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Part I: Déjà Vu

September 18, 2017

The Vietnam War, a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary which premiered last night allegedly seeks to correct the record that generations of American have grown up with—a mistaken war that the United States lost. Its press claims that it is also reportedly the deepest exploration of the origins and the fighting of the war. This sets a high bar given the Vietnam War has been one of the most widely reported conflicts in history as it was the first war that was piped nightly into the homes on main street USA. It was here that the war was eventually lost. I’ll be watching with interest to see if this point comes home.

In 1961 when I stood on the Plain at West Point to be sworn in as a new cadet the idea that in five years time some of us standing there would be dying in Vietnam was unimaginable. Our class began to be aware of the growing conflict in Vietnam in 1962-63. By the time we graduated in 1965 we had studied the division of French Indochina and many other insurgencies and what had worked for other militaries.

We had attended Ranger School and some of us were parachute qualified. Did this help us in Vietnam? We will comment on that at the end of the miniseries. When the war was over my West Point Class had lost over 30 combat fatalities and we are still counting the losses from Agent Orange and other causes. Will future episodes respect the loss of these great Americans?

The first episode of the new PBS Vietnam War series felt like reliving history through a focus that serves the interests of left wing historians. If the Déjà Vu episode is indicative of the lens of the entire series, it will further antagonize many veterans who are convinced that such historical revisionism disguises the war that was won by their blood sweat and tears and lost due to the efforts of leftist journalists and their anti-war student leftists.

It is this dichotomy of views that the PBS miniseries fails, at this point, to address. To be exact the insertions of body bags into the historical mistakes of the French compounds this image.

 

Nuclear weapons and their employment–media deception

The media, amid rising nuclear tensions with North Korea and concern over the potential for war, has captured some unfortunate discussion by the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander. He reportedly said that he would resist President Trump if he ordered an “illegal” launch of nuclear weapons.  What an illegal launch of nuclear weapons is was never clarified.

STRATCOM is the command that controls the strategic weapons commands of primarily the Navy (submarines and carrier based aircraft) and the Air Force (bombers and silo based missiles).  It is STRATCOM that would issue the orders to the selected commands to employ selected weapons system against selected targets.  These targets and systems are each accounted for in the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).

Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), reportedly told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada that he had thought a lot about what to say if he received such an order.

“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten reportedly said in response to a question about such a scenario. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”

There are two issues about this story that are worrying:

  1. The media attempt to characterize the president as unstable and reckless has only the folk image that it is trying to create as a basis for such a portrayal.  Such characterization when it involves nuclear weapons would be truly damning.
  2. Both the question and the answer do not do justice to the way that nuclear weapons would be employed.

As mentioned above, nuclear weapons are targeted based on the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The SIOP is a master list of targets and these are allocated weapons and delivery systems for multiple different scenarios/contingencies/situations.  A president cannot just tell the Secretary of Defense or a field commander to “nuc” a desired target.  That is just not how the system works.

The SIOP has matured and changed since the beginning of the nuclear era in 1945.  There are numerous personnel from each of the services involved in building and refining the SIOP on almost a continuous basis.  Targets change, weapons system availability changes, and contingencies change making the process extremely dynamic and closely controlled and tightly held.  When the president would order the execution of some part of the SIOP it would be based upon a situation and the best advice that he could get from both the intelligence and operational communities of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other agencies.  It is not a unilateral decision done in the “dark’ as the question and answer would imply.

Unfortunately for the STRATCOM commander the details of the process of using nuclear weapons is highly classified and could not be part of his answer.  If he was thinking he probably would have said something to the effect of implying reckless behavior on the part of the president is not something that it is useful to discuss.  At this time if I was the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I would have a “chat” with General Hyten.

It is deplorable that the effort to demean President Trump has reached this level of reporting—the creating of false implications and news.

 

Niger Ambush—what do we know?

The details of the ambush of a Special Forces patrol that was ambushed in Nigeria 3 weeks ago are slowly emerging. The media is implying a cover-up in the tone of the reporting.

A cover-up is of course possible, but more likely there are operational secrets about such operations and the extent of operations in the region that Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not want to disclose in its fight against ISIS offshoots in Africa. (Readers should note that this type of re-emergence of ISIS was anticipated in my previous article about the destruction of ISIS)

What do we know?

