Losing Your Best Guys

June 17, 2017  
Categories: Op-Eds

This Saturday Screed comes courtesy of none other than Alan Farrell — a warrior worth quoting if ever there was one. We like the way he thinks. 

Saturday Screeds – Losing Your Best Guys

I suppose everybody asks himself questions about a war. I suppose the big question is, was it worth the guys we lost?

The trouble with the way America fights wars now is that the whole population doesn’t go, only a segment of the population does. In the Vietnam War, I think there was an illusion that Joe Lunchbox fought the war. I hear all sorts of sniveling about the  disparity in casualties among the races and so on. They’ve done study after study after study to show that the races were represented in the Army, in combat, among the casualty figures, exactly as they are in the population.

Most of the guys who died in Vietnam were dumb, middle-class kids with little education who volunteered. There may have been draftees around, but the war went like this…

There were something like twenty-seven million of draft age over the course of the war. Of that, I think, about eight million got drafted. Of that, two million went to Vietnam. Of that, the tooth-to-tail ratio at the time of the Vietnam War was damned near 20 to 1, which means out of two million, you’re talking about maybe one hundred thousand who saw combat.

Tooth-to-tail ratio — how many troops in the rear it takes to put one guy in the bush with a rifle. I think, if you check the figures, you’ll find that it comes out something like that.

One hundred thousand guys in the bush, out of two million. That’s a pretty narrow point of the spear and to go from twenty-seven million down to that figure means, I think, if we’re talking about volunteers and a special sort of person who’s willing to suffer in the name of the Republic, whether he understands it or not — that means that you lose your best guys in that kind of warfare.

Just as right now.

We’re losing our best guys. That means the ones who are left behind to build your country…well, I’m trying to find a way to say it that comes out gently. Let me just stick with you lose your best guys (emphasis added).

And then the question is, who’s left behind to build the nation and maintain its value system? I think, in Vietnam, we lost some of the best guys. It was World War II guys who came back and established the value system of post-war America. And we’re still doing it. We’re still letting a very narrow segment of the population fight our war for us, and I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do.

I’m not in favor of war. I’m inclined to think, if we’ve got to have one, everybody goes. Everybody. And if women want to squawk, hey, that’s fine, they can come too. We’ll find something for them to do over there. Everybody goes.

That way, (a) we don’t do it unless we really believe in it and (b) no one group bears the full responsibility.

This was just an excerpt, by the way. If you want to read the entire interview (and you really should), you can find it online in the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) digital archives.

About the Author: Brigadier General Alan Ferrell, Emeritus Professor of Modern Languages and Cultures, was a MACV-SOG Special Forces soldier [5th SFG (Airborne)] in the United States Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War. He enlisted in 1966, pre- Robin Sage, when SF missions were divided into Alpha (training guerillas), Bravo (training counter-guerillas), Charlie (conducting guerilla wafare), and Delta (anything else). He arrived in country in 1968 and remained there until 1970, working the Da Nang and Kontum areas with the Montagnards (during which time he was WIA and awarded the Military Order of the Purple Heart).

Returning to the states, he spent the next many years in reserve component units, ultimately retiring in 1993 as an 18Z5F Special Forces Sergeant Major. He taught French and English at Hampden Sydney College for some 25 years before moving to the Virginia Military Institute. He holds a BA cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College, a Master’s in German, another in French, and a PhD in French from Boston’s Tufts University. He’s been a Dean of the Faculty, an Assistant Scoutmaster, and a volunteer firefighter.

“Happily we were all too dumb to think it through very far. We were 20 years old. We thought we were indestructible. We thought we were cool. We thought we were clever. And the fact was, when we got out in the jungle and mixed it up with them, they were no better in the jungle than we were. It was in that terrain, under those circumstances, pretty much man to man. It was rifleman to rifleman and they learned to be afraid of us. We learned we could operate at night. We learned we could surprise and ambush them. We learned they were vulnerable. We learned how to be guerillas in their back yard the way they were guerillas in ours. That was our job.”


Read more in this interview with  former  VMI Professor Dr. Alan Farrell. You should also read The Enduring Solitude of Combat Vets.

This man is incredibly popular with his former students. Hell, they even have a Facebook group for it.



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  1. Tony

    I would really like to see the draft return. The problem is that we need our best guys to fight our wars, because being a soldier these days requires so much more intelligence and training to do it competently. However, I might be willing to accept that there are going to be a potential increase in casualties if it was a universal experience. I think the benefits would outweigh the negatives. If nothing else, it would shut those “I’m a Warrior and you’re not” guys up (like me, I’ve done it too).

  2. EC Soto

    Wow, I never thought I’d see a mention of my school on this website…much less one of the school’s more colorful professors.

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