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Vietnam Generation Journal

Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4

March 1994

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The Green Beret: Schreckfigur for the New Age

Alan Farrell, Virginia Military Institute

So I finally pick up a copy of Foucault's Pendulum, that "intellectual" thriller by Umberto Eco, as I am reliably informed. I creep into cranky senescence having more and more trouble finding "intellectual" a lure. Anyhow. I choke through a few chapters and find this illuminating exchange, somewhere around (pregnantly) chapter thirteen:

"And the boasting was empty?" Diotallevi asked.

"Often. Here again, what's amazing is the gulf between their [speaking of the Templars ] political and administrative skill on the one hand and their Green Beret style on the other: all guts and no brains." (75)

I have heard that voice beforebeforebefore-beforebeforebefore...

It is l976. A Faculty Meeting at a small college you never heard of in rural Virginia. We are "reviewing the curriculum," a triennial, ritual nightmare. Maybe you've been through one. Hell, maybe you starred in one. Anyhow, I'm snoozing quietly while captious, factious Schoolmen pontificate about the Liberal Arts in tiresome propositions oh-so-painstakingly set forth in paaaaaaaaaaaatient avuncular tones on and on and on, when one particularly strident voice --it belongs to a bearded academic about my age who didn't quiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite make tenure at U Chic -ago as I recall--rises over the others to condemn the proposed "problem solving curriculum," which has somehow got onto the floor. "Problem solving," this speaker goes on, "problem solving. That's how we got into Viet Nam! That's what Kennedy's advisors wanted. And look at the stuuuuuuuuuuupid solutions they came up with: bigger bombs; strategic hamlets; Green Berets..."

Awkward silence. Everybody but this guys knows I was a Green Beret. "Wore" a Green Beret, we prefer to say. Shifting in seats. Someone coughs a short, percussive cough. I stare vacantly into space. At length the President of the College ahems, wonders aloud if I have anything to say about that last remark. Do I? Does anyone? Does anyone doubt or dispute it for a second? Either the accuracy of the epithet or this man's right to affront me by it? No, I don't have anything to say about that last remark. Do you? Probably not.

The Green Beret. Conceived under the offices of the brightest young star in our political firmament this century, John Kennedy, sanctified by his endorsement--"The Green Beret... a badge of honor in the fight for freedom"--and thrust into the fray charged with the evident high hopes of a people come to expect only the best of their warriors. To each Green Beret fixed a glistening silver crest emblazoned with the crossed arrows of Robert Rogers, hero of our own Revolution and bearing the resounding motto: DE OPPRESSO LIBER, "Free from oppression." How did this set of lofty aspirations become twisted? Did they in fact? How in the end did the Green Beret come to represent the failure of our policy, our will, our expectations for Viet Nam?

Maybe you don't remember the Green Berets. When Glen Corbett replaced George Maharis on "Route 66," he was "just back from Laos." He would now and again deliver television-caliber homilies on the futility of war to nubile young women with funny hairdos: "There was this hill, see, and we wanted it, see. But there were men on the hill, see, who didn't want us to have it, see. And so we..." Remember that episode? Remember Barry Sadler? The square-jawed young hero who sang "Fighting soldiers from the sky..." on the Ed Sullivan Show? There is perhaps no better paradigm of the Green Beret's fall from grace than his own fate: alcoholic, charged with an absurd murder, sent to prison, reduced to writing potboilers, finally hired by Soldier of Fortune to drag around the Marxist backwaters in Central America and "correspond." Another felon shot him down in Guatemala or someplace, under fishy circumstances, and after lingering in and out of coma, Barry passed quietly to what I hope is a final peace.

In l968, when I had just earned my Green Beret, I sat through that overwrought, jingoistic farce, The Green Berets, starring John Wayne as a portly colonel galumphing through the jungle in search of "Charlie," braying "affir-mah-tive!" into the radio handset while he clutched his obviously-fake M-l6 in an immense, gnarled, arthritic paw. We booed it at Fort Bragg; we hooted at the inaccuracies, the pretension, the simplistic icons.

Perhaps you recall the newspaper accounts of the "failed" Son Tay raid, where Green Beret raiders storm an empty prisoner of war camp, to the unspeakable amusement of a watching world? Maybe you followed the misadventures of Colonel James "Bo" Gritz and the circus he puts on in Laos, allegedly looking for MIAs? They cross the Mekong unarmed, scatter at the first contact, and wind up in a Thai jail, furnishing presumably the scenario for the film Uncommon Valor. When Colonel Gritz "testifies "before a legislative committee and recounts tearfully the tale of holding a dying comrade in his arms, a diligent congressional aide looks up the date of the operation, shows that Gritz was no where near the place at that time, and suggests poor Gritz may have fabricated more than his testimony. Everyone recalls the aborted raid in the desert outside Teheran, where Green Beret commandos, now called Delta Force, bumble and stumble, then finally blow themselves up in a mad scramble to evacuate, leaving their own dead as well as their classified maps and papers behind like novices. Fewer, I guess, have heard about the Special Ops failures in Grenada, where everything the Green Berets touch in the predawn hours that day turns to shit... and blood.

