“The Gate of Hell has opened and shrapnel came through the windows,” a Gaza resident said today. The Gaza resident’s statement could apply to any war throughout history. One hard truth remains: Once the gate of hell opens it is difficult to close.
When people can’t settle their differences through diplomacy, civilians inevitably see the failed results at their front door step. History has proven that leaders and generals believe adversaries surrender when spears and arrows find their way to a civilian’s living space. News channel broadcasters describe horrific tragedies from current events daily. It happened in Persian Gulf and Afghanistan Wars, the Vietnam War, Korean War, World War II, World War I all the way back to the first earthly disagreement over territorial rights.
It’s happening now in the Ukraine and in the Middle East while Hamas and Israel fire rockets at each other. For most non-combatant civilians, it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. Some civilians even pick a side until they see at what a cause costs. What matters then is the smell of death has entered their universe and they want it to stop.
July 21st marks the anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or the First Battle of Bull Run as the Union Government called it. The battle marked the first major fight between the Armies of Virginia. If there is one truth other than death inside the universe of battle and that is the fight will always involve civilians on the battlefield. Such is the case at the Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run depending on your loyalties during the Civil War. The Confederates refer to the battle as Manassas while the Union called it Bull Run. The signs leading to the battlefield today read “Manassas” as you travel down Interstate 66 in Virginia just outside Clifton and Centreville, Va.
A key part of the Manassas battle occurred on Henry Hill around the Henry House. Judith Carter Henry, 84 or 85 years old, stubbornly refused to leave her upstairs bedroom while the battle continued around her house. Judith Henry was killed by a Union cannon shell meant for the snipers who were using her house. She was the first civilian killed at First Battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861. The house had been in the family for a number of years and grave markers remain on the battlefield in front of the house rebuilt in1870.
The battlefield is a place where you can get a sense of the “Universe of Battle.” This is where armies and governments from both sides may have formulated the idea that this war would be over later than sooner as General Tecumseh Sherman predicted at the beginning. Another dynamic general, General Thomas Jackson got his name that would go down in history when General Bernard Bee yelled, “There is Jackson standing there like a stone wall.” So it was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as the name remained throughout history. Some accounts have claimed that the statement was meant as a criticism of Jackson’s refusal to move and help his fellow units. However, history proves that Jackson’s unit suffered many casualties during the battle.
When walking most battlefields including this one, the observer gets the sense that communication must have been difficult. They used flag signal codes and runners for communication. Command and control as well as integrating battle elements such as cannon units, cavalry and infantry must have been difficult. Today’s satellite communications and almost instant intelligence data from the field gives today’s commanders more time to make decisions.
The phrase “Universe of Battle” suggests different meanings to a person’s point of view. It can represent the horrors of war invading a civilian’s universe as in the case of the recent downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 or the conflicts in the Middle East between Hamas and the Israeli defense forces.
The universe of battle could also mean the particular space you’re living in when fighting in a battle. The kind of universe where all your senses reach a new level from hearing every audio wave, and smelling the cannon’s gunpowder to seeing the blood on wounded soldiers and civilians. It’s a bubble atmosphere until it’s all over.
I choose to visit battlefields to honor those who find themselves, through the accidental fate or personal choice, in a situation where they have to fight or die for a cause, defense of a country, for the elimination of a social system, for a particular religion or for the continuance of mankind’s maturity. Maybe there will be a time when people will cease creating new battlefield parks. Imagine.
The human toll these countries have paid due to both of them being a political football throughout the last century into the current one is staggering. The estimated death toll for the Vietnam Wars just from 1959-1975 is 58,000 US troops, 1.1 million of the North Vietnamese Army, and one-half to 2 million civilian deaths. If estimates include Cambodia and Laos, the death toll rises to more than five million. Afghanistan’s death toll numbers from 1979-2001 have been estimated from one-and-a-half million to more that two million. After 2001 to the present, the cost in lives for US forces is more than 1500 with an additional 20 to 50 thousand civilian casualties due to terrorist activity and the consequences of using modern warfare weaponry. These numbers are always being revised upward and in the case of Vietnam, the numbers don’t include the casualties that were inflicted during World War II and afterwards with Ho Chi Minh’s rebellious war with the French supported by the Soviet’s and Chinese communist governments.
Comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are easy to understand. After all, the Soviet Union military leadership was discussing ways to get out of Afghanistan as early as 1980 due to tribal disputes, the difficulty and lack of mountain warfare training, and the strong Mujahideen force combating against the Soviet occupation. However, like the United States in Vietnam twenty years before, the muddy politics and refusal to understand the local culture thought process prevented them from acting on that understanding quickly.
In an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski with the French Le Nouvel Observateur, he stated that… “on July 3, 1979 US President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul…We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would. The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War…”
The sad history about the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan and the 30 years since is that women in the country were enjoying more freedoms and educational opportunities before 1979. Since the invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban control, those freedoms were stripped away and in its place abusive restrictions became normal procedure until the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since the invasion, the progress toward more freedom for women has been slow but noticeable.
What is interesting to note in the timelines below is that Vietnam was unstable and volatile early in the last century but is now is relatively steady with economic opportunities. Afghanistan is just the opposite. The country was relatively sound early in the last century but was thrown into turmoil later on and into the current age.
