Midway Mystery: Secrecy and a World War II Turning Point

June 7, 2017–Here’s a story that has everything–spies, lies, a turning point of World War II, journalists, secrecy, desperation, and right thinking. Seventy-five years ago today, this story appeared in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune: “JAP FLEET SMASHED BY U.S.–2 CARRIERS SUNK AT MIDWAY.” The battle off Midway Island in the Central Pacific was the moment when Japan’s march that had started with Pearl Harbor was blunted. American naval forces were weaker than the Imperial Navy’s. U.S. technology, for once, was equal, not superior to the adversary’s, with some things better, some worse than the enemy’s. What the Americans had for an edge was intelligence–U.S. Navy codebreakers were able to read a series of messages in which the Japanese finalized their plans to invade Midway. Using this knowledge, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz planned an ambush to catch the Japanese.

At first it seemed the enemy couldn’t be stopped. But then clouds opened up beneath a strike group of U.S. dive bombers and four Imperial Navy aircraft carriers were right below them. Nimitz’s forces sank all four enemy carriers, at one blow reducing first-line Japanese aeronaval strength by two thirds. That was on June 4, 1942. Over the next couple of days the U.S. mopped up, inflicting more losses on the enemy. Then came June 7 and the Tribune article.

The scary thing about the newspaper story is that its details included identifications of the Japanese warships involved at Midway, including the exact aircraft carriers that had been sunk. This suggested whomever had written the story had had access to information from U.S. codebreakers–and, indeed, Admiral Nimitz had sent a dispatch a few days ahead of the battle warning his sailors of the enemy’s strength. The Navy Department went ballistic upon seeing the Tribune story. Intelligence officer Arthur H. McCollum was able to show that the news story not only had the same information but the same errors as were in the Nimitz message.

United States Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King, and Navy Secretary Frank Knox told the press a cover story for why the Americans had been off Midway to meet the enemy, and they handed the leak case over to Attorney General Francis Biddle. On August 7, 1942 Biddle convened a grand jury which listened to evidence for five days. By this time Navy communications experts had traced the Tribune story to one of the newspaper’s reporters, Stanley Johnston, who had been on the aircraft carrier Lexington when she was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and had bunked with that ship’s executive officer as both survivors were returned to Pearl Harbor. It is believed that officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman, had shown Johnston the Nimitz message.

The grand jury considered criminal charges against journalist Johnston. In the 75 years from that day to this–despite repeated governmental outrage against media and journalists for revealing leaked information to the public–Stanley Johnston remains the only journalist to come this close to indictment. But here was the thing: the Navy had permitted him to go to sea and cover naval affairs without obliging Johnston to sign any agreement that required him to submit his writings for censorship. The other aspect of the case was that the U.S. government could not have prosecuted the case without revealing more information of how it was reading the Japanese naval codes. A prosecutor assigned to handle the case had recommended, as early as mid-July, that it not be pursued. A trial would only provide opportunities for the Japanese to discover their codes were compromised. On August 20, 1942 the Chicago Tribune published another story, this time with the news that legal investigations were being dropped.

Fast forward many years. In late 2014 historian Elliot Carlson joined with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of Information and other organizations, including the National Security Archive, to sue for release of the grand jury records from the Midway-Chicago Tribune case. Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in June 2015 that the records should be opened. The U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In September 1916 the circuit court issued an order to unseal the records. In mid-December the government’s window to attempt a further appeal of the decision closed and the records became public. Secrecy has finally ended for the deepest mystery of the Midway leak–there are at least three versions of how Stanley Johnston obtained access to the Nimitz dispatch. Now we’ll be able to see precisely what he said to the grand jury.

The Longest Day for the Allies

June 6, 2017–In these dark days when we need to remind ourselves that, yes, there truly are common interests among nations, and goals for which all are willing to strive, it is good to have history. One shining example of common action took place seventy-three years ago today. Of course, I am referring to D-Day, the “Longest Day,” the Allied invasion of Normandy, beginning the northwest Europe campaign that marked the final stage of World War II in the west.

