Larry Kummer, at Fabius Maximus, identifies the lessons the leadership of both sides learned from the early Vietnam War Battle of Ia Drang (famously depicted in the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers” ). Only one side’s leadership got the lesson right.
On 14 November 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) flew to the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, initiating the first major battle between the North Vietnamese and American armies. This marked our transition from advisers to direct combatants. There were two battles. One at Landing Zone X-Ray, where Americans under the command of Lt. Colonel Harold G. Moore (Lt. General, US Army, deceased) withstood fantastic odds â€“ inflicted absurdly disproportionate casualties (with the aid of airpower and artillery), and withdrew. One at Landing Zone Albany, where Lt. Colonel Robert McDade made a series of basic mistakes that led to his unit being mauled. …
Ia Drang tested the new concept of air assault, in which helicopters inserted troops to a distant battlefield, then supplied and extracted them. During that four day â€œtestâ€ 234 American men died, â€œmore Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War.â€ Both sides drew optimistic conclusions from the result.
We believed that our combination of innovative technology and tactics could achieve the victory that eluded France. We saw Ia Drang as a tactical success that validated our new methods, and so we expanded the war. We absurdly believed the victory resulted from our technology, not the valor and skill of our troops.
â€œIn Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, Gen William C. Westmoreland, and his principal deputy, Gen William DePuy, looked at the statistics of the 34-day Ia Drang campaign â€¦ and saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese to one American. What that said â€¦was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.â€
North Vietnamâ€™s leaders drew the opposite conclusions.
â€œIn Hanoi, President Ho Chi Ming and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech firestorm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americas to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory. In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.â€
Also, North Vietnamâ€™s leaders believed that US commanders would more often be like McDade than Moore. The next decade proved that they were correct. General VÃµ NguyÃªn GiÃ¡p understand the significance of this battle, and that the war would evolved as he had explained in 1950 to the political commissars of the 316th Division (then discussing France, but eventually true of America as well â€” in Vietnam as well as our post-9/11 wars)â€¦
â€œThe enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: he has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.â€
â€” From Bernard Fallâ€™s Street without joy: Indochina at war, 1946-54 (1961).
Not many Vietnam memoirs refer to “fond memories,” but Barry Fixler is not your ordinary memoirist. Fixler was a feisty little (130 lb. — 60 kilo.) Jewish kid from Long Island, who decided that he needed more discipline and joined the Marine Corps instead of going straight to college in the late 1960s, during the War in Vietnam, when pretty much everybody else was dodging the draft.
Fixler survived the ordeal of Marine Corps boot camp, and indeed went to Vietnam.
We landed in Da Nang and walked down the stairs from the plane to a Marine sergeant waiting on the tarmac. He started in alphabetical order, handing guys their orders telling them their assigned units.
I’d been in Vietnam for an hour and the sergeant was telling me I’m already dead. I turned to Mike Ali, my good buddy from boot camp. “Fuck, I’m dead!”
“Yeah,” Mike said. Sergeant just told me I’m a basket case.”
We didn’t realize at the time just how ominous that label was for him.
If you are alive, that meant your unit was in one of the less dangerous places in Vietnam. If you were a basket case, your unit was in a pretty bad place. If you were dead, that meant you were headed straight into the deep shit. Your unit was in the middle of the worst of the worst combat.
The sergeant probably should have only designated Fixler “a basket case,” as he was initially headed, for the first part of his 13 month tour, to Phu Bai to walk combat patrols and arrive by helicopter into hot landing zones.
Fixler really became “dead” in the second portion of his tour, consisting of defending the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh, where Fixler and other Marines were overrun on Hill 861-A, February 5, 1968. Despite being overrun, Barry Fixler actually survived Khe Sanh, and later got to patrol the DMZ out of Con Thien and Dong Ha.
Fixler finished his enlistment showing the flag in Dress Blues in the Mediterranean. Unlike a lot of people who complain, Barry Fixler tells his readers that he enjoyed his time in the Marine Corps, that he liked the discipline and comraderie so much that, when he got home, he re-enlisted in the reserves.
Barry Fixler is the kind of guy who remains a Marine all his life.
