Chapter 5: Winning the War

After Naples, my father was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas where he prepared for his first tour in Viet Nam.  Sandwiched in between trips to Viet Nam, a six-year period, were a tour at Fort Monroe, Virginia, working with some unit called CONARC, classes at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and a tour at the Pentagon.   In addition, he earned a masters degree in foreign affairs during this period.  Of these assignments, only the pentagon gets a mention from time to time.

Every career serviceman has to do at least one tour in Washington, but there may not worse job for a grunt than among all the beltway bureaucrats.  Like most soldiers, my father doesn’t hold bureaucrats in high esteem, but he does admire their talent for survival.  “You always have these people who come into Washington saying they are going to change things, get rid of the bureaucracy, cut the waste, fraud, and abuse.  The bureaucrat has heard it all before, so he just hunkers down for a while and pretty soon, your reformer is voted out of office or is promoted or moves on for greener pastures, and the bureaucrat is back to doing things the way he’s always done them . . . The bureaucrat makes sure nothing ever changes in Washington.  He drives you crazy, but you at least have to admire his ability to survive . . . 

“Another thing you can always count on in Washington, is that whatever they want to do, whatever plan they have, it’s  been tried before.  Everyone who takes charge has to make his stamp, shake things up with new, fresh ideas.  If this year everyone walks on the right side of the hall, next year we try something new, we will walk down the left side . . . But it won’t be long before that’s out of vogue and we try the right side again . . . 

“And they act like it is something brand new,” I add.

“Exactly . . . whatever the new plan is, it is gonna fix everything, but then nothing really changes . . . except that it just gets a little crazier from time to time, and during the Viet Nam war, the Pentagon was really a zoo,” he says, using one of his favorite euphemisms. 

“I was there just as they reached the peak of the buildup and began the cutback of troops.  It was a wild time.  We didn’t know if we were coming or going half the time . . . My job there was in the message center.  All the traffic from Viet Nam would come through us . . . I worked for the SGS, the Secretary of the General Staff, who works for the Army Chief of Staff who is, of course, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

“The JCS,”  I add.

“That’s right.  One nice thing about working for the SGS was that it gave you a lot of clout . . . I remember we had these rules about things you could and couldn’t say in a message.  Every once in a while someone would put in something you weren’t supposed have.  I had to call a lot of guys . . . I was a bottle cap Colonel by then–a lieutenant colonel–but I’d get some full colonel or maybe even a general on the line and say this is Colonel Flynn.  I’d tell them the Chief of Staff doesn’t want this kind of stuff in a message.  Could you please re-draft it?”  He chuckles over this, apparently this was one of the few aspects of the Pentagon job he enjoyed.

“The Pentagon could be an interesting place to work at times.  I got to see a lot of things . . . Whenever someone got the Medal of Honor, they would bring him to Washington, so the President could present the medal.  And they would send all these guys through the SGS’s office.  One of the toughest things we had to do was to make these guys presentable–and their families too.  Sometimes, it was six months or more after the fact.  A lot of these guys were civilians by then . . . You never knew what to expect . . .”  He doesn’t elaborate, but it was still the 60’s, so you can imagine for yourself.

“I remember one time,” he starts again, drifting into another story, “we had this big flap about this Viet Namese general who had gone to an American hospital in Hawaii.  That kind of thing happened occasionally.  No big deal.  But this particular general had been in the news a few years earlier.  One of the American networks had photographed him shooting an unarmed VC during the Tet offensive.  The one VC soldier was surrounded by a bunch of South Viet soldiers.  And the picture caught the general in the act, bullet coming out of the side of his head and blood splattering.  There was a big flap right after that happened.  Anyway, this was a couple of years later; the same general had gotten sick and the army shipped him to a hospital in Hawaii . . .  And then, the press got ahold of it.”

He shakes his head slowly and lets loose a long whistle, his way of saying the stuff really hit the fan.  “The Chief of Staff, Westmoreland at the time,  got involved with this one.  And he was up in arms!  He wanted to know who had authorized this.  Of course, everyone was denying any responsibility, and lining up alibis. . .

