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Requiem for a Nun

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From the History News Network 



    As evidence of Hitler’s intentions crystalized in the 1930’s, many politicians who recognized the danger continued to vote against vital defense expenditures. George Orwell, reflecting on that and other cases of “ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable,” concluded: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”


    Until Germany invaded Poland in 1939, there was room for wishful thinking regarding Hitler’s plans. Current defenders of the American Republic, by contrast, confront the “obvious and unalterable” fact that an assault has already been launched. The Mueller report puts in front of our noses Russia’s “sweeping and systematic,” interference in the 2016 election, its perception that “it would benefit from a Trump presidency,” its work “to secure that outcome,” and the Trump campaign’s expectation “that it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”


    Everyone able and willing to distinguish facts from lies has witnessed Trump’s brazen cover-up of Russia’s attack. He has never named or denounced the aggressor, while depicting the investigators as traitors who used a hoax to attempt a coup.   


    As November 3, 2020 approaches, Trump ignores calls to defend the elections and fails to confront Russia, inviting more cyber-sabotage on his behalf. What if he loses nonetheless? Consider a playscript whose author casts himself as defender of the nation against the “globalist elite” and their “deep state” henchmen. In Act I, he miraculously outwits their attempt to rig the 2016 election; in Act II he thwarts their attempted coup. Act III completes the plot, as the Democrats manage to fake a 2020 victory, only to face a resolute President who—having forewarned of a final deep state conspiracy to regain power—announces a state of emergency.


    Better outcomes are possible, but inaction based on rosy predictions invites deepening danger. Time is passing, as it did in the weeks following President Obama’s discovery of Russia’s attack, and as it did while we waited for Mueller. Investigators continue to investigate what they already know. The Republican conscience does not stir. The Republican base is unmoved. The “investigation” of the investigators begins. The “coup plot” reverberates across cable news and Twitter. We watch—or don’t—an unfolding illustration of Orwell’s “plain, unmistakable facts being shirked by people who in another part of their minds are aware of those facts.”


    Devoted to preserving human liberty, Orwell probed democracy’s vulnerabilities. In Animal Farm he depicted naïve disbelief in the face of step-by-step descents into despotism; in a 1940 review of Mein Kampf, he showed how ordinary people surrender freedom willingly; in 1984 he depicted how authoritarian control can be strengthened by technologies of mass communication and surveillance.


    Orwell did not live to witness the liberal complacency that set in following defeat of the 20th century’s totalitarian movements. Nor could Orwell have imagined the new dangers posed by the cyberage. The treasonous implications of presidential indifference to Pearl Harbor or 9/11 would have been obvious to all.  Our “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” by contrast, inflicted grave damage invisibly and non-violently, enabling its perpetrator and chief beneficiary—Putin and Trump—to deny its occurrence. Demagogic big lies can now metastasize through the body politic with lightning speed.


    We struggle to understand this latest rise of authoritarian nationalism, envisioning policies that will progressively drive such movements back to humanity’s dark margins. But first we must remove a particular enemy from his position as the most powerful man on earth.


    When freedom’s heartland was last endangered, FDR did not await favorable opinion polls to affirm—against the original “America First” movement—that America must fight to defeat fascism. Nor did Winston Churchill, though long ignored, refrain from insisting that his country face the Nazi danger. Those leaders matched Hitler’s faith in the “triumph of the will” with an even fiercer will to defend the liberal democracies. 


    Today, with America’s “bully pulpit” in the hands of a demagogue, defenders of our 230-year-old Constitution have to win for themselves the constant struggle to face what is in front of their noses. Aware citizens must stand up to insist that aiding and abetting a foreign attack, and depicting as traitors those who rise to “the common defense,” are high crimes that must be stopped and punished. Democratic leaders will not find their voice, nor Republicans awaken to the truth, until they sense the rising tide of mobilized American patriotism.


    The test we face is to stop “shirking” in the face of “obvious and inalterable” facts, to focus fearlessly on the danger rather than allow a parade of doubts and distractions to displace what is “in front of one’s nose.” From 1776 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, believers in human freedom and democratic self-governance have known when to shrug off setbacks and summon their will. That time is now.

  • A portion of the Democrats running for president. 


