President Biden declared that “For the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war.” His comment followed the very much botched evacuation of personnel from Afghanistan. By the way, I had a front row seat in the similarly botched evacuation of US and allied personnel out of Saigon some 46 years ago. The comparisons are stunning in that the civilian side of the equation overlooked the signs that military and intelligence officers could have provided the politicians. However, few people from those sectors of our government are called upon to address the United Nations as President Biden did on September 21, 2021. Previously, the Biden administration had already declared that it would bring an end to “forever wars” in its national security strategy which included the 20-year war in Afghanistan, “The longest war in US history” by the administration’s count.
Oddly, several months prior to President’s Biden’s speech, General Robert F. Abrams retired from the US Army following his final three years as commander of some 30,000 US troops in Korea. It seems Biden may have overlooked the 71 years we have had a major military force in Korea as the US has been at war with North Korea. There was a period that I went to Korea in several oil-related projects and on every visit, I would be amazed to find an English language TV station where US military personnel would offer tips on dog grooming and even personal hygiene and fitness matters. It was truly a community within a community. During a brief time in that period, there was hope of a “sunshine” situation between the two Koreas. As we had secured an oil exploration license in North Korea, we were seeking South Korean partners to drill some wells. It was just as well that the sun set before anything was concluded.
South Korean President Moon-Jae-in pressured the US after Biden’s “end of the longest war declaration” speech to address the silence on the Korean War. He was surprised that his country would not represent the “longest war “and suggested that North Korean missile launches, or a nuclear test, might be needed to provide the wake-up call to the US presence in another distant place. By coincidence, the remains of Pfc. Kim Seok-joo were returned to Korea after 71 years away on that same day. His remains were discovered following his death at the Battle of Chosin, sent to Hawaii for identification, and carried home by Second Lieutenant Kim Hy-soo, his great granddaughter. Shown below, she now serves in the South’s military as a nursing officer.
There is an interesting message regarding military families in that the profession is often just that—a family influenced profession. If the surname of General Abrams mentioned above may have struck a chord, it should have, as he is the son of General Creighton Abrams Jr., and brother of General Creighton Abrams III and General John N Abrams. General Robert F Abrams is shown below dutifully getting his Covid-19 vaccination. It is a separate story to see a battle-hardened officer being vaccinated while a religious commentator railed against the vaccine and chose to die instead.
Over the years, I have known my fair share of generals though it was always in civilian situations. However, my paths during the “troubles” were more in line with the irregular Air America type people in Thailand and Laos and the rare decent intelligence officers. Therefore, during the seven years I spent in Southeast Asia, it was obvious to me that the US was engaged in an ill-fated war that should never have happened. I must admit the intrigue and excitement were compelling but after a couple of years it was well beyond being obvious that it was time to leave. In the beginning, the military complex thought they could prevail while the intelligence side did not agree. The politicians of both parties ignored the clues and the intelligence to result in a shameful result.
In fact, I pleaded with Esso to let me take an oil tanker and hold it offshore from our fuel import terminal in Saigon to evacuate our staff and the US Ambassador refused the request. You may remember the image of him climbing up the stairs at the Embassy to make his getaway while our organization of 73 Vietnamese were left behind, only two were ever seen again. The prevailing question is what is the civilian-military relationship and who works for whom?
As a reminder, the Korean War began with the invasion of South Korea by North Korea with the support of China and Russia. The United Nations, principally the United States, supported South Korea but the US forces, as shown below, were forced to retreat as they were overwhelmed by human waves of enemy forces. General Douglas MacArthur insisted on atomic warfare to settle the conflict, but President Truman ignominiously removed him from command and clearly established who works for whom.
The twenty-year war in Afghanistan was overseen by two Republican and two Democratic administrations—sometimes winning the war is straightforward but the occupation of an alien country with endemic corruption are the killers. There is a common mantra for military powers—invasion is only the entrance to a long and often deadly occupation which has been the history of Afghanistan and beyond the scope of most politicians and military leaders. General MacArthur was the exception in his leadership of the post WWII reconstruction and structure of the government of Japan which was brilliant. On the other hand, he had grown up in a military family that imbued him with those skills.
The war experts are the generals and not the politicians. I was once on a bank holding company board with a one-star and a three-star general. The one-star Vietnam artillery commander had received a battlefield commission whereas the three-star fellow had been educated in his line of work at West Point. The one-star soldier was practical in his observations that the US and political parties could not sustain long-term wars and occupations that continued to result in American deaths. He told me he became tired of the infantry getting all the kill ratio kudos at the daily Saigon briefings during the Vietnam War. Therefore, he saw a dead Viet Cong who had been hit by artillery fire from the vantage point of his personal helicopter. He ordered the pilot to land and pick up the corpse. He then entered the next body count briefing with the corpse over his shoulder and shouted, “Artillery – one.”
Another general to whom I had a brief exposure was Colin Powell when, as Secretary of State, he swore in Ambassador Pamela J.H. Slutz as Ambassador to Mongolia. The retired general was highly respected in the State Department though he was forced to step down as he was handed the miserable task of explaining the ill-fated invasion of Iraq. The politicians and their advisors took over the invasion process that de-stabilized the Middle East. As an early visitor to Iraq following the invasion, it was crystal clear the extent of the mistake and the chaos that would ensue. It was difficult to sleep with continuous gunfire. Fortunately, we stayed in a hotel occupied by Blackwater mercenaries who had sealed off several blocks around it. Colin Powell eventually threw his political support to the Democratic side of the aisle. I would prefer to remember him as General Colin Powell as shown below.
The democratic party’s hands are not clean either as the air attacks on Libya eventually caused the collapse of the Gadhafi regime which has de-stabilized Sub-Saharan Africa as the vast stockpiles of weapons in Libya found new homes there. So, there we go team -- destabilization of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa with two different acts of war.
Civilian control over the military is a foundation of the US constitution. Accordingly, the generals ultimately report to the president and congress. Nonetheless, the president and congress must have their own views and experience to filter through the advice of the military that live in a structure of following orders. We have seen secretaries of defense and numerous administration people who continue to offer advice about situations with which they have little knowledge. Robert McNamara, as Secretary of Defense, led the initial Vietnam War efforts. Over time he developed serious doubts about the US involvement, reversed his position and even counselled President George W. Bush against the invasion of Iraq. Maybe the message here is “If you do not know what you are doing, stay home and do less damage.” Thanks to The Asian-Pacific Journal and Foreign Affairs for background material and, most importantly, my contributing editor, Duke Story Garschina.