“All the while, the press is just eating us alive . . .  Well, anytime something like that happened, there had to be some kind of written authorization, so they came to me.  If there was an authorization, we had it somewhere.  We probably had something like fifty thousand messages on file.  We didn’t have computers back then, so I put some Corporal on the job, told him to take a couple guys and go through every message until they found the authorization.  It took them something like a day and a half, but they found it.  Some general had signed the authorization, and we had his signature on the paperwork.”

As an afterthought he adds: “You know, the last I heard of that general was just before the Chief of Staff brought him into his office.”

“Never made it out of the Chief’s office?”

“I’m not sure he did.”

He pauses a moment, as if still sorting through all the Pentagon madness, before resuming.  “Right about the time I left, I remember they started a push to automate the message center.  Of course, everything they do in Washington has to be done on a grandiose scale.  It has to do everything one could possibly think of.   I told them an automated system is fine for about seventy-five to eighty percent of the traffic.  We used to get a lot of routine stuff: casualty reports, strength reports, and the like; it didn’t really matter how those messages were handled. But there’s about twenty percent that need manual intervention. You need someone to make sure it gets to the right person in a timely fashion . . .  But they went whole hog anyway.  Totally automated.  They wound up with a screwed up system they can’t really control.  Still screwed up today I am sure . . . “

The rest of his thought is left unsaid, but after a moment, he is back on track again, re-emphasizing his point.  “Every day, we used to create a message book for the Chief of Staff.  I used to do it sometimes. I would bring it to the SGS.  It was pretty important that the right messages got in there . . .”   He stops again, then changes gears and adds: “The pentagon was really something,” this time “something” does not mean anything good.

Often after a discussion of Pentagon experiences, he’ll drift even  further back in time.  The historian in him comes out again as he talks about how things have changed during his lifetime,  and the changes in Washington have been dramatic, far more than I ever realized  myself.  “It really hasn’t been too many years since the government took over the DC area, not until after the war actually.  I first went there in ’46.  My father sent me to a summer school there–Sullivan’s–to prepare me for the West Point entrance exam.  Washington was a still a small, sleepy little town then . . .  I remember a few years later, when I was a cadet at West Point, we marched in the inaugural parade–Truman’s inaugural.  We marched from the Capitol to White House, right down Pennsylvania Avenue, led the parade actually.  I remember marching over train tracks; the tracks went right across Pennsylvania Avenue . . . and the trains were still running at the time . . . I doubt there are any train tracks still there now.  Things have changed just a little bit since then.” 

“They certainly have,” I agree.

“Did you realize during the first two months of the Civil War, the Congress wasn’t even in session?” he starts again.  “Lincoln pretty much ran the war himself.  Can you imagine?  What a difference from the madness we endured.”  He sounds wistful, as if it would be nice to go back to the older, simpler ways.  Maybe it would have been better that way.  Maybe things would have turned out differently.

*****

There are fewer stories about the second Viet Nam tour because he was stationed in Saigon, away from the action.  In fact, I’m not too sure what his job was, although I know he worked at MACV, the military command center in Saigon, once again stuck among paper pushers and bureaucrats.

The second tour was a marked contrast from the first.  The first was much more difficult, physically and emotionally, but as a commander in the field, he was more in control during the first tour.  The second tour, he was just part of the bureaucracy, a small cog in a big wheel.  There were no real accomplishments this time.  The first time the mission was much clearer; he was simply doing what he’d been trained to do.  But the second time everything had changed; the country had turned against the war.  His mission, the army’s mission as a whole, wasn’t clear anymore, something, I think, he had a hard time coming to grips with.   The end of the war was still more than a year away, but it was clear that we were leaving.  It was clear, we had failed to accomplish so many things.  He still wonders how it all went wrong.

“When I went there in ’67 we were a lean, mean fighting machine. About a year after I left, we started cutting troops.  We’d been cutting troops for four years when I went back there.  In that same time MACV had grown incredibly; it was out of control.  When I got to Saigon in ’72, I remember thinking where the hell have we been cutting?  Have we moved everyone from the field to Saigon? . . . I said this is nuts!  Had to be the most inefficient operation I’d ever seen–bar none.”

MACV was in fact first established in February 1962, with a total of 216 army and civilian personnel.  It was envisaged as a temporary headquarters that would be withdrawn once the Viet Cong insurgency was brought under control.  But MACV continued to grow throughout the early years, constantly reorganizing, looking for that magic mixture of elements that would finally make best use of the massive resources we were pouring into the country.  Every change in strategy, every new program called for more reorganization, more layers and more commands were continually added.  As my father  has often said, there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program; MACV was certainly the  quintessential example of this principle.

