Category Archives: shipmates and veterans

A Veteran’s Day Postscript: Belonging to a Different World

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I wrote about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day but I decided to write a postscript to it today. I write this specifically as a combat veteran who more than a decade after my return still deal with the effects of war, PTSD, TBI, sleep disorders, nightmares and night terrors, bad knees, ankles, shoulders, tinnitus, inability to understand speech, and a bunch of other stuff. I know many more who deal with what I do and worse. At least I am no longer suicidal, though I do experience periodic bouts of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety.

For me it began in February 2008 when on the way back from Iraq the military charter aircraft bringing us home stopped in Ramstein Germany. After a few hour layover we re-boarded the aircraft but we were no longer alone, the rest of the aircraft had been filled with the families of soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany. Just days before most of us had been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cries of children and the intrusion of these people, not bad people by any means on our return flight was shocking, it was like returning to a world that I no longer knew.

I think that coming home from war, especially for those damaged in some way, in mind, body or spirit is harder than being at war.

In that thought I am not alone. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Likewise, Guy Sajer a French-German from the Alsace and veteran of the Grossdeutschland Division on the Eastern Front in World War II noted at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

I have been reminded of this several times in the past week. It began walking through a crowded Navy commissary on Saturday, in the few minutes in the store my anxiety level went up significantly. On Tuesday I learned of the death of Captain Tom Sitsch my last Commodore at EOD Group Two, who died by his own hand. His life had come apart. After a number of deployments to Iraq as the Commander EOD Mobile Unit 3 and of Task Force Troy he was afflicted with PTSD. Between June of 2008 and the end of 2009 he went from commanding an EOD Group to being forced to retire.  Today I had a long talk with a fairly young friend agonizing over continued medical treatments for terminal conditions he contracted in two tours in Iraq where he was awarded the Bronze Star twice.

I have a terrible insomnia, nightmares and night terrors due to PTSD. My memories of Iraq are still strong, and this week these conditions have been much worse. Sager wrote:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

Nearly 20 years after returning from war, a survivor of the 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” of World War One, summed up the experience of so many men who come back from war:

“We just do not have the control we should have. I went through without a visible wound, but have spent many months in hospitals and dollars for medical treatment as a result of those terrible experiences.”

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Two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler toured Veterans hospitals following his retirement from the Marine Corps. He observed the soldiers who had been locked away. In his book War is a Racket:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill. If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

Similarly Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

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Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey

Sometimes even those who have been awarded our Nation’s highest award for valor succumb to the demons of war that they cannot shake, and never completely adjust to life at “home” which is no longer home. For them it is a different, a foreign world to use the words of Sager and Remarque. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey won the Medal Medal of Honor as Commander of 1st Battalion 308th Infantry, the “Lost Battalion” in France. After the war he was different. He gave up his civilian law practice and served as head of the Red Cross in New York. In that role, and as the Colonel for his reserve unit, he spent his time visiting the wounded who were still suffering in hospitals. He also made the effort to attend the funerals of veterans who had died. The continued reminders of the war that he could not come home from left him a different man. He committed suicide on November 21st 1921not long after serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier when that man was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In his eulogy, Judge Charles L. Hibbard noted:

“He is sitting on the piazza of a cottage by the sea on a glorious late September day but a few weeks ago. . . He is looking straight out to sea, with naught but sea between him and that land where lie so many of his boys. The beating surf is but an echo, the warm, bright sunshine, the blue sky, the dancing waves, all combine to charm. But a single look at his face and one knows he is unconscious of this glory of Nature. Somewhere far down in the depths of his being or in imagination far off across the waters he lives again the days that are past. That unconscious look has all the marks of deep sorrow, brooding tragedy, unbearable memories. Weeks pass. The mainspring of life is wound tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the Unknown Soldier. This draws the last measure of reserve and with it the realization that life had little now to offer. This quiet, reserved personality drew away as it were from its habitation of flesh, thought out the future, measured the coming years and came to a mature decision. You say, ‘He had so much to live for – family, friends, and all that makes life sweet.’ No, my friends, life’s span for him was measured those days in that distant forest. He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness. He thought it out quietly, serenely, confidently, minutely. He came to a decision not lightly or unadvisedly, and in the end did what he thought was best, and in the comfort of that thought we too must rest. ‘Wounded in action,’ aye, sorely wounded in heart and soul and now most truly ‘missing in action.’”

