Decent Interval

Boy, there’s nothing worse than a Democrat caught with his pants down. Remember Bill “I don’t not have sex with that woman” Clinton? He did denial pretty well, didn’t he. And outrage. Faux, as it happened, but, Hell, it worked in Arkansas. Why not on a the Big Stage? He also went down to Haiti to peddle his line there too, but you see how that worked out? Not too well. Like my Dad, Lou Larkins used to say, “The truth hurts, but at least you don’t look like a jackass.” Pop, meet Joe Biden and the same old, same old, otherwise known as the Democratic Party. In case you didn’t notice, they do outrage pretty well too. And, withal, manage to look like jackasses. About their amour propre, frankly, I could care less. But I do worry a little about collateral damage. Said damage being what otherwise looked to be a very promising start to a Democratic administration that faced one of the most serious challenges in American history, like maybe since the Civil War, or 1850, to be exact. And those guys didn’t have to deal with the climate change that the Republicans somehow miss, fire and flood, Hell, even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have been impressed. You know. It’s in the Bible. But what would the Republicans know about the Bible? It’s a good prop for political theater, but come off you tired old ethics. Anyway, Biden had his work cut out for him. And he still does.

Now, some of us are old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson. Hey, some of us are even lucky enough to live cheek by jowl to the cool waters of the Pedernales, where LBJ had a homestead. I guess the judgment of history might be that, while an asshole, Johnson had a poor Texan’s sense of what it was like to be on the outside looking in–economical, racially, socially. Believe me, the kind of genetic defensiveness that accompanies the “they’re all laughing at me” reflex that a Southern sense of inferiority begets is powerful motivation. Johnson had his Ivy League bastards, inherited from JFK, to whom he was accidental successor. He didn’t much like ’em, but they could toss big words around in furrin tongues and do linear programing and stuff, all of which was guaranteed to win us that war in Veet Nam. Poor Lyndon. “Hey Hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?” Somehow, I bet Joe wakes up at night hearing “Biden, Biden, don’t be hiden….Afghanistan is on your watch.” Damn, we don’t do foreign policy and wars. Haven’t since FDR. And that, boys and girls, was a long time ago. Just as we’re about to try getting the New Deal rolling again–and God knows, we need it–some tawny buggers in funny clothes and jabbering in a strange tongue while praying to some false God, well, jeez, they made Joe look bad. Real bad. And I think he and his supporters know it. The truth hurts, said my old man, but at least you don’t look like a jackass while you’re lying.

Now Joe’s problem here is what I call the “decent interval” trope. I know that even if you are old enough to remember Woodstock, you may not remember “decent interval.” And if you’re under the age of 50, well, unless you had some pretty good history teaching come your way, you won’t know. Since this is America, and we don’t do history–proudly, you may recall one of Obama’s hires (Susan Rice) at the UN lecturing all us old dudes stuck, and I mean, sir, stuck in the past, well, you probably don’t know much history. That’s ok. Join the club. This is America. You don’t have to know anything to be a member of the club. Just your rights and yore “freedom.” That’ll do, thank you.

So what is this “decent interval” stuff, and what does it have to do with Biden and Afghanistan. Well, nothing and everything, cause it’s just the take of an obscure college professor in South Texas (but I live near Johnson City!!), but it isn’t entirely speculative. First, let’s define our terms.

What is a “decent interval?” No, it’s not how long it took Bill Clinton to get warmed up again after his first go-round with some bimbo. Let’s start with the phrase, which provided the title for Frank Snepp’s book on the United States withdrawal from Viet Nam. Rather than deal with me, why don’t we lap Snepp have the floor

April 29, 1975: the evacuation of Saigon. It’s every man for himself; thousands of panic-stricken Vietnamese clawing at the Embassy gates, begging not to be left behind as the last of the Americans save themselves

If you were there that last day it was like being at a funeral where all the mourners are battling each other to avoid being abandoned at graveside.

I was one of those mourners: an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency and the CIA’s chief strategy analyst on the scene. I’d been in Vietnam five and half years when the end came. It was one of the most shameful moments I’ve ever lived through.

The reason it ended that way was wishful thinking on the part of a lot of American officials. Few wanted to admit the war was lost. So we waited too long to plan for the exit.

