that day.  Had it not been for Sergeant Bill Genaust, a Marine combat photographer who was standing next to Joe Rosenthal (and who was killed during the subsequent fighting) recording the flag raising with a 16mm movie camera the most iconic picture of WW II may not have withstood the scrutiny it first received. But it did and it spoke to all who saw it by capturing the courage and tenacity of the American fighting man in WW II.

The photograph from Vietnam also spoke to all who saw it but it did not speak the truth. I blogged about the full back story here as John Del Vecchio does here. As brutal as that image is it was a legal act under Vietnamese law and the law of land warfare. Read the two linked posts to find out why.

The third photograph was not controversial. Unlike the other two it did not win the photographer, Michael Yon, a Pulitzer. Michael is a blogger, not part of the establishment media so despite shooting the iconic photograph of the Iraq conflict he received no love from the Pulitzer Prize committee.  Yet the photograph is every bit as powerful as those above it. It encapsulated our efforts in Iraq perfectly in the form of an army infantry officer comforting a little girl who had been hit by an insurgent IED. Efforts to save the child were futile just as our efforts to save the Iraqi people from each other proved to be.

When you study the three photographs above you can’t help but conclude the Vietnam Vets got a raw deal because their iconic photograph told a story that was not true. Fate is fickle, it is not fair, it is just there and sometimes deals a rotten hand. The Vietnam Vets were dealt a dead hand when fate put Eddie Adams in Saigon during the 68 Tet Offensive.

The Vietnam War series has dumped a metric ton of information, interviews, data and supposition into a giant pile for the viewer to sort through. There are no answers, there are no lessons, there is a liberal slant to the presentation but you have to know a lot of history to detect it.

What were we fighting for? It wasn’t for the constitutional freedoms Americans have always enjoyed. Vietnam was not a threat to them then just as the Taliban and ISIS are not threats to them now. Contending that Americans are fighting and dying overseas to allow the rest of us to knell during the national anthem or protest whatever it is people are protesting today is rubbish. Yet we’re still fighting…..why? Why does the country seem to be as divided today as it was during the tumultuous years of 1968 and 1969? Have we truly learned nothing?

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

The Walking Dead

The Ken Burns Vietnam series wrapped up it’s first week featuring a story I know well, the destruction of Bravo company 1st Battalion 9th Marines (1/9)  in the Leatherneck square on July 2nd 1967. 1/9 (pronounced one nine in Marine speak) was known as The Walking Dead back then as it was in 1987 when I joined the battalion as a rifle platoon commander. 1/9 took more casualties than any other battalion in Vietnam but their nickname did not come from the unfortunate stat.

Ho Chi, Minh gave 1/9 the Walking Dead handle in early 1966  when 1/9 was working out of  Hill 55,  which was 16 km southwest of Da Nang, in the Qung Nam province. The French had occupied it years before and had lost 2 battalions on that hill to the Viet Minh. Later in the war it would become famous for the sniper school established there by Captain James Land. Graduates from that school included  Carlos Hathcock and John Roland Burke; both Marine Corps sniper legends .

When 1/9 arrived on Hill 55 the area was under solid VC control. While establishing defensive positions on the Hill a lineman from 9th Engineers was captured, tortured, mutilated and killed by local Viet Minh. He was left (one presumes) as an example to intimidate the Americans who were new to the area.  It had the opposite affect, the enraged Marines started a series of aggressive small unit patrols throughout the river valley area. They took heavy casualties in those patrols but not that many prisoners.

On the 12 May 1966 a 14 man patrol from Bravo 1/9 located and attacked a giant Viet Minh base camp/training area complete with classrooms, ranges, barracks and a hospital. The rest of 1/9 piled on this camp starting what turned out to be a four day brawl that gutted the 324B NVA Regiment. Hanoi Hana, the Vietnamese version of Tokyo Rose,  during one of her nightly broadcasts said of 1/9 that Ho Chi Minh had called them “Di bo chet” (The Walking Dead) and promised them they would all be dead before Uncle Ho’s birthday which was 19 May.  1/9 pulled back to Hill 55, dug in and waited; the promised attack never came.

