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The First Battle — a review

Friday, August 24th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

The First Battle, Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, by Otto J. Lehrack, Lt.Col., USMC, Ret.

This is an older book, but important. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a good friend, Bruce. Bruce is a Vietnam veteran and since both of us are readers many of our lunch conversations revolve around the books we have read, and this meeting was no exception. Bruce enthusiastically recommended The First Battle and No ShiningArmor, both by Lt.Col. Lehrack, and Last Men Out, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. He said Lehracks first twenty pages of The First Battle was the best description of the situation that led the United States to become involved in Vietnam. Since my knowledge of Vietnam is embarrassingly meager, I ordered all three when I returned home from lunch. Given Bruce’s descriptions, The First Battle was first up. Lehrack begins the first chapter, Inching Towards the Abyss, with a profound first sentence:

The United States came to this pass in baby steps, characterized more by Cold War fears, hubris, and inattention than by level-headed policy examination.

(Sounds familiar doesn’t it?)

The result of Lehrack’s effort is a readable and powerfully inspiring story of the first battle of the Vietnam War fought only by Americans, specifically, the United States Marine Corps. Code named, Operation Starlite, this “first battle” was a coordinated air, sea, and land attack, but to the green, untested Marines fighting battle-hardened Viet Cong troops nothing about this first encounter was typical or routine.

Lahreck, drawing on interviews with warriors from both sides, provides the reader an up-close view of the savagery and the valor of this battle that resulted in two Americans receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. The prose is fast paced and detailed, but not so detailed one with no experience/knowledge of Marine Corps jargon can’t keep up. Lehrack includes a fairly exhaustive glossary of the unique terms used, so the military/USMC novice will have a ready guide close-by.

The book is divided in three parts. Part 1 describes general attitudes of the American public, politicians, and military personnel with respect to Vietnam. Part 1 also provides a description of the planning process for the battle and the rationale. Also included is an assessment by the Viet Cong of their American opponents, dated 3 July 1965 (about a month prior to Operation Starlite):

American strong points

  • The have reached the training level of an expeditionary force.
  • Armed with modern weapons, lighter than French expeditionary forces, they have quick transportation, quick movement, have capability of quick reinforcement, thanks to vehicles, aircraft, boats.
  • Usually concentrated in groups.

Weak points compared with French

  • No spirit of combat; afraid of guerillas; always rely on modern weapons, so they lose initiative and self-confidence (when in contact, they call fire for support and reinforcement); sometimes artillery must conduct fire support for the whole period of operation.
  • Lack of combat experience, just know combat in theory only (through field manuals). Moreover, on a strange terrain, they usually walk in the open, bewildered like ducks (we say that American troops are most opportune targets for guerrillas).
  • Much effort required for messing; and water. Food must be supplied for each meal by helicopters. When moving to any place they must use helicopters and artillery fire support, so objective will always be disclosed, brining good opportunity for guerrilla follow up.
  • Cannot undergo long and hard operations. When operating far from base, about seven kilometers, must use vehicles.
  • Not able to bear local weather and climate, so troops will fall ill.
  • Defensive positions sometimes well organized but they are slow to get that way. In one instance it took ten days to organize defenses and thirty to install mines.
  • They do not know the terrain well.
  • They run slowly.

(This list is offered for those readers who have insight into whether these weaknesses persist in our military—I do not know.)

In Part 2, Lehrack describes the battle, and the aims of the American commander “to isolate, and then destroy the enemy.” Lehrack follows individuals and units through the battle, and spares no detail in the hardships, risks, and depravations endured by the participants. He offers a gripping and realistic description of the “fog of war:”

The Marines quickly learned a practical lesson that all warriors have known since ancient times. Theoretically, one is supposed to line up in an assault or other planned formation and fight that way. But once battle is joined the formation rapidly degenerates into a series of isolated small actions. In Starlite, as in most battles, it seemed that the fights generally meant that four or five men on one side would be heavily engaged with a similar number on the opposite side. Each combatant became so preoccupied with taking care of his situation that he often had little knowledge of and didn’t really care what was going on a few yards away. Throw in the sounds, the smells, and the fear and you have the notorious “fog of war” that explains why such widely differing accounts describe the same battle.

