Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 6: Does This Make Sense?

Pop Quiz!

  • Where was Alexander Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, born? 
  • Where was George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, born? 

The reason for these questions will become clear.

There comes a time in any historical project when an analyst should stop and ask: Does any of this make sense? 

Or at least we should. This is where I’m doing just that. Some background…

JFK was in office when I first read Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. My mother cut out the Life Magazine articles during the Civil War centennial. But WWII beckoned–my father jumped into Normandy, so I studied both conflicts avidly,. Of course, Vietnam was in the headlines then…my sisters’ boyfriends all concerned themselves with it because they were of that age. I got to Gettysburg in ’69, then I went into the Army myself in ’73, three months to the day after the draft ended. 

But the American Civil War kept calling me back while, after leaving the Active component, I made a living as a technical writer for thirty years AND stayed in the Reserves. Studying for my MA in American military history, I wrote extensively about the Civil War, more than I did any other American war. I wrote a book on Shiloh, another on the Pacific War, a few novels, and some short stories. Then came this germ of an idea: systematizing historical failure analysis, creating a methodology for what scholars do and buffs chatter about.

A buff knows how many cartridges a soldier’s pouch was made for; a scholar knows how that figure was derived and its effect on the fighting.

In a scholarly way, I’ve tried to look at the facts about the Confederacy, without romance or battle-smoke or blood or moonlight-and-magnolias. And I conclude that the Confederate leadership screwed up by leaving the Union in the first place, let alone starting the war; that they didn’t represent the interests of their constituents, and so as failure heaped on failure, support for the “cause” dwindled to nothing.

This. Is. Not. Conventional. Wisdom. And that’s a problem.

Alexander Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, VA. Think that fact’s important to the study of Guadalcanal?

If not, why does George Meade‘s birthplace (Cadiz, Spain) appear in nearly every book about Gettysburg? How much more important is one than the other? 

While I was writing about Shiloh, I was struck by the conflict’s somewhat uniform treatment by the secondary sources. The Civil War is treated as a special case by American writers. This was especially noticeable when I read John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History (Knopf 2009). Keegan was no stranger to Civil War studies, having spent a chapter of his The Mask of Command (Penguin 1988) on Grant. But his take on the Civil War, as an Englishman, was of a different feel. He didn’t care where this general was born or who that general had snubbed in an earlier career. His straightforward analysis of the available facts without romance was why it was panned by the few Civil War scholars who actually read it. It simply lacked the Lost Cause romance and mystique, the dash of the bold cavaliers, the grim determination of the gallant butternuts fighting for their Cause…and Civil War Inc. noticed. If Keegan, in his equally magisterial The First World War (Penguin Random House 1999), had talked about Pershing’s upbringing in Missouri or about Terry Allen’s grandfather at Gettysburg, it would have been thought quaint…and dismissed as romantic.

To Civil War, Inc., it is vital.

“Everyone Knows” how the American Civil War should be written about–everyone American, that is. When writing or speaking about the 1861-65 conflict, the filter of the Lost Cause must always be applied. Nostalgia for the Lost Cause is required; romance expected, intimate derails of leader’s lives detailed. New information in the form of diaries and letters that confirm with already accepted wisdom are acceptable. No diary entities by Confederate soldiers that call Lee a poltroon or an arrogant old fool could be authentic or ever see print without a firestorm of protest and claims of fraud; if they do exist we may never know. 

And here I am trying to say that the Confederacy screwed up from Day One, that the entire idea was madness.

A cottage industry of “counterfactual” history holds that making up events that did not occur is a valid historical interpretive method. Any lawyer introducing non-facts to a jury that they know are not facts might face disbarment. These “counterfactualists,” however, would have us believe that it’s OK, that somehow declaring that Jackson might have survived to Gettysburg and in so doing won the war is a legitimate argument that belongs in the history books.

If this study makes any sense, the Southern Confederacy was doomed from the start, and it doesn’t matter what one general in one battle did. Nearly everything I’ve looked at on the Civil War since the 1960s is a pleasant story. If I go any further than this blog on this project, am I saying that most writers didn’t do the work of analyzing where the Confederacy went wrong? Did they simply agree with what Pickett was said to have quipped about Gettysburg: I believe the enemy had something to do with it?

That should give me pause. Why doesn’t it?

