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?
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:
The third episode of The Vietnam War aired last night and it was a good one. We were introduced to a Special Forces legend (and the founder of Delta Force) Charles Beckworth. He was interviewed just after preventing his small detachment of Green Berets from being over run in the battle of Plei Me. Then Major Beckworth had fought a week long battle pitting his 10 Americans, 14 South Vietnamese army soldiers and 300 Montagnard tribal fighters against the 32nd and 33rd Regiments of the North Vietnamese Army. Beckworth had 324 fighters against of force totaling 4,800. In last nights clip he paid his enemies the respect they were due with this quote “I wish I had 200 of them under my command”.
The attention Beckworth has received in the historical record and the subsequent attention another exceptional American commander, Hal Moore received was made possible by a third exceptional an American (reporter type) named Joe Galloway. Galloway was featured prominently in the broadcast, his book about LtCol Moore’s fight at LZ X-Ray (We Were Soldiers Once and Young) is a classic as is the movie of the same title. I’m not sure that those stories would be with us today were it not for the presence of Joe Galloway, who hails from Refugio Texas, a small rural town known for producing scrappy high school football teams, not great war correspondents.
We also heard from the NVA commander who fought against Moore’s battalion, Lo Khac Tam. Like Beckworth’s small force Hal Moore was facing an enemy 7 times his number. Despite the advantage of numerical superiority, effective direct fire weapons and surprise the NVA not only failed to destroy the Americans they took a savage beating.
Now promoted to General, Lo Khac Tam said the lesson he learned (one repeated in the companion book ad nauseam) is that one had to “grab the Americans by the belt” to negate their firepower. The North Vietnamese didn’t need to “learn” that lesson; they were trained by the Chinese who had discovered that bitter truth 15 years prior in Korea. That lesson didn’t help the NVA any more than it helped the Chinese. Getting inside the American indirect fire envelope did allow the Vietnamese to inflict more casualties on American units but they never dominated one. As soon as they broke contact they were still subjected to a beating from Tac Air and artillery.
Did we have stupid generals? Of course we did; the military history of America is littered with stupid generals whenever we get into a shooting war. The only time we ever caught a break was World War I where General Black Jack Pershing was placed in command (well ahead of many senior generals).
Did the NVA have stupid generals? They had Beucoup dummies which cost them dearly. During last night’s episode a Vietminh soldier is interviewed about the performance of the Marines and soldiers as they entered the war. He said they were big and slow and didn’t know the terrain like the local fighters who ran circles around them. True enough but thanks to some spectacularly poor NVA generalship and a steep learning curve by the Americans those local cadres were gone 14 months later. They had all been killed, wounded or fled north after the disaster of the 68 Tet offensive.
The myth that the American military was outclassed in Vietnam is just that, a myth, but one still being promulgated in this PBS series. But tactical lessons were not the focus of last nights show; how we got into a major shooting war was. That story, as Burn’s tells it, is complete, total, garbage and a significant disservice to anyone seeking an understanding of the Vietnam War.
Last night we heard a sage rebuke of General Westmorland who told a visiting Senator, Fritz Hollings that; “We’re killing these people at a rate of ten to one.” Hollings warned him, “Westy, the American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.” No doubt true but what about the American leadership? Did they give a damn about the one?
Watching the documentary you may think they did and this is where the whole story goes off the rails. As we listen into President Johnson’s anguished phone calls and watch what we are told was an uber competent Sec Def Robert McNamara cognate on how to win what we are not shown is their arrogance, naive stupidity or their contempt for their military leadership. Their refusal to listen to or follow good advice and their collusion with the North Vietnamese that led directly to the downing of American pilots is never mentioned.
“The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C.”
How is it that the most important book of the last decade that details exactly how we got into Vietnam is left out of an 18 episode narrative about Vietnam? Did you know that President Johnson and Secretary McNamara would crawl along the floor of the oval officer over a map of North Vietnam to select individual targets? Did you know that having selected those targets the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk would then pass those targets to the Swiss embassy who would tell the North Vietnamese (through their embassy in Hanoi) where and when we’d bomb them?
Here is what Rusk had to say about that:
“All we wanted to do is demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that we could strike targets at will, but we didn’t want to kill innocent people. By giving the North Vietnamese advanced warning of the targets to be attacked, we thought they would tell the workers to go home.”
How stupid can ‘smart’ guys be? All of our previous history with communist governments would indicate that they not only would not tell workers about impending air strikes (civilian casualties being a huge boost for their propaganda machines and the lives lost meaningless to their leaders) but would move their anti aircraft artillery into the target area to down American planes. That’s exactly what they did too and it is beyond remarkable that Burns could ignore this fact and the scholarly rigor of H. R. MacMaster. What the hell is going on with these people?
What is going on with this series is exactly what has been going on inside big corporate media for decades and that is the promulgation and reinforcement of a narrative that is anti American exceptionalism, anti military in orientation, and an attempt to give the anti war left a pass on their dishonorable treatment of Vietnam veterans.
America is not Sparta. We are not a war-like people and as mentioned above normally lack competent generals and adequate force structure when the balloon goes up. We also normally lack good weapons; from the crap machineguns of World War I to the shitty tanks we started with in WW II to the completely inadequate anti tank weapons of Korea all the way to the unarmored Humvee’s of Iraq in 2003 our country always starts behind the curve militarily.