    Age is rarely an issue in presidential elections. Most candidates are neither too young nor too old. The average age of the last ten presidents upon taking office was 57.   The 2020 election, however, bristles with age issues: Five candidates will be in their 70s on Election Day, four will be in their 40s and three will be in their 30s.   Donald Trump, at 70, was the oldest candidate to ever win the presidency. If re-elected, he’d leave office at 78, the oldest president ever to serve––beating Ronald Reagan by nearly eight months.   But Trump, now 72, is one of those people who isn’t measured by age. He even calls himself a “young, vibrant man.” While that may be something of a fudge, polls do show that Trump is perceived as strong and bold, traits rarely associated with geezers.   Among other septuagenarians running are three Democrats and a Republican. When the new president is elected, Bernie Sanders will be 79, Joe Biden will be 77, Elizabeth Warren will be 71 and Trump’s GOP challenger, William Weld, will be 75.   The political trap for older candidates is not age, in a narrow sense, but more widely, the appearance of generational disconnect. Are they in touch with the modern world? Do they understand the needs of younger generations? Little wonder that 50-year old Bill Clinton’s re-election slogan against 73-year-old Bob Dole was “A Bridge to the 21st Century.”    Seventy-two-year-old John McCain lost to 47-year-old Barack Obama in 2008 not so much because of his age, but because the country wanted change, and Obama’s youth perfectly embodied a  “Hope and Change” message.   When candidates are young, on the other hand, the issue becomes experience and maturity of judgment. Have they seen enough of the world to master national leadership?    Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest U.S. president. At 42, he moved up from the vice presidency when President William McKinley was assassinated. John F. Kennedy was the youngest to be elected, at 43. In one of history’s touching parallels, he replaced the nation’s oldest president at that time, Dwight Eisenhower, who was 70 when he left office.   Kennedy’s entire career symbolized generational renewal, particularly apt in the years after World War II when young veterans were climbing increasingly steep career ladders. Kennedy won his first race for Congress at 29, and campaigned on the slogan ”A New Generation Offers a Leader.” In his inaugural address, he emphasized that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans­­.”    Besides JFK and TR, America has had five other presidents in their 40s. The first three––Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Grover Cleveland––were elected within a 16-year period, 1868-1884. The two most recent––Bill Clinton and Barack Obama––also won within 16 years, 1992-2008.   On the Democratic roster this year, five candidates are in their 40s and three are in their 30s. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will be 48 by Election Day. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and former mayor and HUD secretary Julian Castro will be 46, entrepreneur Andrew Yang will be 45 and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton will be 42. U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Eric Swalwell will be 39. The youngest candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will be 38––although he’ll become 39 the day before the next president takes the oath.   To offer perspective: When Buttigieg was born, Biden had already served nine years in the U.S. Senate. When Sanders was born, Franklin Roosevelt was president.   America has never elected a president in his 30s, although Williams Jennings Bryan won the Democratic presidential nomination at the tender age of 36.    The world has seen old leaders full of wisdom––Winston Churchill was 80 when he retired as British Prime Minister––and young ones brimming with new ideas. Emmanuel Macron was elected President of France at 39.    Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” As this campaign plays out, we’ll see about that.

  • National Defense University (NDU) Faculty walk out of Roosevelt Hall for the Graduation ceremony at

    Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington D.C. DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann.



    “You should try teaching political science in this town with a straight face.” That has been my longtime lament to anyone who engages me on the enduring turbulence, divisiveness, inertia, and dysfunction of politics and governance in Washington. Now, though, the situation has become so massively fraught that my standing lament assumes new saliency. When catastrophe, calamity, debacle, disaster, fiasco, and chaos are words that seem best to characterize the functioning of the federal government today, it makes my job especially daunting.


    I’m a professor – at one of the U.S. military’s senior colleges. My students aren’t your average student nor even your average graduate student. They’re experienced government professionals – military officers at the rank of lieutenant colonel and colonel (or the Navy equivalent) and federal civil servants and Foreign Service Officers of comparable grade, each with 15-23 years of professional experience – who have been specially selected by their parent service or federal agency for a year-long graduate-level educational experience designed to groom them for future positions of executive authority and responsibility. 


    The Constitutional Oath

    As the price of their admission to public service, these individuals have all sworn an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, thereby assuming the obligation, willingly and without mental reservation, to support and defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That means, in my estimation, that they have agreed, uncoerced, to embrace, protect, and remain loyal to the precepts, prerogatives, institutional arrangements, and rights embodied in the Constitution, its amendments and, arguably to be sure, the Constitution’s underlying philosophical foundation, the Declaration of Independence


    With regrettably few exceptions, though, most of these individuals haven’t given more than passing thought to the Constitution since they first took the oath. So, where there should be intimate familiarity and understanding, there is pronounced ignorance –civic illiteracy– that could signal danger ahead as these individuals advance to senior levels. On top of that, when the only role models they have at the highest levels of government discredit, sully, and even jeopardize the values the country claims to represent, civic consciousness, literacy, and competence assume overriding significance.


    What, then, should the public expect such future senior leaders to learn? Let us note at the outset that these are public servants charged with serving the American public – professionals who, because of their specialized expertise and preparation, standards of conduct and performance, and presumed internal self-policing, are accorded a great deal of unquestioned discretionary license by the public they serve in return for competence, integrity, and accountability. For me, the message is clear: If the public is to be properly served, professional development at this level necessarily becomes an exercise in civic development.


    As such, I would want these individuals, for starters, to address that most fundamental of questions: What is the very purpose of government they inhabit and operate? Is it merely to preserve property (a la John Locke), to facilitate the happiness of the people (a la John Adams), to provide justice (a la James Madison), or to ensure peace and security (a la Thomas Hobbes)? Is it, in the wise words of Abraham Lincoln, “to do for a community of People, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities”? Or is it, as America’s founders contended in the Declaration of Independence, to secure the natural rights (including, but not limited to, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) all humans (not just citizens) possess and deserve to enjoy simply by virtue of being human?


    I would want them to ponder the other parts of that seminal second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, so that they are duly sensitized to the importance of government legitimacy being derived from the consent of the governed (popular sovereignty) and the associated right, indeed the duty, of the people (inside and outside government) to express dissent (possibly leading even to overthrow) in the face of abuse by those in power. And then there’s the part about all of us being created equal. Does that mean that even though we obviously aren’t equal in our attributes, talents, and abilities, we are equal in the sense that we have the same rights? Or, on the contrary, do we have only those rights granted to us by government?


    I would want them to address the Constitution’s Preamble as not simply hortatory, aspirational literary frill, but as an imperative for action, America’s Security Credo, encapsulating as it does the full range of imperatives that define security for individuals and society beyond just providing for the common defense: national unity, justice, domestic tranquility, general well-being, and liberty.


    I would want them to recognize the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, the ultimate statement of the rule of law (which we preach incessantly to others the world over) over the rule of men, an anchor to guide us especially in the face of populist demagoguery. “In questions of power,” Jefferson said, “let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”


    I would want them to consider the ordering of the Constitution’s articles: why the legislative branch, as the people’s representatives, is listed first; the executive, as the president of all the people, second; and the judiciary, the protectors of the law, third; this, even though these are coequal, coordinate branches of government that necessarily – and desirably – share many powers. Is this just syntactic necessity or a reflection of more meaningful underlying purpose?