Good friend of this blog, Lynn Wheeler adds this observation in another forum on the effect Starlite had on Viet Cong planning/tactics::

Perhaps the most important reason for the so-so result was that the Viet Cong had gained an enormous appreciation of the Marines’ ability to project power from the sea as a result of Starlite. Never again in the course of the war did they permit their units to tarry on the coastal plain. When they had a job to do near the water, they came in and did it, and then they fled inland again. Although they developed good antiaircraft techniques and weaponry during the war they had neither the ordnance nor the expertise to thwart an amphibious landing force.

Part 3 is titled The Blood Debt. As eloquently as Lehrack introduced the reader the to attitudes and assumptions of most Americans in his opening chapter, so he concludes. Fifty-four Americans died and an estimated six hundred of the enemy perished in Operation Starlite. By the numbers and a “body count” mentality, we “won” the battle, but in 1965 the Vietnam War was just getting started, and we know how it ended. Lehrack writes:

America spent another ten years, and more than 56,000 additional lives, to follow a failed policy. Like gamblers who have already lost their gambling money, and then the rent money, and the car payment, and then the grocery money, and then borrowed or stole in the hope of changing their luck, the Johnson and Nixon administrations kept signing markers to America for a debt in gore that they hoped a reversal of fortune would justify.

The criminal portion of this gut wrenching conclusion is that American political leaders had no confidence in a military solution in Vietnam. Lehrack quotes President Johnson speaking with a senator, “They hope they will wear us out. And I really believe they’ll last longer than we do.” Eventually, and thankfully, the American public said, “no more.” Amazingly, Lehrack citing Hugh M. Arnold‘s examination found that of an official justification of the war there “were a total of twenty-two separate American rationales: From 1949 to 1962, the emphasis was on resisting communist agression; from 1962 to 1968, it was on counter-insurgency; after 1968, it was on preserving the integrity of American commitments.”

Lehrack correctly laments American unfamiliarity with Vietnamese culture and their visceral attitude towards foreign invaders. We were making the world safe for democracy, and the Vietnamese fell back on nationalism as a recruiting tool and justification for feeding over a million people into the maw of war. Lehrack also points out that Marine leadership knew early on “that Vietnam was more a political war than military.” The Marines had the Small Wars Manual derived from their actions in the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti while the U.S. Army had four pages in their Field Regulations on guerilla warfare. Lehrack speculates a pacification effort, something the Marines knew well, may have been successful if properly applied to good governance on the part of the South Vietnamese government.

Of course these speculations are just that, and there is little evidence given our current predicament in Afghanistan that we learned our lessons. The shelf-life of hubris is eternal.

Bruce was right; this is a powerful little book, and comes with my highest recommendation.

Addendum: LCDR B.J. Armstrong has an enlightening essay on rotary aircraft, which includes Operation Starlite here.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

A Wound That Does Not Cease to Bleed: The War in Vietnam

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Amigo of ZP blog, West Point military historian Colonel Gian Gentile, throws down the gauntlet in his review of Lewis Sorley’s new biography, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, in The National Interest:

The Better War That Never Was

DID GENERAL Westmoreland lose Vietnam? The answer is no. But he did lose the war over the memory of the Vietnam War. He lost it to military historian Lewis Sorley, among others. In his recent biography of William C. Westmoreland, Sorley posits what might be called “the better-war thesis”—that a better war leading to American victory was available to the United States if only the right general had been in charge. The problem, however, is that this so-called better war exists mostly in the minds of misguided historians and agenda-driven pundits.

