Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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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.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Passing Scene--January 21, 2010

Just documenting the passing scene--in Bremerton, Washington--on January 21, 2010:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Tiger Papa Three" Revisited

[A Papa Three Popular Force soldier, summer, 1967]
A British Ph.D. candidate found my Combined Action Vietnam memoir, "Tiger Papa Three," and asked if I thought my experience had been "exceptional."  He also asked how Vietnam-style combined action compares to the current Provincial Reconstruction Team approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I thought I would share my response.  --EFP 

Dear Craig Wood,
       Thank you very much for your interest and your kind words about my CAP memoir.  I suppose I am an iconoclast when it comes to the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program in Vietnam. To be sure, some Combined Action platoons were more successful than Papa Three. The best measure of that success, I've come to realize, is how often and how aggressively they were attacked.  But many of those who celebrate, and even romanticize, the Combined Action Program tend to ignore or minimize some of the cultural and political realities of that time and place.
       First, the fact that villagers and Popular Force soldiers could be superficially friendly didn't necessarily mean that they were on our side.  The Viet Cong infrastructure was well-entrenched and pervasive throughout the countryside in Vietnam.  It had been there, in a dormant stage at least, since the First Indochina War, and it certainly came to life again with our entry into the war.  As we came to realize at Papa Three, the villagers and even our PFs had made their accommodations with that infrastructure.  They may not have all been enthusiastic supporters of that infrastructure, but many of its members may have been their friends and neighbors.  The reality was that our PFs had to live among the local VC, and we couldn't protect them once they went home. 
       Now, in hindsight, I can hardly blamed our PFs for refusing to patrol with us.  A pop culture allusion/analogy comes to mind.  In the film "Chinatown," someone asks Jack Nicholson's character what he did as a policeman in Chinatown.  His answer:  "As little as possible."  I imagine that's the way our PFs felt. I know that's the way many of us felt--if we're honest with ourselves.  We found ourselves caught up in an inscrutable (pardon the cliché) cultural contest.  When you don't even understand the game, much less feel that you can win it, it's better to try to sit it out.
        In later life, at an academic conference, a Vietnamese woman told me that my cultural insights were sound.  She told me that, even though she is Vietnamese and speaks the language, she couldn't go into a strange village and expect to be taken into anyone's confidence.  That traditional Vietnamese culture was insular and xenophobic.  How could we expect to know what was going on in the villages to which we were assigned? 
        Second, an absence of enemy contact didn't necessarily mean that a village was "pacified."  As we discovered at Papa Three, that VC infrastructure was a highly disciplined organization that could bide its time so as not to jeopardize the larger strategy.         
        Third, to my fellow CAP veterans who romanticize the program, I have always posed this question: If the program really was successful in winning the hearts and minds of villagers and PFs, why did none of these supposed allies tip us off about the impending Tet Offensive.  We now know that the VC infrastructure was helping with the NVA infiltration and the logistics of the offensive.  I have to believe that we, the Americans, were the last to know.      
        This is not to say that we couldn't and shouldn't have done better at Papa Three.  The problem was that we really weren't given enough of a cultural and historical orientation.  As I believe I pointed out in "Tiger Papa Three," the guiding premise of the program was that young Americans are inherently likeable and could win over the people.  The Marine Corps ignored the cultural conditioning of my generation and even the realities of our military indoctrination.  Most young Americans in those days were raised in an atmosphere of pervasive racism--influencing our attitudes toward Asian people as well as people of color.  Our military indoctrination likewise reinforced the prejudice that Asian people were inferior and couldn't be trusted.  It was a tall order to take those same, largely uneducated young Marines and expect them to be culturally sensitive ambassadors in green.
        As for the current conflicts, I see one important advantage that today's military enjoys.  I think that the current generation of young soldiers and Marines are much more tolerant of multiculturalism and diversity than we were. That has to help.  Also, I am told that they are getting much more of a cultural indoctrination than we got.  Finally, I understand that the PRTs represent a much more comprehensive and larger scale, coordinated effort than the Combined Action Program of old.  Our great liability, as I've written, was that Combined Action was very much an enlightened gesture of dissent against a search-and-destroy strategy that clearly wasn't working and which would ultimately prove to be self-defeating. The Marine Corps was very much going it alone, with little help or encouragement from other agencies. 
       On the other hand, I do see the same disconnect happening in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved self-defeating in Vietnam.  Every time a Predator drone strike kills 15 civilians and maybe one bad guy, we have, in effect, created more VC/Moslem extremists than we killed.  As William Lederer long ago tried to remind us, iin his book Our Own Worst Enemy, in a counterinsurgency, it’s the people that count. 
       And one other reservation comes to mind:  As I understand it, the Afghan government has even less influence and control over the people in the countryside than the late South Vietnamese government had over its people.  I'm told that it's very much a tribal society and another highly insular culture.  Can we really win hearts and minds among the  Afghan people, especially when we don't have the means to provide physical security for all those tribes dispersed throughout a country larger than Vietnam? 
        But, in all fairness, I only know what I've read and been told about Iraq and Afghanistan.  Note that I am copying Chuck Armstrong on this message.  Chuck Armstrong is a retired Marine colonel and a counterinsurgency specialist who has been involved in preparing Marines for the current conflicts.  He has also gone to Iraq and Afghanistan--several times, as I understand it.  Chuck could tell you much more than I could about how the current PRT approach is working. 
        Note that I have also copied Larry Scroggs, who served with me at Papa Three and who also served in a more successful CAP platoon.  Larry and I don't always agree on the effectiveness and legacy of the program, but he is one of the CAP veterans who deals in well-informed reasoned opinion. 
        I think you would find both Larry and Chuck both to be helpful.  Sorry to go on at such length, but I found this to be a welcome distraction from the online teaching I should be doing this morning.  Thanks again for contacting me, and good luck with your dissertation. 
Ed Palm

