Monday, October 28, 2019

Long NonFic Audio: "Vietnam" by Max Hastings

Long NonFic Audio: Vietnam: an epic tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings, 2018, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

I read or heard a history of the Pacific campaign a few years ago but cannot find any notes here. I was for sure that Hastings wrote that book but his pub list says, "No."

This is a neat read and oftentimes a major bummer. 30 years of awful government by the French, the South, the North, and the unified country. Lots of death, crime, war casualties, murders, thievery, and grief.

I took notes throughout my listen. These are things that struck me at the time or reminded me of things I had forgotten. The notes are only slightly cleaned up. Read it if you like.
Ho lived life as a International Man of Adventure (low rent version) until he returned to Vietnam. The guy traveled everywhere. HO was fighting the French were complete murderous bastards. Atkinson points out French massacres and long-term, murderous repressions against people in Algeria and Madagascar. Events that would have been big news but for happening after the meat grinder of WWII.

Dien Bien Phu was amassive clusterfuck. No political leadership and the French massively outnumbered and surrounded by hills. French resupply pilots were under threat and showed a real lack of interest - let alone bravery in flying in to resupply. What's more, the French were running out of planes. Supply drops would be done at too high an altitude and supplies would float down into Vietminh territory. At the end the French had about 1,000 casualties in Dien Bien Phu's shrunken perimeter. About 1,000 French deserters survived in the forest outside the French camp scrounging supplies from missed parachute drops.

Plenty of men kept volunteering to parachute into Dien Bien Phu as reinforcements. But, the troops there had revolts, no food, constant shelling, nighttime infantry attacks, and mud. A miserable place to be with no chance of escape or withdrawal.

After the French surrender only one quarter of the missing and captured French forces survived captivity. Of course Ho and general Giap were entirely willing to sacrifice their own people who were starving and diseased at the same time. Ho and Giap were real bastards.

Atkinson points out that at time of writing (2015-ish) the North has never provided figures for all their losses in the '50s. Dien Bien Phu was likely several thousand Vietminh but there is little clue as to how many were killed and imprisoned afterwards. Or starved to death.

After the insurrection against the French ended the communists did the usual communist thing: send people to "reeducation" camps, murder others, imprison some more. Ration cards were denied to anyone whose family might have been middle class.

Family separations nationwide. Communist cadres and soldiers in the South were told to go North. About 10,000 Vietminh stayed in the South to fight if the political resolution failed. French and Vietnamese anti-communists continued to fight on in North Vietnam for a couple years without resupply or support. Atkinson relates a radio communication by a Frenchman pleading for assistance (a desperate need for ammunition) before they were overrun.

The South's dictator ran it as a family organization and the U.S. was pumping in millions of dollars to keep the country afloat. Of course corruption soaked up a lot of the money. One US official said the US should just pay North Vietnam 500 million bucks as "rebuilding funds" if they promised to butt out of the South. Pay off the enemy and call it quits.

Both governments in South and North were "cruel and incompetent".
Laos was the lead news item over Vietnam in late '50s and early 1960s. Big country with few people. Then North Vietnam essentially invaded to use it as a highway. Laotian culture described as friendly and enjoyed dick jokes, "priapic humor."

War in South Vietnam was waged by locals. Southern insurgency was not fed by North until later. The initial fighting was at the point where a massive American intervention was feared. Which proved right of course, because we killed tons of people. But, the North and their Chinese and Soviet supporters wanted to avoid drawing US power directly into the mix.

Conditions in the North produced revolt. Protests, bombs, etc. But the North killed their way to submission. People were resigned to the governments power. Mentioned in the introduction is how plenty of people in the North wanted the war to end - same as the US - but good luck getting any traction, and certainly no public protests and press would be allowed.

From '60 to '63 there were thousands of assassinations by the VC. They had no weaponry to fight up front. Weapons were all captured, mostly, from ARVN. Assassinations were easier. The number of assassinations dropped because local guys who were accessible and vulnerable were already killed. There was no one to take over the jobs and provincial or national leaders were safer. the national gov unable to reach out and provide any services. Locals could not depend or rely on any government services because the workers were not there. The communists relied on brutality with public murders and executions. 