There were 70,500 American troops plus 83,115 British and Canadian, and 600 0r so French. Roughly 23,000 of these troops arrived by parachute or glider. The armies were supported by 11,000 aircraft sorties and 5,000 naval vessels. Among this armada were warships or aircraft from the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Norway, and Poland; reserve troops from Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Holland; resistance forces in France and the Low Countries; plus more. You can see almost the entire line up of what later emerged as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The main country missing from the list would be Germany–and they, in World War II, were the enemy.

The invasion of June 6, 1944 led to fierce fighting. Americans will always think of the battle on Omaha Beach and the bitter field-to-field struggles for Normandy’s bocage country. Our British Commonwealth brothers will forever honor those who fought in the repeated fights over the city of Caen. The Germans will long remember their failed effort to seal up the Normandy bridgehead, the Allies’ breakout, and the battle for the Falaise Gap (for a detailed look at the struggle that followed D-Day read my book Normandy Crucible ).

It is a measure of the strength of our united purposes that wartime enemies became friends afterwards, and that the NATO alliance and that the union has evolved into a mainstay of American foreign policy. On this day let us all remember that.

Gamer’s Corner: Pacific-Go

January 14, 2017–I learned from a friend this week that an interview with my colleague Lenny Glynn has appeared in the GMT Games magazine known as C3i. In his interview he comments on our design Pacific-Go. This game has yet to be covered on the drop-down “Games” menu on my website because it has yet to be published. But since Lenny has brought the game into the light, I’m sure interested fans would like to hear something about it.

This is one of several designs from the Prados-Glynn team. For the old Victory Games, later absorbed into Avalon Hill, we did the power politics game CIA. For SPI we teamed up to produce Spies. In each case Lenny ruminated and proposed, and I then turned the idea into a real game. For Pacific-Go, it was a time when Lenny was enamored with the classic game Go, which he played incessantly (only a few times with me). The rumination was, why couldn’t there be a game that retuned Go to an historical subject. That reasonable idea triggered the thought that the classic game, being of Oriental origin, ought to be coupled to a theme from that history. The game originated in China, but there are no subjects in Chinese history that resonate to an American audience–and we needed the latter to make a commercial success. Go arrived in Japan before 1,000 C.E., however, and the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945 immediately leapt out as a potential theme. That is the game I designed.

Three essential elements characterize the Go game. One is its square spaces where the play occurs on the intersections of the lines rather than within the enclosed area. A second is the “liberties,” the idea that game pieces (“stones”) can exist so long as open interstices exist around them (the core concept being that they can thus draw supply). The opponent captures stones when they become surrounded and have no liberties. The third element is the measurement of victory by the number of stones captured. I felt those elements could easily be incorporated in a board game.

I’m not going to give away all the fine mechanics of Pacific-Go. But a few things are suitable. This is designed as a strategic game of the Pacific Theater. Players have both a level of resources set by the scenario plus an increase based on control of objectives. The full number of stones that can be in play is the Force Pool, which players procure given their resources. Stones compose chains which must have liberties to survive. Captured stones leave the game. We have replaced the sequential turns of the classic game with simultaneous movement. There is a scenario that actually creates an historical situation for 1941. The vanilla nature of stones in the original has been modified. The game ends after a number of quarterly turns equivalent to the length of the war or the accomplishment of certain goals, whichever comes first. Victory is measured in the value of stones captured and objectives controlled.

This is a fast-playing, dynamic game, that can be played twice, or even three times, in an afternoon. That’s very cool for a strategic game. I hope someday you’ll be able to play it.

 

On the Ropes at Leyte Gulf

October 26, 2016–I’d intended to post yesterday but it proved too busy. Having missed the crucial day of Leyte Gulf I’ll come around anyway. There are interesting things we can still say from the standpoint of October 26, 1944, seventy-two years ago today. Some of the analysis underlying the points I’ll make here resides in my book Storm Over Leyte, in which you’ll find lots more material on a pile of related subjects.