This is the same unit patch we used in the late 80’s when I was a member of 1/9

On the 2nd of July, 1967 Bravo and Alpha 1/9 left the wire of Con Thien on a unit sweep. About a mile outside of the wire Bravo walked into a vicious, well coordinated battalion sized  ambush, the commanding officer, Captain Sterling Coates and 3 of his platoon commanders were killed early during the contact by an artillery round, the remainder of the company was pinned down. The NVA then used flamer throwers to set the brush around the Marines on fire forcing them to break cover where they were hammered by both direct fire and indirect fire. Alpha 1/9 moved in to help but they too got pinned down by heavy direct and indirect fire.

A  hastily assembled reaction force comprised of Headquarters and Delta companies 1/9 along with 4 tanks charged out of the wire to help. A young Lieutenant by the name of Frank Libutti from Charlie company (which was detached guarding the base at Dong Ha but would fly in later that day) was at the Battalion HQ and part of that force. Twenty years after this battle Frank Libutti was a Colonel, the commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and his Battalion Landing Team was the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.

I was a platoon commander in Charlie 1/9 on that deployment and the company commander for B 1/9 was Bob Coates. The commanding officer of Bravo 1/9 back in 1967 had also been named Coates. I always thought that to be one hell of a coincidence as did Col Libbuti. What he stressed to us when he talked about that day was that the Bravo 1/9 of 1967 could not be compared in any way to Bravo 1/9 of 1987. The difference in the proficiency of the 87 Bravo company from the 67 Bravo company wasn’t superior leadership or more advanced weapons; it was due to the most contentious issue in the Vietnam War. The use of the individual replacement system of personnel management.

In their book Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, written by Major Richard A. Gabriel and Lt. Col. Paul L. Savage, the authors write:

‘The rotation policies operative in Vietnam, virtually foreclosed the possibility of establishing fighting units with a sense of identity, morale, and strong cohesiveness….Not only did the rotation policy foreclose the possibility of developing a sense of unit integrity and responsibility, but it also ensured a continuing supply of low quality, inexperienced officers at the point of greatest stress in any army, namely in its combat units.’

The rotation policies were driven by two factors; the draft (which mandated two years of service) and the refusal of the Johnson administration to mobilize the reserves to give the commanders on the ground the men they were asking for. A two year commitment meant that draftee’s could be deployed for 12 months max when mobilization, training and demobilization is factored into the time line. The Marines were not using draftees at this point in the Vietnam War which was why Marine combat tours were 13 months instead of the 12 month Army tour.

Prior to Vietnam American infantry units were formed, trained together and then deployed together into combat. This built unit cohesion, trust in the chain of command, developed the leadership abilities of small unit leaders before combat, and allowed for casualty replacements to be integrated into already functional combat units. Battalions that train together and fight together are giant families designed to withstand the shock of war and function in the face of incredible adversity.

In Vietnam individual soldiers and Marines rotated into battalions that were a conglomeration of individuals serving out their time. Officer came in as individuals too but they tended to have shorter tours (6 months on average) to free up combat command opportunities for other officers. New joins in Vietnam, just like new joins in every war experienced higher casualty rates. Junior officers, sergeants, staff sergeants and more senior SNCO’s always experience high casualty rates in all wars at all times. When rotated into combat units as individuals they did not last long. This rotation policy meant there was no established cohesion or pride at the battalion level. Those battalions were stripped of experienced small unit leaders.  It is remarkable these battalion still fought as well as they did.

The Burns series includes multiple requests from General Westmorland for more troops. It ignores what he wanted to do with those troops and that was to get Americans away from the populated regions and into Cambodia and Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail and take on the NVA.  John Del Vecchio covers this well in his most recent post which can be found here and is essential reading for those who want to understand the context surrounding the tactical decisions in Vietnam.

Calling up more troops required committing the reserves who had trained together and had developed unit cohesion. Using them to go after the NVA in their “safe spaces” may well have given the South enough space and time to get organized. That option was taken off the table because President Johnson was afraid it would draw Chinese or Soviet ground forces into the conflict, a probability that, given the million plus casualties the Chinese had suffered in Korea, was remote.

Our 7th President, Andrew Jackson (the only president to pay our national debt) once said “never take counsel of your fears“. Sage advice that as was General MacArthur’s saying that it is “fatal to enter any war without the will to win it”. The biggest complaint by the military during the Vietnam War was the feeling we weren’t fighting to win but instead doing just enough not to lose.

