Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Second Christmas in Vietnam

My second Christmas in Vietnam was almost as lonely as my first. All my buddies were gone. Beginning in early December, guys who came in-country with me started getting orders for 30 day drops–early return home. For a couple weeks, a steady flood of friends started rotating back from the field on their way out. It was a heady time, celebrating everybody’s survival and leave taking (permanent this time) during their last days in the company. Much of the weed from the last stand down went up in many evenings’ gatherings at The Hill, the nightly assembly point for the battalion’s potheads. We all took our final tokes on the supreme unreality of the year just past. Every day someone was off, heading for the World, and others arrived to process out. Watching the Freedom Birds take off from the Bien Hoa Airbase took on a special meaning when I could think of my friends on board.

By mid December, though, the party was over. I would have been among the first to leave but my extension bumped me back a few weeks; I wouldn’t leave the company until the 29th. As Christmas approached, I felt more alone than I had in a long time. The buddies I had served with in the field, partied with in the hooches of numerous fire bases and during stand downs; friends whom I helped stay out of the field by a variety of subversive means available to a company clerk; comrades who, like me, were just pawns in a fucked up war were all gone. I had not anticipated the emptiness that would follow in their absence. Sure, I had other friends and acquaintances, people I knew from life in the rear, but the bond just wasn’t there.

Aside from the flurry of paper work occasioned by all the personnel changes in the company, the routine work environment was pretty decent. Our new first sergeant (like every first sergeant, known as Top) used this time to organize the company to his liking. He very quickly ditched the dickhead lieutenant who thought he, not the first sergeant, ran operations (another story altogether). The new executive officer was a lieutenant, who after six months in the field, was happy to get out and even happier to let the first sergeant run things. We had a company clerk in training, which meant that I had less routine work to do. I didn’t even have to do much training since Top wanted to train the new clerk his way. I handled some special projects and thought about home. I didn’t regret my decision to extend–unlike the guys who’d just left, I’d be out of the Army altogether when I hit the States; they had to report to new assignments after the holidays–but I sure wasn’t prepared for the void left by the absence of old friends.

As Christmas approached, time slowed. It was nice to have less work but the pace seemed glacial. Top received a huge care package from his girlfriend back in Chesapeake, Virginia that included a Virginia ham. He arranged for the mess hall to cook it and shared it with us, serving it with biscuits, honey and, I am pretty sure, whiskey. He invited me and other company staff for a drink some evenings. The days were not bad. It was fun watching Top take over the company. Unlike his predecessor, this first sergeant knew what he was doing and wanted to make sure it would be as little trouble to him as possible. And I watched my days count down.

On Christmas Eve, I became a “one digit midget” with nine days to DEROS (date expected return from overseas) on 02 JAN 72. So short a time compared to Christmas Eve 1970 but, somehow, a long time right now. I had long ago realized that I would not die in combat so I wasn’t at all concerned about survival any more, just going home, seeing my girlfriend, and getting on with life, which meant graduate school and, I hoped, a relationship with this wonderful woman I had known for almost two years yet spent so little time with. Christmas 1971 was surely a time of hope and relief.

The replacement clerk, one of the new guys who’d come into the company in October whose name escapes me, wanted to see the Bob Hope Christmas Day show. As a long timer (I had over a year in-country by now) I had a priority to attend but was not at all interested. Bob Hope, to me at that time was a right-wing apologist for the war. The new clerk snagged a seat but he was also scheduled for Quick Reaction Force (QRF) duty Christmas night.. Attending the show, which was maybe two to three hours long, was a 12 hour day of transport, waiting and more transport (another reason to pass). I volunteered to cover for the him until he got back. It wasn’t much of a risk. Although the QRF was supposed to be the first response to an attack, it never amounted to anything more than staying in the company area with a weapon ready After he returned, the two of us sat on the roof of our building, talking and watching planes take off from the air base. He told me he enjoyed the show and appreciated my assistance in going. We speculated on how long he would stay in-country and talked of life after Vietnam. As ususal, nothing happened that required a quick, armed response.

After Christmas, I hand carried a request for a compassionate leave through higher headquarters (it was turned down). I also began my own outprocessing, walking from office to office, getting signatures and approvals. At the brigade awards and decorations office, a clerk handed me boxes of medals. Then I was gone, signing out of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) on 29 DEC 71 and reporting to the 90th Replacement Battalion, the same place where I came in-country 378 days before. To enter the battalion, I first passed through the Pee House of the August Moon where I gave a urine sample under the watchful eye of an MP who sat in a lifeguard-like chair looking down a row of urinals with mirrors placed so he could ensure that we in fact providing our own samples (wonderful duty, I am sure). Next we went through baggage inspection where I tossed an empty cigarette package into the contraband bin (the label was written in Thai, it was a souvenir of cigarettes reloaded with pot and I was taking no chances). One of the MP’s hassled me about it even though they said no questions would be asked about anything turned in. Nothing came of it.