The final unraveling began two years before with the ceasefire negotiated by White House National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. It got the last of the American troops out of South Vietnam, but left 140,000 North Vietnamese forces in the south. They wouldn’t get out because we hadn’t beaten them. And now they turned on the Saigon government itself…a government corrupt, inefficient, riddled with Communist spies, possibly as many as fourteen thousand of them according to intelligence estimates. A government about as solid and durable as Swiss cheese.

The first year of the so-called “cease-fire war” Congress tipped the odds hard against our allies by halting all U.S. bombing in Indochina, and a year later President Nixon resigned because of Watergate. The Communists were particularly encouraged by that event. They’d always seen Nixon as a madman whose unpredictability terrified them. With his departure they decided the road to Saigon was open.

In early 1975 they began chipping away at real estate close to the capital to test U.S. resolve and Saigon’s resiliency. The president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu panicked, and in mid-March without telling any of us in the Embassy he ordered his forces to pull back in two crucial areas, the northernmost provinces of the country and the western highlands. The withdrawal — meant to preserve his best forces and strengthen his hand against potential coup-makers — quickly turned into a rout as terrified civilians became entangled in the retreating units. Over the next two weeks their Communist pursuers sliced the country in two and obliterated half of Saigon’s army.

It was too much for some Embassy officials to believe, including Ambassador Graham Martin. He was a Cold Warrior of the old stripe. He’d lost a son in Vietnam and he wasn’t going to lose Saigon to the Communists.

In early April, a month before the collapse, I briefed Martin, who had long considered me a trusted protege, on the destruction of government forces. He wouldn’t believe me. He insisted Saigon still had a chance.

In the next four weeks, he convinced himself and many in Washington that the Communists could be lured into another cease-fire and a new negotiated settlement that would leave South Vietnam intact though shorn of less “productive” territory. He refused to plan in earnest for an accelerated evacuation and many of us in the Embassy were forced to begin sneaking Vietnamese friends out of the country on cargo aircraft.

Four days before the end, in an effort to appease the Communists and sweeten the prospects for a last-minute political deal, the Ambassador persuaded President Thieu himself to step down and get out of Vietnam.

That night I drove Thieu to a secret airbase outside Saigon to catch his “black” flight out. Tracers lit the night sky, small arms fire crackled along the perimeters, and rumors of a murderous coup, like the one that had toppled and killed President Diem in 1963, were rampant. When Thieu showed up at the pick-up point, he was wearing a gray sharkskin suit, his hair slicked back and he looked like a model for an Asian edition of Gentleman’s Quarterly. He’d been weeping and drinking, but he had one consolation: he’d just slipped most of his gold out of the country.

As it turned out, Thieu made his escape safely. But it didn’t give the Communists a moment’s pause, any more than I’d expected it to. Indeed for weeks our intelligence had indicated they would stop for nothing, though the Ambassador wouldn’t believe it.

The latest and most definitive report had come two weeks before from a Vietnamese agent who’d never been wrong. This time he’d met with me at a safehouse near the capital and after chugging a beer – he loved Budweiser – had given me the bad news straight up: the Communists were going to overrun Saigon by the end of April, bringing in airstrikes and artillery, without any pause for a political fix.

That’s exactly what happened.

On April 28 Communist aircraft bombed the Saigon airbase, and that night their artillery began pounding the edges of the city, the concussion hurling many of us out of bed.

But still Ambassador Martin was hopeful. He thought we could evacuate by fixed-wing aircraft at a leisurely pace. He wouldn’t even chop down a large Tamarind tree in the embassy courtyard to make way for helicopters. That was a mistake. The landing strips were soon blown apart, and with one hundred forty thousand Communist troops now within an hour’s drive of downtown Saigon, we clearly had not a moment to waste.

Mid-morning of the 29th, the White House finally overrode Martin and decided to send in helicopters from the evacuation fleet offshore. The signal to evacuate: a Saigon radio broadcast of Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

For all of the advance warning the evacuation order caught the Embassy staff off guard – so much so we didn’t even have a master list of the Vietnamese employees, agents and collaborators who desperately needed to be rescued. So we spent the day rescuing ourselves and whatever lucky Vietnamese could sneak, beat or cajole their way onto a U.S. helicopter or sailing vessel.

