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From Vietnam to Afghanistan: The Bling They Curse and Carry

By Marc Levy

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That night at dinner Ron and his father keep pushing me. They want to hear about the war from someone who knows, someone who's seen it. So I tell them. "You're going to hear a lot of things from a lot of grunts, but here's my take." I get it over with. I talk about what's actually happening and not what the press says. I tell them that they should give the protesters the time of day because they may be right. I tell them about the lies, the stupidity, the failed tactics, and the American politicians scrambling for damage control. I tell them about demoralized troops and dead civilians, about how we are fighting the war for the Saigon government and not the people of Vietnam, that we can hardly say anymore that we are protecting the Vietnamese from the Communists because we are killing more civilians than the Communists ever did. The more civilians we kill, the more the Cong look like the liberators and the war swings their way. I tell them the Saigon regime's days are numbered. I tell them the war has made me sick in the soul.

-- Doug Anderson

As the large commercial jet swept over a patchwork of emerald fields, on a sunlit grassy hill scores of men beneath white sheets slept peacefully on canvas cots. "When the doors open, exit quickly" said the pilot over the intercom, as we neared the American base. The craft touched down, tropic heat rushed in, two hundred fresh troops hurried to screaming soldiers pointing to sand bag bunkers. "Rocket attack last night," yelled a sergeant, pointing to the open air morgue on the hill. "Welcome to Vietnam."

The next day another war racket. A bored clerk pointed to our gear-filled GI duffel bags. "Turn it all in," he said, motioning to large wood crates. Each man tossed spanking new combat fatigues, mess kits, gas masks, canteens, pistol belts, web gear, flashlights, steel helmets and helmet liners, brindled leather and nylon boots, towels, ponchos and camouflaged poncho liners, socks, T shirts, briefs, worth several hundred dollars, away. "Keep the line moving," said the clerk. Next, we FNGs, friendly new guys, ignorant of black markets and rear echelon kickbacks, were re-issued the exact same gear.

A few days later the majority of men were sent to supply, artillery or logistics units. The remaining ten percent were infantry or elite ground forces.

Army infantry carried fifty-pound rucksacks stuffed with canned food (C-rats), Claymore mines, trip flares, det cord, six to twelve canteens of water, a change of clothes, a pen and pad, letters from home, candy, a tooth brush and tooth paste, soap and cigarettes, drugs (marijuana, opium,Thai sticks) paperback books, skin mags, cameras, photos of family or girlfriends. We pried open Claymore mines for chunks of C-4 to boil water for mud-like powdered coffee. Slung rifle straps across our shoulders, draped bandoleers across our chests or stowed full clips to hip hugging cloth bags. We hung grenades on pistol belts, tied leech straps at our ankles and knees to stop the pests from crawling to our private parts. Inked cloth helmet covers to mark the days gone by, or scrawled our home towns, our nicknames, our thoughts on this war. Peace signs and love beads dangled from our sweaty necks. A few wore necklaces made of dried human ears.

Army grunts carried the much cursed M16 which often jammed or malfunctioned. Leathernecks toted the heavier but reliable M14. Machine gunners lugged cumbersome but effective M60s. Medics were issued first aid supplies and M16s, or hustled shotguns or .45 cal grease guns. Elite units had access to unconventional weaponry, or used the Viet Cong's SKS or AK 47.

A patrol might last a few days or a few weeks. Up at dawn, a quick meal, pull in the perimeter trip flares and Claymores, march till noon, chow down, set an ambush, or walk into one. Or nothing. Just hump, and hump and more hump. In free fire zones, kill or be killed. At dusk, find a place to dig in, set out the trips and Claymores, eat, rest, wait for guard, two shifts, two hours each. "My sit reps are negative," you whisper into the radio handset if your sector is safe.

Over the months we grew lean and muscular, and our dark eyes held intense stares that soldiers in rear bases could not comprehend. But regular infantry know that life in war means kill first, ask questions later, and half the time it's a crap shoot.

A year later, survivors turned in beat up gear for clean clothes, washed up, boarded civilian jets, flew 'back to the world.' For many, a world less than welcoming.

The Bling They Carry

All that was quite some time ago but war, a Marine general has said, is a racket. And business is booming.

Army infantry troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are supplied with much equipment, including: night scopes, thermal imaging scopes, Kevlar helmets, close combat optics, commo gear, body armor, M4 carbines, knee and elbow pads, hydration systems, back packs, combat boots, fire proof gloves, cold weather gear, camouflaged fatigues, safety glasses, and M4 carbines. Elite soldiers and medics are issued additional gear. Average weight: seventy-five pounds. Average cost: $18,000. One hundred thousand private contractors fill a range of jobs once held by the military. Many are poorly paid third world nationals. Thirty thousand mercenaries kill for the money.

