Category Archives: War and Peace

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Three: ‘The River Styx’

flowers

There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the war in Vietnam, and I’ve been hoping Ken Burns’ new series would help me sort out.

One is North Vietnam’s complicated relationship with, on the one hand, the Soviet Union, and on the other hand with China.

It would be so easy to explain the North as the Russians’ client state, and at times as I’ve read about the war, that has appeared to be the case. Other times, China seems to have played that role. And over the years, I’ve thought, how can both be true, given the bitter split between the world’s two biggest communist countries back in the ’60s?

And yet, I’m learning from the series, apparently the answer was indeed “both.”

Both poured considerable resources into helping the North — the Chinese sending 320,000 people (I’m saying that from memory — I didn’t write the number down during the show), and the Soviets sending vast amounts of materiel along with advisers.

How did Hanoi maintain that uneasy balance? With great difficulty, apparently.

And the split in those two nations’ attitudes toward Marxism’s inevitable march through history was reflected in North Vietnam’s leadership. Ho Chi Minh subscribed to the less aggressive, more accommodating approach pushed by Moscow. (He, for instance, was very upset that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on Americans in the Tonkin Gulf.) Le Duan, who increasingly gained greater sway over Hanoi at Ho’s expense, favored the more extreme, violent, approach of the Maoists.

One thing about the commies: They weren’t monolithic. Which takes us back to my Unified Field Theory of human affairs: People are complicated, regardless of how they try to boil things down into simple ideologies.

Here’s a detail that particularly struck me last night: The part where China sent those 300,000-plus people to help with the war effort. They did it in a way that marked a profound contrast to the American approach: They send them to take on rear-echelon jobs to free North Vietnamese soldiers to go to the front.

In doing that, they embodied Donald Trump’s notion of international relations (reiterated in his speech to the U.N. yesterday): That every nation looks out for itself, that it’s all about self-interest.

Meanwhile, LBJ was sending entire American combat units over to fight, bleed and die for the Vietnamese.

The clip below shows the reaction of one Vietnamese woman to that. And there were many others like her. Key excerpt:

We’re such a small and poor country, and the Americans have decided to come in to save us — not only with their money, their reseources, but even with their own lives.

We were very grateful…

As I’ve done the last couple of days, my intention here is just to share a thought or two from the episode, something that jumped out at me, as a conversation starter. There was enough in last night’s episode to fill a book with.

Perhaps you would like to make other points based upon it…

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Two: ‘Riding the Tiger’

As yesterday, I’m not going to try to review or summarize the entire episode. You can go watch it any time at the website.

Anyway, I wasn’t able to concentrate on it straight through. For whatever reason, the AT&T Uverse listing had the wrong time, and it was halfway over before I knew it was on. So I watched the second half, then the first. During it all, my real focus was on what was happening in Dominica, as you might imagine. So I went back after — we were up anyway, hoping for news out of the Caribbean — and watched some parts a third time.

But as I did yesterday, I’ll mention one thing that sort of blew me away.

It was that little voice memo that JFK left to posterity a few days after the coup in Saigon that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu.

Make no mistake, Diem was bad news. When the U.S. leaned on him to get him to stop oppressing the Buddhist majority in the country, and Kennedy decided to send heavyweight Henry Cabot Lodge as his new ambassador to emphasize the point, Diem waited until the old ambassador left and Lodge had not yet arrived, cut all wires leading to U.S. offices in Saigon, and rounded up thousands of monks and others across the country.

Diem

Diem

Like I say, bad news.

But the coup was badly botched form its inception. A memo was sent by a junior state department official to the generals plotting against Diem that urged them to go ahead. He ran it by JFK — over the phone, while Kennedy was on vacation at Hyannis Port. Kennedy didn’t hear the entire contents of the memo, and OKed it thinking his senior policy advisers were on board. They were not, and many would not have been.

A total clusteryouknowwhat.

But that’s not what impressed me. What impressed me was this a historical footnote that sent shivers down my spine. You might think it a small thing.

When narrator Peter Coyote says, “Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup, and his concerns for the future,” I thought to myself, It would be amazing if we could hear that account in his own voice, but I assumed that was impossible.

So I was amazed when I actually did hear Kennedy himself expressing his regret and self-blame. Apparently he said it into a Dictaphone or some other recording technology of the time.

You can hear it above. The most powerful part of it:

I, uh, feel that uh we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August in which we suggested the coup.

I, uh, should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference.

I was, uh, shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu… the way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.

