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Goodbyes and Prayers: Sending Friends off to War

My little war within the war, Christmas with the Bedouin

Yesterday I was honored to be at a pre-deployment ceremony for a number of my shipmates from Portsmouth Naval Medical Center about half of I know fairly well.  There were physicians, nurses and hospital corpsmen in the group, some going to Afghanistan with the Marines, NATO or the Army while others were going to Guantanamo Bay or Djibouti, the country rejected by both Eritrea and Ethiopia. I already have seen a good number of friends and colleagues from our Medical Center deploy and in some cases return and I know of one corpsman that came back wounded while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.

COP South

I have done many of these send offs since coming to Portsmouth but I think that today I knew a higher percentage of the personnel deploying than normally is the case.  At these ceremonies it is customary for the chaplain to pray for our shipmates as well as their family members.  This deployment comes in the midst of monthly casualties reaching their highest point in the war and shortly after two US Navy sailors being killed when for whatever reason they left their base in Kabul in an up armored Toyota Land Cruiser and proceeded to drive alone to one of the most dangerous areas of the country.  With that in mind the safety of our shipmates is something that I and those that serve are ever mindful of when we send our people to deploy.  Yesterday I spent more time with the deploying sailors before and following the ceremony because so many were friends or close colleagues. The goodbyes from me this time were different as I will not be at Portsmouth when my friends return. My assignment as the Command Chaplain at Naval Hospital Camp LeJuene means that I won’t be there but I will continue to keep them in my prayers and stay in contact with as many as I can through e-mail or Facebook.  At LeJuene I will meet old friends from Portsmouth as well as from my Marine tours.  I will also get to deal with a lot more Marines and Sailors dealing with physical as well as psychological injuries resulting from their time in harm’s way in either Iraq or Afghanistan or in many cases both countries.

Pause for possible IED

It has been three years since I deployed to Iraq, in fact three years to the day yesterday that I arrived in Kuwait to complete final training before going into country.  When I was over in Iraq I was blessed my many expressions of support of many people, churches, schools and veterans groups.  At the same time I did not sense the overwhelming support of the people for our troops and that included many members of the political establishment that seemed more interested in using the war to advance their political objectives and unfortunately that was truly a bi-partisan endeavor.  Since we are an all volunteer force it seems to me that the only people really paying attention are people with sons, daughters, mothers or fathers or other family members or friends in harm’s way.  For others supporting the troops is little more than a bumper sticker affirmation, which I appreciate as at least most people aren’t damning us as so many did in Vietnam, a war that my dad served in and which as a Navy dependant experienced in the way that military families were treated by the protest set.

On Syrian Border with Iraqi Border Troops

Today I saw an article about an Army Lieutenant one Christopher Babcock http://gen-reading.blogspot.com/ at a tiny base in Afghanistan.  I often felt this way when in Iraq, especially those times that I came back into the large base that I operated from and saw various news channels on AFN including Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.  Much of what I saw coming out of the mouths of reporters or politicians, showed me just how out of touch and how little our leaders on both sides of the political divide, the media and the American public understood this war.

Convoy in Ramadi shortly before we took fire

My war experience was different. The places I went were the places most people never heard of or will ever hear about.  My assistant and I travelled thousands of miles in fixed and rotor wing aircraft as well as in many tiny poorly armed convoys in the badlands of Al Anbar Province to the small Iraqi bases where our advisors to the Iraqi Army and security forces worked.  In the assignment I got to know a decent number of Iraqi officers and even spoke to the first class of female Iraqi Police officers in training at Ramadi.  I believed then and now that Iraq will do well in the long run.  Back in 2007 very few people believed that, but having gotten to know many fine Iraqis I know that they will repair their country and move on with life. They have been at war in some way shape or form since 1980 and are war weary and most want to move on to live in peace and raise their children.

Guests of Major General Sabah of 7th Iraqi Division

I do not believe this to be the case in Afghanistan. History tells me that we will have no better outcome than the Soviets.  We lost our opportunity when we let up on the pressure in Afghanistan to concentrate on Iraq. The Taliban were able to rebuild and regain control of much of the country between the Iraq invasion and 2010.  I honestly don’t know if we as a nation have the wherewithal to win this war or the resources to do so.  Many outstanding Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen as well as personnel from the CIA perform heroic work on a daily basis but they do not have the numbers or resources to fight a successful counter-insurgency campaign when the Afghan people by and large hate the Karzai regime and cast their lot with the Taliban despite their miserable life under that brutal, medieval fundamentalist Islamic regime.