  • There are over 1000 troops from AFRICOM operating in Africa as part of an effort that began during the Obama administration to attack terrorist elements of many different stripes in Africa. These include ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
  • After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015.
  • About a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit joined roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers on October 3 launched what was initially expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission.
  • The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
  • The patrol was a mounted patrol, which meant that it was travelling well defined routes. (This of course would make setting an ambush much easier.)
  • They were attacked by about 50 militants while returning to base, and four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed. Two Americans were wounded, as were six Nigeriens.
  • The troops waited almost an hour before they called for help, possibly thinking that they could handle the band that attacked them.
  • There was a drone overhead within minutes of the call for assistance and French Mirage fighters 60 minutes after that, though the French could not engage because the two sides were so close to each other.

Speculation includes that they might have stopped in an ISIS friendly village for supplies and were delayed while the ambush was established. There is also speculation that they were seeking an ISIS leader.

The fact that it took an hour for them to call for help may have also been caused by communications problems. This is a problem if they did not anticipate such problems.  It is also unlikely that they did not report initial contact, unless their communications were being jammed.  Planning for such patrols should always include contingencies to deal with exactly what happened.  Had they become too complacent because of a lack of contact on previous such patrols?   One would not expect this, but until the final report is rendered we can only speculate.

A final, related comment. It is always a sad day when we lose an American Service Man in combat against ISIS.  It is even a worse day when the wife of one of the fallen chooses, along with her congress-lady, to make a political issue out of the death of a brave soldier.  I am hard pressed to understand when the President called the wife to express his condolences as to why the congress-lady was present.  I have made calls like the President did and consoled the families of fallen soldiers.  It is one of the toughest tasks that I had to do in my 30 years of active duty.  Trying to console and help the families of fallen soldiers is in the same category of not leaving a comrade on the battlefield—we take care of our own!  I can only guess at my reaction if someone had treated my efforts like they treated the President’s, but it would not have been pretty!

We will follow up on this story as it continues to unfold.

The Caliphate is destroyed but ISIS lives

The last of the ISIS stronghold in /Syria and along the Syrian border with Iraq have fallen. The Caliphate is no more, but ISIS is not dead.  Also the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not over.  In fact they may be just beginning.

With the fall of Raqqa, the titular capitol of the caliphate the ISIS dream of a caliphate stretching across the middle-east is ended, for now. ISIS can no longer sell oil and women.  It can no longer collect taxes and impress youths into their militias.  It no longer controls any major geographic areas in the middle-east.  But the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise so quickly are still very much present.  The Sunnis and the Shias are still antagonistic towards each other.  The Kurds don’t trust either group or the Turks cannot stand the new US supported Kurdish militias that have emerged victorious in their efforts.  The Free Syrians have captured areas from ISIS that the Syrians are going to want to have control of again.  The Russians, Iran and Hezbollah are still supporting Syria.  Iran, the US allies and others are still supporting Iraq.  The US and the Turks are still supporting the Free Syrians.

Additionally, ISIS has now established roots in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Philippines to name a few places. Each of these ISIS affiliates will continue to wreak havoc where and when they can.  The key for ISIS and its affiliates is to reestablish a source of resources now that its population and economic base is gone.  It must continue to recruit from the Islamic refugees and victims of the violence in Syria and Iraq who have been scattered all over the globe.  Continued recruitment is key because over time the existing followers will be found and dealt with.  Rooting out the cells in both Syria and Iraq and the rest of the world will be a very difficult struggle but over time attrition of the existing ISIS follower will occur and ISIS will wither without recruits.  It also needs resources.  The need for resources suggests crimes of violence—kidnappings, bank robberies, drugs, human trafficking, etc.

Thus though the ground war is won against ISIS the celebration will be brief and meaningless unless the root distrust and poverty are not dealt with.   This will be difficult because the cities like Mosul and Raqqa suffered severe damage.  Homes must be rebuilt. Businesses must be reestablished.  Social conflict must be minimized.   A different type of war is thus necessary—one to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, probably in some other name.

Superimpose these conditions with the multi-sided power seekers who believe they have won their pieces of the geographic pie. The two key non-governmental players here are the Kurds and the Free Syrians.  The Kurds want their independence from Iraq and Iran (and Turkey?).  The Free Syrians want to over throw Assad and claim all of Syria.  This probably means renewed combat but by a different set of players.  How will the outsiders react?  Will the Russians and withdraw their support for Assad?  Will the US withdraw its support from the Kurds and the Free Syrians?  How will Iran try and gain control of Iraq in its own efforts to create a caliphate.  These are all unanswered questions that must be answered quickly.