On the other hand, out in the field, the U.S. reached its peak allocation of troops in 1969, with approximately 550,000 combat troops.  By early 1972, there were fewer than 85,000 American troops remaining and the numbers continued to shrink throughout the year, yet when my father arrived in September, MACV was still apparently growing without bounds.

Specifically, my father was assigned to a unit of MACV named CORDS, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, an organization with an impressive name and long history that didn’t accomplish a whole lot in its time.  CORDS was established in 1967 by President Johnson, in order to fight the “other” war, the war to win the hearts and minds of the Viet Namese people.  Unfortunately, it too wound up becoming another bureaucratic behemoth.  CORDS alone had eleven directorates with personnel from the military as well as the CIA, the State Department, and other civilian agencies.

Naturally, every once in a while, Dad had to escape the lunacy and get out into the field.  “Saigon was poison,” he tells me, equating the bureaucrats at MACV with the money-changers in the Jerusalem temple.  “I had a bunch of good young officers with me in Saigon, and I took two or three of them out with me at least once a week . . .  Had to get away from Saigon . . . we went out to countryside . . . to see what was happening.”

He doesn’t say much about those excursions either, what they were doing or why they were doing it.  One thing I remember him talking about was what an adventure meals were, that is, away from the regular fare at the American mess hall in Saigon.  “I always made a point to eat with some of the locals at least once a week.  We’d eat in different places, sometimes in a Vietnamese restaurant or maybe with the local chieftain . . .  The one thing I learned, and I used to tell this to my guys this, was never . . . never  ask what you were eating.  If it tasted okay, don’t worry about it.”  I imagine it wasn’t always okay, however.  We have a Vietnamese restaurant just up the street in Charlotte, but he doesn’t want to eat there whenever I suggest it.

Living in Saigon, he also had chances to meet celebrities when they came over for the USO tour.  “The USO generally performed in Saigon.  For some reason they didn’t come out to the jungle during my first tour,” he jokes.  “I remember I was in the Saigon officer’s club and I met Redd Foxx . . . he came over to ask me about all the ribbons on my uniform.  I met Charleton Heston too.  Nice guys, both of them.”

And then there’s the time he met Bob Hope, or rather almost met Bob Hope.  Unlike Redd Foxx and Charleton Heston, Bob Hope didn’t make quite so favorable an impression.  “There was a group of us talking to Ambassador Bunker, and Bob Hope came over and interrupted us; just started talking to the Ambassador . . . No by your leave or anything.”   It’s a story he has repeated several times and he always acts quite indignant after recounting it.  I have often wondered why, in the middle of a war, after all that he had seen and been through, this one minor incivility stood out so much.

Of course, Bob Hope gets off lightly when compared to Jane Fonda.  He will never forget her infamous visit to the Hanoi Hilton.  It’s the only action of the anti-war movement that I’ve ever seen rile him. In fact, I can’t recall much more than a mild denunciation of the other demonstrators, my brothers among them, and nothing about any other person in particular.  But he will never forgive Fonda; he will never watch one of her movies again.  “Going to Hanoi and telling everyone what a great bunch of guys the North Viets were . . .,” he says, voice trailing off again.  He shakes his head and exhales loudly, indicating her behavior was well beyond the pale.  “The dumbest thing,” he starts and then stops again.  But he doesn’t have to say any more; it is clear how he feels.  It is beyond imagination that anyone could be this dumb, infinitely dumber, in fact, than the time the Division Commander at Fort Riley had all those soldiers raking leaves.

Another odd thing about that second tour was that they gave him a two-week furlough in the middle of it.  They flew him to Hawaii, and Mom met him for two weeks.  “Bad idea,” he says summarily.  “It really didn’t help.  You knew you had to go back . . .

