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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)

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

French Prisoners

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

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

nlfmainforce

Viet Minh Regulars

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

dien-bien-phu

French Paras Drop into Dien Bien Phu

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

bigeard_instruction_saut

Major Marcel Bigeard 

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

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

65193421-small_269244

Viet Minh Supply Column

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

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

dien bien phu6

Wounded Awaiting Medivac 

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

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

dien_bien_phu

The March to Captivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FrenchForeignLegionaireVtNamDOD

Legionairs on the Street Without Joy

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

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

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

But he also said:

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

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

normal_03_56_F8F_decollage_a_DBP_Beriel_ph

French Navy F-8 Bearcat at Dien Bien Phu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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.

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.

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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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Thoughts on Choosing a President and the Results of Not Getting it Right: Lieutenant General Harold Moore at West Point

Lt.Gen. Harold (Hal) Moore is a legitimate American hero. Moore was commissioned as an infantry officer in the closing months of the Second World War, served in Korea and later in 1965 ed the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division into combat at the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam. In that battle, the first major engagement of US forces against North Vietnamese Army Regulars Moore’s outnumbered battalion held off elements of two NVA regiments. Moore’s book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young was adapted and released as the film We Were Soldiers where Moore was portrayed by Mel Gibson. His second book, We are Soldiers Still: A Journey back to the Battlefields of Vietnam are must reads for anyone who wants an honest assessment of going to war and the costs involved.

In 2005 Lt. Gen. Moore was invited to speak at West Point. It was during some of the worst times of the Iraq insurgency and Moore had been a critic of the war and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He recounted the question and answer session in We are Soldiers Still:

“In a long question-and-answer session following my speech I was asked about Iraq and then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. In this place-where cadets live by a code that says they never lie, cheat, steal, or quibble-I was bound to speak the truth as I knew it.

The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.” (Lt. Gen. Harold Moore at West Point Spring 2005) http://www.dailypaul.com/81039/inspiring-quote-from-lt-gen-harold-hal-moore-usa-ret

I make many comments about politics on this site. I am a critic of both parties and and their Presidential candidates. I find much to be desired in the leadership being displayed by many in political office and those running for office. However no matter which party a candidate belongs to I expect, like Lt. Gen. Moore that they are “wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country.”

I completely agree with Moore that We should not choose “someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.”  

We should know better by now. We have experienced the tragedy of leaders who failed their soldiers and this nation in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. However it is the responsibility of the American people to elect well qualified men and women to office. It is not to simply for people vote for their special interests and vote for those that can play the electoral game the best regardless of their actual qualifications or for that matter their wisdom.

I have served as an officer for 29 years in the Army and the Navy. I have served under five Presidents all of whom I found reason to agree with and disagree with on matters of policy. But they were the President and I was and still am not. It is possible that I will serve a sixth President before I retire from the military. Regardless of who that is or which party they represent I will be faithful to my oath and to the Constitution and be respectful of Office of the President and the man, or woman who holds it and I will pray for them. Likewise I pray that the men, or women that they chose as the civilian leaders of the military are both wise and morally courageous, unlike Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld. The same is true for senior officers that set policy and lead troops in combat. We do not need what David Hackworth called the “perfumed princes” as leaders.

That being said I do pray that whoever is elected this November will be more than a good campaigner and be wise and thoughtful before committing the nation, and especially those that serve in the military to war. Our men and women serving in harms’ way deserve as much. Too many American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen have died or come back horribly maimed from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan for us not to expect as much from those that seek to lead the nation regardless of their political party.

Moore’s co-author, journalist Joe Galloway, a critic of both President Bush and President Obama wrote concerning Afghanistan in 2010:

“For God’s sake, don’t ratchet up slowly, buying time with the bodies of dead and wounded American soldiers, while you try to sell the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy to the American people.

For eight years, we’ve heard presidents and other politicians talk about setting conditions for a democratic central government in a country — really a bunch of tribes and clans — that’s never had such a thing in 2,000 years and seemingly doesn’t want one now.” http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/09/03/74876/commentary-afghanistan-isnt-worth.html#storylink=cpy   

We should listen more to men like Lt. Gen. Moore and Joe Galloway than to those that use the military for their political or economic gain spouting sound bite foreign policy to mask their ignorance.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Quiet Remembrance: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu May 7th 1954

French Prisoners

On May 7th 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.  It 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.  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 Major Marcel Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu. A revered leader he died in 2010

On May 8th 1954 the last of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh following the surrender of the main garrison the previous day.  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 once on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son would prove to be the Göttdammerung of French colonial rule in Indochina.

