Vietnam Still an ‘Invisible Scar’ for Army
On a mud-splattered landing strip near the demilitarized zone, Capt. Bob Scales said a final farewell, through streaming tears, to the men of Battery B.
He had led 55 artillerymen across Vietnam’s canopied forests and mountain crags, through midnight firefights and thundering bombardments during the convulsive summer of 1969. And now Vietnam was over for him, he believed. A mission accomplished. A chapter closed.
He was wrong.
The Vietnam War, which ended 25 years ago on April 30, touched Scales again and again as he moved from one command to another during a 34-year military career that has elevated him to the rank of major general.
In the 1970s, as U.S. troops withdrew to a homeland thrown in turmoil by the war, Scales saw his Army nearly destroyed by internal strife and neglect. He felt the scorn of civilians as he pursued graduate studies at a university where decorated veterans like himself knew it was only prudent to trade uniforms for bell-bottom jeans, to keep their warrior pasts a secret.
Scales saw Vietnam sow doubts in some of the Army’s best officers, including his own father, and observed how it reshaped the U.S. military’s fundamental notions ofwhen and where to fight.
He made sure its lessons were not forgotten as he and other veterans who stayed in the Army rebuilt the shattered force over a period of 15 years. And today, Vietnam’s legacy permeates the military worldview that Scales, now 55 and commandant of the Army War College here, imparts to new generations of officers.
For the Army, “Vietnam is, in many ways, an invisible scar,” said Scales, a man with piercing blue eyes who is considered one of the service’s visionaries. The war so changed the Army and so influences it today, he said, “you can’t understand the one without the other.”
The fall of Saigon 25 years ago marked the end of a 16-year calamity that shook the nation’s ideals and its institutions.
Nowhere were the wounds more grievous than within the U.S. military, once the proud symbol of U.S. dominance but suddenly the humbled loser in an unpopular and ultimately unsustainable war in Indochina.
In the years since, the armed forces have triumphed in a war in the Persian Gulf. They have leaped so far past their peers in prowess that even close allies have become anxious. Yet the painful lessons of Vietnam remain ingrained in veterans like Scales who, though fast dwindling in numbers, still guide the armed forces.
The legacy of Vietnam is visible when the Air Force bombards a creaky Yugoslav army from the safety of 15,000 feet, when the Navy launches unmanned cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away to punish a dictator in Baghdad and when the Army offers arms and trainers--but not combat troops--to help a Colombian regime fight a jungle insurgency.
It is evident today, when Pentagon leaders fret publicly that the peacekeeping deployment in Kosovo is changing, through a phenomenon known as “mission creep,” into a dangerous quagmire.
In the generals’ secret war councils at the Pentagon, no one mentions Vietnam. No one has to: Its lessons were long ago imprinted on their psyches.
How this lesson was embedded is plain in the stories of soldiers like Scales, who was trained as a military historian and has seen the Army from the perspectives of field commander, administrator and strategist.
Scales’ dad, Robert H. Scales Sr., was a career Army officer from the Texas Hill Country who piloted amphibious landing craft in the Pacific campaign of World War II. He took pride and purpose in the way that war had become a unifying national crusade.
The younger Scales wanted to be like his dad and chose his life’s work at age 5. He read books on military history “as far back as I can remember” and bored through Douglas Southall Freeman’s weighty “Lee’s Lieutenants,” a book about the Confederate Civil War generals, while in middle school.
He was appointed to West Point, class of 1966, a group that produced dozens of top officers, including Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military chief in the Kosovo war. Scales’ class also suffered more casualties--including 38 dead--than any other in the academy’s history.
Scales was restless in his college days, ready to start his military career. But when he finished 422nd in a class of 580, he fretted that he would not get a top combat assignment in a war that was swiftly building to peak intensity.
The best students got to choose among assignments in Vietnam; Scales’ first posting was to command an artillery unit in Germany. When President Lyndon B. Johnson, facing deepening controversy over the war, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek a second term, Scales panicked.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, the war’s going to end before I get there,’ ” he said.
Scales was sent to Vietnam in 1968 and was dispatched to the front lines in May 1969 after the death of an artillery battery commander involved in a pivotal struggle in the Ashau Valley near the Laotian border. Suddenly, he was leading a unit in the battle of Apbia Mountain, which became known as Hamburger Hill when 50 Americans died in a 10-day fight that stirred new controversy at home about the conduct of the war.
Actions Earn Scales a Silver Star
Scales’ six 105-millimeter guns were assigned to fire shells across the valley, a distance of about five miles, in support of U.S. infantry units. Yet two brigades of North Vietnamese troops lurked in the valley and at intervals tried to overrun the American fire bases.
