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Essay: Veterans Provide Realism Regarding War

US Army photo

November brings Veterans Day, and also this year the fiftieth anniversary of the major battle in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam involving the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division. Casualty rates on both sides made this one of the costliest battles of that long war, and ironically reinforced the strategies of both Hanoi and Washington.

A decade later in 1975, Hanoi's overall approach was confirmed when North Vietnamese regulars overran the capital of South Vietnam, now Ho Chi Minh City, as the few remaining Americans evacuated.

The U.S. Army, severely restricted by President Eisenhower, was greatly expanded by President Kennedy. ``The Cav'' was the pride of those who saw firepower, mobility and technology as the keys to battlefield success. Everything moved by helicopter; more than 450 ferried men, weapons and supplies on an unprecedented scale.

The Ia Drang involved rough terrain, American units had not previously operated there, and intelligence indicated the North Vietnamese were active in force. The Mel Gibson film ``We Were Soldiers'' is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the ensuing combat.

During November 14-18 1965 elements of the Cav, ironically including the 7th Cavalry, locked in close killing with an entire North Vietnamese division. Over 300 U.S. troops and 1,500 of the enemy were killed. Artillery and air support, plus tactical combat genius Col. Hal Moore, were crucial to the U.S. holding the field.

More than half our cavalrymen were casualties, but the enemy was virtually annihilated. The other side invariably, faithfully tried to carry dead comrades from the field. In this case, they could not.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded that attrition could eventually prevail. In addition to body counts, supplemented by weapons captured totals, he fixated on ``kill ratios.'' The Ia Drang's ratio was at least five-to-one, and success was considered possible if that ratio could be sustained.

In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and comrades also were encouraged. Their casualties were bearable; American support for open-ended war was finite. The helicopters moved without stealth, permitting some freedom in choosing when to do battle. Extensive use of tunnels aided surprise. Closing as tightly as possible with American units, ``holding on to their belts,'' negated enormous firepower

For Americans, realistic Vietnam War lessons are elusive, masked by misperception, preconception, rationalization, and time. At roughly the same period the Cav entered the valley of the shadow of death, I was a UCLA ROTC student visiting Washington D.C. for the first time; an award included attendance at the Association of the Army Convention. The keynoter was Gen. Maxwell Taylor, just-retired U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, whose cheerleader speech regarding intervention and success in Vietnam received a massive standing ovation.

One man on the dais, however, did not participate: Gen. Matthew Ridgway, Truman's choice to succeed Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea, knew ground war on the Asia landmass first-hand. Years later, I learned that Maxwell Taylor probably did not believe the speech he delivered. Crucial in expanding our ground involvement in the Kennedy administration, he later opposed substantial American combat forces.

Today our religious faith in technology, including high-tech intelligence and precision munitions, feeds arrogance. Opponents are different, and we no longer meddle so readily in other people's revolutions, but the danger of miscalculation remains.

Honoring our veterans is morally right. In practical terms, veterans overall provide realistic perspectives on war. Ancient rituals of welcoming the warrior home are crucial to society’s unity - and sanity.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).