Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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Forest, Virginia, 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.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vietnam Revisited--by Way of Afghanistan

("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


Larry Scroggs said...

Ed when I was in Viet Nam I knew little of the history of the French forces who had preceded us. I always thought it was odd that we set up our outpost at Papa 3 next to an old French army concrete bunker on Highway 9. Why were we emulating a military force that had lost?
After I left Viet Nam I read several histories of the French conflict there and it became clear to me that we were just repeating the tactics that had been so woefully inadequate for the French. I failed to understand how our military and political leaders, who were supposed to be so knowledgeable, could not see what I as a lowly enlisted man could see. We were simply repeating the mistakes of the French. We were certainly using more men and munitions and we were executing the strategy with more gusto but the core tactics were the same. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same also.
I fear it is a propensity of large organizations, be they military, political, governmental, or industrial, to ignore history. Otherwise, why would the leaders of these organizations not learn the lessons of history and continue to repeat the unsuccessful actions of the past? Unfortunately the statement by George Santayana rings true in perpetuity: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Fortunateson said...

I just finished reading Bernard Fall's "Hell in a Very Small Place" as well as The Ugly American" and Robert Pisors sort of watered down account of KheSahn "The End of the Line". The one common thread in all of these accounts, a thread that extends to the Afghanistan incident Major Palm mentioned is this. First; poor tactical decision. The WWII song says "...take the high ground and hold it." These other choices were take the low ground and hold on. Secondly in all three cases the "good guys" underestimated the enemies ability and felt they had a technical or logistical advantage that compensated for the poor tactical choice. Air support and air superiority being the two main "advantages". Being re-supplied at Khe Sahn (when the weather was cooperating) ended in a suicide mission for us on the ground who had to go out and retrieve the pallets of supplies. We were sitting ducks for the enemy rocket launchers high in the hills, that air support couldn't see because we were socked in by fog. The NVA gunners already had fields of fire they established in clear weather and merely had to fire for effect. That's all I'm going to say for now or I will go on forever.

Semper Fi