Scales won a Silver Star for his actions on June 14, 1969, when, in an attack before dawn, 96 North Vietnamese regulars briefly overran Fire Base Berchtesgaden, lobbing explosives called satchel charges, killing 11 and injuring 43.
He was “knocked to the ground several times as satchel charges went off near him,” according to his citation papers. Yet he moved from artillery piece to artillery piece, firing at enemy soldiers, helping tend weapons and directing defensive fire from U.S. helicopter gunships.
Despite the heavy casualties, Scales’ battery survived three major assaults. Throughout that summer, he said, “we were fighting for our lives.”
Many American soldiers experienced Vietnam as a counterinsurgency, a shifting and ambiguous battle waged for hazy military goals against guerrillas who were often impossible to distinguish from civilian noncombatants.
Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was sent into the Ashau Valley in 1963 on a mission that summed up, for him, the pointless quality of the war.
The forces were there, a South Vietnamese officer told him, to protect an outpost that existed to protect an airstrip that was there solely to service the outpost.
The Vietnam War “rarely made more sense than in [that] circular reasoning,” Powell wrote in his autobiography.
Scales, however, experienced a different sort of war.
The war his unit fought in the isolation of the mountains was a straightforward, conventional conflict between regular troops. The soldiers didn’t have to worry about harming civilians or wrestling with other political issues that made the war so anguishing for others.
While some units were troubled by drug use, race friction and poor leadership, the soldiers of Battery B focused on simply doing their job and staying alive.
Scales saw his battery as professionals--a “band of brothers"--and didn’t worry much about the larger political issues involved in the war.
Yet years later, he learned that his father, posted a few hundred miles to the south, was gnawed by doubts about a conflict that did not have the clear purpose--or public support--of World War II.
While his son was fighting in the mountains, Col. Scales was watching the war uneasily as deputy commander of the huge Long Binh military depot.
A veteran soldier as “tough as woodpecker lips,” in the words of his son, the elder Scales remembered how World War II officers and enlisted men together endured the hardships of dirt and disease in the South Pacific. And it made him uneasy to find himself sitting in a huge air-conditioned office eating steak and lobster and watching through the window as fighters streaked off to pound distant targets.
The younger Scales began to see the war from a different perspective when he returned to the States.
He went to graduate school at Duke University from 1971 to 1973 and found himself thrown together with young professors who made no secret of their distaste for the military.
This was “a different kind of close combat,” he recalled, and it came as “a real shock to me.”
Meanwhile, the end of the Vietnam War left the Army a shambles and “cloaked in anguish,” Scales wrote later in his book, “Certain Victory,” the official Army account of the Persian Gulf War and the rebuilding that preceded it.
Tens of thousands of the Army’s best officers and soldiers walked away as its troubles deepened.
The toll was especially heavy among noncommissioned officers, who were rotated through the combat zone, tour after tour, at a far higher rate than officers. Many were killed, many others bailed out, and their replacements, thinly trained “shake-and-bake” NCOs fresh from the ranks, were often not as motivated or as skilled. Some, indeed, were deeply angry with the Army.
At Ft. Benning, Ga., in the mid-1970s, Scales saw authorities post guards with truncheons outside buildings to prevent soldiers from breaking in and carrying off equipment.
President Nixon ordered an end to the draft, but interest in the new all-volunteer Army, begun in 1973, was so scant that recruiters were compelled to take 40% of their recruits from the lowest category of mental aptitude, the so-called Category IV.
The Army was an institution “fighting merely to maintain its existence in the face of growing apathy, decay and intolerance,” Scales later wrote.
For Scales, the Army has been a family business: In addition to his father, his wife’s father and her sister’s husband were in the service. Both of Scales’ daughters also joined the Army.
But in the early 1970s, Scales found himself wondering about the Army’s future. He had searching discussions with his father and wife about whether he should leave for civilian life.
But if you left, his father asked, would you feel that you’d abandoned the Army? The answer was yes, Scales concluded. He decided to give the Army “one more shot.”
In addition to its personnel problems, the Army of the mid-1970s was jolted by anxieties that it might fail in its most essential mission: throwing back a Soviet attack on the plains of central Europe.
Vietnam had cost the nation about $120 billion--money that would have gone, in part, to keeping the armed forces competitive with its foes.
And in 1973, the Army was shocked to see in the vast tank and missile battles of the Yom Kippur War how much the lethality and range of Soviet-built war machines had improved.In the years that followed, with gathering momentum, the Army reinvented itself--partly from fear of the Soviet adversary and partly from a desire to prove its competence after Vietnam.
It developed a new generation of weapons, including the M-1 tank and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, all more deadly, more precise, more rugged. It rebuilt the NCO corps and put more emphasis on teaching troops to handle the complex new weaponry, a step that came to be called the “training revolution.”
The Army’s rebuilding job turned the corner in the early 1980s as new money was poured in for equipment, pay and college benefits. The nation’s anger over Vietnam was fading.
