Category Archives: War and Peace

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

Now that I’ve watched all the episodes, it’s getting a little difficult to remember details from one a couple back. But here are some points, just as conversation starters:

  • There’s a lot about our experience in Vietnam that appalls me — and of course, many of them are not the same things that appall Doug or Bud. But My Lai is one where I think our disgust is in synch — even though I’m sure we extrapolate different lessons from it. That Calley served so little time — and in house arrest, the gentleman’s form of punishment administered to a monster — makes a mockery of all that’s holy. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but someone should have shot him in the act, and saved some of those people (and I deeply honor helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who intervened to stop it, threatening to open fire on his fellow Americans if they did not cease the killing). Worse than Calley’s case is that no one else even served time — not Medina, not his NCOs, not anybody. Of course, neither of those things is the worst thing. The worst thing is the killing itself, all those innocents…
  • This episode also includes one of Nixon’s worst lies: When he said Thieu had told him the ARVN were doing such a great job that Vietnamization could proceed apace so we could start pulling out American combat troops — and Thieu had said no such thing. It’s one thing to start pulling Americans out — that, at least, was something Nixon had promised to do and we knew he was going to do, and by and large the country (this country that is) was behind him on that. But to claim that the ally you’re deserting had told you that was fine by him when he hadn’t is slimy.
  • The contrast between horrors of war and what was going on back stateside is often disturbing to me. A segment in which Marine Tom Vallely was engaged in particularly intense combat — an action for which his was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry — after which he is talking about the things one’s grandchildren will never understand about what you did in the war… shifts jarringly to Country Joe and the Fish performing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock. It was two days after the battle we’d just been told about. The camera stops on the face of one long-haired kid after another in the audience grinning and smirking at the mocking lyrics, singing along to this hilarious song about dying in Vietnam. I’d never minded that song very much before, but seeing people so tickled by it just after looking at dead and dying men on a battlefield sickened me. And it should do the same to my antiwar friends. People think they’re so damned cute, don’t they? Give me cursing, angry, rock-throwing protesters in the street rather than this.
  • Kent State. I’ve always felt the loss of those kids keenly. I read Michener’s book about the shootings not long after it happened and learned a lot about each of them, felt that I got to know and care about them. What happened there was inexcusable, indefensible. To start with, why were those kids in the Guard uniforms issued live ammunition? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about the tragedy gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. All of that said… I don’t feel exactly about the incident the way my antiwar friends do. As horrific as the shooting of those protesters was, I wish I could be like antiwar folk and applaud their protest with uncomplicated approval. But I’m not able to do that. To me, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that their cause made no sense to me. Of course you go into Cambodia if that’s where the enemy is — especially when there’s a new government in that country that approves of your doing so. Anything that could be done to strengthen the position of the South Vietnamese when we’re preparing to pull out should quite naturally be done. That’s what I thought at the time, and I see no reason to think differently now. I wish I could. It would be nice to have the blessing of uncomplicated feelings.
  • There was one thing I can feel pretty good about, in an uncomplicated way, and that was the practice back here of five million Americans wearing bracelets to remember the POWs in Hanoi. As the narrator says, “Despite what their jailers had told them, the prisoners had not been forgotten by their country.” There’s nothing political about it. It’s neither approving nor protesting. It’s just remembering, caring. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Just two more episodes to discuss. Then we can go back to arguing about things happening in this century…

marching

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Seven: ‘The Veneer of Civilization’

That clip above follows an extraordinary story of heroism in battle.

In a night battle against overwhelming odds — his company was badly outnumbered by the attacking NVA — Vincent Okamoto, a Japanese-American who had been born in an internment camp during the Second World War, did an Audie Murphy: He left cover to jump atop an armored personnel carrier, pulled aside the dead body of the machine-gunner, and fired the gun at the enemy until it stopped working.

Then he went to another APC, and fired its gun until it was out of ammunition. Then he did it again from a third APC. When all that ammo was gone, the was still coming, so he started throwing grenades at them. Twice, he threw back enemy grenades thrown at him. A third landed out of his reach, and peppered his back and legs with shrapnel.

Convinced he was going to die (“Mom’s gonna take it hard,” he thought), Okamoto lost all fear, and kept fighting. Eventually, the enemy slipped away into Cambodia, leaving a third of the American company as casualties.

