Looking behind the "fog of war."
Recently, the Associated Press ran a story alleging that American GIs fired on innocent civilians in the first days of the Korean War. Unfortunately, the AP had only part of the story. If the AP reporters had dug a little deeper, they would have found that Red Chinese and North Korean military doctrine called for disguising soldiers as civilians and putting them into the refugee stream.
As one who had the privilege of commanding American troops during two years of infantry service in Vietnam, I am always both amused and angered when reporters, whose only exposure to battle was probably a fraternity pillow fight, try to expound on what soldiers should have done or should not have done in the heat of combat and the fog of war. Having been shot at by Viet Cong dressed as “innocent” Vietnamese civilians and having had my jeep blown up by “innocent” Vietnamese civilians, one learns to get both sides of the story.
But if we are to place blame for any mistakes made by GIs – especially, in the early days of the Korean War -- let’s put the blame where it really belongs. In the American public’s rush to demobilize after World War II, it left a token force of under-manned and under-equipped units to occupy Japan. Then, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a major foreign policy speech in which he said, in effect, that South Korea was of no interest to the United States, he unintentionally invited the North Koreans to invade South Korea.
The forces made available to General Douglas MacArthur at war’s end were not staffed and equipped to fight the previous war, much less the Soviet-equipped and highly motivated North Korean Army of 1950. When Task Force Smith (composed of two under-strength rifle companies) was rushed from Japan to try to stop the North Koreans just north of Osan, their hand-held, anti-tank rockets bounced off the Soviet-made tanks like ping-pong balls. One can well imagine that young, poorly-equipped GIs facing an on-rushing sea of Koreans, some friendly and some hostile, would be scared witless (pun intended) and could mistake friend for foe.
For those who have never been in close combat, let me recommend The Face of Battle, by John Keegan. Professor Keegan writes about the Battles of Agincourt and Waterloo in such a way that you think you are there and wish you were not.
But how does one explain the infamous case of Lt. Calley and My Lai? Here is how that inexcusable war atrocity started in Washington, D.C.: Originally, every infantry division that fought in Vietnam was formed and trained in the United States. Then Washington decided to form another infantry division on the battlefield by drawing troops from the older, more-seasoned divisions.
In the 1st Air Cavalry Division, we were ordered to provide 1,100 troops to the new division. Naturally, we picked out our 1,100 “least desirable” troops and sent them to the new division. The other seasoned divisions handled their 1,100-man requirement the same way. Discipline in the new division was poor from the outset.
At the start of the Vietnam War, it took 23 weeks to get through Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS). If one had a character defect, it was almost certain to be exposed in those grueling 23 weeks. But, by the time Rusty Calley got to Ft. Benning, Infantry OCS training was reduced to only nine weeks. Lt. Calley slipped through, was sent to Vietnam and assigned, you guessed it, to the new division.
Two decisions then, in a long train of bad decisions by the Johnson Administration, combined to create an environment leading to My Lai. So, before heaping all the blame on low-ranking GIs, we need to look at senior policy-makers and ourselves.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.