Another commonality with both wars was the formation of resistance fighters. One fought against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen, while the other, The Viet Cong, the communist organization in Vietnam, waged war against US and other NATO forces. Both civilian populations played a part in accepting or covertly disrupting operations. Both wars, especially before 2001, were proxy wars funded by superpower money and weapons, sometimes masked and filtered through their allies. The initial social and tribal readings by intelligence analysts underestimated local politics and influence by local leaders in both wars. The Soviets misread the conviction of the Mujahideen and the influence of Islam throughout the nation. In addition, the PDPA, the communist leadership, was never as unified as the Soviet Politburo leaders were led to believe before invading on the request of Afghanistan PM Amin. As with Vietnam, the diplomatic and government phenomenon of mission creep occurred for the Soviet military, the Soviet army initially occupied the country to protect cities and installations. Over time, the army, composed of reservists and regulars, began to engage in combat missions that expanded. Like the US in Vietnam, the Soviet Army had to fight a guerilla war they were not prepared to prosecute in the beginning. They were fighting against rebels who knew their own terrain.
There are differences between the present Afghanistan War and the Soviet Union invasion. The US war in Afghanistan is retaliation against aggression from elements inside the country on September 11th, 2001. The US force went in knowing the units had to fight in addition to securing cities and installations. Military leaders also had studied Afghanistan terrain, the climate, and tribal politics in addition to the lessons learned from the Soviet occupation. The US leadership didn’t say this at the time of the invasion, but the fight on terrorism was a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. That meant, if necessary, they were willing to stay past 10 years in the country to secure the region.
I can write for days concerning this topic. If you have any comments or notes, please post them. I am looking forward to reading other ideas about this topic.
1919-Afghanistan regains independence from British occupying forces.
1933-Zahir Shah becomes King and Afghanistan remains a monarchy for the next four decades.
1953-General Mohammed Daud becomes prime minister with King Shah a figure-head and implements many social reforms. Gen. Daud asks for help from the Soviet government.
1956-Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev agrees to aid Afghanistan and the countries become allies. Daud’s reforms include women attending university and working.
1963-Daoud’s social reforms continue agitating the conservative religious community.
1965-The Afghan communist party forms.
1973-The former PM Daud seizes power in a coup, deposes King Shah and declares a republic
1978-PM Daud is overthrown and killed by the leftist People’s Democratic Party during a coup. Hufizullah Amin wins a power struggle, becomes president. The People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) struggle for power. 1979-The Soviet Union occupies country at the request of Afghanistan’s communist party leaders.
1980-With occupying Soviet troops supplying power, Party Leader Babrak Kamal becomes the countries leader.
Other Significant Dates
1980-Afghan Army soldiers defect to Mujahideen rebel force, led by Ahmad Massoud.
1980-US and other nations supply rebel forces.
1986-US supplies stinger missiles to rebels to shoot down Soviet air power.
1988-Last of the Soviet troops leave Afghanistan.
1996-Taliban seize control of Afghanistan and carry out harsh Islamic doctrine controls.
9-9-2001-Massoud assassinated by suicide bombing.
9-11-2001-Terrorist attacks on US Soil.
2001-US and Great Britain launch invasion of country after it refuses to hand-over Osama Bin Laden, the master mind of the 9/11 attacks on US soil.
2001-Taliban ousted from power.
2004-Democratic elections held in country, electing Hamid Karzai as President.
2012– Continued US and NATO presence in the region. Karzai still in power. Taliban force strength reduced but still launches attacks from mountainous region bordering Pakistan.
Vietnam Timeline-Comparison Timeline
1919-Ho Chi Minh emerges after WW I and tries to petition Woodrow Wilson for Self Determination
1940-Japan invades Vietnam. 1941-Ho Chi Minh organizes pro independence league. 1945-Japan surrenders. Minh declares independence and unites all French colonial provinces to form Vietnam.
1946-National Chinese, French, and Viet Minh struggle for control of the Viet Territory. 1946-Beginning of First Vietnam War between French and Viet Minh. China and USSR back Viet Minh. US back French to stop the spread of communism.
1954-Viet Minh defeat French at Dien Bien Phu, leading to Geneva negotiations diving Vietnam at the 17th Parallel.
1955-1956-Emperor Bao Dai is forced from power by Ngo Dinh Diem. He declares himself president and gains support from US. US sends advisors
1960-National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) forms to fight against US Forces and President Diem. 1963-US supports military Coup against President Diem. Diem’s murder during the coup leads to a number of successive leaders.
1964-Gulf of Tonkin Resolution give President Johnson war powers. 1965-US Combat Troops arrive in Vietnam (Second Vietnam War). 1968-Tet offensive launched by Ho Chi Minh and Viet Cong.
1969– Ho Chi Minh dies. 1973-Nixon and Kissinger negotiate peace treaty. US withdraws a majority of troops. 1974-President Ford balks at sustaining aid to South Vietnam Forces. 1975-Viet Nam unified under communist rule after taking Saigon, which they rename Ho Chi Minh City.
1978-Vietnam invades Cambodia, trying to take over from the Khmer Rouge. Tensions with China increase.
1986-Vietnam revises strategy and commits to social and market reforms. 1995-Diplomatic relations normalized between US and Vietnam.
2010/2011-Academic year-More than 14,800 students studies at US colleges and universities. 2012– Trade between US and Vietnam continue to increase.