Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Larry Ray, was published by the Rag Blog, October 4, 2009
Forty three years ago as a young civilian correspondent and documentary filmmaker, I stepped off the plane in Saigon knowing nothing about the history of that country or its people, and little or nothing about why Americans were fighting and dying there. I had come to see the war of my time.
As a U.S. Navy veteran and young news anchor for a South Texas regional TV station it seemed a given that we were there to fight godless communism and that we were the good guys.
It was 1966 and WWII had been over for 21 years and hostilities in Korea had ceased in 1953. But Americans still saw our military and patriotism as Johnny marching home again to ticker tape parades. We had whipped the Nazis and the Japs, and fought the North Koreans and commie Chinese to a draw. Clearly American might was not to be messed with.
But by 1966 America's claim of winning an honorable peace in South Vietnam was being seriously challenged by seasoned journalists in both Saigon and Washington D.C.. About the time I arrived, Morley Safer filed his story showing our Marines using a zippo lighter to set fire to thatch roofed homes in a rural village on a "search and destroy" mission. His was perhaps the first story that Americans saw that suggested America was facing bleak prospects of victory. We damn sure were not winning hearts and minds.
After a few months of sitting through bogus U.S. military press briefings which we called the "five o'clock follies," and working with seasoned reporters from around the world, my Boy Scout naiveté disappeared. After a year of the outright lies and misrepresentations in Pentagon and White House press releases about things I had seen with my own eyes, my naiveté turned to a frustrated, simmering anger. An anger that was ultimately taken to the streets across America just a few years later.
Since the Vietnam War, accredited correspondents have no longer been allowed to freely move about and report on our wars. Reporters are now "embedded" within military units under their control and influence.
The parallels between America's disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia and our costly and ill-advised involvement in the Middle East have fired up that frustration and anger anew. This time opposition by the average American to requests for more troops in Afghanistan is getting louder before the new call for 40,000 more troops has even been approved.
Our involvement in Vietnam started in 1950. General Eisenhower's decision to send military advisers to help the South Vietnamese army was the start of a massive buildup of American troop strength which reached a high of 543,482 in 1969. In the early years in Vietnam the Pentagon was still using a set-piece, WWII battle mentality, and Communism was our new political devil. And this was a hot, sweaty jungle war with no front lines.
Very few Americans spoke or understood the sing-songy monosyllabic Vietnamese language. The history and dynamics of a very old country that had been at war in some form or another for more than a thousand years was lost on those tasked with guiding America's efforts there.
The fiercest battles were being secretly waged between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of State. The State Department's political and diplomatic findings were muzzled and marginalized. We bombed Hanoi while increasing numbers of young draftees and regular American troops were being slaughtered as they fought fiercely in unforgiving conditions for a cause they did not understand. Almost twice as many Vietnamese, insurgents as well as civilians, died from our bombs and bullets.
America's strong belief in the efficacy of power reasoned that if bombing our way to peace was not working, there was no need to consider diplomacy or a new approach. Clearly we only needed to drop more bombs, send in more troops and the enemy would finally give up. And that is just what we did. The generals called for increasing the enemy body count to achieve peace and allow us to return home with honor. And our politicians went right along with that reasoning.
We failed to appreciate that we were in the middle of a very old private fight between North and South. Intelligence showed early on that a majority in the South was ready for peace, even a communist style of peace, and most of all wanted the "long noses" who they saw as raining destruction down upon them to be driven out of their country. In Vietnam there ultimately was no victory and no honor for America. Today Vietnam is peaceful and prosperous and an important trading partner with the USA, just like our top trading partner, communist China.
The military might mentality was challenged early on by president John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 bucked extreme pressure from the Pentagon and within his own White House, and refused to order combat troops into Vietnam, limiting our presence there to military advisers. JFK listened not only to his top military brass, but also to his State Department, particularly undersecretary George Ball who predicted pretty much what eventually happened, except reality was worse than what he envisioned. After JFK's death his order halting combat troops was reversed by President Johnson, driven more by domestic politics than military necessity.
In Vietnam 58,000 American troops were killed, 155,192 were wounded or missing. The touted "domino effect" where all Southeast Asia would topple country after country to communism if we didn't win in Vietnam now is easy to see as so much expedient political hysteria.
