Dien Bien Phu: The Torpedo Boat

March 18, 2016–In accepting battle in the high mountain valley that was Dien Bien Phu, French commander-in-chief General Henri Navarre had simply assumed that his Expeditionary Corps would emerge victorious. The entrenched camp was dug in, had multiple strongpoints, and had been equipped with every appurtenance of modern warfare from tanks to high capacity .50-caliber guns to an airfield. What broke his smug surety, sixty-two years ago, was the fall of the strongpoint known as “Gabrielle,” situated directly north of the main resistance center of the camp.

This important strongpoint had offered the French observation of the valley entrance to Dien Bien Phu from the north. In Vietnamese hands, flak guns located there would cut one of approaches to the airfield, reduce French freedom of action, and have perfect observation for artillery strikes into the main camp. Located on a hill that rose separately from the larger mass of mountains which ringed the valley, the French called “Gabrielle” le torpilleur, the torpedo boat. This strongpoint had been configured into independently defensible sectors with two complete layers of bunkers and trenches. “Gabrielle” had won an award for the quality of its installations. It represented the best-built strongpoint at the entrenched camp.

A solid, reinforced battalion defended “Gabrielle,” along with a heavy mortar company of the Foreign Legion. The 5th Battalion, 7th Algerian Tirailleurs under Major Roland de Mecquenem with the Legion’s 1st Composite Mortar Company, provided an all-around defense. In reserve was the 416th Thai montagnard company. On the morning of battle French logistics had delivered extra ammo and food to the strongpoint in the expectation it might have to hold out. Four days worth of supplies were stocked.

The Viet Minh battle corps of General Vo Nguyen Giap had spared no effort to prepare its attack. His Viet-Nam People’s Army had never fought a larger battle against a fortified enemy. All his arrangements were reviewed at command conferences before the action opened. Giap slated two full regiments of his regulars for the operation, Le Thuy’s 165th of the 312th Infantry Division, plus Nam Ha’s 88th Regiment of the 308th “Iron” Division, the flagship infantry formation of the People’s Army. Vuong Thua Vu, commander of the 308th, was in overall command of the operation.

Le Thuy’s men would strike from the hill mass that had also overlooked “Beatrice,” and clear the foot of the hill and first line of defenses. Nam Ha’s troops would come from the northeast, debouching from the pass through which the “Pavie Track” made for Lai Chau.

Battle began late in the afternoon on March 14, 1954, hours after the final bullets had pinged in the assault on strongpoint “Beatrice,” with which the People’s Army had opened its offensive. The artillery struck first. Some French officers had noticed that “Gabrielle’s” dimensions corresponded to the standard dispersion pattern for a battery of 105mm howitzers firing at medium range. But the French artillery chief, Colonel Charles Piroth, had so much confidence in his own guns that he assured De Mecquenem the torpedo boat’s defenses would hardly be touched. Instead, Dien Bien Phu’s counterbattery fire proved ineffectual.

Instead bunkers on the hill collapsed under fire, one by one. Nam Ha’s Viet Minh attackers made the first breaches in the defenses. The Viet Minh guns fell silent at 2:30 AM on March 15, leaving the field entirely to Vuong Thua Vu’s assault force. But one shell had hit with devastating effect: exploding in 5/7 RTA’s command post the shell smashed its radio sets and wounded the battalion commander, his newly-arrived replacement, the artillery liaison officer and the CO’s aide all at once. The deputy CO lost his nerve. One of the tirailleur company commanders took over the defense.

The center of resistance at Dien Bien Phu ordered a counterattack. Slated for the mission would be the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion of Major Andre Botella, which had jumped into the entrenched camp that very day. Backed by  some tanks the 5th Paras were supposed to cross part of the entrenched camp, pick up the Pavie Track, ford a river, and reach Gabrielle–at night and under enemy attack. Botella’s men had been at Dien Bien Phu for a time, months earlier, but under very different conditions and without the urgency of this night. This would be an unrehearsed counterattack over unfamiliar terrain, by a newly-arrived and disoriented unit, in the dark, against enemy opposition. Two companies of the 1st Foreign Legion Paratroops were added. They had to march through the center of resistance under fire, and they, too, had never rehearsed this mission. Just as bad, the overall commander of the relief force, Major Hubert de Seguin-Pazzis was late on the scene as the result of a last-minute confab at HQ. He not only had to catch up, jeeping across the camp, once in place he received contradictory orders. It is not surprising the counterattack fell apart at the ford.