I found what Kennedy said to be stunningly frank. He took responsibility and analyzed his own failings as dispassionately as though he were examining an ant under a magnifying glass. Beyond his trademark “uhs,” which always punctuated his speech, there is no hesitation.

It was even more striking to me giving our current maddening experience with a president who is never at fault, who owns up to nothing, who lashes out childishly at anyone who might suggest that he could be. A man whose grasp of world affairs… well, go listen to his appalling speech at the U.N. today.

Knowing it was to be left to posterity, Kennedy could have tried to burnish his reputation, fix blame elsewhere, obfuscate. After all, it was a complicated situation, and very smart people in his administration were saying the development was on the whole a positive one. But he didn’t. His honesty, and the clarity of his thinking amid such shocking events, is startling.

Three weeks later, he was dead….

jfk consent

First episode of Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that's Dewey to his left.

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that’s Dewey to his left.

The first American military death at the hands of Vietnamese communists was possibly the most tragic, because it helped lead to all the others.

Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, only 28 years old (which makes his rank rather startling), was our man in Saigon at the end of World War II. As the various powers who had just won the war were figuring out their relationships in Southeast Asia, Dewey — the head of our OSS team in Vietnam, was leaning toward supporting Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh.

Dewey

Dewey

This made some sense, as Ho at the time still had pro-American leanings, despite his devotion to Leninism.

But the senior Allied officer in country was British Maj. Gen. Douglas D. Gracey — a colonialist who was all for helping the French reassert control over their colony. Gracey ended up sending Dewey home. On the way to the airport, Dewey refused to stop at a roadblock, yelled at the Viet Minh sentries in French, and was shot and killed by them.

Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter of condolence to President Truman.

From then on, Western powers increasingly sided with their French allies, and things got worse and worse…

That’s one thing I learned from the first episode of Ken Burns’ latest opus, “The Vietnam War.”

On the whole it was very helpful and educational. I only have one beef:

The episode told a clear, coherent story that set the stage, starting with the beginning of French rule in the 1850s and running up to 1961. As long as it stuck to that, it was solid. But the filmmakers kept cutting away to little snippets foreshadowing our involvement at its height in the late ’60s. We’d be learning what happened in the1940s, and suddenly someone would be talking about his experience as a marine in 1969.

It was jarring and distracting, and, I felt, rather condescending. It was as though Burns and Lynn Novick were saying, “We don’t think you have the attention span to stick with this narrative, so we’ll give you little bits of what you tuned in to see…”

I didn’t like that a bit. But on the whole, a solid start…

soldiers_in_field_carousel

Graham’s enthusiastic response to Trump’s Afghan plan

Trump still

I missed Trump’s speech last night because I was writing that post about Jack Van Loan — and was surprised when I went back downstairs to find that it was over. I thought I’d catch at least some of it.

But I’m familiar with the gist. And since I got this response from Lindsey Graham today, I’ll use that as a device to get into the subject:

Graham: “Gloves Are Off Inside Of Afghanistan”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) last night on Fox News reacted to President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy.

Ø  GRAHAM: “I think there will be a lot of bipartisan support in Congress for this new proposal. I’m proud. I’m relieved. I’m proud of the fact that President Trump made a national security decision, not a political decision. I’m proud of the fact that he listened to the generals. I’m most proud of the fact that he shows the will to stand up to radical Islam.” https://youtu.be/2oZhfvbGd9c?t=9s

Ø  GRAHAM: “We’re going to make our decisions based on conditions on the ground, not on the arbitrary passing of time. So hats off to President Trump for not becoming General Trump. Because General Obama was a real lousy general, and that’s part of the mess we’re inheriting…” https://youtu.be/2oZhfvbGd9c?t=2m49s

First, let me say that while I, too, disagreed with him on Afghanistan, I would take President Obama — or either Bush, Clinton or Reagan — back in a skinny minute if it meant getting rid of Trump. And I could really do without the silly red-meat stuff about “gloves are off” and “the will to stand up to radical Islam.” It’s silly, and undermines serious people’s ability to take him seriously. He’s a smart man; he can express himself more intelligently, however much he wants to repair relations with what is euphemistically called “the base.”

Next, I’ll shift gears and express my great relief that for once, Trump seems to have allowed himself to learn from experts rather than going with his gut. That’s a big step. We’d be in a lot better shape if he’d learn to listen to ALL experts, and not just the generals — although listening to generals is a fine start.

Finally, I agree with Graham and Trump that setting deadlines to leave Afghanistan is the worst of ideas.

My rule of thumb is this: If we send troops into a situation with a departure date in mind, we shouldn’t send the troops in at all. Nor should we set dates for departure after we send them in. That makes it almost impossible to achieve military objectives, whatever the objective. (“Hey, enemy, just hunker down and wait until this date, and you can take over!”)

