Communication, and not Criticism, is Needed During Pipeline Debate

Opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline thrives and grows, thanks in part to scare tactics related to local issues. Now it has come to the point where an informational open house by Dominion, appropriately scheduled for the Augusta County Government Center, had to be moved elsewhere because the Augusta County Alliance said it would “rally” outside the event, and because of concern about the safety of Dominion officials attending the open house.

As local issues are driving most of the opposition to this pipeline, we need to be mindful of much larger issues, national and in fact historic, that favor the pipeline.

As American energy production dwindled in the mid-20th century, we depended more and more on sources in the Middle East. By the 1970s, those nations had sufficient power to restrict the flow of oil to us, creating long lines of autos at the gas pumps and raising the price of oil dramatically. As we responded by shipping more and more of our wealth to them, we eventually learned that part of our own wealth was supporting terrorist organizations.

American energy independence has long been seen as an obvious solution to this problem. But it seemed far beyond our reach until new technologies, including fracking, recently laid open vast new resources of oil and gas in this country. Energy independence now seems attainable within a few years.

Lack of pipelines to get the energy out, particularly from fields in North Dakota and West Virginia-Pennsylvania-Ohio, is a major deterrent to progress. Oil is being shipped by railroads, which have been found far less safe than pipelines. More gas is being “burned off” into the atmosphere than is being put to productive use.

All this suggests to me that the pipeline will be built, whether we want it or not. If so, we would be better off engaging Dominion with our questions, values, and expectations, rather than by attempting any blanket rejection of the pipeline.

Jim Burns

(This was published as a Letter to the Editor on September 14, 2014 by the Waynesboro, VA News-Virginian.)

Logic should Drive Pipeline Debate

Even as we complain of obstructionism in Washington, we teach similar practices locally. That’s the only way I can interpret “Fighting Back” in the Sunday, September 7, issue. The meeting, aimed at fighting and prevailing against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was rich in advice about where to write and lobby and how to take legal steps. It was remarkably devoid, however, of useful tips on what to say.

There was an abundance of emotionally charged statements, such as, “…and how the pipeline will harm you and your property and all the things that are special about Augusta…” and “…will fragment our forests forever.”   And also, “…no upside for us and potentially a lot of downside” and “…would affect property values and could affect mortgages” and “Dominion could not have made a worse decision.”

Added were some smart tips on actions designed to obstruct: “…obtain conservation easements for their property,” and “…information about a Norfolk law firm that fights eminent domain cases, and …doesn’t bill for services unless a suit is won.”

All this is a classic presentation of the “Not in My Back Yard” approach, which is aimed expressly at transferring the nuisance to someone else’s back yard – presumably someone poorer and less influential. A society gluttonous for energy should not be so quick to push the consequences onto less fortunate neighbors.

In the spirit of “Let us reason together,” there are fundamental questions that could and should be raised constructively – meaning not that we have the answers, but that we want answers. Such matters might include the actual need in our tri-state area for gas from the Utica and Marcellus shales; alternative means of transport; and site-selection policies such as the use of existing rights of way (Interstate Highways, etc.) versus new trailblazing in undeveloped areas.

This is a time to express our values clearly regarding environmental protection, safety, local benefits, and all such matters. Presenting them as absolute project-killers may well lead quickly to a dead end. Demanding that they be considered may profoundly improve the planning process.

(This was published as a Letter to the Editor on September 11, 2014 by the Waynesboro, VA News Virginian.)


Cast of characters and organizations

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

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

RAC employees:

Perry F. Narten. Geologist from the McLean office assigned as my partner in the tunnel project.

Dorothy Clark and Harry Handler. Professional staff members on long-term assignment to the Vietnam field office.

Viet Cong (often referred to as VC, V.C., or Victor Charlie). A political and military organization in South Vietnam that fought U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. I understand that this was a pejorative term shortened from expressions meaning “Vietnamese Communists” and “Communist Traitor to Vietnam.” A preferred term in peacetime is National Liberation Front for South Vietnam. The term VC referred both to the organization and to its individual members. It was distinct from the North Vietnamese troops who also entered the war.

Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The government of South Vietnam during the war. Its army was generally designated by the abbreviation ARVN.

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


As soon as instructions from ARPA were received, RAC began preparations for the tunnel project. The project was too large and complex for one man to handle. Perry Narten, a geologist with whom I had collaborated on many previous projects, and a good friend as well, was assigned as my partner.

Perry and I arrived in Saigon on October 9, 1966.

