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.

In 1943, at the age of 18, George Everette "Bud" Day of Sioux City, Iowa, enlisted in the Marines. He served in the Pacific during World War II, and later became a fighter pilot. He flew the F-84F Thunderstreak during the Korean War and the F-100F Super Sabre in Vietnam. Bud Day, a legendary "full-blooded jet-jock" as one recent account dubbed him, would see service in all three wars as a sanctified whole: For him the concept of the "long war" was something he had built his life around in the middle decades of the 20th century. As an Air Force major, he was the first commander of the squadron of fast FACs (forward air controllers), who loitered daily for hours over North Vietnamese airspace, seeking out targets for other fighter bombers. With the most dangerous air mission in the Vietnam War, Day and the other fast FACs were known as "Misty warriors." Misty was the radio call sign that Day himself had chosen for the squadron, inspired by his favorite Johnny Mathis song. The Mistys were "an aggressive bunch of bastards who pressed the fight; they got down in the weeds" and "trolled for trouble," writes Robert Coram in a recently published book about Bud Day, American Patriot. On August 26, 1967, Bud Day's luck ran out. He was shot down over North Vietnam.

The Military Code of Conduct "required that escape take priority over personal fears and concerns," Day writes in his own memoir, Duty Honor Country, published in 1989 by American Hero Press, Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Not ranked on Amazon, it is among the most amazing personal stories of any war. His eardrums ruptured, his face crusted with blood from beatings, one arm broken and both knees badly injured from the ejection, Bud Day was hung by the feet "like a side of butchered beef for many hours" by his captors after he refused to answer their questions. A week into his captivity he escaped. He then hiked 12 days alone in the jungle back to South Vietnam, eating frogs, nauseous from pain, only to be recaptured.

With all of his limbs now broken or shot up, he spent the next six years in captivity, undergoing mock executions, hung again repeatedly by his feet, often not permitted to urinate, beaten senseless in scenes "out of the Mongol Hordes" with whips that made his testicles like charred meat. When prison guards burst in on him and other POWs during a clandestine Christian service, Day stared into their muzzles and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Day took the greatest pride in never revealing information to his captors about the Misty program. "If I were to divulge our secrets and tactics, it was highly likely that many of my fine, young, loyal pilots would die as a result..."

I met Bud Day in September 2005 at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station where Navy flyers had lined up to buy his book, for which he had to take payments in cash. I thought it demeaning that he had to sell his book this way. It says something about the blind spots of a Manhattan-based publishing industry that Day had to go to what is essentially a vanity press. The publication of Coram's book is, therefore, a welcome event.

The relative obscurity of Day's autobiography and other books like it about Vietnam constitutes a lesser-known aspect of our civilian-military divide. The books to which I refer should be part of our recollection of Vietnam, but they generally aren't. They aren't so much stories that soldiers tell civilians as those that soldiers tell each other. Of course, there are exceptions: most famously James Webb's Fields of Fire (1978), a book that overlaps with this category and which, in fact, did become a bestseller. But there is a range of books of lesser literary merit, yet of equal historical worth, that either have small readerships or readerships consisting overwhelmingly of military personnel, active duty and retired. The authors of these lesser-known books include marines and Green Berets (Army Special Forces) who were involved in counterinsurgency operations. Their writing reveals a second divide—that between professional warriors and conventional, citizen soldiers—which is but another facet of the warrior's alienation from the civilian world. To explore this second divide, I must also bring into the discussion a French writer and a British soldier, whose legacies include not only Indochina, but Algeria and pre-World War II Palestine—scenes, too, of messy, irregular warfare. Thus, my notion of another Vietnam library goes beyond the subject at hand.