Part of the McNamara’s whiz kids genius strategy was using remote sensors on the border of the DMV to detect NVA formations moving south. To support that dubious plan the Marines moved up to the DMV, well within the artillery fan of the North Vietnamese, to establish fire bases. Those fire bases then supported undermanned battalions as they swept the DMZ to clear out NVA formations. But there weren’t enough of them to secure the ground they swept which allowed the NVA to move into newly swept areas knowing they could stay there for weeks or months before the area was “swept” again. 

The 1/9 Marines were cool long before  Zombies stole their nickname

Which brings us back to Bravo 1/9 and what the Burns documentary called “The Marketplace Massacre”. I’ve never heard the Bravo 1/9 ambush called that, never seen it referenced that way in historical accounts and if you google the name it is used to describe an event in Sarajevo. Regardless what did happen was that Bravo 1/9 walked into a hornets nest and got hammered. 

In the documentary the claim is made that Charlie and Delta companies went out and extracted Bravo and Alpha companies but because they could’t get to all the fallen they had to return two days later to recover 34 bodies. That is not what happened; the narrative presented by Burns is flawed on this point.

It is true that on day one of the battle, after 3/9 was flown into that area and had attacked the NVA battalions who had ambushed  1/9, the battalion pulled back and found they had 34 missing in action (the battalion not just Bravo company). It is also true that it wasn’t until 5 July that 23 Marine KIA were recovered (the nine remaining Marines were never found).  What is not true is Marines left the field on day one and the bodies were not recovered by some half ass effort sortieing out from Con Thien three days later.

When  1/9 pulled back into Con Thien on July 2nd the commanding officer of Alpha company, Albert J Slater pulled the survivors of his company, the survivors of Charlie company (who had flown into the fray from Dong Ha) and a detachment from 3rd Reconnaissance company together and went back out to join the battle.  3/9 had remained in the field and was joined by the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 3rd Marines. Captain Slater took his company to the northwest looking for good dirt (key terrain) and when he found some they dug in, fortified and then concealed their positions. The NVA had no idea the Walking Dead were back in play.

The maneuver battalions (3/9, 1/3 and 2/3) stayed on the offensive trying to maul what turned out to be the 90th NVA Regiment before they could get back to safe haven on the other side of the DMZ.

On the 5th of July a 400 man NVA battalion came across the DMZ in an attempt to flank the Marine maneuvering elements and walked, in column formation, right into Alpha 1/9’s prepared defense. The Walking Dead then got some payback and destroyed the NVA battalion with direct and indirect fires. The NVA 90 Regiment soon broke contact and withdrew some after marking the end of Operation Buffalo.

I know these kind of details are not going to make a PBS documentary about Vietnam. What is remarkable about this battle is not just the tenacity demonstrated by Capt Slater and the surviving members of a battered battalion. What is remarkable is they performed this way under constraints placed upon them by a President and DoD leadership who were arrogant in their unfounded faith of systems analysis, ignorant about the realities of war and dismissive of the senior military leadership who was supposed to be influencing the effort via sage council.

It seems to me that Burn and company are giving McNamara and LBJ a pass on their disastrous decision making which stemmed from politically motivated assumptions. The men who fought in Vietnam got the short end of the stick then and they are getting it now. They deserve better.

Getting Offended – The Ken Burns Vietnam Documentary

My good friend Mac (Mike McNamara) at All Marine Radio had me on a couple of days ago to talk about the Ken Burns Vietnam War series and the President’s UN speech. Mac is great at providing perspective and I’m pretty good at ferreting out obscure facts that I find offensive and using those to make a larger point. Mac called me on this saying I might be missing the forest by concentrating on trees.

I wanted to be offended but that’s not possible when dealing with Mac and it also not a normal response by reasonable adults who are good friends. Mac and I consider ourselves normal guys, others my quibble about that but we’re certain we’re standing on solid ground concerning this issue.

After thinking about this a bit I suddenly remembered seeing a video of Ken Burns talking about being offended. I mean no disrespect to JP Sears from the Ultra Spiritual YouTube series but look at the pictures below and tell me if anyone has ever seen these two men together in the same place at the same time?

