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“‘Arrogance’: Mattis co-author Bing West says US efforts to transform Iraq and Afghanistan were doomed”
by Russ Read
September 15, 2019 12:00 AM
When Henry Kissinger told James Mattis he should write a book about his more than four decades in the Marine Corps, it was no surprise he chose fellow Marine Bing West to help him.
West, 79, the author of 10 books about combat, had known Mattis for nearly two decades by the time he was tapped to be the co-author of Call Sign Chaos, a memoir which weaves leadership lessons with Mattis’ experiences in the military.
“I saw Jim so often, so many different places, so many battlefields throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, it was almost constant that I’d be bumping into him,” West told the Washington Examiner. “So we’ve just been friends, and eventually, he decided well I must write a book about leadership in combat and in tough situations. It evolved over 20 years.”
Mattis has become a mythical figure throughout his career, which took him from humble beginnings and even jail time in Washington state to the Pentagon. West, 79, has had an unusual journey of his own, which took him from the jungles of Vietnam to the halls of Washington, D.C.
Born at the dawn of World War II in 1940, West seemed destined to be a Marine. Growing up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, he was surrounded by the Corps from an early age. His uncles on his mother’s side had enlisted with the Marines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. “When they came back from Guadalcanal, she thought they’d make great babysitters,” West quipped.
When West’s father allowed a local baseball team full of Marines to use the family home’s attic as a clubhouse, members of the Corps from across the neighborhood would come visit to talk about their experiences.
“They didn’t know how to speak to their own parents about what was happening, so they all stayed at our house,” West said. “I lived up in the attic with the Marines, and by the time I was seven, I was going to be a Marine.”
West joined as an infantry officer and led more than 100 combat patrols during the peak of the Vietnam War between 1966 and 1968. His experience in the field led his commanders to assign him to write Small Unit Action in Vietnam, a how-to guide on fighting in the country that was used throughout the Corps. West would also write The Village, a detailed account of the Combat Action Platoons who volunteered to live and fight with Vietnamese locals in some of the deadliest conditions seen in the war.
“Seven of the original 15 were killed, seven of the original 15 Marines,” West said. “But when I went back to that village in 2001, they still remembered us.” The book is still required reading in the Corps today. West believes some of the lessons learned then are applicable to modern conflicts.
“If you are going to try and change an entire society and government, you must stay for 30 to 60 years,” West explained, pointing to South Korea, Germany, and Japan as successful examples.
“But thinking you can go into Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan and stay for five years and then leave and have transformed the society, it was arrogance. It was arrogant for our leaders to believe that,” he said.
Starting in 2003, West would travel to Iraq and Afghanistan around 40 times over the course of a decade, always embedding with troops. He first ran into Mattis in March 2003, as he was preparing to invade Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.
“And from that time on, I don’t think I ever went more than two months without seeing Jim Mattis somewhere,” West said.
The two men first discussed the book concept after Mattis retired from active duty in 2013. Kissinger had called Mattis shortly after his retirement, encouraging him to write about his experiences, and West was the obvious choice to serve as co-author. West believes their shared history as grunts in the infantry was a key reason he was chosen — it just wouldn’t have been the same for Mattis to choose someone who didn’t know where he was coming from.
“Jim really, really tries to craft the written word, look for the right word. So that was really enjoyable,” West said.
In the middle of the writing process, Vice President-elect Mike Pence invited him to meet with Trump to discuss the position of secretary of defense. The memoir was put on hold.
“This book began in 2013 and came out in 2019. That’s why you don’t want to make a living as a writer,” West said.
“Authentic Leadership: An interview with General James N. Mattis, USMC(Ret) & Francis J. “Bing” West”
Marine Corps Gazette
by Col Chris Woodbridge, USMC (Ret) (Col Woodbridge is the Publisher and Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette)
Random House Publishing announced release date for Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by General James N. Mattis, USMC(Ret), the former Secretary of Defense, co-authored by Francis J. “Bing” West. The editors of the Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck Magazine had the opportunity to interview the General and Mr. West regarding the book, its origins, and its central ideas as well as their personal experiences as Marines. Below are excerpts.
General James N. Mattis has commanded Marines at all levels, from a rifle platoon to a MEF. In 1991, he commanded 1st Bn, 7th Marines, one of the assault battalions of Task Force Ripper in Operation DESERT STORM. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 he commanded Task Force 58, the first expeditionary brigade into Afghanistan, and in 2003 he commanded 1st Marine Division in the initial attack and subsequent stability operations in Iraq. As a joint force commander, he commanded U.S. Joint Forces Command, NATO’s Supreme Allied Command for Transformation, and U.S. Central Command. General Mattis retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2013 and served as the 26th Secretary of Defense from January 2017 to December 2018.
