Former CIA operative Frank Snepp reflects on the military and strategic failures of the Vietnam War and how current U.S. policy is repeating those same mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Our work at Peace Works Travel is to take students on educational field trips with to Vietnam, Cambodia,Laos, Myanmar, Rwanda, Cuba – where they analyze questions posed by living historians like Mr. Frank Snepp. We are confident that they arrive home with a broader understanding of what military policies can and cannot accomplish towards resolving human conflict.
Thirty-eight years ago last week, I was among the last CIA officers to be choppered off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon as the North Vietnamese took the country. Just two years before that chaotic rush for the exits, the Nixon administration had withdrawn the last American troops from the war zone and had declared indigenous forces strong enough, and the government reliable enough, to withstand whatever the enemy might throw into the fray after U.S. forces were gone.
That’s the same story we told ourselves in Iraq when we pulled out of that country in 2011. And today, as American troops are being drawn down in Afghanistan, we’re hearing variations on the same claims once again. Yet security remains so fragile in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is impossible not to worry that we are deluding ourselves and that we failed to learn the most important lessons of Vietnam.
One major ingredient of both the Afghanistan and Iraqi experiments was the use of American dollars to buy off insurgents, wean them from their Al Qaeda or Taliban suitors and win the indulgence, however grudging, of the leadership in Kabul or Baghdad. Such payments may help ensure a lull in the violence to allow U.S. forces to withdraw. But the enduring fallacy of such tactics was made clear in Vietnam.
The strategic hamlet and pacification programs of the early and mid-1960s featured U.S. operatives fanning out through the countryside to buy the quiescence of village and hamlet chiefs. But in the end, the only thing that this money purchased was a continued Balkanization of the political landscape. The local beneficiaries, including special police and paramilitary units, identified with their American bagmen, not with Vietnam’s central government, and the government in turn remained suspicious of their loyalties. The moment U.S. dollars and protection were withdrawn, the central government cracked down, destroying whatever calm existed.
Such an adjustment is now going on in Iraq, where reports are mounting of Shiite vengeance against Sunnis. In Afghanistan, the “stabilizing” effect of U.S. forces and money is belied by a ragged security picture throughout the country and the resurgence of warlords.
In the last year and a half, as the Obama administration has staggered into its Afghan end-game, armed American drones and special commando operations have replaced the expensive counter-insurgency template designed by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. But the resulting campaign of targeted killing may not be an improvement because it contains the same ghastly flaws the Phoenix program had in Vietnam. The Phoenix program, a de facto assassination operation run by the CIA and U.S. military and carried out by provincial Vietnamese units, helped put the Viet Cong on the ropes temporarily, by eliminating many of their most experienced fighters and political operatives.
But for all this, the North Vietnamese went on to win. In the end, Phoenix drove people into the arms of the enemy by killing civilians. The cause was often imperfect intelligence from local sources more interested in settling personal scores than in taking out the real enemy. News reports suggest that today’s drone program suffers from similarly tainted targeting, as do periodic security sweeps that continue to deliver Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects to allied detention centers.
Another problem in Vietnam was our choice of bedfellows. By the time I chauffeured the fleeing President Nguyen Van Thieu to Ton Son Nhut air base in late April 1975, some of us in the embassy had come to realize that political or military stability could not coexist with corrupt local leadership. But the last American ambassador to Vietnam had made allowances for Thieu and bent intelligence to cover his faults. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have continued to choose our allies unwisely and tolerate their corruption.
Richard Holbrooke, who until his death in 2010 was Obama’s special advisor for Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrestled with another lesson from the Vietnam War, one he learned as a young pacification specialist in the Mekong Delta and a diplomat in Saigon. It was this: A war can’t go well if the enemy is able to move in and out of the country safely thanks to sanctuaries in adjacent countries.
In Vietnam, he’d seen how the Viet Cong slipped into the south easily through Laos and Cambodia, which may have been why Holbrooke labored so diligently to persuade the Pakistanis to break off their enabler’s role in the Afghan insurgency. But the tribal borderlands, along with factions of Pakistani intelligence, remain wellsprings of support for the Taliban and its fellow travelers in Al Qaeda. Even Osama bin Laden was able to find a safe haven in Pakistan for years.
