Last month in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal caused quite a stir among the troops when he ordered junk food outlets shut down.
Our news media digs about an inch deep to tell us these bits and pieces in sound bites, but as my friend Bill Neal of Hague, Va., reminded me, even those of us who go beyond TV news to read newspapers know very little about what really happens in a war zone; our lives are too far removed.
Even this small piece of news about junk food is an opportunity to better understand those who fight on our behalf, but only if you are willing to dig deeper than the inch and only if you are willing to ponder the relevant history. For the willing few, this is for you.
No more ice cream for headquarters soldiers, no more Pizza Hut deliveries for the pilots at Bagram or Kandahar airfields, no more Whoppers from the two Burger Kings that will close. You may empathize, as I do, with our troops serving in those locations, especially the ones who are sick of mess hall food after enduring multiple tours separated from their family, sometimes with financial hardship as well. What could be wrong with them having the small comfort of junk food?
Gen. McChrystal runs eight miles a day but eats and sleeps little. It might seem he is imposing his personal austerity on those he commands, but the real story here is buried in some little-known history, and maybe you’ll indulge a couple of old stories to make the point.
Until the 1960s, fighting a war required commanders and their logistics, support and communications tails to closely follow the front lines, near enough to the front to command effectively. That meant those mobile commanders, and the support troops that surrounded them, shared much of the miserable hardship endured by the men on the point of the spear. Those support troops may not have been doing the fighting, but they were close enough to be at risk as well.
That changed in the Vietnam War, where there were no front lines. Advances in communications technology allowed commanders to remain in a fixed location where they could develop the staff and facilities to control operations, logistics, personnel, intelligence, etc., while their field officers directed local combat operations, often from command and control helicopters at 3,000 feet or higher, out of small arms range.
Imported war materiel flowed through those fixed command centers, so places like Saigon, Cam Rahn Bay, Bien Hoa, Da Nang and others became distribution centers for the buildup of all the “beans and bullets” it takes to fight a war.
Back in the days of the Vietnam War most support tasks were done by hand, without the leverage of computers, and the “tooth-to-tail” ratio, the number of rear echelon troops it took to support one combat man in the field, was roughly seven.
Separation of the rear echelon troops in fixed positions from those doing the fighting and dying out in the bush created a rift. At the command centers were high-ranking officers who enjoyed certain perks, and the rear echelon troops around them had access to more comforts and supplies, and relative safety although enemy attacks sometimes pierced defenses and put all at risk.
Sometimes the very ones who most deserved and needed access to supplies – combat troops in the bush – suffered shortages while the daily routine of rear echelon troops was far more comfortable.
Larry Hogan of Armuchee, Ga., was a LRRP, part of long range recon small teams who snuck around gathering intel in the jungle in extreme camouflage, sometimes hiding close enough to touch the enemy as they walked by on jungle trails called “trotters.”
Camouflaged Tiger fatigues were in short supply and hard for the LRRPs to obtain, but when they visited the airfield of Chu Lai, troops pulling guard duty wore brand new Tiger fatigues, and you can imagine the anger of Larry and his buds who bet their lives on every mission.
They also couldn’t get the .45-caliber pistols they needed for their missions, but the Chu Lai motor pool sergeant wore one, which didn’t seem right. So Larry and his buds picked out a few targets wearing .45s in the NCO club, bought them a few drinks as a diversion, stole their .45s and stole their jeep because they figured their LRRP commanding officer deserved a jeep. Necessity has always been the mother of not only invention, but innovation.
Bill Neal served in Vietnam as a grunt advisor to the Vietnamese, then a second tour as a company commander leading American troops. He spent a lot of time in the bush with his men, surviving 39 firefights but was severely wounded in one of them.
His life fighting in the jungle was far different than those who had comforts in command centers, and when they mixed it was sometimes a clash of cultures.
In late 1967 Bill came in from the bush to Bien Hoa to sign some papers: “I wandered into the Air Force Officers Club for the rare treat of a drink. There was a luxurious dining room, a huge and very well-stocked bar, comely waitresses throughout, and AIR CONDITIONING! When I walked in wearing my dusty Vietnamese fatigues and Australian bush hat, they acted like I was an invading alien trying to take a dump in the middle of their bar. The pilots were friendly enough, but everyone else, especially the civilians and Vietnamese staff, avoided me like the plague. Okay, so I didn’t smell so good at the time, but when I walked out of there I realized this was a really screwed-up war.”
Some other things bothered Bill quite a bit. In the rear many of the officers and top NCOs had air conditioning, meals in top notch mess halls, luxurious officer and NCO clubs that served steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas on demand, and all troops had access to military stores (PX and commissary) that were stocked with all kinds of goodies.
Bill’s thoughts were about his men. “My troops were in the bush for 19 to 21 days at a shot, eating C’s (C rations) that were made in the 50s and 60s, and short on everything from ammo to boots. When they weren’t in the bush, they were at a dusty, dirty, stinking battalion firebase in the boonies pulling perimeter defense 24/7 and getting ready for the next 20-day insertion. The disparity between the field and the rear was overwhelming and infuriating. That was no way to run a war!”