Ken Burns
A guy claiming not to be Ken Burns

See what I mean? A little heavy makeup and some lighting and just maybe…. But wait you have to hear Ken I mean JP Sears and then listen to Ken Burns (not playing JP) and you tell me if they are not the same man.

 

I’m kidding of course but when I hear JP doing his Ultra Spiritual parodies and then listen to Ken Burns I hear the same condescending, morally superior tone combined with the same syntax and facial expressions. Ken isn’t doing parody – he’s a true believer which makes his 18 episode program scary (to me and many others).

My interview with Mac is pasted below. For those of you who have been following my posts on this series I highly recommend following John M. Del Vecchio too. I get offended by Burns; so does John but he brings a comprehensive understanding of history combined with efficient, sharp writing to the table. Me? I just go off like a rocket which is what Mac was pointing out during our time together. Here’s the latest in Mr Del Vecchio’s series and it is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read concerning propaganda masquerading as histroy:

https://www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/2017/9/20/burning-history-deceptions-and-a-teaspoon-of-sand

THOUGHTS ON PRESIDENT TRUMP’S SPEECH AT THE UNITED NATIONS: Tim Lynch

Déjà Vu

Last night the first episode of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary titled Deja Vu aired and it was pretty good. It was visually stimulating, had an excellent musical score and told a sweeping (yet selective) narrative of history leading up to the American involvement in Vietnam.

The back story on how we became entangled in Vietnam is rather straight forward. In hindsight it seems to be a series of miscalculations and poor assumptions. How could we, after supporting Ho Chi Min and his Viet Minh fighters in their fight against the Japanese in World War II turn against them in support of French imperialism? Part of the reason, which is covered in the documentary, was our experience with communist aggression in Korea and Europe.

Communism was perceived as an existential threat to the West at the time and for good reason. That it would ultimately fail was not a foregone conclusion and as we look back it is hard to put decision making in the proper context. To illustrate the point; in 2003 how many Americans thought that invading Iraq to remove a brutal dictator was a bad idea? I didn’t, the democrats in congress didn’t, most of America didn’t…in fact one of the few people in the country who did was Marine General Tony Zinni who, unfortunately, had just retired.

What is not examined in the Burns film was why the French allowed Cambodia and Laos their independence. Knowing why that happened may have explained why they chose to make a stand in Vietnam. What is also not examined or explained is why North Vietnam continued their aggression in the south. South Vietnam was content to consolidate it’s holdings; they didn’t attack the north or fund subversive elements in that country in an effort to destabilize it.

South Vietnamese political corruption, which included the execution of hundreds and imprisonment of thousands, was mentioned last night as was the trials in North Vietnam of land owners and the redistribution of land to the peasant class. What was not mentioned is the death toll from the North’s pogroms, the famine that followed (as it has at all times and in all places after communist land reforms) or the reduction camps in the North. What will never be mentioned in the 18 episodes of Ken Burns film is that every socialist regime in history has been irredeemably corrupt. It’s a feature; not a bug.

The brief interview excerpts of Americans and Vietnamese who fought in the war and quick snap shots of iconic photographs set the tone for subsequent episodes. In the American interviews former Marine Roger Harris recounts telling his mother that he would not be coming home as he is sure to be killed. Former soldier Tim O’Brien talks about his fear of getting up and walking through the country side. The impression is that these men were out classed by an enemy who was invisible, tactically better, tougher and more dedicated.  This is the liberal anti Vietnam War narrative that was dominate back in the day, perpetuated in popular films like Platoon, and the origins of the myth that war destroys all who participate.

Jordan Peterson gave an interesting take on men put into “warrior mode” when they are committed to combat. On psychological level when a man advances on an enemy who can do so as a predator or prey.  Obviously being in predator mode is preferable, it opens up different neurochemical approach circuits, enhances performance and is a good indicator of a positive psychological outcome (such as no PTSD).

The Burn’s documentary indicates clearly the men he interviewed felt they were prey. I bet those same vets take issue with that characterization but they didn’t control the editing process so there it is. Nowhere in the companion book are there indications of American units taking the field in predator mode with one glaring exception. That is when they are killing unarmed civilians instead of taking on the NVA or Viet Cong. Nothing could have been further from the truth and there are several stories in the companion book I flat out do not believe but we’ll get to them in due time.