Francis J. “Bing” West served as Marine infantry officer in the Vietnam War commanding a mortar platoon in 2d Battalion, 9th Marines. Later, he served with a Combined Action Platoon that fought for 485 days defending a remote village. He was also a member of a Force Reconnaissance team that initiated Operation STINGRAY: small-unit combined-arms attacks behind North Vietnamese lines. Mr. West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Since 2003, he has made sixteen trips to Iraq and six trips into Afghanistan. He has authored ten books including: The Village, The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the US Marines (with retired Marine Major General Ray “E-Tool” Smith); No True Glory: A Front-line Account of the Battle of Fallujah; The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq; and Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War.
To Pass Down the Lessons Learned
When did this book project start? What was the seminal thought and motivation behind it?
Mr West: This book has been in the works for about five years now. General Mattis and I first began discussing this in 2013. My perspective was that the General, throughout his entire career in the Middle East, had been at the point of all the attacks, amid all the chaos in all the wars we were in, and—through this book—his memoir could serve as a focal lens for many people to understand what has happened with U.S. and allied forces in the region over the last 20 years.
Gen Mattis: When we started on it, the catalyst was that several of my mentors—both senior mentors, very senior people in government—and also young officers had been asking me a lot of questions as I was leaving the Marine Corps, and I thought about how much I had I learned from professional reading and experience. I benefited from all the reading I had done—that initially I was required to do by commanders who had insisted I read—and I’ve been fortunate to have been kept in the Marines for so many years. I had some lessons that I’ve learned along the way that I decided I could pass on these lessons in the same spirit that I’ve benefited from.
How long have you known each other, and have you collaborated on anything in the past?
Gen Mattis: Bing West was with us as an embedded journalist in 1st Marine Division during the “march up” to Baghdad in 2003, but I definitely knew him by reputation well before then. It seems like most Marines of my era have read The Village which is Bing’s classic study of counterinsurgency warfare at the small unit level. That book was actually my introduction to Bing. After we came home from Iraq in 2003, he wrote the book, The March Up, very quickly about the attack and removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Then, as we prepared to go back into Al Anbar Province in 2004, I called him in for his experience with the Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam knowing that this would be absolutely the closest parallel for what we wanted to do in Iraq. We had to prepare Marines for working with the Iraqis. How do you do that? Not that there was a cookie cutter approach to counterinsurgency, but there was a theme that I wanted to resonate in the division, and so I listened to him and had him talk to my commanders.
I knew at that point that this was someone who could take complex issues and synthesize the “so what” implications.
Mr. West: That’s why—when they brought it up to me—I was eager to go forward with the division.
What struck me was that, beginning with the march up when the 1st Marine Division went to Baghdad in 2003, I kept seeing General Mattis at the points of attack at one place or another. Then, when I was in Iraq later, the same thing occurred. Then, in Afghanistan, the same thing occurred. The commonality was that he was always where the action was and immediately with the troops. He just had that that sense of getting along with the troops, so I knew this would be principally a fun book to read and to write.
Clearly, this is a book on leadership that will resonate with Marines as well as military professionals across the Joint Force and our allies. Do you think the book will add value for civilians, specifically defense policy makers, business and industry leaders, and our elected and appointed officials?
Mr. West: I’d be flabbergasted if it doesn’t have a very broad audience. In my judgment, Gen Mattis’ leadership style came down to two things. First, he always took care of others and always put his people first; but then second, he had this style of explaining his intent to the commanders in clear terms explaining “What we are going to do.” Then he would turn around to the team and say, “Now you know what I want you to do, I’m taking my hands off the steering wheel. I’m not going to command and control, I will decentralization command and take your feedback to me.” I think that’s so different than the way many business organizations are; I think they can learn an awful lot from this book in the civilian world.
