Viper Company in the Valley of Death Or Dj Vu, it's Vietnam all over again

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Recently NBC covered the story of Bravo Company, 1-26th INF 3-1 IBCT Infantry, known by its troops as “Viper Company," stationed in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan. The Korengal valley also has its own ominous nickname; “Death Valley.” The area is surrounded with many hills and thick foliage, ideal terrain for insurgents to move undetected around Viper Company's perimeter.

Viewing the NBC's video footage, it requires no military expertise to see there too much real estate for the 150 soldiers of Viper's company to cover. Per standard military doctrine, Viper Company dutifully sends out patrols in the surrounding area to maintain an aggressive posture and interdict enemy movement. But the territory, as mentioned before, is too large to patrol and secure with the troops available. To make matters worse, the ground around the hills is made up of loose shale and rocks, making it difficult for Viper Company's patrols to navigate and move about without alerting the enemy of their presence. The enemy, being native to the area, and unburdened with body armor and excessive gear, can move about in relative stealth. This gives the enemy forces freedom of maneuver, and hence, the initiative.

As a result, the soldiers of Viper Company are obliged make themselves bait to draw enemy fire, and use air strikes and artillery fire in compensation for their lack of numbers. They tempt the insurgents to attack them by manning remote outposts and running convoys. One video segment covered the drama of 24 soldiers stationed on an exposed hilltop outpost overlooking the valley. This Viper Company outpost is known to receive enemy fire daily, sometimes even twice, on any a given day. The soldiers bravely return fire against suspected targets in the thick undergrowth, and called in mortar fire to retaliate. During one intense firefight action, suddenly all the platoon light machine guns jammed, gravely reducing the platoons suppressing fire against their opponents. Fortunately the enemy did not press their advantage, and the soldiers survived the action unscathed.

When I first saw the camera establishing shot of the Korengal Valley, and Viper Company's hilltop outpost, I was stunned by the resemblance it had with photos of US outposts established near the DMZ during the Vietnam war. Places with names like Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, and others can to mind. More frightening was the realization that Viper Company, despite being in the most modern military in the world, is using tactics from a 1960's war — tactics that created large body counts, but failed to hold ground and win the war. This is not meant to demean the courage or professionalism of the soldiers of Viper Company, but because of a flawed strategy at higher levels, they are forced to fight their father's war all over again. If the insurgents someday infiltrate close enough to Viper Company's remote outpost, the troops will risk being hit by their own air and artillery support. If that happens it will be Dien Bien Phu all over again. Ironically, it is possible over time that Viper Company will be ordered withdrawn from the area, as the Marines were at Khe Sanh after the siege was raised. So, in the end, what honor will found in the lives and limbs lost holding such an untenable position?

In the first episode I watched, Viper Company had already suffered almost a score of casualties. In a subsequent episode, one soldier was killed, and six others wounded in a mortar attack in a building they occupied down in the valley. Replacements filled the missing ranks, but if Viper Company's losses continue, its combat effectiveness will be in danger of being degraded, as it takes time for green replacements to seamlessly integrate with the surviving seasoned veterans. Not to mention the loss of morale, as the company is slowly whittled away by an unseen enemy, who keeps coming back the next day to try again. This also happened in Vietnam, which resulted in decline of combat efficacy of frontline units — resulting in even more casualties until the new troops gained the automatic combat reflexes needed to survive.

Some would suggest assigning more troops to Korengal Valley, or institute 24/7 carpet-bombing. Those options would only serve to reinforce failure. If the cliché holds true about those who do not learn from history, then the final outcome can only be the same for Afghanistan as it was for Vietnam – defeat. The answer is to recognize the historical parallels, and withdraw our conventional forces from Afghanistan. Unless we do so, we are merely playing the role of Redcoats marching in the open as we fight the Colonials hiding behind the trees.

A final observation. One night, after presenting a segment on Viper Company, NBC followed up with an equally long piece on Sarah Palin's appearance on Saturday Night Live. This sudden shift from war reporting to comedy relief by NBC was an overt act to distract an ADD public from lingering too long over the harsh realities of an unnecessary war. So while the news media focuses on how much money the RNC spent on Sara Palin's wardrobe, or Obama's recent marginal gain or loss in the polls, the soldiers of Viper Company will continue to fight and die in a lonely place in Afghanistan — as did their military forefathers in Vietnam.

October 27, 2008