Vietnam: The Right Side of History?

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Like many readers, I am of a certain “vintage” (sounds a hell of a lot better than “age”) that clearly recalls the war in Vietnam.  The Ken Burns series on Vietnam has resurrected many of these memories and feelings of a war that was _____________________ (readers are invited to add their own phrase).

As a young 2LT in the Pentagon – about as rare as a tick on a spaceship – I “experienced” Vietnam from a privileged penthouse many miles from a bloody battlefield in southeast Asia that cost the lives of many brave warriors.

I struggled then, and I struggle now, with trying to understand the “why” and the “why nots” of a war that took place some 50 years ago.

Like others who were in their early twenties in 1968, I didn’t have much of a choice in choosing to be on the “right side of history.”  In fact, I would argue that most youngsters today would have a difficult time deciding “right” or “wrong” life choices based on such a pretentious and silly litmus test:  i.e. the proper side of history.

There are many strong and well-founded opinions of the Vietnam war.  I have no wish to discredit anyone’s views of this cataclysmic event on the American psyche, but merely to share some of my experiences while serving at the Pentagon from February, 1969 to February, 1971.

I worked in a relatively small group of “analysts” that provided daily intelligence briefs to the Army General Staff.  While my specialty was Latin America, 7 or 8 officers in our 28 person office were focused on Vietnam.   At the time of my arrival, General Harold Johnson was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

General Johnson took intelligence briefings very seriously and would often spend an hour or so reading the “Black Book,” which contained summaries of key intelligence analysis from “hot spots” from around the world.     The “Black Book” would often run to 55 pages and featured important intelligence on the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East as well as Vietnam.

General WestmorelandIn March, 1968, President Johnson appointed General William Westmoreland as U.S. Army Chief of Staff.  Instead of the extensive intelligence briefings requested by General Johnson, the Black Book was reduced to 10 or so pages with a heavy emphasis on Vietnam.

As General Joseph McChristian (Westmoreland’s G-2) required, the “Black Book” briefings were to be more like Kiplinger summaries than serious “intelligence analysis.”    For those unfamiliar with Kiplinger:  read “sound bites” rather than “analysis.”

From my perspective, inconsequential minutiae was far more important than the big picture.  For instance, I recall a rather heated debate over the terminology of:   “a drum of kerosene”; or a “kerosene drum” that was dropped from an airplane over the palace in Port au Prince, Haiti.

The fact that the “drum of kerosene” or kerosene drum” exploded seems to have been far more important that the event itself:  An isolated attempt at resurrection against Francois Duvalier or Papa Doc.

While it is relatively easy to find fault in our military and political leadership, the arrival of General Westmoreland at the Pentagon signalled a major change in the way information was used to influence decisions.

Under Westmoreland, intelligence became little more than snippets of information of questionable value designed to help the General Staff respond to the latest media sensation.

Form was far more important than substance.  I recall a LTC giving me (a lowly 2LT) instructions on how to properly staple a two page report:  The staple should be at a 45º angle in the seal of the Department of the Army.   Clearly, far too many staffies at the Pentagon looking for something to do.

While I found this amusing at the time, something far more sinister was happening at the Pentagon.  Intelligence was being manipulated to prop up questionable policies and strategies.   In fact, constructive debate within the E-Ring was supplemented by sycophant officers who simply parroted a self-serving agenda, which ultimately proved totally indefensible.

When looking at the war in Vietnam dispassionately – i.e. from the perspective of history – one can see that many mistakes in judgement occurred.

Vietnam leaves lasting scars and those that are so inclined should make up their own mind about the effects of this tragic war after viewing Ken Burns’ documentary.  Personally, I find his narrative riveting and an accurate recreation of a pivotal event in American history.

 

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SFTT Military News: Highlights for Week Ending Sep 15, 2017

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Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT at info@sftt.org.

North Korea Reportedly Seeks Military “Equilibrium” with the U.S. 
North Korea said on Saturday it aims to reach an “equilibrium” of military force with the United States, which earlier signaled its patience for diplomacy is wearing thin after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan for the second time in under a month. “Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the U.S. and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about military option,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying by the state news agency, KCNA.  Read more . . .

Assessment of Russian Zapad Military Exercise
The large-scale Russian military exercise known as Zapad, which started in Belarus on Thursday, is already a propaganda success: It has alarmed Russia’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization neighbors and garnered so much Western media coverage that one might think it was an actual combat operation. But it has also provided an important insight into the fears of the Russian and Belarusian rulers, fears that are not necessarily groundless. To Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, the exercise is meant to “frighten” her country. To Finnish Defense Minister Jussi Niinisto, it’s about “information warfare” (“Western countries have taken the bait completely, they’ve plugged the exercises so much,” he said recently). To military experts, the quadrennial exercise is a chance to see how much the Russian army has progressed since 2013, when the last Zapad was held. To me, the most intriguing part of the exercise is its storyline.   Read more . . .

North Korea Kim

Is there a “Military Option” for North Korea?
President Trump’s top national security aide said Friday there is a military option for handling North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing, even though it’s an option the Trump administration does not want to employ. White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said at the White House that the administration again wants new sanctions against North Korea to work. But he warned that the regime’s stepped up testing means that “we’re out of time.”  Read more . . .

Secretary James Mattis Warns on Budget Stopgap Measures
Defense Secretary James Mattis is warning Congress that a long-term continuing resolution to fund the government will lead to irrecoverable lost training time, delayed ship maintenance and critical personnel gaps. In a letter to defense committee leaders obtained by CNN, Mattis detailed the effects of a continuing resolution, which Congress frequently uses to keep the government funded at the previous year’s spending levels.  Read more . . .

Veteran Suicides Higher in the West and Rural Areas According to VA Study
Suicide among military veterans is especially high in the western U.S. and rural areas, according to new government data that show wide state-by-state disparities and suggest social isolation, gun ownership and access to health care may be factors. The figures released Friday are the first-ever Department of Veterans Affairs data on suicide by state. It shows Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico had the highest rates of veteran suicide as of 2014, the most current VA data available. Veterans in big chunks of those states must drive 70 miles or more to reach the nearest VA medical center. The suicide rates in those four states stood at 60 per 100,000 individuals or higher, far above the national veteran suicide rate of 38.4. The overall rate in the West was 45.5. All other regions of the country had rates below the national rate.  Read more . . .

Vietnam War Documentary by Ken Burns May Be Too Intense for Some
“The Vietnam War” documentary – produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – is being billed as a rare cultural milestone. The filmmakers have been planning the series since 2006, meaning their production process was about as long as America’s involvement in the war. The series is designed to be intense. Each episode if preceded by a warning about strong language and graphic violence. But people who work with veterans say the documentary may be too intense for some of those who fought in Vietnam. “Some are going to watch it. Few will,” said Henry Peterson, a chaplain at the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego. He counsels people with PTSD.  Read more . . .

 

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

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