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Earlier this week, a photo popped up showing my little sister pinning on one of my gold bars as I was commissioned an Army  2nd Lieutenant out of the OCS Brigade at Ft. Knox, Kentucky in 1969. Ten months and 10 days after enlisting in the OCS program, I’d been propelled from recruit to officer. I had skipped my college graduation in May in order to take a cruise of Lake Michigan and the North Channel with my family before reporting for duty. My enlistment was forced by the draft, which proposed to grab me within two weeks of graduation.

What followed were two years of active service, in places ranging from the Army War College (where I served as officer in charge of 43 military funerals at Gettysburg National Cemetery) to working as a press escort officer out of a forward corps press camp in Vietnam.

While a proper sense of the appropriateness of honoring those who fought and died in war was imbued in me through my own service and exposure, it was only years later that I learned that the war in Vietnam had been extended, with the loss of 20,000 additional Americans and a million Asians, by a political calculation to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger when they maneuvered to cancel the proposed Paris Peace Talks of 1969 in order to deny the Democrats the Presidential election that year.

My god, how can politicians play tinker toys with the lives of millions of people, as if we were just pawns on a board? And that’s just what they did, and what they have continued to do in the generations since Vietnam, despite the lessons we could have learned there, but didn’t.

So, this Memorial Day, I do mourn the lost, those who were sacrificed as much as gave sacrifice for their country. But I also mourn the continuation of the crass, inhuman brand of politics that characterize the highest levels of leadership in our country., then and now.  If only humanity were our true brand of politics, and that humanitarians were our one and only brand of politicians.

From Wikipedia:

 

Historian Alexis de Tocqueville made predictions in 1840 concerning perpetual war in democratic countries. The following is from Volume 2, chapter 22, “Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace and Democratic Armies, War”, 18th paragraph, in his book, Democracy in America:

No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country. Not indeed that after every victory it is to be apprehended that the victorious generals will possess themselves by force of the supreme power, after the manner of Sulla and Caesar; the danger is of another kind. War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it. This is the first axiom of the science.

Trump last night said we would no longer be nation-building but killing terrorists in Afghanistan going forward. Oddly, several years ago I heard from a general departing to lead Americans in Afghanistan that we were failures at nation-building there, but good at killing.

Sorry folks. America has been trying to nation-build in Afghanistan for 16 years, and in Iraq (how did that go?) and in Vietnam before that (we know how that ended.) It has been about nation-building all along, and that has failed time after time. Despite what Trump said last night, it is still about nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Are we good at killing? Yes. Are we wasting another generation of young American troops in another fruitless war? Yes.  Are we protecting the American way of life in the process? No. Are we wasting more billions, even trillions, that could be used to rebuild our own nation? Yes.

Are we learning anything? Yes. Are we doing anything useful with that learning? Absolutely not. Thanks Trump. The one time where one of your bad ideas — getting out of Afghanistan — might have been positive, you failed us again last night.

Yesterday, I met an authentic modern hero. Not the kind of domestic hero, who works as a volunteer at a food bank, or rushes to put out a fire, or adopts a needy child. But a modern military hero, who acted to save lives at the risk of his own in a combat zone, who accepted the role of leadership, even when it meant personal sacrifice. A living oxymoron: a French Algerian, who came to America, renounced his French citizenship to join the U.S. Army, and rose to become the newest and one of the 10 living Medal of Honor winners alive today.

Captain Florence (Flo) Groberg appeared yesterday at a small luncheon hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He brought along his charming girlfriend and his Pentagon handler, a public affairs master sergeant. Groberg described coming to America from a Paris suburb, where his French Algerian mother had married an American businessman. He attended high school and college in the U.S., and after 9/11, and becoming a naturalized American citizen, joined the Army and attended Infantry Officer’s Candidate School and advanced Ranger training.

On Groberg’s second tour in Afghanistan, he was leading a personal security detail for senior American and Afghani officials walking toward a local conference, when an elaborate suicide bomber attack began. Identifying the nearest would be bomber, Groberg pushed down the assailant, taking part of the blast himself, but saving many others in the process. While four died in the attack, Groberg survived, and after 33 surgeries is back on his feet. Two weeks ago President Obama presented him with the Medal Of honor at the White House.

Captain Groberg, now a Pentagon civilian employee,  is an intelligent, personable, modest patriot. When asked to comment on national policy issues, he reminds the audience that, “I am just an Army Captain, not a talking head political commentator.” He believes the U.S. is well prepared and our forces are well trained to fight the asymmetrical battles of the 21st century. Asked what his calling was in Afghanistan, he said, “to help the villagers with their local security issues.”

Asked what military traits he thought would be most beneficial in civilian employment, Groberg smiled and said, “punctuality, and then planning. Punctuality means we should up when, where and as needed, and planning means we approach every situation with a plan of action.”

