Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Laos"

It was a pleasant spring day in Schenectady in upstate New York (NY), home to General Electric (GE) and Union College. At the college, a Be-In, a countercultural gathering of students, was underway on the great library lawn framed by early 19th c. buildings. One of my students had organized the event and I’d promised to take a look, but before I could get downstairs from my faculty office President Nixon announced that the US had just extended the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia, nominally a neutral country. The date was April 30, 1970 and in the military-speak of the day the President called the invasion an ‘incursion’.

Union College looking out from the library

The college had been relatively quiet in the course of the evolving Vietnam antiwar movement sweeping American academe the past several years. There had been protests on campus, but nothing on the scale of student protest at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Indiana University, or at Columbia University downriver in New York City during spring ’68. That changed on a sunny afternoon in April ’70 the Union College student body erupted along with fellow students at dozens of other colleges across the country upon hearing news that the unpopular Vietnam War that was supposed to be winding down had instead been expanded.

Hundreds of Union students marched into downtown Schenectady, an old blue-collar town near where the Mohawk River flows into the mighty Hudson River, first rallying at the gates of GE, a major war contractor, then moving on to the Selective Service office, and finally sitting down at the intersection, blocking the exit from GE’s main plant where thousands worked. It was peaceful and even had the implicit blessing of the college, which sent down sandwiches and beverages for the protestors. However, tragic events unfolded in academe in the days to come. On May 4th National Guard troops fired on a group of student demonstrators at Kent State in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. Two days later, several students were wounded by police gunfire at the State University of NY at Buffalo, while at Jackson State College in Mississippi two students were killed and a number wounded by the State Police.

In every corner of the war-weary country America was in an uproar at the abrupt turn of events in Southeast Asia. Up until the Cambodian ‘incursion’, Nixon had been steadily downsizing our forces in Vietnam. The idea that the long, aimless war was now being extended into another country sparked widespread outrage. And yet, unknown to all but a select few in Washington, US forces had been secretly waging war against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Laos and Cambodia since ’65.

American strategists were well aware that the Ho Chi Minh trail, the route for troops and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, passed through the two neighboring neutral countries, neither of which was strong enough to prevent the powerful NVA from using their heavily jungled border areas. As the US escalated the Vietnam War, the NVA and its southern guerrilla force, the Liberation Army of South Vietnam (NLF), aka the Viet Cong (VC), increasingly began using Cambodian territory as sanctuary for rear area facilities. It was those bases that Nixon’s spring invasion targeted.

By that time, the US had been bombing the Laotian-Cambodian section of the Ho Chi Minh trail and the sanctuaries for several years. All the airmen in the operations were sworn to secrecy, but by ’69 there was a leak, and the White House had to inform a small group of key senators and members of the House of the classified air operations.

However, that was only part of the clandestine war in Laos and Cambodia. Not long after the first Marine combat units landed at Danang in spring ’65, the US was conducting surgical cross-border raids not just into Laos and Cambodia, but into North Vietnam as well. One of the main elite units involved was Marine Force Recon. By mid-year 1970 brother Jeff had been dead a year, succumbing to an illness which first hit him while in the bush below the DMZ in South Vietnam in ’64. But his paper, Vietnam GI survived him, and the July issue carried a scoop on Force Recon’s ops under the headline “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Laos.”

Shoulder patch of 1st Marine Force Recon

In a front page interview Marine Cpl Craig Walden of Force Recon noted the public uproar over Nixon’s Cambodian caper with irony because he was well aware US forces had been operating in the adjoining countries “for years” by 1970. He knew firsthand from his initial tour 1965-66 fighting with the 1st Force Recon, which he described as a guerrilla warfare unit specializing in infiltration and sabotage. Force Recon’s casualties in its secrets ops were extraordinarily high – out of the 240 men he had trained with only five came back.

Force Recon Marines would chopper out of Danang Air Base and drop directly into Cambodia or Laos where they’d ambush NVA units coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail. On another occasion they were dropped into Laos from where they crossed into North Vietnam above the DMZ, their objective a rail center through which the NVA fed troops and military supplies into the Ho Chi Minh trail system. The mission included eight Marines and two CIA men. The Marines blew up the rail switching station while the CIA guys photographed the results and gathered IDs, documents, and maps off the enemy dead before the group withdrew.

NVA river crossing, Cambodian border, ’66. Photo credit Li Chi Hai

To avoid a conspicuous US footprint, none of the raiders on the op carried dog tags, IDs, or personal information. Also left behind were uniforms and Marine-issued arms – Craig wore Levi’s and tennis shoes. Everyone carried a foreign-made weapon of choice, quite often the compact and very lethal Swedish K submachine gun.

