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How America Failed Its Soldiers

We've been 'at war' for more than a decade, but to most Americans armed conflict is an abstraction and 'something other people do.'

The following is an excerpt from Andrew Bacevich's new book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country ( Metropolitan Books, 2013): 

When war claims a soldier’s life, what does that death signify? Almost reflexively, Americans want to believe that those making the supreme sacrifice thereby advance the cause of freedom. Since freedom by common consent qualifies as the ultimate American value, death ennobles the fallen soldier.

Yet sometimes nobility is difficult to discern and the significance of a particular death proves elusive. Consider the case of Captain William F. Reichert, shot and killed on January 27, 1971, at An Khe in the Republic of Vietnam. Captain Reichert did not fall in battle. He was assassinated. His assassin was an American soldier.

Age twenty-three, unmarried, and a graduate of West Point’s Class of 1968, Reichert was at the time commanding Troop C, First Squadron, Tenth Cavalry. As it happened, I was also stationed at An Khe then, serving as a platoon leader in Troop D.

Despite an impressive lineage, by the time I arrived, the First Squadron, Tenth Cavalry (“Buffalo Soldiers”) rated as something other than a “crack” outfit. By the winter of 1970–71, the dwindling American order of battle in Vietnam boasted few crack outfits. The U.S. Army was heading toward the exits, and those units that remained made for a motley collection.

Higher headquarters had assigned One-Ten Cav the mission of securing a long stretch of highway running west from the coastal city of Qui Nhon through the Central Highlands and on to Pleiku. The squadron’s area of operations included the Mang Yang Pass, where in 1954 the Vietminh had obliterated the French army’s Groupement Mobile 100, thereby ringing down the curtain on the First Indochina War.1

No such replay of the Little Bighorn punctuated my own tour of duty. Indeed, the operative idea—widely understood even if unwritten—was to avoid apocalyptic encounters so that the ongoing drawdown could continue. As long as the withdrawal of U.S. forces proceeded on schedule, authorities in Washington could sustain the pretense that the Second Indochina War was ending in something other than failure.

One-Ten Cav had been allotted little more than a bit part in this elaborate production. Keeping that highway open allowed daily supply convoys to move food, fuel, ammunition, and other essentials to Pleiku and points beyond. To accomplish this mundane task, Buffalo Soldiers in armored vehicles guarded bridges or reacted to enemy ambushes. Others, in helicopters or on foot, conducted reconnaissance patrols, flying above or trudging through the jungle. The assignment offered little by way of glory or grandeur, both of which were then, in any case, in short supply throughout South Vietnam. That late in the war, navigating between honor and dishonor, foolhardy courage and craven cowardice, necessary subordination and mindless obedience posed challenges. It was not a happy time or place to be an American soldier.

Yet if the squadron did not literally share G. M. 100’s fate, it was succumbing incrementally to a defeat that was hardly less decisive. As any home owner will tell you, a leaky roof, if left unattended, can pose as much danger as a category five hurricane. Collapse is just a longer time coming. In the backwater that was An Khe, the roof was leaking like a sieve.

No one was likely to mistake the United States in 1971 for a land of concord and contentment. During the interval between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard M. Nixon, cleavages dividing left and right, black and white, flag burners and flag wavers, college kids and working stiffs had become particularly acute. Looming in the background was an even more fundamental cleavage between state and country. Depending on which camp you occupied, the government appeared either clueless or gutless. In any case, those exercising political authority no longer commanded the respect or deference they had enjoyed during the 1940s and 1950s. Sullen citizens eyed their government with cynicism and mistrust.

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