May 7th, 1864; The Turn South

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Such an occurrence would seem absolutely implausible today, the stuff of trite Hollywood hyperbole.   Yet, it unquestionably happened.  And it is a tribute to the magnificent courage and spirit of men who comprised the Army of the Potomac.

In May of 1864, the war was entering its fourth, and bloodiest, year.  For the previous three, the long-suffering blue-clad soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had suffered from poor leadership and lack of training as they punched and parried with their skilled and elusive foe, Robert E. Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia.   Whatever the shortcomings of the generalship of this Union Army, its soldiers and junior officers had proven time and again to be a match for Lee’s men in the two areas that mattered most:  willingness to endure, and raw courage.   Failures to exploit advantages gained in the Seven Days, at Antietam, and and Gettysburg, rested with the leadership of the Army of the Potomac, not with its soldiers.

But now General Ulysses Grant called the shots.  The aggressive and determined hero of Shiloh and Vicksburg encamped alongside Meade, who still commanded the Army of the Potomac.  In the first week of May, 1864, that army marched into the densely tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness in pursuit of their foes.  Grant, it is said, passed a personal message to Lincoln even as the confused savagery of the Battle of the Wilderness began.  That message said; “Whatever happens, we will not turn back”.

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From 5-7 May, the two armies fought a brutal and unrelenting brawl in the dense woods and small clearings of the Wilderness.  Lee, significantly outnumbered, fought the Federal forces, which included Burnside’s IX Corps, to a frustrating standstill.  Union casualties were enormous, nearly 18,000, as the terrain and foliage worked against Grant’s desire to mass overwhelming force anywhere on the field.  Confounded by an enemy that seemed to thwart each maneuver, exhausted from the furious and bloody combat, with dead and wounded strewn everywhere, fires burning, choked with smoke, dust, and the stench of rotting corpses, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac seemed to be at the end of their tether.

On the afternoon of the 7th, Grant gave the order for the Army of the Potomac and Burnside’s Corps to move after dark.  In the pitch black, along dusty roads jammed with troops, ambulances full of wounded, cannon, supply wagons, and staff officers, the Army moved agonizingly slowly.  Filthy and exhausted, they shuffled onto Orange Plank Road and away from the burning furnace of the Wilderness.  Then, as the lead columns continued east along the road, an absolutely extraordinary thing occurred.  Officers at the scene reported that a palpable murmur arose in the ranks of marching men.  The soldiers knew instinctively that what occurred at the next road intersection would determine the future course of the war.  If the army was ordered to continue east (toward Chancellorsville) or turn left (north), it would be clear that the Army of the Potomac would again disengage from Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia would be allowed to recover its strength.  If the column instead turned right, to the south along Brock Road, they would be marching toward Richmond.   It would mean Grant, now that he had his claws in Lee, would not let go.

As the columns drew toward the intersection, the orders came for the column to turn right onto Brock Road.  They were heading south, moving toward their enemy.  Grant was going to hold onto Lee and continue the hammer blows that he and his troops knew to be necessary to bring the South to its knees.  In the darkness, the somnambulent men who’d been stumbling along a few minutes earlier exploded with wild and deafening cheers, loud enough to draw fire from Rebel cannon.   Despite all of the suffering and sacrifice of the previous days, and indeed the three years of war, these filthy and exhausted Veterans were cheering, even knowing the grim tasks that lay ahead.  Yet to come would be Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the Bloody Angle, Cold Harbor, the Bermuda Hundred, and Petersburg.   And Appomattox, which the weary men in blue knew all too well would never happen without more bitter hammering at their enemy, and without a man like Grant.  Their bravery and fearful sacrifice in the tangled hell of the Wilderness was not to be squandered.

Thoughts on the Bergdahl fiasco and politics

Many Americans were rather stunned to learn that in spite of the motto “Leave no man behind” not ever soldier or veteran was overjoyed by the return of Bowe Bergdahl to US control.

Jake Tapper of CNN had the courage to pick up the story on the national level.

The sense of pride expressed by officials of the Obama administration at the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is not shared by many of those who served with him — veterans and soldiers who call him a deserter whose “selfish act” ended up costing the lives of better men.

“I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,” said former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”

Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to not only acknowledge his actions publicly but face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

A reporter asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Sunday whether Bergdahl had left his post without permission or deserted — and, if so, whether he would be punished. Hagel didn’t answer directly. “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family,” he said. “Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.”

