You find some very fine American veterans of the Vietnam War.
Some of my best friends are Vietnam Vets.
But listen, that period produced some scoundrels too.
War’ll do that… it tests a country’s soul and brings out its very best and its worst.
John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Averell Harriman, Bill Sullivan, William Westmoreland and Robert McNamara – our senior officials responsible for launching and managing the war in Southeast Asia – demonstrated enormous poor judgement.
When faced with most any option, they chose wrong. Not our best people for making war.
In fact an argument can be made that when Johnson ordered US big-Army to South Vietnam in the summer of 1965, the battlefield was drawn to give the enemy such an advantage that those good soldiers were being deployed to a fight they could not win.
I spent 5 years on the battlefield of Southeast Asia and know without any doubt that the US strategists lost the war more than the communist soldiers won it.
For Vietnam we had no McArthur, no Eisenhower, or Patton, or Marshall.
We did have the everlasting GI Joe, however, and pilots as good as any there ever was. Brave ‘mericans fighting a distant war.
But our leaders were a weak, overmatch lineup against our communist adversaries. And. We predictably, in the final analysis, had an unenthusiastic electorate who had no real beef with the Viet Cong guerrillas half way around the world.
Make no doubt, our insulated WDC politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats lost the winnable Vietnam War.
This altered American’s recognized position as the world’s leader… but according to Ambassador William Sullivan, that was good for us. We had it coming.
Well on a personal level there was the US State Department Consul General of Can Tho, there at the end.
A pompous boob, though to hear him tell it, he was a hero who had to contend with an insubordinate CIA unit in carrying out his responsibilities as the commanding American official south of Saigon at the war’s ended… who courageously led a flotilla of landing boats down the Bassic River to save the US Consul Staff the day the US Embassy in Saigon was evacuated.
My Rants and Yarns # 181 “A Vietnamese War Pony” says, “not so fast there, Mr. ConGen.” You had zero combat experience and chose an evacuation plan for personal reasons that put the lives of dozens of Americans in unnecessary danger. Casting aspersions on wiser advisers, your book and comments to the media claim your actions were the stuff of heroes. When in fact it was enormously wrong-headed and irresponsible. Benghazish.
I asked mutual contacts to let Mr. McNamara know about my post # 181 and to encourage him to respond.
It has been six months. No response.
Got another candidate for consideration of a Vietnam War All-star Jerk rating.
Here are the facts as I know them. Like with McNamara and “A Vietnam War Pony,” I sincerely hope Jane Hamilton-Merritt comments on this post “Stolen Valor,” and if she does, I guarantee to print whatever she has to say.
My only personal contact with that lady was 17 April 1999. The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University asked me to participate in a Vietnam War seminar to discuss my role in the evacuation from Vietnam. My presentation was fairly early in the day, and it was a wonderful session. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was in the audience and for at least half my time he and I engaged in a running conversation on events. He was sitting in the front row and asked questions as to what a compatriot of mine had done in meeting with Navy brass in Saigon that set up my landing by Air America helicopter on the USS Vancouver… and my interaction with the Vancouver’s US Navy Captain about what we were doing. Just a great exchange… plus he had read my Last Man Out and had some nice things to say about the book later in casual conversation.
So finished and feeling pretty good about things I walked down the hall of the academic building to a panel discussion of the “Secret War” in Laos. I knew one of the ladies sitting on the panel, Gayle Morrison, who was good friends with several Hmong that I knew.
So I went in and took a seat off to the side. Maybe a hundred were in attendance. A panel of mostly women was set up on the stage, Gayle on the far left. Dr Bill Leary, who had written the introduction to my book on Laos was supposed to be on the panel, but had cancelled out.
One lady on the panel was talking about the general effort to find US POWs and MIAs in Laos. I was thinking that she wasn’t very well informed, when a middle aged woman in the audience suddenly stood up. She said that her brother was a US armed forces pilot who had crash landed in Laos… and his remains never recovered. Nothing was really known about what happened. She asked the lady doing the talking, “What did the CIA do to help locate downed US pilots?”
I’m going to paraphrase the response here. This was 16 years ago, but what this panel member said was so stark that I remember it almost word for word. If this session was taped, someone pls check to see if I am not correct.
The person said, “Well let me tell you this story and you decide. I was talking with a Hmong ops ass’t to a CIA paramilitary guy in Laos and he said that once he and the CIA guy were out in the field doing something and some villager passed the coordinates where he thought a US serviceman – a pilot – was last seen or buried. The CIA guy, as was the norm with those guys, wrote the coordinates on the palm of his hand with a ball point pen. Later in the day, when the ops ass’t and the CIA guy had returned to base, the ops ass’t asked about the coordinates. The CIA guy, according to the lady on the panel, said, “oh that, and rubbed the palms of his hands together as to erase the numbers. And he smiled. So what do you think?” the lady asked the sister of the MIA.
And I was on my feet without realizing it, saying as I stood up that “That is absolutely wrong. Impossible. I was a CIA paramilitary guy in Laos. What you just said is not possible by anyone I ever knew there.”
