The Best Defense

Saigon update: Today's motorcycles are scarier than the Commies were back then

By Charles Krohn

Best Defense bureau of Vietnamese affairs

As I flew out of Ton Son Nhut in the fall of 1971, I harbored no intention of ever visiting again the war-ravaged nation where I served faithfully for two years. But when my wife and I landed two days ago on a round-about-way to Angkor Wat, we were instantly surrounded by luxury at the five-star Hyatt. So I forgot about the war and ordered club soda to mix with the duty-free Scotch I picked up in Hong Kong.

The next day we explored the city looking for some vestige of the war. The traffic was so terrific I felt I was more likely to be killed by a motorcycle now than I was by a bullet back then. Apart from a couple of war marble memorials the victors erected to celebrate their success in 1975, the only evidence of a U.S. presence was a garish sign atop the Rex Hotel promoting it was "the site of the 5 o'clock follies." A few blocks away we found the U.S. consulate, formerly our embassy. 

Far more conspicuous was expansion of the city. When I left the airport was well outside the city limits. Now it's surrounded by new construction to help house the population of about 10 million. The city has grown so far, in fact, it reaches the Cambodian border maybe 20 miles to the west in what we knew as the Parrot's Beak. Where the border market once flourished is a cluster of new supermarkets. When William Colby once visited me at Go Dau Ha, the district capital, his only request was to visit the market where I supposed both sides exchanged intelligence. I used to buy Vichy Water by the case to keep my upset stomach under control.

On the Cambodia side is a casino complex servicing Vietnamese gamblers who can't work the tables legally in their own country. At least that's what my guide said. He also explained the Cambodia relaxed visa requirements, but only for Vietnamese.

When he told me that the Vietnamese Army was small, only 650,000, I was thinking we might ask them to send a division or two to Afghanistan, given the absence of any local threat.

Overall, Vietnam today is one of the world's most energetic engines of change, in my opinion. There is no easy way to describe the motion. I told my guide that I found it ironic that there was more capitalism than socialism in Vietnam. One might even argue there is more socialism in the States with welfare programs that don't exist here. Anyone can get a license to start a business in a week, I was told, and if it failed, tough luck. It was like the American frontier, without the guns.

I didn't probe into the political situation, but I was told that about one million Vietnamese moved south after the war was over. Everyone has a computer and access to TV, but no satellite dishes are allowed. Also, I am told, Facebook was blocked a few months ago. I'm sure the kids know how to work around this, but it didn't seem prudent to tell my guide that traditional methods of thought control by elderly males are simply irrelevant. I had experiences in Baghdad not too long ago that suggest we haven't learned all the lessons either. 

Tomorrow we fly to Hue where I will visit the site where my battalion was surrounded by the NVA during Tet '68. I'm hoping I can find it.

Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now retired to Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission. 


The Best Defense

Romney endorses Obama: Yep, I’d do almost exactly what he is doing on Iran

That was my takeaway from Romney's op-ed article in yesterday's Washington Post on how he would handle Iran. The policy he recommends is extraordinarily close to what Obama is doing and saying.

The only difference I see is that Obama knows more about Iran than Romney does. Like history? "Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior," writes Gov. Romney. If I were a Republican, I wouldn't be recommending Reagan's handling of Iran as the model, unless the moderate Massachusetts millionaire wants to endorse giving Iran more weapons in exchange for the release of hostages, as of course the Reagan Administration did.  

But the stupidest line in the article might be this one: "I will press for ever-tightening sanctions, acting with other countries if we can but alone if we must." Dude, how are sanctions gonna work if we impose them alone? They won't, so they must be imposed multilaterally. Which is what President Obama happens to be doing. I have to wonder who in the Romney campaign thought this article was a good idea. 

Meanwhile, I suspect that one thing Republican hawks don't understand is the depth of opposition inside the military to attacking Iran. (Of course, back in 2002-03, lots of people in the military were against attacking Iraq-but the administration back then was all hot to trot, and did not want to be confused by facts.)  

Here is what old Obama said yesterday at a press conference about all this:

When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war.  I'm reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. 

This is not a game.  There's nothing casual about it.  And when I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that's more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.

Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven't launched a war.  If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so.  And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be.  Everything else is just talk.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images