Reading habits are influenced by the people you meet. If I hadn't had the opportunity to embed with professional warriors, I would never have heard of some of these books. For example, I learned a great deal about Bud Day and Duty Honor Country from Air Force Captain Jeremiah Parvin of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a young A-10 Warthog pilot with a "Misty" patch on his arm. The A-10 is essentially a flying Gatling gun. Its pilots hover low to the ground and loiter over the battlefield at great risk. Even as they disdain the rest of the Air Force, marines and Green Berets consider A-10 pilots true warriors. A-10 pilots feel the same bond toward combat infantry. It is a trait of professional warriors that they feel closer to those in other armed services who take similar risks than toward men and women in their own service who don't. Being in the military is not enough for these men: To earn their respect, you had to have joined in order to fight—not to better your career, or your station in life.

Capt. Parvin was serving in South Korea when I met him. He hoped soon to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. He told me all about the Misty FACs in Vietnam. He showed me a coin that he always carried in his pocket, commemorating the Mistys, with Bud Day's name inscribed on it. It was a tradition in his squadron that the youngest and oldest members always carried the coin on their person. Whenever there is a reunion of Misty warriors from Vietnam, held usually in the Florida Panhandle—where Day now lives—the pilots of Parvin's A-10 squadron, two generations removed, send a representative.

Bud Day's memoir is riveting. But it is also a raw manuscript in need of an editor. His tirades against the likes of Lyndon Johnson and the "ding-bat traitor" Jane Fonda get tiresome. To be sure, Day's address to the Navy flyers the morning I met him was laced with colorful profanities. But it was his very rage and aggression against communism, against the Democratic Party of the era, against those whom he considered weak soldiers in America's own ranks, against many things, that allowed him to survive more than half a decade of sustained torture.

Among the persons he dedicates his book to is "President Richard M. Nixon," for ordering "Linebacker I and Linebacker II," the 1972 bombings of North Vietnam (the latter known as the Christmas Bombings), and for giving the go-ahead to the Son Tay Raiders: Green Berets out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who in November 1970 stormed the Son Tay prison west of Hanoi, where POWs were believed to have been held.

Because the prisoners had been moved from Son Tay nearly four months earlier, the raid was harshly criticized by major newspapers and some Democratic senators, notably William Fulbright, who questioned the "real purpose" of the mission, beyond freeing the prisoners. A New York Times editorial said the raid was "likely to widen the home-front credibility gap." Yet as Day recounts, the raid—along with the bombing campaigns that followed—constituted enormous morale boosts for the prisoners and led to improved treatment for them. Today among Green Berets, the Son Tay Raiders are looked upon as though mythical heroes from a bygone age.

What Bud Day and other POWs specifically admired about Nixon was his willingness to strike back in a way that Johnson hadn't. Johnson's bombing halt in 1968 was seen as a betrayal by POWs, and caused disappointment and anger even throughout the U.S. military. Remember that these POWs were often combat pilots—professional warriors and volunteers that is, not citizen soldiers who were drafted. Professional warriors are not fatalists. In their minds, there is no such thing as defeat so long as they are still fighting, even from prison. That belief is why true soldiers have an affinity for seemingly lost causes.

In December 1967, a prisoner was dumped in Day's cell on the outskirts of Hanoi, known as the Plantation. This prisoner's legs were atrophied and he weighed under 100 pounds. Day helped scrub his face and nurse him back from the brink of death. The fellow American was Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III of the Panama Canal Zone. As his health improved, McCain's rants against his captors were sometimes as ferocious as Day's. The North Vietnamese tried and failed, through torture, to get McCain to accept a release for their own propaganda purposes: The lieutenant commander was the son of Admiral John McCain Jr., the commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "Character," writes the younger McCain, quoting the 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody, "is what you are in the dark," when nobody's looking and you silently make decisions about how you will act the next day.

In early 1973, during a visit to Hanoi, North Vietnamese officials told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that they would be willing to free McCain into his custody. Kissinger refused, aware that there were prisoners held longer than McCain, ahead of him in the line for release. McCain suffered awhile longer in confinement, then, once freed, thanked Kissinger for "preserving my honor." The two have been good friends since. McCain blurbs with gusto Bud Day's memoir. The senator writes: "I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the dimensions of human greatness."