During my own 5 1/2 years in Vietnam, as a CIA analyst, interrogator and operative, I learned another relevant but bitter lesson: Truth does not easily survive the pressures of American troop draw-downs or shifts in policy. The last commanders and intelligence officers on the parapets of a fading U.S. commitment invariably try to put a good face on things, however little cause for optimism there is.
There had been plenty of warning that South Vietnam was going to fall by the time it did on April 29, 1975. But denial and wishful thinking prevented us from adequately preparing for the safety of the many Vietnamese who had cast their lot with us. Their cries of panic over CIA radios on the last day still tear at my conscience.
What haunts me most as the U.S. pullout continues in Afghanistan is the fate of the locals who have trusted our assurances. Let us hope, as the agency’s Saigon station chief wrote in his last message from the embassy, that we have learned enough of history not to repeat it.
Frank Snepp is a Peabody-award winning investigative journalist and the author of two CIA memoirs.
Talking about controversial things is one of the luxuries we enjoy in a democracy. I’ve been told it’s impolite – or worse, “bad for small business”– to discuss current events about which reasonable minds can differ. I respectfully disagree with this sentiment.
From the Socrates’ agora of Athens to the chat-rooms of cyberspace –life-long learners of all ages have been postulating, analyzing and discarding ideas with greater or lesser efficacy for millennia. How else do we know what our fellow citizen is thinking if we do not risk speaking our own minds and responding in kind?
Another reason I’m lucky: our local newspaper has exceptional writers and thinkers on staff. Nick Welsh, I believe, is nothing short of brilliant. In this week’s Santa Barbara Independent Angry Poodle Barbeque (the weekly Op-Ed), Welsh connects the NSA surveillance issue to government overreach to the Vietnam War to the FBI to 9/11 and its most scandalous domestic piece of legislation, the Patriot Act.
I’m not the only educator passionate for teachable moments – and impressed with others’ smart exercise of same. Experiential learning requires awareness of one’s environment as it is unfolding in real time. Let’s make active citizenship an educational field trip – to read what credible people think, to discuss facts and analytical conclusions with others, to be knowledgeable and questioning of the world around us – a positive habit, every day.
Police State or Paranoia? The Answer’s Looking Ominous.
WHAT, ME, WORRY? If you’re not wetting your pants, you’re not paying attention. According to recent polls, many of us are too quick to minimize revelations that federal spy agencies have been strip-mining the phone records and email accounts of millions of Americans citizens for years now. I, too, would prefer not be bothered right now, but unfortunately, the usual rationalizations are no longer yielding the psychic numbness needed. And it’s not like we’re still on the first step of the proverbial slippery slope. It’s more like we’re careening down the mountain at a high rate of acceleration. The technical infrastructure of an authoritarian state has long existed. But the War on Terror declared with such strategic imprecision by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 has created psychological and legal infrastructure, as well. These have evolved to the point where a majority of us have become willing accomplices in the wholesale violation of our own constitutional rights. Neat trick.
Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane. Dick Flacks, former left-wing UCSB sociology professor and one of Santa Barbara’s all-time über-activists, first came under FBI surveillance at age 10. That’s when his parents — both pinko school teachers in New York City who got fired during the Red Scare of the late 1940s — sent him off to a Red Diaper Commie Kinder-Kamp. Flacks, a major player with the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society during the 1960s, discovered this after he went to court to get access to his FBI files some years later. During the height of the antiwar movement, Flacks would discover, he was so politically radioactive that the FBI placed him on the “Internal Security Index.” Should a “national emergency” be declared, that meant he could be detained and incarcerated even if no charges existed. FBI agents would show up from time to time, Flacks said, to interview his neighbors and landlords, more an act of intrusion and intimidation than information gathering. In 1968 — when Flacks was a professor at the University of Chicago — FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally authorized an anonymous letter-writing campaign to university officials in hopes of getting Flacks fired. Flacks found only one such letter in his files, signed by “Concerned alumus.” That the letter failed in its mission might stem from the fact that the alleged alums misspelled “alumnus.” One week later, Flacks would be savagely beaten in his own office by a man posing as a newspaper reporter. Flacks, it should be stated, has no evidence linking his assailant to the FBI. To date, Flacks has been arrested only once in his life, during a sit-in. And during the Vietnam War, yes, he did advocate resistance to the draft. The point isn’t to make Flacks out to be the second coming of Mother Teresa; the point is that all the activities Flacks engaged in to warrant this extensive surveillance and sabotage campaign by the FBI were perfectly legal and constitutionally protected. And in the years since, Flacks — no matter what you think of his political inclinations — has been nothing less than a model citizen.
