Directing War from the Executive Branch: A Review of ‘White House Warriors’ by John Gans

Let’s be blunt: warfare changes constantly. Weapons alone don’t change, but so do the intangible aspects; political pressure, foreign policy, and public opinion. The head of state or government has a body of advisors debating the merits of military intervention and national security. Over time, these advisors have evolved to reflect the social mores and political climate both nationally and internationally. The world became increasingly complex following the Second World War with the rise of Communism as a world power, European colonies achieving independence, and the dawn of nuclear power. Previous conventions on isolationism were no longer applicable. Under the Truman Administration, a council made up of foreign policy and military experts congregated to form the first version of what would become the U.S. National Security Council. The 1947 National Security Act formalized its existence and for the past 70 years, the NSC has guided the White House on making monumental decisions on handling foreign threats and maintaining U.S. hegemony during the Cold War and beyond.

John Gans’ book, White House Warriors, analyzes the history and political impact of the NSC, plus the central characters who have dominated the council. In tandem with this work, Gans draws comparisons between the nature of the NSC and global affairs that have necessitated military intervention. The progression of the Cold War and accompanying proxy wars within have shaped the NSC’s people and policies. White House Warriors delivers a stark picture of how the Executive Branch extends its power on foreign affairs through the State Department and military position with the backing of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense. The reader could interpret Gans’ work in multiple ways as a result. Has the NSC exponentially increased the President’s power to use military force without Congress? Does the National Security Advisor have too much power? Should the NSC be dismantled? These questions and more can be asked by you and have been by policy experts, Congress, Chief-of-Staffs, and the President themselves.

President Truman meeting with his National Security Council (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

The American-Soviet alliance collapsed in the aftermath of WWII and executive policy on Communism couldn’t be controlled by the State Department. The late President Franklin Roosevelt exhibited a hands-on, yet discombobulated approach for directing the war effort which predictably was a source of consternation for the War Department. In an effort to consolidate national security matters in line with foreign policy, the NSC was formed under the National Security Act of 1947, along with the Department of Defense. Gans writes that in the beginning, personality clashes and vague jurisdiction lines between the military and state were a bane of daily function. Advisors and detailed military staff officers came and went so quickly, some didn’t even bother to learn names unless they sat in meetings with the President. Both Truman and Eisenhower only partially consulted the NSC during the Korean War, but they were largely treated as a secondary appendage because final decisions were made by the President or the Joint Chiefs.

To say that the Cold War molded NSC practice is a massive understatement. Political and diplomatic landscapes were in severe flux. What that meant was flexible responses by the Executive branch needed to be considered. John F. Kennedy’s NSC instigated the leap from haphazard consulting to critical infrastructure. The ‘bright young men’ were indicative of Kennedy’s plan to combat Communism by all necessary means, including military action. Without going to Congress for funding or having debates with his Cabinet, Kennedy molded the NSC to reflect the best minds who could give the best argument supporting the President’s views. Early U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a crucial test for the NSC since it challenged conventional military thinking and required a combined approach of diplomatic, political, and military action. Its during the Vietnam period, Gans notes the rising influence of the singular National Security Adviser. The head of the NSC was an executive secretary, but that role morphed into the advisor we see today. As the war effort and increasing government bureaucracy strained organization and communication efforts, the Advisor’s duty was to be the principal aide to the President on national security matters and direct the NSC on policy meetings. Under Henry Kissinger’s six year tenure, the role of advisor was augmented into a fixed position that sought to bring bureaucracy under control and handle principle matters solely by one person. The council had transformed from a collaborative body to an advisor with an army of staffers.

President Nixon’s first meeting with his National Security Council, Principle advisor, Henry Kissinger, is seated at the foot of the table on the left (National Archives and Records Administration, Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974)

Between the Ford and Reagan Administrations, the NSC underwent more organizational shuffling and reprioritized focus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on US embassies were prevalent. However, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the NSC and the Department of Defense dealt with what was coined ‘Vietnam syndrome’. There was great reluctance from many in the military, State Department, and the Joint Chiefs to commit ground troops in another international incident following the debacle of the Vietnam War. Instead, emphasis was placed on shuttle diplomacy and finding ways to subvert enemy activity, but not directly engage them in conventional combat. This was an eye-opening section in Gans’ book as it illustrates how many of the policies we implemented in the Middle East today stem from many of the NSC’s decisions in the 1980s. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the NSC and forced them into another organizational restructuring. Gans’ final section focuses on the ongoing War on Terror and how the NSC still faces many of the same challenges that existed since the Vietnam War. In many ways both conflicts were categorized as insurgencies, but U.S. military establishments wanted to reject that label in Iraq and Afghanistan, for fear of conjuring up old Vietnam wounds. Gans examines the deployment and transition of US forces in the Middle East and the implications for national security when the insurgency escalated.