Today would be the moment that Bull Halsey’s vaunted battleship fleet, Task Force 34, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait. A couple of its fastest warships (of the Iowa class) could have made it. But four of the six battlewagons in Task Force 34 were rated at only 28 knots and could not have made it from the position where Halsey’s fleet was located when the battleships were pulled out of their screen positions around his aircraft carriers and instructed to form up. There is an argument in history that Admiral Halsey ought to have ordered the creation of Task Force 34 the previous night, and there was some scout information to support such a decision–see Storm Over Leyte for that– but even then the American vessels could not have arrived before the Japanese fleet had retreated through the straits. As it was some U.S. cruisers and destroyers, making their best speed, arrived in time to fire at Japanese destroyers that had stayed behind to save sailors from heavy cruisers that had sunk in the battle.

Admiral Halsey’s general situation had also become problematical. His entire Third Fleet had been steaming around for days, with high speed burning up fuel. The long chase action just carried out, known to history as the Battle of Cape Engano, used up much of what was left. Halsey had no alternative for October 26, 1944, except to order his carrier fleet to refuel at sea. The high speed deployment to San Bernardino expended his battleships’ fuel in the same way.

Storm Over Leyte relates the stories of a number of Japanese vessels for the day after the great surface action. The most remarkable aspect of their experience is that most American bombers which struck that day came from the self-same jeep aircraft carriers that the Japanese fleet had shelled only twenty-four hours before. Halsey’s ships were under orders to top off their oil tanks and then use their planes to defend U.S. ground positions on the island of Leyte. It’s ironic that the Imperial Navy’s behemoth, battleship Yamato, suffered more casualties on October 26 than on the day of battle.

At 11:34 AM on October 26 the headquarters of the Combined Fleet, the Japanese naval high command, ordered heavily damaged warships to return to the Home Islands, with more moderate repairs to be made at Hong Kong or in Singapore. It marked the effective end of what had been the proudest navy in the Pacific on the day of Pearl Harbor.

Kurita’s Surprise

August 2, 2016–More than six decades out  it is astonishing that the greatest naval battle in history has garnered as little attention as it has. This, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was “the greatest” in lots of ways. More ships participated, more sailors, the stakes were the fates of an entire invasion fleet, the awesome combat power of one side such that its losses would be minuscule compared to those of the adversary. Measured by its decisive aspect—the tonnage of ships sunk, the destruction of virtually all of a mighty fleet—Leyte Gulf shines. For the Japanese Navy, defeat at Leyte Gulf duplicated in reverse their greatest achievement, when Japan’s fleet destroyed a Russian one at Tsushima in 1905. Apart from anything else, Leyte Gulf set the trajectory of the final phase of the Pacific War that ended with the Japanese surrender ten months later.

There is another aspect of the Leyte events which astonishes too. In this lopsided contest the Allied side held every advantage. Allied forces were far superior to the Imperial Navy’s remaining vessels, in every category of strength from battleships to submarines. Allied airpower, both carrier-based and flying from shore also far outweighed that of Japan. And Allied intelligence, photographing Japanese garrisons at will, reading Japan’s coded messages, benefitting from captured Japanese documents, saw the enemy’s cards like an open hand. Like I said, the Allies enjoyed every advantage.

In the face of all that, the Imperial Navy managed to put an immensely powerful surface force up against an isolated portion of the Allied fleet. In these days when so many speak of “asymmetrical warfare” the Leyte Gulf experience demands more attention. Now the book Storm Over Leyte meets that need in detail. One aspect of Japan’s success in getting at one fragment of the Allied fleet in isolation was a huge intelligence failure, one virtually unbelievable for the side that had attained such a great advantage.

This is only a part of the story but it is an important one. The month of October 1944 began with an Allied misreading of radio intercepts. The major Imperial Navy fleet command at mid-1944 had been the so-called “Mobile Fleet,” that had been hard hit in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “Marianas Turkey Shoot”). Afterwards the Japanese had split up their forces, with the main surface units going to the Singapore area while the remnants of the aircraft carriers regrouped in the Home Islands. Messages the Allies intercepted in early October were read to indicate the Mobile Fleet had rejoined the surface force led by Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo, Japan’s Sir Harry Hotspur for this desperate venture. That interpretation proved mistaken and U.S. intelligence realized its mistake within a few days.