Psychologist and professor Dr. Ari Solomon analyzed the case of Colonel Whittlesey and noted:

“If I could interview Whittlesey as a psychologist today, I’d especially have in mind … the sharp discrepancy between the public role he was playing and his hidden agony, his constant re-exposure to reminders of the battle, his possible lack of intimate relations, and his felt need to hide his pain even from family and dearest friends.”

I wish I had the answer. I have some ideas that date back to antiquity in the ways that tribes, clans and city states brought their warriors home. The warriors were recognized, there were public rituals, sometimes religious but other times not. But the difference is that the warriors were welcomed home by a community and re-integrated into it. They were allowed to share their stories, many of which were preserved through oral traditions so long that they eventually were written down, even in a mythologized state.

But we do not do that. Our society is disconnected, distant and often cold. Likewise it is polarized in ways that it has not been since the years before our terrible Civil War. Our warriors return from war, often alone, coming home to families, friends and communities that they no longer know. They are misunderstood because the population at large does not share their experience. The picture painted of them in the media, even when it is sympathetic is often a caricature; distance and the frenetic pace of our society break the camaraderie with the friends that they served alongside. Remarque wrote, “We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”

If we wonder about the suicide epidemic among veterans we have to ask hard questions. Questions like why do so many combat veterans have substance abuse problems and why is it that approximately one in ten prisoners serving time are veterans? It cannot be simply that they are all bad eggs. Many were and are smart, talented, compassionate and brave, tested and tried in ways that our civilian society has no understanding for or clue about. In fact to get in the military most had to be a cut above their peers. We have to ask if we are bringing our veterans home from war in a way that works. Maybe even more importantly we have to ask ourselves if as a culture if we have forgotten how to care about each other. How do we care for the men and women who bear the burden of war, even while the vast majority of the population basks in the freedom and security provided by the soldier without the ability to empathize because they have never shared that experience.

For every Tom Sitsch, Charles Whittlesey or people like my friend, there are countless others suffering in silence as a result of war. We really have to ask hard questions and then decide to do something as individuals, communities and government to do something about it. If we don’t a generation will suffer in silence.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, ministry, PTSD, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, suicide, Tour in Iraq, us army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, world war one

Happy 244th Birthday Marines

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

i will take a momentary break from politics and everything else to wish all United States Marines a Happy 244th Birthday. This one is more special than many others because my nephew Darren is now a Marine.

Honestly, after all that we have been through as a country this year, today is one of these days where I just want to wish people well. Those men and women are those of the United States Marine Corps, with whom I have have spent almost ten years of my thirty-five year military career assigned to or in support of as a chaplain. Today is the 244th anniversary of the establishment of the Marine Corps and its founding at Tun Tavern, in Philadelphia. Today I wish all those who have served past, present and future, especially those who I have served alongside a happy birthday.

On November 10th 1775 the Continental Congress passed a resolution that stated:

Resolved, that two Battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors & Officers as usual in other regiments, that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to office or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea, when required. That they be enlisted and commissioned for and during the present war with Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by Congress. That they be distinguished by the names of the first & second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered a part of the number, which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

The history of the Marine Corps is one of the most fascinating of any armed service in the world. Starting out as a tiny force attached to Navy ships and shipyards the Corps has gained prominence as one of the premier fighting forces ever assembled. Flexible and deployable anywhere in the world on short notice the Marine Corps has seen action in “every place and clime” and continues to serve around the world.

In 1775 a committee of the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern to draft a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines able to fight for independence at sea and on shore.  The resolution was approved on November 10, 1775, officially forming the Continental Marines. The first order of business was to appoint Samuel Nicholas as the Commandant of the newly formed Marines.

Robert Mullan the owner and proprietor of the said Tun Tavern became Nicholson’s first captain and recruiter. They began gathering support and were ready for action by early 1776.  They served throughout the War for Independence and like the Navy they were disbanded in April 1783 and reconstituted as the Marine Corps in 1798.