President Ronald Reagan Holds a National Security Council Meeting on The Twa Hijacking in The White House Situation Room, 6/16/1985 (National Archives and Records Administration, Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989

In the end, White House Warriors is provocative and enlightening by showing how the council fluctuates nearly as much as the presidency itself. High stakes decisions on national security are made nearly every day, but decisions are not made by the President alone. The body of advisors to the President is massive and they take time to deliberate on the best possible course of action. The NSC has the power to change the course of conflicts, but they navigate through public opinion as much as the President does. Not every military intervention is cut and dry like the Gulf War or Bosnian War and NSC staffers incorporate countless facets of a scenario that can seem unending. Despite these obstacles, the NSC still serves a vital function to the U.S. and the world in assessing threats to peace and global stability.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Witness to the Fall: A Review of ‘Decent Interval’ by Frank Snepp

Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.

Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:

‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 6 October 1972”. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. University of Virginia.

Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 signed for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, a repatriation of POWs, and a general ceasefire. POWs returned home, the last regular army troops left in March 1973, but a handful of security and contractors remained behind to guard American consular offices. The ceasefire, however, was never honored and fighting resumed within days of the accords’ ratification (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.

Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.

A U.S. Marine Security Guard watching as South Vietnamese attempt to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds. By the time the evacuation of Saigon began, many U.S. personnel believed that it was too late to rescue everyone who wanted to flee (Image courtesy of UPI)

Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.

April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:

My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
President Ford discusses the worsening situation in South Vietnam with from right to left, Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (partially pictured); Graham Martin, United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam; Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand; and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the weeks leading up to the Fall of Saigon, the White House, Congress, Departments of Defense and State debated the best course of action, all while Snepp and his colleagues clandestinely move vulnerable Vietnamese out of the country (Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 – 1/20/1977)

Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:

“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

Saigon. Signing off.

Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.

Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:

‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Internal Hemorrhaging’, pg. 564, 565

Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.

Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.

‘Operation Frequent Wind’ – Marine pilots and members of the flight deck crew aboard the USS Hancock, assist Vietnamese refugees from CH-53 helicopters during the evacuation of Saigon (Image courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps)

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

Meritorious Service: Requesting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medals (4 of 4)

The history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is incredibly dense and overflowing with heroic stories of men battling the elements, fighting enemies in exotic locales, and being ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Towering ships like the USS Constitution, USS Missouri, USS Arizona, and the USS Hornet were at the center of momentous historical events that defined generations and military tradition. An illustrious history can even be heard in the Marines’ Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine”

(The ‘Halls of Montezuma’ refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and the ‘shores of Tripoli’ refers to the Battle of Derne in the First Barbary War). The Continental Congress quickly established both the Navy and Marine Corps during  the American Revolution to counter the British Navy, which was the largest in the world during the 18th century. Since the early 1800s, the Navy and Marine Corps were engaged in conflicts throughout the world. Despite their operations during the War of 1812, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and many other global conflicts, Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations were established primarily after World War I and World War II.

The USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s victory earned it the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps share a special distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces and other uniformed services: their medals are shared and awarded to both members of each branch. What many people don’t realize is that the Marine Corps is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy (and the U.S. Navy is within the same department of course). On June 30, 1834, the Marines were combined with the Navy following an Act of Congress; ‘Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps‘:

“…That the said corps shall, at all times, be subject to, and under the laws and regulations which are, or may hereafter be, established for the better government of the Navy, except when detached for service with the Army, by order of the President of the United States.”

-An Act for the better organization of the Marine Corps, Statute I, Chapter CXXXII, Sec 2, Twenty-Third Congress, June 30, 1834

Although the Navy and Marine Corps share the same medals, a substantial amount of research is performed to verify awards and decorations requests. This is due to the fact that geographic assignments and time served on ships plays a significant part in determining awards. Naval ships earn what are called Battle Efficiency Awards that are given for best battle efficiency competition and overall readiness for naval operations. A common request that Navy veterans make are for ship awards they believe are eligible for; if they served on the ship when it received that award though. A number of retroactive awards, especially for WWII and Korea, are available too through recent general orders from the Department of the Navy.

Let’s look at some unique medals and awards issued by the Department of the Navy:

  1. Navy Cross: second highest award for valor in combat, equal to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Medal: awarded for non-combat heroism equal to the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal: awarded to active duty personnel who landed in foreign territory and engaged the enemy
  4. Combat Action Ribbon: awarded to sea service members who engaged in ground or surface combat against the enemy. *This is the most commonly requested award for both service branches*
  5. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon: awarded to those serving active duty onboard a vessel at sea. *Established in 1980, it is only retroactive to August 15, 1974 so any requests for the SSDR before that date are denied*
  6. Navy E Ribbon: awarded for battle efficiency competitions for readiness and overall preparedness for that vessel and crew

The Navy and Marine Corps also issue Achievement and Commendation awards as mentioned previously in the preceding articles. Appurtenances like service stars, oak leaves, and numerals are also used along with another one called the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia. This is issued to U.S. Navy sailors attached to Marine Corps units engaged in combat operations. Both branches also have a system of weapon marksmanship awards for different weapon types.

