Essential American Wisdom

Natural Law, Afghanistan and Vietnam, Have We Learned Anything?

I had a new chapter in my How Things Work in Natural Law series already outlined when History suddenly repeated itself over the past few days, proving the viability of those laws, which I’ll restate shortly.

There’s a lesson here about How and Why Nature decides events such as these, years, decades, even centuries in the making.


The swift and sudden collapse of not just Kabul, but all the provincial capitals of Afghanistan in a matter of days, not weeks or months, is notable for several reasons.

For one: America had been down this road before, when, two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed with North Vietnam in January 1973, we pulled our ground troops out of South Vietnam, leaving the South Vietnamese army to carry on the ground war, but it would be 27 months, April 30, 1975, before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, ending the Vietnam War. In the days before, U.S. forces evacuated thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese. American diplomats were on the frontlines, organizing what would be the most ambitious helicopter evacuation in history. Still, that last day in Saigon was, as Clint Eastwood would say, a giant cluster-f**k, and the American press managed to capture this fear and chaos with several award-winning stories and photos, in their minds a fitting exclamation mark to a war that had been “Nixon’s War” for over five years.

I was in an Army base near Tokyo at the time, and one of my very dear friends was the senior US Army officer remaining in South Vietnam. I’ll relate the pertinent parts of his story below.

Since almost 50 years have elapsed since that war, and because of that war the US military totally restructured itself, in part to prevent some of the mistakes it had made during the Vietnam War, especially the draft. But something subtler was implanted as well.

But with that as an historic template, It’s remarkable that the mistakes the next two generations of bright minds in Washington and the Pentagon have made in Afghanistan appear to be the same errors in departing Afghanistan, 2001-2020, as was made in South Vietnam 1964-1973…

…only, in some ways, the cluster-f**k’s have been more egregious.

I tell the story of COL Richard McMahon here, or “Jefe”, but primarily as a fond remembrance of mountain trekking, which he introduced me to. He was the G2 (Intelligence) at US Army Japan, in a beautiful Pentagon-copy headquarters at Camp Zama, which had been the home of the Imperial Japanese Army’s military academy, about 20 minutes by train from Tokyo’s central station. In Fall, 1972, we (a group of 8) trekked all but one of the major mountains in Japan’s South Alps. And it was historic, we being the first foreigners to be allowed into those mountains since the 1930s, when Tojo closed them to foreigners. (Jefe made sure we had a Stars and Stripes photographer to record the event.) Raised climbing the mountains in Kentucky, this was where I learned how to do it with real equipment. Changed my life in many ways.

In 1974, after the US removed all its ground troops out of Vietnam due to the Paris Peace Accords, Jefe was assigned (TDY) to Saigon as the Army Attache while still carried on the books as the G2 chief intelligence officer at USARJ, a major Army command. His job was to oversee and report on the fighting ability of the RVN Army, and of course, to insure all that materiel we were giving them was properly utilized. (in those days, unlike later eras) I don’t know if direct transfers of cash were made, at least through Army channels. We know from later history, the CIA and other intelligence vehicles were the handlers of cash transfers.

In late July, ’74, toward the end of monsoon season, Jefe called me via sat-phone, and said he was taking 5 days off, and wanted to know if I would go with him to climb Mt Yari, the only mountain in the South Alps chain we did not climb. So he picks me up at my quarters at the crack of dawn, we drive 5 hours to the foot of the mountain, and the rest of the day straight up to the mountain hut where climbers would stay to make the final ascent. Few climbers were there as there was a storm coming, and it hit that evening. Next morning we were unable to climb, so we hunkered down eating miso shiru (soup), waiting. Then, when it didn’t clear up, we started drinking Kirin beer. Lots of it. And whatever the menu would allow. And he talked about his first intel work in East Berlin in the 50’s, then as G2 at I Corps in the north. Finally, he came around about the “politics” going on between his office and the Pentagon about the promised equipment not showing up at their designated units. I just listened. I think he was just “catharting” to “his” lawyer.

Next morning, it still hadn’t cleared, and since he had to pick up his flight back to Saigon at Tachikawa early AM the following morning, he decided we’d have to forego that last four hours to the top. As I wrote in the story, above, in very slippery conditions coming down, he sprained his ankle and I had to carry him the final two miles, and then an incredibly slow, bumper-to-bumper drive back to greater Tokyo.

The bug-out in Saigon came the following Spring, April ’75. He came back to Japan, packing up going back to Hawaii, and he and Ann came by for a Sayonara dinner at the pork restaurant, and next morning flew home.

