Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Bremerton, Washington, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Current Column

ED PALM | Vietnam's anniversary and modern memory

By Ed Palm
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Back in the mid-eighties, an Army officer of my acquaintance succinctly summed up the mood of the post-Vietnam military: “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” he observed, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.” He was right. He had intuited the largely unspoken but widely understood politically correct attitude toward our humiliating defeat. Vietnam had been an aberration, the kind of war we would never fight again. And the less said about it, the better.

Ironically, this same spirit of denial and revision has spread to American society in general in recent years. It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s America, so long as you remember that war the way Reagan portrayed it, as a “noble crusade,” and so long as you profess utter admiration for our Armed Forces and unwavering support for our current crusades.

April being the month in which Saigon finally fell, marking the end of our Vietnam misadventure, I’m devoting this column to the Vietnam War I remember. It was anything but a “noble crusade.” It was a profoundly existential experience. Survival was the only moral touchstone and getting through to our rotation tour dates the only goal we cared about. All the Marines I knew “in country” were profoundly skeptical of the official rationales for why we were there and increasingly embittered by the reluctance of the South Vietnamese to fight their own war.

My fellow Vietnam veterans seem to have forgotten how traumatized we were about all this. We have been co-opted, bought off with belated handshakes and glib expressions of gratitude. We have forgotten what really occasioned all the bitterness and fueled the post-traumatic stress of our generation.

It wasn’t that the country failed to welcome us home or to honor our service with parades. It was the discovery that our leaders had lied to us about the nature and the necessity of the war and that the conduct of the war put the lie to the ideals and values in which we had all been raised to believe.
Would that we all knew then what we know now. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. Early on, he had appealed to us to help dissuade France from reclaiming its former colony at the end of World War II. But we needed France’s help in blocking communist expansion in Europe, and the ensuing Cold War clouded our judgment. We feared falling dominoes. By 1950, we were mired in Korea and bankrolling France’s Indochina War. With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we took over. We sent in intelligence operatives to subvert the Geneva Accords, especially the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam under whichever government the majority chose. Having defeated the French, Ho Chi Minh was the hands-down favorite to win. The South Vietnamese president we had installed, Ngo Dinh Diem, was almost as alien to his own people as we were. Ho Chi Minh had cornered the market on Vietnamese nationalism, and out in the countryside, most of the people seemed to want no part in what we were selling.

What’s worse, once we had taken over in our own right, we began to take that indifference personally. Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t forced to fight with one hand tied behind our back. We unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II. We declared free-fire zones. We defoliated large areas with Agent Orange. We made liberal use of close air-support and indirect fire weapons with little regard for the so-called “collateral damage” such weapons inevitably inflict. Racists that we were, we dehumanized the Vietnamese as “gooks” and “slopes.” Unable to distinguish friend from foe, we viewed them all as potential threats. Hence, the worst atrocity of the war — the My Lai Massacre. Hell hath no fury like a country scorned, especially one that considers itself to be exceptional and eminently deserving of admiration and emulation.

This not to say that, because we were wrong, the other side was wholly righteous. They resorted to terror. They mistreated our POWs. They were hardly magnanimous in victory. But the irony is that we seem to have won after all.

Vietnam today is what we had tried to make it — a free market consumer society. The tragedy of it is that over 50,000 Americans and some 2 million Vietnamese had to die just so that Vietnam could get there on its own timetable rather than ours.

So how then should those of us who served in Vietnam feel about participating in such an unnecessary and misguided war? And how should our country feel about us? Stay tuned. I hope to answer those questions in my next column.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Canadian and U.S. Veterans

We were in Canada a couple weeks ago--as it so happened, just when Canada was bringing its troops back from Afghanistan.  One of the related news items I noted was a move on the part of Canadian veterans to change Canada's law regarding disabled veterans.  Apparently, Canada no longer gives disabled veterans a lifetime pension; they give a disabled veteran a lump-sum payment.  Canadian veterans are trying to reinstate the pension.  It occurred to me that this is one of the things we have in common with Canada.  We have a relatively small all-volunteer professional force; they have a small all-volunteer professional force.  Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, people in the U.S. and in Canada don't much care what becomes of mercenaries. 