The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landing at Da Nang. They were the first US ground combat troops to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965 (photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

As any technician at the National Personnel Records Center will tell you, fulfilling requests for Navy and Marine Corps awards is a labor intensive process. This is because of the numerous resources that technicians use to cross-check where a service member was located, at what time, with what unit or vessel, and length of time overseas or deployed on a ship. Individual personnel records may not completely reflect the award history of a vessel so they are checked against a massive ledger of all ship and unit awards garnered by that vessel. For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans in particular, this is combined with their eligibility for foreign awards if (and this is a big IF) they were assigned to ships that were in the sovereign waters of a country where combat actions occurred. Ledgers for Presidential, Meritorious, and Navy Unit Commendations are extensive because they track every deployment and combat action of each vessel. The same goes for the Marine Corps; their deployments and attachments to specific units and ships are heavily reviewed to see whether or not they’re eligible for awards also. Additionally, combat air wings with the Navy and Marine Corps are also separated with their awards determination. A naval combat air wing can receive an award, but the aircraft carrier transporting them doesn’t necessarily receive the same. This unit stratification is important to remember when Navy and Marine Corps veterans request their medals. If you weren’t attached to a unit or ship that received an award for being in a specific time or place, then you wouldn’t be considered eligible.

Before delving into the finer details of the Navy and Marine Corps awards themselves, it’s imperative to look at the request process as well. Similar to the Army and Air Force, requests are made through the NPRC and information is verified through the personnel folder. The Navy and Marine Corps also use a form similar to the Air Force’s NA 13059 entitled a NAVPERS 1650/96 ‘Transmittal of and/or entitlement to Awards’. Replacements are also only issued once like the Air Force and so copies of this form are put in the record and then sent to the service branch office. The Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee is responsible for the verification and replacement of Navy and Marine Corps awards.

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on October 24, 1944 (Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

A large number of requests for Navy and Marine Corps medals comes from World War II veterans and their families. This time period requires a significant amount of research because ships, combat air wings, and Marine Corps units attached to naval units all have a multiple lists and information to verify. Veterans who served in the Pacific Theater are eligible for awards like the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbons, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the China Service Medal (given for service in waters near China between 2 September 1946 and 1 April 1957). Once a technician confirms the veteran’s on-board service, that is cross checked against that ship’s unit award history and if nothing is found, that request is complete! The same process is repeated for Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Marine Corps award requests are examined in nearly the same manner. A master list of every Marine Corps unit since the Korean War shows their unit awards, combat actions, and corresponding time frames to prove eligibility. When Marine Corps units are attached with other units that receive awards, the aforementioned Marine Corp unit receives the same unit award. Again, time and place makes a major difference in determining awards eligibility. One final, yet important disclaimer I should add here is that the NPRC only processes awards requests for veterans how have their records at the record center. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Navy and Marine Corps began digitizing and retaining their own service records.

Let’s look at an example! Assume that all the supporting documentation exists for the veteran’s request for all entitled medals and awards:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 5, 1943
  2. Served on the USS Denver from 1 October 1944 to 30 November 1945
  3. Stationed in Japan following surrender in September 1945

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat against the enemy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  2. Navy Unit Commendation: received for serving on board the USS Denver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  3. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze service star: service in the Pacific Theater
  4. World War II Victory Medal: active duty between 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946
  5. Navy Occupation Medal: stationed in occupied Axis country, Japan
  6. Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: meritorious service in the Pacific Theater and actions in the Philippines
  7. Philippine Liberation Medal: participated in the liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese forces

Now let’s look at a Marine Corps example. Again, assume that all the supporting documentation exists in the personnel folder:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 June 1964
  2. Served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from 30 August 1965 to 15 November 1966
  3. Participated in Operation Prairie and Deckhouse
  4. Wounded once in combat
  5. Received a commendation for heroic acts

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Purple Heart: sustaining wounds during combat
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation: for heroic acts performed during combat operations
  3. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat operations against the enemy
  4. National Defense Service Medal: for active duty service during a conflict
  5. Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star: received for serving in the Republic of Vietnam
  6. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation: received the foreign unit award for being attached to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines while serving in Vietnam
  7. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device: foreign award for serving in Vietnam

These examples are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are to give a general conception of what typical awards are eligible for Navy and Marine Corps veterans. For more information on Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations, you can visit the Navy Personnel Command website here: Navy Personnel Command.

I hope this article series on U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations has been informative and helpful! You can also visit the National Personnel Records Center website to begin the request process for medals (NPRC website). Happy researching!

For Heroic Acts: Requesting U.S. Air Force Medals (3 of 4)

The U.S. Air Force is the youngest service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (I know there’s the Space Force, but that’s a story for another day and as of right now, they’re just using the same medals as the Air Force). Prior to the Cold War, aerial warfare was part of the Army with the sub-branches of the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Force. The National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch and on September 18, 1947 the Air Force became independent and began its own operations and forming commands.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Gen. McPeak served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and oversaw Air Force operations during the Gulf War (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

During the Air Forces’ early years, they borrowed heavily from the Army’s list of awards and decorations. It wasn’t uncommon for a Air Force veteran that served during the Korean War to be awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force began drafting its own award system and designing the decorations. More awards were established during and after the Vietnam War and with the creation of the Space Force, proposals for new awards have been issued too. Ribbons and medals made especially for the Air Force include, but are not limited to the Air Force Cross, Airman’s Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon,  AF Training Ribbon, AF Special Duty Ribbon, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. While the Air Force does not issue extensive marksmanship badges as the Army does with all the different weapon bars, they do issue ribbons that indicate proficiency with small arms and receive appurtenances for multiple awards. The Air Force does issue a wide arrange of badges that cover everything from pilot wings, to flight surgeons, and to one of the most coveted, the astronaut badge.