But we learn quick. What the military learned after Vietnam was how to take a hollowed out, racial divided, plagued with drug abuse, unpopular institution and turn into one of the most trusted segments of American society. Somehow I don’t think that story is going to make the cut with Burns and crew. And that, in the words of our Vietnam Vets, is number 10.
“What we call fake news now are things that we don’t agree with but which happen to be true,” he said. “We’re not suggesting we’re going to the change the date of the Tet Offensive; that [would be] ‘fake news,’
Burns and Novick state over and over in their media interviews that they have spent 10 years unpacking the “truth” in an attempt to reach outside the binary media culture which is always red state/blue state. Yet despite the feel good words what we are left with in this documentary is fake news. Nowhere has that been more evident then the opening of last nights show. Once again we get an interview of a former Marine as prey to those wiley, disciplined, NVA soldiers.
John Musgrave, a former Marine who is featured throughout the companion book, told the following story about being on a 3 man listening post in the Leatherneck Square area of operations (AO).
‘If your sit rep is Alpha Sierra, key your handset twice.’ (If your situation report is all secure, break squelch twice on the handset.) “And if it’s not all secure, they think you’re asleep, so they keep asking you until it finally dawns on them that maybe there’s somebody too close for you to say anything. So then they say, ‘If your sit rep is negative, Alpha Sierra, key your handset once,’ and you damn near squeeze the handle off, because they’re so close you can hear them whispering to one another.
The tell last night was the knowing look on Mr. Musgrave’s face as he says “it finally dawns on them”. I don’t believe him. The last thing you want when on LP duty is anyone talking to you on the radio because they’re loud, even with volume down and handset jammed in your ear. There is a well established (about 80 year old) SOP for listening posts, and here’s a good explanation from the Guns.com website:
On Listening Post (LP) you acted as the early warning system for your platoon but personally you felt like you were a tethered goat, bait for the enemy. The idea is to get well beyond your perimeter and listen silently for any night activity and then alert the base. The most significant obstacle to this is you and your imagination because in a high stress, hyper sensory scenario such as listening to the jungle at night, the mind tends to play tricks on you. The feeling of being both expendable and sitting ducks is a constant.
First priority upon arrival is to dig a hole and cut back the surrounding brush just enough to provide sightlines and subsequently firing positions if required. LPs require total silence once you are in position. No smoking, no food and absolutely no talking.
Radio SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) indicating you are in position is two clicks on your radio mike and one click every hour after. If there is activity you alert your platoon by repeated double clicks on the radio mike and then throw every grenade you can lay your hands on and get your ass up the hill to your perimeter, igniting pop-up flares to blind the enemy and to let your guys see who is coming. Do not get caught downhill as the crossfire is lethal.
LP duty was then and remains to this day terrifying for the men who are tasked with it. How likely is it that an experienced battalion (1/9 which is my old battalion) is going to send a 3 man team out with no agreed upon procedure if that team detects bad guys moving towards their perimeter? Why would the RTO on that team play 20 questions with the watch? The whole story makes no sense at all but you need to know something about military tactics to understand why the story is implausible. It gets my attention because it reinforces the fiction that American military units in Vietnam were incompetent.
Obviously I am sensitive on the topic but I’ve got 40 years of hearing/reading about how much better the NVA were than our forces and it pisses me off. Bet you couldn’t tell that right?
Which brings us to tangent time. Did you know our nation is currently in the grips of an opioiod epidemic? It is and there is a wealth of information concerning the debilitating effect of prescription drug abuse. Taking strong narcotics over long periods of time never produces positive behavioral outcomes which brings up back to JFK. President Kennedy had a pill problem:
The medical records reveal that Kennedy variously took codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; Ritalin, a stimulant; meprobamate and librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep; thyroid hormone; and injections of a blood derivative, gamma globulin, a medicine that combats infections.
During the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Kennedy was taking steroids for his Addison’s disease, painkillers for his back, anti-spasmodics for his colitis, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, antihistamines for his allergies, and on at least one occasion, an anti-psychotic drug to treat a severe mood change that Jackie Kennedy believed was brought on by the antihistamines.
I focus on this because the Kennedy/Khrushchev meeting is ground zero for turning Vietnam into an American shooting war. President Kennedy had a pill problem, at the age of 44 he was the youngest man to be elected to the office, he also had a bimbo problem. In short he combined the youthful naivete and lack of experience of Obama with the constant pursuit of strange by B.J. Clinton and added to that toxic mix a severe pain pill addiction. The Kennedy White House was not the Camelot of the dominate liberal narrative but you’d never know that from watching the Burns Documentary.
Barack Obama once said “what harm can possibly come from a meeting between enemies”? Scott Johnson from the Powerline blog covers exactly what harm could come:
Immediately following the final session on June 4 Kennedy sat for a previously scheduled interview with New York Times columnist James Reston at the American embassy. Kennedy was reeling from his meetings with Khrushchev, famously describing the meetings as the “roughest thing in my life.” Reston reported that Kennedy said just enough for Reston to conclude that Khrushchev “had studied the events of the Bay of Pigs” and that he had “decided that he was dealing with an inexperienced young leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed.” Kennedy said to Reston that Khrushchev had “just beat [the] hell out of me” and that he had presented Kennedy with a terrible problem: “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him. So we have to act.”
And where was there a shooting war in which the United States government could act? Vietnam – from the Johnson article:
Robert Dallek (a Kennedy biographer) writes that Kennedy “now needed to convince Khrushchev that he could not be pushed around, and the best place currently to make U.S. power credible seemed to be in Vietnam.”