Hastings says how it was unique at those early stages where "America can do no wrong". My response: What about early mid '90s with American power at an apex? The whole "World's 911" philosophy where we rush in to rescue everyone else?

Planning was always flawed in that the US was also pushing to prepare for invasion from the North like what happened in Korea. The usual error of a military always fighting the last war. But war in the South was always an insurgency. The North did not started shipping weapons to the South until 64 (63?). Most of those came by small boats into the Delta region.

ARVN had lots of trouble. Draftees were sent to areas that they had no connection to. Vietnam society is heavily based on families. Family more important than a national pride. And not much pride in a government of assholes. Troops would have 5 to 6 weeks of training then sent out. No there was no way out of the army, "out of green", except death or a wheelchair.  In all 3 countries the rich escaped the draft.

Mention throughout the book of John Paul Vann and details of a battle he was advising. The battle became famous and Vann became famous but the defeat itself was not as awful as other battles. The problem was that the battle was witnessed by foreign journalist who told the tale. After the failed battle a fake, 2nd assault was planned by teh ARVN as a show. The VC had already left. A prepatory artillery bombardment of 50 some shells landed on the ARVN position. The ARVN infantry commander pulled a pistol and murdered the forward observer who called in the artillery.

Tonkin Gulf. The result of electronic phantoms shooting that were assumed to be attacking a US ship. This came after alerts from 4 North Vietnamese patrol and torpedo boats who fired on a destroyer doing signals intercept. Te Navy launched airstrikes even though an attack was still in question and called in as such. Captured signals traffic from the North Vietnamese discussing a battle was the North's Navy  referring to events of two days ago. The US Navy ignored and suppressed evidence to contrary. There was confirmed evidence in 1990 of a Northern politburo member urging the initial attack.

The US Navy's post-Tonkin attacks were seen by people in the North as unprovoked. The bombings united the North against the US. Other results included the 1st pilot shot down and captured who then spent 8 years in captivity. The North also decided to send an NVA unit South. Chinese starting shipping modern rifles, machine guns, RPGs, and more. Several Mig 17 planes arrived. The Tonkin resolution was not too big a thing at the time "only when the administration's" lies came out was it recognized as important.

Johnson start to accelerate the war once the 1964 election ended. The US started bombing supply trails in Laos.  The South was plagued by multiple coups. Coups became a normal thing for civilians. US had discussions about the ARVN invading the North but the ARVN would have failed miserably because they were incapable. The US was always trying to get other countries involved and tried to get the UK involved. There could "spend a billion dollars" and not get the boost that one British battallion would provide.The US needed the political coup of a new partner, not the military dudes to fight. 

Mention how no one thought to tell the South Vietnamese government that the Marines were going to land in Danang in 1965. In turn there were thousands of Chinese and Russian advisors worked in the North but they stayed quiet, did not go South, and had no free press to talk about it.

During those middle years of the decade the South had many political and physical battles against Buddhists that included mass murder and imprisonment.

There was an industry to defend and promote US involvement. A Rand researcher spent '64 to '66 in Vietnam and his arguments, "research" on VCR morale, and fervent personal anti communism were a primary reason US air attacks kept up. Even after appalling civilian casualties. The rand researcher was "arguably deranged". When he was asked what the solution to the war was responded "when the Air Force pays the bill the only answer is: air power"

Some neat history about the US air wars into the North and the bombing campaign of '66. The US clobbered NVA planes and pilots. But, B52 missions with had WW2 level accuracy due to ack ack.  All the promises and threats of bombing into Vietnam and Laos into the rock age but those countries already were already there. Bombers aimed for Northern oil facilities when industries there still ran on coal and wood.

Chapter on air campaign very interesting. Daily process of wake, prep flight, and go. Navy missions often were just 90 minutes long. A short trip over the ocean, over land to the target, and back again. And bombing missions would involve multiple aircraft: fighters, bombers, fuel tankers, helicopters..