By dawn “Gabrielle” was in Viet Minh hands. Colonel Piroth, the artillery boss, now realized the enormity of his error and the deep dangers of the French predicament. Piroth killed himself with a hand grenade. General Navarre’s fantasies of victory lay broken on the floor.

In Paris the French government had been preparing to send a military delegation for special talks with the Americans in Washington. Led by General Paul Ely, the head of the French equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the mission had been intended to explore possibilities for United States action in case the Red Chinese air force intervened in French Indochina. Instead, the centerpiece of the Ely talks suddenly became what additional aid the U.S. could give France for the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Ely mission highlighted an extraordinary phase of American participation in the Viet-Nam war. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.

 

The Fabulist as Operator: Michael Hayden’s Openness

March 15, 2016–Former top spook Michael V. Hayden loves operations. Pushing pieces around the board, making the game go his way–those are the things for which he wakes up in the morning. That’s the meaning hidden in the title of his recent memoir Playing to the Edge. In this space a few days ago (“Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist, March 12, 2016) I covered Hayden’s recent appearance at the “Lawfare” forum of Stanford University. One of the questions he fielded there was which organization–Hayden had headed both the National Security Agency (NSA)  and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–he had better liked being the director of. Having already said, in a different context, that NSA probably accounts for 60 percent or more of the President’s Daily Brief–and the CIA for much less than the rest–the general came back and said he preferred leading the CIA. He ticked his head. “Covert operations,” he said.

I’ve heard elsewhere–in more than one place–that Mr. Hayden takes more delight in the intricacies of minute spy activities than whichever other senior officer my commentator was familiar with. CIA lawyer John Rizzo writes, “Mike Hayden loved being a spymaster, by which I mean he reveled in conceiving and running covert operations involving real people and back-alley intrigue.” In fact General Hayden’s Big Idea when he took the helm at CIA was revamping the agency’s organization so as to increase the “operational tempo.” Even CIA’s historians were supposed to get involved. Operational tempo did increase–but how much of that was due to the latest moving of deck chairs and ho much to Langley’s increasing reliance on drone attacks remains an open question.

In his memoir the general recounts asking a civilian advisory board whether the United States will be able to continue espionage into a future where every day the demands increase for transparency and public accountability. He reports the board had its doubts. “Really important answer,” Hayden notes (p. 422).

What do you do to avoid that eventuality? You manipulate the public’s knowledge. Here’s a story, and it’s about spies, and it really happened:

When General Hayden came to Langley the hottest issue on CIA secrecy was the continuing effort to shield the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), reports that constantly update the chief executive. The PDBs had been recently controversial in the case of 9/11, where it developed that CIA had warned of an imminent threat. Elsewhere CIA had observed that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. The Bush White House tried but failed to keep that information from reaching the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the public. The CIA asserted these PDBs were decision documents and eligible for special secrecy protection.

Dr. Larry Berman, a University of California history professor, asked for some of these PDBs to be released for his research, documents so old their secrecy was not credible. The CIA turned Berman down. In conjunction with the National Security Archive he sued for the papers’ release. The PDBs were not protected either by precedent or by nature–Berman and Archive could show that numerous PDBs and predecessor reports (the documents had another name in the Kennedy years) had long since been declassified, and that no claim had ever been made that releasing them revealed intelligence sources and methods or that they were exempt by virtue of presidential privilege.

While Berman lost at the U.S. district court level, his appeal was on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when Michael Hayden took over the CIA. As per Hayden’s question to his advisory board, it appeared there were reasons to expect the same societal forces pushing the effort to open the PDBs might sharpen across the board.

The general’s problem was to be open and shut at the same time.

Now, the CIA also had another ongoing secrecy appeal on its plate. That was the matter of the “Family Jewels,” a notorious compilation document ordered up by CIA director James R. Schlesinger in the early 1970s to discover what domestic abuses the agency had previously engaged in. Revelation of some of the ops that figured in that report had led to the “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when the CIA had had to endure multiple major outside investigations. Even though its contents were picked through by all those inquiries, the CIA had forever kept secret the document itself. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for it had all been rejected. When Hayden arrived at Langley the National Security Archive had been pursuing an FOIA on the Family Jewels since 1992. Archive director Thomas Blanton had been in contact with CIA declassification officials encouraging them to release the material. It would be a good place to start, Blanton argued, if the agency wanted to turn the public dialogue away from torture.