Known today as Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon was at that time the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). I understand that it had once been a beautiful city of about 50,000 people.   Since then, it had undergone Japanese occupation, followed by twenty years of war involving French, American, and other allied forces opposing South Vietnamese insurgent groups and North Vietnamese troops. The city had endured war damage and the decay of buildings and infrastructure. With the addition of refugees, other displaced people, and soldiers, the population had swollen to about 2 million.

RAC maintained an apartment in a pleasant downtown neighborhood at 23 Gia Long. Perry and I joined the two occupants, Harry and Dorothy, for the length of our stay. The RAC field office, part of a larger compound of ARPA field offices, was a 15-minute walk from the apartment.

Saigon remained our base of operations, but through short trips we visited other places important to our mission, including Bien Hoa, Tay Ninh, and Cu Chi. We returned for a longer stay at Cu Chi, which became the primary focus of our field surveys. It was located about 20 miles northwest of Saigon.

Cu Chi was strategically significant because it controlled some of the principal land and water routes for infiltration of supplies from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle nearby were strongholds for the Viet Cong throughout the war. The accompanying map shows these and other nearby areas, in which were found the greatest concentrations of tunnels in all of South Vietnam.

001Map Cu Chi b 3

In January 1966, about one square mile of land was cleared for the construction of Camp Cu Chi, the headquarters of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. Apparently it was not fully known at that time that the area was infested with Viet Cong tunnels. In ensuing months, surprise attacks occurred from inside the camp’s perimeter. An eyewitness told me of seeing several VC suddenly appearing in the mess hall, firing machine guns. When Perry and I arrived at Cu Chi, this problem had finally been solved within the camp itself, but tunnels in the general area remained a hot issue. The ARPA officers urged us to concentrate on this area, and we did.

002CampCuChi copy

                    Source: Danny Driscoll


Following the events at Camp Cu Chi, American forces had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and experience with tunnels by late 1966. Under the standard one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, many soldiers who had experienced tunnel warfare were still in country.

The normal procedure, once a tunnel complex had been detected and pacified by a strong ground force, was to search it and then destroy it by shaped demolition charges. At first, regular infantry soldiers were assigned to the search. Many were killed during encounters with enemy soldiers and booby traps. The need for a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was soon recognized, and numerous training materials were produced. The trainees under this program, who I understood were all volunteers, have frequently been called “Tunnel Rats.” My field notes suggest that “Tunnel Runners” was the more common term in use among the people I worked with. These runners were acknowledged as major American heroes of the war.

Backing up the above sources of information, extensive intelligence files on tunnels were built up in the 25th Division and in the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

Our ARPA project officer, navy Lieutenant Commander Richard M. Gowing, was quick and thorough in seeing that we made all the informational contacts needed for our project. Among the facts that we learned:

TunnDestryJan68 300bThe greatest concentrations of tunnels were in the III Corps Tactical Zone, extending from the sea, through Saigon and Cu Chi, on to the Cambodian border, as depicted in the accompanying map. I saw the 1966 version of this map, which gave added information on the length of each tunnel or tunnel complex. Most of these were much less than one mile long; only a few exceptions approached or exceeded a length of one mile.

These lengths should be kept in mind in view of statements, partly true but misleading, that suggest the tunnels were much longer and were intended for long-distance travel. Examples of such information are: “they stretched from Saigon to the Cambodian border,” “about 200 kilometers of tunnels were built,” and “they were used to connect villages, districts, and provinces together so the fighters could move between areas undetected.”

Estimating the numbers of tunnels runs into a problem of definition: They ranged in size from major headquarters facilities to “holes in the ground,” and by this definition the number could approach 5,000. By more conventional definitions, such as squad-size tunnels and larger, the count was about 500 in late 1966, and rising each month.

In news accounts and training materials alike, chief emphasis has been placed on the larger complexes, which held such facilities as living areas, storage depots, ordinance factories, hospitals, headquarters, kitchens, and any other facility needed by an army. For these purposes, compartments were built to whatever dimensions the facility required. The largest of them required some form of lining and support.

Connecting tunnels, and those used for such purposes as scout observations, surprise sniper attacks, ambushes, and town control, did not require large dimensions. To ensure stability without lining or support, they normally ranged in width from 0.8 to 1.2 meters, and in height from 0.8 to 1.8 meters. The minimum roof thickness was 1.5 meters.

A diagram illustrating the typical layout of a major tunnel complex was presented in Part I. Another is presented here. Both are from U.S. Army training materials.

Tunnel basics1

No central entity designed the tunnels or oversaw their construction. They evolved in response to local needs and were constructed under the supervision of local Viet Cong leaders. Teams of local residents performed the labor of digging by hand. In many cases, each team worked only in a sector near its home village, and was unaware of extensions into neighboring sectors.