There’s been a truism for writing and publishing about the Civil War: write what The South (TM) wants to see, or it won’t sell. This started in the late 19th century when public schools became more popular, and students needed textbooks. The Late Unpleasantness that was the War Between the States a mere generation before was presented from a distinctly “Confederacentric” viewpoint so that textbook publishers could sell them in the formerly Confederate states. Thus, history wasn’t written by the “winners” but by those who control the narratives for a given audience. In this case, American schoolchildren have for over a century gotten a distinctly distorted view of the 1861-65 conflict because the former Confederacy wanted it that way.

This slant was important from an economic viewpoint, but, too, it was important from a literary one. History tends to be rather dry in academic settings, and a certain amount of suspense is helpful. Yes, the results are known, but adding an element of struggle helps add interest for the reader. Combined, the factors of intentional bias in schoolbooks and the need for suspense–the latter reinforced by the former–have thus shown the American Civil War as a conflict that the Confederacy might have won…if only

If I’m up against a built-in social and industry bias against my conclusions, what part of my analysis could be faulty? What part doesn’t make sense? Where could I have gone wrong? What facts did I not throw in? This is why I have this step in the method. Let’s see…

First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress Ordering the Attack on Ft. Sumter and the Cotton Blockade

The school of thought–predominantly among southern sympathizers–that says that Lincoln should have just surrendered Ft. Sumter in April of ’61 uses a legal argument called “reversion.” Their position is that when South Carolina left the Union, everything in the confines of the state reverted to state ownership.

There are several problems with the reversion theory. The first is that the law is murky regarding extra-legal actions like secession–not covered in any law anywhere in 1861. Thus, reversion may or may not have applied. We will never really know since the Confederacy didn’t even try a legal challenge. Furthermore, the land that Ft. Sumter was/is on was never a part of South Carolina. It’s an artificial island built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, owned entirely by the US Government. How could it revert to a legal entity that it never belonged to in the first place? And if they are applying a legal argument, in what jurisdiction is this argument to be applied? If the Confederacy was no longer a part of the Union, how could it have applied the law of a foreign country? There were no World Courts at the time–the International Criminal Court was a century and two world wars off. Where would the Confederacy go for what it would consider “justice?” It would appear as if South Carolina and the Confederacy wanted to eat their cake and have it too.

But, too, that claim of reversion points out another question: why didn’t the Confederacy simply sue the United States for possession? Was it even discussed? The answer is no. The Confederacy saw only one solution to the problem of Ft. Sumter: force if they did not capitulate or were not ordered to surrender. The Confederate congress and cabinet were both full of lawyers. Did a legal solution–absent the problems above–ever occur to them? There is no record of it.

And if force was the only answer, were they prepared for a wider conflict? No, of course not. They were not prepared for Lincoln’s call for the militia nor a declaration of rebellion. How could they have been? But both Davis and the Congress should have been prepared for both…that’s what good leaders do. But they were not. The cotton embargo was imposed when the blockade wasn’t even polite. It presupposed that cotton really was king…and it wasn’t. The Confederate leadership failed to do their due diligence to determine if Europe’s demand for their exports was enough to get Europe to help them out. If they had, perhaps secession might never have happened. What then? That’s beyond the scope of this study.

Worst Failure: Lack of Real Representation

As the fortunes of the war turned decidedly against the Confederacy, domestic support for the war dwindled in very large part because the leadership goals were not the goals–necessarily–of the led. Separateness to enable an institution that few had any stake in made less and less sense the longer the casualty lists became. As the Union armies moved through slave-holding areas after 1863, the wave of freedmen became even larger, and even those non-slaves who had supported the Confederacy no longer had substantial reasons to support what was truly a losing proposition. At the end of the war, the Peace Commissioners were only empowered to seek a cease-fire and a return to the status quo antebellum, a losing argument. Just who they thought they were representing is an open question.

Most Influential Failure: Lack of True National Identity

Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway,  Archer Jones and William Still, in Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press 1986), argued that the Confederacy failed because of a lack of civil religion. I argue that their civil religion–their peculiar institution of chattel slavery–defined everything that the leadership did. Each of the seceded states mentions their support of slavery; the Confederate Constitution enshrines it. State’s rights–the right to keep and maintain slaves–was mantra invoked before every battle, every argument, every discussion of the conflict–a conflict that defined the Confederacy. Their war and their national identity were tied up in that cause. Small wonder then that The Lost Cause should have been the primary reason for the conflict. Ironically, though Lincoln freed the slaves wherever the Union Army could not reach, it was the Congress that passed Amendment XIV that finally forbade chattel slavery…legally.

