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Déjà Vu All Over Again

September 12, 2021

We have recently been besieged in the news media by the attempted extraction of as many Americans and Afghan support personnel from Afghanistan as possible.  Sadly, the result fell way short of the objective and caused the loss of U.S. military lives in the process.  The most immediate analogy is the debacle in Vietnam which is a fair comparison. However, the precedents go back much further in time and reflect the hubris of politicians that ignore history and chose to invade countries where the ultimate outcome has been defined long ago. Strangely, some of the same people failed in each place. The Mongols failed to conquer Vietnam as well as Afghanistan in the 13th century.  

The Battle of Ia Drang in 1965 was the first major battle of the U.S. and the People’s Army of Vietnam.  Colonel Hal Moore led the first engagement of the Air Calvary using large scale helicopter air assaults and bombers for tactical support. The first engagement was considered a success as the Americans claimed a kill ratio of 10 to 1. However, shortly thereafter, a second American battalion was ambushed in close quarters. Lacking the cover of air support, they were ultimately extricated with a casualty rate over 50%.  

Hal Moore studied other historic battles including Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of The Little Big Horn, where a superior force of Lakota Sioux Indians destroyed the 7th Cavalry U.S. soldiers.  The comparison was particularly poignant as Hal Moore’s battalion was named the 7th Air Cavalry. In fact, the “save us” call sign for the use of bombers to drop ordinance in proximate location to U.S. forces was “broken arrow” which was the instruction from Hal Moore to headquarters that kept most of them in good shape and enabled them to counterattack the Vietnamese. Custer’s results were reported in the New York Times which also continues to cover other wars of a similar nature and outcome.

I had some minor role in the events during the last years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as Esso was the fuel supplier to the war effort which we directed out of Singapore and Thailand. By the years – 1973 was very dodgy even for Esso people as a friend had a phosphorus grenade bounce off his leg and explode while in a pedicab in Saigon. The following year was perfectly calm as the U.S. combat troops withdrew and then all hell broke loose in 1975. It was obvious to me that the People’s Army was rebuilding and strengthening their forces in 1974 to come after the corrupt South Vietnamese in 1975 which then happened. Having been in the Far East since 1968, I had no home anywhere. Therefore, I bought some land in Texas while on home leave in 1974 to have a base for the future.

Our Esso expatriate women began a Vietnamese orphan extraction program in 1975 though, sadly, they suffered some injuries following a plane crash. I smuggled U.S. dollars into Vietnam to buy visas for related Vietnamese family members and ultimately sought to have a small oil tanker lay offshore to evacuate our 73 Vietnamese Esso employees. The U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam would not allow me to do so saying it would cause panic.  Moreover, Esso forbid me to go to Saigon late in the withdrawal program to say goodbye to our Vietnamese staff and some friends. Guess what -- I went on anyway and another Esso expatriate soul went in hours before Saigon fell to extract two Vietnamese family members. I told him to ignore Esso.  The net result was two of our 73 staff made it out on the boats and the other 71 were never seen again. The U.S. Ambassador made his graceful exit from the U.S. Embassy roof as shown below.

Recent news and political Afghanistan coverage reflect pretty much the same picture with different types of aircraft and people but the results are the same. The British and the Russians could have given us a “heads-up” on Afghanistan but politicians who neither read nor understand history would have ignored it. Ben Macintyre wrote an article in The Times entitled Afghan Invasions Always End in Retreat which portrays a British perspective not unlike that of the French and the U.S. in Vietnam. In January 1842, a wounded man on a dying pony struggled to reach a fortress in eastern Afghanistan as the sole survivor of a vast British army that fled Kabul in defeat one week earlier. An Elizabeth Thompson painting of Dr. William Brydon, shown below, became one of the most famous images of the Victorian era.

The British Army of the Indus had marched into Afghanistan, to install a puppet ruler and give Britain the upper hand in the “Great Game.” It was the struggle for dominance in central and southern Asia. The British force comprised 58,000 people, 30,000 camels and a pack of foxhounds. The officers brought their memsahibs.  A team of 30 camels was needed to carry the wine, port and cigars. It is amazing that the British losses in Afghanistan were about the same level as the U.S. losses in Vietnam.  The message from an Afghan chief should have set the stage: “You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out?”

When the Russians fled Afghanistan in 1989, they had the advantage of the Friendship Bridge between Afghanistan and Uzebekistan to transport their tanks, vehicles and troops. On the Uzbek side, Russian soldiers were given watches for their service while television cameras covered the event. The Soviet commander, Gen. Boris V. Gromov, walked alone behind the last armored column. He declared that Russia was done with Afghanistan. The image below is credited to V.Kiselev/Sputnik by way of the Associated Press and The New York Times.

When the U.S. fled, there were no ceremonies or press coverage of the ignominious event. The coverage was one of packed aircraft, people left behind and the loss of 13 U.S. forces during the evacuation. Will we ever learn?

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