Gen Mattis: In that vein, it seems to me these leadership lessons are broadly applicable and, in that regard, nothing replaces trust. Something I learned from (retired U.S. Army General) Gary Luck is that operations occur at the speed of trust—not the speed of electrons, not the speed of a tank, or rockets, or airplanes. Operations occur at the speed of trust, and you have to create an organization that rewards the right behavior, then you have to delegate decision-making authority to the lowest capable level. It is up to you as a leader to make followers at the lower levels as capable as possible. Once you are running on trust, initiative, and aggressiveness, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in business, marketing, or whether you’re playing football or you’re the coach in the field. You need to have the discipline that permits initiative and aggressive execution; and that does take a higher level of self-discipline and unit discipline to allow you to harness the entire organization. Everybody owns the mission, and everybody knows how important they are right down to the youngest Sailor and Marine. This is broadly applicable, and I’ve never thought that what I was doing was so unique. It was what the Marine Corps taught me to do and what Vietnam veterans taught me to do. I was reminded time after time of the power of clear intent, discipline, and initiative. For example, in Iraq a funeral procession goes down the street and a Marine patrol on the street stops and takes their helmets off as a sign of respect. I never taught them to take their helmets off. They knew to take their helmets off because they were there not as an occupying or dominating force. They were there trying to give the Iraqi people a fresh start. When you have that level of initiative going on a hundred things are happening that you don’t control, but they’re exactly what you need to carry out that clearly articulated aim.
Leader Development and Preparing for War
Gen Mattis, You have been a strong proponent of professional reading as part of self-education throughout your career. Looking at the challenge of preparing Marines and the Marine Corps for “major power conflict,” what book or books are “required reading” for Marine leaders?
Gen Mattis: I think all Marines should read E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, and For Corps and Country, Gail B. Shisler’s book on the life of General O. P. Smith: the Commanding General of 1st Marine Division when they fought their way out of being surrounded at the Chosin Reservoir. I would recommend those two books because they will remind everybody that we’re not going to ask any more of our troops in the future than Marines have proven capable of delivering in the past. We need to know that we will not be asked to do anything more than most veterans in the past.
For those of the higher ranks, who will have to make the operational and even strategic decisions or to advise the operational and strategic leaders, I would say three books. First, the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Also Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshal Sir William Slim, and the last one is Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart. By reading and understanding those books, I think you’re in a position to create options no matter what you face. In other words, you learn that you can always create options. We’re not victims, even when the chips are down, and even when it’s hard to come up with other actions because of the situation you face.
General Mattis, in addition to professional reading, what else would you recommend that military professionals do to prepare themselves for future conflict and assignments of increased responsibility? What advice would you give young Marine leaders today?
Gen Mattis: First of all, I think individual preparation is essential and that means being at the top of your game physically, mentally, and spiritually. Because I think future conflict is going to be more unrelenting, there will be everything from robots and information operations that are demanding constant adaptation. What you would have to do is make certain that your small unit leaders are physically the toughest guys in the unit. We can’t have someone who can’t do the pull ups, or can’t do the run in good form and still be able to fight to the end of it, or can’t take a machine gun off the back of a Marine who’s got the flu and carry it for a while. They have to do enough homework so, that as fast as the situation changes, they’re able to accommodate it, integrate it, and have a mental model for it. Spiritually they have to have a reservoir of spiritual strength that will allow them to take the tragedies of combat in stride. You’re going to have to delegate responsibility down because we all we know we’re going to lose communications, and any unit that doesn’t delegate responsibility because they don’t trust that their troops are disciplined enough or effective enough on their own to make good decisions—those units will become basically irrelevant. So, they’re going to need to have young officers who can basically exercise initiative, but it’s got to be aligned with the commander’s intent. You need commanders who can very clearly spell out what they need done and leave a lot of leeway for subordinates to carry it out. You’re going to have to make certain that you’re rewarding good behavior in peacetime, and good initiative and good aggressiveness, and that you’re tolerant of mistakes but absolutely intolerant of a lack of discipline. You must coach out any kind of lack of discipline that happens during peacetime. Consider every week of peace your last week to prepare your Sailors and Marines for combat.
Mr. West: Well, I’ve had the honor for the last 15 years now of writing several books and being embedded with Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine units throughout Afghanistan and Iraq, and I cannot express how firmly I believe that what General Mattis said is the key to the future. I have seen too many units today that really believe in keeping command and control close to the top. They even have to have PowerPoint briefings three days in a row before they take a patrol out or before they deploy a destroyer somewhere. In the next war, that isn’t going to work; if they don’t adapt, which is what General Mattis has been preaching—that you must have faith in your subordinates, give them the intent, and then decentralize disciplined execution—we’re going to suffer battlefield defeat.