I saw him three more times, twice while trying a case at Ft Shafter, and finally on my DEROS back to the States, in October ’75 after he’d retired. He had gotten us reservations at one of the beach houses the Air Force operated at Bellows AFB on Oahu. It was where they always brought returning astronauts. very cool. We had a really great evening of food and drink. Then for about two hours Jefe and I sat out in sand chairs under the palms and he told me what was really bothering him. He was really angry about the “official” reason given for our failure in Vietnam, poor intelligence, which he took as a personal slight especially since he’d sent weekly reports with detail after details about equipment that never arrived to the unit it was supposed to be delivered to.

Jefe’s reason for telling me this was that he wanted to write a book, a tell-all book, defending himself and the Army in general, for Washington pinned the blame on both. I was dead set against the book idea, telling him in a commons sense argument about writing a book that could make DA look bad, but also possibly cause him to be called back to active duty and court-martialed.

Now, this was a couple of years before Frank Snepp wrote his famous tell-all book, (he later told me he knew Snepp in Saigon, nice guy, about my age, but no professional dealings). Snepp was a CIA operative who wrote a similar tell-all book about his corner of the intelligence world in Vietnam, Decent Interval. It was a best seller. Only the government sued him (United States v Frank Snepp III) and in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, and ordered Snepp to return his royalties (over $300K) and ordered him to clear all future publications with the CIA.

(I may want to read the book, now.)

He finished out his life writing travel books and leading groups of adventure travelers all over the world. My last correspondence with him was just a couple of days before he passed away in 2018.


Bringing this comparative analysis of Vietnam forward to the Afghan cluster-f**k, there are two ways to view the missing equipment issue in Vietnam, not necessarily having anything to do with bureaucratic incompetence but rather simple, good old-fashioned theft.

This line of thinking came to me in the mid-1980s when another military friend, an Intelligence LTC and Russian linguist assigned to the Pentagon, took me to a fine Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington, laughingly noting that the owner was a former high ranking general in the South Vietnamese Army. By then, in the corporate world, I had a better sense of how things might happen in the corporate end of government, for some of the senior officers in our company had been offered “finder’s fees” if they would agree to transfer production involving 60,000 employees, to China. Being of the World War II generation, they said No, but I realized by 1989 how easy a pitch like that might be received if made to the next management generation, who’d all received their MBA’s under the tutelage of “Gordon Gekko ethics”.

When I was still a captain in Asia, it was was one of the great fears of the Vietnam senior management, that the next generation of leaders would see the political world, and their place in it, differently. My first JAG boss warned me about when we left to go to the war college in 1974, about “putting lawyers in foxholes”, where, just as in large corporations, soldiers are little more than units of production. That bore out when we saw JAG’s testifying before the committee investigating the Army involvement at WACO hearings in 1995, a clear violation (from old school points of view) about posse comitatus.

The surge of law school admissions, beginning in 1970-71, had more to do with environmental law and regulation, than military, but the injection of lawyers into more and more aspects of American life. The Modern Volunteer Army, as they called it, as a management tool didn’t go to forward stations until 1973 after we’d removed the troops from Vietnam. There were still a few draftees lingering about. We were teaching Race Relations in Japan in by 1973, and it didn’t go over well with many old school senior enlisted men and warrant officers. I know this because, as Legal Assistance Officer, I was the only place they could bring their complaints in total leak-free confidentiality.

But the shake-up in Army management was also profound. US Army Japan was elevated to a “major command” in 1972, the same year I arrived. It had been a 1-star command, then a 3-star, and that 3-Star was LTG Welborn G Dolvin, who had been Gen Creighton Abrams Chief of Staff in Vietnam 1968-72. Abrams left Vietnam to become the Chief of Staff of the Army and was there until he died in 1974. Dolvin liked me, in part because his wife loved my wife, who was a champion golfer. We were invited to a lot of events on that account alone, I think. I was never aware of the “management side” of the Army reorganization until Gen Dolvin called me because he was enlisting “advice” from outside normal channels since the DA was planning on removing active military from may of the keys slots in command position. At the time we only had one civilian senior manager, the Comptroller, while the rest of the slots were active-duty military. He wanted my ideas about saving as many slots, mostly mid-level enlisted, E-6, E-7, since he’d heard I was “the soldiers’ lawyer” and that I should pass my notes onto one of his aides.