The early tunnels were dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh, a nationalist guerilla force that fought the Japanese during World War II and the French afterward until 1954. More tunnels were built later as pressure increased from American and South Vietnamese troops.

We learned various examples of digging rates, which varied according to the soil, the weather, and the health and skills of the labor force. Some of the rates cited were: one cubic meter per person per day; 50 meters of tunnel length per day for a team of 100 workers. There were often major delays in progress, especially during the dry season, when soils became too hard to dig by hand. I learned of one tunnel, 1,700 meters long, that was started in 1958 and required two and one-half years for completion by a force of 100 workers.

Fortitude and determination were needed not only in the construction of tunnels, but also in their use.

Soldiers had to maneuver through low, narrow passages interrupted by many twists, turns, and trap doors designed to minimize effects of underground blasts. Floors were frequently flooded during the wet season, and snakes and scorpions were also encountered. Trap door openings were tiny; those we observed measured as little as 12 by 18 inches.

Care was needed when moving around booby traps that had been placed to defend the tunnels. Booby traps were responsible for 11% of American deaths, and 17% of all wounds during the war. They ranged from simple punji stakes (sharpened bamboo, often smeared with excrement) and underfoot spike boards to various explosive devices.

Noteworthy among the explosive devices were Claymore Mines, a particularly deadly type of antipersonnel weapon. They consisted of round flat pans filled with plastic explosive, packed with nails or other small pieces of metal to serve as shrapnel.  From a mine mounted in an upright position, this shrapnel would shower a large area forward.


The goal of our project was to contribute to a multi-part study titled “A Systematic Approach to the Detection of VC Tunnels.” Part I: Strategic and Tactical Factors was in preparation by Major H.W. Newbigin of the Australian Army, assisted by Lieutenant J.D. Harden of the U.S. Navy. We would prepare Part II: Environmental Factors. The two teams cooperated closely and exchanged information freely.

In Part II, our task was to match the information we had on tunnel locations with detailed descriptions of the environment, primarily geology, soils, and subsurface moisture and ground water conditions. We had two goals. One was to seek any association between tunnels and specific environmental settings, which might then guide search efforts. The other was to compile information on the properties of the natural materials and their changing moisture conditions, as an aid in the design of detection equipment.

Tunnels in the III Corps Tactical Zone were exclusively located in certain higher terrace levels of the geologic unit known as Old Alluvium. These were old floodplain deposits formed during previous higher stages of sea level. They were now elevated to several elevations up to about 70 feet above the current sea level.

They could readily be recognized by land use patterns on the uplands, consisting either of woodlands or of cultivated fields and hedgerows.

In soil science terminology, these materials were identified and mapped as grey podzolic soils and low-humic gley soils. Tunnels could be located freely anywhere in the first type, which lay at higher elevations. In the second type, at lower elevations, tunnels could be located only at selected sites on high ground. In lower areas, the ground water table was too shallow.

The soil materials were mostly clays with some silt and fine sand. They were “lateritic,” meaning that iron content, leached from the upper layers, had accumulated in the lower layers as a cement. When thoroughly air-dried, those soils took on properties close to those of concrete, and were resistant to ever becoming soft and moist again. Finally, near the ground water table, still higher concentrations of iron produced layers of laterite pebbles and rocks, highly resistant to digging even by mechanized equipment. This set the depth limit for digging tunnels in the usual fashion, by hand. The limit typically varied between 10 and 20 meters.

TunnExpos1The soils were highly stable without lining or support, depending, of course, on the size of the excavation. After drying out, they were known to withstand 40-pound cratering charges, hand grenades, and other explosives without collapsing. Their stability is evident in these photos of a tunnel from which the roof had been removed.

Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. The south monsoon, May through September, features the single rainy season, with annual rainfall exceeding 1000mm almost everywhere. The north monsoon, October through April, brings dry and sunny weather to southern Vietnam, while rainfall is infrequent and light. In the Saigon area specifically, the rainy season tends to persist later, tapering off during the October-November period when we were there.

The rainy season was the best time for tunnel construction. During the dry season, the soils often became too dry and hard to be dug by hand. Along the interior tunnel surfaces, many areas of soil were thoroughly air-dried so that they were more or less permanently hardened and unlikely to regain moisture and softness. Trap doors in tunnels were normally built up of layers of wood and soil; even though they were exposed to seasonal rains, soldiers sometimes mistook the soil for concrete.