“But it was kind of funny.  You’d go out to the beach and you could tell all the guys who’d come from Viet Nam.  They all had farmer’s tans . . . forearms, neck, and face would be almost black and the rest of the body would be completely white.  It was the funniest thing *****

“Another funny thing occurred on the trip back to Saigon.  For some reason, I don’t remember why, we flew commercial.  General Melner flew back with us.  I don’t know if you remember General Melner . . .  Anyway, four of us traveled together, Sinclair Melner  and I and two other Colonels.  Sinclair already had his ticket, but the rest of us didn’t.  When the rest of us bought our tickets, they told us they didn’t have any more seats in coach, so was it okay if we flew first class?”

He pauses to smile before continuing: “We didn’t have any problem with that, especially with a trip that long . . .  But I’ll never forget it . . . just after we take off, Sinclair comes up from coach to see us.  We all have drinks already and we’re leaning back in our chairs.  Sinclair comes up and says to us: ‘How you guys doing?’  We all say: ‘Oh we’re doing great.’ And he says: ‘Kind of nice up here, isn’t it?’ trying to drop a hint.  And then the stewardess came up and says to Sinclair . . .”  He stops, barely able to contain his laughter before continuing. “She said to him: ‘I’m sorry sir, but you’re going to have to return to your seat.  You can’t stay in first class.’  I’ll never forget the look on his face.  Here we are three colonels–-me a lieutenant colonel–and he’s a general.  But none of us were going to give up a first class seat for him–not on a trip that long.”   He pauses to laugh, but doesn’t make any further comment.  And with that chuckle, the stories end for this day, only to pickup somewhere else the next day.

*****

The last half of his Viet Nam tour would have been unremarkable–much the same as the first half–except that it was extended so he could take part in the negotiating at the end of the war.  He was a part of the military negotiation team in Saigon, not part of the political negotiations in Paris.  I am occasionally reminded of this assignment by a photograph along the staircase at home which captures a negotiating session; he is at a table with about twenty other officers: Americans, Viet Cong, North Viets, and South Viets, each group occupying one side of the table. But it is difficult to get him to talk about it; I gather it was mostly an exercise in frustration (thankfully, it would be the last time he had to play diplomat).

“The VC fought everything,” he does reveal occasionally.  “They wanted to make things as difficult as possible for us . . .  We weren’t really negotiating anything important.  All the major decisions were made in Paris by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc To.  We were just implementing some of those decisions.  But even after an agreement was reached in Paris, they would resist . . . they had to resist everything . .  .  And they would argue about the silliest things . . . for hours they would want to debate which emblems to wear, where we would sit, which side of the table we should occupy . . . anything, everything.  It was really stupid!  And this kind of stuff went on for weeks . . . not sure how we made any progress at all.”

My father and his fellow army negotiators were in fact among the very last Americans to leave Viet Nam.  “Those last days were really something.  After the American soldiers left, Saigon was a really strange place.  It was kind of like Dodge City,” he says without explaining what that means.  “One thing I remember was all the dogs in the street.  The Americans kept the dogs for pets, but after they left, the dogs ran wild–in packs . . .  The Vietnamese weren’t much on keeping pets.”

“I suppose that’s because they generally wind up eating them,” I add.

And that last day, the day they finally released the American prisoners was really something he tells me.  “Longest day of my life,” he told me once.  “The exchange in the North went smoothly, no problems at all, but our exchange . . .  We went out there very early in the morning . . . We could see the prisoners; they were maybe fifty feet away.  But they said we had to sign this paper before they could be released.  Nobody had said anything about signing a paper before then, so we said to blow it out your barracks bag. . . . took all day before they finally relented . . . it was  about six in the evening when they finally did . . .  You see, six in the evening in Saigon is about six in the morning in Washington.  So by the time the American press reported on the exchange, everything was done, the prisoners were released.  Nobody mentioned anything about the delays.

“Of course, at the time there were no reporters left in Viet Nam. So, nobody has ever really talked about all the mickey mouse stuff  they put us through . . . but then, the whole time we were in Viet Nam, the VC and the North Viets played the American press like a violin . . . they knew how to manipulate the press.” 

I suppose it was just another one of the problems with the whole situation.  And when he gets started on this topic, he is likely to examine all the problems and give you his opinion of what might have been.  He has always been convinced we could have won the war, believes we had chances even right up to the end.  “Take the bombing of Hanoi in the final days.  I knew several guys who went up there . . . I wanted to go, too.  Probably could have . . . but anyway, they said they had never seen anything so bad.  The way they described it, it was worse than Germany at the end of World War II . . . really bad.”  Knowing how infrequently he uses such descriptions, I can imagine how bad it must have been.

