In the mid-1980s, more than a decade after my last year on active duty in the Marine Corps, I was invited by the Marines' New England recruiting region to take a tour of Parris Island, South Carolina with other journalists and educators to see what had changed, or not, since I went there as a recruit in 1966.
The intent from the Marines' point of view was that we would then write or broadcast our experiences, and give potential recruits a realistic view of the military, as opposed to the incessant negativism that was rampant at the time, and is still part of the media fabric today.
We were flown to the island on the Commandant's plane, and spent three days perusing the training facility and nearby Beaufort, S.C. Marine Corps Air Station. For some it was a first-time experience, for others it was a return engagement without the intimidation.
One area that I was insistent about seeing, but had not been on the itinerary, was a visit to the recruit depot classroom area to observe a Marine Corps history class in session. It wasn't as exciting as watching Drill Instructors go about the process of training their troops, it had none of the thrill of the rifle range, but I believe that the Marines' focus on the history of the Corps is one of those intangible qualities that separate us from other services.
Every one of us who has ever gone into battle or prepared for battle is certain of two things: there is no command in the Marines' handbook for 'retreat'; and we are carrying on our shoulders not only the weight of freedom and the future of our nation, but the weight of more than two hundred years of proud tradition usually against formidable odds.
Vietnam had just gotten started from an historic standpoint when I was a recruit, but I still remember my drill instructors teaching us the exploits of the Marines who had gone before us in earlier wars. Therefore it was imperative for me to see how the Corps was treating our contribution to our history.
I was disappointed to find that I would not be allowed to attend any such sessions, however. The explanation was that there were no history classes scheduled for the time we were there.
No problem, I responded. I am, after all, a Marine. We're used to things not going as planned. Having a backup plan, as well as a backup for the backup, in addition to thinking on the run, are all part of our legacy. So, I asked, "Could I have a copy of the syllabus for the history classes?" figuring I could write an article from that.
I was told that I could, but there wasn't one available right then. They'd send me a copy, I was told. Nonetheless, for one reason or another weeks passed after my visit ended and still no syllabus. My generally benign nature and pleasant demeanor finally had enough and I made some phone calls to friends in Washington, and voila, eventually a syllabus arrived in the mail.
Then I found out why it had been so difficult to get one. I had made no secret of my intent to write about the way the Marine Corps treated the history of our fighting in Vietnam, factually and thoroughly I presumed, as opposed to the ongoing communist propaganda that permeated the news reports on that war.
But I was shocked, no maybe dismayed, no maybe appalled, no maybe all three and some more, to find that the way the Marine Corps of the mid-80s treated the history of its fighting in Vietnam was to -- not treat it at all. OK, maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but here is what I found.
After nearly 15 years of war, in which the Marines were there at the beginning, and were there to evacuate the American compound at the end, after participating in some of the most ferocious battles of the war, after suffering total casualties on a par with those of the Corps in WWII, the recruits' exposure to Marine involvement there was limited to a total of five operations.
The Marine landing at Da Nang in 1965 was lumped in with Operation Starlite that same year, in which Marine infantry locked horns with a full strength, main-line Viet Cong regiment near what became the Chu Lai air base, and kicked their asses; then the syllabus jumped to the Battle of Hue and the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968; then it discussed Operation Dewey Canyon in 1969 in which the Marines, led by General Raymond Davis, applied proven war-fighting concepts to destroying the North Vietnamese Army in the rugged jungles of northwestern South Vietnam; then it jumped to Operation Frequent Wind in 1975, when the Marines were ordered to conduct the evacuation of the American compound in Saigon, and provide security against advancing communist forces.
That was it. Despite the fact that in between those mileposts there were literally dozens of other operations, virtually every one of which was overwhelmingly successful, only those five were mentioned.
A few years after that visit I helped arrange the first reunion of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161, (HMM-161) the unit I served in both in the states and during most of my Vietnam tour. Our commanding officer, Lt. Col. Paul W. Niesen, who had joined us in 1967 in New River, North Carolina, and led us for nearly 18 months, including through intense combat in Vietnam, was one of our honored guests.