Suddenly Blanton began to hear good things. Senior agency officials told him he’d be happy with an upcoming speech–General Hayden was scheduled to address the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the major professional association of diplomatic historians. Hayden duly appeared on June 21, 2007. He called himself “a lifelong student of history.” He went on to declare that “CIA recognizes the real benefits that flow from greater public understanding of our work and mission,” extolled a “very successful” FOIA program, and went on to assert that “we have completed our declassification review and are preparing to release most of the so-called Family Jewels.”

At the Archive we were overwhelmed, in the short term, with the impact of all this. The general seemed to be turning over a new leaf, perhaps a true age of openness was dawning. Media excitement built through the weekend. The CIA actually released the Family Jewels on the Monday, June 25, when a CIA car pulled up in front of the Gelman Library building of George Washington University, where the Archive offices are located. Television trucks were pulled up all along the street and Langley’s minions no doubt feared the consequences of their pictures appearing in the press. They called upstairs for Mr. Blanton and an assistant to come and retrieve the papers. Much has been done with that declassified document since.

But the Family Jewels were only the MacGuffin in all this. I did not realize it at the time but General Hayden now confirms it in his memoir. “I decided to centralize declassification review at the corporate level,” he writes (p. 121). That meant the agency’s Publications Review Board, a zealous and paranoid collection of the most antediluvian sort, whose antics I have documented in my book The Family Jewels. Releasing the document of that name marked not the beginning of openness but its end–or at least Michael Hayden’s play to the edge.

I was at the SHAFR luncheon where Hayden spoke. I ought to have realized at the time. There were two giveaways–during the questions and answers, several diplomatic historians raised the question of the PDBs. Far from talking openness, he spoke of desire for openness but  General Hayden wanted “space” for decisionmakers and also alluded to the spurious sources and methods argument, which those of us who had ever seen the already-declassified PDBs knew to be so much hot air.

The other giveaway was that CIA took the occasion of the SHAFR luncheon to roll out a new umbrella unit, “Information Management Services,” that combined the Review Board, which has the power of (and indeed is preoccupied with) suppression of anything written by a CIA employee, the Historical Review Program (which had done some declassification work in the past), and the agency’s FOIA and privacy office. An official of this new unit actually drew me aside at the luncheon, reminded me of a particular declassification request I had filed, which apparently he had worked on, and asked why “we” (the public) kept making requests like that. Managing information meant keeping it away from the public.

Hayden told us, “I firmly believe this approach will improve CIA’s standing with key partners inside and outside government, including people like you.” The CIA’s declassification process slowed down considerably in the wake of that episode. General Hayden personally participated in this op.

A few months later the Circuit Court ruled that CIA could, indeed, keep their PDBs secret for the moment, but it threw out the “sources and methods” bugaboo, telling the agency it would have to consider the true secrecy value of the various reports. That is what led to the event last September at the Johnson Library, where the CIA made a show of releasing thousands of PDB documents. Note the additional 8-year delay in opening this material. It’s also worth noting that in both the Family Jewels and PDB cases the agency speaks as if it had itself thought up the idea of releasing these documents, rather than being impelled by the public.

 

Dien Bien Phu: A Titanic Clash

March 13, 2016–Major Edward Yarbrough sat in a dugout beneath the looming hills. Yarbrough was visiting the French mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu. It was March 13, 1954, precisely sixty-two years ago. Yarbrough, a United States Air Force officer, was doing precisely what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had promised the American public that U.S. forces would not do–engage in combat operations in French Indochina. Major Yarbrough led a hush-hush detachment of the Air Force’s 315th Air Division codenamed “Cat’s Paw.” Their mission was to use American planes–“sheep-dipped” C-119 transports temporarily lent to France and painted with French markings–to fly supplies to French posts in Indochina.

Eisenhower’s promise had been built into a U.S.-French agreement that the Cat’s Paw aircraft would not fly into combat zones. Technically, until March 13 that promise was being maintained–battle had yet to begin at Dien Bien Phu. But the use of the C-119 planes, which the French called “Packets,” was irresistible–on the long haul to the entrenched camp they could carry more then three times as many supplies as the C-47 “Dakota,” the mainstay of the French air force transport service in Indochina. Indeed, once battle had been joined the French prevailed upon Eisenhower to contrive a CIA proprietary unit that would continue the Packet service, now with no niceties about avoiding combat.