There are dozens of novels written by Vietnam veterans that dispute this interpretation. My favorites include The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio, Fields of Fire by James Webb and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Karl is one of the interviewees in the Burns documentary).

John M. Del Vecchio, in an excellent post on the peaking at 70 blog has this to say about Burns’ documentary.  Pretending to honor those who served while subtly and falsely subverting the reasons and justifications for that service is a con man’s game . . . From a cinematic perspective it will be exceptional. Burns knows how to make great scenes. But through the lens of history it appears to reinforce a highly skewed narrative and to be an attempt to ossify false cultural memory. The lies and fallacies will be by omission, not by overt falsehoods.”

The iconic photos from last nights show includes this Pulitzer Prize winner of  Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s Chief of National Police.

This is a great example to unpack and examine in detail. In the companion book the picture is describe as follows:

The prisoner was brought before him (General Loan). He was an NLF agent named Nguyen Van Lem and may have been the head of an assassination squad. (He had been found with a pistol adjacent to a hastily dug grave that held the bodies of seven South Vietnamese policemen and their families.) He and Loan exchanged words that no one else heard. Loan ordered one of the soldiers to shoot the prisoner. When the men hesitated, Loan drew his own pistol and shot him through the head.

Everything in the explanation is sort of true except the “may have been” part in describing Nguyen Van Lem as the head of a assassination squad. This is a classic example of lying by omission. Here is a more comprehensive background on Mr. Lem:  note what has been left out by the Burns team.

In the morning of the second day of Tet, January 31st, 1968, when general Nguyen Ngoc Loan was leading a fierce fight near An Quang Pagoda in Saigon’s Chinese quarter, two of his officers brought to him a communist cadre who had murdered many innocents in cold-blood in the past couple days. He was Captain Nguyen Van Lem, alias Bay Lop.

Minutes before he was captured, Bay Lop had killed a RVN policeman’s wife and all of his family members including his children. Around 4:30 A.M., Nguyen Van Lem led a sabotage unit along with Viet Cong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After communist troops took control of the base, Bay Lop arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Bay Lop killed all members of his family including his 80-year-old mother. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.

Nguyen Van Lem was captured near a mass grave with 34 innocent civilian bodies. Lem admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader’s order to kill these people. Lem was in his shorts and shirt. His arms were tied from the back. The pistol was still in his possession. General Loan executed Nguyen Van Lem on the spot.

America was appalled by that photograph and the accompanying video footage. The fact that the man being shot had admitted to killing dozens of people to include young children was studiously ignored. That General Loan was the Godfather of six of those young children who were murdered that morning was never mentioned. What General Loan did that day was legal under Vietnamese law and also accepted within the Geneva conventions. This is the explanation from the Geneva Convention concerning summary executions:

However, some classes of combatants may not be accorded POW status, though that definition has broadened to cover more classes of combatants over time. In the past, summary execution of pirates, spies, and francs-tireurs have been performed and considered legal under existing international law. Francs-tireurs (a term originating in the Franco-Prussian War) are enemy civilians or militia who continue to fight in territory occupied by a warring party and do not wear military uniforms, and may otherwise be known as guerrillas, partisans, insurgents, etc.

AP photographer Eddie Adams, that man who took the picture of General Nguyen Loan and knew him well went on to apologized in person to General Loan and his family for the damage it did to his reputation. When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him:

“The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”.

What America didn’t know was Loan was a fierce patriot and one of the few of his rank who was not corrupt.  He was no American puppet and refused to give Americans special treatment in his jurisdiction. Severely wounded later in the war (he ended up losing a leg) he was not evacuated when America withdrew from Vietnam but did manage to escape by piloting an abandoned plane (he was a respected Air Force pilot before being assigned leadership of Saigon’s police forces) to freedom.

General Loan arrived in America with a family, the clothes on their back, one leg and not much else. He quietly re-built a modest American life by opening and running a small pizzeria in Northern Virginia. In 1991 he was identified by the “Democracy Die in Darkness” Washington Post.  Proto social justice warriors then drove him out of business. He died soon after that.