French Paras landing at Dien Bien Phu

The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh which had in the years between 1945 and 1954 had turned an insurgent force into a strong Army capable of taking on large French forces.  As a result the French decided that they would attempt to draw Giap’s Army into open combat where their superiority in heavy weaponry and in the air could be used to 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 and had superiority in artillery and air forces.  They were also 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 in Indochina while tying down a almost a full division of troops and a large portion of French air power. They inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh but did not destroy them.

The French command assumed that they had found a way to defeat the Viet Minh.  They decided to repeat the strategy used at Na-Son at the remote the remote town of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base from which they could conduct offensive operations against the Viet Minh and to draw Giap’s forces into a conventional fight that they thought they could win.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Dien Bien Phu lay in a marshy valley surrounded by mountains which were covered in dense nearly impassible jungle.  It was a poor location to conduct offensive operations from and a worse place to defend.

Viet Minh Main Force Regulars

The French elected to go light on artillery and due to the terrain it had to be deployed in nearly open conditions with neither cover not concealment.  Unlike Na Son the Dien Bien Phu air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially relatively weak tactical air assets.  French logistics needs were far greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  The French strong points in the valley were exposed and not mutually supporting and as such Giap and the Viet Minh were able to close with and attack each strong point in time overwhelming each after valiant French resistance.  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.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of airborne units, the Foreign Legion, Colonial Paratroops (Marines), North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jacques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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.  Many 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.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops 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 forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won the war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly in that war.

Despite our efforts in Afghanistan and the valiant sacrifices of our Marines and Soldiers we seem to have difficulty learning the lessons of the Vietnam Wars.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy and there are no easy formulas to make it work.  What works in one country may not work in another as we are found when we tried to emulate our counterinsurgency success in Iraq in Afghanistan.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded Army officers we were able to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq and work with Iraqis to make that country more secure than it was before we took this type of warfare seriously.  Despite its continued problems Iraq is doing better and will likely do well in the long run as it recovers from the damage caused by the war.  They have known civilization since antiquity and are a proud people.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back as they say as a tourist.

I am concerned about Afghanistan, despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan because it seems that the Taliban spring offensive is off to a good start.  U.S. and NATO Forces in Khandehar and Helmand Province have been placed on a higher alert and confined to their bases following a major assault on the Afghan provincial government installations in Khandehar.  The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents are only concerned with Afghanistan and even though Bin Laden is dead the deepening rift between the United States and Pakistan will likely ensure that they will enjoy military, personnel, financial support from many in Pakistan including the Intelligence agency in the remote and ungovernable northwest territories of that country which are a safe haven much like Communist China was for the Viet Minh.

Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun by Taliban forces as French forces were in Indochina?  An isolated outpost was nearly overrun at Wanat in July of 2008 and at two isolated outposts near the Pakistani border in October 2009.  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimate the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons.   Their predecessors successfully drove out the Soviets, the British, the Persians and the Greeks.  Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

But even more Dien Bien Phu serves to remind us that in such wars it is not always the highly trained and organized Western forces that win.  These are local wars and once the momentum shifts to the insurgent they are difficult to turn around.  In a sense the French were trying to do what we are trying to do now in taking the fight to the enemy.  It turned out badly for them and it could turn out badly for us.  I hope that we don’t forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Revisiting the Demons of PTSD: Returning to Iraq in Virginia a Year and a Half Later

Today I am attending a conference on Caregiver Operational Stress Control.  This brought out my “demons” as I was faced with the stories of others who had been to the same places that I have been in Iraq, and experienced similar things that I experienced on my return.  This is a re-posting of something that I wrote in March at the very beginning of this blog.  At that time I had very few readers.

I am glad to be at this training today.  I needed to take a Xanax when I arrived because I don’t do well with these kind of events anymore.  The intial session and a video of Dr Heidi Kraft talking about her expereinces at Al Taqaduum where I was based out of.  I was scheduled for another meeting but I knew that I needed to be here.  So I asked my Department Head who was going to the meeting if I could stay and he allowed me to do so. God bless him.

