Terry Williamson: From today’s Afghanistan to yesterday’s Vietnam

“Turnaround” is a word that has rattled around newsrooms for the last 20 years or so as various US officials tried to explain what was going on in Afghanistan. Well, we are hearing that same word once again as another American Administration turned tail and struggles to save interpreters and allies, some of whom fought and died alongside our troops. 

“Not like Vietnam,” they’ve said, but we watched TV images of Afghans at the Kabul Airport being dragged alongside a huge C-17 transport plane in a desperate attempt to flee the brutal Taliban. It wasn’t a helicopter on the Embassy roof in Saigon, but it might as well have been.  

A half-a-world away in North Wildwood, members of the Hadjack-Mokan Chapter of 82nd Airborne Association and other former parachutists gathered recently to celebrate the birthday of the Airborne forces, founded during WWII. Many of these guys were Vietnam vets more interested in throwing back a beer or two with their former troopers than debating foreign policy.

Philadelphia Municipal Court Chief Justice Pat Dugan, who organized the event in a Knights of Columbus bar, served in a Civil Affairs unit and later as a Captain with the Army Judge Advocate General. Dugan did two tours of duty in 2004 (Iraq) and 2006-07 (Afghanistan). He seemed dejected as he grasped the situation and what it meant to the interpreters and other Afghans he worked with.

“The G.I.s and Marines on the ground needed their support,” Dugan said. Interpreters were crucial to communicating with the Afghan people, just as Vietnamese allies were crucial during that earlier war. Of course, Americans bugged out of that country as well and left behind many, including some South Vietnamese to rot in “re-education camps” run by Communist North Vietnam.

It wasn’t a helicopter on the Embassy roof in Saigon, but it might as well have been.

A Democrat, Dugan conceded that the pullout debacle occurred on President Biden’s watch — but it started much earlier.

It’s not like we haven’t been warned, starting with Eisenhower and his (among other military leaders’) admonition about avoiding a land war in Asia. In one way or the other, those words have been ignored since presidents, Democrat or Republican, concluding with Donald Trump, tried to make sense out of the shifting politics of the region. Our response unfortunately represents a sad line of broken promises and failure for our country.

Dugan’s strongest sympathy that night was for a young soldier in attendance, who had lost his legs in Afghanistan. What was it all for? Why? The questions produce many answers, ranging from halting the spread or terrorism or Communism, to “for God and Country”. Most of those answers don’t resonate with those who served, or with the public during the 30 years that the US has been engaged in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Dugan pointed out that it was the same for the Kurds in Iraq, the Christians in Mosul and so on. “It’s terrible what we’ve done to the Afghans,” he said.

Joe Biden was left holding the bag, and while we can fault him for his poor foreign intelligence, for ignoring his generals and intelligence officers, and for not anticipating the rapid fall of Afghanistan (Vietnam vets like myself were pretty sure what was going to happen), his predecessors didn’t leave him that many options.

Ron Castille, a former Marine officer (and Pennsylvania political figure) who lost a leg in Vietnam as a second lieutenant platoon commander, was clear about his sentiments: “Many veterans of Afghanistan and perhaps soon in Iraq are saying our efforts over 20 years were wasted. Now, you know how Vietnam vets feel. We should have gone in to kill Bin Laden and then got out. At least President Biden had the courage to end this debacle when no one else would.”

Castille, a Republican who retired six years ago as the Chief Justice of the Pa. Supreme Court, noted that the more recent round of events started with George W. Bush’s nation-building. Castille said. “We built their Army, but they couldn’t save their own country. They were not able to fight the Taliban.”

Joe Griffies, an outspoken veterans’ advocate for WIGB radio in Ocean City, NJ, still expressed admiration for the military in that “it was amazing that it only took them 24 hours to send in the Marines and Airborne.”  Of course, the primary mission was to rescue Americans, always high on any President’s top ten.

“It reminded me of the riots in Saigon,” Griffies said, of the day when South Vietnamese clung to the skids of helicopters in 1975 in a frantic effort to escape the North Vietnamese Communist regime’s take-over. In some cases, South Vietnamese pilots landed their choppers on American carriers, carrying entire families.  Who could forget the image of sailors pushing helicopters into the ocean to make more room?

“The only good way to get out [of a war] is to not go in the first place,” said Griffies, who served with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. “Regardless of the party in power, it wasn’t a good way to leave. We don’t fight to win.”

Echoing virtually every vet, in either conflict, Griffies added, “59,000 lives lost in Vietnam, and I still don’t know why.”

Estimates range as high as 100,000 Afghans associated with the US that may be left behind and the Administration initially promised to get many of them out by August 31, a deadline rapidly slipping in a country deteriorating by the hour while the Taliban rushes to restore their cruel regime.

It’s hard to discuss Afghanistan without using the other buzz word that service men and women are all too familiar with, “sacrifice,” the currency of armed conflict since before modern warfare. Members of the armed forces are told outright that service to one’s country may mean paying the ultimate sacrifice.

This is not to demean that word, nor the succor it provides Gold Star families, wives and loved ones trying to cope with the loss of someone in the service of his or her country. We sacrifice because certain things are worth sacrificing for: saving our homeland, for our comrades, for democratic ideals and the American way of life. Greater hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, quotes the New Testament.

Probably more than any other saying associated with armies, these poignant words form the ethos of men and women in uniform. I’ve seen it on the battlefield, I’ve heard it bandied about the barracks, and I have witnessed it depicted in films and literature. In the end, it’s the glue that provides unit cohesion and one of the reasons that the Spartans were such formidable warriors. 

But it also must be said that the concept sacrifice, or doing something that advances the greater good, no matter the consequences, helps glamorize war, providing a balm soothing the horror of combat and novocaine for the 18-year-olds we send to fight and die in battle. There is a reason why old politicians send the young to war.

Terry Williamson is a former newspaper reporter and Marine infantry officer who served in Vietnam. He is the author of “’Rocks and Fists’: Decimating  the 141st NVA Regiment,” and is currently working on a novel about Post-Traumatic Stress.

5 thoughts on “Terry Williamson: From today’s Afghanistan to yesterday’s Vietnam”

  1. Say what you will about the evacuation, I’m glad we’ve FINALLY gotten out of an unwinnable, deeply unpopular, extremely expensive, Republican started war so we can finally spend money on America first.

  2. I echo the comment about that this is a thoughtful article that provides useful context. I’d argue, though, that we were in Afghanistan to keep it from being a sanctuary for terrorists who wished to attack us. Now it will return to that role, leaving the United States more vulnerable.

    1. Regardless of whether Biden continued implementing Trump and Pompeo’s withdrawal plan as he did this would be the case. That’s why progressives opposed the Republican started occupation since the beginning. Would be much better to spend $6+ trillion on America first.

      1. It would have helped if the Afghani military leaders had been taught how to fight. By many accounts field operations were led by Americans, with the Afghani soldiers merely following orders rather than learning how to direct troops, decide on tactics.

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