    Diagnosing Congress

    I would want these future senior leaders to scrutinize Article I’s treatment of Congress, starting with the basics: Is our republican form of government – representative democracy – actually the one we should want, for reasons including but also transcending the “efficiency” necessitated by our size and population? Aren’t the separation of powers and checks and balances designed to be intentionally inefficient? Is such inefficiency compatible with the strategic imperatives of unity – unity of purpose, unity of effort, unity of action – called for in the international affairs of state? Is representative democracy actually consistent with popular sovereignty – popular rule – especially when those who represent us have chosen to be a full-time political class? Is the implicit premise of republican government that the best of us govern the rest of us (notwithstanding ample evidence to the contrary)? If so, are the prescribed qualifications for office – age, citizenship, and residency alone – all that should be required, leaving the voters to make their own judgments about such things as competence, intelligence, integrity, trustworthiness, and public-mindedness?


    I would want them to confront key questions about what we should expect from our representatives in Congress: Should the primary responsibility of congressional representatives be to their constituents or to the country? Should they make their own reasoned judgments in office or be essentially a mouthpiece for their constituents? Should they check and balance or rubber stamp and enable the president and the executive branch? Should they be loyal to Congress and its constitutionally prescribed mission or to their political party?


    I would want them to pay close attention to the specific wording of the Article I powers conferred upon Congress – “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress” – at the same time they note Article II’s more expansive and vague wording for the President – “The executive power shall be vested in a President” – as well as the 10th Amendment’s provision that “the powers not delegated to the United States … are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” By the same token, I would want them to note the countervailing implied congressional powers suggested by Article I’s so-called elastic clause: “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers… .”


    I would want them to recognize that Article I gives Congress – not the executive – the power to “provide for the common defence,” and that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” As importantly is Congress’s role in exercising civilian control of the military (beyond that accorded the President in Article II as “commander in chief of the army and navy … and of the militia”): raising and supporting armies; providing and maintaining a navy; making rules for governing and regulating land and naval forces; providing for calling forth (mobilizing) the militia – and for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia when thus mobilized. Most importantly, almost certainly, is the power accorded Congress to declare war – which we don’t do anymore because it’s too hard (perhaps too provocative); which Congress has the power to do but isn’t obligated (nor, increasingly, even expected) to do; and which we avoid by calling wars something other than wars, using “authorizations for the use of military force” instead, relying increasingly on publicly deniable covert military operations, and falling back on the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which, rather than reasserting proper congressional prerogative, provided an excuse for congressional inaction on the use of force until after the fact.


    Diagnosing the Presidency

    I would want these future senior leaders, belonging as they do to the executive branch, to make exacting judgments about Article II’s treatment of the president and the presidency, not least the precise wording of Section 1: “The executive power … shall be vested in a President.” What does that really mean? Is he an executor who is expected to carry out the direction of Congress, or is he the presider – the issuer of direction? Are the President, the presidency, and the executive branch a unitary body (in the manner of a “unitary executive,” endowed with not only expressed powers but also a wide range of inherent powers); or should we expect and want internal checks and balances (State vs. Defense, Army vs. Navy)? Was Alexander Hamilton right in his famous Federalist #70 call for “energy in the executive,” a metaphorical unitary force to overcome the inertia of the popular representative mass that is Congress? On what basis, then, should we judge a President (and, by association, determine how binding his direction should be): by his accomplishments (domestic and/or international), by his behavior (public and/or private), by his attributes (charisma, character, vision, courage)? 


    Of most salient immediate concern to this audience is the President’s designation as commander in chief, this being at the very heart of the hallowed democratic precept of civilian control. This raises numerous questions, especially in conjunction with the presidential oath of office, which swears him to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” – to the best of his ability. Is this license for the President to order the military to do anything he wants; and is the military obligated in turn to dutifully obey any order that isn’t demonstrably unlawful? Considering that the Constitution details how laws are to be passed and treaties ratified via shared powers, how legitimate are recurring presidential actions to circumvent both – through executive orders, signing statements, and international executive agreements? What, therefore, do we and should we expect the relationship between the executive and Congress to be: confrontational? competitive? cooperative? collaborative? collusive? Recall Justice Robert Jackson’s well-known concurring opinion in the 1952 Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer case: “While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government… .”


    Don’t Forget the Judiciary

    Lest the judiciary be overlooked in a fit of casual neglect, I would want these future strategic leaders to be sensitive to the judiciary’s crucial role: a formally independent, non-political arm of government, whose mission is to interpret and apply the law – not to make or enforce it. Apolitical judicial independence in the service of “equal justice under law” is the normative ideal, though the selection of judges and justices is driven in very large measure by political and ideological considerations. There are no prescribed qualifications for these lifetime, non-elected appointees, though virtually all are lawyers whose inclinations for judicial activism or judicial restraint reflect inner ideological and political leanings. 


    Two issues specifically mentioned in Article III – impeachment and treason – and two whose provenance lies outside the Constitution – judicial review and judicial deference – warrant particular attention. With regard to impeachment, a recognizably political rather than legal act addressed more directly in Article II, the most pressing question is what constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.” With regard to treason, defined in Article III as a wartime act, the question, in light of the world of hybrid, asymmetric conflict we now face, is what constitutes war. Judicial review, codified in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case, raises questions about the extent to which, and under what circumstances, the judiciary should have the final say on the legality of executive and legislative actions. And then there is judicial deference, the Court’s selective, not always consistent practice of declining to take up certain types of cases (e.g., defense, foreign affairs, war powers) it considers to be the proper purview of the “political branches.” 