Admiral Kurita had charge of the bulk of Japan’s surface combat ships. At his Lingga anchorage and in Singapore they were out of range of the usual Allied aerial reconnaissance units. The Allies could have run photo missions with China-based B-29 bombers, but the leader there, General Claire Chennault, refused. Chennault had already been pulled into agreeing to make a B-29 strike on Taiwan in support of a carrier raid there, and evidently thought he was giving the Pacific oceanic forces enough help as it was.

The window on Japanese fleet activities therefore came down to radio intelligence. Allied spooks were sharp enough that to develop a good indicator entirely by watching Japanese operating practices. They discovered that by tracking movements of Japan’s oil tankers, especially the fleet oilers needed for underway replenishment, they had a reliable predictor for naval activity. As Allied forces closed in for the Philippine invasion, the radio spies detected enemy tanker movements of the kind that indicated a fleet sortie.

But radio direction finding of messages sent by Kurita’s fleet continued to put it in the Singapore area. Allied forces in the Pacific fought an entire battle over Taiwan, conducted a series of supporting air strikes on the Philippines, and began their invasion in Leyte Gulf, without the Kurita fleet stirring. On October 16, 1944, as Allied invasion fleets closed in the spooks still located Kurita near Singapore. That same day the radio spies acquired fresh intelligence on tanker movements and began expecting Kurita to sail. The admiral actually did so on October 18 (the 17th in Washington, where the Office of Naval Intelligence, the next day, still only “expected” a fleet sortie.

Admiral Kurita headed for Brunei, a micro-state on the north coast of Borneo, where he had sent tankers to wait for him. As it happened, Allied intel authorities had previously debated the chances the Japanese would come out to fight, and the chiefs of General Douglas MacArthur’s spy unit had asked for extra aerial scouting of Brunei. A B-24 scout plane actually sighted the Kurita fleet and the Japanese monitored its contact reports monitored. But somewhere up the line the messages were misplaced and the warning lost.

Existing accounts of Leyte Gulf make much of the submarine attacks and aeronaval battles of October 24, as the Kurita fleet closed in on the Philippines, but in truth the Allies were responding instantly to reports just reaching them. Had General MacArthur and his Pacific theater opposite number, Admiral William F. Halsey, had the advance warning they could have had, the scale of their attacks would have been ferocious and Kurita might have been stopped right there.

In truth the Kurita fleet, grievously wounded during its advance toward Leyte Gulf, arrived in a weakened condition, but it pressed ahead. The next Allied element to fail would be aerial scouts over the San Bernardino Strait, a passage Kurita main force had to transit in order to reach its target. For a variety of reasons the scouts failed that night. From Pearl Harbor the Allied Pacific theater commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, discovered from his radio traffic analysts that the Kurita fleet had passed the strait to debouch on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines. Nimitz sent messages to Halsey and other invasion commanders—revealed for the first time in Storm Over Leyte—urgently passing on the location data and identifying it as “ULTRA,” the Allied codename for its supersecret radio intelligence. Nimitz’s action could have given away the source, so they violated all the classification rules for ULTRA. The messages demonstrate his horror at the front-line situation.

The Japanese appearance was actually preceded by a series of intelligence failures—to detect by aerial reconnaissance at Lingga-Singapore or Brunei, to detect by radio direction finding at the moment of the sally, and to detect transiting the San Bernardino—to the extent that Pacific commander Nimitz felt it necessary to send messages that broke all the rules. Usually Admiral Nimitz is associated with a message that needled Halsey on the activities of his fleet, but the ULTRA messages were a far greater act of intervention. Thus our old understanding of the Battle of Samar—the action Kurita’s fleet fought off of Leyte Gulf—needs revamping.

Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy (PenguinRandomHouse) is available today.