Army and Air Force awards are varied in their qualifications and design, but it doesn’t end there. How Air Force medals requests are processed is different too. In the previous post on Army Medals (For Distinguishing Service), an Army veteran just needs to submit a request through the National Personnel Records Center, a technician submits the pertinent information to the Army TACOM, who re-issues the medals; a process that be done multiple times. The process for Air Force veterans is marginally different and here’s why:

  • The U.S. Air Force allows a one-time submission for the re-issuance of awards and decorations. When requested, this cannot be repeated by another party in the future

The F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter. The F-16 is famous for having multiple variants and was the primary USAF fighter jet used during the Gulf War and is still in operation today (Photo courtesy of the USAF)

NPRC technicians submit Army medals information directly to the Army via online through TACOM which generates an immediate request number for veterans to follow-up on later. For Air Force medals, technicians complete an NA Form 13059 ‘Transmittal of And/Or Entitlement to Awards‘. The form is a long list of every medal, ribbon, and decoration issued by the Air Force and a technicians checks off boxes corresponding to the veteran’s entitled award.  Unit awards are also included and technicians compare OMPFs to these lists, similar to the Army unit awards. The completed form is copied three times:

  1. First copy is placed inside the Official Military Personnel Folder to show that the awards have been issued previously
  2. Second copy is mailed to the requester
  3. Third copy is forwarded to the Air Force Personnel Center, located at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX

Awards and decorations come directly from the AFPC, not the NPRC. Once they have the NA Form 13059, it remains in their queue until completed. The Air Force keeps this document to ensure that the medals are only re-issued once. Depending on the nature of the request (wanting replacements, petitioning for a new medal, etc.) sometimes the process can take months or even years; it all depends on the AFPC’s priorities.

Award eligibility is slightly different between the Air Force and Army too. What are automatic awards for one branch are reciprocal for the other. A signature example is the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. This foreign award was retroactively awarded to all Army veterans, but not to the Air Force. Only those who were awarded the medal while serving in Vietnam can request it again. Air Force veterans that served in Vietnam do automatically receive the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device for service in country.

Let’s look at some examples of Air Force medals! Assume that for the following scenarios that the veteran has the supporting documentation in their record:

  1. Served in Vietnam from 2 April 1968 to 22 February 1969
  2. Qualified expert marksman for the M-16
  3. Enlisted on 30 March 1967 and discharged on 15 September 1971
  4. Served in the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing throughout Vietnam tour

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (AFOUA), National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award (AFLSA), Small Arm Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (SAEMR), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (for educational purposes only)

  • Veteran received the AFOUA because he served with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing which received the award while stationed in Vietnam
  • The VSM with three stars and the RVN Campaign w/1960 device because he served in Vietnam in that time frame
  • Veteran doesn’t receive the Cross of Gallantry because it’s not an automatic unit award and was not awarded to the 37th Tactical Wing
  • Received the AFLSA for at least 4 years of honorable service in the branch
  • Received the SAEMR for being qualified with the M-16

That was pretty easy! Now let’s do a more difficult one. Again, assume the veteran has all the supporting documentation:

  1. Served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Enduring Freedom
  2. Enlisted on 7 June 1989 and discharged on 6 June 2009
  3. Received all good conduct marks throughout service
  4. Qualified expert marksman with the M-16
  5. Completed 10 combat missions with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
  6. Cited for valor in combat against the enemy, worthy of the Air Force Cross

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Cross, AF Combat Action Medal, Meritorious Unit Award with bronze oak leaf cluster, AF Good Conduct Medal with silver and bronze oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, Southwest Asia Service Medal with bronze service star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (GWOTSM), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM), AF Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, AF Longevity Ribbon with oak leaf clusters, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon.

  • Received the Air Force Cross following in record citation
  • Participated in aerial combat after 2007 so eligible for the AF Combat Action Medal (retroactive to 11 September 2001)
  • Received the Meritorious Unit Award twice while serving with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group (awarded twice when stationed in Afghanistan)
  • Received appurtenances with the Good Conduct Medal for multiple years of good marks and performance
  • The National Defense Service Medal has a bronze service star because the veteran served in two conflicts (Gulf War, War on Terror)
  • Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign medal for participating in Desert Shield and Enduring Freedom
  • Received the GWOTSM and GWOTEM for service overseas during the Global War on Terror
  • Overseas Long Ribbon for completing more than two years overseas
  • Completed 20 years of service so veteran received AFLSA with oak leaves
  • AF Training Ribbon for completing basic military training

On top of all these awards, because there’s documentation that he’s a combat pilot, he gets a pilot’s badge above the ribbon rack:

USAF Pilot Badge

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about U.S. Air Force awards and decorations! For my next installment, I’ll have a combined U.S. Navy / Marine Corps article as they share nearly all of the same types of medals. Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have a huge array of retroactive award policies, specific rules on automatic and unit awards, and awards for naval ships and vessels too. Even though the share many of the same medals, there are a couple of tiny differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, but we’ll go through it all!