“You see, the North Viets had built these baffles–concrete structures–to protect important centers like power stations and command centers. But we were using smart bombs by that time, and they’d hit the target dead on, so instead of protecting the bunker, the baffles wound up amplifying the payload.  You’d get a thousand pounds for the price of five hundred . . .

“Anyway, the point is we could have done that sooner and had a bigger impact, but we played mickey mouse while the politicians tried to make up their minds . . .

“What was the impact it had, the bombing?” I ask.

“After the bombing in Hanoi, they finally talked with us.  It definitely got them to the negotiating table and focused.  I think we bombed around Christmas, and by the end of January we were completely out of there . . .

“But then after we pulled out, we didn’t give the South Viets any air support,” he continues, becoming more animated.  “We washed our hands completely; we didn’t want anything more to do with the war. I’m convinced they could have held off the North Viets if we had just given them air support.  The South Viets had a pretty well-trained army. But we basically just stood back and watched them fall . . .”

Whether you think the war was right or not, he will tell that it was not right to just let them fail.  He does not try to defend our involvement in the first place, but because we were already involved, because we had made commitments, and because people were counting on us, he believes we should have done more for our allies.  There is shame and dishonor in so blithely abandoning those commitments.   A quote from President Thieu, South Viet Nam’s leader at the time of our withdrawal, provides one perspective on how this was viewed by our former allies: “If the Americans do not want to support us anymore, let them go, get out!  Let them forget their humanitarian promises!”

“Part of the problem is that we didn’t really understand orientals . . . “ My father occasionally talks about the “inscrutable orientals” and the differences in our two cultures.   “We started studying Asian history about the time I was in West Point,” he adds tonight.  “Someone finally figured out we might need to study something other than European history.  Although, I don’t know how much we’ve learned from it.”   Which, I think, means we don’t know much more today than we did back then.

“I remember when I was at Benning . . . there were some Japanese officers who trained with our class . . . It was a number of years after the war, and they were our allies again . . . Anyway, when the course was finished, they lined everyone up and gave out grades.  This one Japanese officer had failed the course. His commanding officer was there too, and when the CO found out this fellow had failed, he walked up to him and slapped him–right in the face–in front of everyone.  I suppose he had disgraced his country by failing.

“It shocked all of us . . . but it showed me that they had a completely different viewpoint than we do . . .”  He leaves this  issue and then shifts gears again, still trying to tie it all together.  “I suppose a big part of the problem was that we didn’t really know what we were doing over there.  A week after I took over the battalion in ’67, I remember getting a call from MACV asking me what I was going to do the next week . . .  I knew something was wrong right then.  You should be telling me what to do . . .

“Lord knows, we still had plenty of people working on the problem . . . Maybe too many.  I don’t know.  We came up with lots of ideas–gimmicks, most of them.”

I remember him telling me about one such “gimmick”: the Riverines.  “The Army had this idea they’d patrol the rivers in small boats loaded with machine guns . .  .  So, they created all these new units–like the Riverines.  Just like everyone else, the Riverines were going to win the war in fifteen days . . .”

“They came into our sector once.  I remember their colonel telling me they were going to clean out the VC for me . . .  He had this plan.  I told him you had to fight the VC at night, but he didn’t listen; they were going to do it their way.  So they pick their day to clean up our area . . .  got a nice leisurely start, about nine o’clock, I think.  Around four in the evening, they came back . . . said all the VC are gone.  That night we ran into a firefight and killed ten VC . . .  They were basically cowboys–the Riverines . . . and we had lots of cowboys in Viet Nam . . . “

After such a story, he once again tries to figure out where it all went wrong.  “When the war started, we were going to have all kinds of training:  basic training, advanced training, unit training but all that went out the window when I was at Riley.  We had to have the troops mobilized quickly . . . we rushed in before we were fully prepared . . .  That’s the politics of war.