Many years later, his home of Rockland County was looking for combat veterans to counsel soldiers who’d returned from Iraq and Afghanistan complaining of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fixler volunteered, but he was never assigned a position as a counselor because he simply does not believe in PTSD.
Some great anecdotes from the book illustrate his position.
During a course given to volunteer instructors, preparing them for their roles, there was a lecture and book signing by a nationwide PTSD specialist, at which Fixler encountered quite a coincidence and expressed his own opinion.
He was only 10, 15 minutes into a two-hour lecture, and he started describing one of his patients who had fought in the siege of Khe Sanh. He described how traumatized the Marine was, how his hill was overrun, how he had to kill or be killed, how his life was torn apart, how he lost his soul right then and there.
It was obvious to me that Dr. Tick was describing the night of February 5, 1968 â€“ the night we were overrun on Hill 861-A.
Tick was quoting this patient, speaking for the Marine now:” I lost my soul! My life is gone! Everything is gone! I can’t continue! I can’t fight! I can’t do anything!”
People sat with their mouths open in awe, listening to Tick talk about the so-called warrior who lost it all, lost his soul, everything, died, spiritually died at that point, and I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. ..
I stood and introduced myself.
I was at Khe Sanh. I have credibility, a unit citation from President Lyndon B. Johnson. And I was on that hill, at that exact place, at that exact moment. If what that Marine said to you about losing his soul and losing his life, losing everything, if he had said that to me then or now, I would say to him, “You are a coward!'”
Then I sat again. The room was silent. Tick lectures for living –he’s a professional –but he struggled to regain his composure.
“I see your point,” he mumbled. “I see your point.”
As the talk proceeded:
I kept my peace and let the other veterans speak for the rest of lecture, until one of the West Point cadets stood and asked Tick, “What can we do to stop this PTSD?”
I blew it then. She asked Tick the question, but I popped up.
“That’s easy. Are you guys trained to get used to seeing bodies scattered all over the place? Well, when we kill a bad guy in Iraq, when we blow their skulls apart, we should freeze that body and send it to West Point and scatter it around so you could smell the blood and the horror and get used to fighting that way. If you’re used to fighting with blood and dead Iraqis all over the place, it will be nothing. That’s what needs to be done. Period.”
Everyone was quiet again. I glanced at the three West Pointers. Their eyes were wide, mouths still, like “Whoa!” I got that look from some others in the crowd, too.
My WWII Marine father would have said exactly the same kind of thing.
I recommend Semper Cool (great title, isn’t it?) highly, as a fun read for any aficionado of Marine Corps culture.
The author, by the way, is donating all the book’s earning to help wounded veterans.
More evidence of just how hard-core little Barry Fixler remains, long after Vietnam:
On Valentine’s Day 2005, Barry Fixler proves to two armed robbers that you don’t want to try to rob a former Marine.There were actually two more of them outside in the car, equipped with a body bag. The robbers had intended not only to rob the jeweler, but to murder him as well. This security camera video shows that their plans did not work out.
Nguyen Hoa Giai, a former Viet Cong guerilla fighter, discusses eight common misconceptions about the War in Vietnam, thereby providing an interesting read.
Once the fighting started, a lot of people died, well over a million on our side alone. For the war to continue, a constant stream of new fighters had to join up, and they didn’t have the benefit of such luxuries as “functional equipment” or “the slightest idea what to do.” Over 90 percent of these new recruits were teenagers or younger. Many of them weren’t even particularly invested in the “cause” itself. Supporting Communism or the dream of a united Vietnam was less a motivator than wanting revenge for the death of a parent, loved one, or child. The Viet Cong (literally: the National Liberation Front or just “the front”) were just a means for securing that revenge.
Most of them were aware that Stalin and Mao each had movements named after them (Stalinism and Maoism), so they just assumed Socialism was named after a guy named Social and Communism was named after a guy named Commun. A distressing number of my co-soldiers still thought we were fighting France. They knew of Ho Chi Minh, but only in vague propagandistic terms, not the man’s actual history. When we told them we wanted a Socialist society, they just said yes because they were mostly poor, grieving peasants living through a shortage of damns, and thus had none to spare for politics.
