Wednesday, February 28, 2018

To All Gun Owners: You Are Free But You Are Not Entitled

It almost seems ironic that in the time of Trumpism that we are witnessing not one but two progressive tipping points in America culture.  The first was/is the #MeToo movement that I blogged about previously.  Now we are seeing a backlash against the anti-gun control lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), in light of the recent mass shooting at Parkland School in Florida.

America is a nation of violence and murder.  Mass shootings have become a routine part of the American psyche.   As I mentioned before, these shootings occur on a regular, almost rhythmic basis.  Sure, the vast majority of Americans are responsible about their gun choices.  But enough of us are unstable and guns are so easily available that far more Americans have been murdered by legal domestic firearms since the "war on terrorism" began in 2001 (about 500,000) than by any terrorist organization (generously estimating 5,000).  You are factually 100 times more likely to be murdered or commit suicide than you are of being killed by terrorists.  We are the terrorists.

Which makes it seem like something should be attempted with regard to guns themselves every time another mass shooting occurs.  This poses a problem.  The NRA  is probably the most rabid and powerful special interest group in the country - defending its interpretation of Second Amendment rights with distinctive aggression.  The answer to every mass shooting is not less guns but more of them.  The answer is not preventing the murderers from obtaining arms, it is deterring them through the threat of massive shoot-outs between citizens.

Since the NRA is Donald Trump's constituency, naturally his unimaginative solution to arm teachers in schools.  But floating the idea, like so much else Trump has attempted, only serves to alienate Trump further from mainstream America.  We are finally entering a stage where mainstream America, which does not own guns nor particularly care about guns, is rising up against the routine nature of gun violence committed by a fraction of the minority of Americans who own guns.  The mainstream, many of whom voted for Trump in 2016, are becoming disenchanted with the violence and the NRA and the repetitive, unproductive response to America's murdering ways.  

The NRA's view is an inherently dystopian view of our future.  Or perhaps of our past.  It is the solution used in the nineteenth century American West.  That didn't turn out so well as untold numbers were murdered.  Never in the history of the world has more guns equated to less violence.  On the contrary, states with loose gun restrictions or no restrictions have a higher rate of gun murders than those states that offer control mechanisms for its citizenry.

The great experiment of Federalism allows our dynamic mix of States to each be an incubator for what does and does not work in government.  Connecticut, for example, has seen a marked decrease in gun violence due to its policies toward gun control.  An unregulated gun state such as Louisiana, on the other hand, has seen homicides by firearms steadily increase.  The evidence is rather overwhelming that gun control works in reducing mass shootings. 

But the NRA wants us to focus on other factors in domestic violence.  While that argument has some merit, none of these associated issues has demonstrated the capacity to impact the issue of murders by firearms and mass shootings the way gun control does.  The NRA further wants us to arm more people, promoting more gun use.  This return to the nineteenth century has no basis for justification.  It is mere opinion by those fetishists who think personal freedom cannot exist without unrestrained gun usage and ownership.

In the past that has been enough.  The NRA has always effectively represented this neurotic tendency to believe that gun ownership should not be subject to the same degree of public scrutiny as driving a car, which is both highly regulated and enforced.  But now the winds of change seem to be upon us as never before.  Instead of looking to the federal government to do something substantial about American society's murderous ways (which it likely won't), several state governments are taking action.  Assault rifles, for example, have never been more unpopular at this level of government.  And this is how it should be.  After all, the right spelled out in the Second Amendment might ultimately allow individual gun ownership, but quite clearly that right rests within the context of the States, not the individuals, specifically "well-regulated militias."  

This is a good time to quote the awkwardly worded (to modern readers) amendment verbatim: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

I won't wade into the militia versus the individual aspect of gun control.  Individuals have a right to bear arms, but you cannot write the States out of the Second Amendment, though the NRA certainly makes ever effort to do so.

