Remembering Vietnam 50 Years On
February 15, 2018
Peter Berres / The Lexington Herald-Leader & Jordan Travis / The Traverse City Record-Eagle & Alastair Crooke / Consortium News
January 30 was the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, an attack by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces that inflicted heavy losses on US and South Vietnamese militaries and lead to the Pentagon's ignominious retreat from the country. 50 years on, military planners appear to have learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War -- still focusing on war's "winnability" rather than questioning whether it makes sense to engage in it all.
1968: The Year that Changed America
The Lexington Herald-Leader
January 30 was the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, an attack by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces that inflicted heavy losses on US and South Vietnamese militaries. The offensive was repelled, but Tet shook public support for the war in this country and ushered in the tumultuous events of 1968, a year that changed America. Peter Berres, a veteran of the Vietnam War, writes about those events and their significance 50 years on, in an occasional series that begins today and continues through 2018.
50 Years On, Vietnam War Still Cries for Soul-searching
Peter Berres / The Lexington Herald-Leader
(January 28, 2018) -- Veterans Day 2017, I watch as bleachers full of elementary and middle-school students eye with shy excitement the veterans sitting facing them. I listen as eighth-graders eloquently, innocently, honor in very personal terms our service to America. My heart is warmed, my mind, concerned.
These children's odes to veterans' courage, commitment and sacrifice mingle with my memories of compatriots lost during, since and because of the Vietnam War.
Young, smart voices thank veterans for protecting our national principles, rights, freedoms and liberties and for our most admirable commitment and selfless sacrifice to protect those of other countries.
These were exactly my beliefs at 13. Five years later, motivated by duty, I volunteered proudly for the Army, and eagerly, to ensure those values in Vietnam.
Fifty years ago this month, I deplaned into Vietnam's diesel-saturated 106 degrees, feeling privileged to represent the highest ideals and values a nation could embrace. I had never questioned my country. My loyalty was blind, my obedience automatic, and the war's "justness" assumed.
And then -- 1968. The most pivotal year in American history? I think so. Undoubtedly for our generation; certainly for most veterans of the war. And absolutely for me.
Baby-boomers morphed into the "Vietnam generation" that year, upturning forever our political, social and cultural "worlds" of superiority, confidence and innocence.
My faith became a casualty within months. America's confidence in victory evaporated after Tet, while the principles justifying our presence in Vietnam were exposed, tragically, as myth.
A child's intellectual development begins with absolutes, then gradually evolves toward holding in tension two contrasting possibilities. I leave the gymnasium wondering: When do we introduce to innocents the historical realities that counterbalance patriotic idealism and blind faith in abstract ideals?
Is it responsible to use -- only -- World War II to symbolize America's international history, or to rationalize any foreign policy? Can patriotism be informed without the historical realities from Korea, Vietnam, Chile, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan?
At what point do we demythologize war and educate young minds to think critically, which is to say, truly patriotically?
When do we admit that we are capable of doing more harm than good, thereby lessening our ability to ensure national security and compromising our espoused values -- the very values we fight for, the ones these kids believe in?
On a national level, faith in abstract ideals -- unchanged by half a century of experience --is a challenge. "A man who views the world the same way at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life -- Muhmmad Ali's poignant reminder of our need to learn from experience.
We've essentially wasted these 50 years.
This anniversary offers us the opportunity and the responsibility to review the failures of our war in Vietnam. From the unjust cause for the war, to wanton ecological destruction, excessive damage to combatants and civilians, inadequate psychological/spiritual/emotional preparation for our armed forces, and the denial of responsibility for long-term damage to veterans in terms of wounds both visible and invisible.
The five decades between 1968 and 2018 ask on this anniversary for a thorough review to link, explicitly and honestly, the past and the present -- for sake of the future. No longer can we default to nostalgia, merely sharing stories or private memories; no longer can we settle into old arguments and laying blame. This focus on the particulars of Vietnam has kept us from progress.
Now is the time to use Vietnam as a reference point, to examine principles and universal truths about war in general. We have now the choice and the chance to learn from mistakes, to dedicate ourselves as a nation to the discernment of true justification for war and the limits of military solutions, to be mindful of ecological sanctity, to treat opponents and civilians humanely, to prepare soldiers adequately, and to honor our veterans on their return with support for wounds, both physical and psychological.
At the reception, my sixth-grade granddaughter enjoys cookies and punch as I enjoy her mature inquisitiveness about my service. Unpredictably, after thoughtful pause, she asks, "Grandpa, did you kill anyone?" I smile. "That's a really important and complicated question; we'll talk about 'killing-in-war' when you're in high school."