In 1982, during the height of this reinvention, Scales took command of 650 men in an artillery battalion at Panmunjom, at the border of North and South Korea. By then, the NCOs were “good,” he said. And by 1988, when he was commanding NCOs at the Artillery Training Center at Ft. Sill, Okla., they were “superb.”
The American public came to share that view in 1991, when U.S. and allied ground troops overwhelmed Iraqi forces in the Persian Gulf War in 100 hours.
Americans deluged the troops with tens of thousands of pieces of fan mail. The military was viewed as the nation’s most admired institution, polls showed.
The Scales family, too, exulted. Scales’ father, haunted by a feeling that he had bailed out of the Army at its darkest moment, showed his pride by placing on his car, for the first time, a sticker identifying him as a retired colonel.
Yet, while the Army had shaken off the stigma of Vietnam, the great debate over the war’s lessons was anything but settled--and, indeed, continues to rage today.
Since the 1980s, officers of the Vietnam generation and others had argued that the United States should avoid any new quagmire by following new rules for use of force.
The “Powell doctrine,” advocated by the Joint Chiefs chairman, said that the United States should use force only where vital national interests were at stake, where it could apply overwhelming force and where it had clearly defined military goals and an exit plan.
Its advocates argued that the United States must avoid the gradualism of Vietnam, where American leaders incrementally applied more and more force in a vain hope of finding a point at which the enemy could endure no more.
In Scales’ view, the guidelines of the Powell doctrine are worthy--yet, too often, not practicable.
Like it or not, he said, the military will rarely have the latitude to unleash its destructive power in full fury, as it did in Kuwait. Far more often, it will confront the questions of how to use limited force to gain limited ends.
It will be compelled, in other words, to work through the dilemmas again that tormented the U.S. leadership in the Vietnam War and in the Korean War before it.
The Persian Gulf War, with vast tank columns slugging it out in an unpeopled desert, may turn out to be “the last great Machine Age war,” Scales said.
“The American military will never again have a free hand to apply violence on the battlefield,” he said. “We need to get used to that.”
Yet he believes that the uniformed leadership should continue to heed the war’s chief lessons of minimizing U.S. casualties, making conflicts as short as possible and keeping public support strong.
Vietnam’s broadest lesson, Scales said, is how much can go wrong in war, a lesson taken to heart by the Vietnam generation of officers.
Today’s soldiers are accused of being “worst-casers--safe siders. We always ask for too much ammunition, too many men, too much time to do it,” he said.
Yet in Vietnam, by the middle of the 1960s, both sides were so committed to a battle of wills--fearing that they had so much to lose in defeat--that there were “no levers or knobs” to turn the war off.
Another principal lesson is that in choosing war, leaders must pay close heed to intangibles, such as the adversary’s will, rather than the kind of statistical measures that created the illusion of ever-approaching victory in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, legions of U.S. analysts kept close tabs on the destruction of enemy guns, trucks and troops. But they overlooked the determination of the North Vietnamese to fight on.Scales got a powerful view of this one night in his mountain firebase. In the predawn hours, his battery had opened a deafening barrage to inform nearby enemy troops that the Americans were awake and ready to repel any attack.
Despite the warning, minutes later dozens of North Vietnamese troops came surging across the concertina-wire perimeter--running directly into lethal American fire.
This was “a very determined enemy, a stoic enemy,” Scales said.
And the Americans’ failure to appreciate this, Scales said, was the nation’s “fundamental miscalculation” in its longest war.
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A MILITARY CAREER
Highlights in the life of MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES JR.
August 5, 1944: Born in Gainesville, Fla.
1966: Graduates from U.S. Military Academy, commissioned as field artillery officer, Germany.
1968: Commands headquarters artillery battery, 101st Airborne Division, South Vietnam.
1969: Commands artillery battery in front-line fighting in central Vietnam, returns to United States.
1971-73: Pursues graduate work in history at Duke University for master’s and doctoral degrees.
1982-83: Commands artillery battalion, U.S. forces in Korea.
1986-88: Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Army V Corps, Frankfurt, Germany.
1990: Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Field Artillery Center, Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
1991: Director, Desert Storm Special Study Group, authors “Certain Victory,” the Army’s official account of the Persian Gulf War.
1995-97: Deputy Chief of Staff, Army Training and Doctrine Command, develops “Army After Next” blueprint for the future design of forces.
1997-present: Commandant, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
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Lessons and Legacies: 25 Years After Vietnam
The longest war America has ever fought--and the first one it lost--Vietnam continues to provoke questions and evoke emotions both vivid and complex. The U.S. was involved in Indochina from the late 1950s until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Through the rest of this month, The Times will examine the impact of that turbulent time on American society and popular culture and on institutions from the military to the media.
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