Gen Mattis, in your experience, what effect has information technology had on leadership? Is it harder to lead the generation that has grown up with the Internet and social media? Is there a greater requirement for clarity of language in articulating commander’s intent to build that environment of trust?
Gen Mattis: I’ve not found it harder at all. It does put a greater emphasis on the persuasive force of personality in a commander. Can you get go out in front of an 800-man unit and give your intent in very plain and clear language. Can you say clearly what you stand for and what you will absolutely not stand for? Because I find the same unit that cannot maintain no DUIs, no drug abuse, no sexual harassment is the same unit that cannot maintain fire discipline in a firefight. You either lead a disciplined life or you do not. And in the Information Age, if you’re not talking constantly, expressing the clear truth, and emphasizing what it is that you stand for; if you’re not rewarding initiative; and if your people make mistakes that you take responsibility for them, and reward what you want, and coach them to achieve what you want, then the Information Age could work against you. It definitely does not allow the strong silent type. With the strong silent type, the Marines will find “truth” from listening to someone who is more vocal, or they will get their values off the Internet. Those may or may not be the truth or the values that we are comfortable with.
Mr. West: When we were publishing the book, I asked the publisher to put in both of Jim’s letters when he was leading the 1st Marine division. The letter that he sent to all the troops—all 23,000 of them—before the attack to Baghdad, and the second letter when Jim took the Division back in the second time into Anbar province. Those two letters made quite clear to everyone in the Division what the commander’s intent was, and I think they are models for what any senior commander has to do to convey what he wants his troops to do. I think those two letters are classics.
Gen Mattis, without intending to, you have developed an enormous “fan base.” Some would call it a cult of personality—especially among the active and veteran military communities. What effect will the central message of this book have on that group?
The message is about the Marine ethos which I learned at OCS from Gunnery Sergeant Collier. He said, “I’m not interested in somebody who comes in and thinks I’ll give 99 percent.” He said, “I’m going to be 100 percent dissatisfied with you if you don’t give 100 percent every time.” Ninety-nine percent is failure in my book for someone who’s going to be an officer in the Marine Corps. A Marine Corps with that ethos is a very hard force to defeat on the battlefield. It is a very lethal force and feared by our enemies. I remember talking to some Iraqi prisoners that we’d taken out in the western Euphrates River Valley, and they were scared to death of coming close to the Marines. They would much rather surrender than fight it out toe-to-toe, and that is worth a thousand more troops in a battle—that the enemy is fearful.
It’s about lethality. The Marine Corps must ensure that lethality is the metric, and it must do all it can to improve the lethality of the Marines. Whether it be personnel policies or promotion criteria or physical fitness standards or the weapons we give to troops and the tactics we use—all are measured against one standard and that’s lethality. With that, you can really have a force in the field that the troops are proud to be part of and feel that affection for each other, and that means they’ll never let each other down.
Our Soldiers are Warriors, not Victims
The Hero as Predator, Not Victim
by Owen West and Bing West
The National Review, 2005
Outside Fallujah a year ago today, a small convoy was ambushed by fifty insurgents. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the first Humvee, robbing one Marine of his hands and raking the others with shrapnel. Machinegun fire swept the kill zone.
Captain Brent Morel was in the second Humvee. “Stop and dismount,” was all he said before opening his door and sprinting off toward the ambush position. A small band of Marines followed him over two berms, splashing across a chest-deep canal as they closed on the ambushers.
As the surprised enemy broke, the Marines shot them down. It was the last time a large group of insurgents attacked an American convoy on that route with small arms, notwithstanding numerical advantage.
Twelve hours later, the casualty assistance teams were at the doorstep of Brent’s widow, Amy, and his parents, Mike and Molly.
On a rooftop fight in Fallujah last year, Lance Corporal Carlos Gomez-Perez hurled grenades and manned a machinegun to drive back a band of insurgents. Once the roof was cleared, he walked down stairs pouring blood. An RPG had torn a chunk the size of a Coke can out of his shoulder.
“Sorry, sir,” he mumbled to his lieutenant. “Mind if I take a break to get this patched up?”
The public image of the military is shaped by the press. No matter how laudatory the actions of a soldier, if the press ignores them, the public is not aware of them. Today’s battlefield elites are given scant focus by media elites. Last Monday, Sgt 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, with little fanfare and media coverage that burned out in 24 hours. So whom are we celebrating?
