By Commander H.B. Le, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist
On April 30, 1975, a 34 year-old South Vietnamese Navy commander -- the commanding officer of Nha Be Naval Support Base near Saigon -- navigated a small fishing trawler towards the South China Sea. Saigon had just fallen, and the trawler, crowded with 200 refugees, cautiously weaved its way down the Soi Rap River. In the span of just a few hours, as other refugees were plucked from smaller or sinking boats, the passengers had swelled to 400. After two uncertain days at sea and on the first birthday of the commander's youngest child, the refugees were taken on board the tank landing ship USS Barbour County (LST 1195).
On November 7, 2009, along with the U.S. 7th Fleet's flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), my ship arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam for a scheduled goodwill port visit. This visit was my first return to Vietnam since my father, mother, and three of my seven siblings and I departed in that fishing trawler. My father had navigated the trawler to sea, and, for me, navigating USS Lassen (DDG 82) into Da Nang Harbor brought me full circle to our past.
During that unforgettable port visit, I was interviewed by local and international news media. Most questions dealt with my thoughts on returning to my native country. Like my siblings who had come to America in 1975, I have always felt fortunate to grow up in the United States and to enjoy all the opportunities this great nation offers. It was a privilege for my sailors and me to represent USS Lassen and the U.S. Navy to the people of Vietnam.
It was also deeply moving for me to travel to my birthplace of Hue, joined by one of my older brothers who had graciously flown from Singapore, where he worked. Hue is just 50 miles northwest of Da Nang, and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend a few hours reuniting with two aunts, an uncle, and extended family members.
Throughout the port visit and for several days afterwards, I received heartwarming e-mails and notes from family and friends, as well as from people I did not know. Easily the most remarkable was a short letter I received in the ship's mail on November 18, eight days after USS Lassen departed Da Nang Harbor:
USS Lassen (DDG 82)
FPO AP 96671-1299
November 6, 2009
Congratulations on your command. I read with interest the press release about your visit to your homeland. I was the Executive Officer of the USS Barbour County (LST 1195) at the time of your rescue. I have wondered throughout the years what became of the myriad people we took on board and transported to the Philippines (Grandy Island). Again, congratulations and enjoy your tour.
Russ Bell CDR, USN (Retired)
I was thrilled when I read the letter and e-mailed my father right away. He wrote in response from his home in Virginia:
We finally have the opportunity to express our gratitude to one of the people who saved us and gave us a new beginning in the United States of America. Would you please send our thanks to CDR Russ Bell and his crew for helping and saving us at sea on May 2nd, 1975 and bringing us to Freedom? I still remember that on the 3rd of May, the XO was the one who gave me an envelope and then helped to send my letter from the Barbour County to Uncle Ed Rowe at his parents' address in Kansas City, MO. It comes back to my memory very clearly now, just like it happened yesterday! God bless the crew of USS Barbour County and their families. God bless the U.S.A.
Today on behalf of my family, I wish to thank Commander Russ Bell, U.S. Navy (Retired) and the crew of USS Barbour County. Also, thank you to Uncle Ed -- Colonel Ed Rowe, U.S Army (Retired) -- and his wonderful family for sponsoring us all those years ago... and happy 39th birthday to my dear brother, Phil.
Commander Hung Ba Le was the commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) from April 2009 to December 2010. One of seven destroyers assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, Lassen's namesake is Commander Clyde E. Lassen, who received the Medal of Honor for his courageous rescue of two downed aviators while commander of a search and rescue helicopter in Vietnam. Commander Le is currently serving as a fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in Cambridge, MA.
Fifty Shiite gunmen invaded the offices of four newspapers in Baghdad. They smashed equipment, stabbed some people, and threw one reporter off the roof.
Let freedom reign?
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Recently I was at a foreign policy discussion in which a participant said that everybody agrees that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, despite everything else that went wrong with the boneheaded invasion of Iraq.