“I don’t know . . . Maybe there was just too much bullshit to overcome . . .  We did some really stupid things in ‘Nam.”  I think talking about the problems is very difficult for him; he does not usually display his frustrations so openly.  “There were all kinds of stupid regulations.  What kind of war is it when you can’t go across a DMZ?  What kind of war is it when you can’t chase the enemy into a safe haven?  What kind of war is it when you have all kinds of regulations about when you can and cannot shoot?  What kind of war is it when they limit the time you can keep a bridge?”  He becomes more and more animated as he continues, the frustration mounting.

“And then they ask me what I’m gonna do.  What’s my plan?  I decided right then I could hunker down and defend my area or I could go find and kill the enemy.  So I went out and killed those bastards . . . kept more of guys alive that way I’m convinced . . .”  He shakes his head and sighs heavily.  This is very hard for him.

“Sometimes I think we just didn’t have the right people in Viet Nam . . .  I had a Division commander who was more interested in raking leaves than training soldiers.  When I was brigade exec, we had three battalion commanders who were convinced this was their opportunity to make general.  They were all gonna win the war in the first month we were over there.  The brigade commander too, saw it as his opportunity to get ahead, to make general . . . and I was the guy that was gonna help them–make them all look good.  That really made me mad! . . .”  He shakes his fist this time, now completely at a loss for words.

*****

While my father clung to the idea that the war was winnable, he  never shied away from talking about the problems we had in Viet Nam.  He has often surprised me with his criticisms, especially since some of them were so far-reaching and had such serious implications.

I have often wondered about his implication that the division did not have an overall strategy, that they relied on the subordinate  brigades and battalions instead; I wonder if it was a microcosm of the army’s strategy during the entire war.  I gather both from our discussions and my research that battalion commanders like my father did indeed have a high degree of autonomy in fighting the war.  Units in Viet Nam had regions of responsibility since there were no front-lines.  In addition, a battalion commander could call in artillery and air support at a moment’s notice; he had access to lots of firepower.  Battalion commanders also typically had their own command helicopter from which they could direct the battle. 

This war was the first to be fought with helicopters (helicopters had been used in Korea but mainly for evacuating wounded soldiers from the front lines); in addition, there was far more firepower available than ever before.  This makes me wonder if the army was still figuring out how to fight a war using new tactics.  Was the army able to integrate these new tools effectively and efficiently? 

Douglas Kinnard, in his book, The War Managers, interviews a number of American army generals who served in Viet Nam, many of them echoing the complaints of my father.  Kinnard draws a number of conclusions from their comments.  Concerning the tactics used, he concludes the following: “These replies show a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, to put it mildly, by Westmoreland’s generals for his tactics and by implication his  strategy in the war.”  In addition, Kinnard includes a comment from an unnamed four-star general: “The basic errors were made in 1965-66 when United States troops were committed piecemeal all over South Vietnam with no clear-cut tactical mission.  Even in 1967 it was not too late to change the basic strategy, i.e. employ most United States forces in the north (including Laos) to insulate South Vietnam from the North.”

My father’s complaint about the other division leaders, who seemed to put their own military career’s first is troubling as well.  Kinnard talks about this issue as well, defining the term “careerism”, and saying the following: “A combat command at battalion level for lieutenant colonels and brigade level for colonels became the essential requirement.  Great emphasis has always been placed on the command requirement for combat officers looking for stars, or indeed, even for promotion . . . Not only was it necessary to command, but it was necessary to get an “outstanding” efficiency report if one was to get ahead.”  

And finally, the “gimmicks” my father talked about, those designed to “win the war in two weeks,” as he put it, were sometimes highly touted plans, often by the highest echelons.  The Riverines, that my father dismissed as another bad idea, was, put forth as a bold new strategy, and much emphasis was placed on it for a significant period of time.

The Riverines were in fact patterned after a mobile river force developed by General Ulysses Grant during the siege of Vicksburg more than 100 years earlier.   However, unlike Vicksburg, which held great strategic value, there was no strategic value for the modern Riverines’ objectives.  The Riverines did in fact have a number of demonstrable  successes: the enemy was driven out of their sanctuaries and their territory occupied, but that territory by itself held no real value; the enemy needed it only as a temporary  sanctuary, a hiding place, but there were so many others available to them.   So shortly after this territory was captured, the U.S. army abandoned it, and the enemy quickly reformed and re-appeared somewhere else. 