But we go on with each service sacrificing needed equipment and personnel to fund the war. Even now the Navy is going to be cut maybe up to 25,000 sailors without any mission decrease. Likewise there will be no let up of the use of Navy personnel as Individual Augments to Marine, Army or NATO forces in the Middle East and in other locations.  As it is the force seems to be stretched beyond belief with many sailors not only deploying in traditional at seas, Fleet Marine Force, Seabee or Special Operations billets but when they are supposedly on the downhill side in a shore billet are pulled to serve as an Individual Augment.   The Army and the Marines are worn down by constant deployments with no end in sight.  There are no new drafts of personnel, end strength is limited and the same people go back time and time again.  If I was told I needed to head to Afghanistan I would because that is where many of my friends are and as a Priest and Chaplain I could do no other, but I would go with no illusions about the mission, the risk or the likely outcome of the war. It would be the place to care for God’s people serving in harm’s way.

Brotherhood of War

While this is going on there is the ever present threat of war on the Korean Peninsula or with Iran. A war in either location would open yet another front in a worldwide conflict, when we are already stretched to the breaking point elsewhere.  Any conflict in those areas could generate more casualties in a short period of time than all the personnel that we have lost in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Goodbyes and prayers… I am sure that there will be more of both in my future.  I just ask my readers to keep their head in the game when it comes to the wars that we are in.  Don’t leave the troops on a bumper sticker but keep them in your hearts and prayers and serve them through your actions.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under counterinsurency in afghanistan, iraq,afghanistan, Military, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

War, Remembrance and Healing: A Chaplain, Officer and Historian Makes His Way Home

The first version of this post was written in the spring of 2008 when I was doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting after Iraq. It was originally run in my church’s online news service.  I post it now with some updates that have been brought about by new ways that I am rediscovering God and because of the current situation in Afghanistan which has become worse in the past year. As I read news releases about casualties and attacks on NATO forces and Afghan civilians, especially those in small outposts or serving as advisers and trainers I am reminded of my time in Iraq.  Please don’t forget those who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, or those who have served in prior wars. Especially keep in your prayers and help assist those who have returned injured in mind, body or spirit and those who made the supreme sacrifice.

874Leaving a Bedouin Camp 1 mile from Syria

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past since returning from Iraq. Since I’ve been back about a year and a half I can say that I have changed as a result of my service there.  Change can be scary but in my case it has been both necessary and probably good.  Ministry, theology and history have been part of my life for many years; they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. When I first wrote this piece not long after returning I was in pretty bad shape but in the months since I have been attempting to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return. I’m not done yet by any means, but things are getting better, not quite like Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better…Kill Clouseau!” but a slowly getting better with some occasional bumps in the road.

One of the things that I have wrestled with is my faith, and returning from war changes a man.  Before I went to Iraq I thought that I had things pretty much together.  When I came home and fell apart it also affected my faith, doing little things became difficult and the effects were exaggerated by my isolation.  In a sense it was my Saint John of the Cross Dark night of the Soul experience.  I felt that God had abandoned me, people would come to me with their crisis of faith and I had to dig deep to stay with them, but in doing so I became acutely aware of the fact that I shared this with them. I couldn’t hide behind my collar or the cross on my uniform as the crisis was an interruption which drove me out of my comfort zone and forced me to deal with the world that the people I minister among deal with every day.

291Iraqi Police in Ramadi Escorting Civilians Across the War Zone of Route Michigan

There are those who believe that all forms of ministry are basically the same and that lessons learned are universally applicable and that somehow all ministries are proclamation oriented.  Unfortunately that is not the case and one of the places that this is true is the Military Chaplain ministry.  This mibnistry is much different than parish or para-church ministries and even different than other institutional ministries such as Police, Fire, Industrial or civilian health care chaplaincy.   It is different in that it is more incarnation versus proclamation. We not only minster to our people but we live among them.  We live the experience of those that we serve, especially in the uncertainly of war and deployments.  Chaplains live in a world where we are fully military officers and fully ministers of our own church or faith tradition. As a chaplain I never lose my calling of being a priest, but I am a priest in uniform, a military professional and go where our nations send me to serve the Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen who I live among be that overseas, or in the States.

