In 1969, I served as commander of a Mobile Advisory Team (MAT-36) in the Mekong Delta. My training had included Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, MATA (Military Advisor School) the JFK/SWC at Ft. Bragg, jump school at Benning and Vietnamese Language Training (DLI at Ft. Bliss). Army tests had revealed my facility for languages and I was soon fluent, able to operate alone with my Vietnamese units, allowing two-man teams from my five man unit to work with other elements. I lived with my soldiers, spoke with them, drank with them, trained them and operated with them

I had spent almost 5 of my first 25 years in Europe as a student. I became fluent in Modern Greek and have a minor in German. When there, I traveled extensively. This is all to say that I began my work as an advisor with an uncommon appreciation for the languages, cultures and traditions of other people. That exposure was however limited largely to Western culture.

I quickly gained the trust of my allies during intense attacks early in my tour and I had a very close working relationship and friendship with my Counterpart, Lt Nguyen Van Dai. Late one afternoon, he accompanied me on a trip to a distant US Signal base for supplies. My base could only be reached by our boat or chopper; I kept a jeep parked by the Binh Dinh Bridge, several klicks away. My base was in what was called a “VC-contested area”, meaning the enemy and sympathizers were always around us, much I imagine like operating in villages in Iraq and Afghanistan today

As we drove back to the bridge, there was heavy civilian traffic in both directions….foot traffic, mopeds, cars, busses, trucks and animals. One moped in particular seemed bent on following us, driving ahead, falling behind, cutting in and out of traffic. At some point, the driver (there was also a passenger) cut in front of us from the right, braked and went down. It seemed quite deliberate but there were no injuries and the damage was limited to a broken tail light and dented fender.

Armed, Dai and I exited and I allowed him to speak to the driver. I listened intently. The man began wailing about his loss, demanding that he be compensated for his damage. A small crowd began to gather, slowly increasing in size. It was a hot day like most, we had work waiting for us back home, ambush patrols to plan and accompany and I was losing patience with this man’s ploy for a payday.

I spoke for the first time and I spoke quite clearly. I told him that his conduct was not honorable, that he refused to take responsibility for his own actions which had led to the accident; I told him that I would treat him as someone that must be cared for, like a child or a woman. I offered him a few hundred piasters and advised to take it and leave. There was then silence…and I heard Dai switch off the safety on his M-16. I did too.

The man accepted the bills and resentfully left. I drove away, now even more alert. We reached the Binh Dinh Bridge without incident and we talked it on the way back in my Boston whaler. “Face” is an Asian concept involving having or losing respect; it is quite important to these farmers and my actions had caused this man to “lose face.” On that day, I was less successful in my efforts to “win hearts and minds”, largely because I put my own concerns above local customs. All of my cultural knowledge and respect, my language skills, my strong intentions to support my allies did not prevent me from doing damage that day, however small.

Such western impatience can undermine a great deal of good work. As advisors, we must always strive to be on the right side of respectful conduct if we hope to be successful in our service. If a salesman’s mantra is ABC – Always Be Closing then an advisors mantra must be ABL.

Always Be Learning.


The Greek tragedian Sophocles wrote AJAX in the 5th century BC. The play has been contemporized by Bryan Doerries and scenes are being read in town hall settings across America, followed by discussions. What makes these gatherings particularly timely are the underlying themes of AJAX:
A valiant warrior, haunted by his past actions in combat (PTSD) and a rage triggered by a political decision, then becomes confused, destructive and ultimately takes his own life.

Invited guests are engaged by a panel afterwards and discuss the underlying themes of the play and its relevance to the plight of our returning male and female veterans. Tonight, I participated in such a gathering, produced by The Cornerstone Theater Company. The after-discussion was stimulating and insightful. Among the panel members was Dr. Judith Broder, founder of The Soldiers Project, which provides individual counseling to veterans in crisis, pro bono, thru a network of therapists across America.

I strongly support this reading series be continued and expanded. The exchanges afterwards are personal, moving and informative. PTSD will affect quality of life for many thousands of Americans in the years to come, both for veterans and for their families. Humanizing this condition, creating empathy and understanding of the pathology of PTSD is critical.

THEATER OF WAR, the entity that promotes these readings, offers this introduction:

A Dramatic Reading of Scenes from Sophocles’ AJAX
An ancient play that timelessly depicts the psychological and physical wounds inflicted by war upon warriors.


As I write this, four Marine snipers face disciplinary action for having urinated on several dead Afghan militants and showing even poorer judgment by having filmed it.

Had they been prisoners or wounded, I would hardly be shocked but more offended…they were dead bodies. Tasteless, yes. Insensitive, yes. Shocking? Not to veterans that have been to war. Civilians would probably not view their behavior as ‘normal’. Combat troops are no longer normal. They may return to normalcy in time, once out of combat…or maybe not.

You can train people to hunt and shoot and kill. Some of us become good at it, some of us enjoy it, some of us miss it. This act was graphic and disrespectful and damaging beyond imagination to those soldiers still engaged because it demonstrated a contempt for the vanquished…but in some twisted way, it was an act of celebration that they were still alive and their enemy was not. I can’t defend them or justify their choice but I do understand it; I’ve seen and know of far worse acts of desecration…acts that would not only offend you, they would disgust and frighten you.

War is ugly beyond your ability to imagine; it alters those involved. I’ve got to believe they knew what they were doing was wrong but felt justified in doing it anyway, felt they’d somehow earned the right to do it, if only by having survived. The true damage done was in filming it and then releasing that film. They will be punished, but make no mistake, they will be punished for having embarrassed The Marines and America, not for pissing on dead insurgents.

I’m sorry for them, I regret their poor judgment…but I feel certain none of this would have happened had they not been committed to war. So, we as citizens bear some of that blame. War is not surgical or civilized or respectful. And neither are its participants. Having committed them to that alteration, we’d better be equally committed to their recovery.

12 Jan 2012