At the Embassy walls Marine guards played God, picking those who would be saved, kicking back those who wouldn’t. Mothers were separated from children, some were trampled, others abandoned just outside the gates

Meanwhile remnants of the South Vietnamese army and air force fled into our arms, abandoning boats and aircraft at sea as they struggled to reach the evacuation fleet.

By mid-afternoon the Embassy compound itself was jammed with desperate Vietnamese waiting to be choppered off the roof or from the courtyard which had now been cleared of Martin’s Tamarind. I walked among them, handing out water and often- vain encouragement. At one point, the downdraft from an overladen chopper tore open bags of secret documents discarded in the courtyard and flung them into nearby treetops. The North Vietnamese would later use these and other abandoned files to identify agents and collaborators we’d left behind.

As the pace of the airlift accelerated, more and more Vietnamese were crammed inside the Embassy to hasten departures from the roof. Some were cradling animals, others clutched wailing children and as the air conditioning system broke down the heat and stench became unspeakable. Explosions rocked the building periodically as thermite grenades were used to destroy sensitive equipment, and through much of the day the walls shook as from a creeping case of nerves as rooftop incinerators gobbled up tons of classified files that had been left till the last moment to be destroyed.

From time to time I stopped by the CIA operations room to listen in horror at the radios as stranded Vietnamese agents pleaded over the circuits for help, begging not to be forgotten. Some would be picked up by Air America helicopters that CIA colleagues and I sent shuttling around the city. Most would be forgotten.

At one point a Vietnamese woman who had borne a child she said was my own called to say she would kill herself and the boy if I couldn’t rescue them. I told her to call back in an hour — I’d help her then. But when she called back I was downstairs briefing the Ambassador on another useless piece of intelligence, and she made good on her promise, adding two more deaths to those already weighing on my conscience.

When my time came to leave that night, with the last CIA contingent in the Embassy, we had to push Vietnamese out of the way in the halls to get to the chopper on the roof. I couldn’t look into their eyes.

Retreat is the most difficult of all military operations. But as a matter of honor you do not leave friends on the battlefield. In the evacuation of Saigon over half of the Vietnamese who finally got out escaped on their own with no help from us until they were far at sea.

The last CIA message from the Embassy declared: Let’s hope we do not repeat history. This is Saigon station signing off.

Sound familiar, y’all? Oh, wait, you ain’t seen nothing. I want you to take a look at Anthony Cordesman’s analysis of Afghanistan, which is available for download, if you want to read it (y’all can read, even if you’re a Democrat, right). I won’t download the whole thing. Just Cordesman’s introduction.

The sudden collapse of the Afghan central government and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) has occurred with stunning speed. It has clearly been driven by the fact that both President Trump and President Biden not only announced deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. military support, but they then cut that support to levels where Afghan forces could not survive and where many Afghan politicians and government figures were willing to stand aside or surrender.

It also, however, is the collapse of a house of cards that took some twenty years to build and that was driven as much by failures at the civil level as the military level. It is a bipartisan failure, and one that was ultimately driven by a U.S. inability to provide objective and effective assessments of the developments in the Afghan government it was trying to aid and of the Taliban threat.

This analysis attempts to list the many factors that made both defeat and a sudden collapse possible, and it attempts to make it clear that any valid analysis must examine all of these factors and not simply the events that have taken place in the months since President Trump first set a deadline for U.S. and allied withdrawals in February 2020 or during the weeks in July and August 2021 that gave the Taliban control over most of the country.

It does highlight a wide range of issues and actions for which the U.S. must take responsibility, but it also highlights the fact that many of the failures were caused by Afghans. It also focuses on a lesson that is all too clear from other successful insurgencies that range from the rise of communism in Russia and China to the collapse of Vietnam – and most other successful insurgencies since the end of World War II. No outside power can help a failed government that cannot help itself.