More importantly, now corporate America has stepped up to the gun control debate and started severing ties of privilege with the NRA, implementing forms of control that federal government hasn't the balls to do.  Walmart has raised the legal age for buying firearms from 18 to 21 in their stores.  Several companies have discontinued preferential treatment for the giant gun fetish association.  Some politicians have attempted to strike back as the Lt. Governor of Georgia did with Delta airlines.  But, Virginia and New York have stepped in to offer incentives to Delta should Georgia decide the neurosis of gun possession is more important than having a major airline's corporate hub, with all its associated economic advantages, in Atlanta.

The significance of corporate America beginning to turn its back on the NRA cannot be overstated.  It makes this mass shooting moment distinctive from previous years.  The routine script of politicians sending their "thoughts and prayers" then debating the topic of control for a couple of days, without resolution, until the news cycle dies down.  Then a few more weeks pass until the next mass shooting in America restarts the same predictable and fruitless process.

Now, corporate money is involved.  In an unprecedented move, corporate giant Dick's Sporting Goods is discontinuing the sales of assault-style weapons.  Meanwhile, the attack on the NRA member entitlement does not reflect received wisdom on behalf of  corporate America.  No, it reflects something much more powerful in politics, that consumers and markets served by these large companies will not be significantly affected by the removal of NRA privilege.  In effect, such special discounts and considerations are beginning to be considered irrelevant to their business models.

This is a terrifying moment for the NRA and for gun rights advocates everywhere.  The routine response isn't so routine this time.  This time, if guns are not controlled, at least those owning them are being singled out as unworthy of special treatment.  They have become consumers without genuine clout in terms of free enterprise.  That is a powerful cultural shift that rivals #MeToo in terms of genuine change in American society.

We are still a long way from dealing with routine mass shootings in America.  The NRA remains incredibly strong.  But dealing with those who insist America needs to answer gun violence with more guns is a great first step.  54% of voters now say they will support candidates in favor of some form of gun control in the upcoming mid-term elections.  With the number of actual gun owners declining in America (even though the total number of guns is rising) from here on out things just might be different. With each passing year, with each new mass shooting, fewer American voters see guns as something deserving of privilege. Ultimately, that could translate into a change of sentiment in the political sphere.  It is exciting to see America moving from the relic of Old West mentality to something on par with the future of a free and open society.  

Are we going to have a #MeToo paradigm shift with guns?  Recent events suggest if not now then we certainly will at some point with some future mass shooting.  America is changing in a lot of ways and attitudes becoming lukewarm about guns is part of that change.

I would say this to those with a gun fetish in America. A reckoning is upon us.  Gun owners are not entitled to a special ethical sense of freedom.  Gun ownership does nothing to enhance individual liberty over those who choose not to own guns.  We (state governments and American corporations) are not coming for your guns.  We are coming for your sense of entitlement about gun ownership. You are no longer anything special.  Actually, you never were, but only now, thanks to the continuing actions of murderous legal gun owners, America is starting to call you out.

Late Note: Kroger announced that it would also stop selling guns and ammunition to anyone under 21 years of age.  This is HUGE.  Until now nothing of consequence has ever been done after a mass shooting in America.  These concessions aren't much but they are something.  Change is in the wind.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Meditations on the Vietnam War: Debate and Disillusionment

Building on the operational success of the Ia Drang Valley campaign, General William Westmoreland propelled through 1966 and 1967 with a series of large search-and-destroy operations intended to find North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (PAVN) base camps and border areas. The goal was to annihilate both the units defending the camps and the logistical infrastructure underpinning the capacity for the PAVN to wage war in the South.  Thereby, it was hoped, the South Vietnamese government could stabilize the country.  This post is a broad overview of that phase of the war.  I chose not to go into the specific big operations (there are links provided for that) and focus instead on the larger strategic matters of this time.

“Westmoreland tested the effectiveness of the attrition tactics in a series of major search-and-destroy operations in the fall of 1966 and the first half of 1967.  The MACV hoped to force the enemy into the open where the superior firepower of the allies could annihilate them.  Despite killing thousands of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese fighters and seizing hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, the operations did not significantly affect the Vietcong’s ability to wage the war.” (Schulzinger, page 199)

The assessment of "insignificant" impact upon the PAVN is a controversial one.  It is true that wherever the Americans fought, they almost always tactically won.  It is also true that within a few weeks of any given victory the Viet Cong usually returned to any given area and regained political control of it in a matter of weeks.  However, at that time, there seemed to be reason for optimism among many members of the Johnson administration.