As our study progressTunnExpos2ed, it became clear that tunnel locations in III Corps Tactical Zone were strictly confined to certain suitable soil and geologic situations as described above. Nevertheless, we were unable to meet our first goal. The suitable conditions were so widespread that they did not provide any guidance for organizing a search effort. We did succeed with our second goal, providing detailed data about ground conditions to assist in the design of sensing systems.

These widespread conditions were not only suitable for hand-dug tunnels; they were pre-eminently suitable in comparison with other situations around the world. This suggests that tunneling may have been an established tradition of Vietnamese culture through previous centuries. It would explain the speed and skill with which they employed it in times of occupation and war.

To support this speculation, it is worth noting that China once had such a tradition, taking advantage of widespread deposits of loess (windblown silt and clay). Loess was well suited for digging artificial caves, though it lacked the cements that gave the Vietnamese soils added stability. The Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 was the deadliest earthquake in history, owing to the fact that millions of people were living in caves dug in the loess. Many of the dwellings collapsed, and the toll was estimated at 830,000 deaths.


Note: An account of this event, in a letter dated November 3. 1966, is presented in Part III: Letters from the Field. The purpose here is to summarize that account and to fill in some of the gaps.

*     *     *

Camp Cu Chi, headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division, was approximately one square mile in area. It was largely surrounded by hostile territory and was aptly termed a front-line camp. Its perimeter was lined by barbed wire, machine gun bunkers, and artillery emplacements. Every night the guns were fired repeatedly, flares were dropped, and in general sleep was frequently interrupted.

My longest visit to the camp began on October 31, when the 25th Division had scheduled an operation to check out the report by a VC prisoner about a tunnel located near Ap Cho, about 3 miles southeast of the camp. The operation would be carried out by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), under the command of Captain Blair. When I arrived, six armored personnel carriers (APCs) were lined up ready to make the trip. A helicopter waited nearby for Capt. Blair, who would lead the operation from the air.

VN Field_0001

Soon the VC prisoner was brought forward. He was a young man, neat and clean. He wore the black pajama uniform that I had heard of but had never seen. His hands were tied behind his back, and while in Camp Cu Chi he was blindfolded. He was docile. His face never showed any emotion.

VN Field_0002The prisoner was interviewed through an interpreter. At the site we would visit, he had been foreman over a work force of 100 diggers using picks and shovels. A North Vietnamese army officer had given him plans for his sector of the tunnel complex. From 1961, some digging was done each wet season, normally at a rate of 50 meters per day. The ground was too hard for digging in the dry season. The entire complex was unlined, except for the room just inside the main entry, were the roof was only about 1 foot thick. He claimed that the entire length of the tunnel complex was about 1 kilometer, which would be one of the longest on record.

Proceeding from the camp, our column crossed paddy fields (flooded fields where rice is grown). Here we avoided the small roads on the dikes because they might be mined. Instead, we plowed through the rice in a scene very similar to that shown below, which came from a picture post card. The soldiers mostly rode on the top decks of the APCs, while I chose a bench seat in the interior.

PostCdBoys_0001 1119

On the roads, a sizable group of Vietnamese civilians moved along with us, frequently cheering and waving. Soon a brisk trade was set up in refreshments for the troops, mostly soft drinks and bananas. I wasn’t sure where these people came from; a large area here had been cleared of all inhabitants the previous February.

The most comic scene occurred when we had left the crowds and moved into a deserted area. Along came a boy riding a bicycle on the cart track. He and the soldiers struck up a conversation, and it soon developed that he had a bunch of bananas hidden in his basket. So the bargaining started. For a can of C rations and 20 piastres (17 cents) he waded over and gave us the bananas. We all enjoyed them because we were parched.

Presently, I heard the sound of gunfire. As I quickly learned, we had encountered two VC in a sampan in a canal. One was killed, the other captured. The captured one was tied up and dumped unceremoniously into the APC, where he sat staring at me from about three feet away. He wore no uniform. I asked one of the officers how they knew he was a VC. “Because he tried to get away when he saw us coming.”

Meanwhile, the prisoner leading us to the tunnel was lost for a long time and we went in circles. I was beginning to wonder whether they might punish him for leading us on a wild goose chase. But finally he recognized a familiar tree and led us right to the tunnel opening.

