Dispatch August 2007

Rereading Vietnam

The Vietnam analogy looms ever larger in the debate over Iraq, but the U.S. military has memories of that conflict that the public doesn't.

Thanksgiving is just another day "across the fence," this time in Cambodia, once again surrounded by North Vietnamese troops, once again saved by the Air Force and the five-second fuses on the claymore mines. "The gods of recon had smiled on ST [spike team] Idaho one more time," he concludes near midnight of that fourth Thursday in November 1968.

There is little sense here that the war was lost. While historians cite 1968 as a turning point because of the home front's reaction to the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre, and the protests at the Democratic party convention in Chicago, on the ground in Vietnam, 1968 marked a different trend: William Westmoreland was replaced by Creighton Abrams, population security rather than enemy body counts became the measure of merit, "clear and hold" territory replaced the dictum of "search and destroy," and building up the South Vietnamese Army became the top priority. "There came a time when the war was won," even if the "fighting wasn't over," writes Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999). By the end of 1972, Sorley goes on, one could travel almost anywhere in South Vietnam in relative security, even as American ground forces were almost gone. Retirees I know in the armed forces affirm how much more benign an environment South Vietnam was during this period than the Iraq of today. Still, as one veteran told me: Everyone has different memories of Vietnam, depending upon where they served, and what time they were there.

Sorley's book was reviewed prominently by the major liberal newspapers and foreign policy journals. They gave it generally respectful write-ups, a sign of a reassessment of Vietnam based less on ideology than on paying more attention to the second half of a war: a period to which, as Sorley notes, Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History (1983) devotes only 103 out of 670 pages, and Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bright Shining Lie (1988) devotes 65 out of 790 pages. Sorley told me he isn't sure what would have happened had Congress not cut off aid to South Vietnam at about the time the ground situation was at its most hopeful. He felt that a respectable case might be made that it would have survived. His book has seen a rise in sales among military officers eager to know how the ground situation in Iraq might be improved to the level it had been in Vietnam, thanks to Gen. Abrams's change of strategy.

A similar thesis emerges in The Battle of An Loc (2005) by retired Army Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, who describes a 60-day siege in mid-1972, in which heavily outnumbered South Vietnamese troops and their American advisors (including himself) rebuffed several North Vietnamese divisions. This gave Nixon the fig leaf he needed for a final withdrawal. Optimism then might not have been warranted, but it wasn't altogether blind. Lt. Col. Willbanks said he wrote his book, published by Indiana University Press, for the same reason Sorley did: to give more attention to the second half of the war.

Another book that those in the combat arms community pressed me to read is Once A Warrior King: Memories of an Officer in Vietnam (1985) by David Donovan (a pseudonym). This is the story of a young Army civil affairs officer in a remote part of South Vietnam near Cambodia, which, as he too documents, was used as major staging post for the North Vietnamese Army. Herein is a series of feverish accounts of horrific firefights that alternate with the struggle to establish schools, maternity clinics, and agricultural projects. It is as though the author were writing about today's Iraq: a corruption- and faction-plagued central government that exists officially, but has little reality outside of the capital; a regular U.S. Army that he despises, confined too often to big bases and which the locals hate; and small units like his with life-and-death control over civilians. "Terribly frustrated," he realizes that his own countrymen "would never understand about all the small but very important things that were needed ... " Take soap: just plain old bars of soap, he informs us, would do more to win over the villagers in his district than guns and bullets. He ends his Vietnam saga thus: "I do not believe it was an immoral war at all, rather a decent cause gone terribly wrong."