The Confederacy should not have been surprised that the war ended badly because the reason they were fighting not only was not popular even in the southern states, it wasn’t very humane, either.

Least Appreciated Failure: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe

Bad leadership, unrepresentative leadership, and lack of national identity is a disastrous combination. Each on their own would have been bad enough. Any two would have been worse. Combined, only failure could have been expected. Regardless of what generals survived what battles or what battles went one way or the other, the Confederate States of America was doomed to fail in the long term. Worse, they set themselves up for failure from the beginning. I have said it in the past, and I shall keep saying it: there is no scenario in which the southern Confederacy could have won a military victory that would have resulted in lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. There can be no debate of legal scenarios: under what law and in what court could secession arguments have been held?

But, too, would any judgment in any court that did not sustain South Carolina’s demands–and the demands of the slave owners of The South (TM)–would not have resulted in war, anyway? They wanted slavery legal all over–and they got it in Dred Scott. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted a reversal of the 1860 election. They wanted either a weak or a sympathetic chief executive who would allow them to do whatever they wanted to do. Ultimately, in a much larger sense, a civil war was almost inevitable because of this attitude. Every law, every legal move, every executive decision had to be run through the filter of the peculiar institution before 1860. Western expansion was slow because the slaveholders kept demanding decisions on the expansion of slavery. And the non-slave-holding states were held hostage by the impolite bellicosity of their slave-holding brethren.

Bad leaders, not caring what their constituents thought, led their country into an unwinnable war, supporting a policy that not everyone agreed with. Just how was such a state supposed to succeed?

This may be a fair analysis of the facts, but now…what to do with them? That’s for next time…

The Safe Tree

Wanna Know What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Safe Tree, Friendship Triumphs is now available. The final part of The Stella’s Game Trilogy follows JJ and Ann, Mike and Leigh for one more year–1986–and their adventures through two weddings, two gun battles, a fire…and some insight on one of the most enduring mysteries in American history: what ever happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Now available in paper-bound and many electronic media from your favorite booksellers

Guadalcanal, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, and The Safe Tree

Yes, I’m trying to sell that one, too.

The Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Guadalcanal is in the lower right just about 10 degrees S latitude and bisected by 160 degrees E longitude.

The American operation in the Solomons Islands called WATCHTOWER began 7 August 1942, with the Marine landings on the northern coast of the island of Guadalcanal. For all the much-vaunted preparation that would later characterize American amphibious operations, the Americans barely knew how big the island was. All they really knew was that it was large enough to support an airstrip…and that the Japanese were building one there.

The threat from Tulagi
WIkimedia Commons

What had concerned the Americans before the Japanese started on that airstrip, however was the seaplane base at Tulagi, just across Skylark Channel. While it’s hard for us to understand now what a seaplane base meant then, this big bruiser to the left was known as an Emily–a Kawanishi H8K flying boat, with a combat range of about 3,000 miles carrying 4,000 pounds of bombs. Emilys had bombed Pearl Harbor on 4 March 1942, albeit ineffectively, and could hit Australia from Tulagi…and did NOT need an airstrip.

So the Americans sort-of planned this battle for this island…an island hardly anyone had ever heard of. The scant accounts there were of terrain and climate were studied assiduously. Jack London was one of the few Americans who had ever visited the Solomons before the war, writing a non-fiction account, Voyage of the Snark, and a short story, The Red One. But a few thousand words of prose, some descriptions from missionaries, magazine travel articles and information from a planter-refugee from the island didn’t provide tidal tables, or ground firmness above the beach, or were there was access to fresh water sources, or any of the other myriad other little bits and pieces the planners needed.

Thus…it was dubbed Operation Shoestring by the troops.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly doesn’t talk a great deal about the American planning, but it does cover the Japanese plans for the island, their reasoning for being there in the first place, and their clumsy reaction to the American landings. For one thing, there were fewer than a thousand Japanese combat troops in the Solomons east of Bougainville, which was why the Marines met little initial resistance. Initially, the IJN believed that the American landings were only a Marine regiment–less than 2,000 men–instead of the division-plus-attachments–somewhere around 15,000–who were really there. Their first counterattack with a little more than 900 troops led by Ichiki Kiyonao was wiped out in what the Marines called the Battle of the Tenaru River on the night of 21 August.