The story is, of course, much more complex than this, but the bare bones are that politicians and military leaders refused to listen to the State Department and other foreign service experts who laid bare the corrupt leadership of South Vietnam, and pointed out that this was a long simmering internal war of insurgency with strong nationalistic roots. The actual communist Chinese or Soviet Russian interest in and backing of the war was extremely limited.
Our desire to strike back after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, combined the totally inept leadership of the George W. Bush administration with, once again, expedient political hysteria. First we launched an inadequately planned and then insufficiently supported attack upon al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda top officials escaped to protective sheltering by tribal supporters who had seen their country invaded by the British, the Soviet union, and now American and NATO troops.
Then, with political misinformation, outright lies, a cowed press and a Congress that asked few questions, our government launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9-11 attacks on the USA. This mad neo-conservative misadventure has had a massively destabilizing effect upon the Middle East and has bred more hatred for the USA and our military in the Arab world.
It has also unnecessarily stressed our military's ready troop strength and equipment readiness with 4,300 U.S. troops killed and more than 30,000 wounded and injured as of September 2009. Cost of the Iraq war is expected to surpass the $686 billion present day dollar value cost of the Vietnam war by year's end.
One of President Obama's first actions after taking office was to make good on his promise to get us out of Iraq, and that is now underway. Though the dynamics, politics, religion and leadership are totally different from Vietnam, Iraq, like Vietnam, will ultimately reach its own destiny without the forceful imposition of American ideas and politics upon its ancient culture. We eliminated its despotic leader, but its people still must sort through complex religious and ideological differences on its own and they may or may not decide to remain some sort of democracy.
Afghanistan is an even older and thornier problem. And one that cannot be bombed into submission. Afghanistan was first invaded by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The tribal warlords have never been successfully subdued. No "surge" of military troops will somehow completely overpower the zealotry of religious belief. Imagine foreign troops invading America trying to subdue and forcibly control ultra-orthodox elements of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church, because they saw them as bad for the American people.
Afghanistan has never had organized, cohesive governance and is today just a fragile step away from becoming a failed state like Somalia. That is why it was an ideal location for Bin Laden to train his al Qaeda fighters. The American figurehead Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has become a real problem for the U.S. as well as NATO. We had hoped, with our backing, he could somehow unify the disparate tribes flung through the mountains and badlands into a proud democracy.
But such dreams have been jarred by the reality of a Karzai-rigged national election with rampant vote tampering and voter intimidation. Karzai is no better than the warlords we want him to pull together. Karzai has now distanced himself from his American minders and has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
Now we want to send in a massive number of new troops and equipment to somehow again "win hearts and minds" and drive out the Taliban with brute force.
While the Taliban have no designs upon terror against America or any of the other NATO nations now with troops in the country, they operate as brutal criminals in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. An increased armed American presence there is a daily irritant to Afghans, as well as neighboring rogue areas of Pakistan caught between foreign troops who often cannot tell the difference between peaceful civilians and the Taliban.
Once more we are fighting a war where troops do not speak the language or understand the people and are tasked with fighting often in 130º heat. The goal of preventing Afghanistan from again becoming an al Qaeda terrorist training ground cannot be accomplished by bombing the country into submission. This is a complicated political, diplomatic and sociological challenge.
President Obama, in office less than a year, just like JFK, must soon make a decision regarding the politically charged prospect of approving or disapproving more troops being called for by a top military general. I hope he is aware of the assessment of others who have tried to subdue this ragged country:
“Afghanistan taught us an invaluable lesson . . . It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force. We should have helped the people of Afghanistan in improving their life, but it was a gross mistake to send troops into the country.”– Retired Red Army General Boris Gromov
This article, by Harvey Wassereman, was published by the Rag Blog, October 24, 2009
Some military coups are still done the old-fashioned way. Tanks surround the capital, generals grab the radio station, the slaughter begins.
Here, the Declaration of Independence scorned King George III for elevating his army over our colonial legislatures. The founders opposed a standing army. Our first Commander George Washington warned against military entanglements. So did Dwight Eisenhower nearly two centuries later. These "quaint" monuments to civilian rule form the core of our constitutional culture.