Olivia Nuzzi, at the Daily Beast, is a typical example of the commentators going after Trump for declining to reverence John McCain’s POW sufferings, when Trump himself avoided military service in the Vietnam War.
Trumpâ€™s decision to criticize McCainâ€™s military record is all the more puzzling given the circumstances surrounding his lack of one.
Trump claimed, in an April interview on WNYW, that he avoided the Vietnam War because â€œI actually got lucky because I had a very high draft number.â€ He said, while attending the Wharton School of Finance, that â€œI was watching as they did the draft numbers and I got a very, very high number and those numbers never got up to me.â€
But The Smoking Gun reported that Trumpâ€™s draft number was 365, and when it was drawn on Dec. 1, 1968, â€œ18 months after Trump graduatedâ€ from the Wharton School, Trump â€œhad already received four student deferments and a medical deferment,â€ according to records obtained by the publication.
Rieckhoff joked, â€œHe was so interested in seeing the presidentâ€™s birth certificate, Iâ€™m sure heâ€™d be willing to provide the documentation about that.â€
Despite his lack of service, Trump, in the post-insult statement, said, â€œI am not a fan of John McCain because he has done so little for our Veterans and he should know better than anybody what the Veterans need, especially in regards to the VA. He is yet another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job and helping Vets.â€
It just isn’t that simple, folks.
John Kerry, just for example, graduated from Yale in 1965, before the Anti-War Movement had really developed. John Kerry had been planning to run for president presumably since pre-school, so he naturally did go into the Armed Forces, taking the comparatively safe choice of the Navy.
Kerry wound up serving on Swift Boats and saw minor combat. Kerry then came home with a collection of medals, which some of those who served with him say he had written himself up for, grotesquely exaggerating his alleged valor and falsely describing some accidentally self-inflicted wounds as resulting from hostile fire. Kerry then went AWOL; joined the Anti-War Movement as a principal national spokesman, then testified before Congress that his fellow American servicemen behaved like “Genghis Khan,” burned villages, and routinely killed women and children. Kerry even traveled to Paris in order to participate in private planning sessions with North Vietnamese negotiators.
Someone like Trump, who didn’t go to war at all, deserves to be rated as a whole lot more patriotic than a scoundrel and traitor like John Kerry.
The Vietnam War was grossly mismanaged by two administrations, and — at the time — anybody with an IQ over room temperature could see we were never going to win, all the lives lost would be wasted, and the end was merely going to be withdrawal. By the later 1960s, nobody who was clever or well-connected was going.
John McCain served in the war because he was the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He attended Annapolis, following in his father’s footsteps and simply going into the family business. Graduates of the service academies and members of military families had less choice.
There were all sorts of ways to avoid being conscripted, and since American lives and efforts were obviously being wasted and serving in that war could easily be recognized as futile, I’d say that nobody has any right to reproach anybody for draft dodging.
Reproach Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for not dropping a blocking force of a couple of airborne divisions somewhere north and west of Hanoi, and then not sending in an amphibious corps of Marines to assault Hanoi and Haiphong. We could have won the War in Vietnam. We needed only to capture the enemy’s government, military high command, principal supply center, and general staff. We always had the military power to do that. We just knuckled under to Soviet and Chinese saber-rattling (the same way we did in Korea), and never did. We fought a limited war, on terms dictated by the enemy, until the left destroyed the war’s legitimacy and our domestic morale, which forced us to give up.
Donald Trump was obviously smart enough to tell which way the wind blows, and he merely took the practical approach of stepping off the tracks and out of the path of the speeding railroad engine of History. A lot of people did exactly the same thing. I don’t think anybody ever had an obligation to be a sucker and have his time, efforts, and potentially his life wasted by venal and incompetent political leaders. Nor do I think that being smart enough not to be used and played, being able to avoid being taken advantage of, disqualifies anyone from political office or participation in later debates of foreign policy.
It was the spring of 1971 and Captain Larry McNamara, one of my advisors to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and I were sitting across from each other on a hot, sparsely covered jungle hillside sipping bitter Vietnamese tea. In between us was a fold-up wooden military campaign table.
