During my tour of Vietnam, which was decidedly non-tourist, the term “grunt” referred to an army infantry soldier. It may also include marines as well although I don’t know that from firsthand experience. My tour lasted from October 1968 to October 1969. I served, proudly, as a combat medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. My experience was not at all unique or special with respect to that of other military personnel. Frankly, I was just one more non-heroic soldier who was ultimately very happy to depart ‘Nam for “The World” (the U.S.).
I was one of 23 grunts who joined the same combat unit on the same day in October 1968. One year later there were just 7 of us who returned home on schedule. Regrettably those are typical odds for combat units. Some large measure of those odds I lay at the feet of the politicians, the media and yes, the generals. My view, a grunt’s view, is that none of them have learned any of the relevant lessons of Vietnam or Korea before. When President Obama tells the world that he needs to study the situation before making a decision and agonizes publicly over the choices I know nothing has really changed. When General McChrystal submitted his report requesting more troops I heard echoes of General William Westmoreland doing the same. There must be a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere.
Much of my combat experience consisted of long days of physical exhaustion, boredom, and deprivation interspersed with brief episodes of intense fear and an adrenalin rush. It was during one of those periods of boredom that I spoke with our company interpreter. I recall it being an evening and I was drinking my usual pre-dark cup of hot chocolate. The interpreter was nearby but otherwise we were pretty much alone. Standing on a hill looking out over the countryside I asked the interpreter what the local people wanted. His reply was concise, enigmatic and insightful. He responded, “They just want to grow their rice and make their babies.” In the forty years since, I have often observed that this is what most of humanity wants as well. Likely most of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq just want the same.
This is not the only similarity between Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. Most troubling to me is that the strategies, tactics, speeches, media reports and failures are all of a piece. Today we want to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. Yesterday it was Iraqis’. Forty odd years ago it was the Vietnamese. Not sure if that was ever tried in Korea. Supposedly this will be the magic that calms the winds of war and lets the people grow their rice and make their babies. Lewis Sorley, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, has noted that in 1972 this strategy was just getting under way in Vietnam when the politicians pulled the plug and the U.S. vacated the premises.
Hell, I’d heard that phrase in 68-69 when I was beating bush. I even held daily medical services for the local villagers as part of that game. It didn’t seem to help them very much. Perhaps because every evening you could hear the local VC (Viet Cong) walking through the village threatening the people over a loudspeaker. As if to buttress those threats there were the two young boys, maybe 10 or 12, who a week apart were seriously burned by boiling water that mysteriously “spilled” while their families cooked rice. You can’t win the hearts and minds of people who are scared for their lives.
From my point of view, a grunt’s point of view, there are three major systemic errors being repeated today. Three lessons that should have been learned from Vietnam and Korea that today are still being intentionally ignored. An unholy combination of political cowardice, military malfeasance and an amoral main stream media is directly responsible for the fruitless deaths of our military personnel.
- fight the entire enemy not just the combatants
- let the military fight and kill the enemy without restriction
- use every weapon and tactic available
To the first point: fight the entire enemy not just the combatants It was painfully obvious that China, with some help from Russia was the major supplier and supporter of the North Vietnamese. It was also quite clear that neither the Chinese nor the North Vietnamese would honor any borders in their effort to ship troops and materials to the south. As such there are two groups to fight: combatants and the enemy. The combatants were the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army regulars (NVA). But the enemy included China and possibly Russia. The military fought the combatants and could have destroyed them. In fact, during the 1968 Tet Offensive we nearly did destroy them. But our political leaders refused to take advantage and permit the final blows.
The entire enemy force includes not only the actual combatants – air, ground and water – but also those nations and states that provide money, materials and, in some cases troops. When political leaders are too afraid, timid and feckless to attack the entire enemy then our military defeat is foreshadowed and becomes simply a question of time. This can be seen from the other side in the Russian defeat in Afghanistan. The U.S. supplied money and materials. The Russians did not disrupt that supply chain and were ultimately defeated. Alternately, the Russians invaded Georgia; the U.S. did not provide significant money or material (a token support at best) and the Russians “won”. True the Russians ceased the fighting but only on their terms and still today recognize two Georgian states as “Russian”. Meaning that if Georgia attempts to recover its own territory Russia will likely invade again. It is a stalemate held at the convenience of the Russians. For further study see: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Russia), Iraq (1), Iraq (2), and today, Afghanistan (US).
The great fear of course is that fighting the entire enemy would have thrust us into a world war with China and perhaps even Russia as well. Certainly that is a risk. Not challenging them is also a risk. Consider though that our objective in Vietnam was in fact to prevent the Chinese Communists from establishing hegemony over the whole of Southeast Asia. Since we were there to fight the Chinese, albeit via the proxy enemies of the NVA and VC, why not take the battle right to the Chinese? At a minimum that would certainly have surprised them. And it might not have been necessary to actually invade China proper or at least not on a large scale. Rather an invasion of North Vietnam with massive force and a demonstrable political and military will to win likely would cause the Chinese to reconsider their hegemony plans.
Unlike the U.S. the Chinese learned valuable lessons from the Korean War. From their point of view the Chinese learned that they could successfully attack the U.S. in particular and the Western world in general using proxy enemies. Most importantly they learned that the U.S. and the West would not take the battle directly to the Chinese but would unilaterally pull back from the brink. As Sun Tzu has noted, knowing your enemy is key to success.
I believe that if we are to fight then let us fight at a time and place of our choice. Had we done so world history would have been vastly different and, I submit, vastly better. Millions of dead and enslaved Vietnamese would likely agree. Those who oppose fighting the entire enemy do so based on the presumption the enemy, the Chinese in this case, would have committed to a large scale war that they would in all likelihood have lost. At that time, in the mid to late 1960’s I suggest the Chinese would have thought better of an all out war against a committed US. While their ultimate desire was hegemony over all of South East Asia they would likely have accepted, under duress of course, holding their existing borders as a fallback position.
Move now to Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we fighting the enemy or just the combatants? Who is the enemy? Hint, it isn’t just Al Qaeda or the Taliban or the local warlords. They are the combatants. The entire enemy includes Iran and Syria along with portions of Pakistan. It in a broad scope it includes the financial supporters such as Saudi Arabia, and other Mid East nations as well. Possibly even North Korea. Why? These nations, states and individuals therein provide the necessary money and materials for the local combatants to continue to fight. It cannot be reasonably argued that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are self-supporting military organizations. They survive only by support from other nations.
The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for over eight years with no real end in sight. During that time, in eight years of fighting a 12 year old boy has now become a 20 year old experienced fighter. Tell me again why children are “innocents”? And why does this fight continue? The fight continues because we have not yet attacked the entire enemy. We have only attacked the low level combatants. One option, to attack the behind the scene enemy is a direct military attack on Iran as well as Syria. They are the most likely enemies Iraq and Afghanistan. We could link such attacks to actions in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. For example, the recent double car bombing in Baghdad should provoke a U.S. missile attack into an Iranian governmental building – without prior warning. That attack could be followed by an announcement that further terrorist attacks will bring further retaliation against Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the like. Oh, to be sure, the whole of the UN will be outraged and the world will denounce us. But carried to a forthright conclusion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end more quickly than if we simply continue the present course. Of course we will be severely tested during this process but that is happening anyway.
The second point: let the military fight and kill the enemy without restriction My combat epiphany was in April, 1969. My company had been moved from the central highlands to a coastal village area. In the central highlands we had a so-called, “free fire zone”. At any time and for any reason we could fire our weapons, call in artillery and/or request air strikes. Anyone in the area was considered a combatant and could be killed. Moving to the coastal village area was to enter a Combat Twilight Zone. Well, actually, it is even difficult to call it combat. Instead of a “free fire zone” we had a “free to die zone”. Hence my epiphany as I soon realized that I was nothing more than cannon fodder for the political leaders and their military lackeys’ much to the glee of the media.
U.S. political leaders, wilting under pressure from an amoral main stream media, refused to permit the military to take the appropriate actions to disrupt or destroy the enemy supply chain, the enemy combatants or the broad scope enemy at large. The mainstream media in turn was supported and fomented by large numbers of collegiate age anti-war protesters whose main goals were to party in the streets, avoid military service and generally poke a finger in the eye of what passed for political and academic leadership. They were joined in this parade by small numbers of seemingly regular citizens with diverse anti-military / anti-government motives. As a direct consequence the U.S. government restricted military action by limiting where it could bomb, where it could attack and how it could fight.
Late one afternoon my company was assembled and told that we were to embark on a patrol through the coastal village area to look for and engage a large NVA force that was rumored to be in the area. But first we had some marching orders that the Captain was under great pains to explain. The most significant order concerned the new “rules of engagement” which I now understand to be how one side agrees to die for no good reason. Our rules that evening were, “You are not to return fire unless you can see the person firing at you”. I kid you not. I was dumb and naïve so I asked the Captain, “What if the enemy stands up in the window of a hooch (a hut), pops off some rounds and ducks back down. Can we fire into the hooch?” The answer was “No, you are not to return fire unless you can see the person firing at you”. I was totally dumbstruck as were most of my fellow soldiers. We were being sent on a late evening patrol looking for a large enemy force. If we found them we were to engage them in battle. But we were not allowed to initiate fire and not allowed to return fire unless we could actually see the person firing at us. We were free to die for no good reason.
Still orders are orders so we set off across the rice paddies and through the forested fields. As if the enemy knew our rules of engagement – and I am convinced they did – we came under sniper fire. Of course we could not return fire since they popped off a few rounds and hid. Can’t see them can’t fire. Needless to say we couldn’t call in artillery or air strikes either. Feel free to die though! But every time we came under fire the entire company hit the dirt and waited for the attack that never came. After a few minutes we would saddle up and move in the direction of the fire! Again, I am convinced that the enemy that night not only knew our rules of engagement but knew our mission as well. We came under fire, assumed it was the enemy we were looking for and went after them. Perhaps our military intelligence had been fed false information? Boy, I’d just be shocked, shocked if that happened.
It was just at dark when the explosion rocked the area. A booby trap had exploded. Everyone was scared to move in case there was a second or third. As the company medic I had to move as did my fellow platoon medics. Up we went to the front of the line. Dead and wounded littered the area. By this time it was fully dark. Cries and a few screams sounded in the night. My medics and I are moving around in the dark with flashlights trying to find and help the wounded when just minutes before we had been under sniper fire. Not fun being a lit up target on a dark night.
I had to tell two badly wounded soldiers to be patient; I had to check if anyone was more seriously wounded before I could help them. I moved farther on up to the front of the line. With my flashlight I was looking for any soldier still alive. Along the way I stepped on a log, or so I thought. I looked down, and as the flashlight lit up the ground the log turned out to be the chest of a friend. I had been talking to him about his new shotgun just two hours earlier. He had a softball sized hole in his chest.
Miraculously the guy on point (first in line) was alive and only had a minor wound. He was staying put keeping guard. Gutsy guy. The nearly two dozen behind him were dead or badly wounded. One young kid I found was still alive although one leg was blown off. I put a tourniquet around the stump but it wasn’t bleeding. His face was peppered with sand that pitted his skin like a macabre black face. He sat up as I was trying to get an IV in – he had no veins left though. Too much blood loss I suspect. But he sat up, looked right at me, eyes wide with fear and grotesquely outlined with sand. Then he screamed, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die”. And he lay back down and died.
Right after the explosion I asked the lieutenant to call for two medevac choppers to handle all the wounded. It turned out that we didn’t need them both. All the wounded had been loaded on one chopper. The rest were dead. The captain had a shrapnel wound in his leg but he refused to leave until the morning. I still respect his courage and stamina. After a while the second medevac pilot asked if we still needed him. I said “no, but thanks for being there”. He responded, “Just doing my job”.
The next day the captain was airlifted out by medevac along with some body parts. One man’s boot was found. His foot was still inside. The dead were collected and transported to the rear. In the end at least six Americans were killed instantly along with another six South Vietnamese working with us. Another group of six to eight Americans were wounded most quite seriously. One with a stomach wound died later. Another with both legs broken in multiple places ended up with one leg shorter than the other. I don’t know what happened to the captain. I know he felt great responsibility for the loss.
And why were these men grievously wounded? Why did so many die? Why did we fight nice and not try to hurt anybody? The political leaders were more afraid of a malevolent media broadcasting images of dead women and children than they were about dead soldiers coming home in body bags. The enemy knew our rules of engagement. The enemy knew we wouldn’t call in artillery or air support. They knew how to take full advantage of our self-induced weakness. We were free to die and the enemy obliged.
And what happens today in Iraq and Afghanistan? More “rules of engagement”. Can’t fire into a mosque. So the enemy hides in the mosques. Soldiers can’t call in artillery or air strikes in certain areas so the enemy hides in those areas. If we don’t see the enemy plant the IED we can’t do anything yet the people living in the area where IED’s are planted know full well the bombs are there. Start taking out the people who know about the IED’s. If we don’t stop being nice about it we’re going to sacrifice good young American men and women just so some Iraqi’s and Afghanis won’t die.
If we want to win these wars we need to allow the enemy to die. That means our soldiers kill people. Sometimes, maybe even a lot of times, so-called innocents will die. But a child can pull a trigger, throw a grenade, or plant an IED. So can women. Both women and children do in fact act as soldiers. There are far fewer innocents in a war than the politicians and the public want to believe. I would leave it up to the soldier at the scene to make the determination. Not some fat assed politician fearful of missing a lobbyist dinner and losing the next election. Enough with the rules and restrictions. Take the gloves off. War is brutal and it should remain so. The worse it gets the less we’ll have of it. We have to decide if we’re fighting a war or simply conducting a criminal investigation and police action. If it’s the latter then bring the military home and send in the Capitol Hill Police.
Third point: use every weapon and tactic available In Vietnam the military was restricted on bombing sites in the North, limited to fighting south of the DMZ, and unable to utilize the Navy to embargo harbors. For the most part they were precluded from following the enemy into Cambodia and Laos. Yes, there were some incursions but it was a limited and restricted effort. As a consequence, so were the results. The Chinese were encouraged by the U.S.’s self-imposed restrictions to continue supplying the North using neighboring countries at will as supply routes. Helpless to deny the supply routes, unable to invade the North and limited in the weapons the U.S. military personnel fought doggedly but were denied victory by political leaders.
How different would the war have transpired if early on the US heavily bombed the North, embargoed their harbors, invaded the cities north of the DMZ and generally carried the battle to the North? If the U.S. military had free rein to fight the combatants and the politicians had fought the enemy (with the backing of the military) the outcome would likely have been a victory in short order. Instead with a heavily restricted military the US was defeated in a 10 year wasted effort.
Today, while claiming victory in Iraq I suggest the battle ground has merely shifted tactically and temporarily. Since the whole of the enemy has not been challenged much less attacked the victory cannot be considered secure and likely is illusory at best. In Afghanistan we are seeing a “do-over” from Iraq. Given similar strategies, tactics, and limitations, we will have similar arguments and similar outcomes that are all fairly preordained. The preference of our current crop of political leaders seemingly is to declare victory and leave or at a minimum just shout, “whatever” and get out.
By demonstrating our willingness to attack the enemy – Iran being the most egregious – we can raise the cost of the war to Iran (and others) and cause them to reconsider their participation. By actually using all available weapons (yes, up to and including nuclear) we can again, raise the cost of continued participation in the war by the enemy nations. Certainly we have many weapons available short of nuclear. Military actions such as naval embargo, massive conventional bombs and missiles, interdicting their ships, destroying their defensive posts can all be done without going nuclear. Economic weapons are also available such as forging their currency to bankrupt the state, food and gasoline embargos, financial and covert support of opposition leaders. Other nations, bearing witness will rethink their participation just as Libya did after the US invaded Afghanistan. Is there a cost to this process? Yes, but there is a far greater cost not to follow this line.
What is most troubling is that our enemies learn while the U.S. repeats failed policies. The following quote by North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap confirms my understanding of the lessons our enemies have learned. What I want to know is when do we learn the lessons from our battles?
“We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.”
–North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, in a 1990 interview with historian Stanley Karnow
From a Wall Street Journal feature article
“Congress sends the wrong signal to the Iraqis.”
Wall Street Journal Friday, November 18, 2005 12:01 A.M. EST
See also the recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
Wall Street Journal October 11, 2009