In the battle over the memory of the Vietnam War, Sorley annihilates Westmoreland and leaves his character and reputation in smoldering ruins. Yet Sorley’s victory in the fight for the memory of Vietnam has not brought us a balanced historical biography of Westmoreland.  

 ….The better-war thesis argues that if only the U.S. Army had concentrated from the start on building up the South Vietnamese armed forces and winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people through limited applications of military force, we would have won the war. But the question remains: Precisely how could tactical adjustments early in the war have overpowered the political constraints placed on the army by the Johnson administration, which kept it from taking the fight to the North Vietnamese? Or the dysfunctional nature of the South Vietnamese government and military that precluded them from standing on their own? Or the declining popular support and political will in the United States as the war dragged on without a decent end in sight? Or, perhaps most importantly, how could tactical adjustments toward better methods of counterinsurgency have overpowered a communist enemy that fought the war totally while the United States fought it with limited means? In his Westmoreland biography, Sorley essentially ignores these questions.

Could the United States have prevailed in Vietnam? Yes, but it would have had to commit to staying there for generations, not a mere handful of years. The Vietnam War was an attempt at armed nation building for South Vietnam. Nations and their societies, however, are not built overnight, especially when they are violently contested by internal and external enemies. Thus, to prevail in Vietnam, the United States would have needed the collective will that it mustered to win World War II and would have had to be able to maintain it for generations. That kind of will—or staying power—was never a real possibility.

In war, political and societal will are calculations of strategy, and strategists in Vietnam should have discerned early on that the war was simply unwinnable based on what the American people were willing to pay. Once the war started and it became clear that to prevail meant staying for an unacceptable amount of time, American strategy should have moved to withdraw much earlier than it did. Ending wars fought under botched strategy and policy can be every bit as damaging as the wars themselves.

Well worth the read, not least for Gian’s model of how one historian carefully dismantles the thesis of another.

We are a mere three years from the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, less than two years from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that brought LBJ into power and a year from the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous coup d’etat against American client, President Ngo Dinh Diem, that JFK had approved. Finally,  fifty years ago, Kennedy drastically increased the American military advisory mission to South Vietnam to just under 10,000 men and signed off on clandestine operations against North Vietnam.

All those fiftieth anniversaries amount to a golden jubilee of rancor.

The bitterness sown by the lost war in Vietnam still burns in American politics like red hot coals. Less bright perhaps than the open flame of 1968, but if you scratch the surface, you will find with no less heat. The war spawned division and polarization that twisted our politics and poisoned public debate to this day, echoing now as farce as much as tragedy.

During the 1980’s, Vietnam historiography was virtually a cottage industry. It was the subject that ate the profession as a generation of academics who cut their academic teeth during the era of antiwar protest on campus acquired tenure, middle-aged paunches and lost hair while nursing their political grievances in their scholarship. I personally recall, as an  undergraduate, the war being referenced (usually along with vitriolic abuse of Ronald Reagan) in every humanities class, no matter how remote the course, with some professors being known for the quality of their off-topic rants.

While Westmoreland bears heavy responsibility for his part in a losing a war, even as theater commander in Saigon he was only an executor, not a maker, of strategy, much less national policy. Westmoreland did not lose Vietnam in a stunning battlefield capitulation, so Gentile is right to defend “Westy” from being scapegoated for the poor strategic reasoning hatched in the Oval Office. Where Westmoreland was at fault was in his inability to either intellectually comprehend the bigger strategic picture in which he found himself struggling (most likely) or if he did, to effectively articulate the strategic environment in Southeast Asia to a domineering President who was stubbornly determined to brook no contrary advice (possible). Had Westmoreland tried, he likely would have failed (Brute Krulak’s effort in this regard got him physically ejected from the Oval Office by the seat of his pants by Johnson himself. I am dubious that LBJ would have been any happier with contradiction of policy from Westmoreland).

