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.

We’re Winning…..Why Does It Feel Like We’re Losing?

I had a chance to visit with Mac on All Marine Radio last week. We touched on many topics and as we got to the end our visit we hit on something that really bothers us both. That something is winning battles only to lose wars.  Although the legacy media is not focused on the fighting going on overseas things have quietly been changing for the better. ISIS is getting its ass kicked and will soon be nothing more than a bitter memory. The Taliban now have no path to victory. They cannot win as long as America and a few hearty allies maintain a commitment to the government in Kabul. The Taliban is not going to win a military victory (I don’t think they could have done it even if we cut and run) and the people of Afghanistan know this to be true.  You can listen to Mac and I talk about this – I come on at the 23 minute mark.

Entertainers, Political Activists, being replaced & MY RIGHT TO NOT TO WATCH

All this good news should elicit a feeling of success but it hasn’t generated positive vibes with me nor is anything remotely positive seem to be working its way to the surface in our media culture. Here is my guess concerning that phenomena.

The first problem with our military efforts overseas is they are not linearly successful. Last week is was noted that every Afghan Army Corps was on the offensive. Today we see that the Taliban has launched bloody attacks in four provinces; Paktia, Ghazni, Farah and Wardak killing 78 Afghans and wounding 179 soldiers and civilians.

Raqqa has fallen and it appears that ISIS is on its last legs. That was inevitable because ISIS was a foreign entity that had invaded and claimed land that was not theirs. Yet in the face of victory we get the disturbing news that the Baghdad government is in the process of taking the oil production center of Kirkuk away from the Kurds. This is a problem; the Kurds have been loyal allies to the west, they are an oasis of sanity in a part of the world that is being consumed by Islamic madness. They have all the right enemies, the Turks, the Iranians, the Iranian puppets in Iraq and the Syrians. Operation Northern Watch. which ran from 1997 to 2003, was implemented specifically to protect the Kurds from Saddam after he gassed them back in the 90’s. Now we are going to stand aside while Iranian proxy’s invade them? Does that sit well with you?

We are currently achieving our military objectives despite the fact our military is in serious trouble. The air component of the Marine Corps is essentially non functional as evident by an alarming rate of mishaps coupled with an unsustainable decrease in flight hours. The army is lowering it’s enlistment standards to meet its recruiting goals. The navy is in shambles and apparently unable to safely operate its surface combatants. The service academies are giant money pits that are producing an inferior product. Yet the folly of using the military as a platform for social engineering continues.

Despite the bad news the military is delivering some good news but that good news is irrelevant which is the really bad news. Clausewitz explained why:

WAR IS A MERE CONTINUATION OF POLICY BY OTHER MEANS.

We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the Art of War in general and the Commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.

Providing the time and space for the Afghan government to get its act together is half a solution. The other half requires diplomats with the vision and ability to foster this process along. Diplomats who understand the tribal dynamics well enough to split the already fractured Taliban movement apart. Diplomats savvy enough to bring tribal groupings onto the side of the central government while simultaneously forcing the central government to be responsive and accountable to the people they are supposed to serve.

We need a diplomatic corps that can work with the Iraqi government to find diplomatic solutions to ancient problems. Our military efforts in the middle east should be subordinate to these diplomats but that is not the case now and hasn’t been for a long time. The military will eventually sort itself out; they answer to congress and we have seen that congress loves to get the generals in front of them to ensure compliance with whatever agenda the congress is pushing.

What I’ve never seen (and maybe I’m not paying close enough attention) is those same congressional committees calling state department mandarins into account in public hearings. Congressional oversight is used to bludgeon military leaders while the State Department gets a pass. Why? The State Department is the main tool for implementing foreign policy. Why does John McCain bully the SecDef and General Dunford about a plan for Afghanistan when their plan should be based off the State Department’s plan and their efforts subordinate to the overall State efforts?

Why is War the policy option we now use to solve the problems we created by using war as a proxy for diplomacy? I don’t know the answer to that but suspect this is the reason why, in the face of good news, we find little hope, dwindling confidence and the sense that progress towards a more peaceful world is an illusion.

 

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

The River Styx

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”.

Plei Me Special Forces Camp

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 current National Security Adviser, Gen H.R. MacMaster wrote an entire book based on examining every document associated with the Vietnam effort during the critical decision making period of 1964 – 1965. The book is titled Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. From the conclusion of that book:

“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.

 

Riding the Tiger

I found this quote from Ken Burns about his Vietnam series in a Washington Times article:

“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?

Last nights episode then focused on how we got involved in a shooting war. When watching it you one can’t help but wonder why we didn’t pull our aid to the corrupt Diem regime after they brutally suppression of Buddhist religious leaders and demonstrated serious incompetence in the field at the battle of Ap Bac. To explain why we stayed Burns glosses over a series of incidents involving President Kennedy to include the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall and a disastrous meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev in June of 1961.

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?

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.