A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

(American Embassy, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 30, 1975)

THE SYMPATHIZER is a unique first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.  The story is told from the perspective of a narrator who allows the reader to delve into the mind of a Vietnamese person experiencing the end of the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975, and the aftermath of the fighting focusing on a possible counter-revolution, and how Hanoi is integrating the south into its political agenda.  The narrator highlights the duality that is present throughout the novel.  The protagonist’s own lineage is a case study in ethnic diversity as he himself is considered a half-caste or bastard in Vietnamese society.  He is the illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother, and a French Catholic priest.  The narrator loves his mother and hates his father, and throughout the novel these feelings are portrayed through a number of poignant vignettes.  The book itself is very important because there are few novels about the war that provide a vehicle for the Vietnamese to speak about their experiences and feelings.  Nguyen’s effort fills that gap in an emotionally charged novel that alternates between the light and the dark aspects of war.

The narrator’s character fits the duality theme in the sense that it is divided by at least two component parts.  First, he is obsessed with guilt as he tries to navigate the demands of being a spy for the north and living in the United States.  He is educated in an American university and after the war he is assigned by his handlers to shadow, “the general,” a former commander in the South Vietnamese secret police who has escaped Saigon, and is set up by the CIA in Southern California to organize the retaking of his country.  The narrator, a Captain and interrogator in the secret police is living a much better lifestyle than his compatriots who did not escape the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong when Saigon fell.  He suffers from tremendous “guilt, dread, and anxiety” concerning his worthiness as compared to his countrymen.  Further guilt is evidenced as he repeatedly flashes back to his role in the assassination of the “crapulent major,” who was suspected of spying for the north, and the murder of Sonny, a Vietnamese who began his own newspaper in Southern California that was seen as a threat by the general.  In the second component part of the narrator’s personality, we witness his movement away from his “sympathizer mode” and carries on as a revolutionary consumed with his role as a police interrogator following instructions from Man and his Aunt in Paris, both who are his handlers, to provide information as to events and political patterns that are being shaped in the United States.  Throughout the novel, the narrator’s role confusion is evident as regrets many of his actions committed during and after the war in the name of revolution.  His anguish evolves to the point that he begins to doubt his beliefs and tries to make amends to those he hurt.

S.  Vietnamese in Da Nang struggle to climb aboard ships that will evacuate them to Cam Ranh Ba

(South Vietnamese struggle to board ship in Da Nang to escape North Vietnamese forces, April. 1975)

The texture of the book is evident from the outset as Nguyen describes the horrific scenes that took place in Saigon as the city was about to fall.  The description puts the reader outside the American embassy and Saigon airfields as frightened Vietnamese who worked for, and, cooperated with the United States sought to escape before North Vietnamese troops took the city.  The narrator returns to his childhood when he, Man, and Bon, three friends become blood brothers for life.  As the novel unfolds we follow the relationship between the three that is rather complex since Man becomes a Commissar for the north, Bon is a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, and the narrator suffers from the duality of being a spy for the north and a police interrogator for the south.

Many important themes are developed in the novel.  The conflict between east and west or occidental and the orient are deeply explored in the dialogue between the characters.  The moral dilemma of what is right and wrong in our daily actions hovers over each page, and how a person tries to cope with their own divided heart. The author’s sarcasm is at times humorous, but also very disturbing as the narrator tries to understand the history of his country and the demands it makes upon him.  The history of the war is explored in the context of certain important decisions by the United States, the Hanoi government, and the remnants of the Saigon regime.  Nguyen descriptions are intense and very pointed, i.e., as the narrator explores who invented the concept of the “Eurasian;” he states “that claim belongs to the English in India who found it impossible not to nibble on dark chocolate.  Like pith-helmeted Anglos, the American Expeditionary Forces in the Pacific could not resist the temptations of the locals.  They, too, fabricated a portmanteau word to describe my kind, the Amerasian.  Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me as one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI.  This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are.” (19-20)

The Sympathizer 

The author creates a number of interesting and complex characters that carry the storyline nicely.  The right wing Congressman from Orange County, California who wants to fund and train the South Vietnamese counter-revolution, the Hollywood producer who is making his own movie version combining the Green Berets and Apocalypse Now, the northern commandant who tries to purify the revolution through the reeducation of those who have gone astray, and many others.  The narrator’s plight is very important as he tries to integrate his memories of his country in a heartfelt manner throughout the novel.  Whether he discusses Vietnamese geography, culture, or his family and friends, he seems adrift when in America, and then adrift again, when he returns to Vietnam.

The book is a triumph as a first novel, but at times it can be very dark.  I suppose that is acceptable based on the historical background of the war and the story it tells.  It is a unique approach to trying to understand a war that ended over forty years ago, but that had been fought since the late 19th century when the French first imposed their colonial regime.  The history of the war and the scenes that are presented seem authentic and should satisfy those interested in the literature of the war and how people tried to cope and survive the trauma it caused.