And that’s about it, except to say again that it’s a relief to see Trump listening to people who actually know what they’re talking about, for once. Wherever we go from here in Afghanistan, this is far better than a commander-in-chief calling the shots on the basis of grossly ill-informed whim.

But my relief isn’t so enormous that I’m going to gush about it the way Graham did…

Keep him WAY down in the hole….

This morning while working out on my elliptical trainer, I rewatched an episode of the second season of “The Wire,” and rather than skimming through the opening credits — something a bit harder to do on the Roku and have it stop where I want it — I listened to the song.

Guess which part of the words grabbed my attention, in light of current news?

… He’s got the fire and the fury
at his command.
Well, you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus’ hand.
We’ll all be safe from Satan
when the thunder rolls;
just gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole.

Yikes. Suddenly lyrics I’d heard a hundred times grabbed me in a whole new way….

How would Bunk and McNulty deal with North Korea?

How would Bunk and McNulty deal with North Korea?

D-Day plus 73 years

Troops approaching Omaha Beach in a Higgins boat on June 6, 1944. National Archives Image.

Troops approaching Omaha Beach in a Higgins boat on June 6, 1944. National Archives Image.

In combat, you have to learn to rely on the guy next to you. Sometimes, blogging is (slightly) like that — minus the danger.

I was worried that I wouldn’t have time today to write about D-Day, so Bryan Caskey did so on his blog and said I could refer y’all to it.

Thanks, Bryan! An excerpt from his post:

73 years ago, over 150,000 Allied troops landed on the shores of France, intent on reclaiming Europe from the German army that had overrun and occupied Europe. It was a calculated gamble, and the outcome was far from certain. In the early morning hours of darkness before the sun rose, thousands of men dropped from the sky in connection with the landings.

Of the over 150,000 Allied troops that landed that day, 4 received the Medal of Honor for their actions on that day. One of those men was Teddy Roosevelt’s son.

When the first waves hit the shore at Omaha Beach, they were immediately met with withering fire from fortified German positions. Omaha Beach is a curved beach, like a crescent moon, and it has high bluffs overlooking the shore. Accordingly, it was the most easily defended by the Germans….

All I’ll add for the moment is this story today about Andrew Higgins, whose little boats made down in New Orleans won the war — along with the M-1 Garand, the Jeep, the C-47 and all sorts of other legendary hardware:

D-Day’s hero: Andrew Higgins loved bourbon, cursed a lot and built the boats that won WWII

Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man Dwight D. Eisenhower once credited with winning World War II, was a wild and wily genius.

At the New Orleans plant where his company built the boats that brought troops ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, Higgins hung a sign that said, “Anybody caught stealing tools out of this yard won’t get fired — he’ll go to the hospital.”

Whatever Higgins did, he did it a lot. “His profanity,” Life magazine said, was “famous for its opulence and volume.” So was his thirst for Old Taylor bourbon, though he curtailed his intake by limiting his sips to a specific location.

“I only drink,” he told Life magazine, “while I’m working.”

That Higgins was able to accomplish what he did — provide U.S. forces with the means to swiftly attack beaches, including on D-Day — despite his personal shortcomings is a testament, historians say, to his relentless talent and creativity as an entrepreneur….

I sorta kinda almost have a connection to the Higgins Boats — or I thought I did, but now I doubt it. From 1965-67, I lived on an old derelict Navy base down in New Orleans — or technically, across the river in Algiers. I lived there when I was 11-13 years old. Most of the base was shut down — my friends and I almost got caught by the Shore Patrol once when we broke into and explored one of the many abandoned WWII-era buildings.

Many years later, I read the account of a WWII Navy veteran who said he was sent to Algiers to learn to be a coxswain on a Higgins boat in preparation for the invasion of Japan. So I thought, So that’s what that base was for! But I can’t seem to find any references to that on the web. And come to think of it, a place located on the Mississippi River (the levee was a block from my home, and I regularly climbed it to catch catfish) wouldn’t be a great place to train guys how to navigate a boat through surf.

Anyway, to this day I regard the landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, to be one of the most impressive things every attempted and achieved in one day in human history. So much could have gone wrong. Actually, so much DID go wrong — the bombers that were supposed to soften up the defenses missed their targets, paratroopers were dropped everywhere except where they were supposed to be, and no one seemed to know what a Norman hedgerow was like until our soldiers had to dig the Germans out from behind them.