The term "professional warrior" is explicitly used by Navy Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale of Abingdon, Illinois, to describe himself, in A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection (Hoover Institution Press, 1984). I learned in depth about Vice Admiral Stockdale's writings in this and a second book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Hoover, 1995) from midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, where I teach. One "mid" told me that the moral lessons Stockdale provides helped inspire him to go to the academy.

Stockdale himself is a symbol of a civilian-military divide. The very way you recall him upon hearing his name shows on what side of the divide you fall. Most civilians remember Stockdale as H. Ross Perot's seemingly dazed vice presidential candidate, who, in the 1992 debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle asked aloud, "Who am I? Why am I here?" and later requested that a question be repeated, since he had not turned on his hearing aid. In fact, Stockdale, a life-long student of philosophy, had meant his questions to be rhetorical, a restatement of the most ancient and essential of questions. Because of television's ability to ruin people's lives by catching them in an embarrassing moment in time, too few are aware that Stockdale's vice presidential bid was insignificant compared with almost everything else he did.

Those on the other side of the divide remember him as among the most selfless and self-reflecting heroes the armed services have ever produced. In September 1965, then-Navy Commander Stockdale (the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel) was forced to eject from his A-4 Skyraider over North Vietnam. He spent the next seven years in prison, undergoing the usual barbaric treatment that the North Vietnamese communists meted out to Americans who did not provide information. Told that he was going to be shown to foreign journalists, Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner, slashed his scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool, to prevent being used for propaganda purposes. "When George McGovern said he would go to Hanoi on his knees, we prisoners ... were humiliated," Stockdale writes. "We did not go anywhere on our knees, least of all home ... Most of us would be there now rather than knuckle under," he writes in 1984.

Unlike in World War II, when the Japanese and Germans considered POWs to be liabilities and a drain on resources, the North Vietnamese considered captured American pilots as prime political assets. For POWs, not allowing themselves to be used as such meant being able to withstand years of torture. Rather than victims, men like Day, McCain, and Stockdale, once incarcerated, continued to see themselves as warriors, fighting on the most difficult of fronts.

Moral philosophy, in particular the Stoics, helped Stockdale survive. As he puts it, after he ejected from his plane, "I left my world of technology and entered the world of Epictetus." Epictetus was a Greek-born philosopher in first-century Rome, whose Stoic beliefs arose from his brutal treatment as a slave. Stockdale explains, "Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame they fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had failed to do their duty ... " When Stockdale writes about Epictetus, Socrates, Homer, Cervantes, Calvin, and other writers and philosophers, their work achieves a soaring reality because he relates them to his own, extraordinary experiences as a prisoner in one of the 20th century's most barbaric penal programs. Stockdale reminds us about something that much scholarship, with its obsession for textual subtleties, obscures: The real purpose of reading the classics is to develop courage and leadership.

Stockdale explains—drawing on Napoleon, Clausewitz, and other military strategists—that "the word moral" bears an "unmistakably manly, heroic connotation." (Virtue or virtu in Machiavelli's Italian derives ultimately from vir, Latin for "man.") He says that while we think of immorality in terms of categories like sexual abandon and fiscal irresponsibility, such vices, as serious as they may seem to civilians, are not in the same category as failure of nerve (his italics) in war. For a professional warrior, "doing your duty" is not to be confused with "following orders." The latter implies routine and mechanistic repetition; the former an act of potentially painful and devastating consequences, in which serving a larger good may mean something worse than death even.