Phượng Hoàng: A Review of ‘Stalking the Vietcong’ by Stuart Herrington

In war, you must know your enemy. Understand how they think, what motivates them, how they fight, and test their resolve to fight for the cause. In the Vietnam War, that was the question that eluded the military intelligence community from the jungle battlefield up to the marbled halls of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What many astute American intelligence officers who spent extensive time in the field realized is this wasn’t at all like their father’s war. Traditional ways of identifying the enemy and fighting them on the front lines were not like that in Vietnam. Identifying the enemy’s psychology and rooting out the subversive forces that sustained their cause had to be understood and eliminated. Captain Stuart Herrington, an Army intelligence officer, volunteered to serve in South Vietnam to track down and eliminate Vietcong (VC) suspects. Throughout South Vietnam where the VC operated, they ran a shadow government to counter the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the Thieu administration. Permanent security would never be achieved while this shadow government existed and so the CIA launched a new program to counter this: Phoenix.

Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account‘ recounts Herrington’s experience in the Phoenix Program and the challenges he and his Vietnamese counterparts faced in the early 1970s as the U.S. military presence reduced significantly. I know that almost all of my book reviews so far have revolved around the Vietnam War, but this was a subject that I’ve had a lot of personal interest in since the intrigue of a CIA program compels me to learn as much as possible (at least what has been declassified). The moment this book arrived, I picked it up and plowed through half the book in just a short amount of time.

Phoenix Program shoulder patch (never officially worn or issued by the CIA or U.S. Armed Forces)

Beginning in 1966 and following the Tet Offensive in February 1968, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), believed that the countrywide attacks had depleted the manpower and resources of the VC to near extinction. The pacification efforts of the South Vietnamese government was making only marginal progress in ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the people who were growing increasingly anti-American. What MACV needed was intelligence on the VC; how they operated, where they were located, who were members, and how they got support from the locals. The VC relied on sympathetic populations to bring them supplies, intel, and more followers to the Communist Party. With that, they built an enormous and intricate support network that enabled them to move freely throughout South Vietnam. A shadow government of tax collectors, village chiefs, militia, couriers, spies, assassins, and political officers were right under the U.S. Army’s noses. Nelson Brickham, a CIA officer, submitted a plan to gather intelligence and compelling the enemy to defect from the Communists. Counterinsurgency and assassination would remove the rest if they couldn’t be turned. The Phoenix Program was born.

The idea behind Phoenix was centered on how to remove the support network that sustained North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam that came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main road that brought manpower and supplies down south. In order to operate, they relied heavily on the VC infrastructure and so the program targeted those cadres. By removing this apparatus, the U.S. could end Communist activity in the south and seriously weaken North Vietnam’s battlefield position. Americans served mainly in an advisory capacity which consisted of analyzing intelligence and consulting with Vietnamese counterparts such as the Military Security Service (MSS) the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and the National Police Force. Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) handled daily operations of locating, capturing, interrogating, and eliminating targets.

A Provincial Reconnaissance Unit deploys on Go Noi Island near Danang. PRUs were overseen by American advisors like Capt. Herrington. (Frederick J. Vogel Collection at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, 1969)

Herrington initially wasn’t assigned to Vietnam. His first overseas assignment was West Germany and back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a posting in Germany was the luckiest draw an officer or enlisted personnel could make. After completing his tour though, Herrington didn’t remain a civilian for long and after only a few months, he returned to the Army and found himself travelling the opposite direction; to the Pacific and to Vietnam. What he witnessed after a few days in country set the standard of how he saw his and the United States’ role in Vietnam, and everything going wrong in the struggle against the Communists.

Stalking the Vietcong‘ unquestionably reads like a spy novel as the book’s back cover states. Herrington lived in a country where violence and death was a daily occurrence, as common as eating breakfast and tying bootlaces. People lived dual lives with dual identities and determining one’s loyalty was a Herculean task. Herrington, like other American advisors, were overwhelmingly frustrated in their duties as they dealt with incompetent and corrupt South Vietnamese officials. Lax security and a general unwillingness to do anything that placed them in danger gave the enemy unrestricted movement; all the while the South Vietnamese produced rosy reports on how secure their provinces were. Reports versus reality signified the everyday stress placed on U.S. intelligence efforts. A handful of Herrington’s superiors wanted to do all the Phoenix work themselves and leave the Vietnamese out, but the truth was when the U.S. left, the Vietnamese wouldn’t be up to the task and succumb to the Communists. Herrington reflected on this frustration:

“…I had been disturbed by Colonel Weissinger’s impatient demand that if the Vietnamese were not up to the task of eliminating the Vietcong organization, we Americans should do it for them. I believed firmly that one of the major shortcomings of our overall approach in Vietnam had been the tendency to do things ourselves rather than to train the Vietnamese to do them…I went to Hau Nghia determined not to make this mistake, but wound up ill equipped to cope with the frustrations of advisory duty…”                                       

                   ‘                                                          ‘A Model Revolutionary Village’