Gentile, much like my professors of yore, is deeply interested in the congruence between events in his own time with those of the Vietnam era., in particular, the salience of counterinsurgency doctrine in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is, of course, some continuity between the Vietnam era and today present, a historical thread seized by the COINdinistas themselves in their veneration of Galula and slurping knife-blade portions of soup, but the continuity has limits. I suspect a Millennial generation vet of Kandahar or Fallujah, should they venture to become a historian, will frame and seek to explain their wars without much reference to the societal touchstone that is Vietnam.

Perhaps by then, for American society, Vietnam will have finally ceased to bleed.

Carl Prine’s Rebuttal to “Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?”

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

My amigo and SWJ News co-columinst Crispin Burke recently put forth a very interesting and provocative jeremiad “Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?” and one of his targets, journalist and Iraq war veteran Carl Prine, has been duly provoked, Prine has responded in great detail yesterday at Line of Departure:

Starbuck is wrong

Starbuck is wrong.

And in his drive to keep getting it wrong, he’s trying to rewrite FM 3-24, the military’s chief doctrinal publication on counterinsurgency.

But that just makes him more wrong.

He’s wrong about me.  He’s wrong about what I believe.  He’s wrong about the literature that informs FM 3-24.  He’s wrong about what the manual says and he’s wrong about what it left out.  He’s wrong about historiography.  He’s wrong about how a caste of top officers and diplomats came to understand “strategy” in the wake of the occupation of Iraq.

Let’s help get him right.  Or, at least, less wrong.  He’s a good man.  We need to turn him and ensure he quits taking shots at me I don’t deserve!

….The problem to anyone who studies Malaya, however, is that since the publication of the memoirs of exiled communist leader Chin Peng a dozen years ago, we now know that the civic, military and political policies under the British “hearts and minds” approach didn’t defeat the revolution.

Instead, the revolt was irreparably broken by brutal operations against the guerrillas, then a most coercive “screwing down the people” phase that dispossessed or killed thousands of Chinese, followed by draconian “population control” measures that, as Peng put it, starved the guerrillas in the bush because they snapped their rat lines and cut off their rice.

The “hearts and minds” initiatives designed to bring medical care, education, social welfare and other aid to the resettled Chinese and woo them to the colonial government’s side from 1952 – 1954 didn’t crack the back of the insurgency, a point now pretty much beyond dispute.

Why?  Because the previous “hearts and minds” claptrap as the cause of pacification in Malaya was contradicted by the Malayan Chinese, most especially those guerrillas who took up arms against the British regime!

You know, the people targeted by a population-centric counterinsurgency.  The people most counter-insurgents in their pop-centric fantasies almost never discuss except as abstractions, the human yarn wefted and warped by their long needles of war.

One finds “Hearts and Minds” prominently mentioned 11 times in Dr John Nagl’s valentine to Templer and colonial Malaya, Eating Soup with a Knife; to Nagl it’s the stuff of police services and economic development and whatnot with the psychology of the people being the center of gravity those reforms are meant to snatch.

And Nagl would like the best burglar of hearts and minds to be a learning, nimble and evolving military-political institution such as the U.S. Army.  It’s no small wonder, then, that Nagl became a dominant voice in FM 3-24 and that many of this thoughts in Eating Soup came to dominate the manual, too.

Or, as the introduction to FM 3-24 echoes soupily, “by focusing on efforts to secure the safety and support of the local populace, and through a concerted effort to truly function as learning organizations, the Army and Marine Corps can defeat their insurgent enemies.”

This is mere euphemism and wasn’t worth the ink that it cost taxpayers to print it.  But it sets the stage for the rest of FM 3-24, which follows a hearts and minds template that Starbuck doesn’t apparently realize is borrowed from mid-century….

Ouch. Note to self: if I ever decide to square off against Carl, I will make sure to do my homework. Read the rest here.