After that, the Japanese became alarmed, but not distressed…not yet.

The Japanese buildup on Guadalcanal was gradual for several reasons, among them being distance: the nearest base was a day and a half sailing away, and the Americans were quick to build up their air strength on Guadalcanal Moving ships during the day became more perilous by the week.

And September didn’t get better. And the Japanese grip on the island slipped more every week, regardless of how the naval battles went because the Americans could replace all their losses and keep getting stronger, and the Japanese could not.

The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs–15 November

The Safe Tree

For those of you following the Stella’s Game Trilogy, the last installment is on track for publication on 15 November of this year.

Follow the friends as they solve the mystery that has plagued, threatened and endangered them since the ’60s. Whoever–whatever–threatens their lives and their families now, in 1986, will be discovered and, with any luck, ended.

For those of you who are now scratching your heads and saying “what’s a Stella’s Game Trilogy,” you have a chance to catch up with Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides from your favorite booksellers.

Here’s what readers have said about Stella’s Game:

A rolliking roll through the ’60s…I could almost smell the tear gas…perfectly captures an era…

Various Stella’s Game readers

And Tideline’s getting some positive comments:

…felt like being in the Army after ‘Nam…a salute to service women between Vietnam and Desert Storm…smell the sawdust of Ranger school…the friends we made in uniform are with us forever…

Various Tideline readers

The Moon Landing and Stella’s Game

Who can’t remember where they were when the Eagle landed on Tranquility Base?

For some of us, it was forever ago; for others, yesterday. I was on vacation with my mom and my oldest sister; we were in New Bedford, Massachusetts, having already visited Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Trenton, and Valley Forge; I was fourteen, barely, and in the lobby of the Governor Bradford Hotel…and that huge-for-the-time 27-inch color TV in the wall had Jules Bergman narrating…closer…closer now….closer…

Houston, Tranquility Base here: the Eagle has landed.

Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969

And who cared what Houston said after that, or where we’d been before? A guy next to me, though, declared “triumph of the capitalist system.” I puzzled over that for a long time before I came to understand that the US manned space program was more than propaganda: it was a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union by spending money on their own program that they couldn’t afford…and the West could.

Really? Why?

And a year later, 30% of Americans believed that the Moon landing was faked…

Twenty percent of Earth’s population had watched the landing live…and still many people insisted that it was produced in a movie studio…and many people still do. Though thoroughly debunked, the conspiracists also fail to explain just why they would do that, let alone how literally millions of people who worked on the project were persuaded to remain silent about the duplicity

President Kennedy’s goal he’d set eight years earlier had been reached. But a year later, fewer Americans cared about it. They moved on, except during the Apollo XIII mission. Perhaps it was supposed to be that way…

July ’69 and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

The friends all know where they were when Apollo XI landed on the Moon, and readers who were around then might remember that Sunday, too. JJ and Mike met during that broadcast, wondering at the traffic noise outside: something exciting happened in Chappaquiddick, something to do with a Kennedy, so the reporters were torn as to which story they should cover.

One of the unique qualities to Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, is the feel that it has given some readers who remember that time not just in their lives but in history. One reader wrote me:

as I read … I remembered watching the Moon landing in my Grandmother’s kitchen, on her Motorola portable…I was nineteen…thanks for triggering that memory.

C. Lollard

Maybe Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships will trigger some pleasant memories for you, too. Now available in paperback and e-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

June And Stella’s Game

There’s a sense of renewal to June…supposed to be, anyway.

This June, hopefully more so. Most of us are in lock-down masquerading as “self-quarantine” or “sheltering in place,” having become so risk-averse that we’re afraid of stuff that the people in Stella’s Game would hardly have noticed except as another flu.

And, I submit, a decade ago we wouldn’t have noticed, either.

June is a time for graduations, for weddings, for the commencement of summer fun in the sun. On 19 June 1865, Juneteenth Day was first celebrated in Galveston, Texas, when news of the emancipation reached the city with the Union troops. In June 1942, of course, was the battle of Midway, an American victory that stopped the Japanese advance in the eastern Pacific. Same month, same year, the Allies lost Tobruk, the vital logistical base in North Africa.