I hate to be a conspiracy theory type. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But let’s take a look at some rather significant events of the past week or so.

The President made a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Memorial Day to boost his image as Commander in Chief. Yet that photo op was spoiled first by the snub of Afghan president Karzi declining to meet with Obama. Then the White House badly blundered and disclosed the name of the CIA’s station chief in Afghanistan, releasing it in an email to no less than 6000 reporters. And it didn’t help that the one thing the administration has been transparent about in the last 5 years is our Afghanistan troop levels and withdrawal timetable.

The VA scandal leads to Eric Shinseki’s resignation. Coincidently, the very same day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carny resigns, giving the mainstream media a convenient topic to cover in lieu of the VA scandal. There’s nothing the press would rather cover than the press.

Then came news of the exchange of five senior Taliban members from Gitmo for Bergdahl. What the administration thought would be accepted as a feather in its cap was first greeted by the public with “who is Bergdahl?” and second by the backlash from soldiers and veterans who are convinced that Bergdahl is as best a deserter, and at worst in cahoots with the Taliban.

As the seniority of the traded Taliban came to light, the deal looked less and less like a bargain. Then came to light the fact that Obama had disregarded the law by not providing notice to Congress of the transfer of Gitmo detainees. The administration’s “urgent and exigent” explanation seems rather contrived in the face of the fact that negotiations for the release have been going on for quite some time. Further, the law in question doesn’t appear to have any such “urgent and exigent” carve out. So the administration is hiding behind the shield of the President’s inherent powers as Commander in Chief. Fair enough. But the Congress too has its inherent powers, specifically the power to regulate the armed forces. And regulate they have. Once again, the administration has determined that laws they don’t like are simply not laws at all.

The Army itself is not without a potential black eye here.

In the wake of Bergdahl, by whatever means, leaving US control, the members of his unit quickly acted to recover him. This lead to the deaths of as many as six US servicemembers. Worst still, members of his unit are saying they were forced to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements regarding the Bergdahl incident. Again from Tapper:

Many of Bergdahl’s fellow troops — from the seven or so who knew him best in his squad, to the larger group that comprised the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division — told CNN that they signed nondisclosure agreements agreeing to never share any information about Bergdahl’s disappearance and the efforts to recapture him. Some were willing to dismiss that document in hopes that the truth would come out about a soldier who they now fear is being hailed as a hero, while the men who lost their lives looking for him are ignored.

I can think of a couple of legitimate reasons why troops might be required to sign an NDA. First, troops without an appropriate security clearance that come to possess classified information should sign one. Another would be to prevent the disclosure of sensitive tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTP.

Sadly, however, the most likely explanation is that the Army simply didn’t want bad news in the press.

Both the Administration and Big Army would now love to see the Bergdahl incident simply fade away. As noted in the linked CNN article  ‘Another senior Defense official said Bergdahl will not likely face any punishment. “Five years is enough,” he told CNN on condition of anonymity.’ 

Maybe, maybe not. But let’s have an open and honest investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s departure from US control and how he conducted himself while under Taliban control.

Ask the Skipper has his own thoughts on the matter. And if he’s not on your daily “must read list” you need to change that now.

This is what happens to you when you are killed in Afghanistan*

It’s actually an article about the stress that Mortuary Affairs soldiers in Afghanistan face, but also contains an excellent description of the grim duty they perform, a duty faced with Dignity, Reverence, Respect.

The process starts when the phone rings. An officer tracking flights into the base calls the mortuary affairs unit with an alert that in 30 minutes to an hour an aircraft will touch down carrying a servicemember’s remains.

The team in the hangar responds with practiced urgency. One member of the “clean hands” crew contacts the unit of the deceased to gather details for a case file that will travel with the body to the United States. Two members iron an American flag to drape over the top half of an aluminum transfer case that will hold the remains.

If their team receives the call, Siverand and Valdivia climb into a box truck parked in the mortuary compound and drive to the flight line. In their downtime, while playing “Call of Duty” or poker, a relaxed repartee flows between them. In the vehicle, silence prevails.

The two pull up close to the plane or helicopter. They enter the aircraft and salute the dead servicemember and the military escorts accompanying the remains. The escorts help load the black body bag into the back of the truck. The body rides feet first. Siverand and Valdivia salute again, close the door and return to the compound.

In the hangar, under the cold glow of fluorescent lights, they wheel the remains on a gurney and stop beside a steel table. They move to opposite sides of the bag’s bottom end. Each pauses to steady his thoughts, to brace for a moment that never feels ordinary.