First, I would point out to readers here for whom some of this in both essays is inside baseball, that the tone is less harsh and the substantive distance between Burke and Prine less great in  the comments sections of both blogs than it first appears in reading their posts. It is a healthy, no-holds barred exchange and not a flame war.

Secondly, it is an important exchange, tying together COIN disputes over theory, historiography, empirical evidence, operational and tactical “lessons learned”, strategy, policy (Clausewitzian sense), politics (colloquial sense) and personalities that have raged for five years across military journals, think tanks, the media, the bureaucracy and the blogosphere. In some ways, these essays can serve as a summative of the debate. I say “some ways”, because what is the most important element or effect of America’s romance with COIN will differ markedly depending on whom has the floor. My own beef is not with doing COIN, it is with not doing strategy.

As Crispin and Carl’s vignette about General Creighton Abrams demonstrated, American historians are still having savagely bitter arguments about the war in Vietnam. For that matter, everyone who lived through the era did and still does. It is a wound that never seems to heal and has crippled our politics to this day, even as the veterans of Vietnam now turn to gray.

The 21st century COIN wars have not ripped American society apart down to the soul the way Vietnam did. As with the Korean War, the soldiers and marines in Afghanistan and Iraq fought bravely, at times desperately, to a general and mild approbation back home that sometimes looked a lot like indifference. Even the anti-war protestors mostly made a point of stating they were not against the troops, the venemous public malice of the 1960’s New Left radicals in the 2000’s was a property only of the lunatic fringe.

But COIN itself will be a historical argument without end.

What amazes me is the *speed* of the moral descent

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — the importance of undertows, archaisms, blind-spots ]
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Zen writes, in a comment on his post, Skulls & Human Sacrifice:

What amazes me is the *speed* of the moral descent.

Yup. Bingo!  Yes!! Exactly…

That’s why I think it’s so important to track undertows as well as tides – the archaic rituals and myths, the archetypal dreams and nightmares of people like AQ, or La Familia, or even Harold Camping.

They’re below the surface, beneath our radar – until they “show”. And then they blow our minds.

*

That’s why I think apocalyptic movements are so significant.

By the time the Chinese Government found ten thousand or so qi gong practitioners protesting at Zhongnanhai in 1999, there were arguably as many practitioners (70 m) across China as there were members of the CPC (60+ m) – and any number of them might be listening to Li Hongzhi‘s Falun Dafa tapes while cultivating themselves in the park… The recognition that the Party might have a movement on its hands to compare with the Taiping rebellion (20 m lives lost) was what drove the fierce repression that followed…

It was as though Falun Gong came out of nowhere.

And who knew that Harold Camping’s prophecies broadcast out of a radio station in Oakland, CA could move “several thousand Hmong followers of a sub-Christian messianic cult” to gather for the end in Muong Nhe district, Dien Bien Province, Vietnam – conflating the prophecies of their own messiah figure, “a 25-year-old man named Zhong Ka Chang, now renamed Tu Jeng Cheng, meaning ‘the important one'” with Camping’s returning Christ, and expecting him to “appear and establish a pan-Hmong kingdom” (quotes from Compass Direct).

We laugh at Camping. But he touched a nerve.

*

Pretty much by definition, societies are and choose to remain unconscious of their unconscious contents until it’s too late, so they always surprise us.

They’re in our blind-spot, by definition.

Rapturous times, neh?

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

[ By Charles Cameron — apocalyptic movements, best readings, budget shortfalls, lack of support for scholarship in crucial natsec areas — and with a h/t to Dan from Madison at ChicagoBoyz for the video that triggered this post ]
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What with rapture parties breaking out all over, billboards in Dubai proclaiming The End and thousands of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam among the believers, this whole sorry business of Harold Camping‘s latest end times prediction is catching plenty of attention. I thought it might be helpful to recommend some of the more interesting and knowledgeable commentary on Camping’s failed prophecy.