    And, Finally, the Amendments

    Yes, finally, I would want these individuals to address the amendments to the Constitution head on, precisely because that is principally where the rights they have sworn to uphold are most clearly enumerated. Indeed, there is much to be discussed with regard to the meaning and scope of gun rights and gun control, unreasonable search and seizure, due process and equal protection, double jeopardy and self-incrimination, speedy and public trial by jury, citizenship, and the protection of rights not otherwise specified in the Constitution. Perhaps most salient and most potentially controversial, though, are the rights enumerated in the First Amendment: religion (church-state separation, persecution, religiosity in public office), speech (dissent, hate speech, incitement, slander), press (secrecy, propaganda and disinformation, censorship, libel, leaks and whistleblowing, public accountability, informed citizenry), peaceable assembly and redress of grievances (civil society, protest movements and events, public awareness, access to public facilities).



    If this sounds like Civics 101, it is – for good reason. It would be a massive mistake to conclude that uniformed military officers, federal civil servants, and Foreign Service Officers – professionals all – who aspire to future responsibilities as senior leaders, should be judged by standards no different than in the past: basically, technical expertise and operational know-how. Now, though, they are enroute to becoming tomorrow’s generals, admirals, and senior diplomats and federal executives. If they are to earn the continued trust and confidence of the public, they must fully expect to be judged anew by how much and how well they demonstrate understanding of and commitment to the higher-order ideals of the Constitution they have sworn to support and defend.



    President Donald Trump’s Peace Plan aimed at solving the conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel appears to be doomed to failure, based on historical precedents. 


    History has taught us that every attempt by the United States to settle the Arab Israeli conflict by advancing its own peace plan has failed.    


    From the Alpha Plan in the mid-1950s, through the Rogers Plan in 1969, to the Reagan Plan of 1983, to the Clinton parameters in 2000 – none have succeeded in producing peace.


    The Alpha Plan devised by the United States and Britain at the end of 1954 specifically called on Israel to make territorial concessions in the Negev, in southern Israel. In addition, Israel had to agree to a land corridor in the Negev so as to connect Jordan with Egypt. Last but not least, the Alpha Plan urged Israel to accept the inflow of Arab refugees into its sovereign territory. 


    Israel stated that it could not accept the terms of the Alpha Plan. Egypt, for its part, refused to negotiate with Israel as it was unwilling to recognize it as a sovereign state. 


    In 1969, the US Secretary of State William Rogers advanced a peace plan which called on Israel to withdraw to the boundaries existing prior to the Six Day War of June 1967, with minor territorial modifications. 


    Although Israel made it clear it was ready to negotiate with its Arab neighbors and make peace with them, the conditions entailed in the Rogers Plan were unacceptable as they called for a withdrawal of Israel to the lines existing prior to the Six Day War, with only minor border changes. 


    The Arab countries, for their part, rejected the Rogers Plan as it entailed Arab official recognition of Israel. 


    The Reagan Plan of 1983 which was proposed by the United States in the wake of the First Lebanon War, called on Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian autonomous entity to be linked to Jordan. President Ronald Reagan had discussed the terms of the plan in advance with some Arab allies, but not with Israel. Israel informed of the plan only hours before it was made public. 


    Feeling betrayed by this treatment, Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, said to US ambassador Samuel Lewis that Israel was not a banana republic and would not consent to being treated as such. 


    The Reagan Plan was also rejected by the leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, who thought it fell short of their minimum demands of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem, and the Right of Return of the Arab refugees to Israel. 


    The Clinton Parameters, drawn up by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the failed Camp David Summit in the year 2000, called for the establishment of a Palestinian State on most of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving under Israeli sovereignty the main blocks of existing Israeli settlements. This failed to lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.


    Although peace plans advanced by the United States have invariably failed, efforts at mediating have been more successful when no detailed proposals are laid out in advance. 


    The United States successfully played the role of mediator in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s Shuttle Diplomacy led to three interim agreements, two between Israel and Egypt and one between Israel and Syria.  This diplomatic feat was achieved by third party mediation, which was not preceded by a US public announcement of the precise conditions the sides concerned were supposed to accept.


    The same applies to President Jimmy Carter, who in September of 1978, at the Camp David Summit, played the role of mediator between Egypt and Israel. The Camp David framework agreement for peace, which laid the basis for the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, was a corollary of that diplomatic effort. Again, Carter did not present a blueprint for peace or specific terms for an agreement, but helped bring it about by actively mediating between the Egyptians and Israelis.


    It must be stressed: not every effort at mediation has been successful; but every successful effort by the United States to achieve an agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors has been attained by mediation, without putting forward in advance either a peace plan or detailed terms for them to accept.


    To be sure, the fate of the Trump Peace Plan might be different. We do not know yet what it contains. Also, history may be a general guide to the future, not necessarily a certain compass to it. However, if history is anything to go by, the chances of the Trump Peace Plan to succeed are slim. 



    What’s worse: a wall of antiaircraft artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles, a relentless amount of enemy MiG planes on your tail, or the reality that the war being waged is unwinnable? How about a target that just can’t be taken down for the duration of an entire long conflict? Many young US airmen during the Vietnam War dealt with these harsh conditions for seven years as they carried out efforts to destroy the heavily defended and strategically important bridge called the Thanh Hoa, or “dragon’s jaw” in Vietnamese. The bridge was located in the Thanh Hoa Provide of North Vietnam and endured hundreds of attacks from the US Air Force and the US Navy before it finally gave way. The campaigns required intense perseverance, unguided and laser-guided missiles, and many sacrifices to eliminate it from the battlefield in 1972. Many American airmen were shot down, killed, or captured and taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp. 