My other advisors sat silently apart from us under a clump of pine trees pretending not to be eaves dropping on our conversation. They were cleaning and oiling their weapons, preparing for combat, deep in the jungle. Occasionally their eyes wandered toward us.
A week before, Larry had been deserted and left to die out in the jungle by the Fourth ARVN Battalion commander, Major Uy. Uy was a first class coward and Larryâ€™s returning alive was an embarrassment to him. If Larry had died as Uy intended, Uy could have fabricated a story about the fighting having been so intense that he and Mac had been forcibly separated and he had risked his own life trying to find him.
But because Larry had defied all of the odds and come back alive, Uy was forced to explain why they had become separated. According to Uyâ€™s version of events, he had become so deathly sick that he was unable to lead his battalion. So he was forced to make his way back to the rear to find medical help. Most of the other ARVN officers and senior sergeants had followed him. Larry had ended up commanding the encircled ARVN remnant and was able to lead them to safety.
â€œLarry,â€ youâ€™ve studied the plan and you know that weâ€™re committing every available combat unit to this fight.â€
â€œYes, and you want me to go back out with the Fourth Battalion again. Is it still commanded by that coward, Uy?â€
â€œYes it is,â€ I said.
â€œColonel, you know as well as I that at the first shot fired, he will turn tail and run and the battalion will fall apart, just like it did last week.â€ He was stating simple, unemotional fact.
After a long pause he added, â€œIf I go, I wonâ€™t come back. The North Vietnamese Army wonâ€™t let me get away twice.â€
â€œI know,â€ I replied looking away, feeling pain deep down inside. â€œDo you want me to go in your place?â€
â€œNo,â€ he countered sharply. â€œYouâ€™ve got your job to do and Iâ€™ve got mine.â€
Simultaneously we pushed our metal folding chairs back, stood, and shook hands. â€œGoodbye, Colonel,â€ he said. â€œWe wonâ€™t meet again â€¦ at least not in this life. Write my wife, tell her I love her.â€ I nodded and he was gone.
Militaria from the Vietnam War has a real collectors’ following, and the whimsically-engraved Zippo lighters commonly carried by US servicemen during the Vietnam conflict are popular enough as collectibles to be extensively counterfeited. But trying to sell a collection of 282 Vietnam-era Zippo lighters, even one which had been previously published as an art book (Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories (1965-1973) by University of Chicago Press) as a single auction lot would never have been the best way to achieve optimal results, and with the economy in its current condition, there just were no buyers for $30,000-50,000 worth of lighters.
The owner should have sold them, one at a time, accompanied by a certificate of provenance and authenticity on Ebay. But, I’m not sure he could, even then, have counted on getting over $100 for every example.
Conservatives’ favorite metaphor is Munich; liberals’ is Vietnam.
As the Obama Administration continues sinking into disrepute, Neal Gabler, in the Boston Globe, points to the same kind of smug Ivy League hubris that persistently failed in Vietnam as being responsible for the current administration’s woes.
Just like the New Frontiersmen so thoroughly trashed in David Halberstam’s book, Team Obama has demonstrated a “we know better” approach to policy which is distancing them farther and farther from the general perspective of the country.
[According to David Halberstam, the Kennedy and Johnson administration Brahminate] â€œwere men more linked to one another, their schools, their own social class and their own concerns than they were linked to the country,â€™â€™ which meant that their sense of the public good was always subordinate to their sense of their own brilliance.
Above all, the best and the brightest believed in their own infallibility. They distrusted politics almost as much as they distrusted the proletariat because politics was about compromise and satisfying ninnies (us) who they felt were much beneath them. They were cold, logical, bloodless, and deeply pragmatic. They considered liberal idealists fools, and emotion a weakness. They knew best, which made them extremely intimidating. They failed because they didnâ€™t think they could possibly be wrong.
In many ways, Obama was a sucker for this kind of coldblooded, upper-crust approach to policy and the elitism that went with it. Half-white, half-black, half-American, half-African, part Kansan, part Hawaiian, middle class and transient, Obama made the primary plaint and question of his book, â€œDreams From My Fatherâ€™â€™: Where do I belong? That question was posed as one of racial identity, but in the end, whether he fully realized it or not, Obama found himself not in black culture or white culture but in the culture of the best and the brightest. Thatâ€™s where he belonged. Thatâ€™s where he seemed to feel most comfortable.
