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Spence Perry: Wars are easy to start, but not so easy to stop

December 07, 2011|By SPENCE PERRY

It is, alas, time to look ahead to the new year. Seldom have columnists had so much misery from which to choose.

Reading the early stories on the prospective U.S. withdrawal from Iraq caused me to reflect on the fact that our country is far better at getting into wars than getting out of them.

The War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and Korean, all presented exit problems. There were few problems after World War II because everyone wanted to go home and the leadership of the country knew further conflict, even to save the world from communism would not be happily received.

The last time we tried to go home from some place we had been in for some time was at the end of the Vietnam War. After 10-plus years, expenditure of untold lives and treasure and grave national trauma, that persists to this day, we decided to come home.

Now it is not beyond the group of man to plan an intelligent withdrawal. The U.S. did exactly that beginning in late 1968.

The two senior commands involved in the war, CINCPAC (Commands in Chief Pacific) and USMACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam) created a task force to prepare an operations plan to Vietnamize the war.

The idea was the U.S. role would shrink and the Vietnamese role would grow until, like the Cheshire Cat in “Through the Looking Glass,” there would be nothing left but a U.S. smile.

The task force was named the Long Range Planning Task Group, or “LORAPL. It was an unusual group — chaired by Col. Don Marshall, a Berkeley professor of anthropology, with, among others, Col. Carl Benard, a leading authority on small unit tactics in guerilla warfare; Brian Jenkins, late of Special Forces then with Rand Corporation, who was becoming a respectful authority on terrorism, and an Australian brigadier general who helped the British to victory in a brutal unconventional conflict in Malaysia — a total of about 20 souls with a wide variety of training and experience.

The plan took nine months to make, including research in the field, repeated higher- level reviews and coordination with South Vietnamese counterparts.

It was a realistic, pragmatic plan, and there was confidence at all levels that conceptually it offered a sound approach.

As events turned out, the U.S. efforts at an organized and orderly withdrawal, leaving behind a South Vietnam able to maintain its independence was a tragic failure.

The reason for this sad result lies in a U.S. failure to keep its word. Promises of continued air and sea support; weapon and ammunition resupply and economic assistance slowly faded from view. The Congress quickly found other places to spend its money and there are few things the military has less enthusiasm for than continuing to be involved in a war that will not be won.

By 1975, when the choppers were lifting off the last Americans, along with what few of our Vietnamese friends we were able to save, the plans had long been abandoned.

This failure had tragic results. It sharpened already inflamed domestic feelings about the war, caused a nation that was actually learning its way to fall into the horror of dictatorship and further destabilized the region leading to the collapse of Laos and the killing fields of Cambodia.

In an age when we do not choose, often for defensible reasons, to take every conflict to absolute victory. We need to get better at going home.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.

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