("Patriotic Caddy," Smyrna, Delaware, December, 2005)Back in the mid-eighties, when I was the Marine Officer Instructor with the Naval ROTC unit at Berkeley, a fellow officer offered a bit of unsolicited advice about my past service. “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” my colleague cautioned, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.” He was right. The military in those days seemed intent on dismissing Vietnam as an aberration and a predominantly political failure with no relevance to how we might fight future wars.
Last Sunday’s coordinated attack in Afghanistan, which claimed 8 American lives, suggests that the military is still refusing to heed the lessons of Vietnam and that today’s soldiers and Marines are doomed to repeat that sad history. In its coverage of the attack, the CBS Evening News included an animation, complete with a 3-D look at the terrain. I was appalled to see that this isolated American outpost, manned by only 140 soldiers, was situated in a narrow valley. The Taliban was firing down on the outpost from the high ground on at least two sides. What was the brass thinking in placing these soldiers in such an untenable tactical situation? Does the name "Dien Bien Phu" still mean anything to anyone in the Pentagon?
I am referring, of course, to the disastrous 1954 defeat that ended the First Indochina War. The French, thinking they would lure the Viet Minh out into the open, established a large base—a series of outposts, actually—in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, which also happened to be ringed by high mountains. The French commander assumed that the Viet Minh would never be able to bring any heavy weapons into those mountains. He assumed wrong. The Viet Minh disassembled and carried their artillery pieces up into the mountains, piece by piece. Deadly artillery fire began to rain down on the French outposts, and the rest is history.
I certainly cannot claim to be a tactician, but as first an enlisted Marine and later an officer, I learned that securing and holding the high ground was key to success. What was the point, then, in establishing that outpost in such a vulnerable position? It was one small outpost in one ravine among many in those mountains. It certainly could not have impeded, in any significant sense, the infiltration of Taliban fighters coming down from their mountain hideouts. Likewise, I can’t believe that it could yield any important intelligence. Perhaps the point was to establish a base from which we could launch patrols. But, again, I know from Vietnam that there is a better way to do that than by making sitting ducks of small units in static bases. What about “air mobility”? We used it extensively in Vietnam—sometimes to good effect.
If the whole point was simply to draw enemy fire—to lure them out in the open—I would again remind the military that it was a bad idea at Dien Bien Phu. It didn’t work out so well at Khe Sahn either. One could argue, of course, that using a small unit as bait paid off last Sunday in Afghanistan. We lost 8, the Taliban 50—so we won! Perhaps, but how would you like to have been one of the soldiers considered expendable in order to achieve such a victory? Again, I have to believe that there are better ways to do it.
There is no doubt about. Leaving aside the larger issue of whether we really do need to stay the course in Afghanistan, we certainly need a new strategy. In the meanwhile, look for lots of hemming and hawing and excuses a-plenty. As one of my favorite Vietnam writers once observed, “There is nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war.” --EFP