The moral of the story is not that all government surveillance programs are inherently stupid, incompetent, unconstitutional, and politically abusive. But without meaningful oversight and accountability, it’s all but inevitable they will quickly become so. We have been allegedly reassured that warrants were obtained before any of the phone-record searches of U.S. citizens ever were executed. It’s worth noting that of the 1,800 warrant applications, not one was rejected, and only 40 were in some way modified. The judges that rule on such warrants operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. As has been reported, this court has refused to disclose its own legal analysis of the federal laws that guide its conduct. This court, according to the New York Times, has broadened its interpretation of the Patriot Act even beyond what many of the act’s most ardent supporters ever envisioned. But on what basis remains a mystery. To date, the secret court and the Obama Administration have vigorously resisted all legal actions undertaken to pry out this info. To dismiss these so-called tribunals as “kangaroo” courts would defame only kangaroos.
In March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before a Senate panel and was asked point-blank whether the U.S. was collecting data on large numbers of its own citizens. Clapper famously responded, “Not wittingly.” When later called upon to explain so blatant a lie, he even more famously answered that he sought to respond in the “least untruthful manner.” He is, of course, a trained professional, which means he gets to say, I suppose, whatever he wants. And all this spying, naturally, goes well beyond private citizens. In recent months, it’s come out the feds subpoenaed the phone records of the AP news agency and has also threatened a FOX News reporter with criminal sanctions for being in possession of leaked secret documents. Say what you want about such leaks — or the psychological motivations of leakers like Edward Snowden — they remain the best and only way any light has been shed about the government’s spying on its own people.
While we’re working hard not worrying about things, perhaps we should not worry that Congress just rejected — by a vote of 200-to-226 — an amendment that would have prohibited the federal government from indefinitely detaining American citizens on its own soil and holding them captive without charges. This truly exceptional authority was inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act several years ago, and civil libertarians have been trying without success to pry it out since. We have President Obama’s sincerest assurances that he would never abuse the provisions of this measure, designed as they all are to combat terrorism, but where such fundamental protections are concerned, I put my faith in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the man.
In the meantime, I’ll be carrying around my own personalized rubber blanket. Adult diapers, I find, make my butt look big.
By Nick Welsh
What do America’s schools have against travel?
In Darien, Connecticut, the public high schools’ attendance policy warns: “Inexpensive airfares are not an excuse for extended student vacations.” Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., also discourages absences for family trips, and at least one of the county’s high schools, Annandale, seems to have an outright travel ban. “Family trips and vacations will not be excused,” states the posted attendance regulations. Notably, school-sponsored sporting events are generally exempt.
Alright, I get it. Mom and Dad sipping piña coladas while Junior lands cannonballs in the resort pool on a school day—it’s just wrong. I don’t care how cheap the Priceline tickets to Cancún were. And this kind of truancy certainly won’t help American students, already lagging behind their Chinese counterparts in math and science.
But some trips are worth skipping school for. What about the cruise to the Galápagos to witness evolutionary theory in action? Or a tour of Europe’s castles to immerse the family in medieval history? That’s not the same thing as hanging out at the beach, is it?
“Time in the field adds context, meaning, and challenge to the one-dimensional classroom feed,” says Scott Pankratz of Ecology Project International, cultural exchange program. “Traveling is learning in 3-D; it’s an opportunity to grow and become what otherwise isn’t possible.”
Tell me about it. While my own spotty school attendance record may have affected my grades, it certainly didn’t interfere with my education. In fact, my youthful travels across Europe and the United States with my parents, when I was supposed to be sitting in a classroom, inspired my career.
Educational travel may have other benefits, too. More than 88 percent of students who traveled before the age of 18 receive a college degree, according to a recent survey endorsed by the Student Youth & Travel Association. Slightly more than 8 in 10 had a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and more than 40 percent had GPAs of greater than 3.6. What’s more, half of the respondents reported a household income of more than $75,000 as adults. These correlations add up to some pretty intriguing math.
And yet many U.S. school systems are taking an increasingly hard line against pulling children out of school for learning trips, even as they forgive absences with questionable educational value, such as sports competitions. Junior can’t be excused for traveling to the Grand Canyon to reinforce earth science lessons, but he can leave early with the rest of the football team for away games with the school’s blessing? Puh-leeze.