You cannot approach Vietnam and Iraq, or the subject of counterinsurgency in general, without reference to Jean Larteguy, a French novelist and war correspondent, who, in a very different way than Stockdale, is an example in his own person of the civilian-military divide. Larteguy inhabits the very soul of the modern Western warrior, alienating some civilian readers in the process. Stockdale quotes him. Sorley told me that several editions of Laretguy's The Centurions (1960) have passed through his hands in the course of a professional lifetime dominated by Vietnam. Alistair Horne, the renowned historian of the Algerian War, uses Larteguy for epigrams in A Savage War of Peace (1977). Some months back, Gen. David Petreaus—now commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq - pulled The Centurions off a shelf at his home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and gave me a disquisition about the small unit leadership principles exemplified by one of the characters. For half a decade now, Green Berets have been recommending Larteguy's The Centurions and The Praetorians (1961) to me: books about French paratroopers in Vietnam and Algeria in the 1950s.

Almost half-a-century ago, this Frenchman was obsessed about a home-front that had no context for a hot, irregular war; about a professional warrior class alienated from its civilians compatriots as much as from its own conventional infantry battalions; about the need to engage in both combat and civil affairs in a new form of warfare to follow an age of what he called victory parades and "cinema-heroics"; about an enemy with complete freedom of action, allowed "to do what we didn't dare;" and about the danger of creating a "sect" of singularly brave iron men, whose ideals were so exalted that beyond the battlefield they had a tendency to become woolly-headed. Larteguy dedicates his book to the memory of centurions who died so that Rome might survive, but he notes in his conclusion that it was these same centurions who destroyed Rome.

Born in 1920, Jean Larteguy—a pseudonym; his real name was Jean Osty—fought with the Free French and afterwards became a journalist. Because of his military experience and resistance ties, he had nearly unrivaled access to French paratroopers who fought at Diem Bien Phu and in the Battle of Algiers. His empathy for these men, some of whom were torturers, made him especially loathed by the Parisian Left, even though he broke with the paratroopers themselves, out of opposition to their political goals which he labeled "neofascism."

Larteguy eventually found his military ideal in Israel, where he became revered by paratroopers who translated The Centurions into Hebrew to read at their training centers. He called these Jewish soldiers "the most remarkable of all of war's servants, superior even to the Viet, who at the same time detests war the most ... " By the mid-1970s, though, he became disillusioned with the Israel Defense Forces. He said it had ceased to be "a manageable grouping of commandos" and was becoming a "cumbersome machine" too dependent on American-style technology—as if foreseeing some of the problems with the 2006 Lebanon campaign.

Recently I walked into the office of the chief of staff of Army Special Forces in South Korea, Col. David Maxwell of Springfield, Massachusetts, and noticed a plaque with Larteguy's famous "two armies" quote. (The translation is by Xan Fielding, a British Special Operations officer, who, in addition to rendering Larteguy's classics into English, was a close friend of the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, to whom Fermor addresses his introduction in his own classic, A Time of Gifts (1977.) In The Centurions, one of Larteguy's paratroopers declares:

I'd like ... two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers ... an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.

The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I should like to fight.

But the reply from another character in The Centurions to this declaration is swift, "you're heading for a lot of trouble." The exchange telescopes the philosophical dilemma about the measures that need to be taken against enemies who would erect a far worse world than you, but which, nevertheless, are impossible to carry out because of the "remorse" that afflicts soldiers when they violate their own notion of purity-of-arms, even in situations where such "tricks" might somehow be rationalized. They win the battle, but lose their souls.

Rather than a roughneck, Col. Maxwell epitomizes the soft, indirect approach to unconventional war that is in contrast to "direct action." The message that Maxwell and other warriors have always taken away from Larteguy's famous quote—rooted in his Vietnam experience—is that the mission is everything, and conventional militaries, by virtue of being vast bureaucratic machines obsessed with rank and privilege, are insufficiently focused on the mission: regardless of whether it's direct action or humanitarian affairs. (One of the complaints of the Misty forward air controllers was that their own Air Force bureaucracy was a constant hindrance, more interested in procedure than results. The same complaint has occasionally been made against the regular Army in Iraq by marines and Green Berets.)

