"Now You Know"


Captain Mike Roseberry was the intelligence officer—known as S2—for our battalion.  Mike was the perfect human for the job; every observation of fact went in, nothing came out.  He was remarkable in his ability to keep a secret.  His other remarkable trait was his affability—he was very mild mannered with a quick grin.  He made for a very easy and very genuine friend.


Shortly after I arrived in Quang Tri, I began to wonder about the sanity of military operations in the area around us.  Considering the cost in lives and treasure the gains, if any, just didn’t seem worth it.  I had questions and I figured Mike would be the one person who would have the answers, so I approached him.  His response: “Dick, you know I can’t tell you anything.  But someday you will know.”


Every couple of months or so, as I became more knowledgeable of the situation around us and as the insanity of it all became more evident to me, I’d ask the same question of him and I’d always get that same answer… someday I would know.  I thought he was just blowing me off, and that ‘someday’ was just his way of saying it would never happen.


In June, my tenth month, I’d been out in the ‘bush’ for several sleepless days and nights. When I came back in to headquarters, exhausted, my commander gave me a three-day pass which I fully intended to spend just catching up on my sleep.


I was about six hours into the most blissful coma when I was violently shaken awake.  It was Mike, and he was telling me to get up.  I mumbled that I had a pass and needed sleep and he should just go away.  He told me he needed someone to ride shotgun (and kids, that wasn’t just a cute expression) and I was it.


“Dick, if I have to give you a direct order, I will.  You’re coming with me.”


Mike was a good friend and wouldn’t do this to me unless he really needed to, so I reluctantly and groggily got up and dressed and met him at his jeep.  He came out of headquarters with a satchel which he dropped in the back seat and we were off.


We drove from Quang Tri down QL1 to Phu Bai where our brigade headquarters was located (see the map).  Mike pulled up to the headquarters building, took the satchel out of the back and went into the building.  Twenty minutes later he was back with the satchel and we took off south.


We drove to Da Nang to division headquarters, where Mike did the same thing: take the satchel in, and bring the satchel back out.  He explained that it was his turn to attend the monthly intelligence briefing for all Army intelligence officers in Vietnam, and in our travels south he had gathered reports from all the other S2s in the brigade and then in the division.


At the airport we boarded a transport and flew to Cam Ranh Bay.  Once there we were given a ride to a well-guarded facility housing the largest tent I had ever seen.  I got in on a pass as Mike’s escort and took a seat along the back wall of the tent.


At the very front of this tent was a large stage, the backdrop of which was an array of very large maps of areas of South Vietnam with military symbols covering much of them.  Between the stage and me were rows and rows of chairs.  I estimated there was seating for about 1,200 officers in the tent.


Mike took a seat three rows in front of me and directly in my line of sight of the stage.  By then the tent was about half full and filling fast.  Within 15 minutes the whole structure was full except for the two front rows.  I noticed that all the rows were filled by rank, with captains in the rear and full colonels up front.  Finally when everyone was seated a large group of generals entered the tent and seated themselves in the first two rows.


A colonel came out on stage and began briefing the generals on the battle situation in each corps.  The country was sectioned into four ‘corps’: I Corps was in the far north where we were, and IV Corps was in the Mekong River Delta region in the south.  The presenter started with the situation in IV Corps.


I was very impressed with his presentation—with the depth of his knowledge of all operations, with the strength and locations of our forces and of the Viet Cong’s forces, and of the many battles going on and how our superior forces were inexorably overrunning the enemy.  It was a very impressive, very detailed briefing and I was grateful that Mike had seen fit to let me see all this.


Next the presenter spent a lot of time detailing the situation in III Corps where Saigon was situated and where a lot of our troops were stationed. He then covered II Corps, and while he was wrapping up there I was eagerly awaiting his presentation of the developments in I Corps.


When he began talking about the situation around Quang Tri, I was at first puzzled, then in disbelief, and finally in total outrage.  He might as well have been talking about the Peloponnesian Wars for all the mistakes and inaccuracies he was spouting.  Nothing of what he was saying was real, nothing was true.


He had us winning single handedly when in fact, as he was speaking, our units were totally surrounded by the North Vietnamese army.  For instance, and this I knew for a fact: in the general area of our combat base there were 1,700 of us (US, South Vietnamese, Korean and Australian soldiers) and in that same area there were 18,000 North Vietnamese enemy soldiers, better than a 10:1 ratio.  Plus, they held all the high ground.  We were pretty much at their mercy.


None of that came out in the presentation.  According to the colonel onstage, we were winning the war in Quang Tri Province.  I was shocked.[1]  My jaw was on the floor.  Mike turned around, saw the expression on my face, and grinned.


Then he mouthed the words, “NOW…  YOU…  KNOW.”


When the show was over and we were all dismissed, I caught up with Mike and I said to him, “What the hell was that, Mike?  That was total bullshit.  Are the generals buying this?  How could this have happened?”


He said, “Remember when we first started out, Dick?  My satchel rode in the jeep with us down to Phu Bai, and I went in to brigade headquarters.  What I did there was give my report, which was accurate and contained a lot of bad news, to the brigade S2 who added my report to reports from the S2s in other battalions.  But it wasn’t a complete compilation; he removed all the bad news from each report and included all good news in the final version that went into the satchel.  Then we drove to Da Nang and the same thing happened there.”


I was outraged and righteous.  “And you just let that happen?  All of you?”


Mike was patient with me.  “Dick, think about it.  Remember all the officers in that tent?  If just one guy told what was really going on, and everyone else submitted happy reports, how do you think that would make that one guy’s boss look?  Everyone in that tent has a career, and everyone has a boss.  The last thing anyone wants to do is stand out by making his boss look bad.  So everyone plays the game.  Everyone.  For months you kept asking me the right question.  Now you have the right answer.”


All I could do was shake my head.  But it did all make sense now, all the waste of life, all the destruction, all the insanity, all the disastrous decisions.  I was left to count the days until it would all be over, at least for me.

Kids, here’s the point of this story: it wasn’t just Vietnam and it wasn’t just the Army.  I’ve seen some of the same cowardly behavior in every large organization I’ve ever worked or observed up close.  Sometimes it takes exceptional courage to announce bad news forthrightly in the face of formidable risk. 


[1]   In September 1969 Richard Nixon declared that Vietnamization was working and that 35,000 troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam. In December he announced that an additional 50,000 would be ordered home.

In two weeks in January 1970 the entire 3rd Marine Division was pulled out of I Corp. I remember standing on the side of the road as truckload after truckload of Marines headed east to China Beach to be loaded onto a troop ship.

Shortly after that Nixon announced that there were no US troops north of the city of Hue. We were 40 miles north of Hue.  We all looked at each other and wondered if we’d be leaving soon or whether anyone even knew we were still up there. The next several months were very tense. That’s why I found the colonel's briefing so disturbing.

In the end, this war that began with a lie and was sustained by a "mountain of lies", resulted in decades of ignominy and international disgrace.   And it was all so avoidable.   And all so tragic.