“In June 1966 [Robert] Komer returned with a glowing report on Westmoreland’s ‘spoiling operations.’  In 1967 he told the President that he was ‘more optimistic than ever before.’  He believed that by the end of 1967 the war would be all but won.  How similar these words sounded to the expectations of the French generals in 1952 and 1953.  Komer and other Americans remembered the French experience, but they believed that the United States’s vast superiority in wealth and modern equipment would make the outcome different.” (Schulzinger, page 201)

It is possible that "progress" was generally being made, at least from a military perspective.  But that progress was based upon fact that the situation in South Vietnam was much worse in 1965 than previously believed.  At best, Westmoreland's search-and-destroy missions neutralized the imminent demise of South Vietnam but, instead of victory, this merely created a strategic stalemate.

In his classic book Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow summarizes: “…Westmoreland resolutely pursued his strategy of attrition, with a series of search-and-destroy operations code-named Junction City and Francis Marion and Kingfisher; and the enemy ‘body count’ mounted astronomically.  By the end of 1967, the U.S. troop presence was up to nearly a half million an increase of a hundred thousand during the year, and American soldiers killed in action exceeded nine thousand – bringing the total battlefield deaths for the past two years to more than fifteen thousand.  More than a million and a half tons of bombs had been dropped since the air strikes began, on both the north and the south.  But the war was deadlocked.  General Fred Weyand, one of Westmoreland’s field commanders, grimly measured the progress for a visiting Washington official: ‘Before I came over here a year ago, I thought we were at zero.  I was wrong.  We were at minus fifty.  Now we’re at zero.’” (Karnow, page 512)

But the "real" war in Vietnam had little to do with large search-and-destroy operations though such actions certainly stabilized and prolonged the war.  Instead, the Vietnam War was largely a series of much smaller battles, reflecting the fact that, while often spectacular, search-and-destroy missions failed to address the pacification and control of the population and the territory of the countryside.

“Despite Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City, over 96 percent of all engagements with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese occurred at company size strength (under two hundred men) or smaller.  The proper way for the United States to have responded to these tiny confrontations with the enemy would have been to employ small-unit guerrilla-like tactics of their own.  To have done so, however, would have meant reversing the military’s reliance on technology and mobility in favor of infantry and foot patrols, and such a reversal seemed to the military planners likely to prolong the war, raise the number of U.S. casualties, and reduce public support for the effort.” (Schulzinger, pp. 201-202)

“Twenty percent of the men wounded in South Vietnam fell victim to booby traps rather than direct enemy fire.  The enemy wired bodies with mines, and dug holes on the trails covered them with leaves and twigs so the Americans would fall into them to be impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes.  Reporters wrote derisively that troops would ‘search and avoid’ the enemy.  One combat soldier bitterly recalled ‘they booby-trapped the trails they knew we’d take, because we always took the same trails, the ones that looked easy and kept us dry.’” (Schulzinger, page 195)

From the beginning of the war, U.S. planners and policymakers argued about whether Westmoreland made the correct choice with his operations.  A competing strategy advocated by others was known as the "enclave strategy" which favored "clear-and-hold" operations over search-and-destroy.  Though this was his initial strategy in 1964 and 1965, debate persisted in American circles and Westmoreland ultimately abandoned the enclave approach because it was a "passive" policy, waiting for the enemy to come to his troops.  Instead, he advocated and implemented the more aggressive strategy of seeking out PAVN forces and killing them.  

“Advocates of traditional methods of counterinsurgency wanted the Americans to keep their soldiers on the ground, protect the population centers, and use long range patrols to drive the guerrillas into evermore remote areas.  Eventually, guerrillas would find that they had been denied their supplies form the rural population.  They would then have to come out in the open.  At that point the Americans could use their technological superiority to annihilate the main force of the Vietcong.