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Death of an "Ugly American"

Late last week, I learned that William J. Lederer, co-author of the highly influential polemic The Ugly American (1958) died on December 5.  He was 97.
       A retired Navy captain before he became a best-selling author, Lederer will be buried at Arlington on February 16.
       I interviewed Lederer in Peacham, Vermont, on June 27, 1996.  (I took this photo on that occasion.)  He was generally reluctant to grant interviews by then; The Ugly American had been credited with making our Vietnam involvement seem like a national imperative--a charge Lederer vehemently denied.  But I shamelessly pulled out the old Naval Service tie.  I introduced myself as a Vietnam veteran and retired Marine major turned academic, and Lederer agreed to see me.
       Through that interview, and by combing through his papers at the University of Massachusetts, I came to understand that Lederer's legacy was the Peace Corps, not the Vietnam War.  If Lederer was "ugly," it was in the ironically good sense of the title character of his book--a man who isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and live and work with the people of a developing nation on their own terms.  He was not one of truly "ugly Americans" who isolate themselves in American enclaves abroad and look down on the "natives."
      Lederer's mentor was the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale.  Both men felt that worst thing we could do would be a large-scale military intervention in Vietnam.  As revealed in The Pentagon Papers, Lansdale had an unfortunate tendency to believe that the end justified the means.  (Behind the scenes in Vietnam, he engaged in a series of dirty tricks aimed at discrediting and vilifying the Communists.)  But in the main, Lansdale and Lederer both  advocated psychological warfare.  They understood that we couldn't force American values and ideas on the people of developing nations; we had to sell people on those ideas.  Lansdale proved to be an asset to the CIA precisely because his background was in advertising, not military affairs.  And Lederer was very much his faithful disciple.  The Ugly American is essentially the gospel according to Edward Lansdale.  --EFP

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thanking Veterans Revisited

(A portrait of the blogger as a young Combined Action Marine, Vietnam, August [?], 1967]
My former colleague and friend Josh Bellin has written a wonderfully intelligent and provocative rejoinder to my piece "The Veterans Are Coming!, the Veterans Are Coming":  http://bellsyells.blogspot.com/2010/01/thank-you-for-your-service.html
     In the main, I think Josh is right.  You really can't judge a soldier's service apart from the cause in which he or she serves.  A few years ago, I made the same point about my war--the original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time":  http://www.seattlepi.com/opinion/255016_hero10.html   I was surprised at the time that no brickbats came my way in response to this piece (so I'll invite some now).
      My only quibble with Josh's position is that, for most of us, life just doesn't admit such moral clarity.  Three passages from Graham Greene's seminal Vietnam novel The Quiet American have always struck a resonant chord with me:
      It's not a matter of reason and justice.  We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. [The observation of a French pilot.]
     Yes, but you must wager.  It is not optional.  You are embarked.  [The observation of a French policeman.]
     Sooner or later . . . one has to take sides.  If one is to remain human.  [a Vietminh agent]
    Greene's moral vision is essentially akin to the epiphany Shakespeare's Hamlet has in Act IV, Scene iv, when he sees Fortinbras' army dutifully marching off to fight and die in a senseless cause--to settle the question of this straw," as Hamlet puts it.  To expect all of life to make sense, Hamlet finally realizes, is to drive yourself insane.  To be human is to need to belong, and that need, for better or worse, often outweighs whatever scruples we may, or should, have.  --EFP

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Cold War Revisited

(The "Hummers' Parade" [a parody of the Philadelphia Mummers' Parade], Middletown, DE, Jan. 1, 2002)
Just this morning, on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulis, I heard an administration official claim that, despite the ability of a known Islamic extremist to board an American airliner on Christmas day, our intelligence agencies have indeed learned the lessons of 9/11 and that they are now"connecting the dots."  
        Something about this morning's reassurance recalls those wonderful Civil Defense films of the mid-1950s.  As I recall, those films typically started off showcasing the impressive abilities of our air-defense missiles and jet interceptors.  But, then, the narrator would admit that, despite our best efforts, some Russian bombers would get through and that it was up to all of us to be ready.
        Once again, I guess, the more things change . . . .

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Larry on the U.S. Postal Service and Rush on U.S. Heath Care

[This year's Christmas card, featuring my shot of the Bremerton - Seattle Ferry in winter.]
I recently received this message from my friend and fellow Combined Action Marine Larry Scroggs:

Thanks for your Christmas card which I received today. I notice it was postmarked 12/19. It only took 11 days to get here from Washington. Coincidentally, the same time it took the Pony Express to ride from Missouri to California in 1860. Don't you just love the progress the United States Postal Service has made in the last 150 years. I can hardly wait until the government takes over our health care. Thinking about it just gives me the warm fuzzies all over. (grin)
Semper Fi

I don't agree with Larry's conclusion, but I admire his wit.  
      I am reminded of the conclusion Rush Limbaugh drew from his recent reminder of his own mortality--that "there is nothing wrong with the U.S. health care system."  Of course not--for those who have Rush's means.