I started sputtering… sure hope the thing was recorded and someone has a copy of the exchange… after my initial outburst I was just lost for words… and the lady said, “You. It’s you. You have been attacking me my whole career.”
I left throwing something over my shoulder like “This is absolute bull shit… never heard of you before this moment.” I don’t remember anyone saying anything as I stormed out the room.
Outside in the hall way I just happened to run into Dr. James Reckner, the founding director of the Vietnam Center who had personally asked me to present at this conference. I was still flustered when I walked up to him to say that there was someone on that panel on the “Secret War” who was just telling flaming lies… and Reckner said, “Well, we invite all points of view here.”
The panel member was Hamilton-Merritt.
I am enormously proud of my service with the Hmong at Long Tieng. Proud to be part of the select company of men that fought the “Secret War.” The Ravens, Air America, Hmong, Lao, Thai and CIA. Never before or since have I been associated with men of such character, such dedication.
Smart with good judgement, these men faced life and death danger every day and lived by a creed of absolute truthfulness and honor. Preponderance of all reporting is that they were a special group, tightly knit, absolutely dependent on each other.
To say that one of these people would be so callus as to ignore possible location of another US fighter in the “Secret War” – a down American out in the countryside… to rub out the coordinates and laugh… is lunacy. And to tell that to the sister of someone missing-in-action, is reprehensible. Vile.
It was one of the most repugnant scenes I’ve ever witnessed and I have seen some absolutely wretched characters from the underside of humanity in action.
She is the author of “Tragic Mountains, The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942-1992.” I have since bought a used copy of her book. I found it unreadable. Laced with factual errors, it was also impossible to follow because of the hundreds of Hmong characters who people her story. The Asian names came at you by the dozens. And there was too much “conjecture” by Hamilton-Merritt.
But there was also this. Vint Lawrence who was Vang Pao’s first assigned CIA case officer once told me that it took him a year living with VP and the Hmong to get to the point where he could ask an intelligent question about their culture or their experiences. He gave as an example, once he was talking with TobyLy Fong, the political leader of the White Hmong and he asked TobyLy about his religion. The rotund Hmong thought for a moment and then he asked Vint, “Well, what is your religion?” Vint said, “I’m a Methodist.” TobyLy then said, “Well, I am a Methodist too.” Point was that the Hmong in the countryside for the most part only deal with people they know day in and day out. Rarely do they meet strangers. The frame of reference for these people is solid. Though they don’t have to handle exploratory questions of any great depth. Their contacts live the same lives they do.
When dealing with complete strangers however, the Hmong as Vint said (and as I know from my two years working with them in Laos) will be guarded and will say what they think the stranger wants to hear. And if an interpreter is used, that usually means obsequiousness squared.
This phenomena is played out in Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s book time and again.
I could not read the book, and the only person I know who did, was Hugh Tovar, the CIA Chief of Station. Here’s what he had to say about Hamilton-Merritt. “There are serious flaws in her presentation. Her primary achievement is to give the Hmong a voice…. To contend, however… that the U.S. Mission … forced the action … and callously exploited Hmong willingness to fight is to misconstrue the way things worked in Laos…. Factual inaccuracies abound, and in the absence of documentation the recollections of her sources have to be taken at face value. Policy issues are treated loosely, if at all.”
To me Hugh Tovar said the book is “a piece of shit.”
And there is this. In my lifetime I have read a lot of books. Some were good. Some not so good. This one is terrible, and for someone to suggest that it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize is ludicrous. Well now it’s true you can nominate any writing for a Pulitzer, but you know, really, they look for insightful, well written prose. Generally.
You have to wonder who would nominate this book for such an award? Who?
And again, her internet bio says she was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Where can one go to find out who proffered that nomination?
And one last point. Usually Hamilton-Merritt uses “Dr.” in front of her name. A fact-check on this indicates she got her Ph.D. in “Southeast Asia Studies” at Union Institute in Cincinnati, OH. I defy anyone to find another who has participated in “Southeast Asia Studies” at that institute. Though if you check, you’ll find the place has a graduation rate of 25% over any six year period. Plus their Ph.D. program was put on probation in 2004 before losing its rights to bestow Doctorate degrees for what one person close to the program described this way: “This institution had/has a very loose system for its “doctoral” program, and they were quite bold in promoting it. Interestingly, it is a sort of family-run business. Most of the key administrators are related (through marriage, etc.), and to disguise this, some use their maiden name. They allowed tremendous latitude in designing your own (any) program, and even gave credits for reading comic books and viewing videos (cartoons), and would tack on a few more credits if you complained and threatened to leave the program. They possess neither the financial resources nor will to make…changes.”
It can be argued that if Hamilton-Merritt uses the “Dr.” honorific that she put an asterisk by it. It is honorable thing to do, ah, but wait, my experience is this lady doesn’t always buy into that kind of behavior.
For Hamilton-Merritt. Pls in addressing your remarks to me, identify the CIA case officer who – you said – rubbed the possible coordinates off his hands of a US MIA and then smiled. This blog get visits from most of the actual participants of the “Secret War.” We’d like to know.
To anyone who has a file or audio copy of that 17 April 1999 TTU presentation on the “Secret War,” pls let me know of any errors in my acc’t above.