Kennedy then knee capped a potential challenger, Henry Cabot Lodge, by making him the ambassador to South Vietnam. Vietnam Vet/writer John Del Vecchio in an excellent post on this episode (and read the linked post; John a deep thinker and good writer) takes up the story from there:
Let’s step back for a moment and consider the new American ambassador, his motivations, proclivities, and political placement. Henry Cabot Lodge, the vice presidential running-mate of Richard Nixon, came out of the 1960 national elections as a potential contender to oppose President Kennedy in 1964. Kennedy’s political instincts were to marginalize this opponent, and how better to do so than to exile him to a small nation on the other side of the earth where he would be unable to consolidate a political organization. Lodge likely understood the double-bind of the ambassadorial offer: accepting could side-line him, yet declining might prove he had little interest in supporting U.S. foreign policy or American allies threatened by the creep of communism. His decision to accept this great responsibility must be qualified by his political motivations, his pandering to the press, and the resulting calamities which ensued. These misdeeds and errors need to be added to the list of original sins.
Original sins indeed. It seems to me if Burns and Novick were “unpacking the truth” concerning things “we don’t want to talk about” about one of the most divisive times in our countries history they shouldn’t have sugar coated how we got into that war. They even could have addressed the evils of prescription pill addiction and made that part of the doco for a timely two-fer. But revealing the dream of Camelot to be, in reality, a nightmare would be asking too much from proud progressive liberal folks. That’s a real shocker isn’t it?
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 andMatterhorn 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-tireurshave 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.
History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’
That quote unquestionably applies to early Christian history, the topic Mr. Brown has gained a worldwide following writing about. It is probably true about our history up to and including World War II. It is demonstrably not true about our more recent history; mostly because we have had no clash of cultures; just clashes.
This Sunday (17 September) is the premier of a 10 part Ken Burns PBS documentary titled The Vietnam War. The premise behind this series is enough time has passed to allow us to go back and “remind ourselves of the things we don’t want to talk about”. The series will unquestionably be an excellent feat of journalistic production; visually stimulating and emotionally resonating. I’m looking forward to watching it.
What it will not be is what the producers, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick promise it to be and that is a fair, unbiased accounting. I have spent the last four days pouring over the companion book to this series with growing concern. There is no indication in the book that the liberal narrative regarding the men and woman who fought that war is being challenged. Given the amount of turmoil this war caused in the American public; creating fracture lines that exist to this day, reinforcing a discredited narrative from the past is a grave disservice to both our military and nation.
I paid an inordinate amount of attention to Vietnam while growing up. My father and two of my three uncles were career Marine Corps officers; from the mid 60’s to the early 70’s one of them was in Vietnam and all them saw heavy combat. As I was raised on or near Marine Corps bases most of my friends fathers were also participants in that war. My father and my friends fathers were heroes to us when we were young. I am blessed that I am able to say they remain so to this day. There are not many books or novels about the war I have not read so my baseline knowledge runs deep.
The book (also titled The Vietnam War) has a rhythm to it. It’s organized as a comprehensive history explaining how the United States went from supporting Vietnamese freedom fighters in World War II to fighting those same men a decade after the war. Dispersed throughout the chapters are side bars that contain the personal stories of the participants. The stories told in those sidebars are consistent; the young Americans were patriotic, motivated, idealistic, innocents who became disillusioned by what they saw and did. Those that survived (and many did not) emerged damaged, bitter, and pissed off. The Vietnamese on the other side were also patriotic, idealistic and innocent; they battled against extraordinary hardships, fought for years on end and emerged as proud paragons of virtue who were ennobled by the experience.
American generals from that conflict are depicted as clueless liars focused on the lavish use of firepower and dated, inappropriate tactics. American field grade officers were murderous psychopaths focused on killing as many people as possible while ignoring their own casualty rates as they sought ever higher body counts to further their careers. The American junior officers experience mirrored those of the enlisted men; tricked into going they rapidly became bitterly disillusioned by what they saw and did.
The Vietnamese general officer and Colonels are uniformly portrayed as tactical geniuses who developed the perfect battle plan to use America’s strengths against her while continually besting American and South Vietnamese forces in the field. They too emerged from their decades of war wise and ennobled.
Keep in mind I’m talking about the side bars. The narrative does admit that the North Vietnamese made serious strategic errors especially when they launched their Tet Offensive in 1968. There is also a side bar that describes the massacre of Vietnamese men, women and children by the North in Hue City during the 1968 Tet offensive. Yet the book focuses a majority of it’s narrative on American malfeasance of which there was plenty. While doing so it perpetuates some stories I’ve never heard and don’t believe.
One of these was the story of Private Dennis Stout who served with Company B of the First Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne. He contends that in April of 1967 his platoon captured, interrogated and then spent two day raping a Vietnamese teenager before murdering her. That is an extraordinary claim that requires an extraordinary amount of proof to be taken seriously. None is provided.
Where would a platoon find a place in the rear area to house, torture, rape and then murder a captured female? Why would anyone believe that a platoon could even accomplish such a deed on the off chance they even wanted to? Platoons are not independent entities, they are part of a rifle company which is part of an infantry battalion and as such they are not allocated offices or rooms or building in which they can conduct themselves unsupervised. I’ll address this incident in detail when the segment containing it is aired.