I received a note from a new friend in another country’s military, a physician with multiple tours in Afghanistan.  He is dealing with many of the things that I discuss in this essay and had a bad day that took him back to Afghanistan.  I am sure that he is not alone as I deal with many people in my Medical Center who have similar experiences.  Yesterday I was walking down a hallway near our Operating Room and I saw a pretty good sized blood spill on the floor. I was surprised at my reaction as I kept seeing it in my mind the rest of the day and flashbacks to Iraq and the TQ Shock Surgery Trauma platoon where I was pulled into a couple of the last major mass casualty events where 10-15 Marines or soldiers came in at a time. I began to see those wounder Marines on the tables and can visibly see those Marines, their wounds, even tattoos… I hope this helps break the code of silence.  I wrote this on a particularly rough day and will repost some of those early essays as they are still very relevant.  Peace, Steve+

964Trying not to Show my Stress and Exhaustion after 2 weeks out while in between flights at Al Asad

The feeling of abandonment and aloneness, separation and disconnection run deep for those returning from unpopular wars in which the majority of the citizens take no part.  The effects are devastating.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their lives in the years after that war.  Last year the Army had its highest number of active duty suicides ever recorded, January and February of 2009 have been banner months for Army suicides.  Of course as I noted in my previous post these numbers don’t include reservists and Guardsmen who have left active duty or veterans dischaged from the service.  Neither do they include the host of service men and women who died from causes undetermined.

Many veterans attempted to return to “normal life” and family following the war. Many only to have marriages fall apart, continue or leave untreated alcohol and drug addictions acquired in country which often follow them back destroying lives, families and careers.  Most felt cast aside and abandoned by the goverment and society. Many got through and return to life with few visible effects, but the scars live on.  My dad would never talk about his experience in the city of An Loc in 1972 where he as a Navy Chief Petty Officer was among a small group of Americans operating an emergency airstrip in the city which was besieged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for 80 days.  I do know that it affected him, he wasn’t the same when he returned, he was a lot more tense and had some problems initially with alcohol.  He never talked about his time there.

I have seen the effects of this in so many lives,  I remember a Vietnam vet who attempted to kill himself with a shotgun blast to the chin in Dallas during my hospital residency.  He forgot to factor in recoil and blew off his face without hitting his brain or any major arteries.  He survived…talk about having something to be depressed about later.  I have seen the tears as veterans rejected by the country during and after than war begin to seek community with their wartime brothers, men who had experienced the same trauma followed by rejection and abandonment by the people that sent them to Southeast Asia.  One only has to talk to veterans of the Ia Drang, Khe Sahn, Hue City, the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta or read their stories to know what they have gone through.  LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once..and Young and We are Soldiers Still have deeply penatrating and soul searching views of Vietnam as does Bing West in The Village. Bernard Fall does the same from a French perspective in Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy. Alistair Horne’s book A Savage War of Peace discusses and tells the story of many French soldiers in Algeria, who fought a war, won it militarily and had their government abandon them, bringing out a mutiny and coup atempt by French Soldiers who had fought in Indochina, were almost immediately back in action in Algeria with little thanks or notice from thier countrymen.  Abandonment is an ever present reality and “demon” for many of us who have served regardless of our nationality, French, Canadien or American who have fought in wars that have not engaged the bulk of our fellow citizens. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and tocuh it, trace the outline of a name, look upon the makeshift memorials and tokens of remembrance left by comrades who came home and understand the sorrow and the sacrifice.

Unfortunately we would like to think that this is something out of history that we have learned from and applied the lessons and in doing so no longer have an issue.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  There are many, depending on the study anywhere from8-20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from some type of PTSD, Combat Stress reaction or other psychological malady incurred during their tour. Similar numbers are reported by the Israeli Armed Forces in from the 1973 War forward.   The British are seeing the same now as their veterans return from war.  Canadian Forces assigned to the UN command during the Rwanda genocide suffer horribly from PTSD. The mission commander, LTG Romeo Dalliare now a Senator in the Canadian Parliament is a leading spokesman for those who suffer from PTSD. His book Shake Hands with the Devil is a study of how military professionals were exposed to atrocities that they either were forbidden to stop or lacked the combat power to do so even if they wanted to.  These men and women tell their story in a video put out by Canadian Armed Forces.

105Convoy along Route Uranium

I am not going to rehash stories that I have recounted in my other posts dealing with PTSD here, but both I and many men and women that I know are scarred by the unseen wounds of this war.  We gladly recognize, and rightfully so, those who suffer physical wounds.  At the same time those who are dying inside are often ignored by their commands or if they come out are shunted into programs designed to “fix” them.  In other words make them ready for the next deployment.  I am not saying here that there is an intentional neglect of our service men and women who suffer from PTSD and other issues.  I do not think that is the case, but it is a fact of life. The military is shorthanded and stretched to the breaking point. Many Army Soldiers and US Marines have made 3-5 deployments since 2003. The Navy has sent over 50,000 sailors, not including those assigned with the Marines into “Individual Augmentation” billets in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other fronts in this war.  The Navy personnel, as well as Air Force personnel who perform similar missions often do not have the luxury of going to war and coming home with a particular unit.  We serve often in isolation and incredibly disconnected from our commands, our service is often misunderstood.  Now there are efforts by the services and some commands to do things better to support our sailors, some of these at my own hospital.  However as an institution the military has not fully made the adjustment yet.