Fifty years out, our work is to prepare critical thinking citizens who can counter the perspective of blind faith in abstract ideals with intelligent inquiry; to cultivate a foreign policy aligned with the values and principles these eighth graders celebrate, the principles which lifted me up when I was their age, the ones the next generations deserve. We would be negligent not to.
Peter Berres of Lexington is a retired educator and veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968.
'Chaos and Horror': Vietnam Vets
Remember the Tet Offensive 50 years Later
Jordan Travis / The Traverse City Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY (January 28, 2018) -- Jack Segal knew in January 1968 that the North Vietnamese Army was planning an attack.
Segal, then a US Army First Lieutenant, was at Dau Tieng base camp in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border, he said. He'd heard reports of a significant increase of North Vietnamese soldiers crossing the border.
"So we knew something was up, but we certainly didn't expect a countrywide attack," he said. "We were just focused on our little piece of the world."
Nor did Segal, a junior officer, or anyone else at Dau Tieng know when the attack would hit, he said. When the Tet Offensive came, rockets and mortars rained down on the base camp. The rate of fire was much more intense than the typical nighttime activity from North Vietnamese probing the camp's thin perimeter. He and other officers worked to direct support to troops in the field while overseeing the base camp's perimeter defense.
Tim Keenan didn't have to wait for the attack. His Army company had been making constant contact with the North Vietnamese Army near Dak To since November 1967, he said. It only got worse after the Tet Offensive started on Jan. 30, 1968.
"We were into it then," he said. "It was chaos and horror."
Keenan said his company commander later told him they'd had more contact with the enemy between November and February than any other company in Vietnam.
Lawrence Bailey --everyone calls him Camp -- was in Qui Nhon and nearing the end of his 18-month tour when the offensive hit. The Army machine gunner had patrolled Saigon's streets during curfew for a year before going to the coastal town. He, too, knew the attack was coming and was guarding an outpost when Viet Cong guerrilla fighters hit.
"When they took over, we could start hearing explosions and shooting, we could hear it from where we were," he said. "The first thing the Viet Cong did was take over the radio station in Qui Nhon and they started broadcasting."
Bailey and others flew to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, where he watched South Vietnamese pilots in Skyraiders spray ground attackers with gunfire. The fight took place near where he'd filled sandbags before. It was an eye-opener, but also exciting to watch.
The three men, all draftees in their early 20s then and in their 70s now, were among hundreds of thousands of US military personnel taking part in the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong launched attacks all throughout South Vietnam.
By March 2, 1968, 1,744 US servicemen were killed and many more were wounded, according to White House figures Ronald Spector cites in "After Tet." That year would go on to be the bloodiest of the war as fierce battles continued after the offensive.
The barrage often is considered the beginning of the end of the years-long conflict, Northwestern Michigan College Humanities Instructor Tom Gordon said.
The offensive was a disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, Gordon said. They were eventually beaten everywhere they were attacked, sometimes overnight. The hoped-for uprising of South Vietnamese against their government never came. And the North Vietnamese lost roughly a third of their 100,000-strong attacking force -- tens of thousands of Viet Cong likely died as well.
North Vietnamese leaders were panicked, Gordon said. But in the US, televised images of the assault, and CIA agents fighting attackers at the US Embassy in Saigon turned many Americans firmly against the war.
Bailey left Vietnam in mid-February 1968 after holing up in a Saigon hotel five blocks from the US embassy with eight other soldiers, he said. The Military Police stuck them there with a pile of rations, rifles, flak jackets and ammo -- but no radio -- and picked them up after a week.
"I still don't know to this day why we were down there," he said.
Bailey saw an empty Saigon littered with burned-out cars and bullet-strewn buildings as he rode to the air base. The image stuck with him after seeing thousands of people in the city's streets before.
Another lingering sight for Bailey was finding an array of refrigerated caskets at Tan Son Nhut, he said -- it still pains him to remember. He could tell they'd been used to carry soldiers' remains home.
Death came so randomly to those who served, Segal said. He remembers Larry Stephan, his cubicle mate in officer candidate school. The two became close friends but were separated when Stephan went to Vietnam while Segal stayed behind to train for a parachute assignment that never came.
Stephan had been killed by the time Segal arrived five weeks later, Segal said.
Segal said he thinks of Stephan's life as one unlived. He died at 19, and his was one of 58,220 US soldiers' lives cut short by the war. The conflict was one Washington's leaders believed to be unwinnable.
Keenan's battalion suffered 660 killed or wounded in eight months, he said. They would push up one hill after another, looking for North Vietnamese troops near where the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese borders meet.
"When we went up a hill and we met resistance, we knew we were in deep trouble, but we knew we had to keep moving, we had to go up and take the hill, so that's what we did," he said.
Fighting was so intense that there was no time to grieve the dead, save late at night alone in one's bunker, Keenan said. The battalion would move on, and the North Vietnamese would recapture what they'd lost a few days later. It didn't take long before Keenan and others wondered: why are we here?