Reinhard Heydrich, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia
Wiki Commons

And on 4 June, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was died of wounds he had suffered in a Prague suburb by a team of commandos trained and equipped by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Heydrich was the head of the RSHA, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt , or Reich Main Security Office. This innocuous title belied its purpose, which was to oversee the annihilation of European Jewry. Heydrich was also the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia–what was left of Czechoslovakia at the time. As “Protector” he proclaimed martial law, executed hundreds, and began to “Germanize” the population by eliminating those not “German” enough to live.

Well, the “murder” of one of Hitler’s favorites was not to go unavenged, so the little towns of Lidice and Ležáky were selected to be erased. Beginning on 10 June, all males over 16 were executed; all but four women at Lidice were sent to Ravensbruck; the last four were suffered forced abortions and then sent to the camp. Eighty-one children were killed in gas vans at Chelmno. Lidice was burned and leveled. Over 1,300 people were killed in retribution.

Every once in a while, somebody repeats the old saw about this town or that country all wore the Star of David because the Jews were compelled to. To this I say “Lidice.” Given what the Germans did for the defiance there, it seems unlikely that open resistance by a whole town would be tolerated.

Stella’s Game and Tideline are now available

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the friends go through a number of changes in June: Friends are separated in 1967, siblings get married in 1970; they graduate in ’73; one gets married; two join the Army.

But where Stella’s Game ends, Tideline: Friendship Abides begins. Tideline follows the friends from 1974 to 1986, in a world where there is no Internet (it was still DARPANET), where “basic cable” was really basic, and where month-long lock-downs and “social distancing” are simply unimaginable. The Soviets were still glowering on the other side of the Iron Curtain (remember that?), and long-distance telephone calls were still not just expensive novelties but the only means of long distance communications…other than letters…and they write A LOT.

Cover of Tideline: Friendship Abides, Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy

And in Tideline, friends find each other after long years apart; they laugh, they cry…and they try to solve an old mystery that controls their lives. There were few personal computers; Pong was considered a video game; risque TV was showing navels.

And Tideline leads to The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs . The concluding volume of the Stella’s Game Trilogy follows the friends to the end of the mysterious road that not just brought them together, but threatens their lives. Look for it in November

Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.

My Lai, Stella’s Game, and Tideline

By 1968, the conflict in Vietnam had lost any popular support that it had had in the US…and in Vietnam.

Unidentified women and children just before they were killed
Ronald L. Haeberle photo, Wiki Commons

On 16 March, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, and Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, both of the 23rd Division (also called the Americal Division), killed somewhere between 347 and 504 people in two hamlets called My Lai and My Khe in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. An unknown number of women were raped, some as young as 12; children were mutilated. It was the best known of several such atrocities in the entire conflict. It took place during Operation Muscatine, which started in December 1967 and went on until June, 1968, aimed at securing Chu Lai.

Gee…don’t that sound simple?

The first time the American public knew anything about these massacres was September 1969, in a vague press release from Fort Benning about charges of murder being filed against Lieutenant William Calley. In trickles, then in floods, photos, names, dates were revealed as more people came forward with more testimony, more photos. Several reporters and photographers had been there, had seen the aftermath; one even claimed to have stopped some of the killing. There was a Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that investigated these and several other massacres, but “war crimes” were never brought against anyone.

Over a year later…

William Calley stood trial for murder on 17 November 1970. It was hard to get eyewitnesses to testify against Calley, but one did, and Calley’s defense team couldn’t shake the testimony. On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of 22 specifications of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

No one else was ever convicted of anything related to these crimes…

Despite the protest marches and the riots and flag-burning in the streets of America, the general reaction over Calley’s conviction was one of mild outrage. Within the US Army, Calley was regarded as a victim of the war’s culture of body count: the higher the better. He and his men–over a hundred would have taken part–were also victims of the nature of the conflict. While most of the victims were women and children, many of these guy’s friends had been victims of women and children bearing satchel charges and grenades, using both their youth and their sex to get close to American targets before setting off their weapons. While the protesters could use the conviction to bolster their arguments of an “unjust” war, the paltry number that Calley was actually convicted of deflated their argument somewhat.

The most common name Calley was given was “scapegoat…”

Calley spent less than two weeks in prison; President Nixon ordered him placed under house arrest at Fort Benning on 1 April 1971. After numerous appeals, Calley was released in September, 1974. The biggest reason for the successful appeals was pre-trial publicity, lack of corroborating witnesses, and the refusal of both the Department of Defense and the US Congress to make available evidence that Calley’s defense team requested. That and the general outrage over the acquittal of Captain Ernest Medina–Calley’s boss–who had planned and ordered the sweep operation that, in part, resulted in the massacres. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there was a great stink of cover-up. I distinctly recall that the popular media at the time of his conviction was nearly schizophrenic.