The American military did rape women and kill children in cold blood on at least one occasion; the My Lai massacre. Yet that story too is incorrect as written in the book. The photographs of that odious deed came from an Army public affairs correspondent, Sergeant Ronald L Haeberle. What the book fails to mention is that then Sgt Haeberle did not release the photos he took with his army equipment; he had a personal camera with him that day which he used to take the photos and then hid so that the real story could eventually come out. That was a brave move by a good man and the vast majority of those who fought in Vietnam were just like him; good men.
I suspected, as I read the book, that the hundreds of people who worked on this documentary had limited knowledge about the American military. That suspicion was confirmed when I got to the story of an infantry officer who was born during WW II in an Arizona Japanese American interment camp named Vincent Okamoto.
Vincent Okamoto is the most highly decorated Japanese American of the Vietnam war where he was awarded three Purple Hearts, The Distinguished Service Cross, both a Silver and a Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He went on to lead an exemplary life retiring as a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Here is the description from the book telling the story of his incredible bravery under fire.
On the morning of August 23, he made his twenty-third assault. Nineteen helicopters ferried the first and second platoons to a new landing zone just thirteen miles from the Cambodian border. Their task was to dig in, stay put, and somehow block a battalion of some eight hundred North Vietnamese troops, who were trying to escape back across the border. Okamoto’s unit was reinforced by a platoon of mechanized infantry, three APCs, and a tank, but they were still badly outnumbered. He and the fewer than 150 men under his command spent the rest of that day and all of the next preparing for an attack as best they could—setting Claymore mines and hanging coils of razor wire.
At about ten o’clock on the night of August 24, Okamoto remembered, “we got hit with a very heavy mortar barrage. Within the first ten seconds, all three of those armored personnel carriers and tanks were knocked out with rocket-propelled grenades.” Trip flares briefly lit up the landscape. Scores of enemy troops were running at the Americans through the elephant grass. Enemy mortar shells blasted two gaps in the razor wire. If Okamoto and his outnumbered men couldn’t plug them, they were sure to be overrun. He and the four men closest to him held their M16s above their heads and fired blindly.
The enemy kept coming. “I had my four people. And through the light of the flares, I said, ‘A couple of you guys go and man the machine guns out on those APCs.’ Well, the response I got was, like, ‘Fuck you, I ain’t going up there.’ So I ran to the first armored personnel carrier, and I pulled the dead gunner out of the turret. I jumped in there, manned the machine gun, and fired until it ran out of ammo.” Okamoto moved to the second disabled APC, then the third, emptying their guns.
That’s a great story but one that, to a military professional, makes little sense. Obviously a reinforced rifle company fought that battle so I’m not sure why a second lieutenant would be in charge. He had a mechanized platoon and tank attached yet in the opening barrage the APC’s and tank were disabled by rockets. What the hell were they doing up in the front of the D to start with? A reinforced company with attached armor should have easily been able to not only block but to destroy an NVA battalion fighting in the mountains near Cambodia. To do that they would have needed to build a defense in depth where the armor is kept to the rear and brought up as needed to hose down the enemy and then returned back into the D to reload. That is infantry tactics 101; armor is great in the D because it is mobile and has heavy firepower. Placing them up front in a linear defense is a ridiculously amateur move.
I mean no disrespect to Judge Okamoto who is a great example of the American fighting man. Brave, resolute, and a man who lead from the front. The story here if true (and I don’t believe a second lieutenant was in charge of a company (rein) task force at this battle) is why would he, as a very junior officer, be placed in charge of this task force? It takes somebody with military knowledge to recognize this and that’s my point. The people who put this series together did not include any experts on the topic at hand.
Mr Burns and Ms Novick did interview dozens of former military men and women who served in Vietnam. My favorite of that group would be Karl Marlantes who wrote the books Matterhorn and What it is Like to Go to War. I heard about this series during an interview Karl did with Mac on All Marine Radio. I’ll be interested in what he has to say but it is also clear that the majority of the material in this series was produced by people who know very little about the military or war.
There was plenty of incompetence at every level on all sides of this conflict. Focusing on American and South Vietnamese incompetence while giving the NVA and NLF a pass is dishonest and it sticks in my craw. The series is also promotes the lingering suspicion that the men who fought this war came home as damaged goods. Which brings us back to Judge Okamoto.
Vincent Okamoto had a successful legal career after the war and his experience matches the vast majority of his fellow Vietnam Vets. I suspect that in this series/book he’s singled out for positive treatment due to his racial background and the circumstances of his birth. I may be wrong but regardless, his success in later life is the common story for most Vietnam Vets. The media never mentioned this fact over the years and instead perpetrated a series of hoaxes like the famous CNN Tailwind story (alleging the use of Sarin gas in Cambodia) or this 1983 article about traumatized vets living in the wilderness of Washington State (not one of them, it turned out, had served in Vietnam). To this day the media narrative regarding Vietnam Vets is seldom accurate or positive.
In 1994 a Vietnam Vet named B.G. Burkett self published the book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of it’s Heroes and it’s History. The book unmasked hundreds of media and political frauds. It told the truth about the subsequent lives of the men who served and prompted congress to write into federal law the Stolen Valor Act which made lying about military service a crime. That law was quickly overturned as the Supreme Court correctly decided that lying about being a hero, although odious, is still protected under the first amendment.
