May 27, 2012
This is the speech
that was give by LTC Hugh Foster at the 2012 Redcatcher Reunion Banquet.
Do you remember seeing the
old vets when you were a kid? THEY ARE US!
When Ray Brown recently
announced that, once again, you would have to listen to me drone on, he didn’t
give me any guidance of what I could or should talk about. Or even what I
shouldn’t talk about. Boy, did he leave the barn door wide open!
So, I thought maybe I could
give you something to think about, or perhaps argue about. I’m not going to get
political, so don’t worry about that. I thought I might talk about my views of
the Vietnam War and the other military events of my lifetime, and how my view
of America has been shaped by them.
I’ll be fairly brief, but I
understand that some of you might get finished listening to me before I get
finished talking. I won’t hate you if you fall asleep or leave. But, please,
please don’t throw things at me!
It is hard to imagine that it
has been 38 years since the last chopper lifted off the roof of the embassy, 30
In his inaugural address on
20 January 1961 President Kennedy had this to say: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall
pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose
any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much
we pledge – and more.” I’m afraid that his words ring hollow. Not only did
he, himself, renege in the case of the Bay of Pigs, but our history since WWII
has been directly opposite of those ideals.
I was stationed in Berlin
when Saigon fell. We were in a battalion staff conference, when a clerk came in
and handed the battalion commander a slip of paper. He read it, then said, “Saigon has been taken by Communist forces.
Who is the next briefer?” All of us in that room were Vietnam vets, and yet
none of us took more than a second’s notice of the events – we’d all known it
was coming and it was not a surprise to any of us. We all knew there would be
no victory in Vietnam, except for the communists. There we sat, in the middle
of East Germany, surrounded by communist forces ourselves, and we just didn’t
have the energy to mourn the failure of our efforts in Vietnam.
I’m sure you know that at the
end of WWII Germany and Japan were decisively defeated, laid to waste and
required to formally surrender. That requirement for a formal surrender was
based, in part, on our experience in WWI, where the Kaiser’s army was allowed
to return to Germany undefeated; that led to the rise of Hitler and the
outbreak of WWII. Have you noticed that since the decisive defeat at the end of
WWII Germany and Japan have been pretty damned quiet? That’s what victory does.
The Cold War began
immediately as we western powers jockeyed with the communists over the fate of
Eastern Europe. As we stood down our military might, the communists made
promises about free elections and sovereignty…… and we believed them, despite
what we could see with our own eyes! Our acquiescence to communist oppression
doomed millions to lives of misery and death.
In 1950 we became embroiled
in the war in Korea, and managed to fight it to a draw. In the parlance of the
troops, “We’ll die for a tie.” Since that treaty, for the past 59 years, we’ve
had thousands of troops stationed in Korea to keep an eye on the communist
regime we wouldn’t defeat in war. As you know, N Korea hasn’t bothered us much
at all since then. (Except for that nuclear bomb thing.)
Fifty years ago, we went to
the aid of SVN, which was trying to avoid defeat by NVN, which cared not a bit
about treaties or promises or honor. (I am well aware that the government of
SVN was not a glowing example of democracy.) We seemed to be TRYING NOT TO WIN
in Vietnam. We were afraid of taking over the fight from SVN, for fear of
making the SVN government look weak. For fear of upsetting China, for fear of
upsetting the Soviet Union, for fear of violating the sovereignty of Cambodia
and Laos – where the NVN ran rampant, we gave up the war and doomed millions of
people to horrors, death and expulsion at the hands of a tyrannical government.
Because we would not try to
win the war in Vietnam, we agreed to a treaty with the communists to withdraw
our forces as long as the communists promised not to overrun the country. We
knew what the communists would do – there was no question in our minds – but we
had to get out, because we didn’t have the withal to win. (We had kept forces
in Korea to assure compliance with the treaty – they are still there – but we
elected to abandon our friends in SVN.)
You might remember the axiom
from one of our greatest military leaders, General of the Armies Douglas
McArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.” He made that statement at the
beginning of the Korean War – he was fired by a president who was satisfied to have
our soldiers ‘die for a tie.’
The NVN promised to abide by
the cease-fire, we withdrew our troops, and the NVN, supplied by armor,
artillery and aircraft by China and the Soviet Union, attacked. Since we had
withdrawn, congress cut off all funds for the war, and SVN collapsed. Wow! A communist
country with a history of deceit, brutality and lying…………LIED to us! Whooda
Then, in the 1980’s we had a
couple of flare-ups in Grenada and Panama. We absolutely CRUSHED the communist
forces in both places and, guess what? They’ve been pretty quiet since then,
eh? So, I thought, “Wow! We’ve FINALLY got it right. Again. Treat the enemy to
a decisive defeat, hammer him into the ground like a lightning rod, and he’ll
likely not bother you again.” I could not understand how our leaders could send
soldiers to die and be maimed for a temporary fix, for a tie. I thought we had
FINALLY gotten it right.
