A VIETNAM EXPERIENCE: I. The Preliminaries

Cast of characters and organizations

Military Geology Branch, U.S. Geological Survey (MGB). My employer in 1954.

Office of the Secretary of Defense/Advance Research Projects Agency (variously abbreviated as OSD/ARPA or ARPA). The government office that sponsored and directed the tunnel research program. Headquartered in Washington, DC. A field office in Saigon.

Research Analysis Corporation (RAC). My employer in 1966, a private not-for-profit research organization under contract to ARPA and other defense agencies. Headquartered in McLean, VA. A field office in Saigon.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. A pejorative name shortened from terms meaning “Vietnamese Communists” or “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members.

(NOTE: You may enlarge pictures by clicking on them.)

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Easter Bunny

My first brush with Vietnam took place during the weekend of Easter Sunday, April 18, 1954. At that time, we still spoke of the place as French Indochina. The final major engagement between French and Vietnamese Nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh, at Dien Bien Phu, was underway. It had been going on for three months and would end on May 7 with defeat for the French. They would soon leave the region.

Good Friday was a slow day at the office. Our family was having an up-and-down year of high pressure thus far. My wife’s mother suffered a major stroke in January. Our second child, a son, was born in February. My father died in March. Now, April was bringing a beautiful spring and we were looking forward to a quiet, restful enjoyment of the weekend.

About mid-afternoon, the bosses called us together. We had a “quickie” project on our hands. We needed to produce a terrain study covering most of what we now know as Vietnam. This would consist of several sets of map overlays describing geology, soils, landforms, and water supply and drainage conditions in the region. There would also be overlays addressing military implications such as the ability of tanks and other vehicles to maneuver off roads (“cross-country movement,” we called it), and the suitability of the terrain for constructing roads and airfields.

We were members of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), U.S. Geological Survey, and this was one of the kinds of work that we did. Meanwhile, our colleagues at the Army Map Service would be adMGB EastBun_01ading studies of existing roads and airfields. In our usual whimsical fashion, we named this project “Easter Bunny.”A project like this would normally occupy at least half a dozen people for about two months. We were told on Friday afternoon that we would have to deliver final camera-ready copy by early the next Tuesday morning. Arrangements were made to keep various governmental libraries, map collections, and aerial photo collections open through the weekend, so that they could provide us with the source materials we needed.

We put about 30 people to work on the project. Even so, the schedule seemed daunting. It will suffice to say that very few of the 30 managed to go home for a night’s sleep between Friday and Tuesday. We made the deadline.

About two weeks later, we were invited to what was called a “debriefing” by a joint military team just returned from Indochina. They proceeded to make clear how our effort had fitted into the machinery of presidential decision-making.

In the waning days of Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower had requested a briefing on what actions the United States might be able to take that could influence the outcome of the battle. There is no doubt that he considered many factors beyond our purview, but we were kept informed on the particular role that Easter Bunny had played.

This joint military team had been assembled to examine the situation on the ground, and then to report their findings to the President. This had to be done in a few days. They requested a terrain study, among other things, to direct their attention to the principal problem areas quickly and efficiently. In a sense, they would be field-checking our results and determining their implications for national policy.

The primitive condition of the existing road net and airfields, the widespread terrain conditions that would seriously hamper road and airfield construction, and the difficulty of the terrain for any off-road movement, all led to the following conclusions during the presidential briefing: At that time, the United States could not provide the logistical support needed for large military units operating in Indochina. We could support only small units the size of one regiment or smaller.

I have no way of knowing what else the President considered, but the joint military team felt strongly that these conclusions regarding logistical support played heavily into his decision not to enter the fray in Indochina at that time. We took pride in our contribution in the form of Project Easter Bunny.

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Unconventional Warfare

Within the next ten years, research into the “art of war” as practiced in the Vietnam conflict had become a growth industry. We used various terms, such as “unconventional warfare” and “remote area conflict.” This research seemed to have a lively future. Nikita Khrushchev spoke of “wars of national liberation,” as the new model for Communist expansion, following the indecisive results of conventional warfare in Korea.

In 1964, after serving four years as Assistant Chief of the Military Geology Branch (MGB), I welcomed the opportunity for a one-year assignment with the Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. WES was involved in research important to the future of military geology, studying new applications to unconventional warfare, and developing quantitative techniques in preparation for the coming digital age. MGB, in contrast, was pursuing the same applications and techniques it had developed during World War II. It was falling behind both in funding and in attracting bright employees.

During my year in Vicksburg, the Remote Area Conflict Section of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the research at WES. During the same year, MGB acquired a new chief (whom I’ll call George for now, and Nemesis later on), lost more funding, and underwent a major reduction in force.

I made a special trip to Washington to urge George to develop ties with ARPA, hoping to secure new research opportunities. George would have none of this.  He wanted no involvement with ARPA.  But his boss was enthused, and so the three of us went together to meet the director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. The meeting went well, and we picked up a small project for me to carry out after my assignment at WES: A feasibility study for an environmental research project on the salt deserts of Iran. Perhaps Iran was being recognized as a possible future site for a “war of national liberation.” If this feasibility study succeeded, it was expected to lead into the larger study, making MGB once again relevant to the research goals of the modern world.

