Every time I get a little depressed about where we are today in this country, I remember my military training. It took place back in the mid-1960’s, right at the time we were becoming involved in the War in Vietnam, so there was an edge to everything we did as cadets. News of the deaths of graduates of West Point was beginning to make its way to the Academy. In fact, the widow of a graduate of the class of 1965 requested that I serve as her “escort officer” for her husband’s funeral at the West Point cemetery. I was in my first year as a cadet, a Plebe. The widow and I had known each other in junior high school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
She was two years ahead of me and was a teacher at the ballroom dancing class every Friday night at the post recreation center. We had one of those secret, unspoken crushes on one other. She was in the 9th grade, and I was in the 7th, so “dating” or even being seen together socially was impossible…except for Friday nights when because my parents had sent me to learn ballroom dancing, we could be in each other’s arms without reprobation. Holding her and gliding across the dancefloor every Friday night was heaven on earth.
When her husband was killed in Vietnam and plans were made to bury him at the Academy, she was told she could request a cadet escort for the two days she would spend at West Point preparing the funeral and burial of her husband. Escorting this woman I had known as a boy during the funeral for her dead husband had an enormous effect on me. It brought the war home in a way that headlines in the New York Times or war footage on the evening news never could. My father and grandfather had both served in wars, but no one in our family had been killed. Now here was a death with its sadness engraved on a face I imagined that I had loved. It was heartbreaking in a way that changed my life.
So when my class began its two months of field training at Camp Buckner that summer, I took the instruction in weapons and combat training very, very seriously. If I was going to be put in the position of leading soldiers in a war, I wanted to know how to do it exactly right. Boy did I get an education that summer.
I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was to learn how to lead men even in simulated combat situations where blanks were used instead of live ammunition. The others in training with me were my own classmates, and it was in all our interests to cooperate with each other and try to get things right as we took turns leading combat patrols against “enemy” fortifications manned by active-duty soldiers who were also firing blanks at us. We were graded on each patrol, not just the patrol leaders, but the others as well. You would think that we would all listen closely to the instructors and follow their directions to the letter. We did, but the results were often chaotic.
We trained in the forests and mountains of the Academy’s extended reservation about 15 miles outside the main West Point campus. We would be given an “objective” some distance from where we gathered to prepare the attack. The patrol leader had to determine a “line of departure” on a map of the area, and a “line of assault” closer to the objective, and arrange the members of the patrol so they would reach each line as close to the same time as possible, so that we could maintain our distance, one squad of men from the other, and not get so far ahead that one squad would be in danger of coming under “friendly fire” from another. All of this was done in dense woods in mountainous terrain.
Even in daylight, it was difficult to keep each other in view. The “lines” of departure and attack weren’t marked on the ground, they were imaginary, laid out on a map between what we thought were easily identifiable terrain features. Then you would get out there and you were supposed to look to your left for a rocky cliff and to your right for a “saddle” between two peaks. But there were several rocky cliffs visible, and not one but two “saddles” between rounded peaks, and between all of them was a wasteland of trees, boulders, bushes, creeks, and other obstacles.
We were supposed to maintain “tactical silence” (or something like that) but inevitably there was a lot of yelling back and forth. Squads got detached from the patrol, sometimes lost altogether. The “objective” that looked so easy to find on the map turned out to be well camouflaged and almost impossible to locate. When we would finally reach something approximating the “line of assault,” there was a lot of loud gunfire, some of it from automatic weapons fired by the “enemy” force. Guys were scattered everywhere, covered in mud from streams they had fallen into, bleeding from making their way through brambles and sharp sticks on low bushes, exhausted, and confused.
And this was training, shooting blanks, at an “enemy” comprised of men from the 101st Airborne Division, our fellow soldiers. It was impossible to imagine what it would be like when it was done “for real,” against a well-armed, well-trained, motivated foe in Vietnam – the kind of foe, in fact, that would win the war against our army less than ten years hence, driving a force from their country that over ten years of war amounted to more than 9 million American soldiers in all.
Think of our recent exit from Afghanistan that has been described in the press as “chaotic,” and think of the way the military described it. They moved tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers out of Kabul in a matter of a few days. It was in military terms a success. But you saw the footage on the news. It was chaotic. People, including American soldiers and Afghan civilians, died.
I remember flying into the massive American base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, during the war. Row upon row of tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, surveillance aircraft, tents housing tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, entire fields of heavy earth moving equipment, cranes, stacks of empty Hesco barriers, ammunition bunkers, mile after mile of fortifications and razor wire. The base at the Baghdad airport looked the same, so did the huge base at Balad, and the main base for the 101st Airborne Division just outside of Mosul. It seemed impossible, looking at all that American military might, that we could “lose” either Iraq or Afghanistan. How could that happen? Hundreds of billions in soldiers and equipment – the soldiers being the best trained, the military equipment being the latest, high-tech, most powerful and accurate in the entire world.
We lost in both countries against an enemy using the exact same weapons that were used against us in Vietnam: the AK-47 automatic rifle; the 60 mm mortar; the RPG grenade launcher; the roadside or trailside booby-trap bomb. All of those weapons date to the 1940’s. The tactic of booby-trapped weapons goes back centuries. We were told over and over that our military forces were the best trained, best equipped, most motivated that existed on the planet.
And still we lost.
This is what I think about when I think about the revolution the Right is talking about fomenting. This is what I think about when I read that right-wingers are “heavily armed,” and that there are as many as 400 million privately owned guns in this country.
To what end? If this country can amass several trillion dollars and millions of soldiers and all of the high-tech weaponry we can put in the air, on the sea and on land, and we can’t beat a bunch of people wearing baggy pants rubber flip-flops shooting 50 year old AK-47’s, how are a bunch of amateurish fools like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and, according to this morning’s New York Times, something called the “1st Amendment Praetorians,” outfitted in make-believe camo and store-bought “combat” gear going to field an “army” and take over anything at all?
That’s what I mean when I say it’s too hard. Any kind of war is hard. Look at what happened on January 6 of last year. A huge mob overwhelmed a vastly outnumbered force of Capitol and municipal police for a few hours, and managed to penetrate the Capitol, create havoc, and steal some stuff -- and then what happened? They went home. Who were they? Arrest records say they were largely middle class Americans, mostly white males with a smattering of women, who had families, jobs, and homes to return to. Some of the arrestees traveled by air to Washington. Some flew on private jets. A very small number of them had “trained” in certain ways described as “military maneuvers,” although I have never heard of the military maneuver we saw in riot footage in which men with their hands on the shoulders of the man in front of them moved forward in an easily-identifiable and easily-targeted line together. What did they accomplish in the end? Nothing. The counting of electoral ballots proceeded. Joe Biden was affirmed the winner of the presidential election. The insurrection at the Capitol failed.
Can it happen again? Sure. Can it happen elsewhere? Ditto. But preparing for it will be just as difficult as preparing for the last one. So will defending against such an eventuality.
What’s the upshot? If we could spend something on the order of $7 trillion on military manpower and equipment and fail to corral the forces against us in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention our abject failure against the VC in Vietnam – how are these right-wing fools going to capture and hold hostage a country of 330 million who have homes and families and jobs and businesses they’ve invested their lives in and which they will defend with a ferocity that would equal that of the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.
Fomenting and waging civil war is too hard. It takes too much money and training and effort and expertise. The way to win the battle for this country is at the ballot box. Vote. That’s what counts.