In the final analysis, as my father would say, the Riverines had no real impact.  The kinds of successes they had, weren’t the kinds of successes that were really needed.  The army continually believed it needed a new plan, a new idea, and ideas like the Riverines appealed to them because they could sell them to the politicians,  and politicians liked them because it seemed they could help us win the war more cheaply.   But they didn’t really change the overall strategic policy (a policy called in to question above) and so they didn’t alter the basic course of the war in any significant way. 

Ultimately, my father believed, the Viet Nam war was as much or more about politics than it was about military strategy.  The North Viet Namese knew they couldn’t win while the U.S. remained in Viet Nam.  They knew their only chance was to absorb the losses and prolong the war until America tired of the war.  And so while the generals made some mistakes in the field, it was the politicians in Washington that really screwed things up in Viet Nam, and it is the politicians who are generally the target of his ire.

He is not always so specific about the politicians’ crimes, but he makes it clear they should have stayed out of the way let the army do its job.  They are his ultimate villains; we didn’t lose because of the anti-war movement, nor because of the resolve and persistence of the enemy, nor because of the terrain or the unique difficulties imposed by this particular war; it was because the politicians never made a total commitment to winning the war.  “We never crushed the enemy.  We never went all the way.  They never decided what we should do.  That was the real problem.  They were too involved in micro-managing the war and limiting the role of the military–and they didn’t have a clue of what they were doing.”

Perhaps there was a chance for the politicians to pull it all together up until 1969.  But in 1969, the political tide was turned forever, with the North’s biggest calculated political action: the Tet offensive.  

“The Tet offensive,” he tells me, “turned the tide politically even though it was in fact, a major military setback for the North.   The North had impressive gains in the first few days of the offensive (they even laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Saigon), but, from a military standpoint, it was a desperate gamble, an all-out offensive that could not be sustained.  Within a week, they had given up almost all of the gains that they had made in their initial surprise attack.  But this is not how it was portrayed by the media.”

In fact, the Tet offensive became the catalyst that turned the American public against the war; it was the beginning of the end.  To this point, the American public had been led to believe that progress had been slow but steady.  During the Tet offensive, the images they saw on TV were not one of an enemy in retreat, but of a determined and solid foe.  The fact that this was not actually a military victory for the North was a subtlety that was lost in the analysis.   After the Tet offensive, many Americans felt they had been duped, that the war was not going as well as the government had proclaimed.  The anti-war movement gained steam, the media began to look more critically at Viet Nam, and support for the war among the public at large declined as well. 

So, beginning in 1969, the U.S. steadily scaled back the war effort.   Nixon had campaigned on getting us out of Viet Nam, and he attempted to keep that promise.  There were fewer and fewer troops remaining in Viet Nam with each passing year of his administration.  We lingered in Viet Nam for several more years, but we no longer had the troops or the resources, not to mention the public support, to turn the tide in our favor.  The Communists had outlasted us and achieved their goals, their political victories  (and our many political failures) arguably a far more significant factor than their military victories (and our few military failures).

“A damned shame,” dad says.  “A damned shame, didn’t have to end that way.”

*****

My father ended his career with the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  AIRBORNE!   I was old enough to remember some of this assignment first hand, although as a teenager, I was distracted and out of touch with my parents during most of this period.  I remember for a while he was the G-4, but I’m still not sure what that is.  I also remember Corps Headquarters was just across the street from our quarters and he would walk to work every day.

Despite the relative proximity of the office, there were still many ten to twelve hour days.  “There was a lot of cleaning up to do after the war,” he tells me now.  “That was a tough time.  We were basically rebuilding the army after Viet Nam.  Discipline had broken down.  Guys wouldn’t do stuff . . .  It was pretty bad.”

Years afterwards, the one thing that strikes me about this assignment was that even though a full Colonel and at the end of his career and stuck with a paper-shuffling job, he still did many of those ordinary soldier things: he jumped out of an airplane at least once a month, he went out to the firing range every once in a while, and periodically he went on maneuvers (he would leave very early one morning, and a few days later, generally around dinner time, he would suddenly re-appear on the front door step).

“That’s the one thing about the military that’s different than civil service.  Everyone from the Chief of Staff on down has to do their share of grunt work.  Nobody moves up without it, and nobody can avoid it for long.  You might have a cushy job in Washington for a while, but they won’t let you stay there . . .  Even generals have to jump out of airplanes from time to time.  On the other hand, a civil servant might spend his entire career in Washington, insulated from the real world . . .  Can’t do that in the army.”