Whether your position on the American presence in South Vietnam is positive or negative, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ infuses a personal account of one of the most dramatized and scrutinized chapters of the Vietnam War. Academic studies and government reports highlight Phoenix’s atrocities on human lives; torture by beatings, electrocution, waterboarding, and summary executions were damned by the public as war crimes. Herrington doesn’t revel in these acts as a means to an end in defeating the VC, but he pushes for a different path. Persuasion and rallying defectors through humane treatment was the best way to win the support of Communist defectors. Herrington focuses on three captives that he relied on for information: Nyugen van Phich, Hai Tiet, and Do van Lanh. Each had a different position in the VC organization, but they all provided valuable information in their roles, purpose, and how VC operations worked in the south. Their stories were incredibly insightful and integral. If every VC prisoner was cooperated with the Americans like they did, who knows how they war might have ended. There might still be a Republic of Vietnam and Saigon would not have been named Ho Chi Minh City. Stories of enthusiastic and strong-willed South Vietnamese officers like Colonel Thanh dissolve the notion that the ARVN, MSS, and National Police Force were full of incompetent officers. They wanted the American’s help and did their job to best of their abilities.

A Vietcong prisoner awaits interrogation at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang (Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981, Record Group 111:
Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, National Archives and Records Administration)

Accounts of brutal torture were not the norm, but they weren’t an aberration either. Some PRUs and South Vietnamese used the Phoenix Program as a cover for personal vendettas. A single accusation or suspicion of a individual with Communist sympathies made them a target, whether or not they were a VC. Phoenix’s targeting was only as good as the intelligence upon which it was based and that varied widely. Of over 20,000 Vietnamese who were executed, estimates as high as 50% claim that victims were innocent.

Herrington claims in ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ that these violent methods were not his own. He dissuaded those from getting violent with their prisoners, but there were those who had no scruples:

“Were mistakes made, and did abuses occur? Yes, if what I witnessed was representative. Some Phoenix cadre did commit excesses against the peasantry in the name of the anti-Communist campaign. The provincial reconnaissance unit in Hau Nghia was infamous for this during the early part of my tour. I once saw four of them decide that a nineteen year old girl was lying about something and subject her to repeated near suffocation with a rubber poncho in a cruel and vain attempt to force her to talk. That was the last time we entrusted that unit with such operations. What I saw that day shocked me, though it was the exception rather than the rule.”

                                                                                             ”Nam was a Bummer’

Overall, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ was informative and personable in a way that made the Vietnam War a more human and noble endeavor from an individual perspective. Capt. Herrington maintained an attitude of optimism in helping turn the Communists to the American side, but still recognized the systemic frustrations and pitfalls. He gave his diagnosis of the wider problem and had his own remedy, but this view was not shared by the America public by 1973 when he returned to the United States. They wanted to get out and leave the South Vietnamese to their own devices. Unfortunately, this sealed the South’s fate as they had no proper procedure in place and still suffered from personnel problems such as corruption. Combined with the rapidly deteriorating Vietnamese economy, the Republic of Vietnam collapsed just two years later. The Fall of Saigon was witnessed around the world, but Capt. Herrington did more than watch;  he helped evacuate South Vietnamese officers and their families then boarded a helicopter at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 29th, 1975 and headed out to sea.

Distinguishing Service: Requesting U.S. Army Medals (2 of 4)

For as long as the United States Army has existed, there have been awards and decorations that were given for acts of valor and heroism.  Since the American Revolution, such awards were not specifically regulated until World War I, but ones like the Badge of Military Merit were forerunners to the Purple Heart. The Medal of Honor, established during the American Civil War, was the first to be regulated following Congressional legislation and was accompanied by benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War resulted in the first use of campaign medals and the creation of retroactive medals like the Civil War and Indian War campaign medals. It wasn’t until World War I and during World War II that the Department of the Army, Congress, and the White House began instituting more types of medals for its service members.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He was decorated for his courage under fire and valor in saving the regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in the American Civil War. He didn’t receive the medal for at least 37 years after the battle (Photo courtesy of James Reed, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Since 1917, there have been dozens of new medals and updated version of obsolete ones. We’ve seen the creation of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. These don’t even include the large number of service awards like the Army Service Ribbon, NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon. It still doesn’t even account for all the Army Reserve awards either or even the Weapons Qualifications badges either. Unit awards are a whole other category as well with the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Citation, and much more. Within the Department of the Army (DOA), there are civilian-grade awards as well for public service and meritorious achievement which are given to civilian employees within the Army. In summary, the U.S. Army has exponentially grown its list of personal awards and even more so with each conflict that the U.S. Army engages with the enemy overseas. This article continues from the previous post (Gallantry and Valor) by describing various types of U.S. Army medals, what medals belong to which conflict, retroactive awards, and how veterans can request their medals through the National Personnel Records Center. Because of the immense catalog of awards and decorations, more in-depth research can be done privately on the history of Army awards and so here we’ll highlight some of the most common facets and types of medals.

As previously stated in ‘Gallantry and Valor‘ awards are divided into categories such as personal decorations, service, campaign, weapon badges, and unit awards. There are those a veteran receives for meritorious and heroic actions, for participating in a campaign during wartime, for personal achievement, and for serving with a specific unit that is decorate as a whole. Within each category, there’s a system of appurtenances to denote multiple issuance of the same award (oak leaf clusters, service stars, numerals, devices, etc.). These are used by all the service branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Lt. Gen. James H. Doolitte pictured with his awards and appurtenances. Doolittle became famous for the raids on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became known as the ‘Doolittle Raids’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

A new award is established primarily by these methods:

  1. The DOA establishes criteria for a new award or decoration.
  2. Congress authorizes an award by passing specific legislation.
  3. The President signs an executive order creating a new award.
  4. The Department of Defense (DOD) establishes criteria for a new award.

