Thursday, April 27, 2017

Peninsular Problem

Early in the summer of 2000, newly advanced to his terminal rank and just graduated from the Naval War College, the Colonel arrived in Seoul, Republic of Korea (ROK) to assume duties as Chief of the Current Operations Branch, J-3, United States Forces Korea (USFK).

It was not his first time in Korea.

The Colonel had participated in port visits and exercises in South Korea in the early '80s, and then, in the late '90s, had deployed with his battalion (First Battalion, Third Marines -- the best battalion in the Marine Corps) from Okinawa to a training camp outside of Pohang for a month of combined exercises with a ROK Marine Corps battalion.

He had been to South Korea one other time.  Early in his battalion's 7-month rotation from homebase at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii to Okinawa, Japan, the Colonel and his senior battalion staff flew to Seoul for a reconnaissance and mission planning session.  The battalion's mission for which it was ordered to "be prepared" was participation in any ordered Noncombatant Evacuation from Seoul coincident with the imminent outbreak of war on the peninsula.

It was a sobering week.

USFK's Current Operations Branch, which the Colonel would lead a couple of years later, gave the battalion's senior staff an initial "threat" brief and a cursory outline of planned Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO).  The threat brief was, to put it mildly, eye-opening.

It's one thing to study enemy order of battle in a schoolhouse.  Getting a brief of the enemy's capabilities and current operations in a command post within artillery range is something else, again.  The numbers are classified, but just know that the North Koreans have enough artillery and ballistic missile batteries positioned in range of Seoul to cause catastrophic casualties to a significant percentage of the residents of the metropolitan area.  

The population of metropolitan Seoul numbers north of 15 million.  

You do the math. 

The battalion's "be prepared" mission was to fly into Seoul in the case of an "ordered" NEO, secure collection and evacuation sites, and facilitate the orderly evacuation of nearly a quarter million U.S. and friendly nation citizens.

The mission was daunting, to say the least.

Impossible, to be realistic.

But, Marines don't believe in the concept of impossibility. Impossible missions are just assigned a little more time for accomplishment.

The Colonel and his staff conducted reconnaissance of the projected NEO collection and evacuation sites (travelling all over metropolitan Seoul on the city's world class subway system) and returned to Okinawa.  A trip report was prepared and submitted to higher headquarters detailing findings, concerns, and supplies necessary if the mission were ever to be conducted.  

And, frankly, the mission was never discussed again.  It was assessed to be unrealistic, and, just too hard to think about.  Besides, the First Battalion, Third Marines was a combat battalion (the best one in the world at the time) and there was no way all that battlefield potential was going to be wasted herding civilians.  The expectation was that the battalion would participate in a recreation of MacArthur's Inchon end run, or a close facsimile thereof, and all training was focused on that potentiality.

So, when the Colonel took over the Current Ops Branch at USFK, he thought he had a pretty good handle on Korea.  He was greatly mistaken.

His first assignment from the Army two-star who was his immediate superior was to read a half dozen books that formed a crash course in Korean culture and the history of conflict on the peninsula.  The history part was mostly refresher -- the Colonel fancies himself a fairly well-read military historian -- but, the culture piece was new and very instructional.  Turns out you can't understand the Kim regime north of the 38th Parallel without a decent foundation in Korean culture.

Long story short, Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) gained and maintained unchallenged military, economic, and political power by turning Korean society upside down and ruthlessly leveraging the dominant Korean cultural concept of "saving face."  By displacing the former top societal movers and shakers and putting the formerly disadvantaged in their place, Kim Il Sung gained the undying loyalty of his subordinates.  By instituting mandatory daily criticism circles for all of his subjects, Kim kept the first few generations of the DPRK in such a state of psychological discombobulation that those who might have resisted his authoritarian rule were too unsettled and mistrustful of anyone but their supreme leader to even begin to plan a revolt.

Add to this societal witch's brew, strict isolation from the outside world, idolization of Kim as a demi-god, and Kim's concept of complete national self-sufficiency (Juche), and there is no wonder that the DPRK can maintain itself as one of the world's greatest armed camps while facing periodic famine and starvation.  The Colonel always enjoyed driving home the point of the North's starvation to visiting VIPs by stopping a film of the DPRK Army on parade and pointing out that the skinny soldiers were the best fed in the malnourished country.

But the Kims, and their immediate subordinates (drawn from the former bottom of society, remember), lived sumptuously.  The implication was that if something happened to the Kims, the gravy train went away for all the generals and high political apparatchiks and it was back to the coal mines for them.

And, as much as the Colonel thought he knew about the extent of the North Korean threat, he found out quickly in the summer of 2000 that he didn't know the half of it.  Daily intel briefings focused not only on major DPRK military movements, but also on the constant attempts by the norks to infiltrate small units into the South.

As Chief of Current Ops, the Colonel ran the combined USFK/UNC (United Nations Command) Command Center into which constant notifications of both friendly and enemy dispositions flowed.  Whenever a major friendly unit's disposition changed or major enemy unit moved (which happened hourly on average), the secure phone on the Colonel's desk (or the one on his bedstand) would ring and a watch officer would relay the information.  The Colonel would ask a few pertinent questions about the information before hanging up and deciding whether it was important enough to start waking up the generals.

The Colonel doesn't know who has the job running Current Ops right now, but he knows that colonel ain't getting much sleep.       



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Seedy Sitcom

The Colonel ain't a farmer... but, he plays one on the sitcom that is his life here at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere.

He has a tractor.

He has farming implements for that tractor.

He has lots of dirt.

The similarities end there.  Just like sitcoms and real life.

It is a very good thing that the Colonel's livelihood and the standard of living at which the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda expects the Colonel to maintain her don't depend on his ability to market a crop.

The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda, nevertheless, provides plenty of encouragement for the Colonel's agricultural efforts.  Just the other day...

"Hey, knucklehead," the Colonel's bride asked in her most endearing way, "where have you been all day?"

"Riding Semper Field."

"Semper what?"

"Semper Field. The Colonel's tractor."

"You mean that smelly, old, diesel-guzzling, eyesore of a monument to your stupidity that spends most of its time parked out behind my rose bushes in the backyard?"

"Semper Field is not an eyesore!  Oh, and by the way, been meaning to talk to you about those rose bushes.  They block my view of Semper Field.  Thinking about whacking those boogers back a bit."

"Knucklehead, if you start whacking on my plants, they won't be the last thing that gets whacked!"

The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda had assumed the dreaded hands-on-hips, eyes-on-fire, pre-attack position with which the Colonel has grown very wary.  Bad things follow.

"Yes, dear.  The Colonel understands, dear.  He won't touch your rose bushes."

"You better steer clear, Knucklehead.  And, stop referring to yourself in the third person.  Seriously!  Creeps me out."

"Yes, ma'am!"


"So, what, dear?"

"So, what have you accomplished riding that smelly, old tractor all day today?"

"Semper Field.  The tractor's name is Semper Field."

"Give it up, Knucklehead.  I am not going to call that wreck by some stupid name.  And, why are you pronouncing the end of the word 'field' so funny?"

"Emphasizing the italics."

"You are seriously the strangest man on the planet."

"But, you love me..."

"Don't push the issue, knucklehead!"

The Colonel loves these heart-connecting conversations with the love of his life, but he knows when there's been enough of a good thing and when it's time to move on.  He proudly provided the answer to her question, "been planting soybeans in the Middle Field."

"Knucklehead, when did we start eating soybeans?"

"We don't, dear.  The deer and the turkeys love 'em, though."

"Deer and turkeys?"  You planted a couple of acres of soybeans just for deer and turkeys?"

"Four acres, to be exact!"

"Quit emphasizing the italics!  Makes you sound like a yankee." 

The Colonel tolerates a lot of things.  Being called a yankee ain't one of 'em.  "Now, see here Miss Brenda, there's no need for name-calling..."

"Yankee, yankee, yankee!"

"That's just plain hurtful, Miss Brenda!"

"Hurtful?  What's hurtful is all the money you spend on diesel, herbicide, fertilizer, and seed, just to feed a bunch of critters.  And, don't get me started on all the money you spend on sugar for those stupid hummingbirds!"

The Colonel fairly recoiled in horror at the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda's seeming suggestion that feeding his beloved birds was wasteful.  "Heresy!," he cried.

"Get a grip, knucklehead!"

See?  The Colonel's life is a sitcom.




Monday, April 03, 2017

A Noble and Right Republic

One hundred and seventy years ago, this week, an American army, under the command of General Winfield Scott, marched westward out of the Mexican coastal town of Vera Cruz.  Their destination: Mexico City.  

The American siege of Vera Cruz included the first large scale amphibious operation ever conducted by United States military forces and reduction of what was considered the strongest coastal fortress in the Western Hemisphere at the time.  Vera Cruz thereafter provided the vital port, opposite the Mexican capital, through which U.S. military forces flowed men and material for the campaign that culminated in the capture of the "Halls of Montezuma" and the capitulation of Mexican forces nearly six months later.