So when the Pentagon wants to trash inconvenient opposition and escalate yet another war, it seeks subtler means. For example: the "virtual coup" now being staged in league with the New York Times, aimed at plunging us catastrophically deeper into Afghanistan.
It's how they drove us into the abyss in Vietnam and Iraq. It demands we decide who will rule -- the Pentagon, or the public.
It was the military's manipulative misreporting in Vietnam that fueled Lyndon Johnson's 1965 disastrous escalation. With the much-medalled William Westmoreland front and center, the Pentagon concocted a non-existent attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, warned that a communist victory would bring on the Apocalypse, told LBJ he could win, and ran its occupation army up to 550,000 troops.
When its last advisors fled in shame off that Saigon rooftop, the Pentagon blamed those who had opposed the war from the start. It assaulted the heroic independent reporters who exposed the war's true horrors. It even attacked the corporate media that had been its willing partner in the war's creation.
To its credit, the Times broke from its early support, making welcome history by publishing the Pentagon Papers, among much else. As today, it published opposing views all the way through.
But its big guns enlisted again in Iraq. The Bush Administration needed no convincing, but the American public did. Led by warhawk cheerleaders Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller, the Journal of Record sold a war based on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Dick Cheney's "grateful" Iraqi citizenry, both of which were non-existent.
Today central casting has brought us Stanley McChrystal to rerun the role of Westmoreland/Cheney. Now the hero of an endless stream of hauntingly familiar puff pieces, the General's carefully leaked "secret" demand for "a bare minimum" of 40,000 more troops to avoid "mission failure" has become the ultimate blackmail note, the core of a virtual coup in the making.
It comes as the Times concocts a report on "frustrations and anxiety [that] are on the rise within the military." Among “active duty and retired senior officers” there is "concern that the president is moving too slowly, is revisiting a war strategy he announced in March and is unduly influenced by political advisers in the Situation Room."
"Unduly influenced by political advisers?" Does this mean that for the Commander in Chief, elected by the people of the United States, advice is duly acceptable only from hawks in uniform?
Joining Tom Friedman (again!) is the Times's Roger Cohen, who says Obama needs "endurance" because if we lose in "Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pashtunistan" there "would be a disaster for Western security."
Sub in "Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos" and you can be reminded that our military is again backing a cabal of world-class heroin dealers.
And would the "loss" of AfPak, whatever that means, be a greater "disaster for Western security" than another trillion dollars diverted from education, health care, the environment, and domestic employment in a nation in deep financial chaos?
McChrystal is certainly entitled to his First Amendment rights. But so far, the American public is not buying. Polls show the country deeply divided, with slight majorities opposed to McChrystal's demand for more troops. That means, there is nothing like the public consensus that should be required for any military excursion.
The key may be the money. In the booming sixties, we could "afford" to blow $100 billion or more on a futile, senseless war merely by bankrupting our health care system, blowing college tuitions through the roof, sacking our infrastructure, failing to upgrade our grid and power systems, debasing our currency, falling from an exporting powerhouse to an import addict, and much more.
The Pentagon's gratuitous squander of another trillion in Iraq has helped squeeze the last of that "fat" out of our economy. A U.S. far beyond the brink of bankruptcy is being told to "stay the course" in the Graveyard of Great Powers, a country the size of Texas, a deathtrap to every invader for the past 2,300 years, including the Soviet Union. Pakistan is about twice the size of California. AfPak together have more than 200,000,000 people, more than 2/3 the population of the U.S.
Official military reports say there are about 100 members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite the global nature of terrorism we are allegedly there to stamp out, no other nation seems compelled to join us there in any meaningful way.
Obama was elected in large part because the American public has sensed that -- unlike his predecessor or opponent -- he is intelligent enough to grasp all this. He ran promising a full commitment in Afghanistan. Now he has dared to take his time making a final decision. But will he have the courage to stand against the brass at crunch time?
Robert Gates, the Bush holdover at Defense, who won't set a timetable for withdrawal, has gone public with his demand for more troops. As Yale's David Bromwich puts it, the brass at The Times wants "a large escalation in Afghanistan. The paper has been made nervous by signs that the president may not make the big push for a bigger war; and they are showing what the rest of his time in office will be like if he does not cooperate."
In other words, the virtual tanks have again surrounded the White House.