In today’s era of widespread cynicism about America’s foreign adventures, with which I can heartily relate, it is moving to meet and hear from one of hundreds of thousands  of young people who live to serve and sacrifice in the name of American principles and leadership that they trust and admire.

 

 

We all remember the legend of Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack on America on December 7, 1941 “a date that will live in infamy” by the Japanese fleet that triggered U.S. entry into  WWII. But more misty in time was the sinking of the RMH Lusitania by a torpedo from a German submarine, on May 7th, 1915.More than 1100 people were lost in that sinking, including 120 Americans. The mighty Lusitania, queen of the British Cunard fleet, and holder of the Blue Riband (fastest to cross the Atlantic), went down in just 15 minutes, not far off the coastal town of Cobh, Ireland (near Cork). Many bodies, and survivors, were brought ashore at Cobh, and some were buried there. While WWI had began the year before, and it would be two years more before the U.S. would enter the war, the sinking of the Lusitania was the trigger that brought public opinion in the U.S. and Europe firmly against the Germans.

We happened into Cobh a couple weeks ago, on May 7th, 2015, by happenstance, and came to be witness to the ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of her sinking. As we stood at the entrance to the Titanic exhibit at the pier where the last passengers boarded her on her fatal first Atlantic crossing, a crowd formed in front of us, and a cordon of Irish sailors assembled. Soon a motorcade pulled up and the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins (a poet and scholar known as the old leprechaun) got out and inspected the sailors and laid a wreath at the monument in the town square to those lost on the Lusitania.. He next moved to a seaside pavilion, where speeches were given by him and the ambassadors of Great Britain, the U.S. and Germany, as a form of remembrance and reconciliation. The President of Cunard also spoke. Then, at exactly the minute the German torpedo hit the Lusitania 100 years before, all the mighty horns of the gigantic new Cunarder docked nearby, the Queen Victoria, sounded, and the band struck up.playing Navy hymns. There was not a dry eye to be found. My own Vicki, our friend Lydia and I lunched at the hotel across from the pier, where Lusitania survivors had once been brought, then moved on with our driving trip through Ireland.

It was a moment of history, and a somber cautionary  reminder (World Trade Center) of the fearsome triggers that can bring a  nation to war.

P.S. The village was known as Queenstown, after a visit by Queen Victoria in 1850, until the 1920s, when her old name, the Cove of Cork was Gallicized into Cobh. .P1010185Queen Victoria at Cobh, IrelandMay7, 2015 .   P1010184

Will we still be in the "Long War" 60 to 80 years from now?.

After you look at how the Pentagon is moving forward with its “Long War” strategy, consider how the impending bombing in the Middle East will fuel further anti-west hate as we rain our own version of terror from the air, with collateral damage that could kill innocents 10 to one or more. While our government may be implementing a revenge strategy the public supports, we will be investing billions in assuring this and future American generations of the worst possible form of public relations damage to U.S. reputation throughout the Middle East. We should instead look at the reasons that the so-called moderate Muslim countries consistently refuse to commit ground troops to curtail violence in Iraq and Syria.Through the recent beheadings were seen through the media as engendering fear among American people, we are also being cleverly “sucker-punched” by ISIS into our own violent chain of reactions, which will cost the U.S.stature, treasure and lives by rallying further support to them among many Muslims. We should not underestimate how ISIS is moving forward by trapping the U.S. into making decisions that are dangerous to ourselves.

My definition of a “Nation State” is this: “Nation” refers to a group or groups of people who can and do live together with general consent and success. “State” refers to a governmental structure defined by laws, codes, regulations, taxes and political sovereignty.

As we see populations increasingly collide around the globe (illegal immigrants in the U.S., Russia imposing itself on former territories, a fragmented Iraq on fire, Afghanistan tribal conflict, Pakistan against India, the Koreas in endless conflict, China’s global influence, Egyptian multi-culturalism, to name a few), it seems to be clear that the “Nation States,” so many of them the political residue of wars and military domination, past and present, are coming apart. Democracy requires that people of multiple backgrounds decide to voluntarily live together. Autocracies do not.

The old concept of the “Nation State” is calling out to be reinvented, in ways that can better accommodate natural associative “Nations” of people. Of course, any such evolution also calls for a realignment of world order, and something more relevant to the times than the current United Nations.

Oh, and also, he committed treason.

Now, that is not my description; rather, it reflects the view of President Lyndon B Johnson, who, in the final days of the 1968 presidential election, became convinced that Richard Nixon (who eventually won the race) and his campaign associates were working surreptitiously with the South Vietnamese government to obstruct peace talks between the US and North Vietnam. It is one of the most duplicitous and pernicious moments in Nixon’s political career – which, considering his larger crimes, is really saying something.

To provide a bit of context to the charge, it’s necessary to step back to the 1968 election. After tumultuous violence and a “police riot” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Nixon entered the fall campaign with a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, and third party candidate George Wallace. Battered over the war in Vietnam and the anti-war sentiment within the party, Humphrey looked like a political dead man walking.

