Category Archives: shipmates and veterans

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

Diplomat_Sep10059-227x300

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.

155fdecaef82e8d699102f2c5390203c

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.

<img src="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg?w=500&quot; class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-11759" data-attachment-id="11759" data-permalink="https://padresteve.com/2013/05/06/remembering-hell-the-fall-of-dien-bien-phu-59-years-gone-by-and-still-forgotten/french-soldiers-surrender-3/&quot; data-orig-file="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg&quot; data-orig-size="375,253" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"AP","camera":"","caption":"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)","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"FRENCH SOLDIERS SURRENDER"}" data-image-title="FRENCH SOLDIERS SURRENDER" data-image-description="

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)

” data-medium-file=”https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg?w=300&#8243; data-large-file=”https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg?w=375&#8243; alt=”FRENCH SOLDIERS SURRENDER” srcset=”https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg 375w, https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg?w=150 150w, https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/french_surrender_at_dien_bien_phu1.jpg?w=300 300w” sizes=”(max-width: 375px) 100vw, 375px” style=”height: auto; max-width: 100%; margin-bottom: 2px; clear: both; display: block; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto”>

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.

nlfmainforce

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.

dien-bien-phu

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.

bigeard_instruction_saut

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.

65193421-small_269244

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.

dien bien phu6

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.

dien_bien_phu

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.

FrenchForeignLegionaireVtNamDOD

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?

normal_03_56_F8F_decollage_a_DBP_Beriel_ph

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+

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under counterinsurency in afghanistan, Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

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

1 Comment

Filed under faith, History, iraq, middle east, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, to iraq and back, Tour in Iraq

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+

2 Comments

Filed under History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary, shipmates and veterans

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.

Diplomat_Sep10059-227x300

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.

155fdecaef82e8d699102f2c5390203c

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.

FRENCH SOLDIERS SURRENDER

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.

nlfmainforce

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.

dien-bien-phu

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.

bigeard_instruction_saut

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.

65193421-small_269244

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.

dien bien phu6

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.

dien_bien_phu

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.

FrenchForeignLegionaireVtNamDOD

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?

normal_03_56_F8F_decollage_a_DBP_Beriel_ph

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+

 

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

I had a Comrade: Farewell LTC John Penree

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today marks a solemn occasion at our base. We will be saying our farewell at a memorial service for our Army Deputy Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Penree. He passed away late last Monday night. He was beloved by many and had served our country in the New York Army National Guard and the United States Army for 42 years.

He will receive full military honors in the ceremony which is a collaboration between the Army and the Navy. His wife Patty and his six children will be in attendance along with a number of high ranking officers and other dignitaries. I only knew and worked with him for a year but came to love him and consider him a friend. We had worked together the Saturday before he died at a ceremony marking opening day for the Little League the meets on our base. Not long before that we had enjoyed a day working and playing with the German contingent from NATO and their families. He was a good man and a good comrade in arms. In the words of the old German military funeral march Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden “Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden, Einen bessern findest du nit…” I had a comrade, you will find none better.

Today I will include that thought in my meditation at the service and will,close the service with the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McRea, a Canadian Soldier, physician, and poet in the First World War. His poem, In Flanders Fields is a classic and it speaks to soldiers as few poems can:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

    Between the crosses, row on row,

  That mark our place; and in the sky

  The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.   Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

  Loved and were loved, and now we lie

      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

  The torch; be yours to hold it high.

  If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

      In Flanders fields.

I will leave you with that and ask you to pray for John, his family, and those that he leaves behind.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under faith, Military, ministry, shipmates and veterans

Honoring Vietnam Veterans

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I had the honor of delivering the invocation and benediction at a ceremony and luncheon in honor of Vietnam Veterans and their families at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Americans from the embassy in Saigon. About 400 Vietnam vets and the families, or in some cases their surviving spouses or children were on hand along with about another hundred or so other people including civic leaders, government officials, and members of other military associations or groups, as well as members of college ROTC and high school Junior ROTC programs.

We often get requests to support ceremonies for active duty members, retirees, and veterans groups, especially and there will be a number more coming up with the commemoration of 76th anniversary of the attack upon Pearl Harbor. Since this one fell on a holiday weekend and I had no services to conduct I took this on to ensure my chaplains who were not conducting services didn’t have to break up their weekend and to ensure that those that were conducting services didn’t have to rush to or from their services to cover this event which took up most of the afternoon. I also took it because it dealt with Vietnam veterans. My dad and many of the men who shaped me as a young soldier and officer were Vietnam veterans and I always feel that I owe them and their families my time.

I think that it is fitting and important to honor these men and women. The Vietnam War still leaves its mark upon the country, like an unhealed wound, as Americans who supported the war, opposed it, went to war, or found ways to avoid serving as our current President did wrestle with what happened in that era, of which the war was just one component of a larger social upheaval that marked a definitive break with much of our past.

I had the honor of meeting and speaking with some of those present today, as did Judy who went with me. I also ran into one of my now retired colleagues from EOD Group Two, and was able to mix with some of the high school Navy Junior ROTC cadets, sharing with them my experiences as an NJROTC cadet in the 1970s and how it helped me become who I am today.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, shipmates and veterans, vietnam

Retirement Honors

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Today I have the honor or participating in the retirement ceremony of my friend Vince Miller at Naval Station Norfolk. He is retiring from the Navy Chaplain Corps as a Commander after 24 years of service. He is a dear friend and a man of great integrity and one of the conscientious men that I know in the Chaplain Corps. He has served with the Marines, as well as at sea, and with the SEALS. He has served in Iraq, and has done much to better the lives of people at a number of shore installations as a base Chaplain and pastor.

I appreciate Vince’s friendship and I am pleased that I will have the honor or participating in his retirement ceremony. Lord willing in not too many years I will be retiring too, but with nearly two full careers between the Army and the Navy spanning nearly 40 years when I retire in 2020 or 2021.

But for those who have never served it is hard to fully appreciate what a man like Vince, and his family, have accomplished and endured in his 24 years of service. This is not a vocation for the faint of heart, or those who are enamored with uniforms and the possibility of having power over the lives of others. To be a chaplain and a naval officer one has to really desire to put others first and be a servant leader. I know that there are officers and including a good number of chaplains who are not that, but in fact are quite toxic, I have served under a number of them in my career, so when a good chaplain like Vince retires there is always a void left.

However, Vince is, and always has been a servant leader who has likewise endured much at the hands of toxic leaders. But that being said he has always remained humble and devoted to caring for the people of God in the military, regardless of their rank, position, race, creed, color, religion, gender, or sexual preference. He sees people as people, created in the image of God who are all worthy of being cared for, respected, and loved.

We lose a fine chaplain tomorrow. I know that Vince will continue to care for and serve people as a minister in his church regardless of what he does next in life, and that he will always be my friend and care about me.

I think Vince would agree with the words of Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and the former head of U.S. Special Forces Command:

“Remember… start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the bullies, life up the downtrodden, and never, ever give up – if you do these things, then you can change your life for the better… and maybe the world!”

I am honored to have a part in his retirement ceremony today, for he is worthy of being honored for his service to God and country. It is an honor to have served with him, for he truly is my brother.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under faith, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, shipmates and veterans, US Navy