One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers. Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military — and that touch on larger problems within American society.
The first note comes from a senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team. It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”
Here’s the note:
As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop. My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship. The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship. I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy, working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school. All the new officers want to be war fighters. None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign. The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible. Not just bad officers, but lousy people. I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling. They did not realize their crew would make them great. They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own. My job was to save them from themselves. My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves. My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military. The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild. Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way. I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war. Who needs people around who give bad advice?
This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter. Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice? But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice. As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war. Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”
Since 1945 decisive victories by the U.S. military have been few but everyone nevertheless gets a trophy.
The second note I received is as brief as it is powerful:
My father is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he flew both Korea & Vietnam, had the time of his young hot shot fighter pilot life in Korea, but had grave misgivings in Vietnam, and in fact was passed over for a Wing & a promotion to General, because as he said to me on 1969 after his return; “There is something fundamentally wrong with dropping napalm on little old men in rice paddies, and going back to (the) Officers Club to drink it up, and do it all over again the next day.”
Yes, there is something wrong with dropping murderous weaponry on often innocent people, then returning the next day to do it again (and again), without experiencing any doubts or moral qualms. There is also something wrong with a military that promotes amoral true believers over those officers who possess a moral spine.
The issue of killing innocent civilians is yet again in the news as casualties rise during the Trump administration. According to The Independent:
More than three-quarters of the civilians killed during the four-year war against Isis in Iraq and Syria occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, new figures show.
A total of 831 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” over the period, according to the US military’s own figures.
And the official figures offered by the U.S. military significantly underestimate civilian deaths, notes a recent study by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan. Yet moral qualms about the deaths of innocents are rarely heard today.
I’d like to thank again readers who share their insights and experiences with me, whether by email or in comments at this site. This is how we learn from each other — it is one small way we can work toward making the world a better, more just, place.
Nick Turse has a fine op-ed in the New York Times, “For America, Life Was Cheap in Vietnam.” In it he argues that for Americans involved in the Vietnam War, life was very cheap indeed – Vietnamese lives, that is. Turse has written a powerful book, “Kill Anything that Moves,” that documents the total war the United States waged on the Vietnamese people and countryside. As Turse notes in his op-ed, American leaders like General William Westmoreland demonstrated “a profligate disregard for human life,” mainly because their strategy “was to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible, with success measured by body count. Often, those bodies were not enemy soldiers,” Turse concludes.
As the U.S. embraced a bloody war of attrition, Turse observes that “the United States declared wide swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside to be free-fire zones where even innocent civilians could be treated as enemy forces. Artillery shelling, intended to keep the enemy in a state of constant unease, and near unrestrained bombing slaughtered noncombatants and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians into slums and refugee camps.”
I recently came across two accounts that lend further support to Turse’s conclusion. The first is an article written by Bernard Fall, “This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain,” published in Ramparts in December 1965. (My thanks to Dan White for bringing this article to my attention.) Bernard Fall was an expert on Vietnam; among other classic books, he wrote “Hell In A Very Small Place” (about the siege of Dien Bien Phu) and “Street Without Joy.” He was killed by a mine in Vietnam in 1967.
Writing in 1965, in the early stages of large-scale American deployment of troops, Fall noted that the war had already become “depersonalized and, to a large extent, dehumanized.” “It is a brutal war,” Fall continued, “and already, in what may loosely be termed the ‘American period’ [of Indochinese conflict], the dead are near a quarter million, with perhaps another half million people seriously maimed.”
“A truly staggering amount of civilians are getting killed or maimed in this war,” Fall concluded, illustrating his point by recounting an air raid he had accompanied that destroyed a Vietnamese fishing village.
By later standards (massive bombing by B-52s in Arc Light attacks), the air raid Fall witnessed, consisting of A-1 Skyraiders carrying napalm and fragmentation bombs, was small. But don’t tell that to the Vietnamese fishing village that was utterly destroyed in this “small” raid. As Fall recounts, the village may or may not have been harboring a Viet Cong unit. If it had been harboring a VC unit, it may have done so unwillingly, and that VC unit may have already moved along by the time the Skyraiders appeared overhead. No matter. The village and villagers were burnt, blown apart, and strafed. A U.S. official report recorded that a VC rest center “had been successfully destroyed.”
Such indiscriminate attacks convinced Fall that the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed. This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”
But even more worryingly for Fall was that “The incredible thing about Vietnam is that the worst is yet to come,” a tragically prescient statement.
And the worst might be represented by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell. As the commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.” Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”):
Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers. This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line. In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month. Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”
In a war in which commanding generals rewarded American troops for generating high enemy body count and punished those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy, small wonder that Vietnam became an American killing field and a breeding ground for atrocity.
Bernard Fall ended his powerful article on an ambiguous note. After having talked to a lot of Americans in Vietnam, he noted he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”
In Vietnam, the U.S. used immoderate means, often with wanton disregard for the lives or livelihood of the Vietnamese people, in pursuit of ill-defined ends. Echoing Fall’s words, we pursued open-ended devastation for no clear purpose with little regard to moral responsibility.
We lost more than a war in Vietnam. We lost our humanity.