CHICKENHAWK by Robert Mason

(Bell AH-1 Cobra)

One of the most iconic sounds that people relate to the Vietnam War is the “womp, woosh” of American Huey helicopters.  Whether watching a film like Apocalypse Now or reading a book on the war those sounds will reverberate in the reader’s mind.  During the war about 12,000 helicopters were deployed by the United States military.  Of that number 7,013 were Hueys, almost all of which were US Army.  The total number of helicopter pilots killed in Vietnam was 2202, and total non-pilot crew members who died were 2704.  The most accurate estimate of the number of helicopter pilots who served in the war was roughly 40,000. (www.vhpa.org/heliloss.pdf)  As we think about these statistics we can only admire the bravery and fortitude of the men called upon to undertake the many diverse missions these pilots engaged in.  One of the pilots, Robert Mason has written one of the most important accounts of the war available in his memoir, CHICKENHAWK.  Mason’s account is probably one of the most accurate and realistic accounts we have about the American serviceman’s experience in Vietnam.  From the vantage point of a helicopter pilot, Mason explores his daily life during his tour of duty.  Mason’s approach to his memoir is simple, clear, and honest.  As he completes basic training, advanced individual training, and two attempts at passing preflight training, he comments that he never “suspected that the army taught people how to fly helicopters the same way they taught them to march and shoot.  But they did.” (23)  He realized early on that if you washed out of the flight program you would wind up as a PFC in the infantry.  Mason’s journey begins in 1964 and carries him through 1968, a time when the United States, under President Lyndon B. Johnson was ramping up the American commitment to save South Vietnam from communism.  Mason’s insights echo those of historians that were written years later.  Mason’s memoir was first published in 1983, and was reissued in 2005 with a new afterword describing how the war affected his life for decades following his service.

06 Returning Fire

(American “slick” with a machine gun mount)

Mason’s experience in Vietnam was much diversified. Even as a warrant officer he engaged in the activities of a typical grunt rooting out tree stumps, digging fox holes, filling sand bags, and building a perimeter for his assault division.  Mason’s primary activity was flying a Huey helicopter that involved him in support of troops in the Bon Song Valley and Ia Drang Valley where in November, 1965 the United States won its first large scale encounter with the North Vietnamese.  Though it appeared to be a victory, Mason questions what American strategy was as we killed the enemy at an increasing rate, but we would withdraw and not hold the land taken.  Mason points out repeatedly, that later American troops would fight to retake the same territory as it had won earlier, but at an increasing cost for the United States.  Mason’s buddy, Connors summed it up well, “Why the fuck don’t they keep some troops out there.  This is like trying to plug fifty leaks with one finger.” (351)  This is not the only thing that Mason questions.  He did some reading before he went to Vietnam, Bernard Fall’s Street without Victory having had the most impact on him as it describes the political situation in South Vietnam, the corruption of the Saigon regime, and the lack of commitment on the part of the South Vietnamese peasants who just wanted to till their own soil.  The poor training and refusal to fight on the part of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army), the fear in the eyes of South Vietnamese he came in contact with bothered Mason a great deal.  The resentment between ARVN and American officers was readily apparent.   At times when ferrying ARVN troops to a landing zone Mason had to be careful that once on the ground they would not turn and fire on his Huey.  For Mason, there were many times that he questioned why he was in Vietnam.

14 My Chair

(the author in Dak To during his tour)

In exploring the Vietnam War from the lens of a Huey pilot the reader will experience with Mason a myriad of situations. Mason provides an excellent description of how he learned how to fly helicopters.  He also provides a useful amount of technical information about the problems that pilots faced and how they could maneuver their Hueys out of many tough situations.   He engaged in spraying defoliants to eliminate ground cover for the VC (Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communists), not knowing what havoc these chemicals would reap in the future.  Mason’s primary activities centered on transporting troops, wounded, and bodies to and from the battlefield, but he was also involved with relocating refuges, to training missions, as a mail courier, to picking up and delivering supplies to combat areas and rear compounds.  But there were other missions of importance, the pickup and delivery of tons of ice so the officer’s club would be stocked and if any was not needed it would be traded for appliances from other units.  Further, the transport of small groups of officers on their own “secret” missions, as well as using the Hueys to visit friends a hundred miles away.  Some of these tasks were obviously would not be considered “militarily relevant,” but to maintain the sanity of people who have flown over 1000 missions they were none the less very important.

18 Preacher Camp

(the author walking along a trench by his, as he calls it, “spiffy digs”)

Throughout the narrative Mason supplies the reader the historical context of what was occurring on the ground in Vietnam.  The intensity of Mason’s descriptions of his flights and what he observed provides the reader the feel and the smell of war.  Supply shortages were constant in his unit, particularly chest armor that was a necessity for Huey pilots.  Mason highlights it further after he transfers to another unit that is overflowing in chest armor.  A recurrent them is the weakness of American intelligence, provoking Connors to comment after a fire fight that “the intelligence branch must have read their maps upside down, [and was] getting its information from smuggled Chinese fortune cookies.” (146)  Early on Mason was led to believe the reason the French had been forced out of Vietnam was because they weren’t “air mobile.”  Once the American Air Cavalry arrived it was supposed to change the course of the war.  For Mason at times he believed the United States was winning, then doubts would creep in based on his experiences in combat.  It led to a discussion with  his co-pilot, Gary Resler as they tried to determine their attitude toward the war; where they afraid or “chicken,” or after seeing the constant pile of dead American bodies they wanted revenge, making them “hawks.” Their conclusion was a combination of the two, hence, they were “chickenhawks.”

17 Washing Out the Blood

(Cleaning the chopper from the blood and other aspects of war)

Mason provides the reader insights to his thinking about his personal feelings.  He left his wife, Patience, and young son, Jack in the United States, and he integrates his personal letters to his family throughout the narrative.  His feelings of guilt are present as he is honest about his activities during R & R in Saigon, Taipei, and Hong Kong.  It should be obvious that Mason suffered from PTSD before he left Vietnam.  Constant nightmares, anxiety, and fear centered on the murder of VC prisoners, the use of napalm and the damage it caused, and the casualties he witnessed drove him to use medication after his missions in order to complete his tour of duty.  In addition, he pours his heart out about what he witnesses and cannot cope with.  Chickenhawk, though written over twenty years ago provides lessons for future soldiers, and it is an exceptional Vietnam memoir that has stood the test of time.

BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR by Robert Timberg

(Author Robert Timberg during a book presentation)

As most are aware the Vietnam War has left many scars on those who fought the war and the American people in general.  With 58,000 men dead and roughly 270,000 wounded, many like the author, Robert Timberg suffered life changing injuries that affect them psychologically and physically to this day.  Mr. Timberg, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a Marine Corps officer suffered second and third degree burns to his face and parts of his body on January 18, 1967 when his armored vehicle went over a North Vietnamese land mine in the vicinity of Da Dang, just thirteen days before he was to be cycled out of the war theater as his thirteen month tour was drawing to a close.  Mr. Timberg has written a long delayed memoir dealing with his experiences in Vietnam, his recovery, and his career which was a major component in trying to recapture some sort of normality.

(Timberg writing a letter home from Vietnam)

The book, BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR is written on multiple levels.  It is an emotionally captivating story by an individual who wages a courageous battle to regain some semblance of what he lost on that fateful day when delivering a payroll to another unit his vehicle hit a land mine.  The book is also a personal journey that takes him through numerous hospitals and thirty five operations with the support of two wonderful women, his first wife, Janie, who Timberg credits for his level of recovery and the family and career he is most proud of.  He readily admits that he was responsible for the end of their marriage and how poorly he treated her.  The other woman, his second wife, Kelly, allowed him to continue his recovery and develop a successful journalism career.  Unfortunately for Timberg, they too could not keep their marriage together.  The last major thread is how Timberg repeatedly lashes out against those individuals that did not go to Vietnam and as he states found, “legal and illegal ways” to avoid doing their duties as Americans.  Despite repeated denials that he is past those negative feelings and no matter how much he pushes his bitterness below the surface employing the correct verbiage of an excellent writer, his ill feelings towards a good part of his generation repeatedly bubbles to the surface.

(Timberg being evacuated from Da Nang area after his vehicle hit a land mine, January 18, 1967)

This memoir is very timely in light of the type of injuries that American soldiers have sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last twelve years.  It brings a message of hope for the future based on Timberg’s remarkable recovery and the success he has enjoyed as a reporter and a writer.  Our wounded veterans face a long road to recovery and Timberg’s story could be a wonderful model that they can try to emulate.  The first two-thirds of the book for me were the most interesting.  Timberg lays his life out for all to see.  His emotions which seemed to rise and fall with each sunrise and sunset are heart rendering.  His descriptions of his treatment with multiple skin grafts and surgeries are a testament to his perseverance.  His tenacity and ability to overcome most of the obstacles that were placed in front of him are truly amazing.  We learn a great deal about the Naval Academy and the United States Marine Corps and what they stand for.  Timberg takes the reader through many stages of recovery by interspersing his relationships with those who are most responsible for his making him whole, his first wife, Janie, and Dr. Lynn Ketchum, the surgeon who like a sculptor put Timberg’s facial features back together as best he could.  Despite his recovery, throughout this period his loss of identity constantly tugged at him, even as he earned the satisfaction of a successful career, but the loss of identity seemed to always be under the surface.  Once Timberg reaches the end of his period of recovery, he must leave “the cocoon of the hospital to home cycle” of constantly undergoing surgery and recovery.  For Timberg it was very difficult, but finally with Janie’s assistance he is able to overcome his fears and earn a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Stanford University and begin his career as a reporter in Annapolis.  That career would lead to a Nieman Fellowship, positions at the Baltimore Evening Standard, and the Baltimore Sun.  Timberg became a leading White House correspondent, and the author of three very important books.

The one area of the book I have difficulty accepting is the sections that deal with the germination of the ideas for the book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, and how the book was finally conceived and reached fruition.  It was fascinating how Timberg pulled together such disparate personalities as John McCain, James Webb, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, and Oliver North to create narrative dynamic that made sense.  What sparked this dynamic was the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked President Reagan’s second term in office.  Timberg was able to parlay the scandal and the personalities just mentioned into a coherent and interesting monograph.  I remember when the book was published and after reading it I wondered if Timberg had an agenda that called for damning those who were able to avoid serving in Vietnam, and blaming the prosecution of the Iran-Contra scandal on the media and members of Congress who figured out ways to remain out of the military during the war.

Timberg’s judgment is deeply flawed in attacking, what seems to be everyone who did not fight in Vietnam for pursuing the Iran-Contra scandal.  I understand that he suffered unbelievable horrors as a result of his military service and significant emotional issues remain.  However, his inner drive to become the person he was before he was seriously wounded has clouded his judgment to the point where he deeply hurt, Janie, his first wife, the woman who was mostly responsible for making himself whole as he recovered.  His comments dealing with the need to find another woman to have sex with aside from his wife to see if he could find another person who was attracted to him is deeply troublesome.  It was thoughts like this and leaving her alone with three children for a great deal of time reflects poorly on Timberg no matter how courageous he was.  As Timberg researches and writes THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, his obsession with those who did not fight in Vietnam comes to the fore completely.  Though there are repeated denials in the book his understandable prejudice against “draft dodgers,” etc. is readily apparent, i.e., his convoluted logic of going after people who believe that Iran-Contra was a major crime and resulted in violation of the constitutional and legislative prerogatives of Congress, aside from the cover-up and outright lying the of the Reagan administration with a vengeance.  By explaining away the scandal by raising the question; “was Iran-Contra the bill for Vietnam finally coming due?” for me, is a bit much and cannot explain away the illegal acts that North, Poindexter, and McFarlane committed no matter how hard Timberg tries.  For the author it seems like everyone who did not go to Vietnam used money and connections to avoid serving.  Further, those who did not serve, “much of the rest of that generation came up with novel ways to leave the fighting and dying to others.”(213)  Timberg quotes from Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Srauss’ excellent analysis of the draft, CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE to buttress his arguments, however if he revisits objectively the Pentagon statistics that the authors quote he will find that not all who did not serve in Vietnam committed acts that Timberg finds reprehensible  There are millions who were involved in defense related jobs, duty in the United State Army Reserves and the National Guard, had legitimate medical deferments, or were conscientious objectors.  I agree a significant numbers did avoid service and Baskir and Strauss put the number of draft offenders at about 570,000, accused draft offenders at 209, 517, with about 3250 actually imprisoned.  We must also keep in mind that of the 26,800,000 men of the Vietnam generation, 6,465,000 served but never went to Southeast Asia, and of the 15,980,000 who never served in the military 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted or disqualified -all cannot be painted with the broad brush of being draft dodgers as Timberg seems to strongly intimate.*