Abrams died in September 1974, Gen Dolvin left for a week to attend his funeral, and on September 29, 1974, the day after my son was born at Zama hospital and my mother had just arrived to sit with her, that I shipped out as the JAG for IX Corps, which was a “paper command” for two weeks of war games in underground bunkers at an Army post along the DMZ in Korea. Inside the bunkers everything was operational (loaded weapons) and since there were really no exercises requiring a JAG, Gen Dolvin named me to be the IX’s G5, which managed civilian traffic, mainly refugee traffic cluttering main supply routes (MSRs). I had three problems, even got commended, but most of the time served as the deputy ADC, who managed all the visitors who visited. Every major foreign commander visited, as well as Gen Stilwell, who commanded 8th Army and UN Forces in Korea, and the South Korean Army Commander and Chief. I only got into trouble once, and that was when I signed off in a radio communication with the ADC at the helipad transferring a general officer, “Adios, Over.” LTC Malave-Garcia chewed me out when he got back to the bunker, then had a good laugh, being Puerto Rican. I spent about half my time in the outer bunker playing chess with Gen Dolvin, who spent much of time in the TOC (tactical ops center) being briefed. He enjoyed ribbing me because of my hillbilly twang, being a sophisticated Virginia gentleman. He did not know (I think) that before law school I had been commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Infantry and had actually been been trained, but he ribbed me in front of a colonel, asking if I knew what “FEBA” meant…textbook answer “Forward Edge of the Battle Area”. Scratchin’ my head, I answered “Far East Broadcasting Association…Sir?” The colonel had a good laugh, thus proving Dolvin’s intended point that lawyers were as useless as teats on a boar hog….in foxholes.

It was not longer after we returned to Japan that Gen Dolvin again went to Washington, then returned and summarily put in his retirement papers, just as Jefe would the following year. One of my best friends, a senior captain, who ran the “back-channel” room, the most secure site at that headquarters, told me that the two-star general on Okinawa, who our CID was investigating for misuse of government property, namely the general’s plane, to run his wife back and forth to Hong Kong and Thailand on spending sprees. They were only a week away from relieving that general when suddenly he was named IG of the Army. I spent my last 8 months in Japan trying to handle those recriminations, since all the people who had investigated him were in our command. The Zama CID hated me because I kept showing their targets how to avoid being busted, such as instead of selling full bottles of whiskey from the Class 6 stores to local bars, which was a crime, sell them empties, which the bars could then fill with their own locally-brewed hooch. Foiled at least one sting they had planned. The CID commanding colonel insisted I was dirty. But when the new Army IG focused on him and 3 others, I was the JAG they all came to see for help.


There’s a point to this remembrance: Every important thing I learned in my life, I didn’t know I’d learned it until years later. This collapse in Afghanistan is just one event proving the rule.


What has changed in America since 1974 is being able to identify the Good we are fighting…from the top! The troops still understand at the bottom, at least this latest generation, that has just watched their sacrifices in the Middle East scuttled by a sort of front office management in Washington, who see the soldier as little more than units of production, no more, no less than China does it factory workers.

This may soon change, for this generation of veteran will be unwilling to urge their children to go fight for America unless they have real leaders to believe in. And real missions involving the security of the things they hold sacred.

Thanks to this defilement of the troops who died in Afghanistan, as defined by our current government, their ideal of  Good is something really very few American citizens would find worth fighting for.

Natural Law: If the People do not define the Good, we are lost.

Beware: The Tech corporate thinking is that we can still fight wars with robots and gizmos. And whoever controls those robots and gizmos will decide who and what is worth dying for. They also know, should our shores actually be threatened,  they could still return of the draft, only for troops such as the Soviet employed them at Stalingrad, as cannon fodder. Not soldiers.

The more likely outcome would be a deal.

If you don’t believe me watch a British film, “Eye in the Sky”, where a vicious middle-east terrorist is located, and an entire committee of politicians in several locations must decide to use lethal force (a drone) to blow up the building he’s in. But then an eyes-on scout tells them a small village girl is just outside the hut. Fire or not fire? And yes, they had to involve lawyers. (Knowing the English I’m sure they asked not only moral, but natural law survival questions even they didn’t know they were asking. But also very British, they allowed virtually every political position in the room to walk away with a small victory, if only that of victimhood.)

I repeat, when wars become remote-controlled, as my old Army JAG chief told me in 1974, if we put lawyers in foxholes we’ll be finished. If people cannot fight in their wars, for things they believe, then their betters will be telling them what is worth fighting for, and at some point they will all become redundant.

You’ve actually heard this in the political rhetoric of the past quarter century, just never recognizing it for what it is. If you fear that your grandson may have to fight in a war to save America, well, there’s always Stalingrad.

Those men and women did not die in vain in the Middle East.

America will only be worth fighting for if the People make it worth fighting for. Front office management had nothing to do with the country’s creation. Not the politicians, not the bureaucracy, not the generals, not the lawyers.

This is Natural Law’s law.



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