I believe, based on the companion book, that PBS is once again trying to rob the Vietnam Vet’s of their heroes and history. That is why I feel compelled to critique each episode. Our country is divided enough as it is and doesn’t need more liberal propaganda shoved down our throats. I hope the series deviates from the companion book and presents a less “nuance” and more “reality” view on the subject of the Vietnam War. If it does I’ll be the first to point it out but I don’t think I’ll be doing any backtracking over the next few months. And that’s a pity.
I intend to publish a blog post weekly recapping the episodes while pointing out the bias and distortions that deviate from the true history. Judging from the companion book that is not going to be hard to do.
In a blunder too stupid to contemplate let alone explain the US Special Forces Information Operation (IO) team in Afghanistan designed leaflets that contained the Shahada “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet” printed on the side of a dog. Dogs are considered unclean to adherents of the Islamic faith; placing a Shahada on the picture of a dog is a grave insult to the faithful. In fact it is so grave that there will be no way any Afghan will believe this to be a simple mistake. This is an amateur hour self inflicted wound that for which we will pay a stiff price….take that to the bank.
The leaflets were dropped over Parwan province (I’ve also seen stories that it was dropped in the northern provinces) which has a literacy rate of 27% and most of those Afghans are Dari speakers. The leaflet is in Pashto – the language of the southern provinces. The Taliban were quick to respond sending a suicide bomber to one of the entry control gates at the Bagram airbase yesterday where he detonated his vest and wounded six soldiers (there of them Americans) and killed an interpreter.
The American military had this to say about the incident:
I sincerely apologize. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide,” said Maj. Gen. James Linder. “There is no excuse for this mistake. I am reviewing our procedures to determine the cause of this incident and to hold the responsible party accountable. Furthermore, I will make appropriate changes so this never happens again.”
Regardless of what the review of procedures reveals there is no way to explain such a reckless mistake after 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan. All this incident does is to reaffirm the wisdom of the Prince plan which focused on getting knowledgeable trainer/mentors into the country for the duration. What general Linder is going to find is someone on his/her first deployment thought this leaflet a good idea. Which is to say someone doesn’t know a damn thing about the country of Afghanistan yet is running IO ops there. The Prince plan specifically avoided putting inexperienced people in country to avoid self inflicted wounds of this nature.
Why dropping leaflets in a province where a vast majority of the population in illiterate seems a good idea at this late stage is a bigger issue than the content. It speaks to another component of the Prince plan and that is not having people in country who do not complement the mission which we have been told is training the Afghanistan National Security Forces. This is the problem with the American military today; it is a gigantic bureaucracy designed to fight the military forces of other nation states. After 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan it is still unable to task organize into a force that reflects it’s stated mission.
Adding insult to injury former Afghanistan president Karzai took to the press accusing the U.S. of launching “a psychological war against the Afghan people”. He is correct; that is what exactly what information operations are designed to do and there is no reason for us to be doing them in Afghanistan.
Misfires of this nature are part of “a cyclic pattern to the erosion of faith in government, in which politics saps the state’s capacity to protect people, and so people put their trust in other institutions”. That quote comes from an article in the New Yorker about Hurricane Harvey yet explains well the reason Private Military Companies (PMC’s) remain a viable business model in the face of unanimous condemnation by international elites.
What the New Yorker was describing and what the world witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey was the high degree of social capitol resident in America’s fly over country. The Cajun navy is a reflection of that social capitol as was the hundreds of people who launched their boats onto the flooded roadways and started saving people.
I called Frito-Lay and said, rather than manufacturing your entire product line, manufacture your bestsellers. I need Lay’s, I need Doritos, I need Fritos. I need a variety pack. I don’t need Funyons and I don’t need Munchos. Just make your best sellers. I won’t turn down any delivery. We’ll take it as fast as we can.
I don’t need Funuons….that’s hysterical…anyway the point is that the response to Hurricane Harvey demonstrated that Americans, despite years of racially polarizing IO operations from our politicians, academia, elite media and even the damn NFL we remain Americans. We’re a big country with people of every variation of color and ethnicity you can imagine who come together in times of strife to take care of each other because it’s the right thing to do. Listen to some of the Zello calls to the Cajun navy to get an idea of what I’m talking about
We are about to see how much social capitol remains in the state of Florida. Florida has more cowboys (and cows) than Texas; but it has also seen a huge influx of life long democrats moving into the state from frigid northern blue states. This is why we have odious, ethically challenged congress persons like Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the national stage. She is a second rate hack who has the audacity to claim her support for the Awan brothers (the biggest political scandal of my life that is being studiously ignored by legacy media) is a victory of diversity and a blow against racism. Unhinged lunacy of that nature is why I suspect Florida is lacking in the human capitol department. People who elect the Wasserman Schultz’s of the world are not the kind of people to risk their lives or property helping strangers.
America’s melting pot is history’s sole exception of E pluribus unum inclusivity: a successful multiracial society bound by a common culture, language and values.
Is Florida a successful melting pot or a dangerous salad-bowl of politically sanctioned, envy driven separatism? We shall soon see.
Right now the evacuation efforts in Florida are being stymied by a lack of fuel. The governor has been brow beating suppliers about getting more and is urging citizens to not top off their fuel tanks if they don’t need to drive that far to local shelters. Does anyone on planet earth believe that will happen? He can hammer away at fuel suppliers all he wants but he won’t get far. The Colonial Pipeline that carries 100 million gallons of gasoline, aviation fuel and heating oil a day from Texas refineries to the east coast is closed.