Could We Have Won in Vietnam?

The question of whether we could have won in Vietnam is one that continues to haunt us as Vietnam veterans. I'm addressing this issue in a revision of my Vietnam memoir, "Tiger Papa Three" (first published in "Marine Corps Gazette" and reprinted in my web site, www.edwardfpalm.com). This is an excerpt from that revision. --EFP
. . . . a long time ago, back when my generation too thought “freedom was on the march,” I got caught up in something extraordinary. Through a combination of chance and circumstance, I became a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam.

Like most of the pacification and nation-building programs we tried in Vietnam, the Combined Action Program was grounded in the neo-imperial presupposition that, deep down inside, the Vietnamese were just like us and that by merely associating with us they would adopt our cultural values and ideals. But on the plus side, the Marine Corps at least deserves high marks for recognizing the importance of the insurgency that supported the North Vietnamese maneuver units the Army was obsessed with defeating. The Marine Corps further recognized that the only way to wage a successful counterinsurgency was to seduce the people away from the other side.

Hence, as early as 1965, without the support or even the consent of the Army, which was running the show in Vietnam, the Marine Corps began to experiment with sending small groups of Marines out to train and patrol alongside Vietnamese “Popular Force” soldiers in their home villages. In fairly short order, the Corps’ leadership recognized the potential intelligence advantages and the certain public relations value of combined action and decided to regularize the program. Throughout their area of operation, Northern I-Corps, the Marines formed permanent combined action companies, each of which established garrisons in a number of villages. Thus was the Combined Action Program—“CAP” for short—born.

What made CAP unique was not just the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Vietnamese and their culture but also the extraordinary degree of trust and confidence the program reposed in young enlisted Marines. There were no officers out in the “villes.”

On the Marine side, the typical Combined Action Platoon, or “CAP,” consisted of 12 enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman. The ranking member and compound leader was usually a sergeant, and given the way Vietnam had accelerated the promotion process, most of the compound leaders were still on their first enlistment and were not career Marines.

On the Vietnamese side was a platoon of Popular Force soldiers. Popular Forces were roughly analogous to our national guard, except that they were not nearly as well trained, equipped, or disciplined as our national guardsmen. An irregular component of the Army of South Vietnam that the French, under our tutelage, had formed in order to put a Vietnamese face on their imperialism, Popular Forces were part-time soldiers who served in their home villages under the direction of the village chief.

Popular Forces were part of the fiction we all subscribed to back then, which was that the enemy was alien to the people of South Vietnam and won their support mainly through fear and intimidation. Most of didn’t know that South Vietnam had been our creation and that we had encouraged the man we had put in place, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to renege on the plebiscite that would have reunited North and South Vietnam in 1956 under whichever form of government the people chose, democracy or communism.

We didn’t know that the term “Vietcong” was our coinage and that, insofar as the people were concerned, we were fighting the same nationalist forces who had forced the withdraw of our French predecessors in 1954. We didn’t know that the same clandestine network that had waged guerrilla war against the French, and which had helped hide and supply the People’s Army of Vietnam, was still latent in the villages and the back allies of the cities.

We didn’t know that America had bankrolled that First Indochina War and had even convinced France to stay the course when they were ready to throw in the towel after a disastrous ambush in 1950.

But the Vietnamese knew. They knew they had struggled against Chinese domination for a thousand years and eventually prevailed. They knew they had struggled against French domination for a hundred years and that the French had eventually tired of the struggle and gone home. They knew that we had seized on the French departure as an opportunity to remake South Vietnam over into our image, thereby demonstrating the superiority of our way of life over communism.

