Some Painful Memories and Irreverent Thoughts About Vietnam, War, and What we Should Do in the Middle East
Update Today: I wrote this a few years ago, but never published it. Now I think it is time. I added one paragraph at the end to try to relate it to today’s choices. We have an administration coming in that has no idea what war is except what they have seen on TV. Here are my subjective thoughts which I now feel comfortable publishing. I doubt unless you have live this, you will understand it.
This blog is really written for nobody but myself. It is my subjective and probably unfair thoughts of the war as I knew it, from the air. Most of us have put this away. It is like another life you lived in on another planet. It all came rushing back to me on a hot smoky day recently when the forest fire smoke near my home had driven me inside and I watched three hours of the Air War in Vietnam on the Military Channel. I felt like I was transported back in time. I knew these people or ones just like them. I could smell it, taste it, and feel it. I was transported back to Udorn Thailand, Vietnam, and the friendly skies of Cambodia and Laos. In some ways, I did not want to go there, but I couldn’t turn it off. They spoke a language I had not even thought about in years and brought back so many conflicted thoughts and feelings.
Now before I describe some of those thoughts, I want you to understand something that most people who are younger don’t get about that war. It was big and it was turbulent, and it was the focus of the nation for years. Here are some numbers comparing Vietnam with Afghanistan and Iraq (War on Terror)
Vietnam versus Iraq and Afghanistan
Deaths: 58,209 to 6,717
Wounded 153,103 to 50,897
Missing 2,489 to 3
One in ten Americans who served died in Vietnam. And what is not listed is death to the other side, which was estimated at about 2.3 to 3.8 million in Vietnam. In order of most casualties in our history, Vietnam ranks 4th after the American Civil War, WWI, and WWII (deaths per population). The War on Terror ranks 9th after the Mexican American War. My point is to not compare the sacrifice of the soldiers in the War on Terror with Vietnam. My point is to explain why its impact was far greater and the emotions still far deeper for so many of us.
The other major difference was that everyone saw Vietnam on television, they hated it, and most of us who fought it were conflicted. Of course coming home was different. Nobody gave a rat’s ass and nobody was trying to make themselves feel good not serving by telling us they appreciated our service. Grow some hair and get out of the line of fire was about the best advice you could follow. But the big similarity will be that both veterans served admirably and in the end, it, the war, really didn’t matter. The War on Terror veterans still have to come to grips with that one.
In my own theater of combat, the air, 1,737 aircraft were lost to hostile action, and 514 in accidents. 110 of the losses were helicopters and the rest fixed-wing. The plane I flew in lost more aircraft than any other type, 382 combat losses for the F-4. If you add in my aircraft, the RF4C which had 76 combat loses there were a total of 458 Phantom loses. A close second was the F-105 and if you include the wild weasels, the same combat loss as the F-4. My point is that this was a very different war than the war on terror. But what came ripping home to me, was this re-immersion in the mentality of war and survival, and the controversies that broiled around us.
There were the missions, the strategy, the lessons learned, and strategy applied; tactics ingressing and egressing a target, the people, everyone focused on the mission. There were the tactics to defeat a SAM, and what altitudes the various AAA was effective at. There was the anger and RoE (Rules of Engagement), targets not allowed, breaks in the bombing that allowed the North Vietnamese to restock and further defend targets that later got people killed. There was identical planning each day that told the NVA just what routes we would come in on and what time. There was the Mig 21 which was by far a better aircraft than any of us were flying. There was poor training (primarily AF) in fighter engagement tactics. It was learn by the seat of your pants. The Navy had far superior training and were not afraid to lose aircraft in training if it advanced their ability to deal with the enemy fighter threat. There was Disco (orbiting EC-121) and SAR, and your strategy if you got shot down. There was counting missions till you went home, and the celebration on your last mission.
It was another world where the lessons you learned were critical to your survival. And I am fairly sure when it was over, most were lost. When I got back and went into B-52s, it was like it didn’t even happen. A whole world, way of life, critical knowledge, that no longer existed. And I don’t think many people cared. You were transported to a different dimension on the other side of the planet and none of that stuff was relevant anymore. I am sure the War on Terror warriors feel the same way. And as you get older, there are fewer and fewer people who have any idea what you are talking about, except for morbid curiosity about that war in Southeast Asia.
But here is one thing on those films I watched that transported me back in time and place, that those guys still have wrong. They are sure that if we had just been able to fight the war without all the restrictions, many of our comrades would not have been killed and the war would have been shorter. They are right on the first part. The tactics and micro-managing from the White House maybe kept China out of the war, but got a lot of brave airmen killed. But the war wouldn’t have been shorter, it would have been longer and slower. We could have closed down North Vietnam and shutdown the supply routes, but they would have just waited us out. The war was never about shock and awe, but about the will of the Vietnamese people. The South was a muddled mess of corruption and selfishness, and Ho Che Minh always knew he would prevail if it took 5 years or 50.
The ultimate lesson is you can not win a war for another country, they must win it themselves. The Vietnamese just wanted the violence to end and us to go home. The war was never about who had the biggest guns or the best bombing strategy. It was about securing the homeland for all Vietnamese and we were the barbarians who invaded their country and set up puppet governments. It was always destined to fail.
I wonder today about how that translates to the Middle East today. I wish we could do more for the Syrians and Aleppo. But do my lessons from above translate? I guess that is why Presidents leave office with white hair. It is almost an impossible choice. I am truly afraid that the ones coming into office have no idea about war and its costs.