Category Archives: Viet Nam

The Geopolitics of Heartbreak

July 23, 2021

By George Friedman

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is winding down, just as it had in Iraq and Vietnam. There are always those who believe wars must be fought, and when they are fought, they are fought by those out in the shit, where lives are lived in the dirt and in the foul smells that feed the battlefield, from unclean bodies to exploded munitions. Later, these soldiers will speak of duty and honor, and they will mean it, but while in the shit, they usually think of the condition of their weapons, the likelihood of a warm meal, and the profound fear of death competing with the profound fear of fear itself.

The life of a soldier in combat is lived with a strange love for what has archaically been called brothers in arms, and if there is honor, it rests in the respect of those he loves and the urgent need not to think of that love or even express it. His brethren share everything with an intimacy even the best marriage can’t imagine. Everything belongs to everyone, from the last drop of water in your canteen to the last drop of your blood. And when a brother or sister dies, the feeling is one of not only loss but also shame. The fear is that there is something you could have done but didn’t do, or more bearably that it was a result of failure to be alert. In fact, death is simply something that happens in war. An artillery shell or a sniper round happened to hit home, and someone died accordingly. The soldier’s soul revolts at the thought that it is mere accident. If it were mere accident, then the death would have no meaning. There is a desire to believe that death can be defeated by vigilance and caring. This is untrue, but when a soldier’s friend dies, the soldier often feels responsible. They call it PTSD now, but this medical condition fails to capture its real name – heartbreak – made all the more agonizing because there’s no time to mourn in the heat of battle and little appetite among the public to let them mourn when they return to civilian life. The deployed must live a life in which loved ones – even the most unlovable – are their responsibility, their death, their shame.

Wars are waged from faraway headquarters often with shocking carelessness. The planners don’t know the enemy, and they don’t really know the terrain. They don’t know the smells that are endured, and they don’t know the name of the soldier who just died. This is as it should be. Presidents and generals cannot afford to love the men they send to war. They must treat war as impersonal, a balance sheet containing available artillery, airstrikes and the latest intelligence about the intention of the enemy. Much of the balance sheet is wrong. The war is far away, and the soldiers who know the answers are too busy defending their unit. War is the sphere of uncertainty, and the farther from the battlefield you are, the more uncertain it is. The experts on war hold forth with power points. Those living wars understand that the reality is the unknown thing lurking behind the tree line.

The reality of Afghanistan was simple. Al-Qaida planned its attack on the United States from Afghanistan, so Afghanistan had to be attacked in order to destroy al-Qaida. After Washington failed to destroy the group, a second objective arose: to pacify Afghanistan and cleanse it of its radical Islamists so they would not threaten the United States again. The logic would have been impeccable had it been connected to reality. Radical Islam is the dominant religion of Afghanistan; cleansing Afghanistan of radical Islamists can’t happen. The Russians, British and countless others failed to, so why would the U.S. succeed? To war planners, the answer was probably air power or better intelligence or some other form of illusion. Thus, in clean rooms with lunch served on china and no tears shed, a tough mission that failed was replaced by an impossible mission that had to fail.

The United States also repeatedly failed to admit the obvious. There were good reasons to remain in Afghanistan: proving to the Muslim world that America would ruthlessly pursue its enemies, convincing allies that the U.S. would not cut and run, and so on. So the war went on, far beyond the point where anyone seriously thought the U.S. could achieve its goals. It went on because it was easier to continue the war than to end it.

And so a generation of American soldiers went to the shit with the pseudo-brave uncertainty that welcomes newcomers to the battlefield, to the sorrow that is its true meaning. Soldiers quickly learn that they want badly to leave, though they never admit as much to the soldiers they will come to depend on and then love in that strange and twisted way they have done since Troy and Jericho.