But they got it done anyway. Astounding…

‘Trump the Thucydidean’ — OK, yeah; I hear it…

Occasionally, I get a little glimpse into what Trump voters object to when they behold the folk they see as out-of-touch elites — particularly those whom their spiritual godfather George Wallace called “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

An interesting discussion came on “On Point” this morning, just as I was arriving at the office. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to listen to the whole thing. One of the guests was Graham Allison titled “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” It’s about what may be the inevitable coming clash between these two behemoths, and you can hardly find a topic more important than that. Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 magazine article in which the author set out the concept:

When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.

Thucydides

Thucydides

And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged….

It’s one of those Big Ideas that explain the importance of so many others. It explains why President Obama, and Hillary Clinton before she went all Bernie, rightly saw the Trans-Pacific Partnership as so important — you know, the thing Trump killed without a thought the moment he took office.

Still, knowing all that, when I heard the author mention how “Thucydidean” Trump was being, I thought, “OK, now I hear it. I see what all the anti-intellectuals are on about…”

Yes, the entire U.S. Senate going to the White House for a briefing on North Korea does worry me

Yikes.

Just got an email from Norm Ivey asking, “I trust your judgement on this stuff. Does this news worry you?

You bet it does. It’s from Reuters (which is to say, actual news, not fake):

Entire U.S. Senate to go to White House for North Korea briefing

Top Trump administration officials will hold a rare briefing on Wednesday at the White House for the entire U.S. Senate on the situation in North Korea, senior Senate aides said on Monday.download (1)

All 100 senators have been asked to the White House for the briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aides said.

While top administration officials routinely travel to Capitol Hill to address members of Congress on foreign policy and national security matters, it is unusual for the entire 100-member Senate to go to such an event at the White House, and for those four top officials to be involved….

Yeah. No kidding…

Trump launches direct attack on Syria

OK, so… as someone said on Twitter a few moments ago, Donald Trump has enforced Barack Obama’s “red line” in Syria.

What do I think about that?

Well, it’s complicated.

As a response, this is both measured and forceful. This is out of the Bill Clinton playbook, not George W. Bush’s: Fire some cruise missiles at them, and call the job done. The fact that it was, we are told, the base from which the gas attack was launched smacks of justice. The fact that we have now directly attacked the forces of Russia’s client is a serious cause for concern.

Of course, the fact that this is Donald Trump, a man who until yesterday had Steve Bannon of Breitbart in the most sensitive of national security inner circles, is very, very worrying.

By Trump standards, his statement tonight was measured, said the right things. The word choices were as usual inelegant (and therefore authentic), but the messages he was trying to communicate were the right ones. Will that be the case tomorrow, and the next day?

There’s the rub.

What will he do when the Russians do whatever they do? Talk about a scary complication to a relationship that we already had a lot of cause to worry about, in ways that were entirely different from this. Nothing is normal here. Who can predict what will happen?

I think, I think, I would be OK with this response to Assad’s war crimes, if any previous president had taken this action. I’d be worried, but I wouldn’t be as uneasy as I am now. Especially if I knew his national security team had thoroughly thought it out and was behind the action.

But now…

It’s like…

Any of y’all familiar with “Band of Brothers,” by which I mean the TV series based on the book based on real life? Are you familiar enough to know that the seventh episode, titled “The Breaking Point,” was the best in the series?

Well, I’ve been thinking about that part of the story today. And my thoughts have run this way: There was nobody in Easy Company — at least no one among the original Toccoa men — who wasn’t ready to do his duty and take the village of Foy, as the 101st struck back in the last days of the Bulge.

There was just one thing that made them hesitant: The idea of rushing across that open field toward the town under the leadership of the feckless Lieutenant Norman Dike.

Anyway, I think I’d be ready to follow just about any previous president across this open field of uncertainty.

But I’m really, really worried about Lt. Dike.

Yeah, I realize this isn’t very accessible to non-fans of the series. It’s just the best analogy I could think of to try to explain my reaction. I’m going to go to bed now, and see if I’m any wiser in the morning…

But would you follow if it was Lt. Dike leading?

But would you follow if it was Lt. Dike leading?

And now, we have China threatening ‘a large-scale war’

China's one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

China’s one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

Or rather, we have state-controlled media doing so, which is a signal I think we have to take seriously:

The US risks a “large-scale war” with China if it attempts to blockade islands in the South China Sea, Chinese state media has said, adding that if recent statements become policy when Donald Trump takes over as president “the two sides had better prepare for a military clash”.

China has controversially built fortifications and artificial islands across the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, said China’s “access to those islands … is not going to be allowed”.

