By Bob Baker
When I first thought of comparing yesterday’s Army to today’s, it made me think back to Vietnam, the decade afterward and today’s VOLAR (a term not used today for the Volunteer Army).
Being raised as an Army brat, I grew up in the stringent world of class differences – officers and enlisted lived in separate areas on post and the dividing line was very pronounced and defined. As a kid, this sometimes came to a head when wanting to a start boy-girl relationship, which always seemed to get squashed before it began.
Also, in military quarters, diversity was common place, so much so that it was never mentioned. Neighbors of every race, religion and creed were the norm – whatever the housing office had open, that’s where you went.
The differences between Army posts and Air Force bases were also very pronounced. Having lived on or near several airbases, the Air Force always had better quarters and BXs (base exchanges). Where I was in Vietnam, Da Nang Airbase was the place to go, if you could, for better selections of almost everything, even better than the South Korean-run China Beach (at least when I was there).
I chose to enter the military intelligence branch of the Army, while the Draft was still an active way for one to also “enlist.” Unlike many other Army schools, you had to prove yourself and understand what was expected from you and why. We had an additional battery of tests before our first class ever began. We were lectured about a whole host of things that could bring shame to the MI branch, the Army, and our country. We were warned that you could be immediately sent to another branch, if not quickly kicked out of the Army. We also had a USMC captain instructor and a USMC gunny sergeant as a class advisor – there were no problems.
The people were all talented and bright, instructors and students alike. Though Vietnam was winding down, they seemed to know that most of us were probably headed there but they were required to teach us the Fulda Gap scenario as an integral part of the curriculum. Fortunately for us, the Marines had more of an eye on the ball and taught things that might help us when we got to Vietnam – which was about 95% of the class. It was very lucky for me to have had both emphasized, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Because I was assigned to a pure Military Intelligence unit in I Corps, most of the soldiers had also gone through the various intelligence classes and many had been in the Army for a number of years. Within our own confines, everyone (officers and enlisted) got along generally well. It was when you left our area, that things could (and sometimes did) happen. The higher in rank, the more distasteful were the subordinates and how little you knew (according to them). The colonels and generals seemed to worry more about things going wrong on their watch than continuing the mission of their unit. There was a malaise that seemed to infect many who remained. It was also their last chance for command time and medals. My Lai and Lieutenant William Calley’s trial had already occurred, race, and drugs would stop senior commissioned and non-commissioned officers dead in their tracks – all keys to that next step up the chain. For instance, LTG Hollingsworth, deputy I Corps commander at this time, was checking out the units that remained at the time a found a unit of the 101st Airborne that had rusty weapons and an artillery battery so “hopped up on drugs” that he immediately had them stand down.
The Army was leaving, and no one wanted to be the last one out. The Easter Offensive of 1972 brought the ineptness of many senior officers to the fore. Many suffered from the Peter Principle and it showed, especially when the pointing of fingers began.
After the war ended, there was an extended period of RIFs (Reduction in Force). There were many officers who gladly took the money the Army offered and ran, but there were a few who desired to stay – all the ones I knew were Vietnam veterans. This last group spoke up when it came to call something right or wrong. Many of their raters, unfortunately, hadn’t gone to Vietnam, spending their time in Germany and CONUS (particularly in some branches) and didn’t take such honesty well at all. As the official history of the first Gulf War states, “The Army emerged from Vietnam cloaked in anguish…it was an institution fighting merely to maintain its existence in the midst of growing apathy, decay, and intolerance.”
As time moved on, the non-veterans slid up the ranks and began to retire or filled the void of the very senior positions in the 80s – a new crop of officers who hadn’t seen much were now the senior caretakers of the Army and other services. For the junior officers and enlisted there was no firm foundation of real leadership then to be found on active duty. Doing well on PT tests, PC lectures, obtaining choice assignments, going through service schools, and not causing any waves became of prime importance.
Come 1983, those of us who had gone to Vietnam were virtually told that we weren’t allowed to participate in the invasion of Granada. The 5-day, 5,000 medals, exercise was only for those who hadn’t experience war before. When they returned, they were the “experts.”
Soon the Mid-East loomed large in American sights and those who had been in Vietnam were relied upon once again – they had persevered, though many had succumbed to the military’s political (dark) side. This time, though, tank warfare ruled the day, which was not something much experienced by US forces in the rice paddies of Vietnam (almost all US ground forces had left Vietnam when the tank battles of the Easter Offensive of 1972 began). You would be excused to think so as so many commanders were from the Armor branch (as was General Abrams).
Iraq was also an example of the political generals overpowering the few fighting ones and then having to return a few years later. Then came the recurring dilemma of Afghanistan for the past 17 years.
Deliberately ignoring the Lessons Learned in Vietnam (there’s that forbidden word) in favor of political correctness in all the service schools seems more of a concern with form instead of substance, especially with so many civilian professors who have no concept of the realities of war. Insurgencies are likely to continue for decades to come and all the services will have to deal with them.
Both COIN and conventional warfare training should exist in the future, just as both did when I entered the Army. Fighting two such wars is probably very likely today. Train for both now so you don’t have to play catch up tomorrow.
Duty, Honor, Country is a mere expression of a time long past to many, even at West Point, it seems. It was only yesterday when there were clearly defined sexual norms, when people who gave secrets to our enemies were traitors, when your word was your bond, and when giving your all for the principles that made our country great was not a laughing matter. We gave thanks to the God we worshiped for the blessings he gave this land, asked for His help as we fought our enemies, and didn’t have to worry about leftist organizations and politically correct flag officers getting in your face.
Things have to return to normalcy and not one that is dictated by a rabid bunch of anti-this and anti-that organizations that have no moral compass to navigate by. The US Army and its sister services should resist the tarnishes given by these people who know oh so much, by the politicians who have never fought or served their country, and by a press that thinks they are all so knowing that you must listen to them.
We have proudly fought for hundreds of years for our country and the principles it stands for. Who knows best in how it was once done and how it can best be accomplished in the future?
The differences between Vietnam and today are large. Though the Draft is no longer in effect, only 0.4% of the population serves in the military. There is a distinct rise in the number of political generals, the ones who seem to want more stars and medals today and a lucrative civilian career tomorrow (often with their clearances intact). They’ve learned that standing up to the politicians is detrimental to their careers, a wrong word is enough to wreck a vocation, and they are willing to advance their own personal interests at whatever cost, allowing political correctness to run roughshod over our fighting forces, as judged by politicians who never served and by an increasing number of officers whose judgements are fraught with the same virus of careerism.
There have been many who have pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” We must make sure it has not been for naught for those who are called upon to defend our country again.