Valdivia unzips the bag. “I don’t like doing it, so he does it,” Siverand says. “But once it’s open, you scan what’s there and get to work.”

Mortuary Affairs is, thankfully, a terribly small community in the Army.

Incidentally, friend of the blog Jennifer Holik has written a two part piece on the Graves Registration Service in World War II. Part I. Part II.

Finally, an update on yesterday’s post on the Honor Guard social media incident. The soldier at the the heart of the incident has been suspended from participation in funerals, and the incident is under investigation.

*The title of this post is pretty blatantly ripped off from the opening sentence of a chapter in Geoffrey Perret’s excellent There’s a War to be Won. I prefer the term “homage” to “plagiarism.”

Wolfhound Warrior

A repost from the past. Roamy alerted me that today is the 61st anniversary of the battle that earned COL Millett the Medal of Honor. Just one of several Wolfhounds over the years have earned.

 

I just found out a bit of sad news (from Neptunus Lex of all places).

COL (USA, Ret) Lewis L. Millet, Medal of Honor, passed on November 14th, 2009.  COL Millet, as a Captain, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on February 7, 1951 in Korea:

Capt. Millett, Company E, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action. While personally leading his company in an attack against a strongly held position he noted that the 1st Platoon was pinned down by small-arms, automatic, and antitank fire. Capt. Millett ordered the 3d Platoon forward, placed himself at the head of the 2 platoons, and, with fixed bayonet, led the assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge Capt. Millett bayoneted 2 enemy soldiers and boldly continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his men forward by shouting encouragement. Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill. His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder. During this fierce onslaught Capt. Millett was wounded by grenade fragments but refused evacuation until the objective was taken and firmly secured. The superb leadership, conspicuous courage, and consummate devotion to duty demonstrated by Capt. Millett were directly responsible for the successful accomplishment of a hazardous mission and reflect the highest credit on himself and the heroic traditions of the military service.

While I was stationed in Hawaii, I was privileged to be assigned to the 1st Battalion, 27th US Infantry, The Wolfhounds.  The Wolfhounds are a very proud unit, considering they have a relatively short history. The regiment was only formed in 1902, but quickly acquired a reputation as a “can-do” unit. In addition to service in Siberia immediately after the Russian Revolution, the Wolfhounds, as part of the 25th Division, served with great distinction during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and now in Iraq.

Many units in the Army pay lip service to their heritage. The Wolfhounds live it. One program we had was making sure there was a real connection from the past to the present. Several times while I was in Hawaii, we hosted COL Millet to unit functions.  There were some semi-formal events, dinners and such. But the real benefit was having “Lew” come out and just spend time with us as we went about our training. We tend to elevate our heroes up onto a pedestal. But by meeting and talking with Lew Millet, many young troops had chance to meet a real hero, and see that he was human. Each of us could, if not guarantee that we would perform to his level of valor and gallantry, at least aspire to it.

Rest in peace, COL Millet.

Memorial Day

I posted this two years ago, and frankly, I don’t think I can really improve on it-XBradTC

Today is Memorial Day. Today is the day we remember all those who gave their lives in the service of this great nation.

Most of us have seen pictures or film of Arlington National Cemetery, or perhaps the beautiful National Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as The Puchbowl.

Of course, over the last 7 years, we’ve seen servicemembers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq come home to be laid to rest. The older folks among us remember the constant stream of casualties brought home from Vietnam.

Today, if you are killed in action, you will be escorted all the way home, from the battlefield to your final resting place. The Air Force will fly you from the theater of operations to Dover, Delaware. You may well be the only cargo on the entire aircraft. A servicemember will accompany you from Dover to your hometown, or to Arlington, or wherever it is that will be your grave.

But it was not always thus. In WWI and in WWII, thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen made the ultimate sacrifice far from our shores. Thousands upon thousands of American men died in the fields of Europe. They were usually buried very near where they fell, in crude, makeshift graves, with perhaps a single wooden slab as a marker. After the fighting had moved on, they were disinterred, and moved to more permanent cemeteries. After the war, the US government offered to disinter these heroes again, to bring them home to our native land. Many were brought home. But many families, for many reasons, chose to let them rest where they were. And so, throughout Europe, there are cemeteries.

The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains these tiny patches of American soil, paid for and consecrated with that most precious currency, the blood of patriots. If you find yourself traveling to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, or one of the other nations with an American cemetery, by all means, go visit. It is a moving experience.