142Always a Priest Eucharist with Advisers in the Far West of Al Anbar

There is always a tension in the military chaplain ministry. This is  especially true when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There are those that oppose the military chaplaincy on theological or philosophic grounds, usually some manner of absolutist understanding of ministry, church-state relations or social justice considerations.  My purpose is here not to defend military chaplain institutions against such criticism but rather to share the world and tension that military chaplains live in when our nation is engaged in unpopular which some consider unjust or illegal wars.

training team baseIsolated Base Camp for Advisers in Afghanistan

A lot of people have no “ethical” or “moral” qualms about wars that are easy to pigeonhole as just wars, especially if we win quickly and easily.  It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for religious people, especially more conservative Christians to give the credit to the Lord for the “victory.”  Unfortunately such “Credit” is given without them ever understanding or sometimes even caring about the human cost of war.   Likewise it is easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God’s involvement.  Conversely and maybe even perversely I have heard some say that God has blessed the use of weapons or tactics that violate principles of fighting a “just war” especially that of proportionality. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause but I do think that many chaplains have a less “cheerleading” approach than many in conservative churches. The challenge for chaplains in such an environment is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus. To do so we must care for the least, the lost and the lonely and never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent and the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

237Iraqi Kids in Al Anbar Province, a couple of months before they could not venture outside because of insurgent attacks, children are never winners in war

We are now seeing the conflict in Iraq winding down and what until this year had been “the good war” in Afghanistan go bad and support for it decline.  Strategy is being debated as how to best “win” the war in Afghanistan even as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different and really doesn’t allow for them to indulge themselves in “cheerleading.” In fact chaplains can themselves through isolation, lack of experience and fear can become more reflective and less “cheerleader” oriented the longer the war goes on without sign of appreciable progress, much less victory.  They feel the onslaught of their soldiers doubts, fears as well as the loss of friends and the chapel congregation through being killed or wounded in action. This  can take a terrible toll even for the most resilient of chaplain. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, revolutionary wars, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war, all of which can affect the chaplain.

dien_bien_phu paras landingFrench Paratroops Landing at Dien Bien Phu

Chaplains volunteer to go with and place themselves in harms way to care for God’s people in the combat zone or far away from home. While they do this there are supporters of war as well as detractors who have no earthly clue about war or life in the military other then what they see in the media or experienced in peacetime or the cold war. Some supporters often seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members change with the particular war.

legion indo-chinaForeign Legion Troops in Indochina

In order to somehow make sense of going on we cannot simply think of what is politically expedient for either those who support or want to expand the war, or others who want it ended now, both of which have consequences many of which are bad.  I think that we have to look at history and not just to American history to find answers, not simply answers to how to win or end the war but answers to the consequences that either course of action posits. Thus I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops, Colonials (Marines) and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China. These men, not all of who were French were placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

french troops indochinaFrench Troops on the March in Indochina

One author describes Easter 1954: “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) This can be a terrible burden for the Padre who cares for such men.  Ministry in such places is truly an incarnational experience because there is no place to hide and the chaplain is as vulnerable as his flock.  It is the ministry that places us “in the valley of the shadow of death” where as the Psalmist says we are “to fear no evil for you are with us.” It is the ministry of Good Friday where to all appearances seems that God has abandoned the field and evil has won.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUFrench Surrender at Dien Bien Phu

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

legion algeriaLegionaries in Algeria, many French Troops Went from one War in Indochina to another in Algeria only to have the De Gaulle Government throw the Military Victory Away and Cause a Crisis

You probably wonder where I am going with this, back when I first drafted this year and a half ago I wondered too. But here is where I think I am going. We live in difficult of times at home and in Afghanistan.  It home we are mired in an economic crisis clouded by deep political division.  In Afghanistan we are engaged in a hard fight where units we are taking casualties and the mission is being debated.  Sometimes to those deployed and those who returned that their sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.  This of course is not universally true as there a people of all political viewpoints who care for the welfare and attempt to ensure that those who serve are not abandoned as those men who served in Vietnam.  I think that part of the feeling comes from the presentation of the war by the media which tends to focus only on the negative outcomes and not positive things that our soldiers accomplish. That can be discouraging to the men and women on the ground.  One of the most difficult things for me upon my return was to see the bitterness a division in the American people and political establishments and becoming quite depressed about it.   I stopped watching the perpetual news cycle and listening to talk radio.  The hatred, ignorance and crassness of it all was disheartening and I refuse to take any part in something that is so hate filled, power driven and unredemptive.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team With Afghan Troops

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people.  Nor was it fully appreciated by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim.  At the same time their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. The sacrifice of French soldiers would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the “Greatest Generation” was citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military fighting unpopular wars and that makes our service just a bit different than those who went before us.  I related to the French troops who fought in Indochina and Algeria as well as our own Vietnam Vets than I do to others.  These is a kinship among us that goes beyond nationality, politics or age.