The Marines served on the ships of the Navy in the Quasi-war with France, against the Barbary Pirates where a small group of 8 Marines and 500 Arabs under Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon made a march of 500 miles across the Libyan Desert to lay siege Tripoli but only reached Derna. The action is immortalized in the Marine Hymn as well as the design of the Marine Officer’s “Mameluke” Sword. They served in the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars and in the Mexican-American War where in the storming of the on Chapultepec Palace they continued to build and enduring legacy. In the months leading up to the Civil War they played a key role at home and abroad.  In October 1859 Colonel Robert E. Lee led Marines from the Marine Barracks Washington DC to capture John Brown and his followers who had captured the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry.

The Corps would serve through the Civil War and on into the age of American Expansion serving in the Spanish American War in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba where they seized Guantanamo Bay at the battle of Cuzco Wells.  The would serve in China and be a key component of the international force that defended foreign diplomats during the Boxer Revolt as well as the international force that would relieve the diplomatic compound in Peking (Beijing).  In World War One the Marines stopped the German advance at Chateau Thierry and cemented their reputation as an elite fighting force at Belleau Wood where legend has it that the Germans nicknamed them Teufelhunden or Devil Dogs, a name that they Marines have appropriated with great aplomb.

During the inter-war years the Marines were quite active in the Caribbean and Asia and also developed amphibious tactics and doctrine that would be put to use in the Pacific Campaign.  During the war the Marines served in all theaters but won enduring fame at Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and numerous other battles in the Pacific war. Marine Aviators flew in some the most desperate actions in the war to support the Navy and amphibious operations ashore.

After the war the Truman Administration sought to eliminate the Marine Corps but the Corps was saved by the efforts of Americans across the country and Marine supporters in Congress.  That was a good thing because the Marines were instrumental in keeping the North Koreans from overrunning the South during the Korean War on the Pusan Perimeter, turned the tide at Inchon and helped decimate Communist Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  After Korea the Marines would serve around the World in the Caribbean and Lebanon and in Vietnam where at Da Nang Keh Sanh, Hue City, Con Thien fighting the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies.  The Marines took the initiative to implement innovative counter insurgency measures such as the Combined Action Platoons which enjoyed tremendous success until they were shut down by the Army high command.  These lessons would serve the Marines well in the new millennium during the Anbar Awakening in Iraq which changed the course of that insurgency and war.

The Marines would again be involved around the World after Vietnam serving in the Cold War, in Lebanon and the First Gulf War which was followed by actions in Somalia, the Balkans and Haiti. After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Marines were among the first into Afghanistan helping to drive the Taliban from power. In the Iraq Campaign the Marines had a leading role both in the invasion and in the campaign in Al Anbar Province.  After their withdraw from Iraq the Marines became a central player in Afghanistan where they were engaged around Khandahar and in Helmand Province. In the wake of the ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq the Marines returned to Iraq serving to help train and advise Iraqi Army units in areas of Al Anbar Province and other areas of that country, while others have been involved in relief efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. If by some chance war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, Marines will be among the first to respond.

The Marines are elite among world military organizations and continue to “fight our nations battles on the air and land and sea.” The Corps under General John LeJeune institutionalized the celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday and their establishment at Tun Tavern. General LeJeune issued this order which is still read at every Marine Corps Birthday Ball or observance:

MARINE CORPS ORDER No. 47 (Series 1921)
HEADQUARTERS
U.S. MARINE CORPS Washington, November 1, 1921

The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the 10th of November of every year. Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it will be read upon receipt.

On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

JOHN A. LEJEUNE,
Major General
Commandant

I have had the privilege to have served with the Marines directly or indirectly for nearly ten of the thirty-seven years that I have served in the military. In addition to that I wear the Fleet Marine Force Officer Warfare Qualification device and I am a graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. I have been able to celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday with Marines in places like Ramadi and Guantanamo Bay. For me it is an honor to have served with so many great Americans.

So to all my Marine Corps friends, and any other Marines who read this piece, have a great night and Semper Fidelis.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Morning After 9-11-2001: 18 Years Later, a Retrospective Meditation

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

I am thinking about the morning after the attacks of 9-11-2001 and how much my perspective has changed since those attacks. On Wednesday 9-12-2001 I was sleeping in my office on a cot and sleeping bag at Camp LeJeune, NC. In fact every Marine and Sailor assigned at Camp LeJeune was doing the same thing unless they were on leave out of the area and couldn’t get back.