There’s a reason schools are reluctant to issue waivers for educational travel. Rigid testing requirements under the ten-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is meant to hold school districts accountable to national standards, have made schools mindful of every unexcused absence, according to Ezekiel Dixon-Román, an authority on international supplementary education and out-of-school learning. “What’s being covered in school is specifically targeted at what the school is assessed on in the tests,” he says. In other words, schools teach to the tests, and traveling kids may not be learning what they will be tested on.
I have a horse in this race. Three, actually—two sons and a daughter. Taking them out of school for educational travel involved negotiation and creativity, and we sometimes were made to feel as if we were depriving them of an education. By the time my older son started third grade, it was clear that the school calendar and school leave policy were too restrictive. Last January, we withdrew Aren from public school and enrolled him in an accredited homeschool program. His two younger siblings soon followed.
The solution isn’t to push parents out but to reform schools. Real change must come from the top. “Federal policy around education should be changed,” says Dixon-Román. “There’s too much of a focus on testing and not enough on a rich and meaningful pedagogical experience.”
To get an idea of how the system should work, consider what happened when Sonja Lother asked to take her daughter, Pippa, out of school for 12 days to visit Washington’s Orcas Island last year. Yes, there was some red tape. She applied in writing for permission from the principal at Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama. Then she met with Pippa’s teacher, Mrs. Evans, who asked Pippa to keep a travel journal. Finally the school green-lighted her request, classifying her trip as a pre-excused absence. Pippa’s trip “expanded her thinking” and was worth the bureaucratic obstacles, says Lother. Pippa created a 28-page journal with daily entries and drawings of the islands, complete with postcards and other mementos, which she shared with her classmates, who learned something from the trip as well.
My kids already know that sometimes the best place to learn is outside the classroom. They’ll never forget standing on the edge of Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, inhaling the sulfuric air, and listening to a park ranger tell them the secrets of a volcano. Or the fascinating story of northwest Florida’s rare sand dune lakes, formed by a combination of tidal flows and weather, presented by a nature guide named Snookie as they walked along a narrow, sandy trail. They know there’s no substitute for being there.
Hey parents, this is an issue worth getting pushy over (unlike the B that should have been an A on Junior’s last history test). You’re most likely to be successful if you can first work with a teacher to ensure your child will keep up with the schoolwork before approaching the school administration.
Skipping class to travel isn’t something all families can afford, unfortunately, but it may be more affordable than you think. Remember, not every trip has to—nor should—include a five-star resort. When I was young, my family crisscrossed two continents on a shoestring budget, often staying with friends or camping. (For truly needy students, groups such as the SYTA Youth Foundation and ACIS offer scholarships for organized travel.)
Travel shouldn’t be an option for only the elite; it should be an opportunity available to any student or family who wishes to expand their horizons. Schools shouldn’t get in the way of a good education.
By Christopher Elliott
Justice Kennedy writes the explanatory a mouth-swab taken from a suspect is not an intrusive means of identification. “The only difference between DNA analysis and the accepted use of fingerprints databases is the unparalleled accuracy DNA provides.” Indeed, we have ever-evolving tools for the criminal-detecting job. It’s hard to argue with greater efficiencies there: how infuriating are recidivist criminals who aren’t convicted for their violence the first time, and escape justice again because preponderance of the evidence is lacking?
In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws forbade civil interactions (including marriage) between these people and others. Subsequent laws followed banning the targeted citizenry from public spaces, government jobs, medical care and property ownership. In 1938, during Kristallnacht, the very identity of these people was deemed criminal and the government sanctioned widespread violence against their homes, synagogues and bodies. They were deported to ghettos, concentration camps and prisons. By 1939, it was a matter of policy for these “resident criminals” to self-identify in public with a yellow Star of David on their exterior for ease of identification. The Executive government kept meticulous records of the targeted population, using the best computer-technology available — the IBM-created Hollerith machine — for efficient tracking. Hollerith-generated verification numbers were made permanent as tattoos on human flesh.
What’s changed since 9/11 is the conceptual definition of guaranteed rights and freedoms: our students aren’t outraged about a loss of privacy they never grew up expecting was theirs with in the first place. This year’s high school graduates were in Kindergarten when the Patriot Act was passed in 2001.