Anyway, a few days earlier a C-119 at Dien Bien Phu had lost an engine while landing and Yarbrough wanted to see if she could be repaired. His flight line chief at Cat Bi air base, outside Haiphong, where Cat’s Paw had its primary maintenance facility, estimated a crew of mechanics flown into Dien Bien Phu with a new engine could fix the Packet in a day and a half provided that the plane’s structure and fittings were still solid. Major Yarbrough went to Dien Bien Phu to find out. So Yarbrough would be there when the battle began, one of a steady stream of Americans to be in, out, and around Dien Bien Phu throughout the epic siege (read his story and many more in my book America’s Dien Bien Phu). The Vietnamese revolutionaries opened their offensive with a big artillery bombardment. Among other things, they targeted the damaged C-119, which would be blown up by cannon fire. Yarbrough hitched a ride out on one of the last French aircraft to escape the base.

The Viet Minh, a united front of Vietnamese led by communists, had been fighting France for more than seven years. They had gradually become stronger until here, at Dien Bien Phu, the revolutionaries not only far outnumbered the French but had artillery too, guns of 105mm caliber, powerful enough to smash Ed Yarbrough’s bunker–and almost every other one at the entrenched camp. Indeed, within not too many hours the officer commanding the sector the Viet Minh first attacked would be killed in the collapse of his dugout after an artillery hit.

Titanic forces were in play. The Vietnamese were fighting for their independence. That gave them a huge moral advantage, but the war had been long and costly and insiders saw signs their morale might be sagging. Chinese allies of the Viet Minh were pushing them to battle, but also anxious for their nation to make an entrance on the world diplomatic stage. Soviet allies of the Vietnamese were providing trucks and other aid, and setting that diplomatic stage.

France had tired of the war also. Here it was the United States pushing an ally. The French Army in Indochina was thoroughly professional–in part because the homeland had passed a law prohibiting draftees from being sent to the war. But the professional brotherhood of French soldiery, ranged against the depth of Vietnamese yearnings for independence, promised a battle royal. It began that day, with the assault on a strongpoint called Beatrice.

Farewell Old Indochina Hand: Philippe Devillers

February 21, 2016–In the middle of another piece of writing I checked the mail only to see the notice that Philippe Devillers had passed away. Actually that had happened a week ago, on February 15, but the news was only now circulating. He died in Paris at age 96. Devillers looms large in the historiography of Indochina, and the French and American wars. He was recognized all over. Nearly a decade ago in the former Saigon, for example, I wandered into a second-hand shop where I found a copy of his first great book, Histoire du Vietnam. The shopkeeper wanted an amount for that book that would nearly have financed my trip.

Born in Villers-Cotterets in Picardie, in November 1920, the man went to Saigon with General Philippe Leclerc and the French Expeditionary Corps in September 1945. He had graduated from Sciences-Po and had more degrees in law and administration. Leclerc employed him as an officer of the Fifth Bureau–the French staff for psychological warfare. Named Philippe Mullander, the man wrote as a stringer for the newspaper Le Monde, and adopted a second name referring to his home town to distinguish his writing for the French army from that for the press.

What distinguished Devillers so much was his drive to explore Vietnamese history and culture. Rather than base himself on French pronouncements and claims to historical events, Devillers explored the Vietnamese backgrounds of developments. He was also driven to report. In Saigon barely two months Devillers joined with others in creating the biweekly broadsheet Paris-Saigon. There he teamed up with another man, Jean Lacouture, who would become a key writer on Indochinese matters. His first article for Le Monde concerned the Dalat conference of April 1946, where French negotiators stalled the Viet Minh government in according rights promised in an agreement Leclerc had reached with them earlier.

After some time as a government official Devillers covered Asia for a local paper in Rouen for more than a decade. Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 appeared while the French war still continued, and was printed in 19,000 copies. It remains a key source for the outbreak of the Vietnamese revolution, end of French Indochina, and the early French war. The book served to counterbalance arguments from some that the Indochina war was simple a communist aggression against the West. Devillers importantly showed the conflict’s roots in Vietnamese nationalism.