The base was closed to visitors, internal road blocks on the base were set up, roving patrols and outposts covered any conceivable entrance to the base, by land or water. Combat air patrols out of MCAS Cherry Point flew overhead while Navy Guided Missile Cruisers and Destroyers patrolled off the coast. The base was locked down for four days. We had little information of what was happening, except what we could get on television. Our own intelligence didn’t have much more, but we all knew that we were going to war.

Within the month we knew that it would be in Afghanistan. Army Special Forces, Rangers, Units of the 82nd Airborne as well as Navy SEALS, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and CIA operators working with the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance quickly drove the Taliban from power and Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda operatives into hiding at Tora Bora.

But the roots of this tragedy were decades in the making. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Afghanistan was one of the most progressive nations in the Islamic World. It was a haven and destination for the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in a Cold War maneuver, the Soviets helped the Afghan Communist Party gain power in a coup against the monarchy.  The reaction of the Taliban and other religious conservatives ignited a civil war in which the Soviets sent in hundreds of thousands of combat troops to prop up the Communist government, while the United States supported the Taliban, whose leaders were supported and personally met with President Ronald Reagan, and equated to our Founding Father’s.

But the 9-11 attacks had nothing to do with Afghanistan, other than the fact that the Taliban had granted Bin Laden and Al Qaeda sanctuary there under Islamic tradition. Bin Laden and his minions attacked the United States because we had stationed troops and aircraft in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam for a decade after deploying them in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Religious Saudis, especially the militant fundamentalists like Bin Laden didn’t see our personnel as defenders of Saudi Arabia, but infidels who were crusaders and invaders that had no business there. Sometimes in terms of religion, history means more than contemporary politics or international relations.

Likewise, the gross  error of the Bush Administration to lump traditional enemies, the Iraqis and Iranians who’s disputes go back a millennium as partners in an Axis Of Evil sounded good on American television but were diametrically opposed to the Sunni- Shia Islamic divide, in fact Iraq had nothing to do with the attack and the Iranians were willing to work with us against Al Qaeda, which they considered a mortal Sunni enemy. But then again, to most Americans there is little difference between an Iraqi, Saudi, Iranian, Yemeni, Jordanian, Syrian, or Lebanese, even if they are not of the Islamic faith. The fact is that most Americans regardless of the political ideology are completely ignorant about history and religious history matters not. It is what it is and in the words Kurt Vonnegut “So it goes.” 

Our wars or retribution in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syrian, Somalia, and other countries have cost more than double the amount of lives lost on 9-11-2001. That does not includes the tens of thousands wounded Americans. This does not count the thousands dead and wounded of NATO and coalition partners, including the Afghans and Iraqis who supported us, and the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the wars that we have pursued for the past 18 years.

I was astounded that President Trump had initially agreed to meeting with the Taliban in order, for all practical reasons, surrender to them last weekend, the weekend before the anniversary of the attacks of 9-11-2001. The deal would have ensured a withdrawal of American troops, no sanctions on Al Qaeda, and no protections for the Afghan people who supported us over the last 18 years. I am tired of this war, but to abandon people who supported us just to gain peace wreaks of how we abandoned the South Vietnamese.

Back then we were not afraid to take in the South Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, but under Trump we would leave the people we fought for and who fought with us to death. The Trump administration does not care about them because they are dark skinned and Muslim. It would be a stab in the heart of our national ideals, and for that I am glad that those talk fell through, not that I support the loss of another life, of any nationality or religion in this war. I have lost too many friends, beginning with Army LTC Karen Wagner who died at the Pentagon on 9-11, to others who died in combat in Iraq, and Afghanistan to accept such an action that is only designed to get the President the Nobel Peace Prize. I couldn’t give a damn about the President’s narcissism and need for approval, and his need to get a Nobel Peace Prize because Barack Obama already has one.

As for me, I did a lot of thinking about what happened 18 years ago, the people, the victims, and those that continue to suffer because of those attacks and the subsequent wars which have followed.