What was true in Iraq will be true in Afghanistan: where there are corporate contracts, soldiers of fortune, corrupt officials, unscrupulous allied or US troops, there will be shady alliances, war crime cover ups, and black markets that traffic in stolen or shoddy goods. But the heart of dark commerce originates elsewhere.

M16 Redux

Much to the over-equipped US soldiers' dismay, for several years the military has stated that endemic battle field complaints and repeated ballistic test failures are insufficient cause to replace the defective M4. The weapon is ill suited for desert or high altitude combat; prone to jamming; requires constant cleaning; the barrel not long lived. Yet despite abundant in house and anecdotal evidence, last year the Marines ordered twenty-six thousand additional flawed Colt fire arms. Special Ops troops prefer superior automatic weapons manufactured by a variety of companies, none or few made in America.

The AK 47, little changed since Vietnam, is light, cheap, easily manufactured and maintained, reliably fires when submerged underwater, silted with mud, dusted with sand, chilled at high altitudes, or heated by tropic sun. Compared to the underwhelming six-hundred dollar, high tech M4, the one-hundred dollar or less wood and steel AK is the guerrilla weapon of choice. As is the twenty-dollar shoulder launcher and three-dollar per round RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). This standard issue third world weapon can destroy or disable Humvees, shoot down multimillion dollar Black Hawks, pin down, kill or maim American grunts, or blow up nervous convoys traversing high-risk tarmac or dirt roads embedded with IEDs.

Uneasy Riders

After the initial Humvee debacle, Pelosi et al made much of securing up armored versions of this post-Vietnam all purpose Jeep. At $60,000 per unit, with pre 2009 back orders in the tens of thousands, the bleak truth is the improved variant remains vulnerable to homemade Improvised Explosive Devices. Early in the Iraq war American troops discovered countless weapons caches buried in Iraq's desert sands. Left unguarded, millions of heavy artillery shells, mortars, rockets, grenades, small arms and ammo were stolen by future insurgents. Buried or disguised as garbage, detonated by remote control (a cell phone will do), IEDs have blown up countless American vehicles. Youtube IED ambush videos are chilling. Moments before the fiery blast an off camera voice steadily repeats, "Allahu Akbar...Allahu akbar..." God is Great. Then BOOM and smoke and flames and too often dead or wounded Americans and Iraqi or Afghan civilians strewn among the wreckage. The advent of suicide car bombers is equally lethal.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, no combat vehicle and its occupants are safe. Not the multi ton Abrams or Bradley tanks, not the fearsome Stryker Fighting Vehicles, nor the early praised Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored personnel carriers, known as MRAPs.

Invented by the South African's forty years ago, the vehicles V shaped hull successfully deflects outward explosions originating under ground. Thousands are in use, but too late the Marines and Army have discovered the MRAPs failings. Its bulk (seven to twenty-five tons) limits mobility; its high center of gravity, meant to further protect against land mines, has lead to numerous roll overs, injuries or death by drowning. To make matters worse, the bullet proof windshields are composed of carcinogenic material. When pulverized by an RPG, the crew are coated with and inhale the toxic dust. In cities the multi-wheeled goliath may snag power lines, which electrocute the occupants. The vehicles are costly to repair, have dreadful mileage, and often are too big to maneuver on urban roads.

At $300,000 to nearly $1,000,000 per unit, the air transport delivery cost of an Iraq-bound MRAP is an astounding $750,000. Multiple design versions have created logistical nightmares. Worst of all, this motorized behemoth has encouraged Iraqi and Afghan fighters to greater improvisation. For all its heft and glamor, the MRAP cannot withstand a large scale, cheap and locally made EFP (buried shaped charges which punch a hole straight into the belly of the beast), or massive and inexpensive fertilizer bombs whose incredible explosive force can flip an MRAP over, killing or maiming all inside.

Better late than never, the Army and Marine's have found it expedient to save lives by canceling or reducing further MRAP orders. BAE Mobility and Protection Systems; General Dynamics Land Systems; General Purpose Vehicles LLC; International Military and Government LLC; Oshkosh Truck Corporation; Protected Vehicles, Inc, and Textron Marine & Land, cannot be pleased, though legions of MRAPs and Humvee's in Iraq will be shipped to Afghanistan, and will require private contract maintenance.

Selling Out

Now that we are on the road to leaving Iraq, the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program hopes to sell the Iraqi government much US weaponry. According to Defense News, this would involve: "140 M1 Abrams tanks, up to 400 Stryker vehicles, 80 Armored Security Vehicles, helicopters, and .50-caliber machine guns." But such is the state of the Iraqi government that, "Baghdad's credit rating is too low, corruption there too rife, and the Iraqi military procurement system too primitive to meet the (FMS) standards." Not to worry. According to Defense News, "If the Pentagon wants the deal to go through, they will find a way to do it," said Dean Lockwood, an analyst with Forecast International, a Connecticut-based think tank. "The main reason a deal does not go through would be if Congress got involved and stopped it." A challenge the Pentagon will likely overcome, the better to insure US interoperability with the Iraqi army, and to keep in country US firms which provide weapons upkeep.

The War Drags On

And what a drag it is. Among other complaints, the 19 August 2009 issue of Army Times distills the battle for better combat uniforms. Many grunts had emailed the paper; most found the Army-created digital pattern useless in Afghanistan's varied terrain.

"The Army needs a new uniform, period. Not just for Afghanistan," wrote 2nd Lt. Chris Cahak. "The ACU (army combat uniform) uses 'universal camouflage,' meaning it doesn't blend into anything. There is no natural setting that I have seen anywhere that blends in with the ACU."

"The ACU pattern is horrible," exclaimed Sgt Ricky Hill of Fort Carson. "...it has failed miserably. What ever happened to the Multicam uniform?"

"Being an aviator," said Capt. Joe Corsentino, "I get a top-down view of the battlefield. I can tell you 100 percent that the ACU stands out like a sore thumb in the Afghan environment."

"The Army should have one desert pattern and one woodland pattern, at a minimum," says Sgt. H. "Afghanistan varies widely in the amount and type of vegetation, no one uniform works for the entire country. … The bottom line is that bad camouflage risks soldiers' lives, and the decision to force every soldier to wear a pattern that is ineffective has reduced the effectiveness of our force."

In Vietnam, the standard issue combat uniform was solid green. Elite troops wore coveted "Tiger Stripes." The multiple versions featured brush strokes of brown, green and black. Fast forward forty years. Crye Precision, a private company, began work on combat camouflage patterns in 2002. Says owner Caleb Crye, "We saw guys being deployed to Afghanistan with a combination of camouflage patterns that just weren't effective." After much research, trial and error, Crye developed MultiCam. Though not perfect, Special Ops forces and the Marines have adopted MultiCams' pleasing watercolor-like blend of desert and forest patterns which make detection difficult. Army brass, far from combats caterwaul, remain undecided and need to study, perhaps save face, before recommending a battle dress uniform which combat troops desperately demand. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., launched a congressional camouflage mandate in mid-June 2009.

Vested Interests

Most US body armor in Iraq and Afghanistan consists of a vest and ceramic inserts which protect the upper body from armor-piercing rounds. Nearly a dozen companies make body armor for US troops; hundreds of thousands of body armor sets have been issued since 2002.

Late last year Army Secretary Pete Geren quietly recalled 16,000 body armor vests after an audit revealed Armor Works bullet plates failed ballistic tests and adequate protection was lacking. The DoD Inspector General cited the Army for flawed testing procedures prior to awarding an armor contract. Army brass disputed the findings but implemented the nearly fifty-six million dollar recall. In 2006 the Air Force recalled hundreds of body armor sets made by Pinnacle Armor Inc based on test failures. That same year the Navy ordered $9.2 million worth of body armor from Point Blank Body Armor, whose equipment was recalled in 2005 by the Army and Marines. Guaranteed to stop a 9mm bullet, government tests revealed some inserts were fully penetrated.

Ironically, many Army and Marine troops complain that current body armor is heavy and bulky and slows them down when endurance, speed and agility are critical. This past spring, military brass stated troops need not wear body armor until manufacturers cut the weight of improved protective inserts.

End Game

Lousy weapons, shoddy equipment, questionable contracts, poor intel, burnt out troops, a foreign populace not disposed to American occupation, endemic roadside and suicide bomb attacks, the absence of a cogent US mission, warlords gone wild, Olympic levels of Afghan government corruption, Afghan civilians made hostile by chronic friendly fire. What folly. No wonder the British public want their troops out.

Once, in a distant war, GI DJs woke American troops with, "Good morning, Vietnam!" In Afghanistan and Iraq, their successors might proclaim to weary grunts trudging in or setting out on patrol, "Good night, and good luck."

Marc Levy was an infantry medic in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. His war related fiction and non fiction have been published in various online and print journals, most recently on slowtrains.com. He can be reached at silverspartan@gmail.com.

Doug Anderson won the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize for his war poetry collection The Moon Reflected Fire. His memoir, Keep Your Head Down-Vietnam, The Sixties, and a Journey of Self-Discovery, was recently published by Norton and is available at http://tinyurl.com/n92rl9. Introductory quote used by permission of the author.

This article was originally published in the September 4-6, 2009 edition of counterpunch.org

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