“Yet Westmoreland and his principle lieutenants rejected suggestions that the army spend more time in the field, rely more on small arms, and express less confidence in helicopters, fighter bombers, and heavy fire power.  ‘That’s’ not the American way,’ one said, ‘and you aren’t going to get the American soldier to fight that way.’” (Schulzinger, page 194)

Still, military planners, including Westmoreland, understood that killing NVA/VC fighters was not enough to win the war.  Victory could only result from pacification of the countryside to deny the Viet Cong basic support from the population.  Efforts of pacification were marginally successful.  What never got on track at all was transforming that effort into a mechanism to garner greater support by the population for the Saigon government, the only alternative to the NLF.  

“While Westmoreland was winning his war in the South, the United States was losing another war there – pacification.  Despite many ringing declarations from Washington and Saigon about the need to ‘reach the people,’ despite bales of ambitious plans and unrealistic reorganizations, the problems which blighted the pacification program in 1965 and 1966 continued into early 1967.

“In 1966 and early 1967, and for that matter throughout his commandership in Vietnam, Westmoreland viewed pacification as a stepchild.  While he pontificated about the importance of pacification, he devoted his energies and interest to operations like Cedar Falls and Junction City, not to clearing and holding the insignificant hamlets and villages around Saigon.  

“The United States emphasis on military operations at the expense of pacification might not have been harmful had it not created an even more damaging side-effect on ARVN.  Taking their cue from their United States counterpart, the good ARVN commanders wanted some of the ‘big-unit’ war too – not the tedious, unglamorous, piddling operations associated with pacification support.  Unfortunately, this support was ARVN’s primary job, so mandated by the 1967 Combined Campaign Plan, and dictated by the nature of the situation and force structures of the two allies.  If ARVN did not do it, or did not do it well, then pacification would wilt, and in early 1967 it was a wilted and unhealthy plant indeed.” (Davidson, pp. 430-431)

With respect to the strategic situation from the American point of view, Secretary Robert McNamara sounded a cautious tone as he summed up the war in this memo submitted to President Johnson in October 1966: "Enemy morale has not been broken - he apparently has adjusted to our stopping his drive for military victory and has adopted a strategy of keeping us busy and waiting us out (a strategy of attriting our national will).  He knows that we have not been, and he believes we probably will not be, able to translate our military successes into the 'end products' [that count] - broken enemy morale and political achievements by the GVN [Government of South Vietnam].

"The one thing demonstrably going for us in Vietnam over the past year has been the large number of enemy killed-in-action resulting from big military operations.  Allowing for possible exaggeration in reports, the enemy must be taking the rate of more than 60,000 a year.  The infiltration routes would seem to be one-way trails to death for the North Vietnamese.  Yet there is no sign of an impending break in enemy morale and it appears that he can more than replace his losses by infiltration from North Vietnam and recruitment in South Vietnam.

"...Pacification has if anything gone backward.  As compared with two, or four, years ago, enemy full-time regional forces and part-time guerrilla forces are larger; attacks, terrorism and sabotage have increased in scope and intensity;...we control little, if any, more of the population; the VC [Vietcong] political infrastructure thrives in most of the country, continuing to give the enemy his enormous intelligence advantage;  full security exists nowhere (not even behind the U.S. Marines' lines and in Saigon);  in the countryside the enemy almost completely controls the night.'" (McNamara, pp. 262 - 263)

Inefficiency and corruption ate away at the American system supporting the Saigon government, rendering the meager results of pacification transitory and impotent.

 “…ordinary South Vietnamese soldiers grew more estranged from their leaders intrigues.  A wild gulf separated the top ARVN officers from the troops they led.  In a country where about 80 percent of the population were Buddhists, only about 5 percent of the senior colonels or generals said they were Buddhists.  Unlike the NLF fighters, who endured hours of political indoctrination each week, ARVN soldiers often were left in the dark  about the reasons they fought and their nation’s politics.