The trap door at the entry was wide open, as were two others inside the tunnel. This indicated that we had probably surprised someone inside. The entry door closely resembled the one in the picture. When I approached it and noted the size of the opening, about 12 by 18 inches, I declared, “I’m not going in. This tunnel isn’t built for a man of my caliber.” Of course, I already knew that Capt. Blair wouldn’t allow me to go in.010TrapDoor1 copy

Those who went in were a couple of young soldiers, trained as tunnel runners,who seemed absolutely fearless. They went far into the tunnel, digging their way through a collapsed area. Movements by an APC caused a repeat of the collapse, which they protested, using their only contact with the surface – a phone on a long line. They found important items in the tunnel. At one collapsed place they found large amounts of ammunition, Claymore mines (round pan-shaped objects in the photo), and many maps and documents, which included names of VC living in a nearby village. Chances are that those people were forewarned. Little boys kept hanging around the tunnel site. When soldiers chased them, they climbed a tree to watch. The accompanying photos show the soldiers displaying their “loot.” VN Field_0004

There was an abandoned well nearby with fresh footprints on the clay walls, about 20 feet of murky water in it. The brave tunnel runners went all the way to the bottom, seeking additional tunnel entrances. No diving apparatus – fully clothed, they just took a deep breath and jumped in. They tied telephone wire around their waists so that we could pull them back up if necessary. Only one went in at a time, since the well was only about 2½ feet in diameter. Like many wells, this one was connected with chambers of the tunnel. Sometimes this presented the hazard of enemy troops in hiding, but not this time.

VN Field_0005013VN Field_0006

A couple of days after this operation, Captain Blair invited Perry and me to go out with his company on another operation, into the Iron Triangle. The area was of great interest, but we declined because (1) The operation would last 3 to 5 days. (2) The area was so infested with VC that the operation was preceded by heavy B-52 bombardment, very likely having destroyed tunnels and near-surface soils. And (3) the danger was still so great that they wanted us to work separately so that we couldn’t both get hit at the same time.

That did it! We said thanks but no thanks.


As previously mentioned, Perry and I were unable to meet the first goal of our study. The soil and geologic conditions most favorable for tunnel construction were so widespread that they offered no useful guidance for planning search efforts.

We did accomplish our second goal, to describe the properties of earth materials that would be useful in the design of detection systems. We had in mind various techniques of exploration geophysics, including seismic methods, ground-penetration radar, remote sensing, and several others.

This goal was a limited one, however, because two men without laboratory support can do only so much in two months. We had done the basic work, but we realized that more detailed follow-on surveys would be needed before final designs could be made.

On October 26, I was pleased to learn that the follow-on surveys were in the works. A team would visit the ARPA field office in December to arrange for the next phase, beginning in January 1967. The Air Force would make flights to test remote sensing techniques. A ground team from the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) of the Corps of Engineers would conduct field surveys for three months, traveling widely throughout the study area, the III Corps Tactical Zone.

I knew these people from WES. I had recently completed a year working with them in Vicksburg on a joint research program. I knew that they had the backup of a state-of –the-art soils analysis laboratory, and that they had developed brilliant techniques for mapping soils, portraying a variety of their quantitative properties. They were well qualified.

The ARPA project officer and I were much concerned about one problem, though: Traveling in the back country. Perhaps they didn’t know what they were getting into. One didn’t wander around the countryside here as they had done in Thailand. And in the hottest part of the year yet, poor fellows.

There was no further news of the project until several months later. In January, I learned that the Air Force mission was “curtailed,” and the ground mission was delayed. Some time later, I learned that the field team had arrived, had traveled to Camp Cu Chi, and then never managed to get outside the camp’s perimeter. With the failure of this work, it was clear that any design of detection systems would not move ahead. I was distressed to hear that we were moving into a new phase, called The Final Solution.


By 1969, the tunnels had made significant contributions to the communist cause. In that year, they were finally destroyed for all time by B-52 carpet bombing raids. The first photo below shows a B-52-D dropping a string of 750-pound bombs. The second view, unfortunately of poor quality, shows the crater left by the detonation of just one bomb. From these photos, one can judge the extent of environmental destruction. Carpet bombing was used in every area where there was any suspicion of tunnels.

CarpBomb1   CarpBomb2

As presented by Ramon W. Almodovar and J. David Rogers in their training materials on The Tunnels of Cu Chi, General William Westmoreland is quoted as saying “No one has ever demonstrated more ability to hide his installations than the Viet Cong; they were human moles.” And the authors conclude:

The VC demonstrated resolve by outlasting the Americans. Although no American unit of even squad size or greater ever surrendered to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese during the entire Vietnam War, they still managed to prevail.

The training materials have been of great value in the preparation of this posting.


My thoughts about the Vietnam War are not those of a political or historical expert. I am a career geologist who, through many years in the Civil Service, tended to avoid political involvements. My work brought me into contact with American military operations in several parts of the world, including Vietnam. I believe that the Vietnam experience carries powerful lessons concerning the unilateral initiation of wars by our political leaders. These lessons had not been learned by 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq. They deserve the raising of many voices, not just those of the experts.

