I just picked up an old paperback copy of a Vietnam War book called SEALs: UDT/SEAL Operations in Vietnam by Tim Bosiljevac. The book chronicles the early history of the Sea, Air and Land Teams, from their founding under President Kennedy through the end of the Vietnam War. The SEALs were created to be the Navy’s superhuman version of the Green Berets: “a naval guerrilla/counterguerrilla [force] with an emphasis on direct action raids and missions on targets in close proximity to bodies of water.” I love that line, “in close proximity to bodies of water.” That could mean a puddle…or hell, when you consider that human beings are about 70% water–“bodies of water” could mean just about anything.
There are a lot of great Vietnam War books out there, mostly memoirs, as Dr. Dolan explained:
Virtually anyone who saw combat and has a decent memory can write a decent book about it — and Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, “War — what is it good for?”, you tell it: “First-person memoirs, that’s what!”
…This high literary output was a delayed gift of the utter lack of strategy which doomed the American enterprise in Vietnam: a war which consisted largely of sending small contingents of infantry out into the jungle to find the enemy, usually by getting ambushed, is bound to be a military disaster — but equally bound to produce an extraordinary number of fantastic combat tales.
Unfortunately SEALs lacks this first-person immediacy–it’s a third-person history, Bosiljevic’s Navy College master’s thesis turned into a book, and unfortunately it sometimes reads like a thesis.
Still, this is Nam, Dude–and we’re talking about the SEALs here. That means page after page of ambushes and skirmishes, some of which make for some pretty amazing reading, even in the third dry person.
One such ambush stuck out–one of those rarely reported, long-rumored showdowns between our guys and the hated, invisible “Russian advisors” who were never officially supposed to be there in South Vietnam.
You kids out there who were born too late to remember the Cold War grudges probably won’t grasp the profound satisfaction that a scene like this offers your average armchair Cold Warrior. See, one thing our side could never get over was griping about how the Soviets were somehow cheating. This scene is the sort of “This is what happens when the SEALs catch you cheating” fantasy that all the armchair Cold Warriors dreamed about. It takes place in 1967–a big year for the SEALs in ‘Nam–in a province in the southwest corner of South Vietnam. Meaning, Russian advisors were operating in our own backyard, the bastuds!:
One particular SEAL ambush in 1967 in Kien Giang Province provided a surprise to a frogman force. The SEALs had been watching a reported supply route used by enemy forces on a remote canal. Late in the afternoon of the second day of their surveillance, a VC sampan floated into the kill zone. Besides the two indigenous guerrillas onboard, a tall, heavy Caucasian with a beard rode in the bow. He was dressed in what looked like a khaki uniform and was holding a communist assault rifle. Just as the craft pulled into the area, the communists became leery, as if sensing the danger nearby. Although initially startled at seeing the white man, the SEALs immediately let the law of the barroom prevail–when a fight is unavoidable, strike first, and strike hard. The frogmen unleashed a hail of fire into the enemy force. The Caucasian was hit in the chest in the initial burst of fire and went overboard. The VC attempted to jump in and assist him. Just then, a superior Vietcong force appeared and counterattacked. Outnumbered and outgunned, the SEALs fought a running gun battle to an area where they could extract. Later, they were debriefed about the incident by an intelligence officer. They were told to remain silent about the action. South Vietnamese intelligence had reported that the white man had been a Russian. It would remain a little-known fact that the guerrillas and North Vietnamese were assisted in their Third World brushfire war by a host of foreign advisers and technicians, including Soviets, Chinese, Eastern Bloc, Cuban, Korean, and other communist nationals.