Medals and awards are not normally established during peacetime. Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there were practically no new medals and even fewer recipients because the peace-time army was so small. It’s only during wartime that you can see the explosion of new medals and decorations. These are created to recognize the type of conflict and whether or not a person directly participated in combat actions or served in another capacity. Service members can receive awards automatically for being on active duty.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and DOA follow a specific criteria for determining an Army veteran’s medals, which is pulled directly from their Official Military Personnel Folder. Technicians review records thoroughly and cross-check it with lists and ledgers from the DOD to ensure that they are eligible for unit awards. Here’s a breakdown of automatic medals eligible to veterans by directly participating in a campaign overseas against an enemy:

World War I

The World War I Victory Medal (the medal was affixed with battle clasps denoting the battle the soldier fought in as well)

World War II

From left to right, top to bottom: American Defense Service Medal (active duty before December 7th, 1941), American Campaign Medal (service in the American Theater), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (service in the Pacific Theater), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (service in the European Theater), World War II Victory Medal (active duty between December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946), Army Occupation Medal (for serving in the occupation forces in WWII Axis countries).

Korean War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Korean Service Medal (active duty service in South Korea between June 27th, 1950 and July 27th, 1954), United Nations Service Medal (international award issued with KSM), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive unit award issued by the Republic of Korea for veterans that participated in conflict)

Vietnam War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Vietnam Service Medal (active duty in the Republic of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 to April 30, 1975), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service)

Desert Storm / Gulf War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Southwest Asia Service Medal (active duty service in Southwest Asian region between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia version, active service in the Persian Gulf), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait version, participated in Operation Desert Storm)

Global War on Terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.)

From left to right, top to bottom: National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Afghanistan Campaign Medal (service in Afghanistan from October 24, 2001 to present day), Iraq Campaign Medal (service in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to December 31, 2011), Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal (direct participation in Syria combat actions from June 15, 2014 to present day), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (deployed overseas against terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day) Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (supported operations to counter terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day),

Medals and other awards can also be issued retroactively if a veteran fits certain eligibility. A large number of awards requests submitted to the NPRC are for retroactive awards that a veteran wants or needs for things such a admission to a VFW or American Legion or VA benefits. Here are some common instances of retroactive Army awards that are given based on certain qualifications:

  1. World War II veterans that received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge are also eligible for the Bronze Star Medal.
  2. Service members who were stationed in South Korea since July 28th, 1954 qualify for the Korea Defense Service Medal. The KDSM was established in December 2002 and is the most requested retroactive Army award.
  3. Service members that served in specific countries within a set time frame are eligible for the Armed Force Expeditionary Medal (criteria set and approved by the Department of Defense.
  4. Veterans of the Korean War that served on active duty in South Korea were eligible to wear the Korean War Service Medal. This is a foreign award that initially was declined by the DOA to wear. In 1999, the Army finally authorized the wearing of the medal.

Requesting awards and decorations from the NPRC can be a lengthy process depending on the nature of the request. If a veterans wants all awarded and eligible medals, the technician reviews documents citing awards such as the DD Form 214, DA 20 Chronological Record, orders, and DOD unit awards lists. Once this is completed, the technician submits the information to the Army TACOM in Philadelphia, which oversees the heraldry office that re-issues medals. All the submitted information is verified and if there’s any conflicting item, the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox gives the final say in determining a medal. The NPRC’s only role is providing documentation; the awards come from the Army itself. In the case of the Army, only the next-of-kin can request medals and can be issued multiple times under certain conditions. Awards information can also be obtained by the public through a FOIA request, but the physical medals won’t be; the NPRC only sends a list.

That was a lot to read! But let’s give a sample scenario:

A U.S. Army veteran requests his medals and gives these criteria (and let’s assume that the record contains all supporting documentation):

  • He served in Vietnam from 1 July 1966 to 30 June 1968
  • His MOS was Infantry
  • He was wounded in combat twice
  • There are citations for a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device
  • He served with the 4th Infantry Division the entire time overseas
  • He was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army and has bonafide documentation as a prisoner of war

  1. The veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for his combat role.
  2. Bronze Star Medal with “V” device because of in-record citation.
  3. Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster because of being wounded twice in combat.
  4. Prisoner of War Medal for being a captive of enemy forces.
  5. National Defense Service Medal for active duty during an armed conflict.
  6. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars for time in country.
  7. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  8. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  9. Presidential Unit Citation with bronze oak leaf cluster because unit received award twice while attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

Hopefully this information has been helpful! Check back for the next chapter that will focus on the U.S. Air Force awards and decorations, eligibility, and request process.