Fort Bragg also provided an interesting historical footnote.  At the beginning of his career he to deal with the integration of blacks into the army, and now at the end of his career, it was the integration of women into non-traditional roles.  Women, of course, had been in the army for quite a while before then, but the Equal Rights Amendment was a big thing at the time, and the army was caught up in its politics.

“I had the first two women in jump school,” he tells me without elaborating.

“What happened?”

Nothing  happened.  They were tough broads,” he says, using a term that would probably get him in hot water in today’s new army.  “But then, they had to be tough to do all the things the guys could do.”

I thought perhaps, he would leave it at that, but this is a sensitive topic, and he cannot remain silent.  “But after that beginning, the Army didn’t handle it right.  Within a year, they started lowering standards.  Women didn’t have to do as many push-ups as the men.  They said it’s not fair to make women do the same number of push-ups.  Bullshit!  If the women can cut it, fine, but the standards are there for a reason.  Doesn’t make sense to lower them.  Now, they’ve really gone and screwed up the army.  And they did the same thing by tinkering with the Military Academy as well.  They’ve screwed it up a fare-thee-well after they  let in women . . . Makes no sense!”

Although some may want to label him a chauvinist for his position, I think he is motivated only by his loyalty to the army.  Lowering the standards has hurt the army; it doesn’t matter what the cause is.

“And it really isn’t fair either,” he adds.  “I’ll give you an example.  I had this one kid who came to me . . . he wanted to be an MP, wanted it really badly.  But they had a standard for MPs; I think you had to be at least 5-9 and 160 pounds, and he wasn’t big enough.  He wanted me to make an exception for him, but I couldn’t do it.  But when they let women become MPs, they said we can’t have the same standard for women; that’d be discrimination since most women couldn’t make the cut.  So they set a lower standard for women; I think women only had to be 5-5 and maybe 130 pounds.  Well, after that this kid wants to know why he can’t become an MP when women smaller than him are becoming MPs.  Good question.  I really sympathized with him.  Makes no sense . . . Makes no sense. . .

“And I’ll tell you what else doesn’t make sense.  When you get a woman who makes it through all this and does well, they build her up to be some sort of super-hero, just so they can showcase her.  You get someone like Kelly Flinn,” he said, referring to the Air Force’s first female B-52 pilot.  “They gave her all kinds of awards, praised her as if she was the second coming of Jimmy DooLittle. The Secretary of the Air Force talked about her on TV.  She could do no wrong.  She thought she could do whatever she wanted . . . And when her commander gave her a direct order–told her to quit fraternizing with a married man, a subordinate–she thought she could tell the Air Force to blow it out its barracks bag . . .  And the Air Force told her–as well they should have.  But still in a way the Air Force reaped what they sowed . . .  Why do we do things like this?”  He shakes his head, not so much angry, more perplexed than anything else, unable to see the logic in any of this.

It has been many years since he retired, and from time to time similar issues will take hold in the national news; we will generally talk about them during my visits.  Women in combat, is one that still sends him into orbit.  And Bill Clinton (“the draft dodger” my father calls him), is a topic unto himself.  “Gives me a pain in the ass every time I see him salute”, he complained for eight long years.

“I heard he may have been the second gunman on the grassy knoll,” I add as a way of agreeing.

“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”  Dad and I have to stick together against my Democrat brothers.  They, unfortunately, think Bill Clinton was one of our greatest presidents.

Gays in the military is another topic that generally gets him stirred up.  “If a guy is in the foxhole next to you, you don’t care if he’s gay.  You don’t care if he is white or black or if he is from outer space.  All you care about is that he covers your ass when the bad guys start shooting at you . . . The trouble comes during peace time, when you force guys to live with one another. You can make guys do a lot of things, but you can’t change they way they think.  That’s the problem . . . You know, the army has been making these decisions for more than 200 years, and some politician who knows nothing about nothing comes to town and tries to tell them how to do their jobs.”

During discussions like this, I am reminded of how much he misses the army; he didn’t really wanted to retire in the first place.  I think he wishes he were back in the army so he could straighten out a few people.  I think it would be good for his soul.

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