Sunday, November 09, 2014

Crumbling Empires

The "Gang of Five."  Five BLT 1/8 captains (Gregory, Foresi, 

Larriviere, Dupras, and Welsh ) on their second deployment
 to the Mediterranean together -- Italy, 1990
Twenty-five years ago, today, the Colonel was assigned as the Operations Officer (Ops O) for Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/8 -- a reinforced (tanks, artillery, engineers) infantry battalion -- that was the ground combat element of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable, aka MEU (SOC).  The Colonel was then still a captain, but selected for major.  He was in his third year of a demanding and exhilarating second assignment as a company grade officer with a Marine infantry battalion.  

The Colonel, and nearly a thousand of his closest friends, were on the second six-month deployment to the Mediterranean in as many years, having only returned from the last such deployment just thirteen months earlier.  He had been a rifle company commander on that earlier deployment -- leading a reinforced infantry company of some 200 hard-chargers assigned as the heli-borne raid company for the 26th MEU -- SOC.  

Commanding a rifle company was by far the most fun the Colonel had in his career in the Corps.  Lots of demanding and rewarding assignments followed company command, but no job was ever near as much fun.  

The Colonel had lobbied hard to stay in command of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines (C 1/8) for the second deployment, but as a major (select) he had been the obvious choice to fill the vacancy in the Operations Officer billet -- last filled by another Ole Miss grad, Mike Edwards.  That, and the Marine Corps has an unwritten, yet faithfully followed, rule that, "No officer shall be allowed too much fun."   

The 24th MEU had shipped out from the East Coast the middle of October in 1989, embarked on amphibious shipping -- an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) consisting of an old helicopter carrier (LPH), and two smaller amphibs (an LPD and an LST).  The ARG had sailed slowly across the Atlantic and arrived in Rota, Spain early in November for face-to-face "Turnover" with the ARG and MEU finishing up their deployment and heading home.

After a few days of suffering through the outgoing BLT's briefs, the leaders of BLT 1/8 gladly bid farewell to their brothers heading home and leaned into the tasks ahead.

In those days, the Cold War was still frosty.  The Soviet Union was the enemy, and the Red Army/Navy and it's surrogates in the Middle East were still the focus of combat preparations for US naval forces patrolling the Med.  In particular, MEU (SOC)s, while highly prepared for operations at the lower end of the conflict scale, still kept the "Fight with the Warsaw Pact" playbook handy.  The main reason, it had always seemed, that US forces patrolled the Med, was to counter Soviet presence and influence.   

No one dared dream of a world in which the Soviet Union no longer existed.  The only way the Soviets were going away was in a nuclear winter, and that potentiality would also give the rest of the world frostbite.  The standoff with the Soviets was the framework of reality within which every American serviceman and woman planned each day, the remainder of their active duty careers, and the rest of their lives.

The Colonel's boss, BLT 1/8's commanding officer, was then Colonel, later General and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Mike Hagee.  Colonel Hagee was one of the smartest and well-connected officers with whom the Colonel ever served.  He was the first person the Colonel ever saw carry and use a portable computer -- a small suitcase-sized oddity.  Hagee tried unsuccessfully to teach the Colonel to use it -- giving up only after his student caused it to crash and lock up several times.

Twenty-five years ago, tonight, Colonel Hagee, his senior staff officers, and company commanders were bellied up to a bar in the Naval Station Rota Officers' Club.  A small television behind the bar flashed scenes of mobs of Germans destroying the symbol of Soviet domination -- the Berlin Wall.

The word "surreal" doesn't begin to describe the feeling those Marine officers were experiencing.  Never at a loss for irreverent comments and observations on any situation, this group of young men sat in stunned silence watching the wall crumble.

As the reality of the impending demise of the Soviet Union began to sink in one of the Colonel's brothers turned to their commander and asked the question on all of their minds, 

"Sir, does this mean we can go home, now?" 

It didn't.  Things actually got worse.  Chaos reigned, and has reigned for the twenty-five years since.

Today, Russia is resurgent and more and more bellicose.  

Today, China is a greater threat than ever.

The United States spent the last quarter century restructuring a military establishment from one focused on WWIII with the Soviets to one focused on fighting a nebulous war on terror.

The problem is that the United States, in the Colonel's not-so humble opinion, made a huge strategic mistake in restructuring to fight a tactic.  In 1991, the US actually used a military designed to fight the Soviets, with great efficiency and to great effect to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.  In 2003, the same capabilities dethroned Saddam.  In the Colonel's not-so humble opinion, the same Cold War force should have been used in a couple of short years after 9/11 to eliminate terrorism's center of gravity -- Middle Eastern regimes bankrolling the terror organizations.

Instead, the United States squandered the opportunity and frittered away blood and treasure with half-hearted limited objective campaigns.  

The United States should be the preeminent force -- one for GOOD -- in the world, today.  Instead, the United States is so weakened that a punk thug by the name of Vladimir Putin is rebuilding the Soviet Union.

The Colonel apologizes to his grandsons.  They will have to endure another Cold War.