Eventually, reality sets in, and it is time to go. And then that realization comes to those who are in theater, and the remembrance of those who were there and the recollection of all that was lost strikes. It is not only those lost but also the youth of those who survived that was surrendered. The careless frivolity of the young is gone, and all that is left is a grim anger and an inability to live the life that others live.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan is necessary. Bringing over the translators to the United States is a moral obligation. Thinking of the Afghans who died innocently or fighting for their beliefs is needed. A thought should be given to the war planners who didn’t intend the war to end this way. It is easy to believe that you would have chosen differently under the same circumstances, when you never would face that moment. All of these things have to be remembered. But when the withdrawal was called, my thoughts were for the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan long after good reasons had evaporated. This was another war lost because it could never have been won. Do not mourn the geopolitics of failure; mourn what geopolitics has done to their souls. They have to live with their failures, real and imagined, and now with the thought that it was all for nothing.

The soldiers’ hearts will be broken less by war than by the peace that revealed the indifference with which their courage and brotherhood were used and discarded. To fight and be told defeat didn’t matter is heartbreaking. There is no redemption for them but love, but it is hard to love the brokenhearted.

Via GeoPoliticalFutures

Viet pedicure

Hurrah, I discovered another Vietnamese pedicure/manicure spot not far from the mini-rancho. Beavering away as usual, charging significantly less than other places for the same service. Saving their money for greater things. Probably illegals. Very little English spoken but generally understood. Viva la Viet Nam!

Two tombstones

I’m going to buy a civilian tombstone for Russ, copying his father’s & mother’s, adding only Beloved Son and Russ’s birth and death dates. His father, Rev. F.M. Wheat’s stone has a quotation from Corinthians: “At home with the Lord.”

I’ll use that, too. I like its double-meaning, whatever was meant in the New Testament (I’m not a Christian), plus an Afterlife meaning as well.

Retired Colonel Art, who may not want his last name used, is leading the effort to get a military stone recognizing Russ’s service as a Vietnam combat infantry lieutenant platoon leader. Who was wounded in both legs, still wearing the scars when he transitioned at age 81. Hope you’re enjoying yourself, Russ.

Russ’s headstone

In Higgins, Texas, way up in the panhandle, Bar and I found that our old OCS friend Russ Wheat has only the funeral home’s plastic marker on his grave. So his classmates are working to get him a military headstone from the Veterans Administration. Stymied so far by a lack of his DD 214 separation document. The funeral home never got a copy nor had any idea Russ was a Vietnam combat veteran. The plot thickens. Stay tuned.

DD214 on iphone

I was keeping the paper copy in the car, until someone suggested photographing it for the phone. Probably best to keep it there to avoid losing it, though I have several copies. Mostly I use my VA card for discounts when asked but AT&T asked for the full 214. And it was worth it, shaving $70 from my monthly bill. Veteran bennies, such as parking spaces and discounts, are a new thing. Wasn’t so long ago being a veteran was no benefit at all.

Transition: Chuck Waldron

I was sorry to hear of my old Army friend Charles V. Waldron’s passing, but glad he was in hospice, as was my departed wife Mrs. Charm. I’m sure they took good care of him.

I knew Charles in basic, ait and OCS, plus as new platoon leaders in the Sixth Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Meade, Maryland, which included guarding President Nixon’s 1969 inauguration.  In Vietnam we shared advisory assignments but at opposite ends of the country.

We met again at the Fort Benning reunion in 2003 where we shared a room and I learned of his COPD problem. I’ll remember him as being smarter about volunteering than me, when he missed out on shoveling coal into barracks boilers at Benning waiting for OCS to start. He tried to talk me into going Airborne but to no avail and we missed that one together. Grief is hard, even after years of it, but it does get easier, I told his widow. So take good care, I suggested, and you’ll see him again in your dreams. 

And, as a well-wisher at his memorial page put it: He sees every tear and walks with you every step of the way. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Major Norman Vulinski Linnear

He was one of our tactical officers in Infantry OCS at Fort Benning—a black lieutenant, a rare thing in 1968. Several remember him fondly as someone who taught more than he harassed.

He later did two tours in Viet Nam, as a MACV adviser and later an infantry company commander in the 25th Infantry Division. He died in 1990 at age 51, and is buried at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.