Overall, Timberg is correct, Vietnam is still a raw nerve for a generation that witnessed men rallying to the flag, and men who felt the war was wrong.  As history has borne out the American people were lied to by the Johnson administration and the government in general.  I respect Mr. Timberg’s service, the wonderful career he used as a vehicle to become whole again, and I find that he is an exceptional author, who at times goes a bit overboard in his attempt to rationalize why people avoided service in the war.  The book is a superb read, deeply emotional and for my generation dredges up a great deal and provokes deep thought concerning how the experience of the Vietnam War still affects American foreign policy and the conduct of combat to this day.

*See Lawrence M. Baskir & William A. Strauss CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 5 for an excellent chart that is reflected in the figures presented.

SEYMOUR HERSH: SCOOP ARTIST by Robert Miraldi

When Robert Miraldi sat down to choose the title of his new book, SEYMOUR HERSH: SCOOP ARTIST, he might have thought about a different title to describe one of the most important investigative reporters of his generation.  Seymour Hersh was more than a scoop artist, to use Theodore Roosevelt’s term to describe the likes of Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair and others during the Progressive Era, he was more of a muckraker, a writer who thrives in the muck to locate and develop a story.  This was Seymour Hersh, a reporter whose tactics were unconventional to say the least, which developed his own stories no matter where they took him, and became a thorn in the side of any person with power who he set his sights on.  Hersh was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of the George S. Polk award for distinguished journalism, and the author of numerous books.  In exploring Hersh’s career, Robert Miraldi has not produced a traditional biography, but an examination of Hersh’s methodology in tracking down stories, and he provides numerous insights into his subject’s character and relationship to the people and topics he is drawn to.  What emerges is a flawed Seymour Hersh, who fights for justice and righteousness, but at times, allows his larger than life ego take hold of him, resulting in great praise from the public, but also denigration, and enemies from the protectors of his targets.

Having read most of Hersh’s books over the years I had little insight into the type of individual that he was on a personal level.  I always believed after reading a book or article written by Hersh that he was a person who let the public peer into the halls of power and was driven to seek justice whether it be the My Lai massacre, the downing of flight 007 by the Soviet Union, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or any of the myriad of causes he took up.   Miraldi opens a window into Hersh’s work that is both personal and analytical.  Resting on numerous interviews, documents, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Hersh’s writings, Miraldi has produced a useful narrative that seems to track his subject’s life from book to book, and article to article that he has written.  By adopting this approach the reader is exposed to a history of the United States from 1960 through the present, through the eyes of Seymour Hersh.

If Hersh had you in your cross hairs it meant you were a very powerful individual or a government agency that had overstepped its constitutional limits as seen by Miraldi’s, “scoop artist.”  After an early career at the Chicago City News Bureau and UPI, Hersh latched on to the AP Chicago bureau by 1965 proclaiming that David Habersham, the award winning New York Times reporter as his role model and would soon pursue similar investigative subjects.  Early on Hersh was interested in civil rights and the military and after being transferred to Washington, D.C. Hersh began his first investigation of the military confronting the truth behind General William Westmoreland’s thirty hour bombing freeze in December, 1965.  Hersh’s first major crusade dealt with the inequalities of the draft.  We witness Hersh’s standard writing technique as he refused to name sources as his articles are sprinkled with “unnamed sources,” informants, anonymous citations which led many to question the veracity of his approach.  One of the most important parts of Miraldi’s book is his description of Hersh’s tactics which were very successful, but as he correctly points out, at times, are over bearing and based on falsehoods and bullying.  For Hersh, the investigation meant the ends justified the means.  The My Lai massacre investigation that Hersh turned into a book, MY LAI MASSACRE: A REPORT ON THE MASSACRE AND ITS AFTERMATH made him nationally known figure, and created a reputation as a tenacious investigator who knew how to uncover information better than any of his peers.  If he wanted to talk to you, he had a way to extract what he needed even if you did not want to provide the information.  From the outset the “Hersh treatment” was ever present.  First, Hersh is a voracious reader.  No matter the subject if it dealt with an ongoing investigation he would consume books, articles, and documents so that he was as well versed, or more in the subject matter than the person he wanted to interview.  To get to a source Hersh was extremely disingenuous and outright lied, bullied, or threatened a target until they succumbed to a conversation.  Most of this took place on the phone and at times in person.  Jay Peterzell, a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, an advocacy group in Washington had a “bird’s eye view of the telephone terrorist” as Hersh conducted over a thousand interviews for his book on Kissinger.  He would “overwhelm you with his verbal barrage” and bait his target into finally granting his wishes, as “they got caught in the enthusiasm, the importance, his energy.” (237)  This approach was evident in all of his research but especially when dealing with Henry Kissinger, who Hersh despised, at one point stating that he would “love to get that son of a bitch.”  The question must be asked is Hersh’s approach too over the top, or did his mantra of “terrible things happen in war, [but] the responsibility of the press…to find, verify, and publish the truth” justifies everything. (32)  Hersh was able to alienate his targets as well as his colleagues who resented his success, but in many cases felt that he was very biased in his approach and he could not “fairly evaluate reality.” (95)