“Millions of dollars of goods provided as aid by the United States were stolen from warehouses and PXs, fueling wild inflation throughout the Republic of Vietnam.  American cigarettes, whiskey, and razor blades as well as rifles, ammunition, uniforms, boots, and helmets were available on the black markets of the teeming cities of South Vietnam.  One American senior adviser reflected that too many officers lacked ‘aggressive, leadership ability, and a full professional outlook.’  Commanders spent more time fighting one another than engaging the enemy.  Officers pocketed the pay of thousands of ghost subordinates – deserters, men on leave or in hospitals or even dead.  As many as 25 percent of the 261,000 men supposedly in the regular armed forces and 30 to 40 percent of the territorial guards were missing at any time.” (Schulzinger, page 191)

Another absurdity of the war and of Westmoreland's large search-and-destroy missions was that enemy units (when they chose not to run away and avoid contact altogether) were not the only casualties of U.S. operations.  Westmoreland's approach destroyed the South Vietnamese culture and society it was designed to save in the first place.  In turn, this further undermined pacification as the American war machine alienated the population more than the threats and persistence of the Viet Cong, who fought with the idea of nationwide "independence" (as opposed to another "colonial intervention") on their side.

“The United States tried to make vast areas of South Vietnam unlivable to the Vietcong.  Air force and navy planes rained bombs on suspected Vietcong strongholds in Operation Arc Light.  The American army sent villagers scurrying away from their homes into larger hamlets that could be defended by the ARVN.  The United States also sprayed a variety of different herbicides on the forests of Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 in order to deprive NLF and Vietcong fighters of leaf cover.

“The war turned life in Vietnam upside down.  A country that once fed itself now imported rice.  The bombing forced millions of people to flee their rural homes.  At any given time about four million people, roughly one quarter of the republic’s population, were refugees crowded into squalid suburbs of South Vietnam’s cities or large towns.” (Schulzinger, page 193)

However, from a pristine military perspective, Westmoreland's large unit attacks on the PAVN infrastructure and supply bases throughout South Vietnam did, in fact, negatively impact the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.  Coupled with the destruction wrought by the controversial limited bombing of North Vietnam (Rolling Thunder), the U.S. military effort sparked a fierce internal debate among leaders in the North.

“In late 1966 and early 1967, as Marigold and Sunflower withered and died, so did Hanoi’s military prospects.  The year began with the timeworn and bitter arguments in the North Vietnamese Politburo over what to do in South Vietnam. Giap, Truong Chinh, and their supporters held firmly to the position that in the South, priority should be given to political dau tranh and guerrilla-type warfare.  Giap, himself, made it clear in a speech given in early January.  His old rivals, Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh and Le Duan, persisted in their view that the key to victory lay in battles between Communist Main Force units and large American formations.  Thanh’s spokesman, the artful Truong Son, in a speech published in June 1967, bluntly contended that the task of ‘…annihilating enemy forces had been minimized’ and ‘…that it is the foremost task in any war.’  In an even franker vein, he confessed that the task ‘…is not satisfactorily performed in certain areas.’

“American operations in early 1967 in South Vietnam, however, quickly made the old quarrel within the Politburo irrelevant….Westmoreland’s forays into the base areas and his hardhitting mobile defense operations along the peripheries of South Vietnam had undermined the foundations on which Giap and Thanh had built their competing strategies.  Westmoreland’s damaging raids into the base areas, particularly Cedar Falls and Junction City, had struck a catastrophic blow to Giap’s strategy of the protracted, guerrilla war, as it drove the Main Forces away from the guerrillas and deprived them of vital Main Force support.  Thanh’s concept, too, had suffered severely.  Just south of the DMZ, in northern South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese effort to gain the initiative had failed, while further south, Thanh had completely lost the ‘Big I,’ and the basis for his strategy.” (Davidson, pp. 434-435)

“Thanh’s strategy of confrontation had ended in failure, especially after his defeat in the Iron Triangle and the Cambodian border areas so North Vietnam’s military leaders voiced doubts and criticized Thanh’s conduct of the war.

