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.


Syria–Fools Rush In

November 16, 2015–Lots of you-know-what is flying in the wake of the ISIS attack in Paris. Here in the United States we have pundits speculating that how to deal with ISIS has supplanted all other issues in the political campaign for the next president. Mitt Romney, a loser in the last presidential race, advocates for “whatever it takes” to beat the hell out of the shadowy adversary. And here is James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, the Fearful Leader–who is now so afraid he’s willing to appear only as an anonymous source in the New York Times. The Paris attacks, Clapper says, are “a game changer.” He goes on, “We have to look hard at what happened in Paris, at the trajectory of the group and the potential threat it poses to the entire international community . . . . Paris shows that they can attack soft targets on any day, anywhere, including in any major American city.”

Clapper wants “a greater sense of urgency in how we go about trying to combat these kinds of attacks.” Great. The first thing we need is more forthrightness and much greater consistency. The intelligence official an anonymous source? As I’ve said before, Mr. Clapper is about scaring people. –And his “attack any day” comment does exactly that. But where is the consistency? The intelligence community said–and General Clapper has more recently denied–that CIA pulled people out of China after the Chinese hack of United States personnel records, which would have revealed the identities of CIA undercover agents who’d been issued security clearances. On ISIS more specifically, an investigation is currently underway into senior officers at Central Command suppressing intelligence of the surging radical group, substituting a complacent view instead.

As with the intelligence so with the policy. The United States was not going to intervene in Syria. Then it did. The U.S. was going to help Syrian defeat the Assad government. Then CIA and the Pentagon, each with their own programs, stopped short of providing effective aid out of fear of helping some other radical group. The U.S. professed itself to be against Assad but its strategy effectively helps him. President Obama denounces Assad’s chemical weapons and sets a red line where he’ll bomb if the Syrian government utilizes such munitions. Then Assad did that but Obama stayed his hand. Then, after not bombing, the U.S. begins to drop on Syria because of ISIS, not chemicals. More recently, with evidence ISIS has used chemicals, there has been no evident U.S. response. Washington declared it would send no troops to Syria. Another policy honored in the breach. And Obama pulled out of the Iraq war, so now he goes back in.

All this fighting has generated a massive wave of refugees, and at this writing it appears ISIS inserted some of its own militants into the flow. That’s a classic spook tactic which, if Fearful Leader did not expect it, then Clapper is even more of an idiot than I make him for. During the Cold War the Soviets and East Germans did that with the flow of displaced persons out of Eastern Europe and later East Germany. The Vietnamese inserted people in the refugee stream during the Southeast Asian troubles. The Soviets did that against the Afghan mujahedeen in the Afghan war of the 80s. Pakistanis have done it against the Indians and the Indians right back.

More useful is to unpack just what the potentialities are. The other day we asked if the various recent attacks were related–a multifront activity sort of like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. That seems to be true. Evidence being uncovered in Paris right now is confirming the ISIS link of some of the militant attackers. We’re at the point that the fair assumption is that infiltrators are past the checkpoints and able to move about to targets. The ISIS propagandists have done a good job of radicalizing citizens of other countries in place. This has been looked at as a recruitment mechanism for the war in Syria, but it’s better as a tool for mobilizing in-place helpers for militant fighters entering for the next link in this unrolling overseas offensive. To the degree that Fearful Clapper’s maunderings mean anything this is it.

But there are important distinctions between now and then. This is not Tet. ISIS militants do not possess global logistics, global financing, or an in-place network of cadres the way these things existed across South Vietnam during the war there. That adds up to something more like a special operation–like 9/11–a one shot deal. Unlike Vietnam, the adversary cannot strike at will and repeatedly. Capabilities may differ in certain specific locales, places like Beirut or Cairo, perhaps France or Britain with the culture wars in those lands in recent years. More likely the capability, once used, will be expended.

Also probable is the expiration of “sleeper cells.” That is, the massive security crackdown that has already begun, in search of information, will haul in so many fish that the resulting data will reveal such capabilities ISIS may have in the West that were not employed in the Paris attacks. Some sleeper cells may survive the security blanket but the much greater likelihood is that such networks as ISIS may possess will be significantly degraded.

Finally, look at the nature of the “target set”–unfortunately harsh language that represents the way military planners view reality. Bars and restaurants, a music concert venue, a sports stadium. The Estade de France, the highest profile target, also had some defenses,  and there the militants failed completely. Places they succeeded had no protection at all. ISIS congratulates itself that it struck dens of iniquity, but the truth is it made lemonade out of lemons.

This is not the “game changer” that Fearful Clapper wants us to believe in. We are seeing a wave of one-off incidents, separated in time and locale, against innocents who bore no ill will. The most likely change in the game will be to stimulate political movements likely to demand intervention in Syria, or conversely to heat up culture wars in the West. Perhaps that is the true aim here. If so it is still misdirected, for Muslims oppressed as a result of resentments triggered by ISIS are just as likely to blame the Syrian militants.

Meanwhile, France has already made a start with a new wave of bombing in Syria. The United States will be right behind. Even Israel is jumping on the bandwagon, using the opportunity to curry favor with European states that have been scandalized by its policies in the Occupied Territories. But as discussed here on other occasions, the United States in particular, and the West in general, lack a coherent strategy that leads to an attainable goal in Syria. It is foolish to rush in without considering that. The other day I wrote that here it feels like the moment in the Vietnam war just before the Tonkin Gulf Incident, a time the pressure for escalation is palpable but the successful way forward is not. I want to repeat that judgment here.