Bailey said everyone in Vietnam played a part and did the best they could. He believes the Pentagon kept the commanders from doing what they needed to do in the fight to stop the spread of communism.
The experience taught Segal to always test the assumption that those in command can truly see the grand scheme. He also fears the US too often commits to Vietnam-like, gradually growing foreign interventions.
Segal went on to work for the State Department in Greece, Russia and Israel, he said. He later worked in the White House as director of nonproliferation and for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, then as political adviser to the NATO commander in Afghanistan. He now lives in Traverse City.
"I think it was beneficial to have someone, when someone says, we need to send troops there, that someone understands what that actually means, and there were occasions when that was definitely useful," he said.
Keenan, of Traverse City, said he came back changed, struggling with relationships and finding himself impatient with people who were upset over trivial things. But he worked through it with the help of family, friends and counselors, eventually overcoming his fear of the woods to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. He also visited Vietnam with his son, and is now president of Northern Michigan Veterans for Peace.
Bailey, who became a contractor after the war and lives in Beulah, struggled with sleepless nights as well -- he still has nightmares that he's fighting the Viet Cong, sometimes in Chum's Corner. And the smell of diesel sends him on a 12,000-mile mental journey.
Both Bailey, who's on Benzie County's Veterans Affairs Committee, and Keenan agreed any combat veteran who struggles with their experience should find a support group of other combat veterans. It's too big a burden to handle yourself, Keenan said.
"For all the veterans that went there at that time, my hat's off to them," Keenan said.
Vietnam and the US 'Forever Wars'
Alastair Crooke / Consortium News
(February 2, 2018) -- Setting aside for the moment President Donald Trump's animus to Barack Obama and all his works (notably the JCPOA, AKA the Iran nuclear deal), and his close attachment to Benjamin Netanyahu, much of this administration's foreign policy seems to Beltway outsiders as one that is strategically incoherent: increasing US troop levels in Afghanistan (after 16 years of war); a militarized 'statelet' to be constructed in northeastern Syria; a ploy to divide Lebanon; operational collaboration with Saudi's Yemen war; and 'taking Jerusalem off the table.'
These policies all seem to be conceived with a puzzling indifference to the likelihood for US failure and humiliation.
Now one military historian who served with US forces in Iraq tells us in a compelling discourse that if we find it confusing, it is because we have failed to grasp the essence of what drives these policies. He explains -- in a single word -- what it is that we're missing: Vietnam
"It's always there," Danny Sjursen writes of the Vietnam War. "Looming in the past, informing American futures. A 50-year-old war, once labeled the longest in our history, is still alive and well; and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command. And almost half a century later, they're still losing it and blaming others for doing so."
More than two decades of involvement, spanning from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s and -- at the height of involvement -- with half a million American troops on the ground, the basic weakness was never altered, observes Sjursen. The US-backed regime in Saigon was simply unable to hold the line without American military support -- and ultimately collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion, in April 1975.
"There's just one thing," Sjursen writes. "Though a majority of historians . . . subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not. Instead, they're still refighting the Vietnam War."
Many of the current military leaders entered the service when military prestige was at an all-time low ebb. They came of age believing the Vietnam failure was due to political cowardice in Washington, or due to a military high command that too weak to assert its authority effectively.
But none of the military analysis done by this post-Vietnam generation of officers ever addressed the basic question "about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable" from the beginning.
No, in this view, the war could, and should, have been won -- if only the right approach had been pursued.
Thus, we have had "forever war" which is designed empirically to "prove" the two major military theses of the war lacunae -- which if they had been properly implemented in Vietnam, instead of being neglected -- would assuredly have led to an American "win."
This revisionist history began in 1986 with an article by David Petraeus in the military journal Parameters, in which he argued that the US army was unprepared to fight low intensity conflicts (such as Vietnam), and that "what the country needed wasn't fewer Vietnams; but better-fought ones. The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars."
One strand of military analysis (the Clauswitzian, "go-big" hypothesis), about how to "win" next time, was initiated by a Colonel Harry Summers, who suggested that "civilian policymakers had lost the war by focusing hopelessly on the insurgency in South Vietnam rather than focus on the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi: More troops, more aggressiveness, even full-scale invasions of communist safe havens in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, would have led to victory."
Though H.R. McMaster (the present National Security Advisor) in a 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, pinned the blame rather on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a lack of honesty in advising the President Johnson on what was needed to "win," he agreed with Summers that "winning" required a more aggressive offensive strategy -- a full ground invasion of the North, or unrelenting carpet-bombing of that country.