On another op into North Vietnam through the adjoining countries, Force Recon’s target was a particular NVA colonel. They went in during the wee hours and shot their man with silenced weapons, but extrication was hair-raising. The rally point was a nearby soccer field where the pickup chopper could land, but as soon as it touched down, the field’s night lights suddenly went on, brightly illuminating the LZ or landing zone. The raiders began taking rifle fire, and a pack of guard dogs were unleashed. They got away clinging to the chopper’s runners with dogs snapping at their heels.

Gravely wounded during his second Vietnam tour, Craig Walden* returned to the States, and after long recuperation at Great Lakes Naval Hospital, went home to Chicago where he became part of the three-man editorial team which carried on Jeff’s Vietnam GI.

*For Craig Walden’s harrowing story, see the post titled Bad Intelligence, Sorry ‘bout That,
24 August 2011.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


As we retreat from our latest national misadventure, Iraq, no need to wait til Memorial Day to mourn the fallen. It’s by now a familiar story, and not just an American one. Young men (and now women as well) are sent to fight and sometimes die, or suffer grievous wounds of body or mind in faraway lands for a medley of misguided reasons. Beginning with an initial lapse of judgment, decision makers drag out the ruinous adventure for years so as not to suggest they acted in haste or on faulty intelligence. Then, after an inconclusive ending, battle-weary troops still walking the earth return home to cope with horrific images of war not easily forgotten. As an Iraq veteran recently wrote in A Letter to the War Presidents,
You have not engaged the enemy at close range,
seen the sweat and fear upon his face
before you forever erased him away.*
And let us not forget the parents of the dead, predeceased by a child, a terrible fate, left only with memories and framed photos as they grow old. As an ‘Afgantsi’, a Russian veteran of their Afghanistan War raged:
        My best friend, he was like a brother to me. I
        brought him back from a raid in a plastic bag.
        His head cut off, and his arms and legs ….
        He used to play the violin and write poetry.
        His mother went mad two days after the
        funeral. She ran to the cemetery at night and
        tried to lie down with him.** 
My brother Jeff Sharlet’s war, the Vietnam War, is now distant enough that the raw emotions and rough edges of memory are somewhat softened, the pain of loss somewhat requited by time. But lest we forget in the midst of our present war woes, veterans of that conflict have written a body of literature sufficient to immunize all but the most unfeeling from forgetting that tragic misadventure.

One of the first and still among the finest memoirs of battle was A Rumor of War. Philip Caputo, a Marine platoon leader, went into Vietnam with the first combat units to go ashore at Danang in early ’65 when the US significantly escalated the war. In the space of six months he experienced a roller coaster ride from adventure to survival:
    [W]hen we marched into the rice paddies on that damp
    March afternoon, we carried along with our packs and
    rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong [VC]
    would be quickly beaten and that we were doing some-
    thing altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and
    rifles; the convictions, we lost. …By autumn, what had begun
    as an adventurous expedition had turned into an exhausting,
    indecisive war of attrition in which we fought for no cause
    other than our own survival.
Later, amidst the ambiguity of fighting in a civilian environment where the VC often blended in with the local population, the so-called ‘fog of war’, Lt Caputo, furious at the death of some of his men, ordered the kidnapping of two South Vietnamese civilians he mistook for the enemy. In the process, the two innocent men were killed and Caputo brought up on charges of ‘murder’ of which he was eventually exonerated. As the voice-over in the film Apocalypse Now put it, “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”

Other notable ex-GI chroniclers of our Vietnam experience included Tim O’Brien, John Del Vecchio, Gustav Hasford, and the poet and anthologist Jan Barry, who later became one of brother Jeff’s associate editors on his antiwar paper Vietnam GI. One would be remiss not to also mention Larry Heinemann whose fine novel qua war memoir, Close Quarters, launched a literary career which later brought him a National Book Award. A Chicago boy who came home after serving with the 25th Infantry, Larry remembered Jeff and wrote to me about him not long ago, “Among the ex-GIs around Chicago, he was, well, famous.”

Unfortunately people don’t seem to learn from the past and continue to send the young to die. Witness the inscription on a tombstone in a Russian cemetery:
Tatarchenko, Igor Leonidovich
In the execution of his duty and
true to his military oath.
He … died on active service in Afghanistan.
Dearest Igor, You left this life without having known it.
Mama, Papa
And now it’s our sad turn. As we blindly followed the defeated French into Vietnam, we absurdly presume to achieve in Afghanistan what the Soviets, in spite of their utter ruthlessness, failed to accomplish. And every day our dead are body bagged for the journey homeward like the soldier below, a promising young woman from a small river town in Washington State’s timber country, shot and killed in Afghanistan just days before Christmas 2011; Mikayla was the first battle casualty in her home county since the Vietnam War.***

Mikayla Bragg

*R Camper in After Action Review, a Warrior Writers publication, (2011)
**S Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992)
***Military Resistance, #9L19 (12/23/11)