bodies of civilians killed in My Lai massacre

Bodies of Vietnamese villagers killed at My Lai, March 16, 1968

One of the most surprising things that I learned from Miraldi’s book is that Hersh worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968 as its Public Relations director.  This brought two imposing personalities head to head, as McCarthy, who hated publicity that he did not control, and Hersh who was overbearing and controlling, it was obvious that after a short period of time they could not coexist.  After Hersh quit or was fired from the campaign he published CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WARFARE: THE HIDDEN ARSENAL making him the “Ralph Nader of the bio-chemical industry” and helped to push the Nixon administration to stop building biological weapons.  Nixon had his own reasons apart from what Hersh exposed, but Hersh must get some of the credit for Nixon’s actions.  Hersh followed this success by becoming involved with the POW issue in Vietnam.  He even visited Hanoi and after joining the New York Times he continued to get under Richard Nixon’s skin.  Another surprising aspect of the book is Miraldi’s discussion of Hersh’s view of Bob Woodward and the Watergate investigation.  Woodward and his partner at that time, Carl Bernstein were out front in the investigation from the outset.  Hersh was caught up in the New York Times, Washington Post competition and grew jealous of Woodward’s success and growing reputation.  Throughout the book this competition remains in the background as Hersh wanted to be considered the number one investigative reporter in the American press, and though he praised Woodward’s work, and became his friend, he never truly accepted him as his equal.  Hersh was able to enter the “Watergate competition” late and eventually the Nixon White House became “scared to death of this guy…We don’t know what he can prove or can’t prove,” (158) as stated by an unidentified White House source during the investigation into the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

What was shocking to me was Miraldi’s discussion of how many top governmental figures, be it political or military that spoke with Hersh and leaked important information to him.  For example subjects as diverse as Senate Armed Services Committee head, John Stennis, a conservative Democrat during hearings concerning U.S. bombing of Cambodia; Frank Sturgis, a Watergate co-conspirator, dealing with hush money paid by the Nixon White House; to CIA Director William Colby who became a Hersh “phone mate” during the investigation dealing with the coup against Salvatore Allende in Chile.  Hersh always sought out new sources, particularly in the Pentagon, and according to Miraldi when Hersh called declaring, “Hi I’m Sy Hersh and you probably want to talk with me,” retired generals, in particular liked to hear from him.” (171) The book is also useful for shedding light on the inner workings of the New York Times editorial board and how the “paper of record…did not seek to create or make that record.” (233) The reader also witnesses the competition between staff and board members and the volatile nature of the Hersh-Abe Rosenthal relationship.  The two sides tolerated each other for six years but after Hersh’s articles dealing with Gulf and Western Industries in 1979 they went their separate ways.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Miraldi’s description of how Hersh went about writing his work on Kissinger, THE PRICE OF POWER.  Having read the book I agree with the author’s critique that the book is difficult to read and Hersh is probably guilty of overwriting, particularly certain topics, i.e., SALT negotiations with the Soviet Union.  On a more positive note, historian, Stanley Hoffman has written, “this is a book that through its factual density avoids the typically hectoring tone of the investigative reporter or the ideologue with an ax to grind.” (252)  This cannot also be said of THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT where Hersh ran up against the myth of JFK and the family that tried to protect the image of Camelot.  As Hersh uncovered some of the more salacious details of Kennedy’s private life he fell for some doctored documents and his reputation suffered and in the end he wound up mentally exhausted.

Hersh would recover and he latched on with the New Yorker, under the influence of its editor David Remnick who supported Hersh’s work and gave him the leeway and resources that reenergized him.  This resulted in Hersh becoming a “war correspondent” after 9/11.  Hersh was truly shaken by the attack and over the next three years “Hersh produced twenty stories and over 110,000 words.” (319)  Hersh concluded that the intelligence community was not prepared to stop the terrorists as government agencies and the military lacked the training and communication to be successful.  Once the United States invaded Iraq, Hersh concluded that President Bush had lost control of his foreign policy to the cabal of neocons inside and outside his administration.  Hersh argued that “the intelligence community had ignored the sacrosanct ‘stove piping’ rule-that only carefully vetted information should go up the chain of command.” (323)  Hersh was once again faced criticism of his sourcing as most of his sources were anonymous, but he felt the neocons were now out of the closet.  This would lead to his book, CHAIN OF COMMAND: THE ROAD FROM 9/11 TO ABU GHRAIB, which took advantage of over thirty years of sources who were at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other places to critique US policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, and terrorism.  Donald Rumsfeld became part of the center piece of Hersh’s narrative in the book and articles written based on his own research dealing with the torture at Abu Ghraib.  Hersh’s presentation has proven very accurate during the last ten years since the book was written. PHOTOGRAPH: ABU GHRAIB PRISONER ABUSE Abu Ghraib prison, site of US torture and demeaning of prisoners in Iraq

Whether Seymour Hersh uses unethical tactics to obtain information, whether he is a bully who extracts the necessary documents he needs, what is important for Miraldi is that Hersh presents the facts and lets others ponder the consequences.  If you are a fan of Hersh’s raison ‘detre, or believe he has gone too far, Miraldi’s book is comprehensive and provides the best portrait of one of the most important journalistic figure of his age.