Wait…a pipeline carries 100 million gallons of gas a day from Texas to New York? Doesn’t that make all the drama surrounding the Keystone pipeline rather moot? Yes it does and it illustrates the disservice being done to our national discourse by the legacy media and virtue signalling politicians rather obvious. America can and should be energy independent; for years the oil and gas industry has been asking to expand both pipelines and refinery capacity yet congressional democrats, blue state politicians and climate alarmists have worked in tandem to prevent those investments to our energy infrastructure. That is another self inflicted wound that is already impacting Florida and may well impact the other states in the south who are in the path of Hurricane Irma.
As the cheerleaders for climate alarmism take to the airwaves to tell you how ‘climate change’ is responsible for the intensity of the current hurricane season remember the graph below. Climate models that have their inputs artificially tweaked are not reliable. Legitimate scientific observation is as are your own two eyes.
Most Americans, just like most people in other parts of the world, do not like to wait for the government to swing into action when a natural disaster strikes. The effectiveness of the help they can provide to their fellow citizens is a direct reflection of the social capitol that resides within the affected areas. Let us hope and pray that the citizens of Florida are able to put aside petty politics and rise to the occasion. Their test is at hand; the rest of the world is watching and we will soon know if the blue state model can match the red states in human decency and real (vice virtue signaling) compassion.
In light of the recent rash of Naval shipping incidents I found that link interesting and it referenced the Navy’s “Optimal Manning” program that ran from 2003 to 2012. Researching this program revealed a plan that, given the current problems with basic seamanship in the Navy, was alarming. This article from a 2004 addition of Military Times explains why.
Now, instead of training sailors in large classes for narrowly defined jobs, the Navy will be looking for people who match its precisely defined “skill objects,” and have the ability and motivation to train themselves, using computer courses available worldwide.
For example, a sonar operator needs to know how to operate sonar equipment, apply deductive reasoning, understand acoustic principles and be qualified in specific hardware and software, among other skills.
In turn, those skills define performance standards that the Navy can apply to sailors’ evaluations and career progression.
Optimal manning, and the training to achieve it, are not confined to the newer ships. Experiments aboard existing ships such as the guided-missile destroyer Milius, for example, have reduced the crew size by about half.
Capt. Albert Thomas, deputy director of the Human Systems Integration Directorate.
“Right now, our entire process is based on recruiting 18-year-olds, keeping 30 to 40 percent of them and having them work full careers.” In the future, he said, “We’ll be looking to recruit 30-year-olds to perform specific functions as well.”
Computer-based training will give sailors greater career mobility, Thomas said. “Right now we tend to send [sailors] to the same kind of ship, over and over again,” he said, because of the expense of sending a sailor to a new training course. Now, “if a sailor really wants to change from one class of training to another, it will be easier to do.”
Remote training based on self motivation? Recruiting 30 year old’s for specific skill sets? Decreasing the crew of a Arleigh Burke-classAegisguided missile destroyer by half????!!!!! I’m not sure if that drastic reduction ever happened; information of that specificity regarding manning levels is difficult to come by (as it should be) but it sure sounds like a recipe for disaster. Which may help explain the recent disasters incurred by the 7th fleet.
The optimal manning program was designed to tackle the persistent problem for all military branches of P2T2. P2T2 stands for patients (personnel in hospital), prisoners (personnel in the brig) training (personnel in schools), and transfer (personnel moving from one duty station to the next). The service personnel who fall into one of these categories are not available to the fleet (or combatant commands for the other services) for assignment thus the desire to keep P2T2 numbers as low as humanly possible.
The optimal manning program attacked the problem two ways, it reduced the numbers attending and teaching at formal schools while simultaneously cutting the manning levels for the ships in the fleet. Leveraging new technologies to accomplish those goals is commendable but any solution that promised to cut the manning levels of a ship by 50% should have been viewed as too good to be true.
What also falls under the ‘too good to be true’ category is the hope that unsupervised self directed study on a computer will yield technically proficient sailors capable of performing those same duties aboard a naval combatant at sea. There is a reason that military personnel have to demonstrate mastery of the subjects taught them at formal schools and one of those reasons is so they won’t drive into commercial ships traveling at 8 knots in congested sea lanes.
Planning to recruit middle aged people to serve as first term enlisted personnel is also foolish. The military has enough history accessing in older folks to know that statistically they fair poorly. They don’t tolerate having people much younger than them telling them what to do. They can’t handle advanced rank well because they don’t have the 10 or so years of service knowledge needed to be at that rank. They are a poor bet but that’s not the main problem; screwing up your sales force and sales systems by going after a low potential demographic is. That is also the same problem with establishing quota’s for females and transsexuals.
Our military is not an all volunteer force. It is a professionally recruited force and recruiting is a difficult business where only those who establish effective sales system and train a serious sales force with that system will thrive.
The Marine Corps takes this task seriously which is why a healthy percentage of Marine General Officers are prior recruiting station commanders. It’s hard to make it to the top without checking that box (for the ground pounder’s that is – pilots have a different career progression).
I did put a guy over 30 in while on recruiting duty. He needed massive waivers to be considered; ten years prior while attending college on a ROTC scholarship he had been involved in a DUI accident where one of his classmates had perished. Since that time he had become a national spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, never touched a drink again, and had been trying for years to enlist as being a Marine remained a major goal in his life. He did well in boot camp and went on to become a commissioned officer.