After I returned to Washington, completed the feasibility study, and submitted the manuscript to George, I saw something unusual for the Geological Survey: a manager making substantive changes to the researcher’s findings. I read over these changes and accepted them. Too bad, for I completely missed the negative implications of one of his changes, to the effect that Iranian salt deserts are unique, and unlike any other deserts elsewhere in the world.  That was true, of course, but I hadn’t considered it particularly relevant to the issue at hand.

It was fully two years before that statement came back to haunt me. I was with a new employer and on assignment in the Middle East when I met one of the old-timers from ARPA. I asked whatever happened to the salt desert study. He said, “It’s your fault. The ambassador killed the project because of what you said in your feasibility study. You and I both know those deserts are unique. That’s why we needed the study so badly, because we’ve never fought in such places and we need to know a great deal about how their environment would affect military operations. But the ambassador doesn’t think a research project is worthwhile unless it applies to the whole world.”

Indeed, since then we have already found ourselves operating in those deserts, and we may not yet have seen the last of them.

In the short term, however, I stayed on with George for another 6 months, and then found employment in the fields I had been seeking – research on applications of geology in unconventional warfare. And, beyond anything I had ever wanted, the new job involved extensive field assignments in Vietnam and Iran.

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My new job was with a “think tank” named the Research Analysis Corporation, a private not-for-profit firm supported by contracts with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. I joined the Unconventional Warfare Department, where they were finding many new applications of geology and terrain science in this type of warfare.

Every new job presents unanticipated problems, but I did enjoy being rid of George. But wait! I soon learned that George and I had changed jobs at the same time. He had moved into nothing less than the position of director of Remote Area Conflict studies at the Pentagon. He succeeded the very man he had been unwilling to talk to several months earlier! I never did figure out the personal politics of all this.  Perhaps he foresaw his move to ARPA, and simply didn’t want any connection with the Geological Survey in his new position.  But it was clear – alas! – that he was now overseeing the contract of the department I worked in.

In me, he apparently saw possibilities for new kinds of projects, and he dealt directly with me while ignoring all the layers of bosses between us.

His first approach seemed innocuous, though unpleasant. He wanted me to evaluate a military environmental research project that had been underway for several years involving faculty and graduate students at a highly respected university. I found that its management had failed in a number of ways. The various parts of what should have been a unified approach had been studied separately, and by now were completely incompatible with each other. I explained my findings to the researchers and considered their points until we reached a conclusion that all of us considered fair. Then I dutifully presented my report to George. He used it as a basis for discontinuing the project. I knew that was his intent all along, and that I was his chosen hatchet man. Such are the humilities we sometimes endure to make a living. By now I was well along in the transition from “George” to “Nemesis.”

His next approach was a bit more troublesome. He discussed the problem of Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam, and said that a research program was underway to help in detecting  them. The project was now at the point where they needed to have a geologist – like me – look at the tunnels and observe their geologic settings. This could be useful in two ways: (1) predicting where tunneling might or might not be feasible; and (2) determining the types of soils, rocks, and moisture conditions that any detection apparatus would have to be designed for. George reminded me that our contract would soon be up for renewal, and said that I should keep this in mind if I had any problems with the assignment.









I never refused a legitimate project assignment because of reasons like fearing or disliking it. I always pointed out, however, any concerns I had as to whether its goal could actually be achieved.

The problem I saw in this case was one of security. As soon as American forces secured an area and found tunnels, they searched the tunnels and then destroyed them completely. The best opportunities to examine tunnels in detail would be in areas currently being secured or not yet secured. I knew from previous experience that no responsible commander would allow a civilian employee to get on his bicycle and move alone into such places. Military escort would be required.

Which led to a further possibility: A military commander might say to me, “Look, I’ve got a war to fight here. We’re busy, and we don’t want to add to the risks we already have. Your little geologic field trips just aren’t important enough for us to fool with. Go back home.”

I discussed this with George. He sent a cable to Saigon. They replied that I should proceed as planned. End of discussion. I went to Vietnam.

(Only after arriving in Saigon, and getting to know the military folks there, did I learn that I had been a laughing stock even before arriving. George’s cable had asked the question, “Can you guarantee the safety of this geologist?” In a war zone, yet!)

This posting is published in my book, Vietnam ’66 (Kindle and Paperback).



In September 2013, the Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress published a letter to the editor about the President’s Syria policy, titled “Obama is in over his head.” My own opinion is directly contrary to this theme, and so I promptly submitted the following letter:

“Responding to “Obama is in over his head” (September 17) concerning Syria policy:

“Let’s judge President Obama’s Syria policy by its fruits, not by biased opinions. In simplest terms, several important things have happened, or have been deliberately avoided:

“Avoiding action before the August 21 event in which about 1,400 civilians were killed by chemical weapons, the President avoided a precedent of intervening in a foreign civil war solely for humanitarian or political reasons.