But by then, US troops had been out of Vietnam for two years, and no one was interested anymore.

Stella’s Game...watch her deal

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the characters react to the conviction of William Calley–and the crimes he was accused of committing–in significantly different ways. While one is outraged, others are resigned; most question why not others. Scapegoat, martyr, example are names Calley is given…but not baby-killer or murderer.

But this was the 70’s, and the characters are fifteen and sixteen, looking forward to a future with a war that does not appear to have an end, and a draft that may not, either. Though Nixon campaigned on an “end the draft” platform in ’68, it was renewed for two years in September ’71–while the Calley appeals were ongoing–though everyone knew it would not be renewed again.

They know all this, but the boy’s future was still a question mark, and the girls were concerned for them.

Tideline is Rising

Where Stella’s Game leaves off, Tideline: Friendship Abides picks up. Join JJ and Mike, Ann and Leigh after they leave school on their life adventures, from 1974 to 1986. Tideline is scheduled for publication by April, 2020.

Join in the adventure!

Khe Sanh ’68 and Stella’s Game

And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.

White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.

The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.

Was the tail wagging this dog?

The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.

Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff

While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.

Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships is a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.

Tet ’68 and Stella’s Game

On Tuesday, 30 January 1968, many of us awoke to a world different from the one we had slept in.

Marines outside Hue, February 1968
Getty images

There was supposed to be lines, rear areas, clean divisions between combatant and non-combatant…everybody knew that’s what war was supposed to be like. Combat was like, well, Combat and The Gallant Men. Besides, General Westmorland and Vice President Humphrey both said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam. Then…

Nứt trời; Làm rung chuyển trái đất!

Vietnamese for Crack the Sky; Shake the Earth!

But the Tet offensive, like the message above, in ’68 changed all those perceptions. The phrase was the signal sent to North Vietnamese units that the offensive to take over South Vietnam, planned for months, was on. Khe Sanh was suddenly put under siege; the US embassy in Saigon was partially captured; many provincial capitals were attacked, and the old capital of Vietnam’s empire, Hue, was captured by Viet Cong forces, which began a bloody campaign of massacre.

War didn’t have executions like the one in the New York Times for 2 February 1968–the one on top of this blog. Photographer Eddie Adams captured BG Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing CPT Nguyen Van Lem of the Viet Cong, whose unit had just slaughtered Lem’s friend’s family. Before that photo appeared, Vietnam was just World War II in color with different weapons and uniforms, and the US Department of Defense had treated it just like that..until that day.

And Vietnam became a very different kind of war…

Wounded men, Tet ’68
Washington Post

And there were images of men hurt in the fighting delivered into your very home; in the newspapers, the magazines, on television. I was twelve, living a comfortable white-bread suburb of Detroit…and we saw this war unfold before us in living color. This kind of horror came after the riot of ’67, when the whiffs of smoke and tear gas rising on that wet and angry breeze from downtown, and the imagery of troops marching in formation down Woodward Avenue with bayonets fixed, and the news that our housekeeper was burned out of her home, reached us in the supposedly insulated suburbs that long and hot summer. Sure, I was too young to be drafted, but my older sisters had boyfriends…and one who was drafted in March of ’68; and one was going to West Point in the fall.

That war affected the affluent, too.

Public perceptions of the war changed decidedly after that. Though the battles for the capitals and the countryside ended with the US and South Vietnamese controlling most of the country and the Viet Cong were mostly destroyed, the war for public opinion was lost that winter. By spring, the demands to end the war were becoming overwhelming. Yet, Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “Law and Order,” while Hubert Humphrey’s was “End the War.” And Nixon won in ’68 mostly, it is thought, because he promised new leadership…and he did get the US out two years before the Saigon government collapsed.

Your Author, 1967

And that damn war affected the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. Imagine how a 12-year old–like the guy to the right here–might be affected by the knowledge that a family friend was a Marine stuck in Khe Sanh…and how his friends might be affected by that knowledge. Remember that this is Nixon country for the most part; supporters of the conflict in Vietnam.

But you don’t have to imagine it if you can read about it in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships on Amazon or at your favorite booksellers.