In World War Two, the press were cheerleaders who shared a symbiotic relationship with the military. Gutsy warriors like Audie Murphy and “Pappy” Boyington were famous for their high kill totals. In Vietnam, the press soured on the effort, tied the troops to the policymakers and refused to laud aggressive soldiers. Instead, victims were accentuated. American prisoners of war—who were certainly brave—were the only acclaimed heroes. Rugged commando-types—just as brave—were ignored.
This was reflected in the wave of Vietnam movies that proliferated in the 1980s. In the four most popular movies—Rambo: First Blood Part II, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War—two themes emerged: soldier as victim and soldier as criminal.
In Iraq, the most famous soldiers to emerge are PFC Jessica Lynch and PFC Lynndie England, a victim and criminal, respectively. Their public images are the offspring of Vietnam. Celebrity and cynicism have trumped achievement.
Habits die hard, for the press as well as for the rest of us. The disproportionate coverage of seven guards at Abu Ghraib and one quick-acting Marine in a mosque trumped the extraordinary victory won by thousands of Marines and soldiers in Fallujah, now one of the safest cities in the Sunni Triangle. The obsessive spotlight damaged the image of the American soldier at home while failing to assuage our detractors abroad. America is proud of its collective conscience, but self-flagellation has a deteriorating effect.
A nation’s selection of its heroes is a reflection of its values. Jihadists like Zarqawi are not idealistic agrarian reformers. We are not a nation of victims. It’s time the press made an effort to show the tough guys who fight for us.
They don’t have to look far. One hundred and forty squads fought house to house in Fallujah last November. In the course of two weeks, on three separate occasions the average squad shot jihadists hiding in rooms waiting to kill an American and die. The average 19-year-old searched dozens of houses each day, knowing with certainty that he would open a door and someone would shoot at him, not once, but on three separate occasions. Fewer than one SWAT team in a hundred encounters determined suicidal shooters barricaded in a room. Our SWAT teams are dedicated and courageous and we have seen many deserved depictions of their bravery.
Surely the press can do more to bring alive for all of us the nature of the sacrifices, courage and, yes, ferocious aggression of our troops. The strength of our martial might is in our warriors more than in our weapons. It is time we understood why they are so feared. Our riflemen are not victims; they’re hunters. Audie Murphy would be proud of Carlos Gomez-Perez, Brent Morel and Paul Ray Smith.
Owen West, a trader at Goldman, Sachs, served with the Marines in Iraq. Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, has written several books about combat. They are writing the screenplay entitled, No True Glory: the Battle for
The Vietnam War Was Honorable
by Bing West
Last Christmas, I went back to a village where I had fought 35 years ago. It is 400 miles north of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The North Vietnamese had also changed the name of the village – to show who had won the war. A solitary Marine squad had fought in that village, living among 6,000 Vietnamese. In 1966, fifteen Americans walked in; 485 days later, eight walked out. More Americans died in the rice paddies around a forgotten place call Chulai than in all of Desert Storm. And for what?
In the village, I visited our old fort, now a kindergarten, and prowled around the moss-covered stone foundations, kicking up old memories. When I walked back out to the paddy dike, I was surrounded by smiling villagers. An old farmer (my age) peered at me and said: “Welcome back, Dai Uy.” A third of a century later, they remembered me, a young captain from decades earlier. They asked by name about the other Marines who had gone home those many years ago and led me through the trails to a palm tree overlooking a bright green paddy. There they showed me a rough marble marker – their memorial to the seven Marines who had lived in that village for a year and a half and who had not walked out.
In the larger geopolitical scheme of things, does the fondness of those villagers for Americans known long ago mean anything? Possibly. It’s fashionable now to say Vietnam was a “bad” war, where even children threw grenades, forcing American soldiers like to do terrible things. It was a country unworthy of our sacrifice. Those who avoided or protested service argued that it was better not to serve. While poll after poll shows that the Vietnam veterans are proud they served, their collective judgment has been ignored by a media which has labeled the war as unworthy.
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw of NBC News became a best selling book by depicting how ordinary and famous Americans united to fight World War II. As the success of Brokaw’s book attests, winning casts a long shadow; we justly praised ourselves for our efforts in the 1940s. Losing has the opposite effect. No such book will emerge about Vietnam.
The Greatest Generation also were the leaders who sent the next generation into Vietnam. Those same leaders eventually lost heart, abandoned the South Vietnamese people, and transferred to them the blame for failure. Aesop wrote about the fox who, failing to snatch the grapes from the vine, declared them sour. We acted the same way. As a nation, we declared we would help the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the communists directed from North Vietnam and aided by China and the Soviet Union. When the price became too high, many of the same leaders from the Greatest Generation declared the South Vietnamese no longer deserving of our sacrifices. Sometimes we’re not the greatest.