The implications of "doing your duty" are spelled out further in Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Ballantine, 2006) by Rick Newman, a journalist at U.S. News & World Report, and Don Shepperd, a former Misty. They write that in November 1967, in order to rescue Captain Lance Sijan of Milwaukee, a smoke screen of cluster bombs was dropped near North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns, so that the guns could be taken out by low-flying F-4 Phantoms, throwing enemy air defenses into enough chaos to allow a helicopter to pick up the downed pilot. The operation failed. Captain Sijan, injured worse than Bud Day during ejection, evaded the North Vietnamese for six weeks. After he was captured, he escaped again, then was recaptured, and died of torture and pneumonia. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

This occurred while the pilots were operating under extremely restrictive ROEs (rules of engagement). Stockdale describes bombing runs over Hanoi in which each plane had to follow the other in exactly the same path, with almost no unscheduled maneuvering permitted—significantly increasing the chance of a plane being shot down, in order to reduce the chances of errant bombs hitting civilians. He and other pilots rage over how restrictive rather than wanton were the so-called Christmas bombings (which, incidentally, were called off on Christmas Day). Few other air campaigns in history were fought under such limited ROEs, and yet achieved such an immediate and desired political impact: the return of the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, the release of the POWs, and the end of America's military involvement in the war. The equivalent would have been if the pinprick bombings ordered by President Bill Clinton on Iraq in 1998 had led to a regime change in Baghdad; or a change of heart by Saddam Hussein that opened the country unambiguously to United Nations weapons inspections.

Bury Us Upside Down documents the lives of men who, like Bud Day, served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—a fact that inspires envy among professional warriors I know. "If I had the choice I would have been born before the Great Depression," Army Special Forces Master Sergeant Mark Lopez of Yuba City, California, told me recently. "That way I could have enlisted at 18 and fought in World War II and Korea, and still be young enough to have seen action in Vietnam."

Yet my favorite story in Bury Us Upside Down is about a different sort of serviceman: Air Force flight surgeon Dean Echenberg of San Francisco—a former hippy who helped start a free clinic in Haight-Ashbury, did drugs, went to the great rock concerts, and then volunteered for service in Vietnam, more-or-less out of sheer adventure. He ended up with the Mistys, billeted among men whom Bud Day had trained. If anyone lived the American Experience of the 1960s in its totality, it was Echenberg. One day in 1968, his medical unit was near Phu Cat, just as it was attacked by Viet Cong. "The dispensary quickly filled with blood and body parts," write the authors. "Parents and family members staggered around in a daze, desperate for their children to be saved." Echenberg worked almost the entire night with a pretty American nurse. Near dawn, emotionally overwrought, the two laid down to rest near the end of the runway on the American base, and "made love in the grass while artillery boomed in the distance."

"Echenberg struggled to understand how anybody could be so savage as to murder children." The authors continue:

The young doctor had been ambivalent about the war when he first showed up in Vietnam. But he could no longer humor the anti-war protestors he knew. Yes, combat was inhumane, and atrocities happened on both sides, especially during the heat of battle. But he didn't see the communists as "freedom fighters" or "revolutionaries" like the crowd back in San Francisco. To him the communists were savages who terrorized civilians ...

It was another young A-10 pilot, Air Force Captain Brandon Kelly of Cairo, Georgia, a forward air controller on the ground in Iraq, one of the most dangerous jobs there, who told me about Bury Us Upside Down, which was not reviewed prominently. Capt. Kelly told me that to fully understand what motivated people like him, I had to read this book.

"Protests against the war spawned ideologies ... everything about Vietnam had to be rejected. The result was a shunning of this excellent book. Fashionable journals declined to review it," writes former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger in the preface to a reissue of Bing West's The Village (1972). While the battle in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down (1999) lasted a day, and the one in Harold Moore's and Joe Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once...and Young (1992) lasted three days, The Village is about a Marine squad that fought in the same place for 495 days. Half of them died, seven out of 15.