Maybe it was not only this kind of incompetence associated with the Green Berets that outraged you, brothers and sisters. Maybe it was downright crime. Maybe you heard about the sordid shoot out Miami police had in that flophouse motel a few years back with the ex-Green Beret accused of being "D. B. Cooper," the guy who hijacked a 747 and jumped out with 300,000 bucks high over Washington State? You may recall that Green Berets spawned the first genuine scandal in Viet Nam, the Montagnard Rebellion, in which mountain tribesmen revolt against their Vietnamese "oppressors" under the aegis of their secret tong, the FULRO (Front Unifié pour la Libération des Races Opprimées), and under the, well... paternal eye of their Green Beret "handlers." Or, you may know about the "Green Beret trial," a scandal in which fake Green Berets controlling a highly successful intelligence net detect a leak, isolate the "source," and "terminate" same, "with extreme prejudice," in the term which first surfaced at that time, so far as I know. A real Green Beret, the Fifth Special Forces Group commander, Robert Rheault (pronounced "row"), a tall, rangy, thoughtful aristocrat--everything the regular Army abhors--is locked up at Long Binh Jail. And in the end, the Secretary of the Army has to "intervene," quashing the charges but allowing Colonel Rheault to be hounded from the Army.

Here, by the bye, is what the Vietnamese remember about Special Forces: this is the citation from a Civic Action Medal awarded to the 5th Special Forces by the Vietnamese people when that group took its colors home at the end of the war: "49,902 economic aid projects, 34,334 educational projects, 35,468 welfare projects, l0,959 medical projects, l4,934 transportation facilities, support for nearly 500,000 refugees, 6,434 wells, l,949 km of road, l29 churches, 272 markets, ll0 hospitals, 398 dispensaries, l,003 classrooms, 670 bridges." (Adams, 41) You sent the Green Beret to live and fight with his indigenous counterpart. Does it surprise you that he shared more than hardship and, having understood, made decisions within the sphere he was given to act in? Does it surprise you that he went native as Apocalypse Now piously suggests and as Pierre Schoendoerffer suggested long before in his L'Adieu au roi, taking up Joseph Conrad? Is there something frightening in the thought of men who could live with those mountain tribes, twelve of whom could hold off--and did again and again--regiments of enemy regulars? Is that what makes the Green Beret detestable?

I would submit that there is something deeper, darker about the Green Berets that makes them so dangerous, so detestable, especially to intellectuals. The Green Beret, you should know, traces his heritage variously from a number of sources, but it was the French who, so far as I know, from my experience inside Special Forces, really colored the grander American notions of strategy in Viet Nam. Not that during the initial American incursion into Viet Nam, there was not a good deal of blathering about "French mistakes" and a lot of soaring resolve "not to imitate the French." But the French intellectualized their war, as the paradigmatic writings of Colonel Roger Trinquier indicate. And so it was with the first of the Green Berets, who read Mao, and Trinquier, and Jean Lartéguy, in whose Centurions, with its literate captains and thoughtful, athletic colonel they found their models. This is Lartéguy, now a journalist not a novelist, wandering through Viet Nam with open eyes in the last years of the "Second Indochina War" recounting his impressions in a little-read essay called A Million Dollars per Viet, presumably what America spent to kill a single Vietnamese over the long duration of that war. He is speaking about the American Special Forces:

The montagnards were encouraged. For them the enemy was the Vietnamese interloper, communist or anticommunist. But the American took the place for them of the French GCMA [Groupes de Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés], who had protected them up till now. Many American officers and agents spoke French well, and some even passed themselves off as French. (l56)

The danger, however, in the French tack on the war was not--as one might think--that they lost, but that their Army was of two minds as to how one might win. This is a celebrated passage from the Centurions, one I saw painted on a 4 x 8 of plywood down at the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in l967:

Have you noticed that throughout military history no regular army has ever beaten a well-led guerrilla army? If we use the regular army in Algeria, we will lose. I'd like France to have two armies: one for parades with handsome fieldpieces, polished tanks, little tin soldiers, bands, general staffs, and lovable old curmudgeons to command it... the other would be for real, composed of nothing but young men super-trained, all volunteers, wearing camouflaged fatigues, whom you'd never see in town but from whom the impossible would be asked and to whom we would teach all the tricks. That's the army I'd like to fight in. (296)