    The bridge became a symbol of unbeatable spirit for North Vietnamese identity. US war planners fought hard and plotted for years to uproot it from the Song Ma river. Veterans of the Vietnam War who remember it shared their stories about dogfights, losses, desperate conditions, valor, and lessons learned in air combat. In an interview, best-selling author and Vietnam War veteran Stephen Coonts and military aviation historian Barrett Tillman spoke with us about their latest book which is available now for purchase, Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam.



    First, can you both talk about the courage and tenacity it took to take down the Thanh Hoa bridge?


    Barrett: If you have time, Erik, I would refer you to a book I co-authored aboutmore than 30 years ago. It was called On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam, and it was about one of the three best friends I ever had, Commander John Nichols, athree-tour F-8 Crusader pilot and we included a chapter in that on professionalism, and I know Steve will agree with this wholeheartedly. The motivation that kept that generation of American aircrews flying into literally the teeth of the Dragon throughout Southeast Asia was professionalism, and they had one another. Steve, do I remember correctly that the original title of Flight of the Intruder was For Each other. 


    Stephen: That is correct. Barrett hit the nail right on the head. It should impress anyone who sits down with Dragon’s Jaw and reads about hundreds of young aviators, some of them reservists, but most of them regular Air Force or Navy. They kept going back again and again, not because it’s Lyndon Johnson’s war or anything else, it’s because they’re professionals, it’s just what they do, and they owe it to each other. It’s the old story: “If I don’t go, somebody else will have to, so I’m going.”I think that’s the essence of what military professionalism is all about. 


    Barrett: One of the most impressive people I’ve ever known was ViceAdmiral Jim Stockdale, who got sidelined into politics after sevenyears in Hanoi as a prisoner of war and he is best known, unfortunately, as Ross Perot’s running mate. But Jim was a consummate professional, an aviator and a philosopher at the same time. At a Tailhook Association banquet in 1988, he relayed that in 1965 or so (which was the year he got shot down and captured) then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came out to Yankee station and was aboard the carrier Oriskany for a short time. He just flat out told the pilots and aircrew of Air Wing 16, “You are expected to take unlimited losses in pursuit of limited goals.” And Jim let that sink in for a moment– just a hush in the room. Then he said, “What you must remember: it’s nothing limited about your efforts when you’re over the target,” and that speaks eloquently to the concept of professionalism.


    Stephen: I certainly second that. We managed to put that vignette Barrett mentioned in the book and that was a powerful moment. 


    If military brass on both sides of the Vietnam War were somehow still alive and got a change to review this book thoroughly from a battle strategy standpoint, what do you think their reactions might be?


    Stephen: The North Vietnamese did the very best they could with the assets they had.The American military certainly realized that. I don’t think the American politicians truly understood [the advantage] that absolute dictatorship gave the North Vietnamese. From a military standpoint, the North Vietnamese were darn tough soldiers and they did the best they could with what they had, as did the Americans. There was mutual respect on both sides.


    Military history tends to always be relevant and timeless, especially while the American public is both drawn to and repelled by a controversial presidential administration which is running multiple theaters of war. But why the Dragon’s Jaw bridge, and why now?


    Stephen: Barrett and I were talking about this book about 5 years ago this month, that the Thanh Hoa bridge was the most notorious target in North Vietnam, it was almost indestructible, like the thing were made out of kryptonite. The weapons during the early stages of the war were absolutely inadequate to knock it down and American Airmen went against it for seven long years. About a dozen planes were shot down, people were killed, imprisoned and so on. Millions of dollars worth of airplanes, tens of millions of dollars worth of fuel and ordinance and all that were expended against that bridge. The story had never been told, and we thought, we ought to do this book while these people are still alive to talk about it. 


    If we would have waited another 10 years and these guys that flew these missions in the 60s and early 70s either won’t remember or they’re no longer capable of talking about it. We thought, we’d better get busy and do this, before life or other projectsget in the way. Finally, we said, “I don’t care, we’re going to do it.”Barrett agreed to do the research and I agree to write the book and that’s basically what came down. Fortunately, Barrett is the premier military aviation historian alive today in America, so boy, you talk about aces up, we had a guy that knew everybody, knew the American military, and made a career out of writing about military aviation and he just dove right in.It gaveus a wealth of material; I had to sit down to try to write the English side of it and put the pronouns in the right places. This is why we did it now because we thought it was a story worth telling and we wanted to get it out here while the people who lived it were there to tell it to us. 


    Barrett: That’s a big part of it, believe me, because going in, Steve and I realized this was a rare opportunity to focus on a primary topic of the entire Vietnam War. We approached the bridge almost as if it’s a character among the human participants,and we decided to treat the campaign which as Steve said was off and on for seven years as a microcosm of that crazy Asian War. It’s all there: the tactics, the strategy, the politics, the courage, the losses, it all comes together over Thanh Hoa, which is about 70 or 80 miles south of Hanoi. It’s well into North Vietnam and it’s the belly of the beast that became such a focus for so many years for hundreds of American aircrew. 


    What will hardcore historians find useful about this book – from all walks of the discipline, from military history to even Southeast Asian studies and historical fiction?