Today, three myths distort the American role in the war in Vietnam. The first myth is that we were defeated on the battlefield. Actually, all American combat forces had withdrawn years before Saigon fell. After their withdrawal, North Vietnam invaded in 1972 and was driven back by South Vietnamese ground forces and US airpower. In recent movies such as We Were Soldiers Once and Young, North Vietnamese willpower is portrayed as implacable and unstoppable.
This is rubbish. As the tragedy of World War I demonstrated, every nation has a breaking point. Three times we had the North Vietnamese on the ropes, and each time it was policy fickleness in Washington D.C. which persuaded them to continue. In the second invasion in 1975, North Vietnam employed Chinese artillery pieces and Soviet-built tanks. We refused to bomb those targets and instead slashed our aid. At the end, some South Vietnamese soldiers were down to one grenade a day.
The second myth is that of moral equivalency – depicting antiwar protestors defying American authorities as being as courageous as the American soldiers fighting the North Vietnamese. After all, the protestors had Woodstock, where it was difficult singing and making love in the rain; the soldiers had the jungles, slogging through the heat and mud, losing 50,000 dead. Some who avoided fighting claimed they were protesting for the sake of those who were fighting. Yet those who fought are proud they did so and in the main saw the protestors as a reason why the North Vietnamese continued to fight. Thanks to the press, we remember the protestors more fondly than we do those who fought. As a nation, we ignored – and often scorned – our servicemen on their return from Vietnam.
Vietnam is depicted as more brutal than World War II. The actions of a few who shot civilians, such as former Senator Bob Kerrey, have received front-page coverage, with the spin angle being that “the war made me do it”. The ‘war’ corrupted American values and decency. The opposite was actually the case. We inflicted less damage on the civilian population in Vietnam than we did in France and Germany. Our soldiers in Vietnam fought as valiantly and as humanely as did the Greatest Generation in World War II.
The third myth is that losing makes little difference. But losing did affect our self-confidence and to this day some countries are wrongly emboldened, believing we can be beaten on battlefield. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, American foreign policy manifested serious dyspepsia. In supplicant fashion, we courted détente – “can’t we all just get along?” – with a supposedly stronger Soviet Union and we permitted a rabble to seize our embassy in Iran. Only gradually did we recover, electing President Reagan, rebuilding our military, challenging the Soviet Union and abetting in its demise.
The historian Stephen Ambrose has observed that, of all the European nations, American GIs in World War II liked best the Germans, against whom they had fought. Similarly, South Vietnamese widely welcome and genuinely like Americans, though they have nothing to thank us for. The septuagenarians in Hanoi control the economic, religious, social, travel, educational, professional and personal freedoms of every Vietnamese. One of the few remaining Bolshevik communist regimes, the dictators in Hanoi memorialize long-ago battles, yet they cannot chart a course into the future.
So Vietnam is mired in a bleak past, while America is the beacon for a shining future. We recovered our geopolitical self-confidence and our martial prowess; for millions of people in Southeast Asia, there was no recovery. That is a tragedy. The South Vietnamese have grace, culture and ambition. Given the freedom to pursue their own opportunities, they would prosper. Some day the yoke will be lifted from the Vietnamese people. But we should have no illusions about the repressive nature of the current regime. Freedom did not flourish when the North Vietnamese took control.
In 1953 when we were fighting a limited war in South Korea, that country was not a model of enlightened democracy. Today South Korea is a thriving democracy, where we still have stationed 25,000 American soldiers to deter an impoverished, hostile North Korea. To our credit, we have stayed the course there.
In contrast, we tired of the limited war in South Vietnam; the war simply went on too long. That we stopped fighting and withdrew most of our aid is understandable if not laudable. In Korea and in Vietnam, we chose two different courses. Today, South Korea’s future is bright and South Vietnam’s future is bleak. That cannot be changed. But we should not let myths turn us into Aesop’s fox and blame the grapes. The day Saigon fell, the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, sent a message to our armed forces.
It read in part: “Our involvement was intended to assist a small nation to preserve its independence…You have done all that was asked of you…You are entitled to the nation’s respect, admiration and gratitude.”
That is the proper, elliptical epitaph to the Vietnam War.