They knew, or they would come to know, that we believed the end to justify the means and that the right of self-determination didn’t apply to them. We knew what was best for them—or we thought we did. They knew they could count on the spirit of Vietnamese nationalism, and on the longstanding xenophobia of their people, to outlast our half-hearted and half-baked commitment to “nation building.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Cold Warrior of the Old School

I got an interesting reply to my last post on the "Vietnam and Politics" FB page. One Vietnam veteran argues that all Ho Chi Minh's overtures to us during and shortly after World War II were just a "ploy"--a dirty communist trick to hide his real motives and affiliation. Shades of the "Red Menace": You can take the boy out of the Cold War but you just can't take the Cold War out of the boy! What else can I say?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rappelling: Camp Pendleton and Quantico, 1989, 1992

My Column for March 30, 2014

ED PALM | Standards and the new SAT

By Ed Palm
Saturday, March 29, 2014 

This column may get me labeled a “reactionary” — an extreme conservative committed to the status quo and opposed to social progress or change. That is because I’m wondering if the College Board would consider “reactionary” to be “esoteric” and would therefore exclude it from the new Scholastic Achievement Test.

I’ll reserve final judgment until the sample questions are released in April, but the new name alone gives me pause. The College Board has given up on trying to measure the aptitude for higher education — always a tricky business. Instead, they are going to try measuring achievement — what students have actually learned in high school. The promise is that the test will now be “relevant.” The problem is that students are not learning nearly what our college-bound students used to learn in high school. Even more troubling, I have to wonder if the new SAT represents a surrender to the sliding standards that have placed American education 17th among the developed countries of the world.

As it now stands, 20 percent of college freshmen nationwide have to start their college careers by taking remedial English or math or both. The percentage is closer to 50 percent in community colleges and uncompetitive state college campuses. Ask any professor if he or she considers today’s college freshmen to be as well prepared as those of his or her day. I certainly don’t. The majority of the students I taught in recent years had trouble with close reading and with constructing a reasonable line of argument.

One of the promises of the new SAT, of course, is that the reading selections and essay will address these problems. If so, I’ll endorse it. But I’m also troubled by the implication that the test will focus on the skills that students need to succeed in college today. And college, frankly, is not what it used to be. Over the years, in teaching English, my colleagues and I had to scale back on the amount of reading we assigned and the amount of in-class writing we required.

I personally have observed a telling example of how educational standards have slipped in my lifetime. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have reconnected with three former Marines I served with in Vietnam. We correspond regularly by email. Two of us went on to college; the other two did not. But they are high school graduates, and they write better than many of the students I’ve taught in recent years. When we were young, moreover, virtually all Marines wrote coherent letters — not 140-character tweets or abbreviated text messages. We used to be able to count on high school graduates to be reasonably literate. Don’t bet on that today.

Another promise of the new test is that it will emphasize the sort of vocabulary commonly used in college courses — words such as “synthesis and empirical,” according to the board’s own website. All well and good, but I hope they don’t jettison the verbal analogies of old. A student ready for college, for instance, ought to be able to tell that reactionary is to progressive as conservative is to liberal. But I wouldn’t bet on that either.

The sort of analogy I just shared is predicated upon some familiarity with the political context in which the terms are commonly used — giving students from privileged backgrounds a clear advantage over underprivileged minorities. The College Board is now promising to level the playing field. The new test is being billed as free of cultural bias, but to what degree?

In my experience, as a former professor, a student who is largely ignorant of current events and of the issues dividing our country is not ready for college. A case in point would be the former student I mentioned in a past column — the one who thought Israel had attacked us on 9/11.

As the news reports have indicated, more and more colleges and universities are no longer requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. I do understand and support their rationale. No standardized test can make a completely accurate assessment of a student’s academic potential. Admissions officers should and do take a holistic approach. But a convenient collusion born of enlightened self-interest would also seem to be at play here. Our second- and third-tier institutions must compete, and settle, for today’s students as they find them. Organizations that design tests must accommodate that new reality or go out of business.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Doonesbury cartoons. It depicts a university president giving a commencement address and bragging that, unlike so many other colleges and universities, his has refused to lower its standards. I am proud, he says, that we have held firm.
The last panel depicts one lone graduate, amid a sea of empty chairs, saying, “Me too man!”