Many sailors feel abandoned by the country and sometimes, especially when deployed by the Navy itself.  I have debriefed hundreds of these men and women.  Almost all report anger and use terms such as being abandon, cut off and thrown away by the service and the country.  Those from all services who work in unusual joint billets such as advisers to local military and police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq feel a sense of kinship with each other, often feel a connection to the Iraqis and Afghans but are often not promoted or advanced at the same rate as others who have served in conventional forces in traditional jobs.  There was a film called Go tell the Spartans staring Burt Lancaster about Army advisers in the early stages of Vietnam.  If you see it and have been to Iraq with our advisers you can see some of the same dynamics at work.

At this point we are still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These wars divided the nation and the veterans, though better treated and appreciated by society than most of thier Vietnam counterparts have no memorial.  Words of thanks uttered by politicans and punits abound, our Vietnam era and other fellow veterans in their latter years come to the airports that we fly in and out of to say thank you, but our numbers are rising, the war rages on both in country and in our minds and lives are being lost long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

not a happy camperNot Doing Well on Leave about 5 months After my Return from Iraq

We have to do a better job of ensuring that those who sacrifice so much do not feel that they have been cut off and abandoned while they are in theater and especially when they return. When it is time we need a memorial on the Capitol Mall for those who served in these wars.  I don’t know when that will be, but I do hope to see it in my day.  Sure it’s only symbolic, but symbols can be healing too, just look at the black granite wall rising up from the ground and going back down into it, filled with the names of those who gave their lives and made the supreme sacrifice in Southeast Asia.  Simply known by most as “the Wall” it has become a place of healing and rememberance.  A place to say thank you, goodbye and amen.

Peace and blessings, Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq, vietnam

Dien Bien Phu- Reflections 55 Years Later

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHU

French POWs from Dien Bien Phu being marched into captivity

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 based on 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.

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.  Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions were exposed and 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.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of Airborne units, Foriegn Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including LtCol Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jaques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

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.  Many 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.  The were turned down.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops 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 forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply this lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won that war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

bigeard_instruction_sautLtCol Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called  “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly, Despite the efforts of General David Petreus and others these lessons have not been completely learned by western military organizations.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded officers we have, thanks to General Petreus had a good amount of success in Iraq. I believe that Iraq will do okay in the long run.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back. I am concerned about Afghanistan. It  has the potential to be Vietnam in the mountains.  I do hope and pray that we will figure Afghanistan out.  Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun?  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimated the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons. A year or so ago the Taliban came close to overrunning an American Coalition Outpost (COP).   Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

Last night at the ball game, Ray and Bill, the Vietnam vets who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate gave me a small memento.  A small wooden coming from the Virginia Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.  On the back side a simple message: “Welcome Home.”  Something that they did not get when they came home.  My dad came home in 1974 after back to back 11 month deployments, one of which he was at An Loc, besieged for 80 days.  He never talked about it.  I go home next week.  My dad is slowly dying and doesn’t have that much longer left, his physician cannot believe that he is still alive.  I have to help my mom with funeral arrangements, some hospice stuff, billing issues with the insurance company and the nursing home.  My dad had expressed his desire to be buried at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin.  He told my brother he wanted this because it had the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen.  I do hope that we can fulfill that wish.  As a Navy Chaplain I know I can work out the burial at sea, and pray that somehow I will be able to take him where he wants to go.

Thank you dad.  Thank you Ray and Bill and all my Vietnam era friends and mentors, from the California Guard, SSG Buff Rambo, SSG Mickey Yarro and Colonel Edgar Morrison.  Thanks also to SFC Harry Zilkan, SFC Harry Ball, 1st Sergeant Jim Koenig, Colonel Donald Johnson and Sergeant Major John Butler.  I especially thank my former parishioners at the Fort Indiantown Gap Chapel.  Charlie, Ray, General Smoker, Scotty and the rest of you.  Thanks also to my Battle of Hue City brothers, Barney, Limey, General Pace, Sergeant Major Thomas.  Thank you also to the French officers who did so much for their country and were treated so shamefully.  A number of these men have passed on but I will not forget them.  Others I have lost contact with. Please take the time to thank the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in your lives.  May no other veterans have to endure what all of you endured at the hands of your countrymen. May God bless all of you.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, Military