This is the world in which military chaplains’ minister.  It is a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals, men and women who enlist knowing that they will be deployed and quite likely end up in a combat zone. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. It is a ministry of reconciliation by the means of incarnation. Many times those outside the military do not understand this. It is a different world full of contradictions and ambiguity.  Such situations even impact the families of those who serve.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. As the country builds to the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections I anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops or the war in order to bolster their election chances which do not always coincide with what is in the best interest of the troops or the mission. Chaplains cannot be concerned about the politics nor even the policy as our duty is to be there as Priests, Ministers, Rabbis and Imams for those that we serve. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because of all the strife in the body politic.  In addition we must continue on because most churches and other religious communities, even those supportive of our troops really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which may be foreign or archaic to many Americans, or for those countries with troops and chaplains in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful to God as well as to those that we serve.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China 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 Dienbeinphu 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. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.

Madonna of StalingradMadonna of Stalingrad

So as you can see I have done a lot of reflecting over the past year and a half. It has been a spiritual journey, an intellectual and academic journey and a personal journey of slowly healing and recovery.  I have gone through some changes in the process which have not been easy, but certainly have deepened my faith even as I struggled and made me much more appreciative of life, love and peace.

I write in order to wrestle with what I have mentioned here, and I try to write something every night. I can full agree with Father Henri Nouwen in his book Beyond the Mirror as to the purpose that writing serves me in my journey.

“These many interruptions calling me ‘beyond’ compelled me to write. First of all, simply because writing seemed to be the only way for me not to lose heart to in the frightening and often devastating interruptions and to hold onto my innermost self while moving from known to unknown places. Writing helped me to remain somewhat focused amid the turmoil and discern the small guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony of distracting voices.  But there is a second motivation. Somehow I believed that writing was the one way tom let something of lasting value emerge from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.  Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory, I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others- perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too, out of an awareness that my deepest vocation is to be a witness of the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.”

pub2Slowly Getting Better

I am healing though it has been at times painful, but faith is returning and I can say that though it has not been easy it has been worth it.  I do hope that what little I do in my work and in my writing will be of help to those who struggle and those who recognize their own need for reconciliation, healing who need to hope again no matter who they are and what their circumstance.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Effects of Counter-Insurgency Operations on U.S. and French Forces in Vietnam and Algeria and Implications for Afghanistan

legion indo-china1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment in Indo-China

Introduction

The effects of the wars Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam on the French and American military organizations internally and in relationship to their nations piqued my interest in 2005. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced me to start asking the question of what short and long term effect that these wars might have on the U.S. military.  As such I wondered what historical precedent that there was for the question. My interest was furthered by my deployment with Marine and Army advisors to Iraqi Army and Security forces in 2007-2008.  My search led to the French experiences in Indo-China and Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam.

The counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by the French and American militaries in Vietnam and Algeria had deep and long lasting effects on them.  The effects included developments in organization and tactics, relationship of the military to the government and people, and sociological changes.  The effects were tumultuous and often corrosive.  The French Army in Algeria revolted against the government. The US Army, scarred by Vietnam went through a crisis of leadership and confidence which eventually resulted in end of the draft and formation the all volunteer military.

viet minh supplyPrimitive but Effective- Viet Minh Supply Column The French Could Never Stop them

There is a wealth of data regarding these wars. There are several types of materials. The accounts of soldiers, diplomats and reporters who experienced these events contained in memoirs and diaries. The best include David Hackworth’s About Face and Steel My Soldiers Hearts; and General Harold Moore’s We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. French works include Jules Roy’s The Battle of Dien Bein Phu and General Paul Aussaresses’ The Battle of the Casbah. There are innumerable popular accounts written by NCOs and junior officers.  These accounts may contain a wealth of information, but are limited by a number of factors. First, many only saw part of the overall picture and first-hand experience can skew objectivity. Those who have been through the trauma of war interpret war through their own experience.  Physical and psychological wounds can have a major impact on the interpretation of these writers as can their experience and political ideology. Finally few of these writers are trained historians. Despite this they can be a valuable resource for the historian.

Another source is official histories. Often these incorporate unit histories and individual narratives and analyze specific battles and the wider campaigns, but do little in regard to broader conditions that affected operations.  While a good source, many are not as critical of their institutions as they should be. Histories by trained historians and journalists provide another view. The most insightful of the journalist accounts include Bernard Fall’ Street Without Joy and The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place. A limitation of all of these is that they are often heavily influenced by the political and societal events. This means that earlier accounts are more likely to be reactive and judgmental versus critical and balanced. Later accounts have the benefit of access to the opposing side and documents not available to earlier writers.  Alistair Horn in A Savage War of Peace provides one of the most informative and balanced accounts of the war in Algeria. Martin Winslow does the same regarding Dien Bien Phu in The Last Valley.