On Wednesday September 12th I woke up to a new world, and over the process of years my life was changed. We had a 9-11 Memorial on my base today. It was touching because it was about the events and the people. My new young chaplain did well in his part, the baton has been passed to a new generation. I just hope for their sake that war will not be the norm in the future. I hope that our leaders and other world leaders will seek peace rather than war. Otherwise we are doomed.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under afghanistan, History, Military, philosophy, Photo Montages, shipmates and veterans, terrorism

Dien Bien Phu: The Soldiers and the Lessons Forgotten and Unlearned 65 Years Later

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France. Last year, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe laid a wreath at the French Monument at Dien Bien Phu, accompanied by several elderly veterans of the battle. The French veterans were met with kindness by their former opponents.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at Dien Bien Phu’s French Memorial

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General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2011

Years before, on May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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Captured French soldiers are marched through the fields after their surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. More than 10,000 French troops were captured after a 55 day siege . The French defeat ended nearly a century of French occupation of Indochina. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency)

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 18 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win. That being said the Trump administration is talking up and ramping up for a possible showdown with Iran.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Return to My Tipperary

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am a bit tired and going to post so,etching that basically is a rerun. Ten years ago today I stepped off a plane with the man who had been my body guard and assistant for the past seven months in Iraq. War had changed me more than I had every imagined that it would. Even though I was physically home I wasn’t and over the next decade the war remained with me, and in some ways it still does.

I have written about my struggles with what I sometimes describe as the “Demons of PTSD” and while I am doing much better now than even two years ago I still suffer from it. But being a historian has allowed me to find connections to other men who have suffered from their experience of war, came home changed, and struggled for their existence in the world that they came home to.

The words of those men have helped me to frame my experience even in the darkest times often in ways that my faith did not. One of the things that I struggled with the most and still do is sleep. When I was conducting my research on the Battle of Gettysburg I got to know through biographies and their own writings a good number of the men who fought that battle who are now remembered as heroes. One of these was Major General Gouveneur Warren who has shattered by his experiences during the war. He wrote to his wife after the war: “I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” 

About every year around this time I feel a sense of melancholy as I reflect on war and my return from it. Today I was reading a number of George Santayana’s Soliloquies in England, in particular one entitled Tipperary which he wrote in the time shortly after the war. I think that the first time that I heard the song was when I saw a Charlie Brown special where Snoopy as the World War One Flying Ace alternates between happiness and tears as Schroeder plays the song on his piano.

In Santayana’s soliloquy he comments on the wounded officers that he sees singing the song in a coffee house and he wonders if they understand how different the world is now. I love the song, the chorus is below.

It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
farewell to Piccadilly
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there

Santayana wrote:

“It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.

I wonder what they think Tipperary means for this is a mystical song. Probably they are willing to leave it vague, as they do their notions of honour or happiness or heaven. Their soldiering is over; they remember, with a strange proud grief, their comrades who died to make this day possible, hardly believing that it ever would come ; they are overjoyed, yet half ashamed, to be safe themselves ; they forget their wounds ; they see a green vista before them, a jolly, busy, sporting, loving life in the old familiar places. Everything will go on, they fancy, as if nothing had happened…

So long as the world goes round we shall see Tipperary only, as it were, out of the window of our troop-train. Your heart and mine may remain there, but it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

In the same work Santayana mused on the nature of humanity and war, making one of his most famous observation “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

In the United States we live in a world where war is an abstraction and the vast majority of people have no clue about it or its cost. When I hear the American President make wild threats of war and the cavalier attitude of his sycophants toward it I realize that Santayana was right, only the dead have seen the end of war.

When I returned to the United States in 2008 it was incredibly hard to readjust to life in a country that knew not war and I was reminded of the words of Guy Sajer in his book The Forgotten Soldier. Sajer was a French Alsacian of German descent who spent nearly four years fighting as an ordinary infantry soldier on the Eastern Front. When he returned home he struggled and he wrote:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

A similar reflection was made by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quite on the Western Front:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

I have to admit that for the better part of the past decade when I get out of my safe spaces I often feel the same way. I don’t like crowed places, confined area, and other places that I don’t feel safe in. When I am out I always am on alert, and while I don’t have quite the hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance that I once lived with, I am much more aware of my surroundings and always plan an escape route from any public venue that I happen to find myself. Likewise, I still deal with terribly physical nightmares and night terrors, more than one in the past month.