And even if you aren’t in Europe today, please, enjoy the day off, enjoy the BBQ and cocktails with friends. Enjoy the sales at the store. By all means, do so.  But take just a moment, please, to remember those who answered their nations call, and gave the last full measure of devotion.

Many thanks to an anonymous reader of Neptunus Lex for the use of the photos.

I would like to add this- when our fallen troops come home, their “other family” the soldiers still fighting, feel a hole where they used to be. It is a small comfort to have a memorial service for them in their unit. I’ve been to a couple. A couple too many. But like everything else in the service, there’s a ceremony that is enshrined in tradition. The same template is used across the Army, and across the years. It gives soldiers a chance to say farewell to comrades in arms, before turning back to their duty. Time Magazine’s Viewpoint column has a post by Rajiv Srinivasan, a former Stryker platoon leader, about this ceremony. 

More Medal of Honor news.

Via Military.com

Richard Etchberger died in Laos in 1968, saving fellow Americans at a top-secret radar station overrun by North Vietnamese commandos.

Etchberger, who grew up north of Reading, Pa., was nominated that year for the Medal of Honor. But there was a problem: The United States was not supposed to have troops in Laos. President Lyndon B. Johnson declined to award the medal.

On July 7 of this year, Etchberger’s son, Cory, received a phone call. “Will you please hold for the president?” a woman asked.

President Obama then told Cory Etchberger that his father would finally receive the Medal of Honor.

Good. Better late than never.

Interestingly, I just read a novelization about the secret site in Laos, Lima Site 85.  Now I’ll have to find a non-fiction account.

Is Petraeus going to run for President?

From the headlines over at Ace’s there’s an article in the Vancouver Sun that thinks he may be leaning that way.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus is being strongly suggested as the Republican presidential candidate to stand against Barack Obama in 2012.

Speculation is growing that the shrewd and articulate commander credited with turning around the Iraq war is contemplating a run for the White House.

I am actually pretty lukewarm on this idea.

1. I have no idea where he stands on many issues.

2. Virtually any campaign he ran would therefore be  based on personal charisma, rather than longstanding record of public policy. That didn’t work out so well for us in the ’08 campaign, I’m not eager to try again.

3. He’s probably a heck of a lot more moderate than most Republicans realize. The Services are always touted as leaning conservative, and favoring Republicans. That’s true, but that isn’t the whole story. They tend to be very moderately conservative, and certainly it isn’t a monolithic bloc. In fact, if you look at recent elected officials who are vets, or have run for office, many of them are Dems. Think Sestak, for one. Wes Clark. Merrill McPeak. Heck, look how conservative Colin Powell turned out to be. The point being, just because he’s in the Army, doesn’t mean Petraeus is a true conservative. My guess is he’s probably socially pretty dang moderate.

4. Generals tend to make pretty lousy elected officials. Ike was the exception that proves the rule. We’ve elected quite a few to the Presidency over the years. I think one reason is that for all their executive experience, Generals are used to saying “do this” and having everyone jump to it. That’s hardly the case in the rest of the government. There’s also the issue of loyalty. In the Army, it is VERY rare for a subordinate to leak word of an internal squabble to the public. In DC, that’s a sport. Plus, career politicians, as much as we hate them, know the people needed to staff the various departments at the cabinet and subcabinet level.  In addition, any general elected would get significant pushback from Congress, even from his own party. There’s a heck of a lot of people in Congress that, after working their adult lives in politics, would be greatly annoyed to see someone waltz in and take the prime job.

5. He’s not done. If Petraeus is serious about running, or even positioning to run, he’s got to start right now. And that means he would be need to retire right now. It is unacceptable for any officer to campaign while on active duty whether their actions rise to the level of legal prohibition or not. Right now, any and all public acclaim that Petraeus has is due to his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a commander of our troops. But he needs to continue in that role, both as a moral obligation to those troops he leads, and to  help ensure the successful completion of the mission. He can’t do that if he’s preparing to run for office, and he can’t quit to run for office without being seen to abandon his troops in the field.

Gen. Petraeus has consistently denied that he’s running for office. So this isn’t really a critique of him. This is directed more at those folks who seem enthusiastic about the idea of him running for office.  I think the idea of him running for office (any office) in 2012 is a non-starter.

Of course, 2016 is a long ways away, and he’ll probably be retired by then.

Your thoughts?