On the other side are the realist skeptics of intervention in Syria, such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And although Secretary of State John F. Kerry wants to bolster the Syrian rebels, he’s not big on regime change; he favors increased aid as a measure to strengthen diplomatic efforts to force President Bashar Assad to negotiate.
Both men have been deeply shaped by the Vietnam War, in which they served with distinction, and the Iraq war. The fear of a repetition of Iraq is what is prompting liberal pundits such as David Rieff to plead, “Save us from the liberal hawks.” The liberal realists worry that the very military steps taken to help embattled populations abroad may inadvertently end up triggering even greater havoc. Like John Quincy Adams, they believe “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for fear that America itself will become the monster.
The conflict between the two camps is probably best understood as the latest installment in a running dispute over the lessons of the Vietnam War. Vietnam was originally promoted by Cold War liberals such as Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk. A younger generation, led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), said that the U.S. had lost its way in Southeast Asia and was becoming an international bad guy. The warriors recoiled. Some became neoconservatives and left for the GOP; others remained behind to try to stage an insurgency inside the party.
Ever since, the Democratic Party has been divided when it comes to foreign policy. During the 1970s and ’80s, the doves mostly had the upper hand, decrying U.S. militarism everywhere, from the invasion of Grenada to the Nicaraguan revolution. It may have been emotionally satisfying, but the Democrats also looked weak on foreign policy, a vulnerability that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush exploited.
Then came the Clinton administration. Initially, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, both of whom were scarred by Vietnam, kept America out of the conflict. But as atrocities mounted in the Balkans, the calls for intervention, including from Samantha Power, who made her name as a journalist covering Serbian aggression, and from Albright, then ambassador to the U.N., became increasingly prominent. In 1995, the administration intervened militarily in the Balkans to bring the Serbs to heel. Hand-wringing about American power was out. A new taste for intervening abroad under the banner of humanitarianism was in. The liberal hawks were once again ascendant.
The chaos in Libya has chastened Obama, who is resisting attacking Syria militarily. But Libya’s travails aren’t stopping a chorus of warrior intellectuals from denouncing what they consider his morally culpable passivity. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, complains, “Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all.”
Will Obama remain aloof in Syria, or will a liberal president once again accede to the cries of the hawks? His elevation of Rice and Power suggests that the pressure will be on from within his own administration. Both Rice and Power are personally much closer to the president than Kerry and could seek to undermine him. Even as Rice controls foreign policy from the White House, Power will occupy a potent pulpit at the United Nations, historically a highly visible platform for moralistic defenses of America and denunciations of evildoers abroad.
In naming Rice and Power, Obama, you could say, is staging his own potent intervention on behalf of the liberal hawks.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”
By: Jacob Heilbrunn
“War is what happens when language fails,” observes Margaret Atwood. In this sense, the crude methods of uncommunicative adversaries are not unlike pre-verbal toddlers resolving territorial and property disputes with violence. But on closer inspection, these words reveal a broader truth about cultural literacy and peace: what if war is the goal of an Elite, and manipulating the masses to sanction unjustified conquest is a function of carefully tailored words? In this case, it isn’t the language that fails, but the listeners.
Many of our war survivor-friends did not exist when these conflicts began. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. MacNamara absurdly championed military escalation in 1965—and Vice President Dick Cheney speciously repeated 35 years later — U.S. forces of aggression would be greeted “as liberators,” victims of this cavalier violence in the destination countries were yet to be born. Today, survivors’ poignant stories of hardship, indiscriminate suffering and loss are tempered by the equally profound lessons of hope: humanity can avoid, transcend, and heal from war. Students emerge from these educational field trips profoundly motivated to engage in our democracy, to perceive –and then reject–their leaders’ pseudo-intellectual appeals to war and to innovate mutually profitable relationships with global partners working for stability.
Bill Morse, Director Cambodian Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
Briggs Boss, Sophomore, Thacher School
Stacy Serrette, Teacher and Dean of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Paul Rusesabagina, Real-life Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the Rwandan genocide.
Shirley Hahn, Beverly Hills, California
The Santa Barbara Independent
Alex Greer, Junior, Laguna Blanca School
Kelly Bennett, history teacher, Santa Barbara Middle School
Alexandra Kall, Francis Parker School
Spencer Barr, English Teacher, Santa Barbara High School, California
Stacy Serrette, Director of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Eric Taylor, Francis Parker School, San Diego, California