The Uninformed, leading the Unwilling, toward the Impossible
That’s what I see when I listen in on the tedious debate over the Iraq war, so reminiscent of Vietnam. I wonder what would the Cable News Networks report if they conducted a survey of the Wallace Beerys of the Air Force, we the C-130 Drivers. That sensibility is awakened again by this front page article in the New York Times (free subscription required), citing how their different experiences in Vietnam may have formed the views of Senators Hagel and McCain on Iraq:
Different Paths From Vietnam to War in Iraq
Senator Chuck Hagel spent 13 months as a lowly grunt in the Mekong Delta in the deadliest period of the Vietnam War. He saw the horror of war from the bottom up â€” men sheared in half by explosives, half-decapitated by sniper fire, bleeding to death in the gloomy swelter of the jungle. Thirty years later, he came to believe he had been used.
Senator John McCain was shot down 3,500 feet above Hanoi on a bombing run one month into his tour. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war; he was held in solitary confinement, tortured, beaten until he could not stand. An admiralâ€™s son and a Navy pilot, he came to believe, like many pilots, that the war had been winnable, if only it had been fought right.
Nobody asks the C-130 Drivers
We Airlift people were not quite so egotistical to call ourselves C-130 pilots. “Drivers” was more like it. We knew a lot about the war-on-the-ground because we visited it every day, intimately. We flew 12 hours a day, landing at 8-10 little airstrips, offloading ammo, supplies, people and hope. We routinely transported U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, both the new and optimistic and the used and wounded, plus Vietnamese “civilians”. We never knew whether the Vietnamese we carried were inspired by our cause or committed to our death. And we knew we were transporting both types. They were vastly outnumbered by the Vietnamese who didn’t know or care about the sides. They simply endured the current war as their ancestors had put up with whichever war was being waged at the time.
Our temporary assignments were to Cam Ranh Bay or Tuy Hoa Air Bases, which were also home to some seriously egotistical fighter pilots (is there any more egotistical force than fighter pilots? Not likely). These paragons of American testosterone and eye-hand coordination simply could not believe that we routinely landed and re-supplied the places that they bombed and strafed, with appropriate temerity and the virtue of about 3500 feet of vertical separation. 3500 feet AGL was usually enough, but not for John McCain in his first month, in the north, where we would never go.
The Spectrum of American Illusion (Geopolitically speaking)
Americans, like all people, love extremes. Today, at one extreme, we have (mostly) prosperous Americans who, regretting they are not more influential, are amazed that their fellow Americans do not possess the collective will to stay the course and finish what they just know is possible: we should impose our country’s military might (well, the might of 150,000 of us) to force 27 million Iraqis to just get along and forget a thousand years of Sunni-Shi’ite conflict.
On the other extreme, we have a lot of people who are so unwilling to deal with conflict that they think the world will magically leave us alone, provided we have the will and wisdom to not be violent, thus reversing every indicator of human experience.
Why ask the C-130 Drivers?
Even though every military expert agrees that there could never have been a Vietnam effort without the prodigious cargo-hauling contribution of the Lockheed C-130, I don’t think anyone has bothered to conduct a systematic survey of Vietnam C-130 crewmembers to archive what we learned as we “hauled trash” hither and yon along the long breadth and slight width of South Vietnam.
I believe that such a survey would reveal a consensus that we have got to be kidding ourselves in Iraq. Winning against an insurgency is a lot like capturing the heart of someone you can’t live without, when the magic isn’t there for them: It’s theoretically possible but statistically nonexistent.
OK, let’s explore a (typically) cynical C-130 pilot’s view of the experiences of Hagel and McCain. The above-cited NYTimes article is the first time I realized McCain had been shot down in the first month of his one-year tour.
That’s a red flag right there and I believe that a lot of experienced Vietnam types would agree. Welcome, Johnny, into the first 30 days of your Vietnam Adventure Camp. We hardly knew ye, and you never had a chance to deal with the reality of it all. As a fighter jock sleeping on an aircraft carrier every night, you were unlikely to grasp the big picture in a year, but there was no way you got it in your first month.
Any one of us who had been shot down so early and tested so rigorously would never have been able to perceive the absurdity of it all. Now that I know that John McCain was such a neophyte upon capture, I cannot take his views on Vietnam seriously. I honor and revere his experience: one that, I am sure, I would not have met as bravely or as resolutely.
John McCain is an expert on what it’s like to be captured a few weeks into his otherwise glamorous role as a Navy fighter pilot. but he’s no expert on the Vietnam experience. Though I never experienced a fraction of the pain imposed on Senator McCain, I am, relatively speaking, an expert on the reality of the South Vietnamese experience which was, I assert, the point of the entire sordid exercise.
And that’s the point of all this. We haven’t lost in Iraq, we’ve simply taken on a project that we never could have won. That truth brings on board a more important truth: If you’ve never experienced combat, yet you still embrace the undefined “victory-in-Iraq” notion, you are a fool.
If, however, you’ve suffered the slings and arrows of combat, let’s assess the realities of Iraq with the benefit of the hard-won filters we gained from Vietnam. Donald Trump is precisely right in this interview with Wolf Blitzer, but everything he says was knowable four years ago.
Chuck Hagel saw the whole mess, up close and personal. I’ll trust the opinion of a grunt on the ground for a year over that of a flyboy who never got close to the real mess we make every time we launch an elective war.