    Barrett: The major advantage for the readership you are addressing is the breadth of the material that we’ve assembled. Not only is this the first book about Thanh Hoa bridge, but it’s also a top-to-bottom, left-to-right, in-and-out assessment from not just the American side– we had about 70 contributors and they represent the US Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, some civilian contractors, and also, we had some tremendous material out of Vietnam that as far as I can tell has never been accessed before. It took these fiveyears since Steve first called me back in April of 2014 to learn the lay of the land. If we had tried to complete the book and publish it any sooner, we would have lost an awful lot of that benefit. For instance, I had contacted our embassy in Vietnam and their embassy over here, asking about sources and contacts and never got a reply from either of them. It’s not that I really expected it but in the meantime there’s a very well-connected assembly of Southeast Asia researchers and scholars in this country and elsewhere. One of our main contributors is a lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Air Force, so that assemblage made all the difference and if we were just to try to tell the story from the American viewpoint, honestly I think we would have less than half the story we’re telling. 


    Stephen: I would add that from a historian’s standpoint, one of the major themes of the book is the development of precision weapons, or guided weapons. It went from World War II type dumb bombs (if you just point the airplane at the target and drop the bomb) to what are now precision-guided weapons. They were all born during that era and from American frustration with the Thanh Hoa bridge and its seeming invincibility. 


    One of the problems with the Thanh Hoa bridge is to deliver a weapon you had to get into the heart of the anti-aircraft envelope to deliver the weapon and expose the plane and the pilot to death or capture, or whatever. The drive was not only for accurate weapons but weapons that could be launched from outside the antiaircraft envelope defending the target. All these themes came together during the Gulf War in 1991 and later on. From a historical standpoint, in this book you see the driving force, the driving feature that lead the military and Industry to develop smart stand-off weapons.


    Did this book project help toopen up any new doors of research that might allow you to write a future book about Vietnam in a more detailed way than you have been able to access in the past?


    Barrett: That’s a very good question. I haven’t given any specific thought to another Vietnam book but as Steve lightly notes, now is the time to do that. I’ll back up fortyyears to when the Naval Institute published my first book. It was the history of the Douglas dive bomber my father flew and at that time, it was basically thirty years after World War II. There were hundreds of thousands of living, breathing, remembering WWII veterans, but now we’re beyond that same place in regard to Vietnam’s. My Facebook tagline is “Do It Now” and if I get the opportunity to write another Vietnam book, undoubtedly it would be aviation-oriented, and as Steve notes, I have had two tactical missions in A-6s. I’d love to write about the definitive history of the Intruder so that might be another possibility. 


    Stephen: It might be. [laughter]


    Can you talk about some of the differences between the Johnson administration and the Nixon administration, and how each leader and their war planners used strategy, priorities, and made decisions that affected America’s approach in the Vietnam War and with China/Soviet Union relations?


    Stephen: Well, wars don’t get developed in a vacuum. It’s the geopolitical milieu at the time that causes these conflicts to spark and sustain themselves.The Vietnam War was really launched in the heart of the Cold War by the Kennedy administration, which was scared to death of having a nuclear confrontation with Russia and, to a lesser extent, with China. 


    President Kennedy was looking for a way to stand up to the spread of what they thought was world communism and that whole era is sort of hard for a millennial today to understand. They talked about how many square miles of the Earth’s surface was going communist every year, as if this scourge was going to eat the whole Earth. People believed that. Politics is all about perception. The Johnson Administration inherited the Vietnam War and simply nobody had ever accused Lyndon Johnson of being an intellectual. He was just a log-rolling politician, an arm twister, and he never asked the basic questions about Vietnam: Was it International interest? What are the upsides and downsides? Should we be there? Is it worth the treasure we’re committing?


    Further, the problem was Johnson never bothered to figure out an exit strategy. He kept feeding men and arms into Vietnam, expanding the war, thinking he could leave at any time and that was never the case, it was total fantasy. When he finally realized he wasn’t willing to apply the military pressure it would take to get a military victory, he was in too deep. 


    Richard Nixon got elected, and Nixon, on the other hand, had more backbone and realized, I think, with Henry Kissinger’s help, that the solution to this war, like all wars is it’s got to be political. Nixon went and try to open up a relationship with China but what he found out was China wasn’t going to war over Vietnam under any circumstances. The United States got the license to talk about the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and a better detente, a better relationship. All these things took the threat of nuclear war and allowed Nixon to get us the heck out of Vietnam in a way that the Johnson Administration had never been able to see how to do. 


    It was a human tragedy; 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. Over a million Vietnamese, and the Communists won. It was America’s first war they actually lost, and maybe even the championship team needs to get its butt kicked occasionally, and we did. Maybe we learned something from that. We’ll see. 


    Barrett: Fairly early on in the book, a portion describes the reality in China and in Russia to a lesser extent versus the perception inside the beltway in DC. Anybody who is reasonably well-informed today would look back and wonder, how in the world did the Johnson Administration– sometimes regime–what was happening in China to think that China was going to get involved on the ground in a major way like it had in Korea in 1950? Throughout the 60sand well into the 70s, Mao’s China was in turmoil. They had the so-called Great Leap Forward which was a cultural topsy-turvy. They had massive starvation;we still don’t know how many million trainees died of malnutrition. Additionally, Russia and China had both political and philosophical differences. I forget the name of the island but there was combat with casualties on both sides between China and Russia. At this remove, you have to look back in wonder: what were Johnson and McNamara and Rusk thinking because they had to know what was actually happening between Russia and China, but they seemed to ignore it. 


    What was the most eye opening aspect of writing this book? For example, was it just how stubborn the bridge was, that it wouldn’t fall, or was it something more subtle which revealed itself as the project came together?


    Stephen: Well, it was all of the above. The political stupidities, the military difficulty, knocking down a grossly overbuilt steel and concrete bridge with the weapons available in the teeth of fierce defenses. When it all came together, we thought it was a very powerful tale. We thought it was worth our time and effort and we gave it the best we could.