As an American I am embarrassed at how one of our allies, a man of courage and conviction, was treated by my fellow citizens. Many of us believe that, if placed in similar circumstances, we would “do the right thing” and not summarily execute a captured terrorist who had his hands bound behind his back. I’m not one of those people and know I’d smoke check that murdering bastard (under similar circumstances) in a heartbeat. I know what I’m capable of and knowing my demons; overcoming them and controlling them is what makes me a good human. If that sounds crazy to you take 3 minutes to let Dr Peterson explain the concept to you.

The vast majority of the men who fought in Vietnam were good men who did a hard job in an unpopular war. Ken Burns was given millions of dollars and several years to do a documentary about them. But they were ignored by Burns and his crew in favor of justifying the narrative of the anti war left. That is a damn shame; our Vietnam Vets deserved better.

“We are Killing Terrorists.” That’s Half a Plan

Last week in one of the stronger passages of a solid speech President Trump said “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Most Americans, to include myself normally like bold, unambiguous statements like that. Our nation building efforts in Afghanistan have not born much fruit, Americans don’t, as a general rule, like terrorists. Killing them is, in theory, not a problem.

What is a problem is defining who is or is not a terrorist in the context of Afghanistan today. The US and her allies do not have reliable human intelligence networks in Afghanistan resulting in a 15 year run of raiding Afghans who are not connected to the Taliban and also killing some of the strongest supporters we had in that country. For example Razi Khan, the district governor of Chora district in the Taliban controlled Oruzgan province. Razi Khan had fought the Taliban all his life and was a strong ally of the Australian military who were assigned to Oruzgan province. He was killed by the Australian SAS during a night raid that was based on faulty intelligence.

There is also the problem of tribal leaders who are congruent with our goals in Afghanistan but rejected government officials sent by Kabul who the locals viewed as little more than criminals. Ajmal Khan Zazai, Canadian citizen and head of the tribal federation in the Zazai valley of Paktia province is one of those. As I wrote here back in 2010 he was considered an AOG (Armed Opposition Group) leader by the US Army and thus, today, could be considered a “terrorist”.

Ajmal checking in at FRI (forward) back in 2010

The American military in general and Secretary Mattis in particular is not adverse to learning bitter lessons, adapting to those lessons and overcoming them in time. But it is not an institution that values creativity which results in change in small increments. The military attracts smart, orderly people who master the discipline they work in but view change as micro steps of improvements to the existing structure. People like this fit well inside the evaluation structures these institutions use to judge performance.

That is a function of human nature. The military, like all bureaucracies, is chocked full of conscientious people who can work very hard at going the wrong direction for years on end. Creativity is a high risk, high gain game best played by highly creative people. It is much safer for the high intelligence segment of the population to find a functioning entity and operate as a cog within that entity. Highly creative people tend to go off on tangents all the time but the probability that one of those tangents is exactly what is needed at the exact time it is proposed are ridiculously low. The most reasonable response to the tangential ideas from a highly creative person is “that’s stupid”.  Take a few minutes to listen to one of my favorite Canadians explain this dynamic in detail.

Damn, I just went off on tangent again. The purpose for that was to, once again, point out that dismissing creative solutions like the one Eric Prince proposed is to be expected but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily well informed.

It is important to note that our stated strategy of preventing a terrorist organization from planning and launching attacks against America from Afghanistan is a red herring.  As friend of FRI, J Harlin pointed out in the comments section, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg, Germany; controlled from Yemen and the vital training for the attack took place in Arizona and Florida. Afghanistan housed bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda, which was a good reason to go there and smoke check him. It is also the reason we should have never let him slip away once we had him trapped in Tora Bora.

Second, focusing on the application of force alone to “win” is not a coherent solution to our commitment in Afghanistan. The war there will end with a political settlement, not a military victory. Crafting that settlement will take creative diplomatic thinking that isolates the Taliban affiliated tribes and clans from the rest of the Afghan population. All the military can do now is provide the space for these efforts by keeping  the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the fight.

Do we have the talent resident in our diplomatic corps to take advantage of the time/space being generated by military? We have people with the requisite language skills, connections and time in country seeded throughout the various government establishments (DoS, DEA, CIA, NSA, USAID, etc…) to foster an acceptable endstate. Are these people being sent back into the fray? Is there a plan or even a single unifying leader with the authority of a Viceroy to implement a plan?