Once in the replacement battalion, I was pretty sure I would have to wait three full days because that was the time required to qualify for my early out. My memories of the battalion from the previous year were pretty good, mainly because I had access to a library. Not so this time. We were restricted to the battalion area and mustered twice daily to learn if our name would be on the next flight manifest. The library wasn’t available to me as a transient and the available PX had nothing worth reading so I shot a lot of pool between formations and meals. While I waited, guys I knew from my old battalion were getting their 30 drops, arriving at the 90th Replacement and leaving on the next available flight. Even the guy whose compassionate leave had been disapproved show up and departed. I waited with nothing to do. New Year’s Eve was much the same as last year–flares and tracer rounds–but I knew that the danger was behind me. All I wanted to do was leave.

I woke up on January 2, 1972 to the sound of the Rose Bowl on the radio. I anticipated the day’s formations, expecting to hear my name called. My Class A summer uniform was ready, all I needed was a seat. My name showed up on the evening flight. Finally. Around 6:00 pm we boarded busses for the trip to the air base and sat in the same hangar I remembered from my arrival a lifetime ago. My plane left the ground to the sound of cheers somewhere around eight o’clock.


Because I know the feeling of separation during the holidays, I send hearty greetings to the many men and women now serving in the military. I hope you will soon be united with your loved ones, never to deploy again.

A Rare Day

It rained in Phoenix yesterday. First rain in a long time; I can't remember the last rainfall. It was an all day rain, not hard, just steady light showers all day and into the evening. Skies were dark. The day was a refreshing change from the constant light. This morning was misty before sunup. Misty mornings are rare in this city and, like the rain, a welcome change. The mist softens the landscape, adding charm and mystery to what is normally just boring and obvious.

Phoenix could use more rain. Not just for the water.

Yet Again Into the Breech

The news is sounding increasingly like more American troops are heading to Iraq. The conventional wisdom consensus is that BushCheney wants to surge into Iraq. Just for a little while. Till we get a handle on security. So far, the biggest obstacle (not counting the American people who want just the opposite) has been the generals who are hesitant to send additional forces. The LA Times reports today that the generals now agree on the need for more troops.

The generals--the ones on the ground in Iraq, at least--are recommending a surge of additional forces to Iraq. The recommendation is a change for the Iraq commanders, who have been up to now skeptical of the need and utility of more troops. The Joint Chiefs remain uncertain but they are not in the chain of command. It looks like BushCheney won't have to overrule his generals to get what he wants. He's got cover.

So up to 20,000 more Americans will surge into Iraq to do something. You see, they haven't quite figured out what the surging troops will do. They might fight Moqtada al-Sadr in the Baghdad slum that bears his family name, they might go after the Sunni insurgents. One thing for sure, they will die along with many Iraqis. I know that for sure and I am pretty certain that the situation will show no real improvement for their sacrifices.

Deciding on force levels before you've determined the mission seems ass backward to me. What has been decided is that America will dig further into Iraq, the November 7 election and widespread public oppostion notwithstanding. I don't know what convinced the generals to change their thinking but they have made a Devil's pact. Now they are responsible for making the surge succeed or they, not BushCheney, will be repsonsible for failure. Notice that the article discusses political issues at length and you will understand why additional military force is unlikely to succeed.

The listening tour and grand deliberations are merely the window dressing for more of the same. Staying the Course.

[Update at 22 Dec 8:23 MST] BarbinMD puts it all together over at DailyKos. I seem to be locked out of the comment section or I would add something about the reincarnation of William Westmoreland.

Friday, December 22, 2006

I've Said It Before

...but Pierre Tristam says it so much better.

There is no question that the murder of innocent people, whether fighting-age men, women or children, is a culpable act in any circumstance. There is no question that the Haditha massacre is no different than cold-blooded killing. It was cold-blooded killing. But the Haditha massacre is barely a symbol of the war that produced it, and the Marines who committed the murders merely bit players in the comedy of duplicity in whose second act they will now be ordered to star, so the rest of us moralisers, the Marine Corps above all, can feel better about God, country and conscience. So the Marine Corps can cleanse itself of the inhuman stain that happens, in this rare case, to make a public appearance, but that happens to be what the Marine Corps (and the military, any military) is designed to inflict first, foremost and always. The Marine Corps, the nation’s elite killing machine where uniforms, ritual, mottos and Jack Nicholsonisms à-la-you-can’t-handle-the-truth do such a seductive job of obscuring the reality of what, in the end, is nothing more than a honed and polished bringer of savagery at its consummate best. The Marine Corps that is just now playing the atrocious comedy of seeming so righteous in the severity of the charges it is meting out. The Marine Corps that every day has its boots’ imprint on Iraqi doors and Iraqi necks, dishonoring the very words its stands for. Semper fidelis, yes, but to what? You can start with prettily uniformed savagery and make your way up the chain of command, all the way up to the man who so lovingly, lustily, stupidly calls himself the Commander in Chief."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A General Thought