Dien Bien Phu 1Isolated and Besieged Dien Bien Phu

Another source is the writings of participants who critically examine their participation in the wars.  Many of these, French and American provide insights into the minds of leaders who are reflective and critically examine what happened to their military institutions in these wars. The best of these is French Colonel David Galula whose books Pacification in Algeria 1956-1958 and Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice provide first-hand accounts of the subject combined with critical reflection. Galula’s works have been important to John Nagl, General David Petreus and others who helped write the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency manual. Andrew Krepinevich in The Army and Vietnam provides a critical analysis of the U.S. Army in Vietnam.  Other sources, both online and print, such as RAND, provide excellent analysis of selected topics within the scope of this essay, especially COIN.

The ability to dispassionately and critically examine and evaluate these sources over a period of several years was and integrate them with my own experience has been a critical to me.  It has changed the way that I look at sources, and caused me to be much more aware of bias, the limitations of sources and the need to have a multiplicity of sources and points of view.

Effects of Insurgencies on the Armies that Fought Them

The conflicts in French Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam had major effects on the French and American military institutions. These effects can be classified in a number of ways. First, the manner in which each military waged war, including tactics and weapons systems was changed.  The use of airpower, especially helicopters and use of Riverine forces provided an added dimension of battlefield mobility but did not bring victory. As John Shy and Thomas Collier noted regarding the French in Indo-China: “French mobility and firepower could take them almost anywhere in Vietnam, but they could not stay, and could show only wasted resources and time for their efforts.”[1] The use of intelligence and psychological warfare, including the use of torture became common practice in both the French and American armies.  The wars had an effect on the institutional culture of these armed services; neither completely embraced the idea of counterinsurgency and for the most part fought conventionally. Galula notes how the “legacy of conventional thinking” slowed the implementation of proper counterinsurgency tactics even after most commanders learned that “the population was the objective.”[2] Krepinevich notes that “any changes that might have come about through the service’s experience in Vietnam were effectively short-circuited by Army goals and policies.”[3] Finally the wars had a chilling effect on the relationship between the both militaries and the state, veterans from each nation often felt betrayed or disconnected from their country and people.

legion algeriaForeign Legion in Algeria

The French Army had the misfortune of fighting two major insurgencies back to back.  The French military was handicapped even before it went into these wars. The Army came out of World War II defeated by the Germans, divided by loyalties to Vichy or one of the Free French factions. They were humiliated by the Japanese in Indo-China, while in Algeria France’s crushing defeat was devastating.  “Muslim minds, particularly sensitive to prestige and baraka, the humiliation made a deep impression.”[4] French society was as divided as the Army; the economy in shambles, the government weak and divided.  The Viet-Minh had prepared well making use of time and training to get ready for war.  “Once full-scale hostilities broke out, the French, for budgetary and political reasons could not immediately make the large scale effort to contain the rebellion in the confines of small-scale warfare.”[5]

In both Indo-China and Algeria the French attempted to fight the budding insurgencies in a conventional manner.  This was particularly disastrous in Indo-China when on a number of occasions battalion and regimental combat team sized elements were annihilated by Viet-Minh regulars.  Between October 1st and 17th 1950 every French garrison along the Chinese border was over-run.  The French lost over 6000 troops and enough equipment to outfit “a whole additional Viet-Minh division.” It was their worst colonial defeat since Montcalm at Quebec.[6] In Algeria when the fight began in earnest France’s “ponderous ponderous N.A.T.O forces found themselves at an impossible disadvantage,”[7] unable to have any influence off the main roads.

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHUSurrender at Dien Bien Phu

In Vietnam the French did not absorb the lessons of fighting a well established insurgent force. French forces hoped to draw the Viet-Minh main forces into battles of attrition where their superior firepower could be brought to bear. Such was the case at Na San in December 1952 where the French established an “Air ground base” deep in Viet-Minh territory to draw Giap’s forces into open battle.  This worked, but just barely. Giap, short of artillery and not planning on a long battle frittered away his troops in mass charges.  However, the French, because of Na Son assumed they had found the key to victory. In their embrace of the “air ground base concept, French staff officers were following an intellectual tradition that had long been prone to seduction by elegant theories.”[8] The result was the disaster at Dien Bien Phu the following year.  The destruction of the elite Group-mobile 100 near Pleiku in 1954 was the coup de grace. In Indo-China the French made limited use of helicopters, used paratroops widely, and developed Riverine forces. One thing they were critically short of was significant tactical air support.[9]