The fantasy of winning war through bombing continued throughout. Gen Lemay went to his grave saying unlimited bombing would have won. The modern AF still gives same argument. Kosovo was an air war only but Iraq and Afghanistan threats were ground fire and no AA or enemy planes.

For all the bombing of the North and all the news it received the South was clobbered even more. More tons of munitions and more bombing runs. The North was energized by the bombing the same as the UK under the Blitz. The population strived to win against enemy attacks.

There were frequent peace overtures and Hastings says it was "absurd" to believe everyone in the North embraced the fight. Hastings writes about civilian life in the North and a quote that, "It was a terrible time. We had no happiness". Life in the North meant hunger and no pet was safe. Rat meat was common.

North's defensive measures of surface-to-air missiles (SAM).  Hastings uses the usual description of the missiles that look like "a telephone pole with stubby wings". The missiles carried a 350lbs warhead that was lethal within 100 yards. Electronic countermeasure (ECM) improvements meant safer evasion as the war went on. The North got more and more missiles but the kill ration of missiles per shoot down went in the US's favor. I had notes on the missile to shoot-down ratio but lost'em.

No such thing as precision bombing when having to fly fast and low and sudden sharp turns to avoid enemy fire. Bombs kept falling way off target. In the US the Right would not recognize the errors and deaths. The Left would not recognize the North's propaganda and lies or the North's  allegiance to Lenin and Mao style of governance. People would reject the lies of the US Army and White House but fall for the lies from the North. [Hey, man. I know the feeling. I fell hook, line and sinker about Saddam and weapons of mass destruction.I thought people would be tripping over mustard gas shells in the Iraqi deserts for the next 30 years.]

The US had trouble identifying targets and even when ID'ing a target the planes would still miss. "Reasonable accuracy" to USAF would lead to civilian casualties. It's not easy to pilot a plane at high speed through enemy gunfire but that standard of accuracy charts a radius that reaches out into civilian areas. Hastings compares Japan bombing vs Vietnam bombing. Plenty of dead in both wars.

ARVN were horribly underpaid. The country had massive inflation and military pay never kept up. Many soldiers had to work part time jobs or were unable to feed themselves or their family. And draftees had no end date. No DEROS for them, they served until the end of the war or the end of life or limb.

Hastings talks about the reverse bizarre victory of Tet. Any other leader who ran the attack plan that the North came up with would have been shitcanned. Totalitarian North Vietnam meant Tet's mastermind stayed in place. The Southern forces were clobbered to nothing during Tet.

More talk on the secretive North that hid their awfulness.

AR15/M16 talk misses a few points I already know about. The problem with Hastings or any historian covering 30 years and the history of a few million people necessitates things will be missed. That details can be misleading without clarification. It's like anything else - historians make mistakes and have blindness.

Hastings rips freely on North and South and the US's Left and Right. I am definitely more of a lefty but even thought I was born in 1971 I take needless offense at his digs on the left for not seeing the North for what they were. Hastings says how well the North hid their true nature in the press.

The press and media during and after Tet were hunting headlines and left little analysis in the stories. But, why should the press have had any trust in MACV when MACV made shit up? A story about Westmoreland bitching about Marines in Hue when the military leadership asked the impossible like "take 200 guys and travel 11 miles across unknown terrain and enemy and get there in a half a day."

The North's mass murders in Hue. "Your name is the list so you die". Children and entire families were murdered by the VC. Bay Lop (his code name) was the man shot by a South Vietnamese Officer with a .38 in the famous photoo. Lop had just murdered family of 8.

Post-Tet meant many dead VC. The Delta area went from strong point to ghost town. Survivors were hiding out. Regular small boat supplies not getting through and safe areas were no longer safe.

The US strategy by statistics. Same in Iraq a few years ago.