Then came Desert Storm. We
fought an enemy who declined to resist seriously, shoved him from the
battlefield and then declined to finish it off with a ‘victory.’ No one was
punished for the crimes, the horrors, committed in Kuwait. We did not require
the Iraqi armies to formally surrender. We did not depose the criminal leader.
We spanked him and then withdrew from his country.
OF COURSE THAT didn’t work.
Saddam continued to brutalize his own people, to thumb his nose at the west and
to violate the treaties he’d signed before we quit the country. Guess what? He
LIED! Wow! What a surprise, a crazy, brutal dictator who viewed us as infidels
lied to us. Huh.
So, guess what? Yep, we had
to go back into Iraq to ‘finish the job’. In 2003 we again attacked Iraq, again
defeated its forces, forced Saddam from power and declined to finish with a victory.
Instead, we ordered our people to remove American flags from display. We
thought that the collapse of an oppressive, deceitful regime would herald a
spate of orderliness, cheer and cooperation, and that the tribal culture of
groups that hated each other would meekly fall into place and form a cohesive
democracy – just like what happened in the former Yugoslavia……………….Ooooops! I
forgot about the killing and holocaust-like actions there, as we stood by and
watched, because we were afraid to win.
Now, eight years later, we’re
STILL there. And in Afghanistan. And we’re still not trying to achieve victory.
We are so used to not using the word – or mission – VICTORY, that we’ve
forgotten all about it. Now, we strive for ‘success’ – which can be anything we
say it is; so we’ll always ‘succeed.’
The people of Afghanistan and
Iraq remain rooted deeply in the 4th Century. They adhere to tribal
affiliations, not governments and boundaries far removed from them. They
understand one thing -- force. Many of our leaders believe that as soon as we
leave, the two countries will quickly devolve to tribal squabbles, sectional
fighting and dictatorship. Major General Jerry Curry, Retired, was told this by
an Iraqi officer with whom he had become ‘friends’: No matter how much you have helped my country
— and you came and helped us when we desperately needed your help – and no
matter how friendly you feel toward us, we are still Muslims and you are still
Christians. That means that in our eyes, we can never be brothers. I’m sorry
but, to us, you will always be – Infidels!”
So, do I see our every
endeavor since WWII (except for Grenada and Panama) as failures? No. There is
no question that we did “WIN” the Cold War – we destroyed the Soviet Union –
and communism – with our wealth. We saw the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the
emergence into freedom of the eastern countries…..well, most of them anyway.
Today, only China, Vietnam, North Korea and a handful of lesser countries, such
as Cuba, remain as communist regimes, and their days are numbered. China,
Vietnam and Cuba are becoming capitalist cultures and N. Korea will just
Our efforts in Vietnam did
stop the expansion of communism, even though we did lose the country. It wasn’t
victory, but it was, I guess, ‘success.’ Doesn’t feel the same, though.
Fifty-eight thousand fine Americans didn’t come home, and I think about that
all the time. I’m proud of my service in Vietnam, and I’m proud of the soldiers
with whom I served; I felt I was doing the right thing, that I was trying to
help a people avoid communist rule. We just didn’t do it the right way, and our
efforts didn’t work for SVN, but perhaps we were able to so weaken the
communists that other places, such as Thailand, became safe from oppression –
at least for now.
So, I think we fought the
good fight. I’m sad that we declined to find victory there. And I don’t think
there is much hope for Iraq and Afghanistan to become anything but what they
are: tribal societies.
My son is a professional
soldier, just as most of the males in his family. He is a veteran of Iraq and
Afghanistan. And just like most of his male ancestors, he’s been wounded in
action. He’s now a student in the German Army General Staff College, in
Hamburg, Germany. (My grandson is in Germany Army Kindergarten!) My son deals
daily with NATO officers. One day, one of the German officers asked the faculty
adviser this question, “Why don’t the German citizens hold the German soldiers
in high regard, as the Americans seem to feel about their soldiers?” The German
general replied, “It’s because the Americans have ALWAYS fought for the right
So, that’s where I’ll leave
it. We always try to fight the good fight. And that’s what makes us different.
We may not always win, but we are always Americans.