 

Measuring Success by Counting Corpses

While re-watching the Ken Burns documentary ‘The Vietnam War‘, it prompted me to re-examine what I learned about the war in school and from personal reading. As the narrator explained, there was no discernible way to measure success in the traditional aspects of moving the front, taking territory, or even fighting conventional forces. The focus of occupying enemy territory and taking landmark objectives was significantly more difficult in Vietnam (fueled by the problematic identification of a friendly population and hostile forces). Search-and-destroy was the most direct way to achieve results by actively seeking out the enemy. Therefore, it became necessary to find ways producing progress on the battlefield and showing the public that the United States was winning the war against the Communists. The Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) relied heavily on a statistic that shaped the military’s definition of success: body count.

A central objective for the U.S. Armed Forces was not to invade and destroy North Vietnam, but to prevent South Vietnam from capitulating to Communism. Therefore, it became difficult for MACV to accurately assess their situation on whether they were winning the war. If they were invading North Vietnam, capturing towns, destroying methods of resupply, and decapitation strikes would be listed objectives. This wasn’t the case though. Lt. Col. James Willbanks, revealed that notion very simply:

“The problem with the war . . . are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So in this particular case what you could count was dead enemy bodies.”

-James Willbanks, ‘The Vietnam War

General Westmoreland and other commanders widely adopted an attrition strategy in defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, whereby if they killed more enemy soldiers than could be replaced [crossover point] then Communist forces would cease their attacks. Officers often pressured soldiers to deliver on their body counts, but lacking discrepancy when determining who was friendly or hostile (Christian Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, UNC Press, UNC-Chapel Hill, pg. 8). What came from this though were additional tactics that fomented exaggerated body counts; free-fire zones and search and destroy missions. Soldiers were ordered to shoot at anything that moved. They surrounded themselves with reminders that killing was the main objective: score sheets, tallying boxes, chalkboards, etc. (Appy, pg. 144) Because it was difficult to tell the difference between an enemy combatant and a friendly civilian (since guerrillas did not wear uniforms) U.S. servicemen were sometimes less than positive about differentiating who was friendly or not. Discriminatory firepower was not necessarily in good practice as it was easier to shoot rather than ask questions [see Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam by the BDM Corporation]. MACV wanted results and since body count was the only way, they needed bodies. So bodies were what they got.

Body count was how success was measured in the Vietnam War. Telling the difference between enemy dead and civilian casualties was not strictly enforced so nearly all bodies were counted as ‘Enemy KIA’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Vietnam War historian Christian Appy pointed to search-and-destroy missions as the main tactic in defeating Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. The attrition strategy was central to American operations in South Vietnam (Appy, pg. 156). Accompanying this tactic was the body count measure of progress. Large-scale search-and-destroy missions resulted in huge numbers of refuges who often escaped, only to return home in a now designated free-fire zone. Anyone caught there would be shot and often were. The  widespread practice of tagging every dead Vietnamese as ‘Enemy Killed in Action’ grossly inflated the measure of progress, undermining the very thing that MACV and the United States used to justify their purpose in southeast Asia. These numbers of enemy killed in action were inflated occasionally to placate superior officers at headquarters in order to demonstrate the progress being made. Field commanders and officers knew their figures were wildly inaccurate. One infamous operation highlights the deadly cost of relying on body count to measure progress: Operation Speedy Express. For six months in the Mekong Delta, the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division relentlessly pursued the Viet Cong night and day. At the operation’s conclusion, Major General Julian Ewell proudly announced that the 9th Division inflicted almost 11,000 enemy deaths while only losing 242 U.S. servicemen, a kill ratio of nearly 45 to 1; nowhere else had this ratio been achieved in South Vietnam. An internal report from the Army Inspector General would later reveal that more than half of the reported casualties were actually unarmed civilians. No one was held accountable and in fact, Ewell, the ‘Butcher of the Delta’ received another star on his lapels and was promoted to lieutenant general.

For all the impressive statistical figures and metrics that MACV produced, numbers did not tell the entire story of the Vietnam War. Military historian Lewis Sorley condemned the application of body counts and claimed that practice alone undermined any prospect of securing South Vietnam’s independence:

Body count may have been the most corrupt – and corrupting – measure of progress in the whole mess. Certainly the consensus of senior Army leaders, the generals who commanded in Vietnam, strongly indicates that it was.

-Lewis Sorley, ‘A Better War‘, pg. 21

The complexity of the conflict between the North and South that encompassed the people’s struggle could not be reduced to a statistic. Another scene in Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary summed up this conundrum perfectly: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received thousands of reports and metrics on the war and wanted everything to be quantified (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, Viking Press, NY pg. 254) He asked an aide to come and look at the numbers and hear his feedback. The aide replied that something was missing. McNamara asked what it was. The aide said ‘the thoughts and feelings of the South Vietnamese people.’ The Vietnam War was driven by numbers, but unraveled by the predilection for killing and trying to make sense of it all.

Moods: President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Cabinet Room meeting. The stress placed on the Johnson Administration on trying to figure out how to measure progress and maintain support for the war was draining (Johnson White House Photographs, 11/22/1963 – 1/20/1969, LBJ Presidential Library, NARA)

Works Cited:

Appy, Christian, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, UNC Press, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1993.

Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, New York, NY, Viking Press, 1983.

Sorley, Lewis, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, Orlando: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam by the BDM Corporation, Volume VII ‘The Soldier’, 1981