“General Nguyen Giap advocated instead a temporary retrogression to defensive warfare.  He believed in the spring of 1967 that the North Vietnamese Army was not ready to confront American superiority.  He had recommended that operations be focused on small-scale, harassment attacks to consolidate their defense positions in the South, and but time for training additional North Vietnamese Army units.

“Thanh rejected Giap’s plan, saying he was one of those he considered ‘conservative and a captive of old methods and past experience.’  He thought only of mechanically repeating the past and were incapable of analyzing the concrete local situation which required and entirely new kind of response.’

“The Thanh/Giap disagreement was not resolved until North Vietnamese leaders aligned themselves behind Giap to extol guerrilla activities that had been successful in South Vietnam.  Thanh stuck to his views until his death of cancer July 6, 1967, in Hanoi.  Politburo members pointed to disruption of South Vietnam’s pacification efforts throughout the year, and obstruction of United States logistic buildup activities, interdiction of vehicle traffic by ambushes on major routes, and terrorist activities in major cities as irrefutable proof of guerrilla warfare’s effectiveness.  The results, they emphasized, were producing a favorable psychological impact that greatly enhanced communist prestige throughout the world.  They cited the shelling of Independence Palace October 31, 1967.  This attack, during the formal reception marking the inauguration of South Vietnam’s Second Republic with American Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in attendance, they claimed was of particular importance.” (Morrison, pp. 370-371)

“The accumulated damage and casualties of the limited air war were having an adverse effect on the North Vietnamese population.  Giap was concerned that further suffering might generate an undercurrent of frustration that could end in bitterness and jeopardize the long-term war effort.  North Vietnam’s economy, that had earlier shown improvement, now plunged downhill as the result of stepped-up bombing of strategic targets.  Increasingly dependent upon Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China for military and economic aid, North Vietnam was experiencing difficulty in steering a middle course between these two nations without alienating either, while both appeared to be headed toward a period of aggravating animosity.” (Morrison, pp. 372-373)

“In the South, the Viet Cong had lost control of from 500,000 to 1,000,000 Vietnamese in the last half of 1966 and the first two months of 1967.  This population loss reduced the tax and food base of the Viet Cong and made recruiting more difficult, while the GVN gained these people, with consequent political and economic advantage.  The evidence which Hanoi saw of nation-building in the South was even more alarming.  The GVN’s growing efforts at constitutional government and the relative stability of the Thieu – Ky regime signaled a significant shift in the political winds blowing through South Vietnam.  Thus, looking at the military and political scene in the South, Ho, Giap, Thanh, and their comrades saw that a strategy of ‘more of the same’ in South Vietnam had to be thoroughly restudied, and probably abandoned.

“Giap, however, saw in the military of early 1967 an even wider and more ominous threat to the Communist effort in South Vietnam.  He believed that the United States forces would shortly invade either North Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.  Any of these incursions would pose a possibility of a war-losing disaster to the North Vietnamese.  For the Communists, the base areas in these three sanctuaries were indispensable.  Even with them, the war was being lost; without them, the Communists foresaw terminal defeat.

“The second major factor which influenced Ho and Giap’s assessment was posed by the United States air attacks on North Vietnam.  Hanoi could take a rosier view of this war than the one in the South, but it gave the Communists no cause for jubilation.  The United States sortie rate over North Vietnam had risen from 2,401 a month in June 1965 to 12,249 in September 1966, and although bad weather inhibited the attacks after October 1966, an average of 8,000 to 9,000 per month continued to batter North Vietnam during the rest of 1966 and into early 1967.  Then, on 24 January 1967, the president authorized the United States air arms to attack sixteen critical targets around Hanoi,  So, in addition to an increase in attack sorties, the level of target ‘pain’ rose, too, for North Vietnam.” (Davidson, pp. 436 – 437)