Vincent Okamoto

Vincent Okamoto

“I killed a lot of brave men that night,” he says. And he tells himself that by doing so, maybe, just maybe, he saved the lives of a couple of his own guys. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for that night of fighting. By the time he went home, he would become the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.

But as is the case with so many decorated heroes, he shoves that aside rather impatiently, speaking of the “real heroes” with whom he served. That’s the clip above. I thought I should share what went before to enhance your experience of the clip.

It’s a pretty powerful evocation of the thing that those of us who’ve never been to war often misunderstand about those who have. We can talk about courage and sacrifice and heroism, and patriotism and causes and waving flags. But to those who have been there, that stuff is so often (if not always) beside the point. It’s about the guys next to you. Whatever you do, you do for them, in the context of the moment, and not for the stuff of Fourth of July speeches.

And I can say all that stuff in words, because I’ve read it so many times in words, and I think I understand it well enough to do that. But I don’t really know. How can I?

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that “veneer of civilization” that turned thin and frayed and was ripped aside at about this time.

At this point, Martin and Bobby have already fallen, and once again we’re reminded of how much was lost in those two men. (By the way, if you’ve never listened to the recording of RFK announcing MLK’s death at a campaign rally, and then going on to speak with an eloquence that puts everyone since him in the shade, listen now. It always gives me goosebumps.)

RFK, I believe, could have been the guy to pull his party together and not only win the election, but help heal the country. It had seemed that way since he had made his late entry into the race. He, perhaps, could have done what neither Humphrey nor McCarthy could do. Without him, and MLK, there wasn’t much of a chance for that.

The Democratic Convention in Chicago was one of the low points of American civilization — all those multifaceted freaks acting out in the streets, and all those Chicago cops brutalizing them. And what did they accomplish? Why, the election — just barely — of Richard Nixon. In the same sense that the Bernie Bros helped elect Trump, only more so. The Democratic brand was so damaged that HHH couldn’t overcome it, despite the prevalence of his party all through the decade up to that point.

I’ve heard a lot from Doug and others during this series about how awful JFK and LBJ supposedly were. It just makes me sad, because I know I can’t explain to folks with that attitude why they’re wrong to engage in such blanket condemnation.

It’s foolish for people with that attitude of monolithic negativity to think a series such as this would “open my eyes” and cause me to see things as they do. And it’s equally foolish for me to think the same experience would temper the views of those who are deeply cynical as a result of the way that war tore the country apart. (I didn’t have much hope of that, but I’ll confess to thinking “maybe…”)

But there is one point on which this series has affected my thinking, leaving me with a darker view of someone or something: I am repeatedly appalled by hearing those conversations that Nixon had with Kissinger and others.

Over the decades, my view of Nixon has softened somewhat. After all, his mastery of policy seems particularly worthy of respect in a time when we have a complete idiot in the White House.

But his cold cynicism and clamoring for personal political advantage is nauseating. How can a person, even speaking privately with his confidantes, say such nakedly Machiavellian things?

And remember, folks, this is the guy who kept his promise to get us out of Vietnam.

I’d still take him over Trump, for many reasons. But he was pretty awful. I’m reminded by this series that he was the worst president in my lifetime, until now. Worse than I had remembered…

Chicago

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Six: ‘Things Fall Apart’

American Ms fighting off the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

American Ms fighting the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

I’m still a day behind — I watched Episode Seven last night — but I’ll get there eventually.

To me, this episode — which dealt with the period of the Tet Offensive — was all about the power of expectations and perception.

The offensive was, of course, a tremendous failure for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong — tactically and strategically, in terms of what they hoped to achieve.

The communists attacked everywhere, and were defeated everywhere — badly defeated. Their losses were horrific. And their strategic goal — of inspiring the people of the South to rise up and support the North’s cause — was a complete failure. None of the Southern provinces rose up. The people of the South, along with the Americans, fought back fiercely and with devastating effectiveness. The NVA and Viet Cong were crushed.

It was the sort of thing that, were you an American or South Vietnamese military commander, you might wish the North would do once a month, the result was so damaging to the North’s ability to wage war.

But that’s not how it played in America. In America, it played as “They can rise up everywhere at once? Some of them got inside the U.S. embassy compound?” The enemy wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. (And yes, American commanders’ overly rosy assessments of how the war going had something to do with that.)

That’s when, as the title of the episode suggests, things began to fall apart. The enemy launched the offensive on January 30, 1968. On March 12, LBJ suffered a terrible setback in the New Hampshire primary.