Devillers and Lacouture collaborated on two books and a movie. One, La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 is an important source on the Geneva conference of 1954, and helped me with my study America’s Dien Bien Phu. Their movie also concerned Dien Bien Phu, arguing that French democracy had ended there, and in the late 1960s they joined to publish on the passage from the French war to the American one. In 1988 Devillers edited a collection of key documents, press releases and other material, Paris-Saigon-Hanoi that revealed the role of certain French officials in an explosive fashion.

Gamers’ Corner: PANZERKRIEG Historical Notes

For all those gamers who may be interested, I have assembled a set of the Historical Notes that go with the boardgame Panzerkrieg. It’s available as a download from the “Download” section of the website. Because I had to put some time into finding a copy of the game, scanning the material, and assembling the material as a product, I have put a $1.00 price on the download. Hope you enjoy it!

QUI NHON AT TET

February 8, 2016–Greetings to all who observe the Lunar New Year! For me personally, the shock of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, back in 1968, put the Lunar New Year on the calendar, while many years of living in New York, with very active celebrations downtown, made it memorable. But the indelible element is Tet. Now, the thing about the Tet Offensive which made it so extraordinary is that fighting suddenly broke out all across South Vietnam. Yet when people talk about “Tet” it’s mostly three pieces of the action they mean–the fighting in Saigon (especially at the American embassy), the siege of Hue, or the battle of Khe Sanh. I admit I’ve written about all three. But there’s more to the story. In my book Vietnam: Unwinnable War I tried to expand the horizon, particularly on actions in the Mekong Delta. I’ve done pieces elsewhere, too, including one on “Tet in II Corps” that appeared in The VVA Veteran back in 2009. I was pleased the other day when a veteran of the events portrayed in that article approached me to correct some of what it said. With the Lunar New Year coming right up, this seems an ideal moment to mark it with a non-Saigon story. So, herewith, to Qui Nhon at Tet.

 

Qui Nhon is a city on the central Vietnamese coast. In the American war it was important as the rear base, at the foot of the Central Highlands, for troops engaged on the high plateau, the point of origin for the road to Pleiku. Qui Nhon was probably the most important place in Binh Dinh province, which was undoubtedly why the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam chose to attack it. As a bellwether for the pacification situation in Vietnam, a Binh Dinh province attack offered to put a propaganda feather in the NLF’s cap.

Qui Nhon lay in the tactical area of responsibility of the South Korean expeditionary corps in Vietnam, but the bulk of defense forces  for Binh Dinh were troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd Infantry Division, in particular its 41st Regiment. As the North Vietnamese and NLF did elsewhere in South Vietnam, they made careful preparations in Binh Dinh, including attempting to neutralize the ARVN. During the predawn hours of January 10, 1968, about three weeks before Tet, an estimated battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army attacked Phu My, base of Captain Nguyen Van Ru’s 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry.

ARVN units were importantly backed by American advisers. Sergeant Ray J. Robison, one of four men with the battalion’s U.S. detachment, believes the word “adviser” is a misnomer. Captain Ru had been fighting since the French war. There was nothing the Americans could tell him. Rather, the advisers were the point men for ARVN access to many resources their army lacked–from lavish artillery and air support to a scale of supply the South Vietnamese lacked. The North Vietnamese knew that too. During the attack on Phu My some People’s Army bo dois were specifically assigned to take out the Americans’ bunker. The enemy soldiers crept up and rolled two grenades into the emplacement. The first burst wounded 1st Lieutenant Richard Morris, Staff Sergeant Robert Harcum, and Sergeant Gerald Deady, while concussion threw Sergeant Robison against the bunker wall. The second grenade landed at Robison’s feet, an object of morbid dread. But before anything else happened an ARVN private, Do Van Tan, jumped on top of the grenade and shielded the Americans from its blast. Private Tan became one of only three ARVN soldiers awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross during the war.

Sergeant Robison lived to fight at Tet. The other Americans were sent to get medical treatment at Qui Nhon. Captain Ru’s battalion had been badly enough handled that Brigadier General Nguyen Van Hieu switched it for Major Duong’s 1st Battalion. Duong impressed Robison as another great guy to work with.