There’s a serious ethical contradiction that seems lost on the author here, a contradiction that’s built into our DNA: On the one hand, the SEALs (very wisely) attack and kill without warning on the barroom theory about striking first and striking hard. Which makes sense, but goes against the suburban middle-class rules of fighting. Real middle-class American bar fights go something like this: a lot of shouting, a lot of loud long well-telegraphed empty threats, even formal declarations marking the combatant’s geographical location (“I’m here! I’m here, mutherfucker!”), dramatic tearing off of one’s shirt, verbal commands expressed in the Imperative Mood (“Come on! Come on, mutherfucker!”)… All that pre-game shouting in American bar-fights establishes the combatant’s sense of “fair play” that suburbanites tend to vastly overrate. It’s as though everyone’s worrying about what the post-game highlights will look like, what they’ll say after the fight–about securing your place in history, or in the homecoming king vote. I dunno. I remember in Moscow in the mid-90s watching a Russian and an American go at it, and there couldn’t have been a bigger fight-culture clash: The American, some ripped red-head, went through the whole tearing his shirt off schtick, screaming and yelling about his geographical location, calling his Russian opponent all sorts of names implying that the Russian was a cheater whereas he wasn’t…It seemed ridiculous to everyone watching, especially the Russian guy, who tagged the redhead a few more times, messing up his Tony Award-winning act.
American Cold Warriors, armchair and otherwise, always carried around this grudge about the “rules” and about how Americans are just too damn decent for this corrupt awful world. And at the top of the grievance list was the fact that Russian advisors operated with the Vietnamese. Somehow, that just…wasn’t fair. Those damn Russkies–always cheating!
Russian advisors gloating over a downed B-52
For anyone interested, I found a Russian site set up by Russian veterans of the Vietnam War, which features plenty of old war photos, as well as articles and short memoirs from the Russians who served. (Click here.)
Also, here’s a Russian short about the Vietnam War from the Russian perspective, with English subtitles:
About a decade ago, I was in Vietnam with a bunch of Russian friends from my old Moscow newspaper The eXile. One day, I peeled off from the group and took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, the setting for one of the best of all the Vietnam War books. None of the Russians gave a shit about Cu Chi and all the stories I forced them to listen to out on the beaches–they found anything military boring, they’d heard too many war stories already from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, stories that were hard to top.
So off I went on an official Cu Chi Tunnels tour. There were 10 of us in my group, all but two Americans, including a retired couple from Texas: the wife was nervous, thin, harried; the husband one of those squat military retirees who infest the American southwest, tight shirt, large gut hanging over his belt, big fat forearms and fingers. Almost as soon as our tour started, the husband let us know that he was a Vietnam War veteran. He was a real loud-mouthed asshole–it was as though he’d practiced for this moment ever since Saigon fell. He did everything imaginable that day to reignite the Vietnam War. But our guide, a respectful young Vietnamese man, kept calm, letting the sore old loser blow off his steam. It added another layer of tension and entertainment to the whole Cu Chi Tunnels tour. Actually, just walking around the cheap victory museum dedicated to my own country’s defeat made me feel like some neutered German tourist–isn’t that what post-war German tourists do, respectfully visit monuments to their defeat?
But the real action was the toothless rematch going on right here in Cu Chi: Old Veteran Guy versus Young Wiry Vietnamese Guide. It went something like this: Our guide would show us some half-cheesy, half-horrifying commie exhibit on, say, Agent Orange, and our guide would say something like, “Agent Orange cause many death, many deformity for Vietnamese children, American government not recognize effects of illegal chemical war, refuse to pay reparations”…and the Texan would snarl, “Nope! Nope, nope, nope! Not true! No evidence! It’s all a crock, people, I know all about this, I was there. Agent Orange never hurt anyone–they’re just trying to get money from our government, that’s all.”
Or our guide would proudly relate how underdog Vietnamese, wearing shoes made out of torn tire treads, managed to defeat and outlast the mighty American imperial army. To which the veteran would bark, “Not true! You had the Russians backing you the whole time. You had an endless supply line of Russian weapons, Russian advisors, Russian and Chinese material. Don’t whitewash this little propaganda tour of yours, I know what happened! You cheated–you had all the help in the world!”
Or our guide would show us some of the clever ways that the Viet Cong concealed the entrances to their tunnels, and how they fooled the Americans with their earthy ingenuity; our veteran from Texas would literally walk over and stand between us and our skinny Vietnamese guide, and shout, “We could have pumped in poison gas into the tunnels, and it’d’ve all been over. I asked for poison gas, other commanders asked for poison gas too, believe me. The problem was that our side played fair–we were signatories to the Geneva Conventions. The jerks in Washington cared more about the Geneva Conventions than they cared about winning this war.”