*     *     *

Until 1966, like many middle-class Americans, I accepted the justification for the Vietnam War that our leaders gave us: a defense of South Vietnam against aggressive expansion and control by the major communist powers. That threat seemed to be supported by the words of Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, when he hailed the development of such “Wars of National Liberation” as the new model for spreading communist doctrine and control, and for overcoming resistance by the capitalistic nations.

This justification seemed to make sense. Through the decade following World War II, the devastated countries of Eastern Europe, one by one, had fallen under Soviet control, enforced where necessary by troops and tanks. China had replaced its former government, our wartime ally, with a communist dictatorship. When forces from North Korea invaded South Korea, we rose to its defense. A victory there seemed within our grasp until Chinese forces entered the fray, ultimately producing a stalemate that persists to this day. No wonder, then, that Mr. Khrushchev sought a newer, fresher model for expansion.

I assumed that the people of South Vietnam wanted, needed, and deserved defense against communist aggression. Without defense, they would succumb to it as the North Vietnamese had already done.

Dissenters held that the major goal of the Vietnamese people, north and south, was national independence, following many years of occupation and colonial status. Communism was a distant secondary issue.

I was mindful of these issues while in Vietnam, but could not make any personal resolution of them. Nevertheless, two letters from Vietnam indicated a first significant shift in attitude:

November 22, 1966

“The people here seem to be happy with very little. The lame (very few of these in evidence), the wounded, and those who are caught in the battlefields are the ones I feel most sorry for. But the general picture is one of “life as normal”, with Americans seeming to take the war much more seriously than the Vietnamese. I suspect that most of the Vietnamese would just like to be left alone.”

November 26, 1966

“Most of the Vietnamese people are poor and have very little, but they do seem to have most of what they need. Their own leaders seem to have just about as little kindness for them as the VC does. So I often think — if we lost this war, a few big shots would suffer but the majority of the people wouldn’t care and would be at least as well off as they are now. Mostly, they need to be left alone to make their living. The only way I can justify the American involvement in my own mind is as an act of pure power politics to define our image to all Asians, an act in which the destiny of the South Vietnamese just happens to be involved.

“So small wonder that South Vietnamese soldiers fight less enthusiastically than the Americans do.”

By “pure power politics” I was referring to America’s need to demonstrate that we would react strongly to Mr. Khrushchev’s new model, the “Wars of National Liberation.” This seemed to be valid in the competition between America and the Soviet Union, but it was different and less “noble” than defending the Vietnamese people. They might well be the victims instead.

*     *     *

Like many Americans, I had a further shift of attitude in 1968, triggered by two events early in the year: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive. 

The Khe Sanh operation, 21 January to 9 July 1968, was basically a siege operation against a major American combat base by an estimated force of 20,000 troops of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese army. The Americans dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs (five times the explosive power of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima), and they conducted an overland relief expedition that finally broke the siege. However, they chose to dismantle the base rather than risk similar battles in the future. It was the first time in Vietnam that we abandoned a major base because of enemy pressure.

300px-TetMapThe Tet Offensive, launched on 30 January 1968, quickly became a well-coordinated, countrywide attack by more than 80,000 communist troops against more than 100 towns and cities. The accompanying map shows some of their targets. Though this offensive was eventually defeated, Americans were shocked. They had been assured that previous defeats had rendered the communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.

This was more than a major failure of intelligence. It was also a failure to track the progress of the war in any realistic sense. Our military and political leaders were charged with many things, ranging from malfeasance to stupidity.

The charge that I chose was incompetence, not of persons but of institutions at the highest levels of military management. My experience at the Research Analysis Corporation (RAC), now approaching two years, had opened my eyes to entirely new techniques for planning and executing war, and for tracking its progress. The buzzwords of the time were Systems Analysis, Systems Management, and Operations Research. RAC had a front seat in this development, having originated as the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University. I came to believe that these techniques had much to do with the incompetence I observed.

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had successfully developed and used the techniques during his tenure as one of the “Whiz Kids” at Ford Motor Company, and later as the firm’s president. He promoted their widespread adoption at the Pentagon. They were highly quantitative, meaning that factors could not be considered unless they could be counted, measured, or weighed. Other factors, judgmental, had to be put aside regardless of their importance.

One example of this was in a poster on the wall of the RAC field office in Saigon: It tracked progress in the program to win the hearts and minds of people in the villages. The counts of villages won increased steadily over time, seeming to indicate that victory was just around the corner. I never understood how they could deal quantitatively with such matters. Maybe they conducted opinion polls.