The war with Mexico had commenced officially nearly a year before.  The war was a culmination of years of tensions with Mexico over expansion of the American Republic westward on the North American continent.  The war has been portrayed, by the most vehement of its detractors, as naked American imperialism against a hapless neighbor.  The truth is that the War with Mexico was closer to a war of liberation than a war of expansion.

Mexico's leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a former brigadier in the Mexican army who had been instrumental in the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy established following Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, had repealed Mexico's constitution of 1824 and declared himself dictator.  The 1824 Constitution of the United States of Mexico, while not a completely faithful copy of the governing document of the nation to their north, did in fact include protections of the natural rights of man similar to those included in the U.S. Constitution.  The 1824 Constitution had created a hybrid confederation/federation that allowed considerable governing autonomy to Mexico's twenty or so states and territories.

Settlers moving west into the Mexican territory of Texas took advantage of this governing autonomy and basically thumbed their noses at the relatively weak central government in Mexico City.   Furthermore, Mexico had actually invited settlers to immigrate into Mexican lands -- specifically to areas that would provide a buffer between Mexico and hostile "native" American tribes.  The emigrating "Anglos" weren't stupid and they settled in great numbers in safer and more fertile eastern parts of the Texas territory.

In response to what Mexicans began increasingly to perceive as a threat to Mexican control of their northern territories, Santa Anna's setting aside (in May of 1834) of the 1824 Constitution, on the surface, was designed to help bring those immigrants to heel.  In practice, it also stripped Mexican citizens south of the Rio Grande of protections of their natural rights.  Santa Anna's dictatorship became what all dictatorships become -- the accumulation of power in the hands of one man to the detriment of the lot of all others.

The most untold part of this is that not only did Anglo Texans rebel against Santa Anna's dictatorship, but several Mexican states south of the Rio Grande did, as well.  Santa Anna put down the rebellion in the latter and, then, in 1836, marched on Texas.  The defeat of a wing of the Mexican army (commanded by Santa Anna), at San Jacinto, resulted in a treaty (later repudiated by the Mexican congress) recognizing Texas' independence.     

But, Texas and Mexico continued to differ over the boundary between the two.  In fact, Mexico persisted in the assertion that all of Texas was still Mexican territory and Santa Anna was determined to reclaim it.  Tensions continue to fester, particularly following formal admission of the Republic of Texas as a state in the United States of America in December of 1845.  Both sides increased forces and fortifications along the intervening frontier amid Mexican threats to invade and reclaim Texas territory.

The spark that finally lit the fuse to war was the ambush and destruction, in late April of 1846, of a small U.S. Cavalry patrol, under the command of Captain Seth Thorton, by a large Mexican force in the disputed territory north of the Rio Grande. Newly inaugurated President James K. Polk seized on the "Thorton Affair," declaring to Congress that, "American blood has been shed on American soil."  Polk asked for and a received a formal declaration of war from Congress.  A flood of volunteers swelled the relatively small American Army over the next several months, and by summer's end enough forces were available to begin offensive operations to seize territory south of the Rio Grande.

By late winter in 1847, Mexican forces had been defeated in Northern Mexico, and the campaign to carry the fight to the Mexican capital began at Vera Cruz.

While far more volunteered to fight than could be enlisted, the war did have its political detractors.  It should be noted, however, that most of the war's dissenters were far more worried about the acquisition of southern agricultural land that would strengthen the power of southern "slave-holding" states, than they were against a war to free their neighbors from dictatorship.

Perhaps most disappointing to the Colonel is that while the treaty that ended the war did cede the United States territory that would become California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming (half of the total territory then claimed by Mexico), the United States could have very easily taken ALL of Mexico and admitted ALL Mexican states into the Union.  The latter course of action was favored by Polk's political party, the Democrats.  Opposition to annexation of all of Mexico by the other party -- the Whigs -- was primarily based on the concern for tilting the scale decidedly in favor of then "slave-holding" states (all states had slaves).  So, President Polk compromised and took only the northern half of Mexico.

Consider, for a moment, the ramifications of that compromise.

It certainly forestalled, and perhaps pre-ordained the ultimate result of, the cataclysmic civil war that engulfed the nation within a generation.

But, imagine the strength of an American Republic that, by the end of the 19th Century, had not only stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of the Rio Grande, but included territory stretching far into the tropics of Central America.

And, imagine the millions who would be living in freedom, safety, and prosperity far above the standard in which they find themselves today -- many of them living in failed states so unable to provide even the most basic of those natural human rights that mothers in those crime-ridden states are desperately sending their children, often unescorted, north to the United States.

Expansion of a republic to provide freedom, safety, and prosperity to millions is the most noble, and right, of intentions by which a republic can be motivated, and by which it can be measured.