DEFIANT: THE POWs WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM, AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED by Alvin Townley

(a cell in the Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo Prison)

For those individuals who were in awe of Laura Hillenbrand’s description of the imprisonment of Louis Zamperini in her book UNBROKEN, the emotions that you experienced will be repeated many times over should you choose to read Alvin Townley’s new book DEFIANT: THE POWS WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED.   Townley recreates the experiences of America’s POWs from the Vietnam War.  Instead of presenting a general account that encompasses all POWs, Townley focuses on eleven men, who became known as the “Alcatraz eleven,” ten of whom returned from their ordeal and one who did not.  The author takes you inside the North Vietnamese prison system during the war as we follow each individual from their training, their war experiences, culminating in their being shot down over North Vietnam and their capture and imprisonment.  The men were imprisoned and tortured by their captors and the story Townley relates is one of the human spirit overcoming the most unimaginable events that one might create in one’s imagination.  Jerry Coffee, one of the POWs summarized their feelings in conversation with James Stockdale, the ranking leader of the “Alcatraz eleven” by quoting from the poem “Invictus:”

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. (259)

From the outset of the book Townley addresses the controversies that surround America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Through the eyes of Commander James Stockdale we experience the chaos of August 4, 1964 and the reported North Vietnamese attacks on the USS Turner Joy and USS Maddox.  Stockdale witnessed events in the cockpit of his F-8 Crusader and saw little evidence of the attack on the USS Maddox.  These events were manipulated by President Lyndon Johnson to force through Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed the Senate 98-2) and put the United States on a course that would result in the quagmire of Vietnam.  Townley does an excellent job integrating the political and military events that took place throughout the incarceration of the POWs.  The author provides analysis and cause and effect decisions that affected the men.  The Johnson administration’s policy of having the families of the downed fliers “keep quiet” did not allay the daily anxiety faced by the spouses and ended in the formation of the League of Wives of American Vietnam Prisoners of War in 1967 under the leadership of Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan.  The role of the wives is integral to the story that is recounted as these woman refused to accept government stonewalling.  Finally, at the end of the Johnson administration they took it upon themselves to educate and bring to the attention of the American people the plight of their husbands.  With the election of Richard Nixon they found an administration that was more open to their requests. Though manipulated at times for domestic and diplomatic reasons, the actions of the US government changed and it carried over to the prisons in and around Hanoi and engendered a change in the torture policy pursued by Camp authorities employed against their husbands.

The book provides moving description of the torture that the POWs experienced.  The North Vietnamese government’s “Enemy Proselytizing Department’s” goal was to gain information from the POWs that could be used as propaganda against the United States.  When individual POWs were brought individually for interrogation they tried to follow the four rules of conduct that the prisoners developed under the leadership of Stockdale.  When they refused to speak, using the Geneva Convention as a shield they were told by their captors that “you are not a prisoner of war…Your government has not declared war upon the Vietnamese people.  You must answer my questions.  You are protected by no international law.” (55) Their rationale was that the POWs were criminals and that justified the application of torture.  Townley goes into intimate detail describing the torture techniques and their affect on the men.  All eleven were broken mentally and physically at one time or another and gave in to their captors demands.  This provoked tremendous guilt on the part of the POWs as they felt they had let their country and comrades down.  Part of the reason they were able to survive the demeaning conditions and mental and physical cruelty they suffered was the bond that was fostered under the leadership senior officers.   These officers helped develop a communication system within the prison through the use of a code employed during the Korean War.  One of the captives, Captain Carlyle “Smitty” Harris had overheard the use of a five by five alphabetic grid during an Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School he attended before he was deployed, and helped educate the others in its use.  The communication network relied on tapping and other ingenious methods to keep as many prisoners in the loop as possible.  The North Vietnamese officials tried repeatedly to end all communication by torturing the men but were never able to shut it down.  The ability to communicate provided the men companionship and sanity throughout their ordeal and reflects the amazing resourcefulness they developed in captivity.

Townley discusses all eleven POWs but focuses the most on senior officers, Commanders James Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton.  By 1966 the North Vietnamese camp authorities told them “to choose the path of cooperation and lenient treatment or the path of resistance and punishment; they sought to separate the potentially cooperative from the stubbornly intransigent.” (113)  all eleven men chose the path of “resistance and punishment” and paid dearly for their decisions.  In a sense as the POWs pursued their intransigent attitude they became role models for each other and they looked at each other as positive examples which allowed them to cope with all attempts to break them physically and mentally.

In October, 1967 the men left the “Hanoi Hilton” and were transferred to a former French citadel one mile away.  The conditions were brutal, the torture increased, and many were subjected to further isolation; this prison was nicknames, Alcatraz.  The rhythm of captivity was ongoing, for example, a POW would be asked to write an apology or condemnation of American policy.  The POW would refuse and then he would be subjected to the most gruesome torture techniques.  Finally, the POW would succumb to write whatever he was ordered to.  This would continue in Alcatraz over and over for all eleven captives.  The only let up took place was when Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969 and was replaced by Le Duan in the North Vietnamese hierarchy.  In addition to Ho’s death, Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan’s organizational pressure on the Nixon administration led to a press conference were the US government finally went public with the information they had on prisoner treatment.  As a result in December, 1970, for the first time, Hanoi released the names of 368 POWs. (301)  Though torture was rare in the final years of captivity, the affects of imprisonment remained.

(homecoming, February, 1973)

As the negotiations in Paris finally bared fruit the men were released and returned to their families in February, 1973.  The question that dominated my thinking as I read Townley’s account was how these men survived their experience, some as many as eight years in captivity.  According to James Stockdale it was not his training, “rather [it was] his mind, the faith shared among prisoners, and the love of family, who now awaited his imminent return had kept him alive during the horrid term of imprisonment.” (348)   Upon their release Townley artfully brings the reader to the tarmac as the POWs arrive home to meet their spouses and children, some of whom they did not know since they were babies when they left.  As you read the authors description of the reunions it is very difficult to maintain dry eyes.  This is a book that should be read by all as not to forget the 58,000 deaths and over 300,000 wounded that the Vietnam War caused, as well as the trials that our current military families have suffered in the two wars that the United States has fought since 2001.

KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES by Nick Turse

The author does an excellent job of describing America’s dubious military strategy during the war and the plight of Vietnamese civilians. It places the blame for the inability to win “the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese squarely where it belongs. with the American military and political leadership during the Johnson and Nixon administration. It is thoroughly researched and well documented. A book that all who are concerned about America’s past, current, and future conduct of war should read.

 

See excellent related article:

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Special Ops Goes Global
Posted by Nick Turse at 7:57am, January 7, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Nick Turse’s New York Times bestselling book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is just out in paperback with a new afterword.  It’s a must-buy, especially if you haven’t read the hardcover. Jonathan Schell wrote a powerful piece on it at TomDispatch, which you can read by clicking here. Late in the month, TD will be offering signed copies of the paperback in return for donations. Keep it in mind! Tom]

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So consider the actions of the U.S. Special Operations Command flattering indeed to the larger U.S. military. After all, over recent decades the Pentagon has done something that once would have been inconceivable.  It has divided the whole globe, just about every inch of it, like a giant pie, into six command slices: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and part of North Africa), U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM (Latin America), and in this century, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), and starting in 2007, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM (most of Africa).

The ambitiousness of the creeping decision to bring every inch of the planet under the watchful eyes of U.S. military commanders should take anyone’s breath away.  It’s the sort of thing that once might only have been imaginable in movies where some truly malign and evil force planned to “conquer the world” and dominate Planet Earth for an eternity.  (And don’t forget that the Pentagon’s ambitions hardly stop at Earth’s boundaries. There are also commands for the heavens, U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, into which the U.S. Space Command was merged, and, most recent of all, the Internet, where U.S. Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM rules.)

Now, unnoticed and unreported, the process is being repeated.  Since 9/11, a secret military has been gestating inside the U.S. military.  It’s called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  At TomDispatch, both Nick Turse and Andrew Bacevich have covered its startling growth in these years.  Now, in a new post, Turse explores the way that command’s dreams of expansion on a global scale have led it to follow in the footsteps of the larger institution that houses it.

The special ops guys are, it seems, taking their own pie-cutter to the planet and slicing and dicing it into a similar set of commands, including most recently a NORTHCOM-style command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Once could be an anomaly or a mistake. Twice and you have a pattern, which catches a Washington urge to control planet Earth, an urge that, as the twenty-first century has already shown many times over, can only be frustrated. That this urge is playing out again in what, back in the Cold War days, used to be called “the shadows,” without publicity or attention of any sort, is notable in itself and makes Turse’s latest post all the more important. Tom

America’s Black-Ops Blackout
Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.”  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014?  Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year?  How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013?  Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers.  I called.  I left messages.  I emailed.  I waited some more.  I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos — the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world — were doing.

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2014 TomDispatch ©Google

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion.  It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013.  With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to — or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of — more than 100 foreign countries.   And that’s probably an undercount.  In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nyetold TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet.  “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.”  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, includingassassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily.  With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014.  (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, “badged operators” — SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets — while the rest are support personnel.)  Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013.  If you add in supplemental funding, it had actuallymore than quadrupled to $10.4 billion.

Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 “man-years” — as the command puts it — in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.  About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92.

The Global SOF Network

Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC — a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists — touted his vision for special ops globalization.  In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”

In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it’s at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and power center.  In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.

Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM.  These include Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated to supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.

A similar mouthful of an entity is the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which conducts operations, according to SOCOM, “to enable the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to provide the Afghan people a secure and stable environment and to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of GIRoA.”  Last year, U.S.-allied Afghan President Ha­mid Karzai had a different assessment of the “U.S. special force stationed in Wardak province,” which he accused of “harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people.”

According to the latest statistics made available by ISAF, from October 2012 through March 2013, U.S. and allied forces were involved in 1,464 special operations in Afghanistan, including 167 with U.S. or coalition forces in the lead and 85 that were unilateral ISAF operations.  U.S. Special Operations forces are also involved in everything from mentoring lightly armed local security forces under the Village Stability Operations initiative to the training of heavily armed and well-equipped elite Afghan forces — one of whose U.S.-trained officers defected to the insurgency in the fall.

In addition to task forces, there are also Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”  These light footprint teams — including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon — offer training and support to local elite troops in foreign hotspots.  In Lebanon, for instance, this has meant counterterrorism training for Lebanese Special Ops forces, as well as assistance to the Lebanese Special Forces School to develop indigenous trainers to mentor other Lebanese military personnel.

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Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements

SOCOM’s reach and global ambitions go further still.  TomDispatch’s analysis of McRaven’s first two full years in command reveals a tremendous number of overseas operations.  In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestine commando raids.  In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and kill suspected militants.  Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda.  And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and exercises.

“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity,” McRaven said at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America  “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business.”

In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with Indonesian frogmen.  In April and May, U.S. Special Operations personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic Guardian.  Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities across three countries — Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.

In May, American special operators took part in Spring Storm, the Estonian military’s largest annual training exercise.  That same month, members of the Peruvian and U.S. special operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations.  In July, Green Berets from the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group spent several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny nation’s Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment.  That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of SOCSOUTH’s Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and small unit tactical exercises.

In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia — as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.

Tactical training was, however, just part of the story.  In March 2013, for example, experts from the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales — Mexico’s Special Warfare Center — to aid them in developing their own special forces doctrine.

In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM’s state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations.  “NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this,” said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. “What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts.”

MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune.  This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world.  Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven’s global vision.

In the coming years, more and more interactions between U.S. elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur — as they do today — overseas.  TomDispatch’s analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that U.S. Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.

