El Imperio Contraataque (The Empire Strikes Back): Fighting the War to Retain the American Southwest
Part 2, Soldier’s Job, Cop’s Job
When I was a young private, circa 1975, in Company D-Second Battalion, 502nd Infantry of the One-O-One, there came a day when the Operations Shop (S-3) had taken some hundreds of old, worn out, or redundant – non-classified, be it noted – field manuals and dumped them in a pile outside battalion headquarters for anyone to take that wanted to. I browsed through the pile and selected maybe half a dozen or so to keep. Among these was the then counterinsurgency manual, which was rather a thin tome. I think I still have it around here, somewhere.
At the time, having turned eighteen not so long before and with rather less than a year in the Army, most of that in the training establishment, I didn’t understand all that much about counterinsurgency. I’d read Sir Robert Thompson’s No Exit From Vietnam, and his Defeating Communist Insurgency, along with a few personal accounts of counterinsurgency war. And, of course, I knew a fair number of veterans from the Vietnam War, which included, I think, every senior officer and sergeant I’d run into by then and no small number of junior enlisted. Even so, one paragraph – and that was all it was, a single miserable paragraph – of the manual just jumped out at me. It had to do with the role of police in a counterinsurgency. Basically, that one – miserable in both senses – paragraph said that the police were useful to help control a civilian population during combat operations and cordon and search operations.
I can think of no better illustration of why we lost in Vietnam than that; we never really understood the full nature of the war in which we were engaged.
For a check of proof, fast forward about seven years to Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Harry got many things right, I think, but also missed a couple of rather important things. One of these, incomprehensible in a senior professional soldier, was to completely miss – or perhaps ignore – the question, “Where was the rice coming from?” It wasn’t coming from the north; while the Peoples Army of Vietnam was perfectly capable of feeding a decent-sized corps or so or, at least, arranging for its supply, within a radius of maybe one hundred miles from a place like Dien Bien Phu, the distances involved in South Vietnam were up to an order of magnitude greater, for forces that may well have been at times half or more of an order of magnitude greater than those at Dien Bien Phu, as well, and with probably much more than an order of magnitude’s greater aerial interdiction than the French ever had a hope of mustering. One might adjudge the PAVN’s logistic problem, therefore, as possibly more than five hundred times greater, or even one thousand times more difficult, just for subsistence. Indeed, it was probably an insurmountable problem, or would have been, had they been feeding from the north.
They weren’t. The rice to keep the insurgency going was coming – had to have come – almost entirely from South Vietnam, either taxed from the local villages and farmers or bought from imports into the country and smuggled out to the waiting, ever-hungry, Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army, or bought on the open market in Cambodia and shipped very safely1 across that country to near the border.
Our soldiers and South Vietnam’s couldn’t stop it, we tried. The Navy and Air Force tried, too, and, obviously enough, failed overall as well. Only police could have stopped the flow of rice to the enemy. But they, of course, were only useful for controlling civilians during combat operations and the conduct of cordon and search operations, just as the manual said.
Conversely, imagine a circumstance where the police had been able to control the flow of rice. Could the regular North Vietnamese and Vietcong units operating around the periphery have maintained their threatening positions? Not a chance, they’d have either starved or had to fall back to where they could be fed, deeper into Cambodia, say, or Laos, or central North Vietnam where they could be fed. Their forays into what we might call the base areas of South Vietnam would have been less frequent and on a much reduced scale. If we’d been able to cause that to happen then the regular armed forces, ours and South Vietnam’s, both, would have been able to protect the police (and, critically, their families) so that they could have been relied on to have done a better job of identifying and rooting out what we called the “Viet Cong infrastructure,” such that collection of rice and other taxes, terrorism, and sabotage of South Vietnam would have been reduced. Short version: If we’d been willing and able to see that the police mattered as much as or, really, more than the armed forces – at least as far as the war for resource and population control went – we just might have won what was already a close run thing anyway.