We cannot let them win. Another bloody, trillion-dollar Lone Ranger fiasco will definitively end any hope for health care, employment, education, the environment, a decent life for our children.
As usual, the Pentagon will be enriched and empowered. We will be impoverished and disenfranchised. Isn't that what coups are all about?
So when the military and its minions demand we defer to their "experts," we might recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. At its most terrifying peak, President John Kennedy -- himself genuine war hero -- polled the Joint Chiefs on how to respond to Soviet warheads in the western hemisphere. The generals unanimously demanded a nuclear attack. Thankfully, the president and his brother, the Attorney General, stood their ground.
Obama must now do the same. There are nuances in all global conflicts. But in an electronic age, when perception means virtually everything, the question is not just what happens in Afghanistan.
It is who rules here at home -- the Pentagon, or the public.
This article, by Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, was published in Foreign Policy, August 20, 2009
For those who say that comparing the current war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War is taking things too far, here's a reality check: It's not taking things far enough. From the origins of these North-South conflicts to the role of insurgents and the pointlessness of this week's Afghan presidential elections, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between these wars. The places and faces may have changed but the enemy is old and familiar. The sooner the United States recognizes this, the sooner it can stop making the same mistakes in Afghanistan.
Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the U.S. engagement there) had surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it, where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified U.S. advantages in ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 percent of the population of both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 percent.
In both countries, the United States sought to create an indigenous army modeled in its own image, based on U.S. army organization charts. With the ARVN in South Vietnam and the ANA in today's Afghanistan, assignment of personnel as combat advisors and mentors was the absolute lowest priority. And in both wars, the U.S. military grossly misled the American people about the size of the indigenous force over a protracted period. In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as "trained and equipped," knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty.
The United States consistently and profoundly misunderstood the nature of the enemy it was fighting in each circumstance. In Vietnam, the United States insisted on fighting a war against communism, while the enemy was fighting a war of national reunification. In Afghanistan, the United States still insists on fighting a secular counterinsurgency, while the enemy is fighting a jihad. The intersection of how insurgencies end and how jihads end is nil. It's hard to defeat an enemy you don't understand, and in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, this fight is being played out in a different war.
This is but the tip of the iceberg of a long list of remarkable parallels. What's really startling are the deeper strategic connections. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, historical revisionism notwithstanding, because of a fatal nexus of political and military failure, and the exact same thing is happening in Afghanistan. As Andrew Krepinevich noted many years ago, the army failed in Vietnam because it insisted on fighting a war of maneuver to "find, fix, and destroy" the enemy (with what became known as "search and destroy missions") instead of protecting the people in the villages. Today these tactics are called "sweep and clear missions," but they are in essence the same thing -- clearing tiny patches of ground for short periods in a big country in hopes of killing enough enemy to make him quit. But its manpower pool was not North Vietnam's Achilles heel and neither is it the Taliban's. Almost exactly the same percentage of personnel in Afghanistan has rural reconstruction as its primary mission (the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) as had "pacification" (today's "nation-building") as their primary mission in Vietnam, about 4 percent. The other 96 percent is engaged in chasing illiterate teenage boys with guns around the countryside, exactly what the enemy wants us to do.
Meanwhile the political failure in Kabul is Saigon déjà vu. A government that is seen as legitimate by 85 or 90 percent of the population is considered the sine qua non of success by counterinsurgency experts. After the Diem coup, this was never possible in Vietnam, as one incompetent and utterly corrupt government succeeded another. None was legitimate in the eyes of the people. Contemporary descriptions of the various Saigon governments read almost exactly like descriptions of the Karzai government today. Notwithstanding all the fanfare over this week's presidential voting in Afghanistan, the Kabul government will never be legitimate either, because democracy is not a source of legitimacy of governance in Afghanistan and it never has been. Legitimacy in Afghanistan over the last thousand years has come exclusively from dynastic and religious sources. The fatal blunder of the United States in eliminating a ceremonial Afghan monarchy was Afghanistan's Diem Coup: afterwards, there was little possibility of establishing a legitimate, secular national government.
It doesn't matter who wins the August elections for president in Afghanistan: he will be illegitimate because he is elected. We have apparently learned nothing from Vietnam.