    You’ve both conducted original interviews with many combat veterans and have made reference to insights and testimonies that veterans and politicians had given from the past from the past. Do you use a combined effort between in reaching out to the community of veterans or is the research stage also dependant on others’ assistance to consult with a network of witnesses who were there, who played a part in what happened at the Dragon’s Jaw? Secondly, what were those interviews like? Was it painful for the pilots to re-enact those life-or-death scenes?


    Stephen: Obviously, Barrett is our expert. He talked to I would say 90 to 95% of the people who are quoted in the book. I talked to several but I also put out appeals to the A-6 Intruder Association, and I think Barrett did to the Tailhook Association that everybody who had ever bombed the Thanh Hoa bridge, we want to hear from you. Drop us an email, write us a letter, and we got a great many responses from that. Barrett did most of the interviews and he’s an expert at that. He knows the technology, he knows the people, he knows what they’re talking about. He’s a historian; that’s his thing. 


    Barrett: Thank you, Steve. I’ll just add briefly that coming from a naval preference in my work going back to the 60s and 70s, I knew quite a few people, people like Jim Stockdale and Wynn Foster, so many of the others who are quoted in the book but I was not so well-connected on the Air Force side. However, through the River Valley Fighter Pilots Association (they called themselves the River Rats) and a couple of other contacts, I started learning about some wonderful sources. They included the Air Force Phantom crew that didn’t destroy the bridge in the main 1972 mission but they dislodged the span and that pilot had a cockpit recording. It’s interesting, he asked me out of the blue during a phone conversation, “I still have this recording, would you like to have it?” and I thought, “oh my Lord, this is the Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and it gives a sense of immediacy that just isn’t possible otherwise. 


    You’ll see in one of the later chapters where the pilot and his backseater are exchanging comments because the mission was slowing, and fog and haze reduced visibility; one of my favorite lines in the book is, “Where are ya, bridge?” and “Oh! There it is, 11 o’clock right,” so that type of immediacy would not have been possible if we hadn’t been able to talk to so many of the actual participants.


    Stephen: Barrett listened to that particular cassette tape a million times and transcribed it. He got it all written down but I’m sure that the background noise, the calls, the counter measures and emotional voices of the crew, it must have put you right in the cockpit, Barrett, because you did a great job. 


    Barrett: Well, thank you!


    You wrote that, “It is not our purpose in this book to write a history of the Vietnam War but to illuminate Americans’ efforts to destroy and, to the extent we can, North Vietnamese efforts to defend just one bridge, the Dragon’s Jaw at Thanh Hoa.” The book is full of the first part of the book’s purpose. American efforts to destroy the bridge are clearly and painstakingly defined and explored in the book, down to the bullets, the cigars in the cockpits, casualty statistics, flight hours. 


    How difficult was investigating the extent of how the North Vietnamese defended the bridge? What did this type of research entail? Were you both limited by language barriers or barriers to trustworthy information?


    Barrett: Originally, other than the already published sources and existing literature, I was fortunate years ago, before I ever thought of writing the book, in meeting a guy named Gary Wayne Foster. He’s a structural engineer who has worked all over the Far East and he had a particular interest in the bridge because he knew a Navy Phantom crew that have been shot down. They were captured whilst trying to bomb the bridge. Gary’s interest in the bridge went beyond the historical aspect. He started looking at it from an engineering viewpoint, and he was so intrigued that he went up to Hanoi and tracked down the architect who is credited with designing the famous Dragon’s Jawbridge in 1964 that resisted all of the American ordnance.


    Through a couple of almost casual comments made, I started looking elsewhere and filled in the blanks–essentially built a matrix of the North Vietnamese air defense network. I identified the 238th People’s Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment which was defending the bridge for most of that time. Things expanded into the surface-to-air missile category and I already knew a good deal about the MiG jet fighters that were involved in defending the bridge early on. It was essentially a building block process that not only provided information but personal accounts and as you see in the book, we have more than a few passages quoting either individual Vietnamese or official documents. To me, that was probably the most satisfying portion of the research, before I wrote a rough draft and Steve took that and ran with it. Having that kind of immediacy was more than I expected we might have going in and so it was almost as if this project was just waiting for Steve and I to discover it and once we started, it just blossomed. 


    Barrett: We both had a good time writing it. Writers write, that’s what they do and Barrett’s a terrific historian and writer and I’ve been doing novels for most of my career. Putting it all together, writing about something so immediate and so powerful and that meant so much to our generation. I flew in A-6s in Vietnam for the last two cruises of the Enterprise during the war. I never bombed the bridge and I bombed everywhere else, and these are my guys, man. I know these guys, I lived with them, I went on liberty with them, and so it’s not only their story, it’s my story too and it was fun to tell it. 


    Barrett: I’d like to add that Steve’s skills as a novelist shine throughout because to me it’s so much more than a campaign history, it’s an immediacy, pounding, ‘you were there’ treatment that you almost expect Jake Grafton to roll down on the bridge at any moment. I know that’s a big part of the strength and the appeal of Dragon’s Jaw.


    How was the experience joining forces to write about the Vietnam War – a conflict that Stephen received a Distinguished Flying Cross in, respectively, and that Barrett is an expert in, and which carries strong political and foreign policy currents? Was it okay that perhaps your experiences and political beliefs didn’t align exactly? For example, one author is a Nixon and Kissinger supporter, while the other has a few reservations?


    Stephen: I don’t think at this point that our political views are very far apart on this war. The more you study the Vietnam War, you realize the tragedy from any angle: how many families lost sons and husbands and fathers and so on. It probably was a war that should have never been fought. The stupidities of the politicians – I think Barrett and I are both joined at the hip. We both thought that the Johnson Administration was inept, incompetent, and really stupid.We thought the people that did the fighting actually did the best they could under very difficult circumstances. America just gave up because they were trying to do something that just couldn’t be done which was defend a nation that wasn’t a nation and to turn South Vietnam into a real nation state, and that was fantasy.