In fact, it is the police, not the Army or Marines, who are most important in counterinsurgency. Why is this so? It’s for a couple of reasons. One is that the police are simply cheaper to field than soldiers are. Yes, they draw greater paychecks, but they are still cheaper to field, partly because of the kinds of arms they use, partly because things that must be provided to soldiers to keep them going have to be provided by other soldiers or, for some things, not especially cheap contract civilians, partly because of the more expensive initial training regimen for soldiers, and partly for post-service benefits. (That isn’t an exhaustive list, by the way.)
Cost is only one factor, though, and not the most important for a rich country. Much more important are the facts that proper police know their communities, know the people of their communities, know what looks, feels, and “smells” normal in their communities, can identify the stranger who ought not be there, and will usually have an instinctive feel for when things are not normal. Proper police are restrained in the use of force and especially deadly force. (Yes, this is, indeed, a suggestion that recent, fairly frequent, incidents of unwise, unnecessary, and inappropriate police use of deadly force means there is something wrong with our police, or something beginning to go wrong with our police, on the grand scale. Yes, this should scare you.)
Military intelligence is good for some things. If the opponent, MALA, as we’ve called it here, the Mexican-American Liberation Army, intends to do an attack on a Border Patrol fort, once we find we have to entrench the Border Patrol and their families2, the Army’s or Marine Corps’ military intelligence apparatus may be able to identify the whos, whens, wheres, and hows of this not so small thing in time to save the BP and their families. The police intelligence apparatus, on the other hand, is more likely to be able to do things like:
- Tally the theft of a van, reportedly by Pablo “Hot Fingers” Saldañas, with,
- A few purchases of individually near industrial quantities of acetone and hydrogen peroxide, and,
- A recording of a wiretapped conversation between “Juan the Fence,” for whom “Hot Fingers” is known to frequently work and, Enrique “Matagringo” Hernandez, mentioning “la Galleria…Houston…this Saturday,” and come up, “Fuck, bomb, there,”3 in time to evacuate people or even keep the damned thing from going off at all.
So where do regular forces come in? As mentioned, they defend the Border Patrol which defends the border. They also defend the police. Infantry are good for those kinds of thing. Just as we’re going to have to harden the Border Patrol, we’re going to have to harden and defend the police and their families, at least in the more dangerous and contested areas. Combat engineers are useful for that, just as they’ll prove useful to replace downed bridges and repair cratered roads and railroads. The cell and landline telephone systems are vulnerable. Civilian band radio and unencrypted police radio are vulnerable to both interception and interference. Hardened military wireless communication is rather less so, and probably not at all vulnerable to a fairly unsophisticated enemy. Moreover, as with humanitarian operations (see this: http://www.everyjoe.com/2014/11/10/politics/why-military-used-disaster-relief-humanitarian-aid/), the military just has a lot of redundant capability built in, since it’s made to go toe to toe with the 4th Mongolian Armored Shock Horde (marca registrada), but rarely has to.
Then, too, the military, rather than the police, should be used for high value, but potentially high casualty, operations. This isn’t just because the armed forces have things like helicopter gunships, F15s, artillery, and armor. And it isn’t just because, the time cops spend learning to direct traffic we spend learning to clear buildings and fortifications. No, it’s that there are only so many people – and they’re almost entirely men – who are really suitable to being cops. I speak here of men who can use violence, and look like they can, but prefer not to, men who would rather keep the peace than make a desert and call that “peace.”4
What that means, friends and comrades, is that simple soldiers like myself (formerly, when fit) can be easily replaced. Cops…not so much.
Don’t miss Part 1 in this series.
1 At least until the coup of 1970.
2 As we will.
3 You know it’s harder than this, right?
4 Indeed, my personal suspicions concerning why we’ve been seeing so many unjustifiable police shootings, of late, is that we’ve let into law enforcement too many people who have no business being cops, in good part because we allow to retire far too early those few men who are suitable to be cops.
Photo by tommaso79 / Getty Images
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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