As I read and re-read Santayana words I came back to his observation of the officers that he saw in the coffee house and I could see myself in them:

“I suddenly heard a once familiar strain, now long despised and out of favour, the old tune of Tipperary. In a coffee-house frequented at that hour some wounded officers from the hospital at Somerville were singing it, standing near the bar; they were breaking all rules, both of surgeons and of epicures, and were having champagne in the morning. And good reason they had for it. They were reprieved, they should never have to go back to the front, their friends such as were left could all come home alive. Instinctively the old grumbling, good-natured, sentimental song, which they used to sing when they first joined, came again into their minds.

It had been indeed a long, long way to Tipperary. But they had trudged on and had come round full circle; they were in Tipperary at last.” 

I too am now in my own Tipperary on this side of the Atlantic. I have been reprieved, at least temporarily,  but as Santayana noted  “it s a long, long way that the world has to go.” 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve

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Unassuming, Competent, and Honorable: George H. W. Bush 1924-2018

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I was working on another article last night and called it quits because I was tired. I’ll finish and post it tomorrow. But as I was settling in for the night my iPhone and iPad lit up with notifications that former President George H. W. Bush had died.

Many others from across the political spectrum have paid tribute to him far better than Incan ever hope to do. I had a lot of admiration for him. He brought a wealth of experience into the White House which paid huge dividends for the nation and the world as the Cold War ended and the world that we had known for forty years changed overnight.

It was a time fraught with real danger. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact brought freedom to much of Eastern Europe, but also unleashed a storm of long suppressed, but ancient ethnic and religious hatreds, especially in the Balkans. Likewise, the system by which the United States and the Soviet Union kept client States in line collapsed. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was but one of these nations.

Likewise, China responded to calls for democracy by crushing the peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Some leaders of Warsaw Pact nations whose people began to push for democracy and freedom were tempted to use force to crush their protestors, but none did. Credit has to be given to President Bush for how he used his knowledge, influence, and diplomatic skills to help bring down the Berlin Wall as Communist regimes collapsed all across Eastern Europe.

When Saddam Hussein brazenly invaded Kuwait, it was Bush who worked with the United Nations to build a true international coalition against Hussein and to ensure that Iraq was unable to split that coalition, which included many Arab nations, when it began shooting SCUD missiles at Israel.

At home he wanted a kinder and gentler country, something that we could sure use today. He was despised by Right Wing Republicans and Conservatives for not being “conservative enough.” Of course, the kind of conservatives they wanted in government were the uncompromising, yet morally bankrupt men like Newt Gingrich, and ultimately Donald Trump.

Bush’s political problem was one of hs greatest strengths. He was a decent man who brought humility to his office and did not make the Presidency about himself. He was gracious in defeat and went on work with the man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton, on a number of humanitarian projects.

He was the last member of what has been termed “the Greatest Generation” serve as President. As a nineteen year old he put college on hold and became the second youngest man commissioned as a Naval Aviator. While serving with VT-51 (Torpedo Squadron 51) based on the USS San Jacinto, his TBM Avenger torpedo bomber was shot down over Chuchi Jima. With his aircraft’s engine on fire from hits from Japanese anti aircraft fire, Bush piloted his aircraft away from land to enable his crew to bail out. One went down with the aircraft, the other’s parachute failed to open. Bush landed in the ocean. U.S. fighter aircraft circled overhead and four hours later he was fished from the sea by the crew of the submarine USS Finback. Upon his return to the San Jacinto, Bush rejoined his squadron and flew until the squadron was rotated out of combat. He flew 58 combat missions and was received the Distinguished Flying Cross and three awards of the Air Medal.

Of the Presidents that served in the Second World War, only Bush and John F. Kennedy came so close to death serving in the Pacific. Gerald Ford served in combat operations about the Light Carrier USS Monterrey, a sister ship of San Jacinto for a year and a half. Richard Nixon volunteered for service even though being a Quaker he could have claimed consciousness objector status. He applied for sea duty but was assigned to various logistics and administrative assignments in the Pacific throughout the war. Lyndon Johnson served in the South Pacific, interrupting his congressional term to personally report on the situation to President Franklin Roosevelt. During his tour he got himself aboard an Army Air Force B-26 Marauder which was on a combat mission. There are differences in what happened during the mission, but alone among the crew Johnson, was recommended by Douglas MacArthur for, and awarded the Silver Star. Of course, Ronald Reagan, who had become a Reserve Officer in 1937, never left the Continental United States and was engaged in making training and recruitment films. Jimmy Carter entered the Naval Academy in 1943 but was commissioned too late to see service in the war.

Bush epitomized public service as an elected and appointed official, serving as a Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, Envoy to the People’s Republic of China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, before becoming Ronald Reagan’s Vice President.

As President he surrounded himself with competent professionals who were up to the challenges that his Presidency had to deal with. Unlike his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, there was no shady Iran Contra scandal, or Bill Clinton’s descent into extramarital forced fellatio with White House Intern Monica Lewinski and his lies about it. Neither can his response to Saddam Hussein’s Invasion of Kuwait in 1990 be compared to the criminal invasion launched by his son against Iraq in 2003.

Unlike many of his predecessors and successors he could not only take a jokes and parodies, but became a friend with one of his most successful imitators, Dana Carvey, from Saturday Night Live. Carvey’s parody of the President inspired me to learn to imitate him, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Bob Dole and others. Most people who have heard me think that I do Clinton the best, some say that my impersonation of him is scary, but I digress. At his final White House holiday party before he left office, Bush secretly invited Carvey. They became lifelong friends. But that is who George H. W. Bush was, and why I can appreciate him so much.

He was a devoted husband and father. He was preceded in death by his wife Barbara and daughter Robin.

May he Rest In Peace.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Forgotten Soldiers: Remembering the Men of Dien Bien Phu 64 Years After the Battle

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

It was an epic battle in a tragic war and most people neither know or care what happened in the valley where a small border post named Dien Bien Phu became synonymous with forgotten sacrifice. This year fewer remembrances are taking place. Some are in Vietnam and others in France.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap was the last senior commander on either side at that time, and he died a year and a half later at the age of 102.  That 2011 ceremony was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors used to gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps who were lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies were held as late as 2014. There appear to be no services to honor their memory this year.

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Legionnaires of the Second Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion at Dien Bien Phu 

This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

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French Prisoners

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template for victory based on their battle at Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Instead of high ground they elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They went light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  To make matters worse, General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina was informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements. Despite this, he elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Once on the ground French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions at Dien Bien Phu were exposed to an an enemy who held the high ground, had more powerful artillery, and placed in defensive positions that were not mutually supporting. The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh. As such they could only dig in and wait for battle. Despite this many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was in emplaced positions that were easily targeted by Viet Minh artillery and not hardened.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

The French garrison was a good quality military force composed of veteran units. It was comprised of Paras, Foreign Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops. Ordinarily in a pitched battle it would have done well, but this was no ordinary battle and their Viet Minh opponents were equally combat hardened, well led and well supplied and fighting for their independence.

Many of the French officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Marcel Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indochina including David Galula and Roger Trinquier would write books and develop counter-insurgency tactics which would help Americans in Iraq. Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose firepower from well concealed positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among the French aircraft that attempted to supply the base.  Unlike at Na-Son, Giap did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions. These trenches provided both concealment and protection from the French. In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web that enveloped the French base.

Without belaboring the point the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh. One after one French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

Relief forces were unable to get through and the garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops. Colonials and Legionaries. The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power. The survivors endured a brutal forced march of nearly 400 miles on foot to POW camps in which many died. Many soldiers who survived the hell of Dien Bien Phu were subjected to torture, including a practice that we call “water boarding.” General Georges Catroux who presided over the official inquiry into the debacle at Dien Bien Phu wrote in his memoirs: “It is obvious that there was, on the part of our commanding structure, an excess of confidence in the merit of our troops and in the superiority of our material means.”

Few French troops caved to the Viet Minh interrogations and torture but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  Some French troops and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release. French soldiers and officers were shipped directly from Indochina to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency often against Algerians that they had served alongside in Indochina. The Algerian campaign proved to be even more brutal and it was lost politically before it even began.

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The March to Captivity

The wars in Indochina and Algeria tore the heart out of the French Army. The defeats inflicted a terrible toll. In Indochina many French career soldiers felt that the government’s “lack of interest in the fate of both thousands of missing French prisoners and loyal North Vietnamese…as dishonorable.” Divisions arose between those who served and those who remained in France or Germany and created bitter enmity between soldiers. France would endure a military coup which involved many who had fought in Vietnam and Algeria. Having militarily won that war these men called The Centurions by Jean Lartenguy had been turned into liars by their government.  They were forced to abandon those who they had fought for and following the mutiny, tried, imprisoned, exiled or disgraced. Colonial troops who remained loyal to France were left without homes in their now “independent” nations. They saw Dien Bien Phu as the defining moment. “They responded with that terrible cry of pain which pretends to free a man from his sworn duty, and promises such chaos to come: ‘Nous sommes trahis!’-‘We are betrayed.’