The conventional officer would reply that the warrior's field of sight is so narrow that he can't see anything beyond the mission. "They're dangerous," one of Larteguy's protagonists says of the paratroopers, "because they go to any lengths ... beyond the conventional notion of good and evil." For if the warrior's actions contradict his faith, his doubts are easily overcome by belief in the larger cause. Larteguy writes of one soldier: "He had placed the whole of his life under the sign of Christ who had preached peace, charity, brotherhood ... and at the same time he had arranged for the delayed-action bombs at the Cat-Bi airfield ... 'What of it? There's a war on and we can't allow Hanoi to be captured.'"

Vietnam, like Iraq, represented a war of frustrating half-measures, fought against an enemy that respected no limits. Bud Day, half-starved and broken-limbed, writes of seeing a long convoy of trucks heading out of Hanoi, safe because of our own self-imposed bombing restrictions. "I found it mind-boggling that the United States, the strongest nation in the world, would permit this flea on the buttocks of humanity to conduct a war this way." More than almost any writer I know, Larteguy communicates the intensity of such frustrations, which, in turn, create the psychological gulf that separate warriors like Bud Day from both a conscript army and a civilian home-front.

The best units, according to Larteguy, while officially built on high ideals, are, in fact, products of such deep bonds of brotherhood and familiarity that the world outside requires a dose of "cynicism" merely to stomach. As one Green Beret wrote me, "There are no more cynical soldiers on the planet than the SF [Special Forces] guys I work with, they snort at the platitudes we are expected to parrot, but," he went on, "you will not find anyone who gets the job done better in tough environments like Iraq." In fact, in extreme situations like Iraq, cynics may actually serve a purpose. In the regular Army there is a tendency to report up the command chain that the mission is succeeding, even if it isn't. Cynics won't buy that, and will say so bluntly.

Larteguy writes that the warrior looks down on the rest of the military as "the profession of the sluggard," men who "get up early to do nothing." Yet as one paratrooper notes in The Praetorians:

In Algeria that type of officer died out. When we came in from operations we had to deal with the police, build sports grounds, attend classes. Regulations? They hadn't provided for anything, even if one tried to make an exegesis of them with the subtlety of a rabbi.

Dirty, badly conceived wars in Vietnam and Algeria had begotten a radicalized French warrior class of non-commissioned officers, able to kill in the morning and build schools in the afternoon, which had a higher regard for its Moslem guerrilla adversaries than for regular officers in its own ranks. Such men would gladly advance toward a machine gun nest without looking back, and yet were "booed by the crowds" upon returning home: so that they saw the civilian society they were defending as "vile, corrupt, and degraded."

The estrangement of soldiers from their own citizenry is somewhat particular to counter-insurgencies, where there are no neat battle lines and thus no easy narrative for the people back home to follow. The frustrations in these wars are great precisely because they are not easily communicated. Larteguy writes: Imagine an environment where a whole garrison of 2,000 troops are "held in check" by a small "band of thugs and murderers." The enemy is able to "know everything: every movement of our troops, the departure times of our convoys ... Meanwhile we're rushing about the bare mountains, exhausting our men; we shall never be able to find anything."

Because the enemy is not limited by western notions of war, the temptation arises among a stymied soldiery to bend its own rules. Following an atrocity carried out by French paratroopers that calms a rural area of Algeria, one soldier rationalizes to another: "'Fear has changed sides, tongues have been loosened ... We obtained more in a day than in six months fighting, and more with twenty-seven dead than with several hundreds.'" The soldiers comfort themselves further with a quotation from a 14th century Catholic bishop: "When her existence is threatened, the Church is absolved of all moral commandments." It is the purest of them, according to Larteguy, who is most likely to commit torture.

Here we enter territory that is utterly unrelated to the individual Americans I've been writing about. It is important to make such distinctions. When Larteguy writes about bravery and alienation, he understands American warriors; when he writes about political insurrections and torture, some exceptions aside, he is talking about a particular caste of French paratroopers. Yet his discussion is relevant to America's past in Vietnam and present in Iraq. I don't mean My Lai and Abu Ghraib, both of which aided the enemy rather than ourselves, but the moral gray area that we increasingly inhabit concerning collateral civilian deaths.