“North Vietnam depended on both of its big allies.  China furnished small arms, food, trucks, and other smaller supplies, as well as highway and railroad maintenance assistance in northeast North Vietnam.  Russia gave North Vietnam its antiaircraft guns, missiles, tanks, and other sophisticated military equipment.  To make matters more touchy, North Vietnam’s two major allies espoused different strategies on how North Vietnam should win the war.  China, drawing on its own experience, advocated the ‘protracted war’ approach, emphasizing political dau tranh and guerrilla warfare in the South in an effort to create favorable conditions for bargaining.  The North Vietnamese tried to steer a neutral course between its two big allies.” (Davidson, page 439)

The Buddhist struggle campaigns and the series of internecine political intrigues convinced them that the Government of South Vietnam had no popular basis of support, and, if given the chance, the people of the South would overthrow President Thieu and the GVN.  They believed also that the South Vietnamese hated their ‘American oppressors’ and would turn on them at the first opportunity.  Finally, they had long ago convinced themselves that the South Vietnamese armed forces were badly trained and equipped, that their morale was low, and that they had no motivation to defend the South Vietnamese government.” (Davidson, page 439)

“The fall election of 1967 in which Thieu and Ky received only 34 percent of the popular vote was seen by the communists as particularly significant.  [Hanoi] pointed to Truong Dinh Dzu’s 17 percent share of the total vote as indicative of this reasoning.  An obscure lawyer with an unsavory reputation, Dzu had campaigned on a platform of ‘restoring peace and ending the war.’  This also was the National Liberation Front’s political line.

“Giap said he believed these things would have the inevitable effect of a catalyst that would start a popular insurrection.  He viewed the basic objective of a people’s war as that formulated by Mao Tse-tung that victory should have political significance and toward that end be made to look like a popular rather than a military success such as the proposed general offensive.” (Morrison, page 373)

While the North Vietnamese leadership was debating and somewhat staggering toward a new general strategy for 1968 in response to American search-and-destroy operations and Rolling Thunder, the United States war effort encountered fundamental disagreements of its own.  Unlike their adversaries, however, American in-fighting did not lead to any major revision of strategic policy.  Instead it only brought about dissension and disillusionment, the true weakness in the U.S. war effort.  Many Americans gradually lost faith in the war effort and were confused about our purpose there.  In short, Hanoi adapted to the circumstances of the war, America never successfully did so.

“Until late November 1965, McNamara had believed firmly in the American crusade in Vietnam.  But his attitude altered perceptibly during his quick trip to Saigon at this juncture.  The U.S. combat performance impressed him, yet he was shaken by evidence that North Vietnamese infiltration into the south had risen so dramatically – and would surely continue.  Discarding his customary display of public optimism, he candidly told correspondents in Saigon that ‘it will be a long war,’ and returned to Washington to offer Johnson a bleak set of options.

“The current plan to boost the number of American troops in Vietnam to some three hundred thousand by late 1966 would merely serve to avert disaster – in which case, he advised, the best approach was to seek a ‘compromise solution’ through negotiations.  On the other hand, the United States could ‘stick to our stated objectives’ by providing ‘what it takes’ – a total of at least six hundred thousand men by the beginning of 1968,  But, McNamara cautioned, even that will not guarantee success.’  For one thing, it might raise the American casualty rate to about a thousand deaths a month.

“Johnson fretted about domestic dissent as he pondered his choices.  Student opposition to the war was spreading in response to larger draft quotas.  ‘The weakest chink in our armor is American public opinion,’ Johnson warned his staff.  ‘Our people won’t stand firm in the face of heavy losses, and they can bring down the government.’” (Karnow, pp. 480 - 481)

Almost alone against the rest of the Johnson administration, McNamara could not see how to translate any military success into its ultimate purpose - to stabilize and legitimize the government in Saigon.  But, more critically at that moment, he felt Rolling Thunder was a complete waste of time and resources, even though its limited damage caused consternation among the opposing leadership and forced them to improvise a new war strategy for 1968 (unknown to the U.S. at the time).  McNamara wanted the bombing and Westmoreland's killing operations to bring North Vietnam to the negotiation table.  Here was the great disconnect in his mind.  His desired "message" to Hanoi was the problem.  North Vietnam would adapt to the destruction of the war but it would never negotiate.  The source of McNamara's frustration was that he could neither force negotiations to take place nor strengthen the Saigon government by military means alone.  Meanwhile, North Vietnam could plainly see that South Vietnam was a brittle, corrupt, unstable mess.  Hanoi had no reason to respond to the bombing and the killing as McNamara desired.