The most inventive French creation was the GCMA/GMI forces composed of mountain tribesmen led by French NCOs and Junior Officers.  They were designed to provide “permanent guerilla groups rooted in remote areas” to harass and interdict Viet-Minh forces.[10] Trinquier noted that at the time of the Dien Bien Phu defeat that these forces had reached over 20,000 trained and equipped maquis in the Upper Region of Tonkin and Laos. These forces achieved their greatest success retaking Lao Cai and Lai Chau May 1954 as Dien Bien Phu fell.[11] Trinquier stated that “the sudden cessation of hostilities prevented us from exploiting our opportunities in depth.”[12] The GMI units and their French leaders were abandoned fighting on for years after the defeat. One account noted a French NCO two years after the defeat cursing an aircraft patrolling the border “for not dropping them ammunition so they could die like men.”[13] In the end the French left Indo-China and Giap remarked to Jules Roy in 1963 “If you were defeated, you were defeated by yourselves.”[14]

Algeria was different being part of Metropolitan France; there the French had support of European settlers, the pieds-noir. Many French soldiers had come directly from Indo-China. There French made better adaptations to local conditions, and realized that they had to win the population and isolate the insurgents from it and outside support. As Galula said, victory is the destruction of the insurgent’s political and military structures, plus “the permanent isolation from the population, not forced upon the population, but by and with the population.”[15] The lessons learned by the French in both Algerian and Indo-China were lost upon the Americans.

The United States military, especially the Army approached the Vietnam War with a conventional mindset, the “Army concept.” [16] It not only approached the war in this manner, but it trained and organized the South Vietnamese forces, ARVN into the American model. Americans re-organized ARVN into divisions “based upon the U.S. divisional force structure.”[17] ARVN was not structured appropriately for the threat that it faced.”[18] The results were as to be expected. Large numbers of troops poured in, American counterinsurgency was costly.  It was “almost a purely military approach”[19] which ignored political and social realities on the ground. Massive firepower was the means “utilized by the Army to achieve the desired end of the attrition strategy-the body count.”[20] In the end the American defeat was a “failure of understanding and imagination.”[21] The one shining moment was the Marine Corps experimentation with “Combined Action Program” platoons which lived in the villages with militia for long periods of time. This program produced great results “in eliminating local guerillas”[22] but was killed by the Army.

For both the French and Americans these wars tore the heart out of their armies. For the French the defeats inflicted a terrible toll.  In Indo-China 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.”[23] 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, were turned into what Jean Lartenguy called ‘the Centurions” had been turned into liars.”[24] 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 “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.’”[25]

Joint_operation_with_ARVN_112-1Joint US-ARVN Operation

The U.S. Army returned to a country deeply divided and Vietnam veterans remained ostracized until the 1980s.  As Harold Moore recounts “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publically questioned.”[26] The Army endured a massive reorganization that resulted in the formation of the All-Volunteer force, which would redeem itself and emerge from the ashes in the Gulf War. The Americans would not learn the lessons of revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency until forced to do so in Iraq in 2004-2007.

Conclusions and Possibilities

The effects of these wars on the French and American military establishments 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.  Americans would repeat the tactic at Abu Ghraib rallying the Iraqis against them.

For the Americans, the debacle continued at home. Race riots tore at the force while drug addictions and criminal activities were rampant.  Incompetent leaders kept their jobs and highly successful leaders who became whistle blowers like Hackworth were scorned by the Army institution. It took years before either the French or American veterans again felt a part of their countries.  They ended up going to war, and when it was over; feeling abandoned, their deepest bonds were to their comrades who had fought by their side.

What are the lessons to be learned from these campaigns as well as from the various accounts?  Andrew Krepinevich prophetically noted that the failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam “represents a very dangerous mixture that in the end may see the Army again attempting to fight a conventional war against a very unconventional opponent.”[27] Obviously, there are lessons to be learned, especially in understanding the nature of revolutionary war as well as the culture and history of our opponents. The U.S. has made some improvement in this regard but there is still much to be learned, especially since after the war the Army was “erecting barriers to avoid fighting another Vietnam War.”[28] From these wars we learn that nations and incompetent governments who mismanage wars can alienate themselves from the soldiers that they send to fight, with serious consequences.  As far as historiography we learn that certain historical fallacies are evident when one reads the accounts critically and recognize the bias and limitations of the various sources.