There have been four significant phases of Islamist militancy over the past 50 years. The first two—growing threat and threat local efforts occurred in the late 1970s through the 90s. These were in large part ignored until they threatened western interests.  The third and the have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west.

All four have followed a similar path– a slow, mostly unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event or series of events that brought the new threat to western public attention, a phase of brutal conflict and sever casualties and then retreat to fight another day. We are now entering the fourth phase

However, a victory is a victory, and there are so few reasons for cheer these days. So nations should briefly celebrate the defeat of the Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate while keeping a watchful lookout for the next fight, which will be different but the same.

Vietnam War; Episode 7 The veneer of civilization and Episode 8 The History of the World

 

The two episodes are painful to watch because they show the unravelling of civil society in the United States as an exit is sought form Vietnam.  Nixon was to call it “Peace with Honor.”

The most painful thing for me was to revisit the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.  The police riot and the protestor riots sickened me.  I had just returned from Vietnam and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I actually called home and told my folks “that at least in Vietnam I was armed and knew who the enemy was.”

It was reactions like mine caused Richard Nixon to win the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam, the war went on and soldiers on all sides witnessed terrible savagery and unflinching courage. The episode is short on highlighting the courage and focuses on the ravages of war. The number of casualties shown and the extent of their wounds was greatly overplayed.

It is interesting that there is no mention of Jane Fonda in the vividly displayed anti-war activities.  Hanoi Jane was actually a rallying image for the forces in Vietnam and the veterans.  She is still mutually hated by most Vietnam veterans.

Episode 8 focuses on the plummeting morale of the troops in Vietnam. It also argues that the Vietnamese Armed Forces were corrupt, while trying to explain “Vietnamization”.  Vietnamization was the strategy that allowed President Nixon to begin withdrawing American troops.

The episode paints the incursion into Cambodia as a strategic mistake because of the public debates the rectitude of the war.  The My Lai massacre contributes to the renewal of the anti-war excesses.

Since the entire documentary is short of strategic explanations and long on adding to the history of moral outrage at the war it is not surprising that the invasions of Cambodia and Laos are not explained.  Their purpose of course was to try and gain time for Vietnamization.  It can be argued that in this regard they were a success.  I say that while reminding the reader of two things:

  1. The invasion of Laos was a tactical defeat for RVN
  2. If the invasion had occurred in 1968, not 1971 the results would have been much different.

The final note that I would add to this discussion is how important Nixon made the return of the POWs.  Their health and welfare was a rallying issue for most Americans.  Their importance gave the North Vietnamese more leverage in the negotiations.

Part 6 “Things fall apart”

September 24, 2017

This episode covers the time period from January to July 1968.There are really two parts of the episode:

  1. The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
  2. The political turmoil in the United States linked to the war, the death of Martin Luthur King and to some extent the death of Bobby Kennedy.

The brutal battles of the Tet offensive occurred just two months after Gen. William Westmoreland had assured the press that the North Vietnamese are “unable to mount a major offensive,” The presentation argues that American forces were surprised by the scale and scope of a coordinated series of attacks. However, it also quotes several sources as saying that they saw something coming but had not pieced the information together.

The attacks on the eve of the Tet holiday in late January 1968, were intended to cause the ARVN to fall apart and the civilians to turn to support the communists, The surprise attacks on cities and military bases throughout the south, caused the VC and NVA to endure devastating losses but casted grave doubt on President Lyndon Johnson’s promise that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”  The focus is on the political loss of credibility.

It is interesting to hear President Johnson talk about the lies and misreporting of the main street press.  Sound familiar?  The press focus was on Saigon.  The picture of the Police Chief executing a VC who had just kille3d a soldier and his wife and 4 children dominated the news coverage.  (Of course the atrocities committed by the VC are never mentioned.)  One of the VC survivors is quoted as saying that they paid a high price for that picture.

The brutality of the Communist Tet Offensive unfolds DAILY on television, increasing opposition to the war. The episode notes that Tet failed Although it fails from a military standpoint but it had a  devastating effect on American opinion about Vietnam involvement. We see the entire comme3ntary from CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, known as “the most trusted man in America,” when he expresses his opinion that the war is hopelessly deadlock. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson reportedly says, “I’ve lost middle America.”