But the only reason he got in was the Marine Corps needed him. I put his package in during February, a tough recruiting month and at that time (1998) the Marine Corps was the only service making its annual recruiting mission. I had made mission already but the district needed another shipper that month and I offered him up as one we could process and ship the same week. The district commander gave him a shot and he got a chance to accomplish a life long goal. But it wasn’t about him; it was the needs of the service that allowed him in and had we not been desperate to meet our recruiting mission that month he would have never set foot on the recruit depot in San Diego. The fact that he was a good man and ultimately made a fine Marine was and remains irrelevant.
The needs of the service drive manpower requirements which brings us to the Chelsea Manning part of the manning problem. Regardless of ones opinion concerning the mental health of the transgendered population the fact remains the service has no requirement to bring them into the force structure. By definition they will spend more time in P2T2 status if we allow them to transition to what they think they should be. More importantly the argument about their potential service is focused on them, what’s ‘fair’ for them, demands of respect for their choices etc… The military isn’t about individuals and it is sure as hell not ‘fair’; it’s about the military and what it needs.
I suspect that Secretary Mattis is working the system to come up with a policy on transgendered service people that will withstand both push back from hysterical know-nothing politicians as well as the test of time. What is more important is what he is doing about the current crisis with his Navy’s basic seamanship skills. I suspect the solution is going to require re-establishing formal schools and enforcing rigorous standards to graduate from those schools. Something in the current mindset of the navy will have to change to accomplish that and one of those things, I suspect, is the current fad of getting as many women as possible assigned to ship’s crews.
As of 2016 16% of the women assigned sea duty have become pregnant which means they cannot go to sea. If the navy has already reduced manning levels by 50% with their optimal manning program that additional loss of manpower is crippling. The catastrophic accidents we have seen this year are thus inevitable.
The problems with ship driving in the navy will be rapidly corrected. They have to be. The question with the other manning issue is this; if we cave to political pressure to recruit individuals we don’t need where will it end?
Our neighbors in the great white north provide a good example of where it could end. They provide the perfect example of neo-Marxist political dogma evolving into social lunacy. A bill called C-16 is being floated in Canada as an amendment to its human rights code. It is based on the dogma that gender is a social construct and makes it a hate crime for not referring to an individual with one of the 70 and counting manufactured pronouns for expressing non-traditional gender preferences. It amounts to compelled speech, which should be anathema to a free peoples, while ignoring the fact that if you keep extending ‘rights’ you weaken existing rights and soon will have no rights.
One of the positive aspects of this strange social experiment is the emergence a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto named Jordan Peterson. He is now a YouTube star who came out of nowhere after posting 3 videos about his refusal to cooperate with compelled speech codes. Millions of people around the world, including me, have been receiving a world class education on psychology, sociology and making a coherent argument from his lectures, interviews and testimony before the Canadian Human Rights commission. A sample is pasted in below.
Canada can afford this kind of liberal cultural group think for a number of reasons not the least of which is they don’t need a functioning military; they have us next door and we’ll take care of them in a pinch. We have no big brother on our boarder and need to take our national defense seriously. The needs of the service should trump all other considerations concerning who gets to serve in our Armed Forces.
That imperative keeps getting harder to recognize in this age of a hostile congress more concerned with moral preening and buying votes then national defense. That will change only after we incur a military disaster big enough to force change. I don’t think North Korea is a big enough threat to do that and shudder to contemplate what will be.
History doesn’t care about feeling or about who is right or wrong; it doesn’t care about anything; it just happens and those who have prepared the best to deal with the worst survive. The rest…..they’re history.
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”.
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 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.
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.
The privatization of the Afghanistan War is still generating headlines and the majority of the coverage is hostile, uninformed, inaccurate and basically ad hominem attacks on Mr. Prince. Did you know that Betsy Devos, the current Secretary of Education is his sister? Can anyone explain what that has to do with Afghanistan or why it is a standard feature in almost news story about this plan?
When looking at these stories one realizes that trying to explain this program to the media and general public is like trying to explain quantum physics to kindergartners. It appears to be a hopeless task but FRI has the advantage of an informed readership. With that in mind we’ll cover the details in the hopes that you, my dear readers, will have additional ammunition should you chose to engage friends, family or co-workers on the topic.
The Prince plan involves putting trainer/mentor teams at the battalion level of the Afghan National Army and augmenting their helicopter and tactical aircraft with some 90 additional high speed, low cost aircraft. The plan takes the current projected annual price for supporting the Afghan military from 40 billion down to 10 billion. Reducing the hemorrhaging of tax money to stabilize a losing effort is the strong component of a workable the plan.
The second benefit of the plan is reducing the stress on our tactical air assets. The Marine Corps air component is currently in crisis. Average flight hours for pilots have gone from well over 80 hours a month (on average) when I was on active duty to around 10 hours and that is not enough flight time to maintain proficiency. The primary Marine tac air platform, the F-18, is so worn out that Marines are going to museums to strip parts that are no longer in production of museum pieces to try and keep their birds in the air. The Navy, who wisely went with the F-18 Super Hornet instead of waiting for the trillion dollar F-35, is in slightly better shape. The Air Force also has serious readiness issues and all the services are hemorrhaging experienced pilots. Taking the load off the our tactical air fleet is an imperative.
