Death in the Dark, Vietnam 1968-1972
By Thomas H. Keith USN (Ret.) and J. Terry Riebling
St. Martin’s, $28.95, 284 pp.
Walk into any chain bookstore and there’s apt to be at least a shelf dedicated to memoirs by former Navy SEALs. The most famous of these, of course, is Marcus Luttrell’s mega-selling Lone Survivor and the book that started the trend, Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko.
I became a fan of this genre partly because of my friendship with Harry, a retired Navy ship captain and former SEAL who served in Southeast Asia very early in the Vietnam War (earlier, in fact, than most of these books admit there were SEALs in Vietnam).
While most of these memoirs are worth reading, darned few are as good as Thomas Keith’s SEAL Warrior: Death in the Dark, Vietnam 1968-1972. In fact, I would rank only Lone Survivor ahead of this book as being of general interest to readers – and, by far, SEAL Warrior is the best book I’ve read on Vietnam SEAL ops.
Keith provides more tales of the kind of snatch-and-grab missions that Harry told me about than any other book I’ve read. In tone, it falls halfway between Marcinko’s constant chest-thumping and the memoirs that sound too much like slightly expanded versions of an officer’s SITREPs. Keith describes his team, his attitude and the lifestyle the SEALs adopted in Vietnam in compelling fashion; in fact, SEAL Warrior was the first book I’ve read where I could almost hear Harry’s voice as I read it.
I once talked to Harry about doing a memoir when all the SEAL books started hitting the market, and some limited details of his pre-Tonkin Gulf activities had begun to leak out. (In his 1992 book, Undue Process, Elliot Abrams called those operations one of our worst kept secrets.) Harry looked at me and said, “First, that’s classified, and I have a pension. And, second, there is a Democrat president, and I’m not sure what these clowns would call a prosecutable war crime.”
If I were Thomas Keith, I’m not sure I would have published my memoirs while Eric Holder is Barack Obama’s attorney general. With an administration that considers fake executions, waving a gun at a prisoner and just blowing cigar smoke at a detainee as possible war crimes, I might have hesitated to publish this great story:
“It took about a half an hour before Mingh was totally out of control but not a word had leaked out of the prisoners. In a fit of fake rage, Mingh grabbed up one of the prisoners that he was sure wasn’t the VC we were looking for and dragged him away from the others and around the back of the Quonset hut. Once there he was stripped of his black pajamas, and a Chieu Hoi [a defector from the VC] volunteer almost the same size as the prisoner slipped into them. While the fake stomach wounds and a horrific head wound were carefully put in place and fake blood was liberally poured where it would do the most good to hide the true identity of the volunteer, we slapped half empty sandbags with rifle butts. Mingh continued to scream questions, and, as the fake torture went on and on, another volunteer screamed out in artificial agony. When the fake wounds were ready and Boomer and I could keep ourselves from laughing, Al slowly fired three rounds from his M-16 into the ground. Then we picked up the stretcher with the now unrecognizable Chieu Hoi aboard and, with the fake entrails hanging out of the fake belly wound that was dripping blood, and the head wound gushing more blood, we paraded the stretcher past the line of prisoners sitting on the ground next to the Quonset hut. Mingh, his pants and boots covered in fake blood, stepped around the end of the hut, wiping fake blood from his hands onto his green camouflage shirt. He removed the prisoners’ gags and again asked who was the VC official. Nobody said a word. Mingh pointed to the last man in line and said, ‘Next.” Even before Jack started to pick the guy up, their eyes were open like saucers and they were all staring at one guy in the middle of the lineup. They were all trying to out shout one another and were calling him by name.”
But on the eve of sending more troops to Afghanistan under rules of engagement that are so restrictive they encourage the enemy to hide behind human shields, knowing we will not take them out, perhaps Keith felt it was his duty to remind Americans there is a better way to go.
The following paragraph makes a dated delineation between draftees and professional soldiers, but it’s still instructive about merely throwing more bodies at the problem, an option that seems to appeal to John McCain in every situation. Just once, I’d like to hear a Republican — or anyone — say, “We need to let our men kill more bad guys,” rather than just call for more troops.
As Keith puts it:
“The draft had put tens of thousands of men into uniform; but they were draftees and they didn’t have much interest in learning how to fight a guerrilla war. Some of the draftees were real fighters, ready and willing to take on the NVA and VC, but they were in the minority. Most of the draftees just wanted to stay alive. They went through basic training served their tour and headed for home, and another newbie took their place. Somebody up the chain of command needed to understand that just putting huge numbers of armed men on the ground can’t win a guerrilla war … to defeat the NVA and VC we didn’t need more draftees, we needed warriors who were well-trained, dedicated, and tough as nails. …”
And, of course, allowed to do the job.
Keith is not the first SpecWar-type who’s wondered if keeping American involvement at the counterinsurgency level might not have been a much better idea in Vietnam.