What is missing from this entire episode is any discussion of the ‘agony of Khe Sanh”.  Khe Sanh is treated as a secondary battle in comparison to the Tet offensive.  I have heard this argument before and have tried to put it into perspective using the NVA’s own strategy in my book Expendable Warriors: The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.(Pages 135-136).  .I spend over a page debunking the side show assertion of the episode. In the  conclusion I question the side show assertion by noting that 5000 Marines, Soldier, ARN and Brou Montagnards tied down and ultimately destroyed 2 divisions that could have been used elsewhere.  Secondly assert that victory at Khe Sanh or victory in the cities during Tet would have been victory.  Finally, I debunk the assertion that Khe Sanh was a diversion by noting that over two divisions were drawn to the Northern Corps and thus were available to counter the attacks on Hue and Quang Tri.  These forces did not get involved in Khe Sanh until after the destruction of the Tet offensive communist force and thus the diversion argument fails in the shadow of military reality.

On 31 March President Johnson stunneds the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

I argue that it is at this point that the war in Vietnam was lost politically.  Johnson had forgone a military victory.  Interestingly on the next day, Major Paul Schwartz briefed Major General John Tolson, Commander of the forces that were about to relieve the Khe Sanh Combat base, about the 1st Cavalry Division’s next mission to attack the remnants of the NVA who had escaped Hue in the Aschau Valley about 40 kilometers or so south of Khe Sanh.  Major Schwartz’s concept was to use the Corps sized force that was relieving Khe Sanh and continue west into Laos, turn south on the Ho Chi Minh trail and enter the Aschau valley from the west rather than the east.  This would have done several things:.

  1. Achieved tactical and possibly strategic surprise
  2. Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, and
  3. Used the 90 days of supply that were at Khe Sanh

Tolson interrupted the briefing by saying: “Didn’t you hear the President last night? What you are proposing is politically impossible.”

The war was to run on for 7 more years when it was virtually won at that point in history.

Vietnam: Part V “This is what we do” (July to December 1967)

This episode has three major thrusts.

The first focuses on American casualties in the Central Highlands and south of the DMZ that divided North and South Vietnam.  The DMZ was part of the Paris accords of 1954 that ended the French Indochina war. There is also a discussion of enemy body count.  The argument was that demographics argued that the North Vietnamese did not have the manpower to replace their losses.

I have also been a critic of body count as a measure of combat effectiveness and thus a measure that a side was “winning.”  Body count does not measure will to endure.  Many have argued that body count as measured in number of body bags was the US weakness that our opponents discerned coming out of the Vietnam War.  Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to deter the US from restoring Kuwait in the first Gulf War, claimed that the US should prepare for many body bags. This weakness came from the weekly body count—US and opponents—that were released by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam.

The second thrust was that body count meant that the US was winning.  This is juxtaposed against a belief that all relevant measurements showed that the US won the war before it started.

Third is a teaser for the upcoming episodes as Hanoi lays plans for a massive surprise offensive.  What the episode does not reveal is that the fights around Con Thien and the DMZ were really a test by the NVA.  The North Vietnamese leadership wanted to verify that the US would not invade North Vietnam.  Once assured by the actions along the DMZ they were free to move more than 2 divisions towards Khe Sanh for January 21st attacks there.

If the authors of this series were really interested in a strategic analysis that above would be apparent.

Part IV: Resolve

September 20, 2017

This episode focuses on North Vietnamese troops and materiel stream down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south. The flow is uninterrupted by U.S. airpower over Laos.

Meanwhile ARVN struggles to “pacify the countryside.” By safeguarding the population in strategic hamlets, increasing the use of popular force units to guard villages and aggressive patrolling.  This effort was of marginal effectiveness according to the documentary. This result may not be as negative as the series would have us believe.  This will become much more evident a year or so later when ARVN and others do not join the VC during the Tet offensive.

The episode also includes the growing antiwar movement. The authors attribute this to college students who have avoided the draft. This draft avoidance is also allegedly a cause for the force being more and more populated with uneducated and lower intelligence personnel.  This is truly a slap at those brave men and women who served.

As the need for more troops for Vietnam increased, draft rules were changing and this further fueled the anti-war movement.

Finally, the episode argues that the soldiers and Marines discover that the war they are being asked to fight in Vietnam is nothing like their fathers’ war—mostly World War II.  As one of those soldiers whose father was killed in World War II, and who is a student of war. there was no illusion that the war I was fighting was like my father’s. However, during the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. I sometimes likened my experience to the trench warfare of World War I.

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