For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger U.S. personnel.  SOCOM’s Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same.  “You understand that there is information about our military… that is contradictory to reporting,” he told me.  “There’s certain things we can’t release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad.  I’m not sure why you’d be interested in reporting that.”

In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, “When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular.”  He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries.  Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.

Bringing the War Home

This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country — the United States.  The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.”  Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.

While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway.  “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013.  Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.”  Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embeddedat 38.

“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners.  Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.”  At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.

“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event.  But that was only the start.  “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe… I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”

Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces.  In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.”  She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.

Cole also mentioned that her office would be training “a senior person” working for McRaven, the man about to “head the SOF element Lebanon” — possibly a reference to the shadowy SOC FWD Lebanon.  U.S. AID would, she said, serve as a facilitator in that country, making “sure that he has those relationships that he needs to be able to deal with what is a very, very, very serious problem for our government and for the people of that region.”

U.S. AID is also serving as a facilitator closer to home.  Cole noted that her agency was sending advisors to SOCOM headquarters in Florida and had “arranged meetings for [special operators] with experts, done roundtables for them, immersed them in the environment that we understand before they go out to the mission area and connect them with people on the ground.”  All of this points to another emerging trend: SOCOM’s invasion of the civilian sphere.

In remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral McRaven noted that his Washington operation, the SOCOM NCR, “conducts outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting SOF.”  Speaking at the Wilson Center, he was even more blunt: “[W]e also have liaison officers with industry and with academia… We put some of our best and brightest in some of the academic institutions so we can understand what academia is thinking about.”

SOCOM’s Information Warfare

Not content with a global presence in the physical world, SOCOM has also taken to cyberspace where it operates the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 propaganda websites that are run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets.  These shadowy sites — includingKhabarSouthAsia.comMagharebia which targets North Africa, an effort aimed at the Middle East known as Al-Shorfa.com, and another targeting Latin America called Infosurhoy.com — state only in fine print that they are “sponsored by” the U.S. military.

Last June, the Senate Armed Services Committee called out the Trans Regional Web Initiative for “excessive” costs while stating that the “effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense.”  In November, SOCOM announced that it was nonetheless seeking to identify industry partners who, under the Initiative, could potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.”

Just as SOCOM is working to influence audiences abroad, it is also engaged in stringent information control at home — at least when it comes to me.  Major Bockholt made it clear that SOCOM objected to a 2011 article of mine about U.S. Special Operations forces.  “Some of that stuff was inconsistent with actual facts,” he told me.  I asked what exactly was inconsistent.  “Some of the stuff you wrote about JSOC… I think I read some information about indiscriminate killing or things like that.”

I knew right away just the quote he was undoubtedly referring to — a mention of the Joint Special Operations Command’s overseas kill/capture campaign as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.”  Bockholt said that it was indeed “one quote of concern.”  The only trouble: I didn’t say it.  It was, as I stated very plainly in the piece, the assessment given by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to now-retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

Bockholt offered no further examples of inconsistencies.  I asked if he challenged my characterization of any information from an interview I conducted with then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye.  He did not.  Instead, he explained that SOCOM had issues with my work in general.  “As we look at the characterization of your writing, overall, and I know you’ve had some stuff on Vietnam [an apparent reference to my bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam] and things like that — because of your style, we have to be very particular on how we answer your questions because of how you tend to use that information.” Bockholt then asked if I was anti-military.  I responded that I hold all subjects that I cover to a high standard.

Bockholt next took a verbal swipe at the website where I’m managing editor,TomDispatch.com.  Given Special Operations Command’s penchant for dabbling in dubious news sites, I was struck when he said that TomDispatch — which has published original news, analysis, and commentary for more than a decade andwon the 2013 Utne Media Award for “best political coverage” — was not a “real outlet.”  It was, to me, a daring position to take when SOCOM’s shadowy Middle Eastern news site Al-Shorfa.com actually carries a disclaimer that it “cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.”

With my deadline looming, I was putting the finishing touches on this article when an email arrived from Mike Janssen of SOCOM Public Affairs.  It was — finally — a seemingly simple answer to what seemed like an astonishingly straightforward question asked more than a month before: What was the total number of countries in which Special Operations forces were deployed in 2013?  Janssen was concise. His answer: 80.

How, I wondered, could that be?  In the midst of McRaven’s Global SOF network initiative, could SOCOM have scaled back their deployments from 120 in 2011 to just 80 last year?  And if Special Operations forces were deployed in 92 nations during just one week in 2013, according to official statistics provided to theNew York Times, how could they have been present in 12 fewer countries for the entire year?  And why, in his March 2013 posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee, would Admiral McRaven mention “annual deployments to over 100 countries?”  With minutes to spare, I called Mike Janssen for a clarification.  “I don’t have any information on that,” he told me and asked me to submit my question in writing — precisely what I had done more than a month before in an effort to get a timely response to this straightforward and essential question.

Today, Special Operations Command finds itself at a crossroads.  It is attempting to influence populations overseas, while at home trying to keep Americans in the dark about its activities; expanding its reach, impact, and influence, while working to remain deep in the shadows; conducting operations all over the globe, while professing only to be operating in “a number of locations”; claiming worldwide deployments have markedly dropped in the last year, when evidence suggestsotherwise.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Bockholt said cryptically before he hung up on me — as if the continuing questions of a reporter trying to get answers to basic information after a month of waiting were beyond the pale.  In the meantime, whatever Special Operations Command is trying to do globally and at home, Bockholt and others at SOCOM are working to keep it as secret as possible.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in theNew York TimesLos Angeles Timesthe Nationon the BBCand regularly atTomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Timesbestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback).  You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here

Key to the Map of U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013

Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.

Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.

Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.

Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.

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Copyright 2013 Nick Turse