Then came Tet. It was the night of January 30/31. At least two Liberation Front units hit Qui Nhon–the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sapper unit. A Vietnam People’s Army infantry battalion stood in reserve outside the city. The NLF targeted the compound of the South Vietnamese Military Security Service, the railroad yard, and the radio station. They struck an hour later than other positions in II Corps. Police chief Captain Bui Van Lan had time for some preparations, and he assembled five platoons and put them on alert. Captain Lan’s men turned aside most of the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (they were unable to broadcast any of their pre-recorded tapes). A South Korean battalion and two U.S.-led companies of montagnard strikers reacted to the NLF attacks.

Police killed the leader of the NLF sappers and captured their political officer among more than fifty others. Over 150 Liberation Front soldiers were killed. The Binh Dinh province chief called off the police units after dawn, turning instead to his Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) militia. To give the RF/PF, and the montagnards, more striking power, ARVN sent in Major Duong with two companies of his 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry. They airlifted from Phu My in CH-47 helicopters. The ARVNs complained, “We are jungle fighters, not city fighters,” but in Qui Nhon they would do splendidly.

Montagnards led by Green Beret Sergeant Michael R. Deeds were pushing toward the railroad yard as the ARVNs came up. The South Vietnamese infantry were painstakingly clearing nearby buildings house to house. A Green Beret and another soldier came up to Sergeant Robison, told him they had a 90mm recoilless rifle to set up, and asked him where on the rooftops they could best employ it. Robison advised them to stay off rooftops because enemy snipers were all around. The Americans disappeared but a little later one returned to ask for help–his sergeant had been wounded on the rooftop of a hotel. After seeing the situation for himself, Sergeant Robison told the young soldier to fetch his vehicle and put it as close to the wall of the building as he could. Robison then crept along the rooftop, got hold of the wounded Green Beret, and managed to lower him to the carrier truck that could take him to hospital. Sergeant Robison still wonders what became of the wounded American.

Major Duong’s soldiers spent two days working their way through Qui Nhon, while the South Korean troops cleared the hinterland outside the city. On the second day Sergeant Robison went along with the ARVN scouts ahead of a force of two platoons heading for an outlying village. They soon encountered the NLF and a firefight began that lasted all day. At one point Robison accompanied a relief party to retrieve several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, covering them with fire from his carbine. The sergeant would receive the Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions at Qui Nhon.

That second day ended with the security situation much improved. South Vietnamese authorities declared the battle at Qui Nhon over on February 5. Yet another of the NLF’s Tet tentacles had been lopped off.

 

Dien Bien Phu: America Casts its Lot

September 6, 2015–It was Harry Truman who involved the United States in the Vietnam conflict, “recognizing” French efforts to combat Viet Minh revolutionaries there as a contribution to fighting the Cold War. Truman started up military aid. The 200th shipload of U.S. military aid docked in Saigon in July 1952. By the fall of 1953 shiploads were nearing double that amount. A new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had taken the helm. While “Ike,” as he was familiarly known, had expressed certain reservations regarding French colonialism in his diary earlier in the decade, and had made public statements at press conferences and such that seemed to show reluctance to dispatch U.S. forces to Indochina, the proof of intentions lies in policy, and there the American approach helped lead France to its ultimate crisis at Dien Bien Phu. This subject came up recently in conversation and I thought I would amplify the comment I offered then.

It happens to be a good moment to take up the antecedents of Dien Bien Phu, for it was in September of 1953 that Washington made up its mind on furnishing extra military aid for the French in their Vietnamese war. There is much more on this in my book Operation Vulture.

Ike had perfectly good reasons not to do so. A new French commander-in-chief had been sent to Indochina, Henri Navarre, and that general had cobbled together what became known as the Navarre Plan. General Navarre insisted he needed additional military aid, along with reinforcements from France, in order to proceed with his operations. The French government, reluctant to supply all that Navarre wanted, thereby gave Ike an automatic out. America’s military attaché in Indochina, an air force general named Thomas Trapnell, had big doubts as to the efficacy of French methods in the war, also grounds to rule out the assistance. On the other hand, President Eisenhower sent a special military survey group to Vietnam to look at the French effort in the specific context of the Navarre Plan aid request, and General John O’Daniel, chief of that group, reported in very optimistic regarding Navarre’s chances. But in late August of 1953, reversing the advice of his predecessor (Omar Bradley), Admiral Arthur Radford, incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended against funding the Navarre Plan. Radford’s view became the official advice of the Department of Defense.