China claims nearly the entire area, with rival claims by five south-east Asian neighbours and Taiwan.

Tillerson did not specify how the US would block access but experts agreed it could only be done by a significant show of military force. Tillerson likened China’s island building to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”.

“Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist-party controlled newspaper….

I’m not disagreeing with anything Tillerson said, mind you — and it’s not all that different from the policy followed by the Obama administration — but the current situation is fraught.

On a previous post about Nikki Haley, Phillip Bush said:

That’s going to be a tough job, representing the views of the United States to the United Nations and the world when your own Administration is going to be one squabbling, Tweeting, contradictory, capricious, incoherent mess, especially on foreign policy. Her greatest challenge will come not from fellow delegates at the UN or on the Security Council, but trying to sort out and gracefully convey the day-to-day contradictions emanating from the government she is appointed to represent….

Yep.

One of the main narratives of this week has been that Trump’s nominees are not toeing the Trump line, particularly on foreign policy. Which in one way is encouraging (the nominees’ take is usually far wiser and better-informed), but in another way can lead to chaotic, incoherent policy, an unstable situation in which an unstable personality (hint, hint) can trigger an international crisis, perhaps even war, with a phone call — or a Tweet.

I have little doubt that Nikki Haley will conduct herself “gracefully,” but I do worry quite a bit about a diplomatic novice representing us on the Security Council without expert supervision and direction. That said, in a crisis, Nikki would be the least of my worries. And of course, the new POTUS would be my greatest.

What if, sometime after next Friday, Chinese state media issues a blustering threat like that, and includes some less-than-flattering reflections on Trump himself? How do you suppose he’ll react? And who will be able to contain him? And will they be in time?

German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today

on-the-way-to-the-bulge-12-2016

Bryan sent me the above photo a couple of days ago, with the comment, “Check out the heavy fog. It’s pea soup. It looks pretty darn cold, too.”

Yep, it was extremely cold in that time and place. According to Wikipedia, this is what the photo shows: “American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.”

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Four days earlier, the Germans had attacked the center of the American line with 20 divisions we didn’t know they had, much less that they were in that area. What followed would be the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the Second World War, popularly called the Battle of the Bulge.  (Those 20 German divisions — 13 infantry, 7 armored — attacked a mere 8 Allied divisions, mostly American. By the end of the battle, the Germans would have 24 divisions in the fight, to our 30. Back then, a division usually included between 10,000 and 20,000 men. So, more than a million men were involved.)

The center, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, was a quiet area. The American line there was manned by green American troops. It was a place to put them where they could get used to being in a combat area, living in foxholes under rough weather conditions, without being tested by heavy fighting of the sort that was going on to the north and south.

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., was one of those green troops. He had been thrown into the new 106 Infantry Division at the last minute before being sent up on the line.

The 106th was occupying the position where the very tip of the German spear struck on Dec. 16, and rolled right over the Americans. My father-in-law, plus novelist Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other soldiers of the 106th, were captured and spent the rest of the war freezing and starving in German Stalags. Like the guys in the photo taken by the Germans, below.

This is how the war ended for thousands of Americans. The photo above shows the beginning of the American counterattack, which led to victory over the next month, and the breaking of the Siegfried Line.

When I get home tonight I’m going to hunt for his written account of Mr. Phelan’s experience, and scan it and post it…

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anfänglichen Erfolgen müssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zurückziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (Büschel) 125-45

Pearl Harbor coverage, as it would have looked had there been iPad apps in 1941

ipad-page

I enjoyed this thing that The Wall Street Journal did this morning.

They did a mock home page for their app consisting of actual stories that ran in the paper on Dec. 8, 1941.

Here are links to a couple of the stories:

War With Japan: Washington Sees Fight on 2 Oceans and 3 Continents

All Consumption Curbs Due To Be Stiffened; Scarcity List Will Grow

I’m struck by how matter-of-factly these developments were accepted at the time. The stock market opened as usual the next morning? And can you imagine what a conniption the Journal would have today (on the editorial page, at least) over “consumption curbs?” The government, interfering with the holy marketplace? Good God, Lemon!

Below is an image of the actual front page from that date.

I thought that was pretty cool. But then I’m both a journalist, and a history geek…

original-page

A post in which you can talk about Gen. Mattis

gen_james_n_mattis

Bryan Caskey complains via email, “We gonna talk foreign policy and military stuff on your blog about Mattis, or what?”

Alright, alright, already! Here’s a post about that. And here’s a story about Mattis.