The colonel's chum replies only: "Tu vas avoir des ennuis." One Army sees revolutionary struggle as purely strategic, and moves pins around on charts. The other shares the aspirations and suffering of an indigenous population, daring to offer them a personal commitment, the "Centurion's Honor," and daring to dream that honor is binding to the exclusion of political expediency. This Lartéguy calls the "tentation des Centurions," the temptation of the Centurions, though he does not suggest that the Pentagon actually spotted the risk of obedience to a higher call this early, fearing "la colère des légions," the rage of the legions, a revolt like that in l958 and the events of the early sixties involving the OAS, all paratroopers. Lartéguy notes in l965:

In the Pentagon now the American military leaders have made a choice. They have decided to sacrifice the strange breed of men who compose Special Forces--perhaps because they are suffering from the incessant contradictions of this war--to sacrifice them to the engineers, the technicians who have a system, have complicated and remarkable equipment and who do not ask questions... The Pentagon is simply taking note of a failure. Between a minority like the montagnards whom the American advisors have encouraged to revolt and the Vietnamese Army, not always dependable but numbering despite its weaknesses 600,000, no technician can hesitate. (l32)

The real problem for Special Forces, concludes Lartéguy, is in the nature of obedience. These guys have taken the fight to heart, living as they did within the local communities, learning as they did the local language and customs. "In the name of what efficiency," asks Lartéguy,

so as not to lose men trained at great expense in unconventional warfare, should these men be evacuated from camps in danger of being overrun by the Viet Cong, who would surely have massacred them? The troops they had trained would no longer have any confidence in them since they did not accept the risk of fighting and dying with them. On the other hand, could one sacrifice these men to their somewhat personal notion of Honor to create that profound bond between soldiers, yellow and white, which was so obviously wanting in this Second Indochina War? (l4l)

Here is what Norman E. Dixon, in a brilliant study, called ominously enough The Psychology of Military Incompetence, has to say:

It is indeed ironic that one of the most conservative of professions should be called upon to engage in activities that require the very obverse of conservative mental traits... Thus the controllers of nuclear weaponry should perhaps be relatively obsessive, rigid, conforming, and overcontrolled... inhibited, totally obedient, `bullshit'-ridden bureaucrat[s]... on the other end of the scale, however... tact, flexibility, imagination and `open minds,' the very antithesis of authoritarian traits would seem to be necessary if not sufficient... One thing is certain: the ways of conventional militarism are ill-suited to `low-intensity' operations. (402)

This seemingly self-evident postulate, however, is not unalloyed by dangerous corollaries: the very men who can and will exercise the qualities summoned up here are likely to be those subject to the "temptation of the Centurion," subject to answer calls to a higher morality--which as civilians we might admire--and subject to disobey constituted orders under the sway of such morality--a risk civilian authority, constituted to use force judiciously in the name of the community, cannot accept. Montesquieu, the great theoretician of law, finds the will of a state brought up short by this notion of "honor," because there are, he says, "necessary modifications to obedience," on account of honor since said honor "is necessarily subject to `bizarreries' and obedience follows them all." (L'esprit des lois>, 72) You have been squawking about dumb soldiers, good people. Do you reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally want a thinking soldier?

The Green Beret is there at the beginning: the starter gets the loss. The Green Beret is associated with Kennedy's--the intellectual president's-- grandest goals and earliest aspirations, even his highest flights of rhetoric. With the failure of that design, who better to bear the brunt of a Nation's bitterness and self-recrimination? Picture again those last moments of Apocalypse Now: in the tenebrous light an executioner with whom we have identified now strikes out from his hiding place, and as the camera sloooooooooooooows down to retrieve the languorous strokes of his oddly-antique axeblade, he celebrates a ritual Rending of the God. The Scapegoat, ritually painted green, duly laden with his T. S. Eliot, his Jessie Weston, his James Frazer, charged with the sins of the multitude, falls cloven and bleeding, after inviting by his weary indifference the mortal blow. And thus is driven the Green Beret from our pantheon. But have we, I say, washed our sins? Or only our face?

Works Cited

Adams, James. Secret Armies. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Dixon, Norman. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. London: Jonathan Cape Limited, 1976.

Eco, Umberto. Foucault's Pendulum. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1989.

Lartéguy, Jean. Les centurions. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1961.

_____. Les tambours de bronze. Paris: Presses de la Cité 1965.

_____. Un million de dollars le Viet. Paris: Raoul Solar, 1965.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. L'esprit des lois. Paris: Nouvelle Revue Française, 1964.

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