Rolling Commentary 1 : Someone Else’s Vietnam

September 18, 2017–Lyndon Johnson, a font of political aphorisms, used to tell a story of a camel and a tent. It was a lot better, he would say, to have the camel inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick could have used that advice. Their wide reading and wide consultation in the elaboration of this project appears to this historian to have been far narrower than advertised–and indeed intended to fuel a certain vision of the Vietnam experience. My phone never rang. As author of eight books specifically on the Vietnam war, with parts of four others devoted to it as well, I would have been a good resource. Perhaps I was relegated to the ranks of former high ranking government officials, who Burns and Novick deliberately chose not to interview. More likely, I am an exponent of a vision of Vietnam war history the filmmakers preferred not to hear.

So I will exercise the camel’s prerogative to piss into the tent. In keeping with Lyndon Johnson, who ran his bombing of North Vietnam under the nickname Rolling Thunder with numbers to distinguish the successive aerial assaults, we’ll run these as numbered entries of “Rolling Commentary.” Today I’ll make one general point and two specific ones.

This film was either cut to induce vertigo or to set up the viewer to absorb without questioning some key argument farther down the way. That is, any claim to be detailing this conflict chronologically is just that–a claim. The film hops back and forth across the history with dizzying speed. Geneva 1954 jumps to the late Diem period, Indochina 1945 to the Versailles peace conference of 1919, Dien Bien Phu to the American war and back again, with pauses throughout for participants to relate experiences. –But not experiences necessarily related to the moment the film is describing. David Marlantes gets as much face time to talk about how he and his dear friend never spoke of the war for more than a decade–certainly a post-Vietnam experience, as Burns and Novick devote to the entire origins of the Vietnamese revolution. In an 18-hour film they could have done better. Use of the interviews is also uneven. Mai Elliott’s memories describe specific experiences of her father and family in a way nicely related to the narrative, while Lam Quang Thi–not explicitly identified as a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army–is drawn upon merely for a generic comment on Vietnamese facing revolutionary conditions. Since Thi, as a young officer in the French-dominated Vietnamese National Army, had broad relations with Nguyen Van Thieu, who eventually emerged as South Vietnam’s military strongman, the opportunity to gain key insight into a major figure is lost.

On to the specific. The filmmakers’ asserted purpose is to furnish an account of the war that is a people’s story, not an overarching history of the clash of nations at arms. (Thus the avoidance of interviews with senior officials.) There’s an implication here that people have avoided talking about the war, and that presentation of this material is an advance in the story. Actually, look at World Wars I and II, or the Korean war and you will find that not speaking of the horrors of war has been the norm, not the exception. You might even make a case that many young Americans marched off to the Vietnam war precisely because their fathers had not spoken to them clearly of the horrors of war. But in Vietnam, talking about the war began while the guns were still shooting–with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which started in 1967–and continued throughout. At colleges throughout the country clusters of students using their GI Bill stipends had the war with them all the time. High school and college classes regularly have veterans in to tell their stories. Former South Vietnamese, striving for recognition in America, are all about the war too. Today you can go into anyplace where Vietnamese books are sold and find armloads of material on the war and the old country. It is no achievement to get participants to talk about the Vietnam war.

Finally, for today, one point of history. The first episode of the Burns and Novick film, in its coverage of the French war in Indochina, has left wing labor unions in Marseilles mount protests in which members throw stones at soldiers debarking from troop ships returning from the war. Actually the Marseilles dockworkers were guilty not of throwing stones but of refusing to load supplies aboard ships bound for Indochina. Those are two very different things. You can readily appreciate that the stoning charge sets up a parallelism with allegations later in the American war that protesters spat at GIs coming home. The latter charge continues to be controversial today. Establishing parallelism for it represents an attempt to enhance credibility. If this is the way this film is put together it adds up to the very opposite of objectivity. This is someone else’s version of Vietnam, not mine.

Vietnam Veterans Against the War

September 16, 2017–With the sharp-edged sentimentality that seems to go with everything about the Vietnam war, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are releasing their much-heralded documentary film “The Vietnam War” with the slogan that “There is no single truth in war.” There are layers of meaning in that. Burns and Novick set up one such layer by making sure to include many Vietnamese among their witnesses. But there’s a very different meaning from the American side, where this film lays out a story line of conventional, gung-ho heroics, a World War II-style simple-mindedness that proved misplaced amid the complexities of Asia, and which the Vietnam war itself demonstrated to be foolish, even stupid. The Burns and Novick production does for film what neo-orthodox historians have attempted for the written record–to recycle the conventional wisdom of fifty years ago, the lines pushed by MACV spin doctors at the “Five-O’clock Follies,” as supposedly fresh insights from supposedly new research.

Two elements reveal how shallow is the alleged new thinking. One concerns timing. The film’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Long March on the Pentagon (the second big protest there, actually), when 50,000 antiwar demonstrators showed up to denounce the conflict, putting themselves at the heart of America’s military command center. That event was important in crystalizing political opposition to the Vietnam war in the United States. To release a rah-rah praise-the-warrior-and-pass-the-ammunition pic at this moment is to throw down a gauntlet in front of the anguished citizens who had to live through this actual history.

The other element is that the Burns-Novick film slights opponents of the war. Let’s get this straight up front: the United States lost the Vietnam war. Those who opposed the conflict as an imperialist or neocolonialist action or as a military insanity were correct to do so. But the 18 hours of film here contain precious little of that. Ken Burns admits, “I couldn’t tell the difference,” when the audience at an opening at Washington’s Kennedy Center erupted in applause as thunderous for antiwar opponents as for GIs. In the documentary the difference is clear.

The Americans who traveled the furthest in this buffeting of the 60s and 70s were precisely those men and women who went to war–and came home to fight against it. These were the stalwarts of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They too are having an anniversary this weekend, in New York and Milwaukee, the 50th year of the organization. Starting from the spring of 1967, when a tiny band of these folks marched in New York, VVAW led many in the antiwar movement. They were the first to press for recognition of PTSD, the first to devise means (rap groups) to cope with the malady, they were key innovators of guerrilla theater and creative protests. If in the Burns-Novick you see an antiwar banner hanging from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, that was VVAW. I can hardly do justice to these committed veterans here (I tell the VVAW story in some detail in my book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War). Unlike almost any of the others, VVAW vets remained in opposition to war long afterwards, becoming the heart of Veterans for Peace and inspiring the vets who created Iraq Veterans Against the War, using VVAW as a model. Yet few of these former servicepeople appear in the Burns-Novick documentary series.

Americans should be celebrating the VVAW anniversary. Their exploits deserve honor. More than the media hype around two filmmakers and their latest documentary, this occasion deserves to be noted. I wish I could be with them to do that.

Isn’t the Korea “Crisis” Odd?

September 14, 2017–Most Americans have spent, perhaps two weeks or more now, practically glued to screens of one sort or another, following the latest developments in the natural disasters–hurricanes, not national security crises–that have befallen our country. During this time the North Korea “crisis” somehow disappeared. Even more striking, the recent North Korean nuclear test took place during the short interval between the end of Hurricane Harvey and the onset of Irma. How ’bout that? It’s evidence that the North Korean affair is being played as a political action. That, in turn, suggests that Kim Jong-un pitches his rhetoric for moments suitable to attracting attention. Readers of this space will know I have expressed concern about a nuclear war begun by the United States as a “launch upon test,” or even a “launch upon speech.” How sad it will be if a huge cataclysm results from a “crisis” that was a deception in the first place. With this year’s United Nations General Assembly session coming up, you should expect to see a next step in the North Korea affair very shortly. Donald Trump would probably think it worthwhile if he can manage to get our eyes off the Russian Caper.

Got the Pyongyang Blues Again

September 8, 2017–There is a troubling quality to the way this North Korea crisis is ballooning before our eyes. Kim Jong Un’s armaments program is not a phony issue, but neither was the Pakistani nuclear program, the Indian one, the Israeli or, for that matter, the Chinese or French. But, with the exception of the Pakistanis, with whom a few hotheads indulged in fantasies of SOF raids; and the Chinese, made the object of higher-level but equally unrealistic maunderings; no one has threatened anyone conducting weapons development with nuclear war. Those who are analogizing the North Korea matter to the Cuban missile crisis are pouring accelerant onto the pile and playing with matches. The Cuban crisis involved real nuclear-tipped missiles, not hypothetical (that is, technology currently still in R&D) ones, and reliable systems that without doubt put the United States in the crosshairs. The North Korean threat exists mostly in the rhetoric of Pyongyang’s ruler.

As if that were not bad enough, people who should know better are speaking of pre-emptive attack as a rational way out of this morass. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, apart from its many other defects, had the deplorable aspect of suggesting that pre-emption is an admissible form of war. In the bad old days of theorizing about nuclear conflict, analysts conceived pre-emption as a means of blunting the adversary’s nuclear attack by launching upon warning, but in those concepts the war was underway and the pre-emption effectively preserved forces. In its most urgent form this tactic was described as “launch-under-attack.” What we’re hearing today is people talking seriously about “launch-upon-test,” or “launch-upon-speech.” What we’re hearing is ridiculous.

One woman’s pre-emption is another person’s aggression. At Nuremberg an allied world sent people to the gallows for waging aggressive war. The United States helped create the framework of international law that criminalizes aggression. Today there exists an International Criminal Court that could sit in judgment of aggressors. A United States act of force against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would invite that kind of treatment. Moreover, taken together with Bush administration action against Iraq, it would brand the U.S. as a repeat offender. This is no place for us to be.

Just as bad, a pre-emption against the DPRK invokes the issue of war powers in U.S. law. I hate to add to the pile of things which Congress hasn’t done, but the muddled constitutional issue of authorization for war should be high on the list. The Constitution gives the Congress the sole power to declare war. Consider this: if Donald Trump launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea he will be making war, aggressive war–and if he uses nuclear weapons he will be breaking a taboo that has existed since the one time the nuclear threshold was breached–and that will be without any approval from the body with the constitutional authority for war. It will also be in the face of the War Powers Act. The way this is usually pitched in the U.S. is the president relies on his constitutional power as commander-in-chief of the military. So you can have an aggression, even a nuclear attack, unleashed without congressional approval, by a president with little skill or knowledge of foreign affairs, in “launch-upon-test” mode. What a mess!

Today’s papers contain more deplorable news. The New York Times actually discusses pre-emption as one of the possible remedies to the DPRK weapons program. But its casting of the action involves the idea that U.S. attackers would blow up single North Korean missiles on the launch pad, sort of like kicking over each ant hill as it is built. No doubt some dim official or military officer retailed that idea as an option for arresting the DPRK program. But how do you think Kim is going to respond when the DPRK is struck by force? When you’re speaking of military “practicality,” it is clear that the only feasible option is to simultaneously destroy all North Korean test facilities, all nuclear plants, command centers, air bases, potential weapons bunkers, and more. Since the DPRK’s missiles are road-mobile, the pre-emption would have to include total area destruction of all potential deployment zones for Kim’s missiles. The only way you accomplish that is with nuclear weapons. This is not “tank plinking” in the Gulf War it is massive aggression.

Not to be outdone, today’s Washington Post carries a piece by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell that argues the DPRK already has a functional intercontinental nuclear attack capability. He suggests that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. shares that view. Readers of this space will know we have long labeled Clapper the “Fearful Leader” for his propensity to maximize the perceptible threat. He may be hedging against the CIA being accused of an intelligence failure in the case of North Korea–I was asked just yesterday whether I thought such a failure has occurred. Morell correctly argues against a pre-emptive attack–but he comes out saying that pre-emption may lead to just what Americans want to avoid, a nuclear strike on a U.S. city. There are two points to be made about that statement–first, Morell is thinking of pre-emption as nuke-plinking (as above); second, he confirms our sketch of the “practical” pre-emption option. You can see why we have the Pyongyang Blues.

 

Painting the Corner on North Korea

September 4, 2017–Not long ago I wrote about Donald J. Trump painting himself into a corner on North Korea, into a place where he cannot exit without unleashing the dogs of war. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear test has led our president into issuing yet more dark threats. I’m not going to take up your time this Labor Day with some extended commentary on this idiocy, but I will make a few points:

First, you have to suspect our top people have forgotten–or chosen to ignore–longstanding practice in the military and intelligence business. In engineering development it used to be that our missiles were not considered “ready” until each system had performed to perfection twenty times. Even our intel people, hedging against threats, waited until an adversary missile system had toted up ten successes before considering it had reached “Initial Operating Capability.” Up to now there appear to have been five long-range missile shots from North Korea, three of them partial failures.

Put aside the question of whether Pyongyang is progressing faster, slower, or as expected by U.S. intelligence–something no one will know until the secret estimates are made public, the concrete evidence does not indicate a current global threat from North Korea. The North Korean claims to a hydrogen bomb have the feel of a deception, with a staged photo op and a missile nosecone cowling in the picture to suggest successful weaponization, but a yield the scientists will shortly tell us was only in the moderate kiloton range.

Second, as I’ve written here before, there is no international law or other standard that justifies use of force against a nation for simple weapons development. Indeed, in the 1960s the Soviet Union considered pre-emption against the People’s Republic of China for its nuclear weapons program, and the jury is still out on real (but ambiguous) evidence the Soviets and/or U.S. each considered enlisted the other in the same enterprise. In the U.S. in the early 1950s there were also those who counseled a pre-emptive attack against the developing Soviet atomic capability. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in every one of those cases.

The military minds that surround President Trump have been counted on to restrain his cruder impulses, but like H. R. McMaster, have often aligned with him instead. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy used to talk about the “effectiveness trap”–the idea that your options are to stay with the president no matter how irrational he may be, in hopes of accomplishing the kind of restraint necessary here, or resigning in protest to sandbag a president with political concerns. Those considerations stopped many Vietnam war-era officials from doing the right thing. The effectiveness trap is functioning again right here. The supposedly wiser heads have done nothing to prevent Mr. Trump from painting over the actual corner on which he’s been standing.

Red-Handed in Afghanistan

August 31, 2017–Turns out the Afghan reality is even more somber than portrayed here the other day (“Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy,” August 26). The Pentagon has just admitted fibbing–it was a lie all along that only 8,400 United States troops are in Afghanistan. That number avoided counting Special Operations Forces (SOF)–now being put at “over 2,000” among a total contingent of around 11,000. –Sounds like some fudging still going on even now!

There are two points to make here. First, at this putative force level, SOF in Afghanistan constitute a larger proportion of the U.S. contingent there than even at the height of the war. And, unlike the trainers, the SOF are participating in operations, right at the edge of or even in combat. That means commitment and skill in combat is higher than earlier thought. As I discussed at some length in my book The U.S. Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know, the SOF had evolved tactics specially aimed at producing fresh intelligence and striking the enemy leadership. The second notable item is that the United States and its Afghan allies have been losing even with the higher troop numbers and enhanced SOF strike capabilities.

This reinforces the basic argument from before: this commitment is a throw-away. Despite Trump’s “attack we will” rhetoric, not only is there no prospect of a U.S. offensive, there is little possibility of anything other than continuation of the current adverse trends in the war. Watch and see.

Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: Old Wine and No Bottle

August 26, 2017–The next presidential election in the United States will occur in four years. The young Marine or GI deplaning at Bagram base then, beginning his first tour in the war, will not have been born yet when the American war in Afghanistan began. That is, assuming the U.S. war effort will not yet, by 2020, have gone down in flames. The predilection of American generals for dated and inadequate strategic formulas–which some officers even recognize as such–is one root of disaster. Another is the monumental arrogance and incompetence of a president who is simultaneously frozen in the face of decision and convinced his strategy–spoon-fed by tiny-minded generals–is the most brilliant ever. All of this is a recipe for endless anguish. And a load of tripe.

You’ll have read in a dozen places already that the United States has little reason to believe it can do with 8,400 troops in-country what it could not when there were 100,000 in Afghanistan. That’s whether or not Trump sends another 4,000–or any other number. Let’s review: When there were a hundred thousand, American troops were conducting their own offensive operations, Special Operations Forces (SOF) put a cap on the effort by targeting the enemy leadership, development programs helped win Afghan favor by building clinics, schools and the like, and there was a reasonably coherent Afghan government–one we perhaps frowned upon, but which actually had a writ that extended past Kabul’s city limits. Besides that, the Taliban enemy had been reduced to a fraction of its former strength. None of those factors applies today.

In Afghanistan today there are no U.S. operations apart from SOF’s special ones. The Afghan military is in the lead but except for their own SOF they don’t fight. Regular troops and national police hold static positions like outposts and checkpoints that merely make them clay pigeons. Recent Taliban and Afghan ISIS strikes in major national army bases, regional headquarters, and even the heart of the government quarter in Kabul, demonstrate that the static security approach is bankrupt. Depending on who you speak to the Taliban control between 50 and 60 percent of the country. Afghan police are suffering their greatest losses ever, while the military has suddenly decided its casualty figures are classified. The latest Afghan reform plan is to expand their SOF from 27,000 to much larger. That is not likely to work either–Afghan SOF constitute a very high proportion of the total force structure and cannot be much expanded without diluting their quality. Moreover, since they are already the general reserve called upon in every emergency, their offensive capability will only be restored within a context in which their effectiveness has diminished.

One American response, one particularly attractive to the CIA, was to work in Afghan localities with local militias and leaders who could call on their followers. While this has produced more troops to staff checkpoints it has not increased government’s overall capability, and has indeed increased the centrifugal forces tearing the country apart. The Afghan president is feuding with his vice-president. Another vice-, a communist general from the 80s, and other muslim warlords from that era, are all reasserting their authority. Indeed, Afghanistan today resembles nothing so much as the warlord state that existed after the collapse of communist rule in the country. Corruption is rampant, eating up the aid that is aimed at helping the nation. General H. R. McMaster, now Trump’s national security adviser, ran an anti-corruption campaign in his most recent tour of Afghan duty. He saw up close and personal the depth of corruption and disintegration of the government. Now the Trump strategy–of which McMaster is an architect–assumes a stable Afghan government. McMaster even sided with other military chiefs this past July in shooting down a different strategic approach which did not make that assumption. Hal McMaster charged an earlier generation of U.S. generals with dereliction of duty for not speaking the truth to Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war. Here you see McMaster doing the same thing for Donald J. Trump. I call him “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster. He has decided dereliction of duty is a good thing.

Other generals were responsible for convincing President Barack Obama to shift from a stance of steady withdrawal to one of determining the course of action by looking at the state of the war. The Taliban were worn down then, but they were reforged in the heat and darkness and have re-emerged stronger than ever. Chasing their heels are an even fiercer Afghan ISIS. The Russians, sensing an opportunity for payback from the CIA covert operation in the 1980s, are moving to help them. The Chinese seem to be headed in that direction too. The role of Pakistan–on which the U.S. defends, but which Trump has threatened–is cloudy. If war conditions dictate action this is a formula for conflict without end. That is why our 18-year old GI will be arriving at Bagram in 2020. Donald Trump explicitly promised a U.S. victory, and he said that America will attack. Under the prevailing conditions there might be a broken-backed attack but there will be no victory.

Gamers’ Corner : Four Roads to Paris

August 25, 2017–Tomorrow I’ll be back to say something about strategy for the Afghanistan war, but today is for celebration with our colleague Stephen Rawling, whose ATOMagazine has just succeeded–after a series of unfortunate setbacks–in getting back on the street with the release of its game set Four Roads to Paris.  Steve’s concept for this set of games is to ask four different designers to craft a simulation of the same historical event, in this case Germany’s 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. There were no holds barred for the designers. In one of these games, a two-player simulation, the players are the British and French allies, the Germans are represented by an automaton. In another game the play is solitaire, the player represents the Germans, and the French are the automaton. In my contribution to the set, titled Seeds of Disaster, players create a new history of the 1930s, building the military establishments they will use once war comes. Altogether a worthy collection. Congratulations Steve!

McMaster’s Un-Appropriate Dereliction

August 11, 2017–As the world staggers toward an entirely unnecessary nuclear abyss I have to question–again–the alleged competence of General H. R. McMaster, currently serving as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump. Pictures of General McMaster sitting alongside President Trump as the latter hurled threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, further exacerbating tensions brought on by nothing more than words plus weapons testing, are supremely distressing. The function of a national security adviser is to keep a president’s foreign policy system operating efficiently and to furnish the president insightful advice on the policies themselves.

General McMaster has accomplished neither. When he attempted to jettison some of the overblown ideologues who had been brought on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff by his predecessor, McMaster was blocked by White House political potentates. His efforts to tone down presidential rhetoric were similarly derailed. When Mr. Trump attended a NATO summit and neglected to affirm a fundamental United States security alliance, McMaster tried to represent his boss as having said what he did not, in fact, say. At an international conference in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump continued to mouth patent falsities, McMaster proclaimed the president’s remarks “appropriate.”

H. R. McMaster achieved an undeserved intellectual reputation I argued, based on his book Dereliction of Duty.  There he described the strategic level of United States leadership during the Vietnam war. McMaster criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for giving President Lyndon B. Johnson false impressions of the practicality of U.S. strategies, and accused them of dereliction of duty for not providing the nation’s top leader with their real views. Years ago–as long ago as 2009–I showed in my book  Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War  that the McMaster charges were unfounded, that the JCS had in fact repeatedly offered the president a standard, set view, of what the strategy should be. That the JCS had wrong ideas of what might work does not make them guilty of dereliction. In any case, in principle, one should hope that senior advisers do guide–or nudge, if they have to– presidents toward good policies.

From that standpoint it appears that General McMaster very quickly gave up on nudging his president, and soon after that became an enabler for presidential crankiness. At that point I wrote a reflection observing that McMaster, following his remark quoted above, had learned “Appropriate Dereliction.”

Generals are trained in deterrence and in the tenets of credibility. H. R. McMaster certainly knows enough to see that Trump, with his “fire and fury” rhetoric, is painting himself into so tight a corner that he may have to use force simply to preserve his credibility. It was incumbent on McMaster to steer his president away from that fateful, stupid, place. Instead McMaster sat at Trump’s side as an authenticator, while Mr. Trump thundered away. Today General McMaster is no longer just guilty of Appropriate Dereliction, he has moved up to Un-Appropriate Dereliction as well.

Gamers’ Corner: THIRD REICH Note

August 4, 2017–Just a quick note for everyone who’s interested : Thanks for those of you who have sent in suggestions for elements a new edition might include. Dave Heath and I have discussed a few possibilities, but, more important, Dave is going to create a space on the Lock ‘n Load website where gamers can put suggestions for elements right in the hopper. I’ll be posting the address as soon as I have it.

This is going to be fun !!!