So it is really no surprise that he has packed his administration with what one might call The Best and the Brightest 2.0 â€” people who are as dispassionate and rational and suspicious of emotion as the president prides himself as being: a bunch of cool, unflappable customers. (The exceptions are Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) Like The Best and the Brightest 1.0, these folks â€” guys like Larry Summers, outgoing budget director Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner, on the economic side; and William J. Lynn 3d, deputy secretary of defense, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, on the foreign side â€” are Ivy-educated, confident, and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the president keeps doubling down his bets.
The difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is that 2.0 are not all Protestant, white males sprung full-blown from the Establishment as 1.0â€™s fathers and their fathersâ€™ fathers were. Like Obama himself, they are by and large onetime middle-class overachievers who made their way into the Ivy League and then catapulted to the top levels of class and power by being . . . well, the best and the brightest. But in elitism as in religion, no one is more devout than a convert, and these people, again like Obama, all having been blessed by the Ivy League, also embrace Ivy League arrogance and condescension. On this, the Republican critics are right: The administration exudes a sense of superiority.
So what difference does it make if our policy-makers think they are above criticism? As Halberstam shows in â€œThe Best and the Brightest,â€™â€™ people who are concerned not with the fundamental rightness of something but with its execution, because the rightness is assumed; people who see what they want to see rather than what is; people who see things in terms of preconceptions rather than of human conduct; people who are incapable of admitting error; people who lack skepticism and the capacity to grow beyond their certainties are the sorts of people who are likely to get us in trouble â€” whether it is an ever-lengthening war in Afghanistan or ever-deepening economic distress here at home. After all, weâ€™ve been there once before.
I think the similarity Gabler identifies of a dogged advance into political destruction on the basis of a mistaken sense of Ivy League superiority is dead on, but there is the difference that those establishment experts of nearly 50 years ago were merely conventionally liberal in the same basically empty and purely formal way that they were also Episcopalians or Congregationalists or Presbyterians.
The Obama Administration’s determination to pursue a massive expansion of spending and of governmental expansion in defiance of an economic crisis represents the opposite of 1960s liberal pragmatism. Its hubris is not merely the hubris of the well born, the well-connected, and the talented. Theirs is the hubris of the enlightened initiate of the left’s theory of History, of the committed believer in the ideology of socialism and statism which is today more radical, and even more deeply entrenched in America’s elite universities, than it was so long ago.
Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy believed their policies would succeed and they would win. The Obama Administration is willing to die on the barricades in order to leave behind socialized American health care.
Robert Tracinski argue that comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are a losing argument for the Left.
America’s defeat in Vietnam, for example, was seemingly a triumph for the anti-war left, which had long proclaimed the war to be unwinnable quagmire. Yet the years following that defeat–the era of American retreat and “national malaise”–proved so traumatic that the American people have never wanted to repeat them. Thus, what the anti-war radicals regarded as a vindication ended up discrediting the left on foreign policy for a generation. You could say that they won the political battle over the war–but they lost the peace.
Today, we may be seeing the final chapter of that process. The left is losing the Vietnam War itself–losing Vietnam, that is, as a rhetorical high ground from which to pillory any advocate of vigorous American military action overseas.
Robert D. Kaplan, in the Atlantic, discusses in detail a number of Vietnam War books exemplifying the warrior ethos which are widely admired in professional military circles (just check the prices of those out-of-print Jean Larteguy titles), but which are not nearly as well known by the general public as they deserve to be.
Kaplan, over his career, appears to have become someone who is too fond of war.
Andrew J. Bacevich:
If Kaplan is a romantic, he is also a populist and a reactionary.”
Mr. Kaplan is the first traveler to take us on a journey to the jagged places where these tectonic plates meet, and his argument–that our future is being shaped far away ‘at the ends of the earth’–makes his travelogue pertinent and compelling reading.”
This is breathtaking. Here is a serious writer in 2005 admiring the Indian wars, which in their brutality brought about the end of an entire American civilization.”