“Action following the August 21 incident carries a more selective justification: national and world security threatened by existence of a chemical weapon stockpile in the Middle East, where governments are unstable and vulnerable to terrorist activity.

“Mr. Obama’s decision that this threat justified military action gave Russia, Syria’s ally, strong motivation to seek peaceful resolution of the problem. Collaborating with the U.S., Russia appears to be taking major responsibility, easing the burden on us. Before the President’s decision, Russia had been complacent as the Syrian war went on for years, with casualties mounting to an estimated 100,000. His decision served an important purpose regardless of whether he personally wished for military action.

“The President’s decision to request Congressional approval gained time – for the United Nations to verify that chemical weapons were used, and for the Russian initiative to progress to where it could be adopted or rejected. Further out, his decision gave a precedent for returning to the Constitutional requirement that Congress authorize acts of war – a measure more likely to build national unity. He avoided using the controversial War Powers Act that enabled presidents to wage war without Congressional declaration.

“Those who charge Mr. Obama with incompetence would have us believe that he did not anticipate the firestorm by both parties in Congress, when asked to actually vote on the subject. It is easier to believe that his purpose matched his achievement, gaining time and observing Constitutional principles.

“At each step, Obama’s stance brought benefits. It’s more believable that he masterminded this relatively benign sequence of events, than that he drifted as a floating cork from one goal to another and missed them all.”

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Imagine my disappointment when my letter appeared on September 22 at less than half the size of its former self! Wasting no time, I emailed Anita Shelburne, the Progress staff member handling Letters to the Editor, and pointed out the problem:

“I note that the letter has been published in today’s Sunday Progress. However, you have published only 120 of the 349 words that I submitted. The last four paragraphs have been deleted. These are essential support for the points that I was trying to make.

“The shortened letter hardly stands alone; it doesn’t present the necessary logic to support the opening statement, and exposes the writer to criticism for unfounded claims. The deletion does not qualify as “editing.” Instead, it is the removal of essential parts of the message….”

She responded promptly, in two parts:

“Thanks for the alert.

“It appears that when your letter was “copied” into the computer program we use to produce the newspaper, the latter portion did not transfer.

“I’ve been instructed by my superiors not to reprint letters for the purposes of making a correction. I will have to find out what other arrangements they have in mind, and will get back to you.”

“We’re updating the letter online, with the full text. Thanks again.”

In protest, I wrote back:

“I appreciate your looking into this matter. However, if I read your response correctly — that the update will be made online but not in the printed edition — I feel obliged to protest the policy that led to this…

“…The majority of readers, using the printed version, would not be affected by the remedy you are following.

“I still feel that I have been treated unfairly by having my letter posted in such an abbreviated form that it fails to make its case, or even to state the full message that I was trying to convey.”

That was the end of the correspondence. As far as I know, the following version of the letter, severely shortened, remains as its only printed record. If I somehow missed a later correction of the error, I would welcome a comment by the Daily Progress setting the record straight.

 Syria UDlyProgPARTIALbCy copy

Syria UUDlyProgPARTIAL copy

I place a high value on freedom of the press. I realize that it means many things to many people. I was surprised to find through this experience that there is one additional meaning for some people: That the press is not accountable, either to its contributors or its readers, for errors. There seems to be no obligation to correct or acknowledge them.

 Note: Another event involving “liberties” taken by the Daily Progress is described in a Note in the posting titled “Columnist fails to provide whole picture about Titanic Survival” (posted 5/6/2014).








Columnist fails to provide whole picture about Titanic survival

I fully support the letter-writer (April 16) who showed contradiction in the April 11 column of Cal Thomas concerning the Titanic disaster, where he ascribed self-sacrificing behavior by four wealthy individuals, so that others less privileged might survive, as evidence of “the undeniable influence of Christianity” – while he ignored the fact that three of the four were Jewish.

There is still more that needs to be said about this. Thomas uses these four cases of altruistic behavior to define “the true story of the Titanic” while he condemns a series of motion-picture accounts of the disaster for depicting the wealthy as having advantages in the struggle for survival. By stating that this “plays on issues of class warfare and social inequality” he relates the issue to our current political climate, and the side he takes is obvious.

Again, Thomas ignores facts, namely statistics indicating that noble actions by a few wealthy people did not reverse the overall picture relating survival opportunities to wealth. Depending on who is counting, at least 50 to 60 percent of first-class passengers survived; 40 percent of those in second class; and a mere 25 percent of the people in third class.

I cherish our freedoms, particularly those of speech and the press. I also realize that with these freedoms come responsibilities. When I subscribe to a newspaper to bring me news and opinions, I expect that their limited space – and my limited reading time – will be devoted to writers who respect the truth and are capable of logical reasoning. As in many previous instances, Cal Thomas comes up failing in both departments. How long will the Daily Progress continue to tolerate this fiasco?

James R. Burns
Albemarle County

(This letter was published April 25, 2012, in the Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress. In that publication, the final paragraph was deleted.)