The effects of the wars in French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam on the French military establishment were long lasting and often tragic. The acceptance of torture as a means to an end sullied even the hardest French officers. Men like Galula and Marcel Bigeard refused to countenance it, while others like Paul Aussaresses never recanted.

One of the most heart rending parts of the Dien Bien Phu story for me is that of Easter 1954 which fell just prior to the end for the French:

“In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Like many American veterans of Vietnam, many of the survivors of Dien Bien Phu made peace and reconciled with the Vietnamese soldiers who opposed them. While many still regretted losing they respected their Vietnamese opponents and questioned the leadership of their country and army. Colonel Jacques Allaire, who served as a lieutenant in a battalion under the command of MajorMarcel Bigeard reflected to a Vietnamese correspondent in 2014:

“I am now 92 years old and not a single day has gone by since the Dien Bien Phu loss that I haven’t wondered to myself about why the French army lost…Victory was impossible and too far away from us. The aircrafts were not able to give us relief. The French Government changed 19 times in nine years and that messed everything up. General Navarre did not know anything about the battlefield in Vietnam. After the Na San battle, the French commanders thought they could win and decided to attack at Dien Bien Phu, but they were wrong. It was Vietnamese soldiers who owned the hills, because it was their country… I respect my own enemies, who fought hard for national independence…Vietnam Minh soldiers were true soldiers with the will, courage and morality…” 

As a veteran of Iraq whose father served in Vietnam I feel an almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy, Algiers and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong. When it comes to this time of year I always have a sense of melancholy and dread as I think of the unlearned lessons and future sacrifices that we may be asked to make.

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and so far over 2400 in Afghanistan, and 20,000 wounded which does not count many of the PTSD or TBI cases. Add the casualties suffered by our NATO allies the number of allied dead is now over 3500. Some 36,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and Police officers have been killed. Afghan civilian deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 400,000, not counting the wounded or those killed in Pakistan. In January 2018 the Pentagon classified data on Afghan military, police, and civilian casualties.

The Afghan debacle has spanned three Presidential administrations so there accountability for it must be shared between Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as their administrations, the military, and Congress. President Trump has shifted gears from the time he was a candidate when he pronounced the war “lost” to when addressed it as President on August 21st 2017. In his speech at fort Myer Virginia he said:

“When I became President, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into:  big and intricate problems.  But, one way or another, these problems will be solved — I’m a problem solver — and, in the end, we will win.” 

But he also said:

“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen…” 

There are those even as we have been at war for almost 17 years in Afghanistan who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. I do not know how the President who calls himself a “problem solver” will define winning, but how many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die  for a “victory” that we cannot even define?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

Like the French our troops who returned from Vietnam were forgotten.The U.S. Army left Vietnam and returned to a country deeply divided by the war. Vietnam veterans remained ostracized by the society until the 1980s. As Lieutenant General Harold Moore  who commanded the battalion at the Ia Drang immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers recounted “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.”

I think that will be the case for those of us who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. Americans love to say they support the troops and are overwhelmingly polite and even kind when they encounter veterans. But that being said even as they do that they don’t are ignorant about our campaigns, battles, and sacrifices; and even worse fail to hold the government regardless of administration accountable for sending American troops into wars that they cannot win.

I guess that is why I identify so much with the men of Dien Bien Phu. The survivors of that battle are now in their nineties and dissolved their Veterans of Dien Bien Phu association in 2014 due to the difficulties most had in traveling.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu – The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. A novel that has some really good insights into the battle and the French Paras and Legionnaires who fought in Indochina and Algeria is Jean Larteguy’s  The Centurions. 

I always find Fall’s work poignant.  The French journalist served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam. He was killed on February 21st 1967 near Hue by what was then known as a “booby-trap” and what would now be called an IED while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

I do pray that we will learn the lessons before we enter yet another hell somewhere else.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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