In The Face of War: Reflections of Men and Combat (1976), Larteguy writes that contemporary wars are, in particular, made for the side that doesn't care about "the preservation of a good conscience." So he asks, "How do you explain that to save liberty, liberty must first be suppressed?" His answer can only be thus: "In that rests the weakness of democratic regimes, a weakness that is at the same time a credit to them, an honor."

What kind of soldier can make the most of such limitations? Larteguy found his answer in the elite Israeli units of the mid-20th century, that were, in turn, a product of Larteguy's own personal hero: Orde Wingate. Wingate is of paramount importance because of the way he confronted challenges similar to those faced by America in Vietnam, and again in Iraq.

Larteguy writes: "The Israeli army was born of ... that mad old genius" Orde Wingate and his "midnight battalions" of Jewish warriors that included the young Moshe Dayan and Yigael Allon. "The Israelis would say of this goim: 'If he hadn't died, he would be head of our army.'" Wingate was a Christian evangelical before the term was coined. The son of a minister in colonial India, he frequently quoted Scripture and read Hebrew. In 1936, Captain Wingate was dispatched to Palestine from Sudan. For religious reasons he developed an emotional sympathy for the Israelis, establishing himself as "the Lawrence of the Jews." He taught them "to fight in the dark with knives and grenades, to specialize in ambushes and hand-to-hand fighting."

Wingate headed to Ethiopia in 1941, leading Ethiopian irregulars in the struggle to defeat the Italians and put the Negus Negast ("King of Kings," Haile Selassie) back on the throne. From there it was on to Burma, where he consolidated his principles of irregular warfare with his famed "chindits," long-penetration jungle warriors, dropped by parachute behind Japanese lines.

He took the name from the legendary animal—half eagle and half lion—whose statue graces Indochinese pagodas. According to Larteguy, Wingate was openly obsessed with a dislike of conventional armies that "used parades to transform its young men into automatons." Instead, Wingate thought in terms of individuals, and believed that if he had the right young men, he could do more with ten of them than with 100 of the conventional kind.

Wingate would teach these select few "trickery." That is, how to be assassins, how to ambush, how to get accustomed to broken sleep rhythms and brackish water for drinking, how to win over the local tribes. Larteguy's famed two armies quote, with its reference to "tricks," was partly based on Wingate's vision, forged initially in Sudan and Palestine, and refined in the Horn of Africa and Indochina. It was in Vietnam where Larteguy first encountered the historical figure of Wingate, whose warrior ethos would ultimately merge with that of the Green Berets in the early part of the Vietnam War.

Uri Dan, a long-time Israeli journalist, a devotee of Larteguy, and an intimate of Ariel Sharon, told me that democracies of today, because of the existential threat they face from an enemy that knows no limits, "need centurions more than ever." He's right, but only up to a point. Take this story told to me by a Navy lieutenant at Annapolis who had commanded a SEAL team in Iraq:

Time after time, the lieutenant's combined American-Iraqi team would capture "bad guys with long rap sheets," who were undoubtedly terrorists. His unit would hand them over to higher authorities, but after a few weeks in prison they would be released and go back to killing civilians. "The Iraqis and my own men saw how broken the system was, and some felt it was easier just to kill these guys the moment we apprehended them. After all, it would have saved lives. But," he continued, "I told them, 'oh no. Here is where I have to draw the line.' It was important to have an officer in charge who had studied ethics." The enlisted chief petty officers of his SEAL team—reminiscent of some of Larteguy's centurions for all intents and purposes—were the finest men he had ever commanded. But they required supervision.

A frustrated warrior class, always kept in check by liberal-minded officers, is the sign of a healthy democracy.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Professor in National Security at the U S Naval Academy. He is the author, most recently, of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, to be published in September.

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