The answer, I fear, is no because the idea of splitting the Taliban from the rest of the population while playing India off against Pakistan is, in the eyes of our federal bureaucracies, stupid. Yet in the eyes of creative, strategic thinkers it is the only plan that will work. Inshallah somebody with the traits of the later will emerge to shepherd the efforts of the former to a logical end.

Bellum Romanum

Bellum Romanum is all-out war without restraint as Romans practiced it against groups they considered to be barbarians. I came upon the term a few days ago listening to a Dan Carlin  Hard Corps History podcast about my ancestors titled the Celtic Holocaust. He starts the podcast by asking “what are you willing to die for”? He then ups the ante by asking “what are you willing to sacrifice everything for? That question, although profound, is an alien concept in the western world today.

I recommend downloading the podcast, it’s a long one but fascinating. Although the topic involved the epic slaughter of my ancestors it is hard, these thousands of years removed, not to admire the Romans. Could you imagine going into battle, at hand to hand range, with a people who were 6 inches taller and commensurately stronger than your side? That had to be terrifying; as is the thought of being forced to take a stand where everything you know and love hangs in the balance.

Which brings us to Afghanistan. The Voice of America published a solid article recently which explains what an additional 4,000 American troops will most likely be doing when deployed to Afghanistan:

“We need guardian angels,” said Lt. Col. John Sandor, deputy senior adviser for the Afghan Army’s 201st Corps, referring to security forces that would protect U.S. training teams so they can work alongside Afghan brigades.

….Sometimes, said Maj. Richard Anderson, operations adviser for 201st Corps, the Afghan answer is: “Let the Americans do it.” In early spring, when U.S. forces asked the Afghan army to step up its pursuit of IS militants in Nangarhar province, they encountered resistance. Demoralized by an IS attack that killed 16 Afghan soldiers in April, Afghan commanders wanted the American and Afghan special operations forces to carry the fight. But ground units are needed to hold territory, so U.S. advisers were forced to spend weeks cajoling the Afghan Army to join the battle.”

It appears we are sending more American troops to protect their fellow American’s from the Afghan troops they are training and trying to get to fight. The Afghan soldiers apparently are not willing to die for a central government in Kabul that is not only corrupt but is also, in the eyes of most Afghans, not legitimate. How could they view it as anything else when it was installed and maintained by infidels from the west?

For American troops the question of what they are willing to die for is easily answered. Each other. That is the harsh reality of a military system designed to promote small unit cohesion by linking directly to unit histories, traditions, discipline and military virtue. The American military can fight effectively with or without the support of the American people. The support and appreciation of the military by the public helps mitigate the sacrifices soldiers are asked to make but it is not required. Most importantly soldiers know that if they are killed in battle their families will be provided for by the government who placed them in harms way.

The ANA is taking a beating which contributes to their low morale and inability to generate combat power

Afghan troops do not enjoy the advantages of their western mentors. Afghanistan is not a cohesive country; it’s a disparate group of tribal peoples living inside an artificial boundary dictated by foreign colonialists over 100 years ago. Their army has no winning tradition, no lineage to draw upon, lacks competence at all levels and is unable to generate sufficient combat power to confront its internal enemies. The Afghan soldiers know if they are killed in battle their families are on their own. If wounded and unable to bribe the hospital staff to feed them soldiers will linger and die a protracted, agonizing, completely avoidable death.

The various groups that comprise the Taliban do not operate under the same circumstances as their countrymen in the Afghan military. They have built-in cohesion based on the tribal/clan structure from which they come. They often flock to successful commanders giving them rudimentary esprit de corps. The Taliban make an effort to look after the families of their fallen and although their medical capabilities are poor they are consistently applied. No Taliban fighter convalescing in a Pakistani or Iranian hospital is going to perish because nobody fed him.

Most importantly the Taliban are facing, in their minds, Bellum Romanum. They are fighting for their land, their families and their way of life. They view the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as puppets of western infidel powers bent on their total destruction. What’s the counter-narrative to that?  There isn’t one.