*

First, three friends and colleagues of mine from the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, about which I will have a further paragraph later:

Richard Landes of BU has a text interview here, and a TV interview here. His forthcoming book, Heaven on Earth, is a monumental [554 pp.] treatment of millenarian movements ranging “from ancient Egypt to modern-day UFO cults and global Jihad” with a focus on “ten widely different case studies, none of which come from Judaism or Christianity” — and “shows that many events typically regarded as secular–including the French Revolution, Marxism, Bolshevism, Nazism-not only contain key millennialist elements, but follow the apocalyptic curve of enthusiastic launch, disappointment and (often catastrophic) re-entry into ‘normal time'”.

Stephen O’Leary of USC wrote up the Harold Camping prediction a couple of days ago on the WSJ “Speakeasy” blog. He’s the rhetorician and communications scholar who co-wrote the first article on religion on the internet, and his specialty as it applies to apocalyptic thinking is doubly relevant: the timing of the end — and the timing of the announcement of the end. His book, Arguing the Apocalypse, is the classic treatment.

Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph is a wicked and witty blogger on all things Catholic and much else beside — the normally staid Church Times (UK) once called him a “blood-crazed ferret” and he wears the quote with pride on his blog, where you can also find his comments on Camping. Damian’s book, Waiting for Antichrist, is a masterful treatment of one “expecting” church in London, and has a lot to tell us about the distance between the orthodoxies of its clergy and the various levels of enthusiasm and eclectic beliefs of their congregants.

Three experts, three highly recommended books.

*

Two quick notes for those whose motto is “follow the money” (I prefer “cherchez la femme” myself, but chacun a son gout):

The LA Times has a piece that examines the “worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations” behind Camping’s more recent prediction (the 1994 version was less widely known).

Well worth reading.

And for those who suspect the man of living “high on the hog” — this quote from the same piece might cause you to rethink the possibility that the man’s sincere (one can be misguided with one’s integrity intact, I’d suggest):

Though his organization has large financial holdings, he drives a 1993 Camry and lives in a modest house.

*

Now back to the Center for Millennial Studies.

While it existed, it was quite simply the world center of apocalyptic, messianic and millenarian studies. CMS conferences brought together a wide range of scholars of different eras and areas, who could together begin to fathom the commonalities and differences — anthropological, theological, psychological, political, local, global, historical, and contemporary — of movements such as the Essenes, the Falun Gong, the Quakers, Nazism, the Muenster Anabaptists, al-Qaida, the Taiping Rebellion, Branch Davidians, the Y2K scare, classic Marxism, Aum Shinrikyo and Heaven’s Gate.

And then the year 2000 came and went, and those who hadn’t followed the work of the CMS and its associates thought it’s all over, no more millennial expectation, we’ve entered the new millennium with barely a hiccup.

Well, guess what. It was at the CMS that David Cook presented early insights from his definitive work on contemporary millennial movements in Islam — and now we have millennial stirrings both on the Shia side (President Ahmadinejad et al) and among the Sunni (AQ theorist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri devotes the last hundred pages of his treatise on jihad to “signs of the end times”)…

Apocalyptic expectation continues. But Richard Landes’ and Stephen O’Leary’s fine project, the CMS, is no longer with us to bring scholars together to discuss what remains one of the key topics of our times. When Richard’s book comes out, buy it and read it — and see if you don’t see what I mean.

Or read Jean-Pierre Filiu‘s Apocalypse in Islam.  Please. Or Tim Furnish‘s recent paper.

*

And while it may not see Judgment Day or the beginning of the end of the world as predicted, what this week has seen is the end of funding of Fulbright scholarships for doctoral dissertation research abroad.  But then as Abu Muqawama points out:

hey, it’s probably safe to cut funding for these languages. It’s hard to see Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world causing issues in terms of U.S. national security interests anytime soon.

Right?

So the CMS isn’t the only significant scholarly venue we’ve lost to terminal lack of vision.


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