The Americans winced and cowered. But our guide didn’t seem bothered–he seemed more worried that we would be dissatisfied tour customers. I realize now, his main goal was to make sure that the old veteran didn’t lodge a complaint.
“Our hands were tied because we couldn’t use poison gas–and let me tell you, if we were allowed to use chemical weapons or poison gas on those tunnels, we’d’ve saved a lot of lives, something the do-gooders in Washington couldn’t understand. So what could we do? We used fire hoses to pump in river water into the tunnel entrances that we found. That, or tear gas. But that was a waste of time. If we could have used poison gas on the communists in these tunnels here, it would have saved a lot of lives. A lot of lives.”
That was stunning–even this jerk had to couch his little fascist plans under the guise of “saving lives.” It crossed the line from asshole Ugly American to something almost downright impressive.
I kept waiting for our Vietnamese guide to blow a fuse or shout the old Texan down, or rip the vet’s cholesterol-hardened heart out with some Bruce Lee move and chomp it down while it was still beating, Jim Carrey-style. But our guide seemed genuinely empathetic, and genuinely worried that the tour would end badly. Maybe the guide had seen a lot of these types on his tour. Whatever the case, comparing the old loud-mouthed vet with this zen Vietnamese guide, you could see, in some small way, why and how we lost that war.
At the end of the tour, ol’ Texas veteran softened up, shook our guide’s hand, and congratulated him and the Vietnamese on their victory–a victory which, he now magnanimously conceded, they’d earned.
It was like witnessing the “25-years-later” scene of what happened to the Robert Duvall character decades after he wistfully declared, “Some day, this war’s gonna end…” Which is to say, there’s a reason why Coppola never filmed the 25-years-later scene.
Speaking of military advisers and cheaters…A few years ago, I faced another side of imperial humiliation when I reported on the Russia-Georgia war in South Ossetia. This time, the rumored advisors who officially didn’t exist were the American military advisors who backed and guided Georgia’s disastrous campaign. Here’s what I reported from the ruins of the decisive battle that, I wrote, would be remembered as the high-water mark for the teetering American empire:
Tskhinvali, South Ossetia – On the sunny afternoon of August 14, a Russian army colonel named Igor Konashenko is standing triumphantly at a street corner at the northern edge of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, his forearm bandaged from a minor battle injury. The spot marks the furthest point of the Georgian army’s advance before it was summarily crushed by the Russians a few days earlier. “Twelve Georgian battalions invaded Tskhinvali, backed by columns of tanks, armored personal carriers, jets, and helicopters,” he says, happily waving at the wreckage, craters, and bombed-out buildings around us. “You see how well they fought, with all their great American training — they abandoned their tanks in the heat of the battle and fled.”
Konashenko pulls a green compass out of his shirt pocket and opens it. It’s a U.S. military model. “This is a little trophy — a gift from one of my soldiers,” he says. “Everything that the Georgians left behind, I mean everything, was American. All the guns, grenades, uniforms, boots, food rations — they just left it all. Our boys stuffed themselves on the food,” he adds slyly. “It was tasty.” The booty, according to Konashenko, also included 65 intact tanks outfitted with the latest NATO and American (as well as Israeli) technology.
…During my visit to Georgia in 2003, if someone had told me that in five years American military advisers would be hightailing it from their main base in Vasiani to avoid getting slaughtered by advancing Russian forces, I would have slapped him with a rubber chicken for insulting my intelligence. Yet there they were: gasping for air in the lobby of the Tblisi Sheraton, insisting off the record that the conflict was all the Georgians’ fault, not theirs.
Some day, these wars are all gonna end. That day may come sooner than we care to think–and when it does come, it will likely be just one facet of a full-spectrum meltdown that will leave a lot of Americans holding bitterly fond memories of the wars that we were sure would never end.
The battlefield ruins of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.
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