This report entitled, The Reasons for the Collapse of Afghan Forces, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210816_Cordesman_Sudden_Collapse.pdf?8G.OilPH6D9mfPnqBJ4HpitDeh1k2Xaw

Now, obviously, Cordesman and Snepp aren’t talking about exactly the same thing. But you might say there is a ring of familiarity, no, especially in the chaotic circumstances of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the mendacious behavior of Biden’s Secretary of State who made everything even worse (if possible) by calling Afghanistan a successful mission. Please don’t force me to upload clips of Biden and Blinken (and Nod?) yelling out to their Amen corner in righteous indignation about we had accomplished. You don’t need it. and I don’t want to do it. My only observation is that if Biden and Company were caught with their pants down–they didn’t see this coming, well, then, none of them belong where they are–and believe me, I think Biden’s economic program and attempts to do something about mitigating climate change are not only necessary, but maybe too late. You know, the horse is out of the barn sort of thing? The real issue is that they too were counting on a decent interval. And, dammit, the Taliban didn’t give it to them. Can you believe it? The nerve. Just like those damned North Veet Nameeses. Like my hero Michael Corleone liked to say, “Don’t insult my intelligence.” Yeah. Please. They didn’t get the decent interval. Well, imagine that…….

Look, I gotta level with you. I don’t give a rat’s backside about Biden or the Democrats. But I do care about the country. And I know damn well that if this shit show continues, the Democrats will first lose the House, and, then, God knows, probably the Presidency. The infrastructure stuff will probably simply come to a halt. If we get some clown in Trump’s mold (and why wouldn’t we?), the patient reversal of all the damage that he and his cabal of criminals did to environmental regulations, the EPA, NOAA, State, and probably the Congressional dining room will simply bite the dust. And then where are we? Back to square one, having wasted even more time while the “progressives” slug it out over who has the most compelling grievance story? Don’t insult my intelligence. After all, it’s only the future.

I voted for Biden and the Democrats not because I particularly liked them or respected them, but because I was truly afraid that they might be the last chance we have to save America’s sorry backside. I still think that, but evidently, the sense of urgency that has been giving me insomnia doesn’t quite seem to have taken hold in some quarters. Instead, I am told I expect too much. Oh, really? Define too much.

If y’all want to know what’s around the bend for America, come to Texas. I’ll be happy to explain it to you, because I have been here for 30 years. Not that that means anything. After all, it doesn’t make me an expert, but at least I can find Mexico on a map. And I know they don’t want Texas back. Believe me, they were better off with everything they lost. They weren’t using it. Meanwhile, what Mexico lost turned into the basis of a Civil War for those ingenious Yankees and their Southern kin. Slavery in the territories? Really? I think the Mexicans got the better end of the deal, whether they know it or not.

The Irony of American History. Never ceases to enthrall me. We’ll probably have to wait another century to see how this all turns out. Thank God I won’t be here to say “I told you so.”

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

3 thoughts on “Decent Interval

  1. Define “too much”?

    OK, that would be perfection.

    We live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect and flawed people, dealing with the flaws and foibles of other imperfect people. In the US, imperfect people sought to grant the right to vote to other imperfect people, but only some.

    This was based on flawed and subjective interpretations of an obtuse and debatable document that tried to predict (or dictate) our future as a nation.

    Once I came to accept that reality, I threw away any high expectations I may have previously had for ever reaching a perfect form of government.

    Now, as an imperfect person, I am left with balancing competing interests, adjusting to individual and group flaws and trying to make the best of a constant flow of bad, damaging, debilitating or just plain hopeless situations.

    Now that irony is officially dead, the only expectation I have is to hope that I can continue to muddle through doing as much good as I can without causing too much harm to others.

    I’ll leave it to others to define perfection and how to achieve it. That is way above my pay grade.

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    1. I don’t want to belabor the obvious. We are facing extinction level events in both the political and the climatic spheres. Screwing up here–while human–can have catastrophic consequences. And the political consequences in a place like Texas where the Democrats have talked themselves (and, at times, almost me) into Blue Mirages will be to finish that prospect for another 25 years. Too long. We’re on the same team, but we have very different levels of tolerance for foul ups. I got judged–often unfairly–every time I wrote a paper, walked into a classroom, or even made a comment at a professional meeting. The stakes were always high. When understood that, I stopped being a nice guy.

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  2. Yeah, I tried on the Nice Guy suit, too. It doesn’t fit real well.

    My higher level of tolerance probably comes from too much exposure to the idiocy of people in politics.

    I try to pick my fights by controlling the battleground, not reacting to every challenge. If you’re reacting, you’re losing.

    That means that I have to understand pacing to avoid getting my expectations up too high and just deal with what I can.

    I might not get them right now, but I won’t forget, or forgive. I’ll get them eventually.

    Winning becomes defined as the ability to survive and continue to fight another day.

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