I didn't question that assertion at the time, but found myself mulling it. Recently I had a chance to have a beer with Toby Dodge, one of the best strategic thinkers about Iraq. He said something like this: Well, you used to have an oppressive dictator who at least was a bulwark against Iranian power expanding westward. Now you have an increasingly authoritarian and abusive leader of Iraq who appears to be enabling Iranian arms transfers to Syria.
And remember: We still don't know how this ends yet. Hence rumors in the Middle East along the lines that all along we planned to create a "Sunnistan" out of western Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
Meanwhile, the Iraq war, which we left just over a year ago, continues. Someone bombed police headquarters in Kirkuk over the weekend, killing 33. And about 60 Awakening fighters getting their paychecks were blown up in Taji. As my friend Anthony Shadid used to say, "The mud is getting wetter."
I suspect that the ease with which the U.S. military has accepted openly gay personnel may have encouraged the Pentagon to drop the much-tattered combat restriction on women. The same arguments that were made against integration of blacks in the 1940s and of gays over the last 10 years were made against allowing women to openly serve in combat roles. But, despite those Chicken Littles and Henny Pennies, the sky didn't fall. And the failure of those dire predictions of destroyed unit cohesion to pan out undercut the argument against women in combat. Also, there was a powerful argument that we already have seen women fight in Iraq -- and be decorated for valor in combat.
Ironically, integrating women into infantry units may be far harder than it was to integrate blacks and male gays. The real battle is yet to come: It will be over whether there will be different standards for women than for men, and if so, how different. Or, as retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger puts it, "'If you want to ride this ride, you must be this tall' must be the mantra, not 'everyone gets to play.'"
Something, it looks like, but we are not going to be told about it, if a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling issued last Friday stands.
I wonder if Google and NSA will merge one day.
On the other hand, something that discourages intelligence operatives in China from hacking into our e-mails is probably a good thing. Hmm -- maybe I am learning how to love Big Brother?
I caught up with retired Gen. Richard Cody on Monday morning and asked him if Douglas Feith or another Rumsfeld follower had pressured the Army to retire Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba after Taguba filed his report on abuses and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Absolutely not, Cody said. "The reason Tony didn't go any farther, and retired as a two-star general, was that it was his time," he said. Despite Taguba's suspicions, there was no pressure from the Rumsfeld crowd, he added. (This rings true to me -- I once attended a lecture for new Army generals that informed them that all their careers would end with a phone call telling them it was their time to retire.)
As for the Taguba report itself, Cody added, "Tony did a pretty damn good job, I thought. I was proud of him. . . He spoke truth to power."
STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images
By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent
Is this your first visit to Syria, the passport-control man asks me. No, I tell him, I came here once before over a decade ago. He stamps my passport. I had been very lucky to get a Syrian visa this time. The travel advice was not to visit. The Syrian regime is very wary of foreigners, fearing that journalists and spies are inflaming the situation further. I collect my bag and walk through customs, passing a poster, of modest size, of President Bashar al-Assad with the words in Arabic proclaiming: "Leader of the youth, hope of the youth."
I jump in a taxi. I ask the driver how are things in Syria. Things are fine, he assures me. There has been some trouble around the country, but things are OK in Damascus. As we drive, we chat. He points out the area where Druze live. With his hand, he waves in another direction to where Palestinian refugees live, and then again to where Iraqi refugees live. Alawites are over there and in villages. Christians this way and in villages. Sunnis are around 65 percent of the population. Kurds live in the north. Many different peoples live in Syria. I ask him how he knows who someone is or whether they are Sunni or Shiite. He tells me that he does not know and it does not interest him to know: There is no sectarianism here in Syria. We pass Damascus University. Outside there are lots of flags and pictures of Assad and his deceased father. Across the city, the Syrian flag is flying strong and photos of the president are omnipresent. As I ride through al-Umawiyeen Square, I see lots of young men and women gathering, holding Syrian flags. It is not a demonstration, a Syrian tells me; it is a celebration -- a celebration of the regime. Later, I watch the event on television. It has made the international news. Tens of thousands of Syrians have come out to al-Umawiyeen Square to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in a lively celebration that includes pop singers and fireworks.