This doesn’t mean that in designated “free fire-zone” — an area where American troops were allowed to fire on anything that moved — that care was not taken to protect civilians. On a mission to find and destroy a mine-making operation in a free-fire zone where the Americans were unaware of any noncombatants, the SEALs happened across civilians in their path and acted accordingly, even risking discovery by taking care:
“There were dozens of small hamlets with six or eight families doing their best to keep what little they had away from the VC. Now we were not only in a free fire zone but we could expect to see lots of civilians and the VC were masters at hiding among the civilian population. It always pissed us off when the magazines and newspapers or radio and television reports made it sound as if we enjoyed killing civilians. Innocent civilians did get killed, but it was the VC who used their own civilian population as shields, because they knew we didn’t kill civilians when it was possible to avoid it.”
Conservatives too often try to equal liberal soldiers-as-victims rhetoric by acting as though each clueless or derogatory utterance by a liberal pol is potentially devastating to troop morale. It’s not news to combat troops that civilians and politicians don’t get it. They aren’t always sure that military administrative types or people back at the Pentagon get it — hence the designation REMFs (which I can’t fully explain to you here, here’s a hint: the first two letters stand for Rear Echelon).
In fact, defeatist comments have more effect on the enemy. Making a jihadist think we’re one car bomb away from despair and defeat encourages more car bombings. Leading a news cycle with excessive breast-beating over reports of civilian casualties is the same as saying, “Hey, Mohammed, grab some more human shields.”
But soldiers are aware of outside events and it matters, though it may not effect whether they do their job, as this passage reveals.
“One piece of good news that we celebrated long and hard was that (North Vietnamese leader) Ho Chi Minh had cashed in his chips but that good news was followed by some bad news that we had a tough time believing. It was reported that massive antiwar demonstrations in Washington DC had attracted over a million protesters. …
Even “worse news,” was that American soldiers had massacred civilians at My Lai. The press and antiwar politicians used this to smear the war effort, which enraged Keith and the SEALs who rightly thought perspective had been lost:
“The poor peasants all over Vietnam had been killed left and right by the VC and NVA it took four weeks of house to house fighting before the US troops fought them to a standstill and forcing them to retreat from the city of Hue. In the rubble of what had been a beautiful peaceful city of 120,000 people the VC left over 2800 civilian dead behind them when they finally broke and ran. Those innocent people were not caught in a crossfire or killed by random fighting; they were murdered to send a message to every man and woman and parent in Vietnam: oppose us and we will slaughter you, your children and your grandchildren. The civilians who died in Hue were victims of premeditated well-planned summary executions and mass murder. But the newspaper and TV reporters never reported those facts.”
Still, as Keith concludes, the real effect of political pressure and media coverage is on the politicians — it’s their actions and reactions that decide whether a war is won or lost:
“The half-million men and women who had put their boots on the ground and their lives at risk, who fought the war in Vietnam, were now no more than another pawn in a deadly chessboard. President Nixon had promised ‘peace with honor.’ He lied: Nixon and Kissinger had decided to put Vietnam behind them before the next (1972) election. While American troops were protecting and defending the liberty and freedom of 150 million people and every sacred word of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Nixon and his gang of co-conspirators were ignoring the two documents that make our nation worthy of any sacrifice. …. Politics in America had become a shit sandwich, and all of us who served in Vietnam were the meat in the middle.”
After several hundred pages of great war stories about amazing feats of valor, bravery and mad fighting skills, Keith injects a rather modest note:
“Even though people outside of the teams thought that what we did was dangerous I couldn’t agree. To my way of thinking there were only two things that made combat in Vietnam dangerous. The first was to be doing something you hadn’t been trained to do. The second was to be fighting like I Corps or II Corps was in the north. The Army and Marines were taking hilltops, fighting the VC head on, and trying and dying to hold the ground they had won. In that kind of fight indiscriminate death was the rule, not the exception. No matter how well you were trained, an artillery or mortar round could turn you into a red spot in the jungle floor. … SEALs didn’t charge into enemy fire to take and hold ground. We were guerrilla fighters. When we fought, it was in the enemy’s own backyard. They didn’t know that we were there, how many of us there were, how we got there, or how we would extract.”
Yes, but that’s what the skilled trades of warfare always say, from World War I pilots who shuddered at the thought of the trenches but died at a much higher rate, to B-17 crews who, before the P-51 came to their rescue, suffered casualties exceeded only by the first wave of landing craft at places like Normandy or Tarawa.
It is true, however, that only a couple of dozen SEALs were KIA (officially) in 10 years of (official) operations in the Vietnam War — and probably only another half-dozen or so were killed in pre-Tonkin ops and later cross-border missions that were put down to other causes. But that doesn’t make the SEALs any less brave.
One overriding attitude readers will take away from SEAL Warrior is that Keith and his team were eager for the fight, itching to take on missions against overwhelming odds and challenge the bad guys. Other than the pursuit of, say, stewardesses, the hunt for those who terrorized the villagers in the Rung Sat Special Zone brought them the most joy in life.
Thomas Keith served more than 30 years in the Teams. I hope more installments are coming our way — as soon as they are declassified.