Mind you, he didn’t lose. Again, we’re talking expectations and perception. He won, but with only 49.6 percent of the vote — and that’s not supposed to happen to a sitting president in his own party’s primary.

An interesting side note here: Eugene McCarthy didn’t get 41.9 percent because that many people were antiwar. As the episode points out, he did that well “even though most of those who voted against the president actually wanted him to prosecute the war more vigorously.” Stuff is often more complicated than we remember.

But the president was expected to win 2-to-1, so that means he lost. Expectations and perception.

Four days later, Bobby Kennedy announced he would run. On March 31, Johnson announced that he was bowing out: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” (Wouldn’t it be nice if it were so easy to get Trump to quit?)

Tet, and that political defeat of the once all-powerful Johnson, made it respectable for serious Democratic politicians to be against the war. We’d fight on for five more years, but this is where the conversation that led to withdrawal started to get serious.

In a way, despite getting creamed on the battlefield, the North had achieved what Hitler failed to do at the Battle of the Bulge. He had hoped to shock the overconfident Western Allies — who had been talking about the war ending by Christmas 1944 — into losing heart, perhaps even seeking a negotiated peace so he could turn and use all his forces against the Russians.

So, defeat eventually translated to victory for the North….

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

OK, I’m an episode behind in posting about this. I should have used the two-day R&R we had Friday and Saturday to catch up, but I had a lot of other stuff going on. I’m going to post this now (from Thursday night), and try to get to Episode Six before the day is out.

Several thoughts from this episode:

  • Are we “killer angels” or not? In the clip above, Marine Karl Marlantes disputes the notion that military training teaches young men to kill. He maintains that we are a species born to such aggression, and training merely serves as a “finishing school,” polishing our skills for what we already tend to do. Not a new idea, of course. But it flies in the face of what military psychologist Dave Grossman argues in that book I cite so often here, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman presents considerable evidence to indicate that most men (although not all — we get our special forces soldiers from the tiny minority) have a deep-seated aversion to killing, and that it takes a lot to override that. So which is it? Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?
  • On a related point… The title of the episode comes from the opening clip above, in which another Marine talks about how he adapted to combat. At first, he questioned some of the things he saw fellow Marines doing. He’s not specific, he just refers to “some interesting things that happen” — although he had dropped the word “atrocities” in setting up the segment. Anyway, he was told, and he eventually internalized, “This is war. This is what we do.” This strikes me on a couple of levels. First, there’s the point I’ve made for 50 years to people who thought there was something especially immoral about our involvement in Vietnam, something setting it apart. No, this is war. Be against war if you choose, and that’s fine. But most (not all, but most) things that horrify people about Vietnam are things that happen in other wars. This is just the first war in our history in which folks at home had an inkling what happened on the battlefield. Second, I’m reminded of Grossman’s book: One of the factors that overcomes men’s aversion to killing is seeing their comrades doing it around them. In fact, one point that I don’t think has been made overtly in this series yet is this: Most soldiers don’t fight for causes, or nations, or any of the usual things we talk about. They fight for the guys next to them. If their comrades turn and run away, they’ll run away. But if his comrades stand and fight, a soldier is too ashamed to do anything else himself.
  • MusgraveOne of the most startling stories thus far in the series is the one told by Marine John Musgrave. He was shot in the chest, and had a hole “big enough to put your fist through.” He was triaged three times, and each time given up for dead — by a corpsman on the battlefield, again in the evac helicopter, and finally by a doctor at the hospital. Each time, he was shoved aside so the medical personnel could try to save the men who had a chance. The third time, the doctor only asked him his religion so he could call over a chaplain for him. Finally, a surgeon says, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” As they anesthetized him for surgery, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up. But they saved him, and he survived to tell his story to Burns and Novick.