General John Abizaid announced his retirement, effective March 2007. "After 50 months out here, I think it's okay to think about retiring," he said. He's probably right, four years is a long tour. He's highly regarded within the military and certainly has the credentials--Lebonese-American, speaks Arabic, masters degree in Mid-East history--but he has not succeeded in his mission to secure Iraq against violence. That result, may well have other causes that go beyond the general's and the military's performance (read: BushCheney neo-con fantasy). Regardless, I'd say it's time for Gen. Abizaid to go, if for no other reason than the job and its frustrations have to be wearing on a body.

But his action is certainly inconsistent with BushCheney's rhetoric about the clash of civilizations and the dire peril to the Republic. If this is the test of our generation like World War II, Gen. Abizaid's retirement would be like George Patton retiring in August 1944. I also note that the general is unlikely to be stop lossed or recalled from Ready Reserve but he has around 30 years in already so I won't quibble.

Apparently, Gen Abizaid was honest and straightforward in his judgment and willingness to tell it like it is to his superiors. From the results he obtained, it doesn't look like that helped much.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Good News from Iraq

Laura Bush and other apologists for the US invasion and occupation in Iraq always point to the school refurbishment as the under or not reported progress in that country. Of course, even as she says this, the LA Times reports that "...across the country, campuses are being shuttered, students and teachers driven from their classrooms and parents left to worry that a generation of traumatized children will go without education." Dahr Jamail has even more distressing news about that "success".

More lies and distortions courtesy of the BushCheney Administration. It's been that way from the start.

Don't expect anything different.

Just Say No Surge

The Washington Post reports today that BushCheney and the generals don't quite agree on surging troops into Iraq for a short term fix. The generals want to know what the mission will be and how it will be asked to deal with the consequences after the additional troops withdraw. BushCheney shrieks to hell with the future, we're dying out there now!

If I read this right, the folks who got us into this mess with their unrealisitic assumptions and complete lack of foresight are now asking the military and the country to up the ante with no more assurance that they (the folks who got us into this mess)understand how to stabilize the disaster that is Iraq. Seems to me that America would have to be pretty dumb to trust BushCheney, especially when the genersls (whom he says he listens to) are warning against sending additional troops. But fear and blind patriotism have often clouded our judgment.

The same article also mentions a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based crisis monitoring group that includes several former U.S. officials.
The new report calls the [ISG] recommendations "not nearly radical enough" and says that "its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis." It continues: "What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region."

The Iraqi government and military should not be treated as "privileged allies" because they are not partners in efforts to stem the violence but rather parties to the conflict, it says. Trying to strengthen the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not contribute to Iraq's stability, it adds. Iraq's escalating crisis cannot be resolved militarily, the report says, and can be solved only with a major political effort.

The International Crisis Group proposes three broad steps: First, it calls for creation of an international support group, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Iraq's six neighbors, to press Iraq's constituents to accept political compromise.

Second, it urges a conference of all Iraqi players, including militias and insurgent groups, with support from the international community, to forge a political compact on controversial issues such as federalism, distribution of oil revenue, an amnesty, the status of Baath Party members and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Finally, it suggests a new regional strategy that would include engagement with Syria and Iran and jump-starting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

All of which makes a lot more sense than sending additional military forces to deal with what is a political problem. But then, sense has not been particularly characteristic of US policy in Iraq

Monday, December 18, 2006

Into the Valley of Death

Okay, let me see if I understand this correctly. The November 7 election was widely seen as a rejection of BushCheney's neo-con fantasy of regime change that has created chaos and violence in Iraq. Yet these same neo-cons are now urging more of the same. Like a gambler who keeps looking for that one big win, the neo-cons are upping the ante claiming that THIS time they'll get it right. More informed observers than I seriously doubt their claim. So why on god's greeen earth aren't Americans screaming at their representatives to smack down these armchair generals who are so willing to send Americans and Iraqis to their deaths?

It's enough to make me think William Westmoreland has returned from the grave, promising light at the end of the tunnel.