    Barrett: Steve has very generously included me in two or three of his anthologies, including a couple of original fiction compilations, so we’ve been acquainted since before Flight of the Intruder when it was originally For Eachother, because we had the same publisher, Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. I remember commenting to the editor who had sent me the manuscript for my opinion and I said, “This is so good, if you don’t publish it, I will!” and Steve and I have been, as he said, ‘joined at the hip’ ever since.


    Stephen: It’s been an amazing adventure along the years; it’s really amazing that this is our first book together!


    When Stephen was a guest on  Oliver North’s radio show  in May of 1998 (at the 20 min. mark), he got a call from a fellow tailhooker, Barrett, who asked him about a contradiction in the publishing business, where agents and publishers decided there was no longer a market for military-themed books. Stephen, your book, Flight of the Intruder, got rejected by publishers 34 times before it was published. What’s the state of military fiction today in comparison to back then?


    Stephen: I didn’t realize that was Barrett but military history well told does find an audience. Now it isn’t going to be bestseller fiction, but if it’s an important subject well worth writing then there’ll always be a market for it, not just for the people who were there but the students of politics, students of our national identity, people who are worried about the future. If you wanted to learn about the future, read about the past.


    How does military fiction today compare to back in the late 90s?


    Stephen: Well, talking about military fiction, I think it’s worse than it was because back then. When I was shopping the Flight of the Intruder around in the mid-80s, theytold me there’s no market at all for Vietnam fiction. “Nobody wants to hear about a war we lost” and “we’re not going to publish it,” and they literally said, their corporate decision was, “we’re not going to publish anything about Vietnam,” so times change. Military fiction, per say, is certainly not as big as it was when Tom Clancy and I were writing the so-called techno-thrillers, and those sort of died out as a genre of fiction. The big fiction today is still the same old stuff: sex, murder, whodunnits, the usual. 


    Barrett: There is a cycle to what the publishing business receives as viable. I remember in about 1993-94, I was discussing the future of World War II history with two of my colleagues and they both had multiple, superb WWII books to their credit. All three of us had heard this emerging conventional wisdom that after the 50th anniversary of WWII in 1995, the market was going to drop off and none of us believed it, because we knew there was tons of material out there that still waited to be revealed and deserved to be told. 


    Here we are 25 years laterand there’s still a market for a good WWII material, whether it’s Rick Atkinson or Adam Makos or Christopher Shores in Britain. As long as the WWII generation continues breathing (and that’s shifting) there will always be a market for it and I really believe the same for Vietnam, because that was the defining event of our generation and I just don’t think it’s going to dissipate anytime soon.


    Stephen: The second generation, the children of WWII veterans are buying WWII histories now to see what their dad and their parents went through. It’s going to do that with Vietnam veterans.Their children are going to be interested in what their parents went through, a natural progression, but we’re talking history, not fiction.Fiction and history are two different things.


    Is it a good idea to keep track of oral history databases already out in the public domain as you interview pilots? 


    Barrett: Oh, sure. Oral histories have only relatively recently become common references, even though they go back to at least the 1950s. Several years ago on one of the C-SPAN programs on the History channel, Rick Atkinson was asked about his research procedures. He said he almost never interviews WWII veterans– he won the Pulitzer Prize for his World War II U.S. Army trilogy– because of slipping memories, and that is a factor. Atkinson specifically mentioned the enormous depth and variety of oral histories are going to be increasingly important, because more often than not, those were conducted when the subjects were relatively young, frequently within 20 and sometimes 30 years of the events they are describing. There’s a lot to be said for that. However, if Steve and I had accepted Atkinson’s attitude at face value, saying, “no, we’re not going to interview any of the veterans because it has been fifty years now, ”the book would not be anywhere as worthwhile and it certainly wouldn’t have asense of immediacy. I’m a firm believer that if a conscientious writer/historian looks for the best and most reliable people to interview, and you can determine that without much effort, individual interviews still have a major role to play in recording history. 


    Are your collaborative efforts symbolic in some way of what you hope to achieve in both areas, or about how you want to bridge the gap to entertain readers and educate and engage the public?


    Stephen: I personally think that the Dragon’s Jaw is good, solid history. It’s factually based and it’s written as immediate as we could write it and we want to reach out and grab people by the shirts and say, “this is what the people that serve our country do, and they risk their lives and their future and their families to do whatever it is politicians ask for them to do.” I think that comes through. In fact, one of my friends was an F-8 pilot in Vietnam; he went on to become a chief of the naval operations and he looked at this book and he told me, “this just wasn’t for the guys who were there, this is for all the guys in the future who are going to be asked to lay it on the line for the United States of America.” When we did the dedication to all those American military Airmen, past, present, future, who have been or will be called upon the fight in the defense of freedom.


    Is there any expectation that this will be translated into Vietnamese and released on the market there?


    Stephen: The problem is, in the book, in some ways we burst a lot of North Vietnamese bubbles. For example, they grossly exaggerated claims about the shoot down rate for propaganda purposes and so when you read a North Vietnamese government-approved account, it’s usually just BS. I can’t imagine that the communist government in North Vietnam is going to want a book like this floating around that in effect points out all of the lies they’ve told through the years.


    Barrett: On the other hand it wouldn’t surprise me to see, say, Japanese and maybe even Chinese rights purchased for Dragon’s Jaw. 


    Stephen: That’s true!


    Thank you both for your time and I look forward to the book’s release!

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket