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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Military Budget Cuts: Does it make sense?

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates unveiled a new plan which calls for significant cuts in our military budget.   In a Washington Post article published today, Secretary Gates and the administration agreed to of less than 2.7% based on the 2012 military budget of $553 billion.

This represents a major victory for the Pentagon, military contractors, lobbyists and armaments manufacturers.  While the traditional beltway insiders continue to benefit from the Pentagon’s largess, the ultimate sacrifice will be paid for the the men and women in uniform who will experience a cut of 6% in active duty personnel  (reduction of 27,000 in the Army and 20,000 Marines) plus increased contributions for medical insurance (Tricare) for service members.

If Congress buys into this tepid plan to curb military spending then I doubt that little will be accomplished with other areas of our Federal, State and Local governments to cut spending.   In all fairness to the Obama administration, they were reportedly seeking spending cuts of $150 billion and settled for $78 billion following a strong sell by the Pentagon.

If this was a “real” business where each dollar had to be justified by “results,” the leaders managing this budget process would have put out to pasture long ago.  In this merry-go-round of spending tax dollars unwisely, the military – like many other federal entities – doesn’t want to bite the bullet and do the right thing for our taxpayers and its service members.

If I interpret this budget correctly, Secretary Gates is arguing that it costs US taxpayers $553 billion a year to provide our country with the military security it needs.   But – and this is an important BUT – “If you want us to engage in combat, it will cost you more!” Ummm . . . That’s interesting.

While I am not a military budget expert, something doesn’t add up.    The proposed cuts simply look like window-dressing when a full-scale evaluation is required of how our military is positioned (both here and abroad).  Who is the enemy (both now and in the future)?  Do we have the “right” mix of human and physical resources to deal with those threats?  Simply waiting for the troops to come home from Afghanistan in 2014 to make budget isn’t budgeting, it’s simply bean-counting.

Secretary Gates, let’s cut the fat out of our budget and deal with the out-dated structures, procurement processes, military alliances and Cold War holdovers that severely hamper our ability to field a properly equipped and effective military force to deal with real threats.   Let’s leave “Nation Building” to the Peace Corps, the United Nations and the responsible citizens of a country who truly aspire to Nationhood.

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Pentagon worried about Striker Brigade in Afghanistan

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According to an article published by the Christian Science Monitor, the Pentagon had red flags about the command climate in ‘kill team’ Stryker brigade.

Key Highlights:

  • As the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, which Colonel Tunnell commanded for three years, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in June 2009, senior Army officials questioned Tunnell’s leadership focus with growing concern, and discussed the possibility of removing him from command.  Now, Tunnell’s tenure is raising fresh questions in the halls of the Pentagon.  Five soldiers in Tunnell’s brigade stand accused of war crimes, including creating a self-described “kill team” that allegedly targeted unarmed Afghan men and cut off their fingers as war trophies. The narrative of Tunnell’s leadership is particularly significant to the Pentagon now, however, as it endeavors to instill in troops a new ethic of fighting in its current wars – using the least force necessary rather than the maximum force permissible.  Some sources suggest that Tunnell set a tone that was not only out of line with Pentagon doctrine, but was inflammatory and potentially dangerous.
  • “When you feel violent intent coming down from the command and into the culture of the brigade, that’s when you end up with things like the rogue platoon,” says a senior US military official who worked with the brigade in early 2009 at the National Training Center before it deployed to Afghanistan. “He established a culture that allowed that kind of mindset to percolate. And there are second- and third-order effects that come with that. Clearly, the guys who were pulling the trigger are the proximate cause of the crime, but the culture itself is the enabler.” Others argue that Tunnell’s aggressive posture was fair enough, and even necessary, for infantry troops who must prepare to kill, and also to be killed, on behalf of their country. They point out that the brigade was, after all, equipped with Stryker vehicles designed for soldiers working in some of the most violent regions of any conflict. And Kandahar Province – the cradle of the Taliban – was precisely where the 5/2 brigade was headed for a year-long tour.
  • Other officers within the battalion shared their concerns, says the senior official. “I had two staff officers [in Tunnell’s brigade] separately tell me that they were afraid that the brigade was going to end up on CNN for ‘all the wrong reasons,’ ” he says.  In response, trainers tried to help officers in the brigade take steps to “lead from the middle to ensure that didn’t happen,” says the senior official, who adds that some other military officials raised the possibility of removing Tunnell from command in discussions that included a two-star general.

SFTT Analysis:

If it is true, that senior leaders and general officers considered relieving or replacing Colonel Tunnel prior to the Brigade’s combat deployment, but chose not to, then their lack of moral courage is worse than anything the colonel may eventually be found culpable of “enabling”.  Then again, the time for “relief” is over, but if anyone really believes that any Brigade senior leader will eventually be held accountable for the heinous crimes that occurred during their watch, you only need review the Army’s track record in this regard to see to see other examples of failed leadership and lack of accountability – i.e. Abu Graib, where only enlisted soldiers were charged with crimes; and Wanat, where commanders where ultimately absolved of failed leadership; it seems that the list will keep on growing.

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