In Iraq the U.S. adapted, albeit belatedly to the nature of the insurgency and took advantage of Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) over-reach in the manner that they abused the Iraqi people.  The situation turned dramatically in September of 2007 when Al Qaeda killed the most prominent Sunni Sheik outside of Ramadi.  The Sheik had begun to work with Americans on security issues and his death turned much of the Sunni populace in Al Anbar and other provinces against AQI for the first time allying them with the Sh’ia dominated government.  Changing focus the U.S. Forces focused on safeguarding the population and building up the capabilities of Iraqi forces.  Within months because of the increased security and stability in Al Anbar the U.S. Marine trained and Iraqi led forces of the 1st Iraqi Division were able to be moved to Basra where they retook the city from insurgent forces and to Diyala where they helped the government gain the upper hand.  Success in Iraq did not come easy, American forces suffered their greatest losses since the Vietnam War in the cities, villages and countryside of Iraq.  The U.S. is now in the process of drawing down as the Iraqis take over their own security.  The process is not perfect as there still tension between Sunni and Sh’ia factions as well as Kurds and other minority ethnic groups.  However it is still going better than most experts predicted.

iraqi border troopThe Author and Advisors with Iraqi Border Troops near Syria

Afghanistan is another matter.  After early success in overthrowing the Taliban and isolating Al Qaeda the Americans and NATO pretty ran a status quo operation attempting to legitimize the Karzai government, eliminate the Opium poppy crops and establish government presence and security in outlying areas.  There was a problem in this; both the Taliban and Al Qaeda used border sanctuaries in Pakistan and financial support from worldwide Moslem groups to continue the fight.  As Al Qaeda and the Taliban built themselves up the Afghan government lost support. This loss of support was in large part due to rampant government corruption as well as to the perception of U.S. and NATO forces being occupiers and not liberators.  This perception of the U.S. and NATO forces was in large part because they had ignored the lessons of French Indo-China, Algeria, Vietnam and Iraq.  Isolated from the population the bulk of NATO forces performed in a reactionary manner and often used aircraft and artillery to respond to Taliban forces often killing non-combatants by mistake. Each time this happened, the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders used the results to further bolster their image and portray the allies as the oppressors.  As the Taliban took back much of the country they also returned to oppressive means to subdue the population by fear and intimidation.

taliban insurgentsTaliban Insurgents

The new American commander, General Stanley McChrystal has asked for more forces in order to run a proper counter-insurgency campaign which focuses on the security of the population to isolate the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  Whether General McChrystal gets his forces and whether they are enough to turn the tide before all political and public support in the U.S. and NATO countries is lost is another matter.  Right now the situation is tenuous at best.  There are means to win this war despite the history of Afghanistan which suggests that this is not possible.  The key is he Afghan population, if they believe that the U.S. and NATO are n their side, that we respect them, their culture, religion and that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are the real oppressors the war can be won.  This requires patience, forethought and deliberate measures to secure the population, build up a government that they can trust and de-legitimatize Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  If that does not happen, the U.S. and NATO run the risk of repeating the story of the French in Indo-China.   Unlike AQI and Iraqi insurgents the Taliban are very capable of running military operations capable of defeating small to medium sized units in isolated locations.  They know the terrain, often have the support of the people, are highly mobile and not dependant on roads and can mass quickly at critical points.  Last year the Taliban launched a large scale assault on an American COP which came close to overrunning it.  They were repelled with heavy casualties but the incident demonstrated a capability that is growing.  What I would be concerned about is the total destruction of an isolated post or a convoy which could be used to demoralize western nations.  While I do not think that the Taliban could pull off the defeat of a major US or NATO base or force as the Viet-Minh did at Dien Bien Phu but the threat should not be minimized.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Training Team in Afghanistan

How we learn the lessons of past insurgencies and revolutionary wars is important in Afghanistan.  The stakes are higher than most would want to admit. A withdraw would be seen by militants outside of Afghanistan would be emboldened just as the Algerians were by the loss of the French in Indo-China. It would again provide Al Qaeda with a safe haven and secure base of operations.  The stakes are high.  Who knows what will happen?

Bibliography

Aussaresses, Paul, “The Battle of the Casbah: Counter-Terrorism and Torture,” translated by Robert L Miller.  Enigma Books, New York, 2005. Originally published in French under the title of “SERVICES SPECIAUX Algerie 1955-1957” Perrin 2001

Fall, Bernard B. “The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place.” Da Capo Press, New York an unabridged reprint of the 1st Edition reprinted in arrangement with Harper and Row Publishers, New York. 1967

Fall, Bernard B. “Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.” Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA, 2005, originally published by Stackpole Publications 1961

Galula, David. “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.” Praeger Security International, Westport CT 1964 and 2006

Galula, David. “Pacification in Algeria 1956-1958.” RAND Corporation, Santa Monica CA 2006. Originally published by RAND 1963

Hackworth, David H. and Sherman, Julie. “About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior,” a Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York. 1989