So here is Eisenhower, with advice on both sides of the question of whether to fund the Navarre Plan. The weight of advice seemed to be against moving forward. The U.S., already funding the French to the tune of $3.6 billion (in 2015 dollars), was giving plenty of assistance. Why need there be more? Enter the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, a man with a Manichean view of the world. For Dulles, anyone fighting communism had taken the side of the angels, and he did not bother himself with such issues as the narrow political support for the French operation, or the reluctance of the French themselves to reinforce Navarre. President Eisenhower listened, at a National Security Council meeting on September 9, 1953, as Dulles opined that the Navarre Plan actually had poor chances of success but that the aid had to be given because the French government of the day was the last that would have a free hand to prosecute war in Indochina, that any successor government would be forced into a negotiated settlement. Dulles argued the United States did not want a negotiated settlement to the Indochina war.

President Eisenhower took the point. Before the end of September he released a joint United States-French communique that stated Washington would accord France an additional $3.445 billion to prosecute war in Viet-Nam. Together the existing assistance plus the extra aid for the Navarre Plan amounted to more than $7.0 billion. To put that in a present-day perspective, in 2013 the entire military aid program funded by the United States came to about $14 billion, just twice the Indochina line item alone, and much current aid is in “nonlethal” categories or comprises loans, while help to the French in Indochina was all grants and all intended to help kill the enemy.

By his decision to support the Navarre Plan, President Eisenhower took the United States significantly closer to participation in the Vietnam war. (I will return to this subject some weeks from now to consider French preparations for the actual attack on Dien Bien Phu.)

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.

Gamers’ Corner: Waterloo 200th

June 17, 2015–At the moment I’m actually on the other side of the world, writing about the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific War, but I didn’t want to let this moment go by without some remark. The 200th anniversary is a notable passage for anything–or person–and Napoleon is staging a remarkable comeback. Perhaps it’s not surprising that everyone’s favorite Napoleon, a French lawyer and re-enactor named Frank Samson, is choosing the big Waterloo re-enactment this week to retire in a blaze of glory.

Two centuries is both an eon and an instant. Scary to think about, but in that length of time the world has gone from the calculated and tightly-contained conflicts of the 18th Century to a point where we engage in global wars, now irrational ones, and where we are near to destroying the very environment that sustains us. The A-Bomb, the warplane, the mechanized army were instruments unthinkable in Napoleon’s day, but that man was instrumental in making those things possible in two ways: by introducing a version of state power that focused it more efficiently towards state goals, and by deepening the inculcation of a new vision of the “nation engaged” that reframed the individual as part of a mass movement. All those developments in a mere two centuries? Stunning.

Some things that exist today, such as the irredentism of Russia over the Crimea and Ukraine, are constants. In this sense the change is also that of an instant, and Frank Samson might as well be Napoleon.

But there is also an eon that has passed. The world is so different, as the A-Bomb reference suggests. Anyway, here I want to speak to my gamer friends. Not that we’ve been playing for two centuries (though games did exist in Napoleon’s time), but that an age’s work of development has occurred in gaming since Napoleon’s day. Then Bridge and Whist were common, and of course Chess, our closest progenitor for the modern boardgame. But Waterloo, specifically, became the subject for one of our first games. In fact Charles Roberts, who had made a hypothetical the subject of his first game, selected Waterloo in Europe, and Gettysburg in America as his first historical subjects.

The first insight was, you could take an event from history and make it into a boardgame. The first design innovations came on the heels of that insight–Avalon Hill’s published versions, in some editions, included an early sense for  formation (hence “front” versus “flank”) and ranged fire (with artillery units). That happened in the early 1960s.

What’s interesting to look at is the evolution of boardgames, viewed specifically through the lens of the Waterloo battle. The middle 1970s were a fulcrum point when the innovations flooded the hobby one after another. In 1974 Tom Dalgleish, Ron Gibson and Lance Gutteridge brought us the simply-titled Napoleon (Columbia Games), one of their clever assays in the use of wooden blocks to simultaneously insert a fog of war element (limited intelligence) and to afford the ability to portray attrition. Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) came out in 1975 with 1815: The Waterloo Campaign, in which Frank Chadwick brought us the concept of “blown” cavalry (horses exhausted after making a charge) and, if I recall correctly, line-of-sight checks for ranged fire.

