Tag Archives: french algeria

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.

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

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French Prisoners

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

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

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+

2 Comments

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

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

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

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+

 

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

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

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Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

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I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

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Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

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When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

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God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially 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.

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It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. 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. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

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But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla 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.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who 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 have changed.

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This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, 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.”

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Another 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)

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.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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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.

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The French soldiers in Indochina 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, or 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, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice 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, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were 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 and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

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Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. 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. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

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. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people 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 are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

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 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 Nuremberg 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.

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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. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering Hell: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu 59 Years Gone by and Still Forgotten

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu Today

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

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General Vo Nguyen Giap

On May 7th 2011 in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home. Giap is the last senior commander of the war alive at 103 he remains active. 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 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 lost in Indochina. A small number of other small ceremonies have been held this year.

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

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French Prisoners

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

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

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Viet Minh Regulars

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle. They elected to go 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 the General Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina informed that the French government was going to begin peace talks and that he would receive no further reinforcements elected to continue the operation.

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French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

Likewise 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 and 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 exposed positions.

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Major Marcel Bigeard 

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

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

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Viet Minh Supply Column

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also 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.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post 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 using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh. They were turned down by a US Government that had grown tired of a war in Korea.

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Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

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

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

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The March to Captivity

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

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

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

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

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

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Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indochina were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor were the lessons of Algeria. It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly and I do not think that many in our political, media and pundits or military have entirely learned or that we in the military have completely shaken ourselves. We lost 54,000 dead in Vietnam, nearly 4500 in Iraq and close to 2600 in Afghanistan, not counting vast numbers of wounded. There are those even as we have been at war for 12 years who advocate even more interventions in places that there is no good potential outcome, only variations on bad. How many more American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen will need die without “victory” whoever we might want too define it?

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French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

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

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 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 Nuremberg 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.

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Pause to Reflect on Iraq, Afghanistan and Unpopular Wars on a Sunday Night

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.

From the Speech of King Henry V at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” 1599

Five years ago I was in the process of deploying to Iraq.  It is hard to believe that it has been that long.

For me the past few weeks have been filled with sleepless nights, flashbacks and nightmares, mostly related to my time in Iraq.  I have been far more hyper-vigilant and anxious than I have been for a while.  Crowds and crowded places cause me great anxiety. I guess it is sort of like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.  The experiences and places are forever in my mind. I can close my eyes and the images are fresh.

I jokingly refer to my continuing struggle with PTSD as the “Mad Cow,” somehow that takes some of the edge off for me.  But even my attempt at humor belies the fact that it does get old.

At the same time because of my service in Iraq I am part of a very special brotherhood, that brotherhood that Shakespeare’s Henry V voiced so well.

I have the wonderful opportunity to serve alongside men and women who have given much for this country, men and women who also bear the wounds of war, physical, psychological, spiritual and moral. I have the honor of serving with men and women who continue to deploy in harm’s way to Afghanistan and being stationed at one of the installations that have borne then heavy burden of this war I am reminded daily of the cost of it. I look at the casualty reports daily and last week yet another Marine Military policeman from Camp LeJeune was killed in Afghanistan. Two sailors from a Squadron based in Norfolk were killed in the crash of an MH-53 Helicopter in Oman, an aircraft sent to beef up capabilities against Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This weekend at least 8 NATO troops or contractors were killed in Afghanistan, three being American contractors  killed by an Afghan policeman while training Afghan police in Herat. The war is never far away.

I am also grateful to people in the community who care to say a kind word when I am in public in uniform. Many people in the area have served in uniform, many during Vietnam as well as an ever dwindling number of World War II and Korea War vets.  I have had to make trips up to a local jail in a town up the road from us to see two of my sailors accused in a terrible crime.  I make those visits in uniform and on the way back one day I stopped to get a Coke at a store. As I walked in a man thanked me for my service.  While I was paying another man began to talk to me. He also thanked me and then went to describe his service in Vietnam.

Such encounters are humbling for me and a reminder of the very special brotherhood that I am just a part. That brotherhood for me is especially close for the that liked me served in Iraq but also Afghanistan, Vietnam and by extension the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria. We are veterans of unpopular wars that are fought by a minute segment of the population.

I saw a video of an advisor to Mitt Romney note that “real Americans don’t care about Afghanistan.” I did not take his remark personally but it did hit home. The man is a seasoned political advisor, his business is to look at numbers and polls. It was a remark that showed me what I already know, that for many Americans the war is not real.  Unfortunately as real as the war is to me and to many people that I know we are in the minority. The most recent opinion polls show that Afghanistan ranks 10th of 10 major issues that Americans are concerned about.  At the same time polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the nation.

Tonight I will try to sleep and in the morning, Inshallah, I will wake up and go back to serve the men and women who serve this country caring for the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, veterans and their families at Camp LeJeune.

The war is not over and despite what opinion polls and politicians say it is important to some of us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God in the Empty Places: Four Years Later

Four years ago I was leaving Iraq for Kuwait, the first stop in the process of coming home.  At that point I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to go either. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time. I am reposting article here tonight.  

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me.  I feel s special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there.  

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

There are no new edits to the article. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days. Today was a day of reflection.  As I walked my little dog Molly down the street tonight to the beach I looked up at the moonlit sky and I was as I have been thinking lately about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow that sight now comforts me instead of frightens me. 

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run there.  

Anyway. Here is is.

God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially 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.

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. 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. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla 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.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who 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 have changed.

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, 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.”

Another 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)

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.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

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 Indochina 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, or 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, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice 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 them were 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 and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. 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. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

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. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people 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 are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

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 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 Nuremberg 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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Fighter Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging inEuropeand the Japanese continuing their war in China  and occupied French Indo-China theUnited States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, US Navy, world war two in the pacific