As a second example, a RAC analyst lectured us on how he tracked the success of a siege against a VC stronghold in the Iron Triangle. His technique was to calculate a ratio between quantities of ammunition fired into the stronghold, versus the quantities fired back at our troops. While the American firing maintained a steady high level, return fire from the VC dwindled until it became only a trickle of sniper fire. This seemed to indicate an American victory. Shortly afterward, however, prisoner-of–war interrogations revealed that the VC had not been defeated. Understandably, their troops had merely moved back to get out of the range of our guns.

Both of these examples show the types of error that led to the twin shocks of Khe Sanh and Tet.

I based my shift of attitude on the following observations:

During this reign of incompetence, we were conducting brute-force tactics, such as the bombing at Khe Sanh and the destruction of tunnels by B-52 carpet bombing. The numbers of deaths and the extent of environmental destruction were simply not justified by goals that we were unlikely to reach in any event.

Another factor: Still impressed by the magnificent, brave American soldiers I had seen in 1966, I was troubled now by reports of disillusioned soldiers and “potheads.” Were we degrading our military forces through this ill-advised campaign?

And finally: American unity was seriously threatened by controversy at home. The year 1968 saw particularly violent demonstrations in the streets. Splits were developing between social and ethnic groups, and between generations.

I now believed that, regardless of any remaining justification for the war, we needed to get out of Vietnam, the sooner the better. I still clung to one thin thread of possible justification: as a necessary strategy in our competition with the major communist powers.

*     *     *

Finally, in the very early 1970s, I began to question that one remaining thread. I attended lectures by a number of statesmen and other leaders for whom I had respect. The most memorable was probably Edward Teller, dubbed Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. I had come to expect that he would be hawkish (supportive of war) in his politics. Unanimously with all the others, he insisted that the American performance in Vietnam, from the Kennedy through the Nixon administrations, was driven solely by “domestic political considerations.”

To me this meant: Not for defense of the Vietnamese people, not for a necessary strategy in our competition with the Sino-Soviet bloc. Merely a means of getting out the vote.

I then began digging into the histories of Ho Chi Minh; of America’s relationships with various successive governments in the Republic of Vietnam; and of Vietnam’s conduct since the war – the conduct of an independent nation rather than a communist satellite. The details are readily available. Here I will summarize only that Ho Chi Minh comes through primarily as a nationalist, and only secondarily as a man of communist leanings. In fact, when seeking freedom from France, he turned first to the U.S. for aid, only later to the communist powers.

By the end of this process, I had lost every shred of belief in justification that I had clung to. One cannot overstress the importance of the lessons to be learned from this experience. When George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified mainly by a network of misinformation and outright lies, it was clear that we had not yet learned them.

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







In his column of June 22, 2014, Carl Tate discussed the Republican Party’s legacy of freedom, a legacy “intimately intertwined with the economic and political liberties of the African-American community.” His supporting statements are confused and self-contradictory.

He cites Republican support of the conservative movement since the 1950s, in efforts to oppose the actions of the New Deal and the Great Society. The key to this is that he equates a liberty agenda with one that promotes upward mobility through self-sufficiency. Some might see this as liberation, others as denial of support to the underprivileged.

He praises the “most successful” Republican leaders (Reagan, Bush 1, and, surprisingly Nixon and Bush 2) as having spoken for a silent majority in America, leading ultimately to the ideology of the tea-party movement. Silent Majority was a term used by Nixon in 1969 to describe largely white, middle-class conservatives who opposed more vociferous minorities who protested the Vietnam War and supported the Civil Rights Movement. The term created a polarization that persists to this day.

Tate’s prime opportunity to support the claimed legacy was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, calling for freeing of slaves in Confederate states. But he muffed it. He failed to mention that Lincoln was Republican, he gave the wrong date for issuance of the order, and he spent most of his space complaining about its delayed implementation in Texas. Does he realize that it could not be enforced except where the Union had established military control? Texas was not under such control until the arrival of Major General Granger on June 19, 1865, the very date on which he issued the order freeing all slaves in Texas.

Tate also failed to mention Lincoln’s leading role in passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the only means by which slavery was permanently prohibited in peace as well as war.

(The above was published June 27, 2014, in the Waynesboro VA News Virginian, as a Letter to the Editor.)


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.”

*     *     *

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.)


Environment Work by Nixon later undone by Reagan

Columnist Carl Tate has on several occasions (including News Virginian, Apr 28, 2013) referred to President Nixon’s important contributions to the environmental cause – pushing for and signing into law the National Environmental Policy Act, creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and further landmark legislation including the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  These credits to Mr. Nixon are correct and welcome.