In this sense, he was another "go-big" Clausewitzian -- and we may recognize something of this earlier intellectual framing in McMaster's attempt in April 2017 to persuade President Trump to deploy 150,000 US troops to Afghanistan, as a Petraeus-style "surge." It will be recalled also, that McMaster reportedly is the advocate for a more aggressive, military-options approach for North Korea.
The other strand -- the lack of a COIN, or counterinsurgency, approach in Vietnam -- was initially adopted by Colonel Krepinevich as the overarching explanation for the US military's Vietnam failure. The definitive COIN doctrine, Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations, however, was overseen by David Petraeus, working with another officer, Lt. General James Mattis (the present Defense Secretary).
Petraeus would "famously return to Iraq in 2007," Tom Engelhardt notes, "that manual in hand, with five brigades, or 20,000 US troops, for what would become known as 'the surge,' or "the new way forward" -- an attempt to bail the Bush administration out of its disastrous occupation of the country."
"Such revisionist interpretations of the Vietnam experience would prove tragic in Iraq and Afghanistan, once they had filtered down to the entire officer corps," Sjursen reflects. "All of this misremembering, all of those Vietnam 'lessons' inform the US military's ongoing 'surges' and 'advise-and-assist' approaches to its wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa."
Both Vietnam revisionist schools are represented in the Trump administration and guide its version of global strategy. There are those who demand a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam and there is a "hearts-and-minds" faction that consists of officers who have spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to more than two-thirds of the world's nations. "Today's leaders don't even pretend that the post-9/11 wars will ever end," notes Sjursen.
In an interview last June, Petraeus described the Afghan conflict as "generational," raising the specter of a decades-long engagement. Speaking on PBS' News Hour, Petraeus said:
"But this [war in Afghanistan] is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We're not going to take a hill, plant a flag, [and] go home to a victory parade.
"And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable. We have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time: Still there, of course, and actually with a renewed emphasis now, given Russia's aggressive actions. And I think that's the way we need to approach this."
The analysis by Sjursen helps explain what otherwise seems to be ill-conceived actions by the US military, such as militarily to occupy (i.e. illegally) a corner of Syria (well, 40% of it really). War with Russia and Iran, it would appear, are "forever" wars -- generational struggles. China is too, but that is a financial war front, principally.
McMaster said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2016: "What is required to deter a strong nation . . . is forward deterrence, to be able to ratchet up the cost at the frontier, and to take an approach to deterrence that is consistent with deterrence by denial, convincing your enemy that your enemy is unable to accomplish his objectives at a reasonable cost."
That is perhaps what America's annexation of northeastern Syria is all about: ratchetting up the cost, at the frontier; a deterrence by denial (of Syrian land to Iranian forces).
Europe might like to ponder McMaster's words. For if the U.S is engaged in "generational," COIN-influenced operations against Iran, the Europeans are fighting the wrong war: Trying to appease Trump, by setting up a working group with the Americans to consider how the JCPOA can be improved, or entering into talks on ballistic missiles with Iran, is likely to achieve nothing: it will be simply subsumed into what McMaster described as the US needing to operate effectively on this "battleground of perception and information."
That is to say the Europeans will be colluding with the US COIN operations being mounted against Iran.
What is less clear however, about "what's up" with US foreign policy, is this: At the 2016 CSIS event, McMaster described Russia's "invasion" of Ukraine and its "annexation" of Crimea as having "punctuated" the end of the post-Cold War period, but that these were not new developments "in terms of Russian aggression."
"Of course, this is a sophisticated strategy, what Russia is employing -- and we're doing a study of this now with a number of partners -- that combines, really, conventional forces as cover for unconventional action, but a much more sophisticated campaign involving the use of criminality and organized crime, and really operating effectively on this battleground of perception and information, and in particular part of a broader effort to sow doubt and conspiracy theories across our alliance," McMaster outlined.
"And this effort," he continued, "is aimed really not at defensive objectives, but at offensive objectives -- to collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic, and political order in Europe, and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests."
This is frankly psychotic. It reminds of Fyodor Dosoevsky's The Possessed, in which the revolutionaries fearing for the soul of Russia (read America), believe that, unless the perceived threats to her are exorcised by a renewal of vigor and a pure nationalism, their country would be overwhelmed. It is a study in the fragmentation of human psyche, which leads the group to see everything conspiring together, to destroy what they see to be the true soul of their homeland.
McMaster's view is presented as if America is the threatened, fragile psyche -- under evil attack from all quarters. There seems to be no understanding that these fears might be largely the projections from his own psyche (as in Dostoevsky's analysis), or that American military actions might have contributed anything to towards these antagonisms that he now identifies as threatening him, and his country; or that the dissolution of the American-shaped global order or America's dominance over the global financial system, may represent changing major underlying dynamics, that are occurring in, and of, themselves and not connected directly to Russia.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.
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