Horn, Alistair. “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” a New York Review Book published by the New York Review of Books, New York, 1977, 1987, 1996, and 2006

Karnow, Stanley. “Vietnam, a History: The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War,” The Viking Press, New York, 1983

Krepinevich, Andrew F. “The Army and Vietnam,” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986

Millett, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter. “For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America.” The Free Press, a division of Macmillian, Inc. New York, 1984

Moore, Harold G and Galloway, Joseph L. “We were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed Vietnam,” Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY 1992

Nagl, John A. “Learning to East Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,” University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005

Nolan, Keith William. “The Battle for Hue: Tet 1968,” Presidio Press, Novato CA, 1983

Pottier, Philippe (2005) Articles: GCMA/GMI: A French Experience in Counterinsurgency during the French Indochina War, Small Wars & Insurgencies,16:2,125 — 146 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592310500079874

Roy, Jules. “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu” Carrol and Graf Publishers, New York 1984. Translated from the French by Robert Baldrick. English translation copyright 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers, New York.

Sheehan, Neil. “A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, 1989

Shy, John and Collier, Thomas W. “Revolutionary War”in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age,” Peter Paret editor. Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1986

Simpson, Howard K. “Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot,” Potomac Books Inc. Washington DC 2005, originally published by Brassey’s Inc. 1994

Spector, Ronald H. “After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam,” Vintage Press, a division of Random House, New York, 1993

Trinquier, Roger. “Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency,” translated from the French by Daniel Lee with an Introduction by Bernard B. Fall. Praeger Security International, Westport CT and London. 1964 and 2006. Originally published under the title “La Guerre Moderne” by Editions Table Ronde.

West, F.J. “The Village,” Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, New York. 1972.

Windrow, Martin. “The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam,” Da Capo Press, Novato, CA 2006, originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2004


[1] Shy, John and Collier, Thomas W. “Revolutionary War” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age,” Peter Paret editor. Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1986  p.849

[2] Galula, David. Counterinsurgency in Algeria: 1956-1958. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. 2006. First published by RAND in 1963. p.244

[3] Krepinevich, Andrew F. “The Army and Vietnam,” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1986 p.213

[4] Horn, Alistair. “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” a New York Review Book published by the New York Review of Books, New York, 1977, 1987, 1996, and 2006 p 41

[5] Fall, Bernard B. “Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina.” Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA, 2005, originally published by Stackpole Publications 1961 p.27

[6] Ibid. p.33

[7] Horn. p.100.

[8] Windrow, Martin. “The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam,” Da Capo Press, Novato, CA 2006, originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2004 p.63

[9] Fall, Bernard B. “The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place.” Da Capo Press, New York an unabridged reprint of the 1st Edition reprinted in arrangement with Harper and Row Publishers, New York. 1967 pp. 456-457  Fall discusses in depth the lack of French Air support and the antecedents that led to the shortage following World War II.

[10] Pottier, Philippe(2005)’Articles: GCMA/GMI: A French Experience in Counterinsurgency during the French Indochina War’, Small Wars & Insurgencies,16:2,125 — 146 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09592310500079874

[11] Simpson, Howard K. “Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot,” Potomac Books Inc. Washington DC 2005, originally published by Brassey’s Inc. 1994 pp. 170-171

[12] Trinquier, Roger. “Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency,” translated from the French by Daniel Lee with an Introduction by Bernard B. Fall. Praeger Security International, Westport CT and London. 1964 and 2006. Originally published under the title “La Guerre Moderne” by Editions Table Ronde. p.87

[13] Windrow. p.652.

[14] Roy, Jules. “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu” Carrol and Graf Publishers, New York 1984. Translated from the French by Robert Baldrick. English translation copyright 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers, New York. p.xxx

[15] Galula, David. “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.” Praeger Security International, Westport CT 1964 and 2006 p. 54

[16] Krepinevich. p.213

[17] Ibid. p.24

[18] Nagl, John A. “Learning to East Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,” University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005 p.138

[19] Shy. p.856

[20] Krepinevich. p.202

[21] Spector, Ronald H. “After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam,” Vintage Press, a division of Random House, New York, 1993 p.314

[22] Millett, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter. “For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America.” The Free Press, a division of Macmillian, Inc. New York, 1984 p.555

[23] Windrow. p.655

[24] Ibid. p.657

[25] Ibid.

[26] Moore, Harold G and Galloway, Joseph L. “We were Soldiers Once…and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed Vietnam,” Harper Collins Publishers, New York NY 1992  p. xx

[27] Krepinevich. p.275

[28] Ibid. p.274

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