Tate has also commented that the environmental cause has advanced very little since Nixon.  Are we then to conclude that results of the environmental movement to date are solely a gift from the Republican Party?  Hardly.

The missing link is this: What Richard Nixon gave to the environmental cause, Ronald Reagan did much to take away. Some of his appointees have been widely recognized as major influences reversing Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

I served under one of these appointees, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, as chief of the office of environmental affairs in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and here I observed reversals of Nixon’s environmental accomplishments.

The USGS program to analyze environmental impacts of open-pit coal mining on the public lands was stopped in 1982 when Mr. Watt decided that, henceforth, such mining would be considered as having no significant environmental impact.

Earlier, the USGS furnished scientific information that narrowly averted completion of a nuclear reactor being built at Bodega Head, California, within a few hundred yards of the notorious San Andreas Fault, creator of major earthquakes. We began mapping a variety of geologic hazards (earthquakes, landslides, etc.) that deserved consideration in land-use planning. This stopped in 1982, when Deputy Assistant Secretary William Perry Pendley informed us that the Department did not want Washington bureaucrats to be involved in land-use decisions; the decisions should be based solely on free-market forces.

Within Mr. Reagan’s still-popular policies, we should be aware that this negative environmental stance continues to deter recovery and progress in the cause that Mr. Nixon aided.

(The above was published March 1, 2014, in the Waynesboro VA News Virginian, as a Letter to the Editor.)


When Congressional budget negotiations fail, or when they go past the expiration date of previous budget authority, Congress can enact a Continuing Resolution (CR) to authorize continued full operation of the government.  This requires agreement on duration and level of funding.  A “clean” CR is based solely on that agreement.

That kind of agreement is not the problem at this time.  The problem is that the House of Representatives has injected another issue that the Senate rejects – action on “Obamacare” – as a prerequisite for agreement.  Such an issue is alien to the concept and purpose of CR’s.  Insisting on this issue amounts to holding full government operations hostage, and demanding ransom, over one controversial law.  Congress has other more appropriate means for dealing with one law.  We are seeing an act of desperation, after many previous attempts to deal with it have failed to gain a majority of both houses of Congress.

If allowed to stand, this sets a precedent for closing down the government whenever a faction of Congress dislikes a particular law.

Anyone who wants to see the shutdown ended should ask one’s Congressman for the House to drop the Obamacare requirement from the CR process.

(Published as a Letter to the Editor on October 4, 2013 by the Waynesboro (VA) News-Virginian.)


Let’s try to penetrate political fog, and judge President Obama’s Syria policy by its fruits, not by biased opinions. In simplest terms, these important things have happened, or have been deliberately avoided:

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

Action based on 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 would justify military action gave Russia, Syria’s ally, high motivation to seek peaceful means of resolving the problem. Intensely 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.

Published as a Letter to the Editor by the Waynesboro, VA News Virginian, 9/18/2013.


North Carolina Governor McCrory recently (January 29, 2013) said that funding for public colleges should be based on employment, not enrollment. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

A familiar sentiment.  Getting a job is important.  But training solely for a first job, while sacrificing preparation for a lifelong career, is shortsighted.  Higher education must develop abilities to continue learning through flexibility, curiosity, innovation, and resilience, in an unpredictable world.

McCrory’s comments echo those of other governors – in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin – questioning the value of liberal arts degrees at public colleges.  Their positions have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in “high demand” fields, and taking on flagship institutions.

Now, we have Michael Reagan attacking lower levels of public education (Waynesboro News Virginian, July 7, 2013).  His “poster child” is a high school senior, of Haitian/Dominican working class background, daughter of a Haitian immigrant, allegedly emerging from public school as a “train wreck,” lacking basic skills.

Reagan’s solution?  “If I still had young kids to educate, I’d send them anywhere but public school.  Catholic school.  Private school.  Home school.  Online schools.  I’d hire tutors.”

Does Reagan believe that an immigrant family, unable to see that their daughter learned basic things despite gaps in schooling, could solve these problems in his preferred settings?  Could they afford private school or hired tutors?  His prescriptions are for the well-off constituency that he so often represents.  They would weaken the public school system.

Yes, the term “liberal” has become troublesome in certain political circles.  But “liberal arts” have always been about freedom, not politics.  They embrace the knowledge that citizens need if they are to govern themselves effectively in a free country.  A growing movement against these arts, and against public education, is ominous and raises fears about ultimate motives.

(Modified version of a Letter to the Editor, Waynesboro News Virginian, published July 8, 2013.)