Wednesday, 18 November 2015 14:12

Thoughts on Vietnam and Iraq

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Thoughts on Vietnam and Iraq

Bob Carroll

Bob Carroll is a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army. He is a 1962 graduate of West Point. He held command positions in Vietnam, Colorado, and Germany. He taught leadership at West Point and later, in the Pentagon, was in charge of the Army's Leader Development Program.

A friend asked me for my thoughts about the movie Redacted, a recently premiered movie about war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and a critical review of the movie by Bob McMahon, an Army First Lieutenant in 1968 in Vietnam and currently Treasurer and Co-Executive Director of the Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation [the review can be found at:]. Because the reviewer commented on anti-war movies of the Vietnam era, I have included some thoughts on Vietnam and Iraq.

First, I haven't seen, and most likely will not see, Redacted. I was too pained and insulted by Platoon, best picture in 1986 (13 years after the U.S. left Vietnam) to see any more of its ilk. On the one hand, Platoon was grippingly real in its detail, from which it gained credibility. On the other hand, Oliver Stone crammed into two hours every bad thing that happened to every Infantry platoon over a ten-year period. It was a horrible portrayal of officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), totally failing in leadership, ethics, and judgment. It was a war without control, conscience, or compassion.

The duty of officers and NCOs is to insure passions of war (especially fear, hatred, and revenge) are kept under control. I well remember requiring our men, totally exhausted after a battle and after caring for our own dead and wounded, to bury the enemy dead. It was a task required, not desired. I also well remember keeping a young female enemy soldier under guard at my company command post over night because l wanted to insure that this prisoner of war was not raped, and my command post was the safest place for her. She was about 18, unarmed, carrying water to an enemy base camp. Civilian or enemy? This is the conundrum our soldiers face in insurgencies.

Looking more broadly at the deluge of anti-war movies post-Vietnam, there clearly was a characterization of demented warriors. This followed a decade or so of anti-war sentiment that targeted the soldier, not the Washington politician, who sent the soldier to war. I again have vivid memories of being treated as less than human in a masters program at Northwestern University in 1968. The man/woman in uniform became the face of the war and the focus of disdain. And it was extremely painful. Our generation had no parades. There was no heart-wrenching story published about a friend of mine who survived -- barely -- an AK 47 round to his head and now lives in Englewood with about two-thirds of his previous mental ability.

Most vets I know have gotten on with their lives; Some continued for a full career in the Army (I know retired Command Sergeants Major, Captains, Colonels, and four-star Generals). Others got out and had careers in business (I know a bus driver, a real-estate broker, a venture capitalist, and the founder of America On Line.) Most of my contacts do not dwell on Vietnam.

But some Vietnam vets are still in anguish over what they had to go through. The hurt is deep. The reviewer of the film, McMahon, is among the group that has dedicated most of their lives to some form of "righting" of what occurred to them. It was a tough war. It enjoyed very little support at home. And it was lost. The fact that what happened on American streets and in Congress contributed to that loss does not erase the pain of losing. I personally believe the anti-war movies came later and were not a contributing factor in the loss of the war.

The armed forces, as a major institution in our country, was very badly wounded by all this. In the aftermath of the war, as we entered the era of the all-volunteer force, the U.S. Army was still plagued with serious problems of racial division, drug use, and poor morale and discipline. I am proud to have played a small role in the 1970s and 1980s in pulling the Army up by its bootstraps to the point where General Schwarzkopf's forces could be so amazingly successful.

As I transition now to the war in Iraq, don't underestimate this power of success. One of MacArthur's famous lines is, "There is no substitute for victory." I am in the camp of "Winning is more important than withdrawing."

It appears the war on the ground in Iraq is turning in our favor. This is great news and very important for the Armed Forces, our country, and of course the Iraqis. (Hopefully the Iraqi political reconciliation will make some headway.) I listed the Armed Forces first in the above sentence, because our nation is not at war. The Army and the Marine Corps are at war. Granted our significant funding of the Iraq war has impacted the federal budget, but most Americans have not paid any price. I fault Bush for this. Look what Roosevelt did to mobilize support for WW II, with the help of Pearl Harbor. But Bush had his own Pearl Harbor. Contrast our current Army troop strength and the resultant multiple tours with General George Marshall's spectacular expansion of a weak and ill-equipped Army in 1939 to over 8 million in 1942, a 40-fold increase in three years!

And with all the focus on casualties, don't fail to put into perspective, even though each death is tragic and very personal, the relative battle deaths in American wars:

Revolutionary: 4,435

War of 1812: 2,000

Indian: 1,000 (approx., although I don't think they counted Indians!)

Mexican: 1,733

Civil War: 214,938 (Union and Confederate)

Spanish American: 385

WW I: 53,402

WW II: 291,557

Korea: 33,741

Vietnam: 47,424

Gulf War I: 147

Afghanistan/lraq: 4,000 (approx.)

And I find it encouraging that the Bush/Crocker/Petraeus game plan appears to be breeding success, and includes significant troop withdrawals by voting time next year (Nov. 2008). My own view is that this will neutralize the anti-war proposals and make any difference between Republican and Democratic strategies in Iraq very small. This means the main issue in the next Presidential election may be the economy.

But this is not my issue, nor is Iraq. I believe we are faced with a multigenerational war with Islamic Fundamentalists. Harvard's Sam Huntington's 1996 The Clash of Civilizations is a must read! As the Annapolis peace talks get under way, I happen to think this is a hugely important endeavor that impacts our broader war against radical Islamists, because the U.S. marriage with the State of Israel is such a rallying cry for the 1.3 billion Muslims across the world. We can't, and would never try to, reduce the number of Muslims. (In fact they are expanding faster than any other civilization.) But we must reduce the number of radical Muslims. And that requires much more than an extremely effective Armed Forces.

A final plug for universal service: The all-volunteer force is amazing. My hat is off to each and every one of our volunteer service members. And it is not just the fighting combatants. Every person who wears, or wore, the uniform is a hero in my book! But America is estranged from its fighting force. A profile would show that service men and women come disproportionately from a middle slice of our socio-economic distribution. Not the very poor; they aren't educated enough. Not the rich; they aren't induced by the bonuses. Not the very bright; Harvard grads don't enlist, even to go to officer candidate school. Mostly the services are populated by patriotic families with ties going back several generations from rural or small towns across America. I believe large-scale service to our country in a myriad of ways would solve a lot of our national problems that need help. And this would do wonders for the pride, patriotism, and discipline of our youth. *

"The work an unknown good man has done is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground, secretly making the ground green." --Thomas Carlyle

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