Frankly, I don’t have a strong opinion on this nomination, but here are some thoughts:

  • With a complete ignoramus as commander in chief, it’s more important than ever that there be competent Cabinet members, who can keep the ship of state on some kind of rational course, at least when the White House leaves them alone to do so. This is particularly true on the national security team. And Trump’s decision to make Gen. Michael “Lock Her Up!” Flynn his national security adviser already has us in the hole on that score.
  • Mattis would seem to fit that bill. He’s a guy whose resume demonstrates that he would fully understand the missions of the Defense Department and act accordingly.
  • Then there’s the problem that Congress would have to grant an exemption that it has not granted until it did so for George C. Marshall. The law they’d have to waive arises from concerns about maintaining civilian control of the military. As y’all know, I’m not one of these post-Vietnam liberals who hyperventilate at the sight of a military uniform, fearing a real-life “Seven Days in May.” The Constitution sets the president as commander in chief, and that would seem sufficient. Well, it would under normal circumstances. Having a SecDef who is a recent general and is able to think rings around the president on military matters and foreign affairs could be a cause of concern on the fussy point of civilian control — but I personally would sleep better if I knew Mattis was calling the shots rather than the president-elect.
  • Mattis is far less trusting of Iran than President Obama. I think that is probably a healthy thing, but as Bryan would say, and this post is after all for Bryan, your mileage may vary.
  • I think it’s a very good thing that he has differed in the past from Trump on the idea of our allies getting a “free ride” on the back of U.S. power. He argued with a similar comment from President Obama once.
  • My guys John McCain and Lindsey Graham are on board, which makes me like him better. Graham finds him “an outstanding choice,” and McCain says “He is without a doubt of one of finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.”

Your thoughts?

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed rebels fire on U.S. warship

uss_mason_ddg-87

USS Mason, which was fired upon by Houthi rebels.

While the rest of us are busy listening to a tacky, self-absorbed huckster conjugating the verb “to f___,” there are real things going on out in the real world.

Leave it to our own Lindsey Graham to notice:

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Here’s a news story on the subject.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, a child sits — silent, staring and bloody

Yesterday, I Tweeted out the headline of an editorial in The Washington Post: “As Aleppo is destroyed, Mr. Obama stands by.”

Today, the above video went viral around the world. It shows a tiny boy, covered in dust and blood after being pulled from rubble, sitting in an ambulance seat that’s far too big. He’s quiet. He seems stunned. He wipes his face, sees the blood, tries to wipe it off his hand onto the seat, then goes back to staring ahead.

This, my friends, is what “as Aleppo is destroyed” looks like. The boy is Omran Daqneesh. He’s 5 years old.

And here’s a Tweet that puts things into perspective:

When I Tweeted that editorial headline yesterday, someone responded on Facebook, “What would you suggest he do, Brad?”

Now? I suppose it’s more a question of what he should have done the last few years (such as some of the things Hillary Clinton urged him to do when she was Secretary of State). I don’t know enough about the details of the current situation even to know what is still possible.

I know what he should NOT have done. He should not have spoken of red lines. He should not have said we would have the Syrian people’s backs in this horrible time. Not if he didn’t mean it…

But I guess my short answer is, SOMETHING. Not that any answers are easy…

All I know is that I look at that child, and see my grandson…

Obama, groping through the moral twilight of drone warfare

OK, so it's really a picture of the president touring Carlsbad Caverns with his family last month, but it seemed to go with my headline.

OK, so it’s really a picture of the president touring Carlsbad Caverns with his family last month, but it seemed to go with my headline.

Today, the Obama administration owned up to a number of bystanders killed a collateral damage in drone strikes:

The United States has inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 noncombatant civilians in drone and other lethal attacks against terrorism suspects in places not considered active war zones, the Obama administration said Friday.

The unintentional deaths came in a total of 473 CIA and military counterterrorism strikes up to the end of 2015 that the administration said have taken between 2,372 and 2,581 militants permanently off the battlefield in countries where the United States is not at war, which would include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The release was accompanied by an executive order, signed by President Obama, designed to give added weight to existing administration standards and procedures governing the use of lethal force and for limiting civilian casualties….

So. 473 drone strikes. At least 2,372 people regarded as enemies of the United States killed. And the tradeoff is as many as 116 folks who were minding their own business, snuffed out without warning by hellfire from the sky.

What do we think about that? Are the attacks justified? Is the tradeoff morally defensible? Can we rationalize killing an innocent person for every 20 terrorists?

The administration released this information in connection with the president’s promise to be more transparent about his “I’ve got a list” program of drone warfare.

By disclosing, he’s pulling us in, sharing the burden. Now that we know, it’s more on us. We, too, are walking about in a moral twilight. How do feel about that?