All of them had volunteered to go to "the village," a job they knew would likely get them killed. Their reason? As the commanding sergeant tells the author: "you have a sense of independence down here. There's no ... paperwork. You're always in contact with the Viet Cong. You know you have a job to do. You go out at night and you do it." And so, these marines left their base camp, with its "canvas cots, solid bunkers ... ice cream and endless guard rosters, and went to live with some Vietnamese ... "

In West's story there is no sense of defeat and doom and perversion like in classic Hollywood movies about Vietnam; no beautiful, ingeniously constructed, and introspective narration about soldiers and their vulnerabilities, beset with moral complexities, as in a work like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), a favorite of high school and college literature courses. West has not written a better book than O'Brien, himself a twice-wounded veteran of the war. But he has written a very different, equally worthy kind that, outside of the members of the military who have regularly recommended it to me over the years, is still relatively little known.

The Village is a story of interminable, deadly, monotonous life-and-death nighttime patrols, dryly and technically narrated, as though extracted from the pages of a hundred, strung-together after-action briefs. To wit: "He had fired twenty bullets in one excited burst, yet missed because he had used a magazine which contained no tracers. Unable to see his fire, he had failed to lead properly when the scout ducked around the corner of the house." The book is as absent of style as it is of negativity. Like any good field manual, it has no time for that. As I said, warriors are not fatalists. The Village deals with what works in a counterinsurgency struggle and what doesn't. It is a story meant for war colleges that the public, too, desperately needs to know. For the redeeming side of the Vietnam War it reflects was not an aberration.

The Marines of Bing West's story constituted a CAP (Combined Action Platoon), which moved into Binh Nghia in early 1966, a village terrorized by the Viet Cong, and over 18 bloody months pacified it, taking unabashed pride in their work. "Many of the marines," West writes, "let months go by without writing a letter or reading a newspaper. The radius of their world was two miles." The following passage helps explain why many Vietnam veterans I meet in the course of my reporting have not altogether negative memories of that war.

The Americans liked the village. They liked the freedom to drink beer and wear oddball clothes and joke with girls. They liked having the respect of tough PFs [Popular Forces government militia] ... who could not bring themselves to challenge the Viet Cong alone. They were pleased that the villagers were impressed because they hunted the Viet Cong as the Viet Cong had for years hunted the PFs ... The Americans did not know what the villagers said of them ... but they observed that the children, who did hear their parents, did not run or avoid them ... The Marines had accepted too many invitations to too many meals in too many homes to believe they were not liked by many and tolerated by most. For perhaps the only time in the lives of those ... Americans, seven of whom had not graduated from high school, they were providing at the obvious risk of death a service of protection. This had won them open admiration ... within the Vietnamese village society in which they were working and where ultimately most of them would die.

West, a former marine in Vietnam who made periodic visits to the platoon, ends his story thus: "In July of 1967, Binh Nghia was no longer the scene of nightly battles ... the enemy had accepted the persistence of the unit [the CAP], whereas his own determination to defend Binh Nghia had waned." That victory was won by marines who never accepted that "the village" was lost, even when the platoon was surrounded by 300 Viet Cong. The marines had done too many nighttime stake-outs, lying immovable for too many hours in filthy puddles, with rain pouring down as though out of a shower faucet, to simply retreat.

The Village demonstrates that the military has memories that the public doesn't. To many who grew up in the 1960s, Vietnam was a cause. But to those who fought it Vietnam was foremost a war, in all its gray shades: with its tactical successes and tactical failures, with its Marine CAPS and Green Beret infiltrations that worked, and its Big Army ones that didn't; with its Army generals who succeeded like Creighton Abrams, and its Army generals who failed like William Westmoreland; with its moments of glory like Hue, and its moments of disgrace like My Lai; and, above all, with its heroes, like the Son Tay Raiders and the Misty forward air controllers.

In 2002, Bing West returned to Binh Nghia. In a new epilogue he writes:

Once a year, the villagers gather to pray for good crops and no floods [by] ... a cement wall bearing a Vietnamese inscription to the Marines who built the well and the shrine in 1967 ... The Village remembers.

Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (2003) by John Stryker Meyer is even more compact, technical, and intense than The Village. Like Bud Day's Duty Honor Country, it was published by a tiny press, in this case Real War Stories, Inc., and went unreviewed. It was recommended to me by a Green Beret sergeant major from rural Pennsylvania, Jack Hagen, whose friend had fought in the unit Meyer writes about. The book constitutes an intimate memory in its own right, another example of stories that warriors tell themselves.

The cheap and slightly out-of-focus jacket design suggests a term-paper quality manuscript that will be a chore to read. Yet as combat writing goes, Across the Fence is pure grain alcohol. It is not replete with rich, unforgettable descriptions, but rather a work of dry realism that makes no attempt at profundity, and is thus unburdened by doubt—the warrior's great strength. There is bitching about physical discomfort, but no complaints about the purpose of the war. So little emotion is there that the author allows himself only a brief and passing broadside against Johnson's ceasefire and what he considers the antagonism of the media.

John Stryker Meyer and the men in his unit, as he writes, "were triple volunteers." They had volunteered for Army parachute jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia; then for Army Special Forces training at Fort Bragg; and finally to serve in the Command and Control element of MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group). This was a joint unit engaged in classified, unconventional warfare in Laos and Cambodia: places known respectively as the "Prairie Fire" and "Daniel Boone" AOs (areas of operations), or just plain "Indian Country" in Meyer's own words. The book's title is military lingo for across the border from Vietnam, where "the North Vietnamese Army," as the author writes, "had moved soldiers, supplies, rockets, guns, and propagandists south into the eastern provinces" of these so-called "neutral" countries, whose territories were an integral part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Complex.

Across the Fence was published only in 2003. Meyer had "signed a government document in 1968 pledging never to write or talk publicly about SOG for 20 years." After that, he explains, "anti-Vietnam" sentiment "made it difficult to find a publisher who would buy the concept of a Vietnam book that dealt with real people striving against unbelievable odds in a politically handicapped war." Encouraged by his writing teachers at Trenton State College, Meyer eventually produced a battlefield diary of daily forays into Laos and Cambodia in 1968 and 1969.

Arriving at a SOG base in Vietnam, the author was shown into a barracks, where on "one double bunk, sweaty and naked, was a couple heavily involved in the rapture of the moment." Nearby, he "found an SF [Special Forces] trooper showering, while a naked Vietnamese woman squatted in the water, washing herself." Seeing that he was an FNG (fucking new guy), a sergeant explained to him that the prostitutes were given weekly health check-ups and what the prices were. These were men away from home for many months: A significant percentage of them were soon to die. Meyer himself was momentarily to enter an existence where life was "a matter of inches":

Three rounds slammed into the One-Zero's [recon team leader's] head, blowing off the right side of his face ... Nothing in the months of pulling garbage detail could prepare ST [spike team] Alabama for the grisly horror unfolding at that moment. The One-one [assistant recon leader] buried his face in the dirt and started praying. Black and the remaining ST Alabama ... returned fire. The Green Beret stood there, firing on single shot, picking off NVA [North Vietnamese Army] soldiers on top of the rise ... Both the NVA and ST Alabama tended to their wounded while the living combatants slammed loaded magazines into their hot weapons ...

Enemy troops quickly reinforced the ambush site. It was always thus. As Meyer documents—through his own experiences, as well as through interviews he conducted for years afterwards to recreate the combat sequences—whenever SOG units crossed the border into Cambodia and Laos, they uncovered a beehive of North Vietnamese Army concentrations. The border truly meant nothing. The battlefield overlapped it. Meyer spends 18 pages describing a savage, day-long firefight in Laos that ends with many dead, as well as beer in the canteen for the survivors near midnight, before another insertion that meets another enemy troop concentration the next morning. From beginning to end, Across the Fence is a record of extreme heroism and technical competence that few who fought World War II surpassed.

Every time Meyer crossed the border it was with South Vietnamese "indigs" (indigenous troops) integrated into his unit. He writes about their exploits and personalities in as much detail as he does about the Americans. He identifies with them, and with the enemy whose skill he admires, more than he does with elements of the home front.

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.