That last item was one of those things that we should all pay more attention to. The moral is, Don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen. This has many applications in life. Sometimes, as in Musgrave’s case, it means “Don’t give up hope.” Other times, we should not get complacent thinking we know things are going to be OK. For that reason, I’ve been pretty irritated at news stories I’ve seen the last two or three days saying that Graham-Cassidy is dead. As Yeats wrote (in the same poem quoted by Bobby Kennedy in last night’s episode):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

On this, Lindsey Graham has thrown his lot in with the worst — even acting like he’s proud that Trump is backing his effort. And he will pull out everything he can to succeed in passing this abomination…

this is war

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode 4: ‘Resolve’

I’m a day behind here, but I want to have a post about each episode, so I’m posting this a day late, after I’ve already seen Episode 5. But here goes…

First, if there was an episode, of all those thus far, that was going to turn me into the Vietnam war protester that Bud would like me to be, it was this one. From start to finish, practically every point made, every interview, every video clip, added up to a powerful message that whether we should have been in Vietnam or not, what we were doing was not working. The Johnson administration was fooling itself as well as the American people, and each escalation added to the sense of desperation that the episode conveyed. These points were made again and again, eloquently.

A person watching that episode would naturally wonder, why did we continue to fight? Why didn’t the American people demand that we withdraw immediately? And my answer, as I expressed earlier in a comment, is that the concentrated way that these arguments are presented in the episode was NOT the way life was experienced at the time. First, if you were a stateside civilian, little of your average day was spent thinking about the war. And when it was, the antiwar message was a much smaller chunk of what we were taking in about the war — and no, that was NOT because the POTUS was a big, fat liar.

Most of the journalism we saw was NOT by David Halberstam or Morley Safer. We did not have the experience that this series affords of hearing at length from young men who went over enthusiastic about the mission and became disillusioned. (So far, every single young man we learn of in

I was just a kid at the time, which makes me unreliable, but I have no memory at all of the Fulbright hearings, much less of the calm, articulate, intellectual arguments of George F. Kennan and other witnesses arguing against our involvement.

In fact, if you were alive at the time, most of what you saw of the growing antiwar movement was people chanting such things as “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” I know that such “arguments” are persuasive to many people, but they turn me right off. Such approaches aim to engage the emotion and shut down rational faculties, and I’ve always held them in contempt.

Anyway, I was impressed by what Kennan had to say, because of who he was — or who the series told me he was. My ears perked up immediately when I heard that he was sort of the father of Cold War strategy of containment. I had heard his name, and I was familiar with the strategy, and I was eager to hear more.

As y’all know, I have frequently written here about Vietnam as an application of that policy of containment. So hearing that Kennan said Vietnam was a wrong-headed misapplication of the strategy really made an impression on me.

Bud thinks I should “just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right,” which ain’t gonna happen. Nor is Muhammad Ali or Dr. Spock going to knock me over. Nor John Kerry. In fact, definitely not John Kerry. But if a guy like Kennan says something, I’m thinking as I watch this, I’m paying attention.

The next morning, seeking to know more, I googled Kennan. Wikipedia’s not the same as reading a serious book about him, and I stand ready to be corrected by someone with deeper knowledge, but it’s what I had time for so far. And I read this:

Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had seemingly helped begin. Subsequently, prior to the end of 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament about what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments….

In other words, Kennan wasn’t exactly what the series suggested. He had disowned the way the U.S. government applied his containment idea to the entire Cold War, starting LONG before we got involved in Vietnam.

Which puts his testimony in a very different light from what I heard Wednesday night. It’s not like he was a guy wedded to the overall strategy who had a specific problem with Vietnam; he was a guy who disowned the whole policy.

The way it was presented on the show was that here was Mr. Containment himself, and he was against our involvement in Vietnam. But apparently, that description was off.

Maybe that was acknowledged at some point when I got up to get a glass of water or something. But if it wasn’t, the omission bothers me. It’s one of the few flaws I’ve spotted in the series thus far, though, which testifies to the excellence we’ve come to associate with Burns and Novak.

One other small thing that speaks to something huge…

The episode told of how in the last year of his life, Martin Luther King struggled with whether he should take a stand against the war. And as we know, he eventually decided to do so.

I deeply respect his prayerful process of discernment, and was as always impressed by the rolling power of his eloquence in the speech the program showed a clip from.

But something jumped out at me. Like so many other opponents of our involvement, he called upon our leaders to “end the war.”

Well, y’all know how I tend to react to that phrase. It is spoken by so many good, decent, kind, caring people who just want all the bloodshed to stop. It was spoken during that war, and later with regard to Iraq, and to this day about Afghanistan.

But it was not in our power to “end the war.” It was only in our power to get out of the way and let it proceed without us. This is not some small linguistic quibble. The difference between ending a war and pulling out to let the other combatants fight it out is a big as between night and day.

As we would see in 1975…

Kennan

‘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:

cubwy_bxeaegvfu

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…