You can’t discuss the subject without touching on the contributions of Simulations Publications, of course. They began with Jim Dunnigan’s Napoleon at Waterloo (NAW) in 1971 which reproduced the battle action more realistically than Charlie Roberts’s design, and zeroed in on Mont St. Jean where Avalon Hill had really done a campaign game. NAW became the foundation for a whole series of Napoleonic-era productions. Dunnigan used to say that everyone has at least one boardgame in them, and this shows it. Possibly the best-known of these Napoleonic games from SPI was Borodino (in 1972), on the famous Russian battle at the heart of War and Peace. The designer of that game, John Young, was actually SPI’s accountant. Point taken. Anyway, the Waterloo campaign lent itself to recreation, and when SPI introduced its quad-game format, one of them did all the Waterloo campaign battles on the NAW system. The drama of the situation also offered possibilities at the micro- level, so when SPI followed GDW into the world of “monster” games, it published Waterloo as Wellington’s Victory, Frank Davis’s 1976 game, which moved the action to the regiment/battalion level, at which the actions at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte acquire new meaning.

Kevin Zucker worked at SPI during much of this period and designed Napoleon’s Last Battle (1975), which has spawned an entire line of products from the company Operational Studies Group, which he formed when leaving SPI. I mention this separately because never pursued the innovations Zucker had made, and he took them with him to OSG. His NLB introduced a variety of design advances including portrayal of a chain of command by inserting leadership rules, backed counters to reflect partial losses, the idea of “march orders,” and more. This Napoleonic system has been extended and deepened through a long series of subsequent games, some on Waterloo, others on different Napoleonic campaigns.

At the strategic level David Isby did a game whose name escapes me now (I shall check) for Rand Games Associates in the mid-70s. I published Campaigns of Napoleon with West End Games in 1980. That was altogether a new approach, though it featured Waterloo as just one of many scenarios. (Incidentally, contrary to what appears on the web at BGG, Dan Palter was the publisher and claimed  no more than “contributing design” credit; and Eric Goldberg had nothing whatever to do with the design of Campaigns, only its development. The most recent entry in the strategic sweepstakes is also my game, which appeared as the 2011 annual for ATO, Beyond Waterloo  That features advances in many areas from battle portrayal in a strategic game to an ability to fight out the 1815 campaign somewhere other than at Waterloo.

In any case, as gamers reflect on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, we have real reason to appreciate the event, which has had a real impact on the quality of the boardgames we play.

Whatever Happened to V-E Day?

May 8, 2015–A few years ago my companion and I were in Paris, going out for dinner on this date. The evening was nasty, horrible. Soaking rain. Then we found almost every place closed. Once we finally encountered an open cafe and sat to eat the waiter exclaimed at the extraordinary fact that we’d come out on the “holiday.” Extraordinary? Perhaps. All that evening, as I recall only one other couple entered the cafe. Holiday? Casting about, I soon realized that our gentleman was referring to V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the day that marks the end of World War II in Europe.

Actually what is extraordinary is how little Americans pay attention to the end of that war. This is a big event in France. In Russia they put on elaborate Victory parades. There are other observances too. America not so much. In our conversation with the waiter I hypothesized that the United States does not do so much with V-E Day because that day in 1945 the war still blazed in the Pacific, not to be ended until the Japanese surrender in August. I’d like to see that waiter again–because after reflection I realized the U.S. does not mark V-J Day very much either. The reason there, most likely, is that American atomic bombs dropped on Japan were the means chosen to force the surrender. The less attention drawn to the American use of atomic weapons the better. But our end result is that Americans hardly note a truly momentous occasion.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learned that this year for V-E Day there will be a ceremony at the World War II Memorial on The Mall in Washington, one that will climax with a flyover by a procession of World War II-vintage U.S. aircraft, carefully preserved by folks who are mostly veterans. The aerial parade perhaps mimics the one over New York City in 1945–incomparable–when over a hundred B-29 bombers thundered over the town. Here the demonstration was a mixed display of fifty-six bombers, transport aircraft, trainers, and fighters arranged so as to evoke events ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Ploesti Raid, from D-Day to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, trailed by the “Missing Man” formation.

It was nice to see the United States do something for V-E Day. It’s sad it takes the 70th anniversary of that event to get us off our a**es to do it. I hope we can keep this up.