The "Secret peace plan" campaign promise by Nixon. Hastings takes it real easy over Nixon's pre-election meddling in peace talks and his campaign's communication with the North. Hell, Hastings pretty much skipped right over it. Watch Ken Burn's Vietnam documentary if you want to boil your blood

Support for Nixon versus ending the war. Massive support of for Lieutenant Calley even after he was convicted of murder. Calley one had 42 months confinement to quarters and his higher officers got off scott free. Calley's Captain was acquitted. There was a "culture of casual murder" in some parts of the US Army. Killings and casual murders were normal. It brings back.importance of discipline and rules. Shaving and ironing and polishing are enforced to maintain discipline and maintain civilized behavior. I have KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES  by Nick Turse in the library and that is all about civilian killings. I should read that.

The US Army falling apart starting in '69. I read a memoir by a soldier in an armor unit whose time straddled 91968. He saw the complete trun from soldiering to fucking around. Soldiers who did earlier tours came back to Vietnam with "what the fuck?!" response. Lots of marijuana usage. And heroin usage. And as always booze guzzling.

Fragging trouble of killing superior officers and noncoms started. Racial trouble included a riot a month. Poor discipline with drug use while on patrol. Many draftees with zero motivation.
Hastings at times rips some of the press as voyeurs and tourists. That some pressmen were career builders. Hell the Army encouraged that kind of work in the officer corps. Officers needed a combat assignment to advance so they'd serve in a combat unit for six months or so and then leave.

There is a section on Australian and New Zealand troops who were very well regarded and not as trigger happy as Americans and ARVN. ANZAC methods were different where field craft skills and silent movement were prioritized and much better than Americans. The smaller numbers of the ANZAC contingent meant they were able to only take soldiers who wanted to go to Vietnam. Australia had a collection of foreign enlistments. One British soldier wrote to South Africa, Rhodesia, and Australia special forces units saying "I am a trained killer, do you have a job?" He had positive response from all but Australia sent a plane ticket and off he went.

ANZAC did not have big body counts but their numbers were not inflated either. US Army was not always happy with ANZAC tactical methods and statistics.

Uncle Ho's "ruthlessness was absolute" and had been since the '54 takeover.

ARVN 4th largest army in world during the war.

A famous firebase attack and slaughter of American and ARVN troops who refused to build strong defenses or work guard duty or take things seriously at all. You may hate to be there but you can still be killed.

Nixon's famous trip to China meant Nixon also learned that China would not interfere on behalf of the North. Nixon admin's reaction was "Bombs away."

After the US withdrawal the North's invasion of the South was stumbling at times and had massive massive losses. 20% survival some North units. They did not know how to fight a conventional war. One tank attack on a city had huge losses. They seemed to think the tank's were invincable and could scare everyone. Instead the tanks entered the city and and were clobbered in the streets by infantry. One North attack was held back by FAC of Army and Marines. John Paul Vann alone scared up 300 B52 airstrikes as her flew around in a spotter plane.

1972's wheeling and  dealing before the election and reminders of Nixon's 1968 secret peace plan. Lies, coercion and promises. The US's betrayal of Saigon was rationalized. Same as the US just did to the Kurds. I saw plenty of parallel to current events as I listened to this. US negotiations with North did not involve South which is similar to negotiations with the Taliban that excluded  Afghanistan.

Nixon's bombing campaigns and strategy were partly driven by "how dare you not follow what I say" when the North did not agree.

Linebacker 2, 1972's Christmas bombing campaign, was an attack on morale. I read a book by a former POW who claimed the bombings freed them. NVA missile and AAA defense morale crumbled. The soldiers were up all night and living under big stress.

A fair primer on the B52. A difficult plane to fly and requiring muscle for unpowered controls. Fliers were revolting during the late bombing campaign. A General came for a morale visit to a B52 base in Thailand and brought his family. The General addressed pilots and when talking about strain of deployment on marriage aged "some not meant to last" when he himself brought his own family. Air Force Officers were shouting at the General and things were thrown at him.

White House transcripts have Kissinger saying "bullshit" of WH claims the Paris Accords were reached by Christmas bombing. 64% approval though.
21,000 dead since Nixon;s reelection and his claim of a secret plan to win the war: same as fuckface Trump.

Aftermath: Life in unified Vietnam for ARVN survivors meant prison, no civil rights, no jobs . All Officers went to prison. No freedom of speech. The North ran a controlled economy that led to a famine.

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