Monday, July 24, 2006

Write What You Know

That's always been good advice and something I try to take to heart. I don't know the middle east very well. I can see that it's a shitstorm and getting worse every day. I can see many correlations to my own experience in Viet Nam.

When I was nineteen, the shit of Tet hit the fan of my life. Because of my unit's proximity to the citadel of Hue, that's where we went first. We left behind a smoking, gutted, ruin. House to house fighting is about as brutal and merciless as you can find. In Hue we found that the main issued weapon, the M-16 was not a good choice for house to house. I was never someone who ran that equipment down. I found it to be very good in most cases, vastly superior to the weapons the enemy used. Except in the city of brick and cobblestone that quick round tended to ricochet, and splinter, it just was not what we needed for the terrain.

A quick aside: Smaller, more poorly equipped and armored units will always try to provoke the more numerous and heavily armed foes into a street fight. The nature of the beast that is house to house battle negates most of the advantages of numbers and armor. Air power is curtailed because you can't see through walls and ceilings, tanks can't maneuver well and become large, slow targets with vulnerable spots. The larger sized attacking force most of the time does not have intimate knowledge of the place. In short, it's tailor made for defending guerrillas.

We requested a re-arming ASAP. What we asked for and received were shotguns and thompsons. They worked fine.

Door by door. Floor by floor. Window by fucking window. We knocked shit down and took it back. We had a kill ratio of about 10 to 1. It's just that there wasn't much of a city left when we were done. The people of Hue were glad to see us go.

That's pretty much the whole story of Tet. Whether or not you were at Khe Sanh, where the Marines endured months of constant artillery barrages and finally prevailed by simply remaining, only to be ordered to abandon the very ground they fought so fiercly to hold.

The same with the A Shau valley. A month and a half of unholy carnage. Another kill ratio of between 10 to 20 to 1. Taken, then abandoned. The most famous being Hamburger Hill. They took it and were ordered off in a few short days.

After the dust settled and smoke cleared, there were nearly 200,000 Viet Cong and NVA casualties, against nearly 20,000 American. The zone of influence (how much of the country we controlled) remained at about 25% (being generous here) which was almost exactly what was controlled in 1965. The unrestricted bombing that followed had this main effect on the Vietnamese to the north. It made them vicious.

A Defense Department survey that was included in the Pentagon Papers figured that it cost us about $1000 to do $1 of damage to the North. We never broke their will with air power. We did ensure that when they finally took over the South and reunited their country (oh, and by the way, the end result of the whole thing was the exact same result that would have occurred if we had never gone in at all) they were so brutalized and enraged by the last fifteen years of brutal conflict they were implacable, wrathful victors.

What the U.S. never seemed to understand was that all we did by staying there all those years was to kill people needlessly, to destroy cities without good cause.

There are some who say that had we done this or if the military had been allowed to invade the North things would have been different. Yeah, probably a lot more on boths sides would have died and the Vietnamese would still kept on fighting for their right to rule themselves.

When I hear our President and his henchmen talking about "stay the course" I think of all the young men that I know that were killed after Tet, to achieve a result that could have been accomplished in 1958 by simply doing nothing at all. I see a society in Iraq that has bypassed civil war entirely and descended into full on batshit looney anarchy. I even wonder if there is a way to evacuate the Green Zone safely without it turning into something like the retreat of Cortez from Tenochtitlan during La Noche Triste.

I do know this. This is the wrong fight, in the wrong place. If it keeps going on we are going to lose much, much more than a war. We will be in danger of losing our souls.

I know that there is a generation of young soldiers and marines that will end up like me, late at night, uneasily typing away at a keyboard, or doing many other things rather than sleep. I know this. I haven't liked my dreams all that much since I left Hue. I am not gratefull for my company in insomnia.


Blogger maurinsky said...

Thanks, Stephen, for your service to our country, even if the government did a disservice in how they used you (another strong parallel between the current war and the Vietnam War).

6:49 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

You're very welcome, maurinsky. I did have a strong measure of patriotism and ethic of service when I joined. When the bullets and bombs were flying, I fought for the lads on my immediate right and left. In the end, that was all that mattered. No larger issues. Later, during poker games and shotgun sessions (doing shotgun hits from shotguns), we would try and make some sense of it all by exploring the different writers and philosophers on the essence of war, it usually came down that we were fighting for each other. One of the better definitions of courage that I have read comes from Xenophon in Anabasis where he is describing the type of man he wants in the phalanx with him. He cites some of the "fearless" warriors of history, the Achilles and Ajax type and says that they are not the men he wants. Because they have no fear they break the ranks, because they thirst for a glory that is personal and not tied to victory or survival of the unit they put others at risk. Xenophon does not want men without fear. He wants men who know that there are things that matter more than fear. I wasn't brave, but there were times, for the sake of the unit and the brothers around me I could pretend to be brave for a while.

9:41 AM  
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