 

 

 

 

What’s Secret, Hillary? Who’s Careless, Trump?

July 28, 2016–There’s a significant slice of folks out there who think Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail. This latest business of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump inviting Russian spies to hack U.S. computers to track down allegedly missing Clinton emails is typical of the genre. But what we’re really talking about is imagined transgression versus truly stunning betrayal. Don’t fall for it!

Readers of this space will know that when the Clinton email scandal broke, now more than a year ago, the very first pieces you saw here explained how phony were the breach of secrecy charges. I’ll refrain from going back over those details and just make a few central points. First, not until 2009 did the Department of State have any regulation regarding officials’ use of private channels, not until 2012 did the National Archives and Office of Management and Budget issue rules requiring agencies to actually manage electronic messages sent thereon, and not until 2014 did the State Department actually ask former senior officials, including but not limited to Clinton, to hand over copies of their electronic messages. Clinton may indeed have lied in responding to those inquiries, but she was not in violation of regulations. In columns posted here I showed that a range of other senior officials had done the same. Both Condi Rice and Colin Powell were later shown to have been dissembling when they initially denied ever using private channels.

My second point concerned the arbitrary operation of the secrecy system. Much of the fancied Clinton secrecy violation was the product of after the fact judgment by unnamed officials of the CIA and other agencies. Director James B. Comey of the FBI acknowledged as much on July 5 of this year, when the Bureau formally ended its investigation of the Clinton emails. Over three thousand emails–a little more than ten percent of those Ms. Clinton handed over–were found to have sensitive contents. Of those, 2,000 were found to have been retroactively graded classified, and another 1,000 contained a category of information, deemed “sensitive but unclassified,” which really doesn’t belong in the secret vault at all. Eight emails were judged to contain Top Secret information, an equal number confidential, and 36 messages plain secret info. Moreover, those messages appear in chains, where Secretary Clinton reacted to messages in ongoing conversations, and where the actual insertion of the information could have been by anyone.

My conclusion at the time bears repeating: when the regulations become so onerous that top officials cannot do business without violating them, it’s time to change the regs, not persecute the officials.

As a historian I deal with government secrecy every day. I make requests to open secret records, make arguments for why documents should be opened to the public, or desist, agreeing or begrudging claims that continued secrecy is justified. But secrecy can be phony just as it can be real. One of the supposed Clinton violations concerned a newspaper story about the drone war, the text of which was forwarded to Clinton, then traveling, so she would be able to respond to reporters’ queries. It happens the CIA considers everything about drones Top Secret–so it charges the secretary of state with dealing in Top Secret information she could have read in the newspaper. That is phony secrecy.

Contrast it with an example from my current book, which deals with the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle in history. Arguably the two biggest Top Secrets of World War II were the development of the atom bomb and the fact that the allies were reading their adversaries’ coded radio messages, a form of intelligence called “ULTRA.” Extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the secrecy of ULTRA, including never identifying the source. In the battle of Leyte Gulf a powerful Japanese fleet transits through the Philippines to the Pacific side of the archipelago to engage the Americans. In the book I show how America’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, threw security to the winds in order to warn of the emergency, and identified ULTRA in a dispatch to subordinates that gave a position for the Japanese fleet on the Pacific side of the islands. That was a real security breach. No one even criticized Nimitz for his deliberate action.

Today Donald Trump invites Russia to hack in search of Hillary Clinton emails. That would be a true cyberattack–a security breach–an intelligence penetration, and an intervention in United States politics. The act is not fundamentally different from the political terraforming the CIA accomplished with its covert operations in various lands. At its heart Trump’s is an act of disloyalty.  Sounds like The Manchurian Candidate.

During 1944’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who knew the secret of the codebreaking, thought to employ it to charge Franklin Roosevelt with dereliction for Pearl Harbor. Instead Dewey kept his silence after the visit of an emissary from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall. That was being careful.

The politics has fallen very far when citizens want to jail the former secretary of state for doing her job, while political adversaries invite foreign spying merely to obtain votes.

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.

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.