Bien Hoa, where Bill felt like an alien, is where I was stationed as a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in 1969, and I guess maybe I had a foot in both the rear and the field since we had unusually nice facilities at Bien Hoa and flew out to the field every day to support the grunts.
At first, my thoughts in the cockpit were, “Boy, I’m glad that’s not me down there!” as I watched grunts doing their work on the ground while we flew gun cover and shot at the enemy to help them. My thoughts changed over time as the normal business-like radio traffic between us gave way now and then to urgency and chaos and fear, sometimes screams for help when things were too confused under jungle cover or too dark to see, and we couldn’t shoot to protect them without risking killing them.
When I landed at Bien Hoa after our last sortie of the day, those grunts stayed in the bush while I could take a hot shower, take the edge off my day at our company club and sleep comfortably in my safe, air conditioned hooch. I grew to love those grunts who were carrying the load of the war.
I realize you don’t want to hear too much ancient history from Vietnam, but I must tell you about Ken, my high school fishing buddy.
After not seeing Ken for years I ran into him in college in Florida. I didn’t know he had served in the Marines in Vietnam. While I was a straight college student, all business, Ken was a laid back hippie with big hair – it was the early 70s - minimal clothes and flip-flops, withdrawn from the world, living in a broken-down trailer in the woods and subsisting on rice and beans.
Ken and I renewed our friendship in his dad’s skiff as we trolled at night for speckled trout along the Perdido Bay bridge between Florida and Alabama, drinking beer and telling stories to make each other laugh.
Sometimes, if there had been enough beer, we talked about things not so funny, like the time Ken was scared to death in the bush where he spent most of his tour, when he and one buddy were the only survivors in their squad after a terrible firefight.
One night Ken got really sauced and slurred his confession that he had a habit of going off the deep end every February when a certain date approached. In the enemy’s Tet offensive in early 1968, they took and occupied the city of Hue. Ken was among the Marines called in to retake the city by house-to-house fighting.
He said the fighting was pretty bad, then he was quiet for a little while before he told me he darted into one house and instinctively fired when he glimpsed an enemy with a rifle, but when he checked the body it was a boy about 10 years old. I don’t remember whether he said it really was a rifle or not, and I think to Ken it wouldn’t have much mattered, he never could get past it, couldn’t forgive himself for killing a kid. His brains were fried in that battle.
Ken spent a lot of years in various brands of trouble or marginal accomplishment, returning every year in February to a long drunk, trying without success to forget the anniversary of shooting the kid.
Ken’s dad, who had been a Navy pilot in WWII, told Ken to suck it up and act like a man, which sounds like something I would say. I ended up writing Ken’s mom and dad a long letter telling them in some detail how the experience of troops in Vietnam varied widely, that Ken tasted the worst of it, and that every man deals with it differently.
You would like to think a 20-year-old like Ken was treated with gratitude when he came in from his nasty jungle war, but it didn’t always happen that way.
Ken and his fellow Marines came in from the bush one day, not having had a shower for over a month, beyond hungry for a hot meal. When they tried to enter an Army mess hall the mess sergeant threw them out of “My mess hall!” because they were not clean.
Ken said they were pretty rugged in body and spirit so they just rummaged in food tossed in the garbage cans out back of the mess hall to take the edge off their hunger. He said it was better than more C’s.
Ken didn’t have to say it, his eyes and his tone said it just wasn’t right, that this small band of Marines wanted just a taste of what guys like me had available to us for dinner every day, filling our belly with hot chow before retiring to our air conditioned hooch to sleep in protected peace.
There are lots of stories of dirty, smelly guys fighting the Vietnam War being treated in a shabby way in the more refined facilities in the rear, ardent reminders that, unless commanders act, human nature will divide people that should be sharing the load.
I don’t blame the rear echelon guys; they made the same sacrifice of family separation in a dangerous place to serve their country, and it is natural to take advantage of whatever comforts are available to us.
I do blame the commanders for not recognizing the problem of disparity and acting to impose a culture of putting the combat troops first, especially the grunts, the ones who did the dirty, nasty, dangerous work in Vietnam long ago and are doing so today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In response to questions about Gen. McChrystal’s orders to get rid of junk food in rear areas, Command Sergeant-Major Michael T. Hall said, “What it comes down to is focus, and to using the resources we have in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Supplying non-essential luxuries to big bases like Bagram and Kandahar makes it harder to get essential items to combat outposts and forward operating bases, where troops who are in the fight each day need resupplying with ammunition, food and water.”
So, in effect, Gen. McChrystal is telling his rear echelon troops they will share some of the discomforts of those doing the fighting and dying, the ones in remote spots without fresh food or running water.
I think Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese general whose war-fighting wisdom is still studied worldwide, would approve. Maybe Sun Tsu would also observe that surely there must be a way for the American people to share in the sacrifice so long as our troops are fighting, lest the war be carried only on the shoulders of the volunteer warriors risking their life.
Personally, I would be embarrassed to be the one to tell Sun Tsu that’s the way it has been in America for a long time.
[Peachtree City resident Terry Garlock writes opinion columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]