Few at the time believed that Nixon could lose, so insurmountable did his lead appear. But in late September, Vice-President Humphrey broke with Johnson at a speech in Salt Lake City when he called for a conditional bombing halt in Vietnam. At the same time, Humphrey’s old union allies launched a massive effort to discredit the surging Wallace and convince their members to pull the lever once again for the Democrats.

Practically overnight, Humphrey’s fortunes shifted. His campaign crowds got larger, anti-war hecklers who had bedeviled him for weeks disappeared, fundraising improved and his poll numbers steadily began to improve. With a week to go before election day, an election that had once seemed like a foregone conclusion was now suddenly a contest.

And then came the “October surprise”: a potential breakthrough with the North Vietnamese that held the promise of peace talks in Paris and a hope for an end to the war. On 31 October, Johnson announced an eagerly-awaited bombing halt over North Vietnam. The prospects of “peace at hand”, many believed, would represent the final piece of the puzzle for the greatest political comeback since Truman in 1948.

But it was not to be – and in no small part because of Richard Nixon.

The final wrinkle in the negotiations with North Vietnam was the inclusion of the South Vietnamese government at the Paris talks. For obvious reasons, the South Vietnamese leadership was fearful of where such talks might lead – a US withdrawal could spell the end of their government and their nation. But refusing to attend negotiations in Paris would risk the ire of their US allies.

Luckily for them, they had another ally: the Nixon campaign, which was desperately trying to convince South Vietnam’s President Thieu to skip the talks and hold out for a better deal if Nixon was to become president.

Enter the most fascinating figure in this tale of intrigue: Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of General Claire Chennault, commander of the legendary Flying Tigers that ran missions in Burma and China during the second world war. She was a woman for whom the cold war was less a geopolitical and ideological struggle, and more a vocation.

Anna Chennault, with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in 1972
Anna Chennault, with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, in 1972

As strident anti-Communist who had long been involved in Republican politics, Chennault served as a back channel for the Nixon campaign to South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem. Released FBI intercepts show that Chennault was passing messages to Diem urging him to tell the government in Saigon to refuse to attend talks in Paris. Moreover, she was at the same time communicating with Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, who told her he was “speaking on behalf of Mr Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to them.”

It was one of many contacts between the two – contacts that continued even after the 31 October bombing halt speech. In fact, Chennault told Diem to tell Saigon that her “boss” wanted to tell “Diem’s boss”, to “hold on, we are gonna win.” As for who this shadowy “boss” was – well, he had just called her from New Mexico, said Chennault. By sheer coincidence, Spiro Agnew happened to be in Albuquerque that day.

By even less coincidence, Thieu went before a joint session of the South Vietnamese national assembly several days after Johnson’s 31 October announcement and said that his government would be not going to Paris, effectively torpedoing the talks and dealing a blow to Humphrey’s election chances.

Clark Clifford, who was secretary of defense at the time, offers in his memoirs one of the most authoritative takes on the Chennault incident – and perhaps its most damning indictment:

“What was conveyed to Thieu through the Chennault channel may never fully be known, but there was no doubt that she conveyed a simple and authoritative message from the Nixon camp that was probably decisive in convincing President Thieu to defy President Johnson – thus delaying the negotiations and prolonging the war.”

Now, it should be said that there is a real question of whether the South Vietnamese would have participated in talks even without Nixon’s intervention; and of course, there’s no guarantee that the war would have ended sooner if they had come to Paris. In addition, it’s far from clear that Humphrey would have won the 1968 election if Thieu had not refused to attend the talks. But certainly, it is very possible that the war might have ended sooner, and countless lives might have been saved – if Nixon had not muddied the waters with the South Vietnamese.

We, of course, know about the incident now with hindsight. What can definitely be said about it was that Nixon and his associates were integrally involved in an effort to derail a US diplomatic initiative to end the war in Vietnam – and for the most appalling of purposes: to win Richard Nixon a presidential election.

While much of this history has been known for years, it is oddly one of the most forgotten elements of Nixon’s odious record in the public spotlight. On some level, though, it is the greatest possible metaphor for Nixon’s legacy: that he would without scruple place personal aggrandizement ahead of the national interest.

It’s a worthwhile reminder that if one were ever moved to give Richard Nixon the benefit of the doubt, the urge must be resisted.

The current conflict between Palestine and Israel has led to substantially unprecedented video news coverage, because of the massive presence of news media on BOTH sides of the conflict.

During Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, we didn’t have as extensive and close-up video coverage of civilian impact of the carnage. When our drones hit a target, we get some, but little video of the actual human consequences.

Back in Vietnam, the Vietnamese lost close to 2 million people, and we saw just a little of that magnitude. Regardless of the pros and cons, politically, or the Israel/Palestine issue, viewers around the world are aghast at the carnage they see. Will this have any effect upon the outcome? Only time will tell, but the world can less than ever before escape the real time impact of the hell that is war.

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