The only course of action that would make any sense is placing private military mentor/trainers at the battalion (Kandak) level and leaving them there long enough for those units to develop cohesion around their mentors.  Add to that combat enablers in the form of indirect fire, some decent snipers, effective tactical air and the lift needed for dust offs (medical evacuation) and combat resupply and maybe, just maybe, you can develop a security force that has the cohesion required to generate and sustain combat power.

Doing that would not take many men; it would take the right men, which could have proved difficult to find, incentivize, and retain. For now that option appears dead in the water so the point is moot. What is not moot is what it will take to achieve a military solution in Afghanistan. It would take some form of Bellum Romanum; a zero sum campaign that matches the zero sum attitude of the other side in this conflict. The American military cannot and will not fight that kind of war. We have fought like that in living memory and here is a story about what that looks like from my Dad, MajGen J.D. Lynch USMC (Ret).

When I was a first classman at USNA (somewhere around 2 centuries ago), during an aviation class, an instructor reminisced about WWII and his time as a carrier pilot flying Hellcats. When asked by one of the guys what he considered his most dangerous and for that matter, frightening experience during the war. His response was that, early in the war he was Admiral Nimitz’s pilot. After the Battle of Tarawa, the admiral was so concerned about the casualty figures that he was flown to Tarawa to see for himself (he traveled by sea planes in those early days of the war). In any event, the pilot, now an instructor at Navy, said that he left the plane with the admiral’s party and walked the Tarawa battlefield  …. he said that was his most frightening experience of the war …  the Marines just stared at everybody and seemed ready to kill anybody at any time with little or no reason.

Could you imagine front line troops so formidable that they scared a pilot (from their own side) who made his living landing on aircraft carriers? I can’t and we’re not going to see that kind of infantry anytime soon. We’re not going there because we don’t have to go there. The ANSF security forces aren’t going there either although they need to. In our enlightened modern world where history is little known and often twisted to fit the political narrative of the day we believe that war can be fit inside of some magical box that excludes butchery, savagery, hatred and slaughter. We believe we are above Bellum Romanus even in the face of Islamic terrorist who fight with the same methods and ferocity of the barbarian tribes that contested Roman rule.

Those who believe the arc of history will deliver us to an enlightened state where Marines in contact will always be tame enough to make senior naval officers comfortable inside their lines are deluded. Granted front line American infantry today does not resemble the Marines on Tarawa; it doesn’t have to as we’re not fighting an existential threat (yet). Our divided country, with its fractured culture and forgotten history, will be tested again. Most likely by a unified culture fighting under the banner of Islam. When that happens we will fight like the Roman’s fought, like the Vietcong fought, like we fought on the hellish islands in the Pacific or we will be vanquished. Then we will learn what the Romans knew; Vae victis (woe to the vanquished).

Sending more trainers to Afghanistan to watch over the trainers already there so the trainees don’t kill them is not a viable military strategy. It is, however about the only option available to the Axis of Adults given the the fiscal and manpower constraints the Pentagon operates under today.

The only diplomatic effort that could possibly break the current stalemate would involved  way outside the box ideas like advocating for a Pashtun and Balouch (and a Kurdish while we’re at it) homeland that would erase the artificial lines drawn on the world map (by the west) over a hundred years ago. That would cause enough disruption in the status quo to get Pakistan, Turkey and Iran worked up to the point of hysteria while aligning ourselves with the insurgents goals. I like the idea of turning the insurgents back on their creators while we occupy the moral (these people deserve their own homeland) high ground.

It would also be sticking our thumb in the eye of the UN, an organization for which I have little use. But that’s not going to happen, outside the box thinking like that is no longer accepted by the ruling classes. It is a threat to their grip on power and prestige despite its practicality. They will fight to the last American to defend a system that is collapsing right in front of our eyes.

America can sustain the deployment of 10 to 15 thousand troops into Afghanistan indefinitely but we have a critical center of gravity. We will not tolerate excessive casualties. If the Taliban are able to do what Afghans have always done; if they isolate and destroy in detail a military unit, our adventure in Afghanistan will come to a rapid end. If they are not able to inflict large numbers of casualties on us then maybe we can run the clock on them to the point that even the Taliban are tired of fighting. Maybe….but betting on the Taliban growing weary of war, when all they know is war and they seem to be winning said war, is like financial planning via buying lottery tickets. It could work but the odds (and reality)  are against it.