When I had visited previously, the city had been filled with huge pictures of Hafez al-Assad; and Bashar, his son, had been studying ophthalmology in London. The death of Bashar's elder brother, Basil, in a car crash, propelled him back into the family business of ruling Syria.
In the evening, I stroll down the street to a restaurant. It is very modern and Western. All-you-can-eat sushi for $20. I try to read my emails on my BlackBerry. I switch between two different networks, but can only receive GPS, not GPRS. The restaurant claims to have Wi-Fi. I ask the waiter. There is Wi-Fi, he tells me, but it is not working at the moment. Nor is Facebook. Internet access is limited.
I walk through Souq al-Hamidiyah in the old city of Damascus. It is a wide, pedestrianized street, two-stories high, and covered. It is buzzing with life. Store owners sit outside their shops, trying to entice potential customers. Traders sell their wares down the middle of the street. Walking with the flow of people, I emerge to find the Umayyad Mosque directly in front of me.
I go to the ticket office, pay the entrance fee for foreigners, and collect a hooded gray cloak to cover myself. The cloaks come in three sizes. A woman sitting there directs me toward the smallest size. The cloak stinks, and I wonder when it was last washed and how many women have had to wear it in the sweltering summer heat. I put the cloak on over my clothes, pulling up the pointed hood to ensure my hair is covered. I enter the Umayyad Mosque -- built on the site of a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist -- looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan except dressed in gray, and carrying my shoes in my hand. I wander into the covered area where hundreds of people are praying, men in one area, women in another. I walk out to the courtyard. In one area, a group is seated on the ground. One man is kneeling, raising his arms, weeping "ya Hussein." The others follow suit, tears flowing, looking quite distraught.
The rest of this article can be read in its entirety: here.
Finally, Americans may get the right to carry concealed loaded weapons in National Parks. How did we get so far without this privilege?
The irony is that the National Park Service doesn't even allow kayaks on the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. But now we can pack pistols with our picnics.
I just want to note that Roxana Saberi is still being held in an Iranian jail for doing her job. She should be freed immediately. My family's thoughts are with her. My respect for the government of Iran is declining by the moment. You want to be treated like a great power? Begin by acting like one.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
I blurbed his book, he blackballed me
Did faculty members at the Army War College curtail their criticism of the Iraq war for fear of institutional retaliation?
That seems to be the bottom line in a situation I stumbled across just a few days ago. A friend passed along a 2005 e-mail note in which Steven Metz, chairman of a department at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, urged several of his colleagues to blackball me because of my coverage of the Iraq war. "We all need to avoid Tom like the plague," Professor Metz advised.
I was surprised by this in particular because the last time I heard from Metz last year, he was asking me to blurb his new book on the Iraq war, which I did, as you can see here. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but it is more than a little disappointing for him to denounce me privately and then turn around and ask me for help selling his book publicly.
But more important is what Metz's note may say about the state of academic freedom at the Army War College. When I asked him why he would urge his colleagues to shun me, he quickly apologized via e-mail and explained that it had to do with the political climate at the college back then. In fact, he explicitly blamed the strained relationship between the Army and its civilian overseers under then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "[A]t the time -- with growing sensitivity to criticism by Rumsfeld and the Army's attempt to make peace with Rumsfeld after Shinseki left -- several members of SSI had been verbally flogged after interviews with you when the stories portrayed [sic] as more critical of the administration than we intended. We were worried about what might happen to SSI, even frightened for the organization. Many of us, including me, simply stopped doing interviews. Luckily, the climate eventually changed."
Metz went on to tell me that he now thinks he was wrong to tone down his criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war back then. "Today I believe that I should have been more critical of the unfolding disaster in Iraq and simply borne the consequences. As government employees, we walk a fine line between being critics and 'part of the team.' In 2005 I, at least, lost the sense of balance."
Maybe it is time for the commandant of the War College to issue a statement emphatically reaffirming his institution's commitment to academic freedom?
Update: Metz responds below.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.