Quick Takes: Robert Kaplan on the other Vietnam experience

"The Vietnam analogy looms ever larger in the debate over Iraq, but the U.S. military has memories of that conflict that the public doesn't." Robert Kaplan

Most reporting on the war and politics is more Elmer Gantry than what we think of as journalism.  It is an evangelical politics ( small "e") attempting to convinced us to convert to their expert perspective.  I don't watch network tv news any more, and I avoid newspaper articles on the war and politics. I know that more is happening in the war than what gets reported, and I am not interested in any candidate, and will be even less so a year from now when the Presidential race kicks into high gear.   I offer this perspective as a preface to Robert Kaplan's latest The Atlantic Monthly piece - Rereading Vietnam - about the very different experience that Vietnam era soldiers had during that war.

What first drew me to Kaplan was his book - Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.  He like Victor Davis Hanson understood that the roots of  Western societies success on the battle field is rooted in a 3000 year old philosophical mindset that was first articulated by Homer in  The Illiad, and then preserved in the writings of historians like Thucydides, Herodotus and Virgil.  At the heart of these writings is the notion of duty, honor, loyalty, sacrifice and personal character.  We speak of these as ancient virtues, but it is these virtues that have been at the core of the US military strength throughout our history. 

Kaplan's article points to soldier biographies and personal writings on Vietnam that present a picture of war that most Americans have not heard.  He begins with the story of Bud Day ( Robert Coram, biographer of John Boyd, has just published Day's biography. The Boyd book is essential reading, and I'm sure the Day book is too.) Kaplan describes Bud Day, and then tells a story.

In 1943, at the age of 18, George Everette "Bud" Day of Sioux City, Iowa, enlisted in the Marines. He served in the Pacific during World War II, and later became a fighter pilot. He flew the F-84F Thunderstreak during the Korean War and the F-100F Super Sabre in Vietnam. Bud Day, a legendary "full-blooded jet-jock" as one recent account dubbed him, would see service in all three wars as a sanctified whole: For him the concept of the "long war" was something he had built his life around in the middle decades of the 20th century. As an Air Force major, he was the first commander of the squadron of fast FACs (forward air controllers), who loitered daily for hours over North Vietnamese airspace, seeking out targets for other fighter bombers. With the most dangerous air mission in the Vietnam War, Day and the other fast FACs were known as "Misty warriors." Misty was the radio call sign that Day himself had chosen for the squadron, inspired by his favorite Johnny Mathis song. The Mistys were "an aggressive bunch of bastards who pressed the fight; they got down in the weeds" and "trolled for trouble," writes Robert Coram in a recently published book about Bud Day, American Patriot. On August 26, 1967, Bud Day's luck ran out. He was shot down over North Vietnam.

Then the story.

In December 1967, a prisoner was dumped in Day's cell on the outskirts of Hanoi, known as the Plantation. This prisoner's legs were atrophied and he weighed under 100 pounds. Day helped scrub his face and nurse him back from the brink of death. The fellow American was Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III of the Panama Canal Zone. As his health improved, McCain's rants against his captors were sometimes as ferocious as Day's. The North Vietnamese tried and failed, through torture, to get McCain to accept a release for their own propaganda purposes: The lieutenant commander was the son of Admiral John McCain Jr., the commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "Character," writes the younger McCain, quoting the 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody, "is what you are in the dark," when nobody's looking and you silently make decisions about how you will act the next day.

It is this character that Kaplan's writing continues to identify.

Kaplan spends a good deal of time on Admiral James Stockdale's writings.  His books are not just personal accounts of being a fighter pilot and the highest ranking POW during the Vietnam War, but a philosophical link back in time to the ancient wisdom that emerged out of Greek and Roman civilization.

In an era where being "manly" is treated more as a fashion sense (a manly body wash for your man suit.) than as a type of character, these men that Kaplan covers in this essay are worth knowing because they are manly in the sense that Achilles would understand.

War isn't as simple as the media pundits and politicians would like us to think. It isn't a management problem. It isn't a law enforcement problem.  It isn't something that can be managed like you manage you kids after school schedule. It is life and death, not only for soldiers, but for innocent civilians.  It is a clash of philosophies about life, society and the future.

Over the past four and a half years, as the Iraq war has been waged, and as I've listened to the politicians and the media pundits pontificate on the war, the question that continually came to mind - "Of these people, who would sacrifice their life so that the people in their neighborhood could remain safe and free?"  None of these people give me confidence that they are trust-worthy in this regard. Why?  Because they fail to understand what Kaplan understands. That duty, honor and sacrifice are virtues that make societies strong and great. It is one of the reasons that this virulent form of Islam is so difficult to defeat. They understand that self-sacrifice is necessary if victory is to be gained.

Kaplan tells the stories of men who were willing to endure pain and mutilation in order to preserve the lives of their fellow soldiers. They did so knowing that to fail would mean death, but more importantly dishonor.  I deeply respect the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  I respect them for their courage, their love for their country and for the character they display that is the foundation of peace in the future.

HT: Instapundit