It was the first time I had seen him since late 1968, when he had been promoted to Colonel and left our squadron to run the entire Air Group at Quang Tri. In mid-1969 after we returned home, Col. Niesen was named Marine Aviator of the Year for his outstanding leadership and tremendous successes in the previous year.
But I was again dismayed to find out that the colonel's Marine career had been cut short when he was passed over for promotion to Brigadier General. Why? Colonel Niesen who died two years after that reunion, was then, and remains to this day, the most accomplished, well-versed, and inspirational leader I have ever had the pleasure to serve with.
Col. Niesen had started his Marine career in the Korean War, and had been an exemplary leader, but he was denied promotion on the basis that he had not quite completed four years of college! Despite all that he had done in our tour, and a subsequent tour in Vietnam, the Marine Corps went 'politically correct' on him.
Bowing to the pressure of the media and Congress, our Marine Corps' leaders believed they had to do something to offset the false claim that those of us who served during the Vietnam era were the uneducated, low-class dregs of American society. So they canned one of the most accomplished aviators on active duty!
What does any of this have to do with Iraq? Everything. Instead of standing up for what is right, and telling the truth as it was, the leaders of a generation of American Marines were trained in an atmosphere that allowed the lies and distortions of our service in the Vietnam War to take precedence over the truth. Thus every good tactic and every overwhelming success was swept under the rug, along with the lessons that should have been taught to future generations of fighters so they wouldn't have to be re-learned on the battlefield.
If you think I am blowing this out of proportion consider this. On that same visit to Parris Island, at a cocktail reception at the Officers' Club, I saw an officer wearing Vietnam ribbons. I approached him and learned that he had been with the 4th Marine Regiment at the same time I had been in Vietnam.
When I mentioned that I had been on several operations with the 4th Marines and began to query him further he halted me in mid-sentence and told me "We don't talk about Vietnam around here." To say I was stunned is an understatement. I saw that visit to Parris Island as a homecoming of sorts, and to be shut out that way was deplorable.
But back to Iraq. For three years now we have been hearing those tired old refrains from the communists and their supporters in Congress regarding our efforts there. "Bogged down." "Quagmire." "Another Vietnam."
We have heard it said repeatedly. So we don't do body counts, even though some of our troops say we have killed some 40,000 to 50,000 terrorists in the last three years, and we didn't take a hard look at the defeat and hold tactics that were so successful in Vietnam, and we don't listen to the people who fought back then, because 'What could we possibly know that will help now?'
There have been some bright spots along the way. Marine Gen. Al Gray, a Vietnam veteran and no-nonsense Commandant in the early 90s made great strides in bringing back the warrior culture. Gen. Peter Pace, who fought in Vietnam and now is the first Marine ever to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the immediate past Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee both have shown through the outstanding performance of the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan that they know their military history.
But we had to wait three years until the President of the United States was forced to reassign two key generals, increase troop strength and make a public announcement that he was ready to implement successful strategies that were tried and proven in Vietnam before we could get to this point.
The good news is that the president did adapt. The good news is that he is going in with a set jaw, a clenched fist and a no-nonsense attitude. It is going to be kick ass and take names time in the Middle East. If I were a terrorist, Iraq is the last place I would want to be, except there are very few other places left to go.
But we shouldn't have had to wait three years for this to occur. The lessons were there all along and the people who lived that history have been here all along, trying to get someone to listen to them.
The issue now becomes one of fortitude. Don't expect it to be easy or bloodless. Vietnam was neither, yet we won all of those battles. This won't be easy or bloodless, but Iraq and the War on Terror both can be won if Congress doesn't turn traitor on us and sell out the troops and our allies again.
The danger now is listening to people who never learned or don't remember their history. It has already been shown that to ignore history is to repeat it, and the leaders of the Democrats in Congress, whatever their motivation, are salivating at the opportunity to create "another Vietnam syndrome."
Friday, January 12, 2007