Excuse this digression….

Are you familiar with the naval battle that occurred outside Boston Harbor between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake on 1 June 1813? Up to that point in the War of 1812, there had been several one-on-one battles between British and American ships, and the infant U.S. Navy had won all of them — which had really shaken up the Royal Navy. They were used to fighting the French, and always winning.

Philip Broke, commander of HMS Shannon, had been blockading Boston Harbor for months. He was low on water and other provisions and couldn’t stay on station much longer. But he didn’t want to leave without having had a chance to reclaim the Royal Navy’s honor against the Americans. So he sent a note into the harbor to Capt. James Lawrence of the Chesapeake, challenging him to come out and fight.

Lawrence did so that very day (although coincidentally, on his own initiative, not because of the note). And after a furiously intense 15 minutes of fighting in which 252 men were killed or wounded, Shannon had won. Lawrence, who was mortally wounded in the battle, famously said “Don’t give up the ship!” as he was taken below — but moments later, his men were forced to do just that. He died of his wounds three days later, as his captured ship was being taken to Halifax.

Broke, too, was gravely wounded. He survived, and was made a baronet for his victory, but his injuries ended his active service for good.

This story is told in vivid detail in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, The Fortune of War. As you know, I’m always trying to get everyone I know to read these books about Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, and I recently persuaded my wife to read this one.

To her, Broke’s note challenging Lawrence made no sense.

And yes, it does seem a bit irrational, like two boys meeting on a playground and saying simultaneously, “I can beat you!” and going at it. Boys who’ve heard too many stories about jousting knights in shining armor.

But there was a time when behavior such as Broke’s was universally lauded, held up as an ideal. And I confess I’m atavistic enough to feel admiration for him, while at the same time seeing that whole war as an absurd waste. (I contain multitudes.)

And I have to wonder: Was there not honor in inviting the enemy out to a fair fight, one in which the challenger’s life was on the line as much as anyone’s? A fight in which many were killed, but all were legitimate combatants? Are we better, more rational, more enlightened, more admirable now that we fight wars like this instead?

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The initial exchange of gunfire between Chesapeake and Shannon.

HOW many guys are passing the new Marine fitness test?

'The fitness test? You can't HANDLE the fitness test!'

‘The fitness test? You can’t HANDLE the fitness test!’

I don’t intend to get into the underlying issue of women in the infantry — I’ve intended to ever since that mandate came down from civilian leadership, but I just haven’t felt up to the huge and predictable argument that would lead to — but in reading this I felt motivated to make some remarks on general fitness in the Marines:

New physical standards established so women can compete for combat posts in the Marine Corps have weeded out many of the female hopefuls. But they’re also disqualifying some men, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

In the last five months, 6 out of 7 female recruits – and 40 out of about 1,500 male recruits – failed to pass the new regimen of pull-ups, ammunition-can lifts, a 3-mile run and combat maneuvers required to move on in training for combat jobs, according to the data.USMC-logo2

The tests, taken about 45 days into basic training, force recruits who fail into other, less physically demanding Marine jobs. And that, the Marine commandant says, is making the Corps stronger.

The high failure rate for women, however, raises questions about how well integration can work, including in Marine infantry units where troops routinely slog for miles carrying packs weighed down with artillery shells and ammunition, and at any moment must be able to scale walls, dig in and fight in close combat.

The new standards are a product of the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to compete for frontline jobs, including infantry, artillery and other combat posts. But Marine leaders say they are having a broader impact by screening out less physically powerful Marines – both men and women.

“I think that’s made everybody better,” Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told the AP in his first in-depth interview on the subject. “We’re trying to raise everybody’s bar a little bit and we’re trying to figure out how to get closer together, because at the end of the day we’re all going to be on the battlefield and we all have to be able to do our job.”…

I have a series of reactions to this:

