Rerun: Highlands Pink

Much of the soil in the Vietnam highlands, along the border with Laos and Cambodia, is red. During my time there working with U.S. combat forces, my fatigues and boot socks looked fine after laundering, whether I washed them myself or a hired laundress did. But my white socks and all my underwear came back a brilliant baby pink. And, as it turned out, no amount of later washing or bleaching would remove the pink.

Most embarrassing was during the second half of 1967 and the beginning of 1968. I was in the highlands in support of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the battle of Dak To, then moved south to Bien Hoa to work with other units. When the troops in the Bien Hoa area got a glimpse of my underwear, I thought I’d never hear the end of it. Did all civilian males wear pink jockey shorts, they wanted to know, or was it just NSA guys operating under cover? Were there queer mail order houses where they could order pink jock straps like mine? And could they specify a different shade of pink for the pouch and the leg straps?

The razzing didn’t stop until we were well into detecting and forecasting the Têt Offensive. By then we had no time for anything but work.

The memory of my pink undies reminds me of how much fun I had with the troops. As one lieutenant observed, you get a bunch of young men together and they always find a way to make each other laugh. Even when they know some of them will be dead the next day.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

Some 58,220 American military men died during the Vietnam war. I knew some of them. I stood by their side on the battlefield, not as a soldier but as an intelligence provider. Their average age at time of death was nineteen.

I’ll grieve over those young men as long as I live. And I cry every time I hear Pete Seeger’s “Where have All the Flowers Gone.” Here are the words:

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

The Battle of Xuân Lộc

I just learned that the South Vietnamese General Lê Minh Đảo died in a Hartford, Connecticut hospital on 19 March 2020 at the age of 87. General Đảo commanded South Vietnamese forces at Xuân Lộc, some twenty miles northeast of Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam war. His 18th Infantry Division fought bravely from 9 to 21 April 1975 against three North Vietnamese divisions before being withdrawn to defend Saigon. Xuân Lộc was the last obstacle to the communists. After the North Vietnamese captured it, they surrounded Saigon. The city fell to the communists on 29 April 1975.

I was in my office at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon when the North Vietnamese captured Xuân Lộc. I was struggling to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their wives and children as the communist threat against Saigon grew. The fall of Xuân Lộc was Saigon’s death knell. By dint of sheer determination, I was able to get all my people safely out of the country before the final conquest. I escaped under fire on the night of 29 April.

General Đảo did not escape. After surrendering to the North Vietnamese on 9 May 1975, he was imprisoned for the next seventeen years. When he was finally released in 1992, he fled to the U.S.

The courage and self-sacrifice of General Đảo and others like him remain the unwritten story of the end of Vietnam. I am grateful for their acts of bravery.

Doctor TQM

I have a supply of sweat clothes I use for working out during cool weather. Last week, as I put a sweaty shirt and pants in the wash and got out a new set, the shirt caught my eye. It was white with “DR TQM” in large letters across the front. It brought back memories I hadn’t thought about in a long time.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s—I don’t remember the date—I headed the National Security Agency (NSA) Total Quality Management (TQM) staff. My job was to introduce the agency to the concept and principles of TQM to improve its performance. Right around the same time, I completed my graduate studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and was awarded my doctorate in Public Administration.

My tiny staff of four people celebrated my new doctoral degree by presenting me with the DR TQM sweatshirt.

In my memory, those were happy days. I struggled to persuade the NSA top managers to lead rather than to manage—that is, to uplift and support subordinates and encourage them to be all that they could be instead of trying to control them. I was only partly successful, but where leadership became the rule, the achievements were noteworthy.

When I completed my tour and moved on to other duties, the TQM movement fizzled. The staff was eventually dissolved. I was never able to persuade the top agency managers to change their ways. But the agency and I both benefited from my efforts.

Rerun: What Is Courage? (2)

My blog of yesterday leaves me with the question: If it wasn’t courage that got me through the fall of Saigon, what was it?

Some of it was sheer stubbornness: I wasn’t about to let the North Vietnamese beat me at my own game.

I refused to give in. I was determined to get all my men and their wives and children out before they got killed. I knew I had to stay to the end. The Ambassador wouldn’t allow me to leave. And although he forbade me from evacuating my people, I did it anyway, under any ruse I could think of.

I was so fixated on the survival of my people that I had no energy left to think about my own. I recall momentary thoughts that I might not make it out alive, but somehow that wasn’t important enough to distract me from my self-assigned mission: all my guys and their wives and children were going to escape no matter what it cost.

I don’t claim any credit for that. It was my job. And I don’t see that as courage. It was concentrated attention to my mission. And pigheadedness.

If the goal is important enough, nothing else matters. Maybe Ike in Last of the Annamese has it right: “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Rerun: What Is Courage?

When I tell the story of the fall of Saigon, listeners come up to me afterwards and accuse me of having courage. I plead not guilty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courage is facing danger without fear. Believe me, I was scared the whole time.

Men and women I’ve talked to who are, by my standards, heroes for their acts of bravery, often say they were not being brave. All they did was what was required by the circumstances at the time. And I remember reading somewhere long ago a description of a man standing in front of a mirror and watching himself tremble with fear after carrying out an act of bravery and thinking wryly to himself: “This is the portrait of a hero.”

What the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, does at the end of the book could be described as courageous. But he clearly doesn’t see it that way. He’d use words from his friend, Ike: “You do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Looking back on the last days in Saigon, what I remember most vividly is my determination to get all my men and their families out of Vietnam safely before it fell. It took every scrap of strength I had; I didn’t have time to dwell on my fear that I might not make it out. Toward the end, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of ours back in the states and told her to deliver that letter to my wife if I didn’t make it. At the time, I really didn’t see how I was going to get out of Saigon alive. That letter was another thing I had to do, whatever it took. When I made it back to the world alive, the marriage collapsed. I burned the letter unread.

So what is courage? I honestly don’t know. What Chuck and I had doesn’t fit the description. Maybe what drives people to risk their lives is more like determination or focus on a goal of overwhelming importance. Maybe some things are more important staying alive.

I’d welcome comments from readers: what is courage?

More tomorrow.

Presidential Dictums

The press these days is overloaded with criticism of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Newspapers point out that he dismissed the problem as “hoax” early on but later declared himself a “wartime president” to confront disease’s spread.

I think the president’s words speak for themselves. Here are dated quotes from him about the pandemic:

January 24: “It will all work out well.” January 30: “We have it very well under control.” February 2: “We pretty much shut it down.” February 10: “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” February 19: “The numbers are going to get progressively better.” February 27: “One day, like a miracle, it will disappear.” March 4: “It’s very mild.” March 6: “There is no testing kit shortage.” March 7: “I’m not concerned at all.” March 10: “It will go away. Just stay calm.” March 13: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” March 16: “I’ve felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” March 19: “Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion.”

As of 23 March, the pandemic statistics in the U.S. read as follows: Covid-19 cases: 35,070. Deaths: 458.