Leyte Gulf and ISIS

October 26,2014–Seventy years ago today the United States fleet was off the Philippines, hurling bolts of lightning at the remnants of a Japanese fleet in frantic retreat from what was the greatest naval battle of World War II. The fight was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Americans were in the Philippines to make good on General Douglas MacArthur’s promise that “I shall return!” The Japanese responded because loss of the Philippines would cut the Home Islands off from their major source of raw materials and fuel. The Imperial Navy was being destroyed without a fight. It might as well make a last stand.

In history, the Leyte Gulf battle climaxed yesterday in October 1944, with U.S. warships pursuing the fleeing Japanese down Surigao Strait, where the Allies had soundly defeated the Imperial Navy; while other Americans mopped up the last active Japanese aircraft carriers off of Taiwan, and yet other American ships desperately sought to defend themselves against a huge Japanese battle fleet that had suddenly materialized out of the dawn.

It is that last piece of the story that’s of interest here. In October 1944 all the decks were stacked in favor of the Allies. The fleet supporting MacArthur outmatched the Japanese in numbers in every category from torpedo boats to battleships, way more in tonnage (therefore size of the fleet) and in numbers of aircraft; with huge advantages in combat logistics and organization–plus highly capable intelligence. It had been a full year since the Japanese fleet had laid a glove, other than pinpricks, on the Allies. The Imperial Navy had no chance. The admiral who led that battle fleet which came out of the dawn told his captains, “You must all remember there are such things as miracles.”

As it turned out, Leyte Gulf more or less followed the pattern. The detached Japanese force in Surigao Strait was largely destroyed, the core of the carrier force was sunk, and the battle fleet suffered tremendous damage. But what is most significant is that three years into a war Japan was losing by a wide margin, its sailors, by dint of determination and fighting spirit, were able to turn the tables on the Allies despite all their advantages, and put that battle fleet up against a greatly inferior detachment of the Americans. The miracle seemed like it was happening after all.

The Japanese squandered their opportunity. Thus seventy years ago today it was Americans mopping up fleeing Japanese and not the other way around. But that is a story for another day. What is more interesting for right now is the parallel we can draw with the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the foe whom Americans and other allies are today fighting across both those countries. Today again the allies have many advantages. The ISIS fighters have only a small amount of heavy equipment, limited to what they have been able to capture from the Syrian government. The allies have air power–and complete control of the air–and can strike anywhere in the region with complete flexibility against an adversary who must move on the ground under the constant threat of air attack. ISIS fighters are also far outnumbered by the troops of the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the other Syrian partisan factions, not to mention the forces of the Syrian government.

But like the putative Allied dominance at Leyte Gulf, the situation in the Middle East today is not so clear cut as would seem. Like the Japanese seventy years ago, what ISIS has going for it is determination and the willingness to die. That has carried it a long way under the rain of aerial munitions already. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven much less determined. The Syrian islamist fighters other than ISIS have been divided against multiple enemies. The Turkish government, having promised to help, is effectively dragging its feet.

Those Americans at Leyte Gulf who took a complacent view of the Japanese were destined to be shocked. Do not be surprised if the same happens with ISIS today.

 

The Working Class General

 

February 7, 2014– In connection with publication of my new book on the battle of Dien Bien Phu I’m adding a new article to the “Downloadable” list on the website. This piece focuses on one character in that story, the French officer Marcel Bigeard, who led a parachute battalion in Indochina. Of working class origins, he was colorful enough to feature in the movie The Lost Command, played by actor Anthony Quinn and modeled on the character “Pierre Raspeguy” in the Jean Larteguy novels The Centurions and The Praetorians. In the Algerian war Bigeard’s role became controversial in the Battle of Algiers and afterwards, with charges that he had had prisoners tortured, a subject that reverberates in America today as a result of CIA actions during the 9/11 era. Bigeard also fought in World War II, ending his military career as chief of staff of the French army, after which he entered politics and became a deputy in the French National Assembly. Marcel Bigeard is a fascinating character, worth more attention than I could afford to give him in Operation Vulture.