  • These new standards are only eliminating 40 out of 1,500 male recruits? That doesn’t sound like the Marines to me. They’re supposed to be the few, not the 1,460 out of 1,500. Were the ratios always like this? If so, that sort of tarnishes the image I have in my head of the Marines as an elite force. Even the Army, at the very height of WWII, was rejecting a third of draftees. I really that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but still — wouldn’t you think more Marine recruits than that would wash out, if standards were what they should be?
  • Assuming for a moment that we’re all in agreement that women should be in foxholes, I don’t think we have any reason to look at 6 out of 7 women washing out of an elite light infantry unit as bad news. Seems to me that the best argument always advanced for letting women in is that we should treat people like individuals — that we shouldn’t say, just because most women lack, say, the upper body strength to keep up with male Marines, that all women should categorically be barred. Shouldn’t we make exceptions for, say, the Lady Briennes of Tarth among us? That always seemed a good argument to me. (I,for one, would not want to be the officer deputed to tell Lady Brienne she was out, especially since Ser Jaime let her keep that Valyrian steel sword). Besides, if six women don’t make it, the more honor to the seventh.
  • What happened to the notion of “every Marine a rifleman?” Should Marines keep the feathermerchants who can’t pass a test that 97 percent of male recruits can pass? What’s this about “other, less physically demanding Marine jobs?” When did the Marines start offering such jobs? I’ve always known the Army had places for the less fit — or at least they did in the days of the draft, when things like food service weren’t outsourced to civilian contractors and you could always put a sad sack to work peeling spuds or policing the area for butts — but since when is that an aspect of the Marines? They’re the point of the spear, are they not? Let the swabbies do the paperwork, right? Every marine is a rifleman.

I should probably stop there before I offend the Air Force, too.

But when I hear that almost all male recruits can pass the new physical requirements, it makes me think that even I, at my age, might have a shot. And I really like to think of the Marines as having higher standards than that…

Guadalcanal: A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in September 1942.

Guadalcanal: A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in September 1942.

Just to take note of what happened on this date in 1944

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

I don’t have anything new to say about it at the moment, but I thought I’d take note of the date.

Today was the day that the United States, Great Britain, Canada and our other allies put 175,000 men onto a hostile shore. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had done everything he could to keep them off of it, and to ensure that if they did land, they would die.

But we managed it anyway. Or rather, our forebears did.

Who were these guys we sent to do this thing? One of the most interesting paragraphs in Stephen Ambrose’s book about the invasion is this one:

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Look at this one sentence again: “He was twenty-six years old, five feet eight inches tall, weighed 144 pounds, had a thirty-three-and-a-half-inch chest, and a thirty-one-inch waist.”

These were little guys! Even after they’d bulked up, their chests were 34.5 inches! Today they’d have to go to the boys’ department to buy a sport coat.

But they got the job done.

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Memorial Day music: Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’

Heard this on the radio this morning, and as usual it shifted me into a different state of consciousness.

It’s not the words or anything obvious like that. It’s just the otherworldly mood that the song creates.

Anyway, it occurred to me after I heard it that maybe it was being played in honor of Memorial Day.

In that spirit, I share it.

I find myself reminded of this other little-known James Taylor song — a song fragment, really — from his “Mud Slide Slim” album, which I’ve always thought had its own mildly hypnotic effect. I was always struck by the sudden shift in tone — from the battle-weary soldiers “with eleven sad stories to tell” to the narrator and his very different reality — after which the song abruptly ends. It was like suddenly awaking from a dream — or, to invoke an obscure reference, like the effect when Don Juan suddenly slapped Carlos Castaneda on the back, sending him into a state of heightened awareness.

It may seem an odd way to mark Memorial Day — these lyrical expressions from pop musicians who never heard a shot fired in anger. But that’s what I have for you today.

Here’s why we have to stay in NATO, Donald

Germany quiz

OK, there are a lot of reasons, but here’s a dumbed-down, grunt-grunt macho one he might actually understand:

We need to make sure Germany stays on our side.

Somehow I missed this news last week, until it turned up on the Slate News Quiz today:

Six NATO countries squared off last week in the Strong Europe Tank Challenge, a two-day competition that pitted some of the alliance’s best tank crews against each another in a series of events centered on armored warfare.

The challenge, which concluded Thursday and was held in Grafenwoehr, Germany, was the first of its kind there since 1991. The competition was designed to foster “military partnership” while showcasing the ability of NATO countries to work together, according to a U.S. Army statement.

Germany took top honors in the competition, followed by Denmark and Poland in second place and third place respectively.

The challenge, co-hosted by U.S. Army Europe and the German Bundeswehr, is a nod to the Cold War era and a tacit acknowledgment that NATO will need well-trained conventional forces if it ever has to go to war with a newly-emboldened Russia….

Back the last time we weren’t on the same team as ze Germans, they had the best tanks (and the Leopard 2A6s they won with this time look, to my untrained eye, creepily like Tigers). But we won by showing up with way MORE of them than they could produce. We tried that this time, too — every other country sent a single tank platoon to the competition, but we sent two. To no avail, as it turned out. They beat us anyway.

Good thing they’re on our side now. We need to keep it that way, despite what Donald Trump says….

German Leopard 2A6M with turret reversed

German Leopard 2A6M with turret reversed