Also part of the plan is a helicopter fleet for combat resupply and dust offs (medical evacuation). The Afghans had dust off’s when the Americans (and NATO allies) were there in force. They have none now which means Afghan troops, who would have survived their wounds in the past, now die. That is a moral killer and unquestionably contributes to the high desertion rate then ANA is experiencing.
Another component of the plan is embedding large teams of trainers/mentors at the battalion level where they will eat, sleep, train and fight with their Afghan colleagues. We have never tried this before with the exception of the high end Afghan Special Forces units. The embedded mentor teams of the past fought with the Afghans but did not live, eat or sleep with them. They were housed in secure FOB’s inside the Afghan FOB’s where Afghans were not welcomed and could go enter.
The costs associated with maintaining mini FOB’s inside Afghan FOB’s with KBR DFACs (chow halls) that served excellent American food (to include pecan pie and unlimited mint chocolate chip ice cream) flown into the country from who knows where were astronomical. I assume the Prince Plan is not duplicating that failed strategy and base the assumption on both the cost savings and the amount of experience Mr. Prince has doing this sort of thing in the 3rd world.
Added bonus for the proposal is that the DoD is already sending armed contractors to Afghanistan to mentor (another hat tip to Feral Jundi). Here is an example from Raytheon who is looking for “armed S2 mentors”. S2 means intelligence and what they are proposing is these guys arm themselves and then mentor Afghans on an individual basis. That’s not only crazy it illustrates the hypocrisy resident in DoD opposition to the Prince plan.
The weakness of Price’s plan is not the plan itself but the way the U.S. Government (USG) handles contracts like the one he is proposing. Unless they give it to Prince as a sole source contract it will be open for bidding. A sole source contract means the contractor is the only business that can provide the services needed. Based on my observations of the performance other US PMC contenders in Afghanistan I would argue that Prince should be the sole source. But that probably won’t happen in the highly charged political atmosphere in DC today. If a contract, based on this plan, is let for bid companies with demonstrated poor performance will be allowed to bid and if they come in with a lower cost than Prince they will win. Other international companies will bid too despite the fact that they cannot conduct the proper pre-deployment training (due to restrictive weapons laws in their home country). Because they can’t train up their people they will not incur the costs associated with that training and will naturally come in lower than Prince.
I saw this play out on the Kabul Embassy security force contract and would explain that debacle in detail were I not terrified of lawyers and law suits. If the DoD or DoS or whoever lets the contract chooses the lowest bidder the plan will fail, the savings evaporate, the quality of the embedded trainers will be poor and the results will be a dismal, expensive failure.
There is also the problem of ad hominem attacks on Prince because of the Nisour square incident. I addressed why those attacks are uninformed gibberish in this post. What I want to stress is I’ve been on both sides of that problem. I know well the gut wrenching fear of watching an Opel gun it’s engines and come after you in Nisour square. I’ve had two SUV’s shot out from under me in Kabul – one by the Brit army and one by the American army. I urge you to read the linked post to get some perspective, from a guy who has been on both sides of the situation, on the Raven 23 incident.
I rate the probability of this planning moving forward at 50/50. The reason for my optimism is that there are no other rational alternatives available. The Pentagon has proposed more of the same thing they’ve been doing which is clearly (by their own admission) failing. Senator John McCain, a man I hold in extremely low regard, is threatening to come up with his own plan and I can promise you his plan will be fraught with stupidity and fuzzy logic. He’ll take parts of the Prince plan and try to shoe horn military trainers into it resulting in a 40 billion increase vice a 40 billion decrease in spending…watch and see if I’m not right.
News reports from inside the administration indicate little enthusiasm from Secretary Mattis and the DoD. That may or may not be true. Our legacy media has zero credibility with me and the vast majority of my fellow citizens. If they are saying Mattis is opposed to the plan odds are he’s not. But if he is opposed he’ll need to come up with a better plan and he knows that he doesn’t have one.
The one legitimate obstacle appears to be General McMaster; the current head of the National Security Council and author of the book Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. McMaster appears to be opposing President Trump on many of his policies which you’d expect from a guy who wrote a book about weak generals who sucked up to the presidents they were serving. It also appears that McMaster is tolerating zero dissent in his office, firing anyone holding contrary views, retaining Obama appointed deadwood and refusing to use or acknowledge the term “Islamic Terrorist”. One would not expect that from the guy who wrote Dereliction of Duty. But just because a guy writes a book about flaky generals doesn’t mean he’ll end up not being a flaky general. He may not even be a flaky general, who would you know? Reading chicken entrails is easier then deciphering media reports these days.
Generals are weird; I don’t know McMaster so I’ll focus on one I do know. If you told me that my former boss John Allen would, as a former four star general, speak in support of Hillary Clinton at a democratic national convention I may have throat punched you (metaphorically given my fear of lawyers and law suits) for bad mouthing one of my heroes. There was no way those of us who knew John Allen as a junior officer could have imagined him morphing into a political general with such spectacularly poor judgement.
I mention that to say this. The “Viceroy” portion of the Prince plan – the one government official who resides over the entire Afghan effort in order to break up the petty rice bowl guarding, slow decision making, and multiple agendas? That guy needs to have serious chops and John Allen is the only man I can think of who could do that.
Our country is so politically polarized that rational discussions have become almost impossible. The recent firing of goggle engineer James Damor who wrote a well researched piece concerning liberal group think and intolerance in an organization he was obviously devoted to is the latest example of this. The Afghans need some serious help to stabilize their country and the Prince plan is the only rational plan that will but them the time they need to stand on their own.