McNamara writes of his growing apprehension about the war:  "As one diplomatic initiative after another fizzled, my frustration, disenchantment, and anguished deepened.  I could see no good way to win - or end - an increasingly costly and destructive war.

"More Buddhist uprisings in South Vietnam in the spring of 1966 intensified my anxiety.  This internecine strife underscored the Saigon government's fragility and lack of popular appeal.  It bothered me that the South Vietnamese battled one another while the enemy pressed at the gates." (McNamara, pp. 260 - 261)

"Looking back, I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand.  It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force - especially when wielded by an outside power - just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.

"Most of my colleagues viewed the situation quite differently.  They saw (or wished to see) steady political and military progress.  In the summer of 1966, Dean commented that 'the situation has reached the point where North Vietnam cannot succeed.'  Walt wrote, 'Mr. President, you can smell it all over: Hanoi's operation, backed by the Chicoms, is no longer being regarded as the wave of the future...We're not in, but we are moving.'  Lodge cabled that 'the military side of this war is going well....This means that the real danger - and the only real danger - would be if the American people were to lose heart and choose to 'bring the boys home.'  This would indeed be the first domino to fall.'" (McNamara, page 261)

As his disillusionment progressed from frustration to despair regarding the war over which he was predominantly presiding, McNamara became more direct and aggressive with his assessment of the situation - something with which most of Johnson's advisers disagreed.

"The secretary of defense forwarded a personal memorandum to the president on November 1, 1967, that explained in blunt language why he believed the current course of action in Vietnam 'would be dangerous, costly, and unsatisfactory to our people.'  In his memorandum, McNamara suggested alternative moves toward 'stabilization of our military operations in the South...and of our air operations in the North, along with a demonstration that our air attacks on the North are not blocking negotiations leading to a peaceful settlement.'

"Secretary McNamara concluded his memorandum with three recommendations, similar to the ones he made in August 1966.  First, he suggested that the United States announce that it would not expand air operations in the North, or the size of combat forces in the South, beyond those already planned.  Second, the secretary proposed a bombing halt before the end of 1967.  Finally, he favored a new study of military operations in the South aimed at reducing U.S. causalities and giving the South Vietnamese greater responsibilities for their own security." (McNamara, Blight, Brigham, page 361)

Failing to rally a consensus, McNamara fell out of favor with Johnson.  The two became more argumentative and Johnson ultimately felt that McNamara had become demoralized about the war.  The secretary of defense was dismissed - whether by resignation or termination is unclear in the historical record.

"McNamara left the government a disillusioned man, and he made no attempt to conceal his anguish at a farewell luncheon at the State Department in late February 1968, just before his official departure.  Among those present, along with Rusk, Clifford, and other senior officials, was Harry McPherson, a Johnson aide, who recalled to me his own astonishment at McNamara's display of emotion. 'He reeled off the familiar statistics - how we had dropped more bombs on Vietnam than on all of Europe during World War II.  The his voice broke, and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility, the crushing futility, of the air war.  The rest of us sat silently - I for one with my mouth open, listening to the secretary of defense talk that way about a campaign for which he had, ultimately, been responsible.  I was pretty shocked.'" (Karnow, page 512)

The "crushing futility" was a result of trying to drive North Vietnam into a negotiated settlement of the war.  The enormous and risky bombing campaigns in southeast Asia, all administered (if not personally supported) by McNamara, did not achieve their stated ends.  But, part of McNamara's dismay was the result of his own metrics.  According to American military theory about the war, there was a "crossover point" where the "kill ratio" was enough to bring about the PAVN's disintegration, or at least rendering it ineffective. 

“During 1966, Communist battle deaths had totaled about 5,000 men a month, but during the first six months of 1967 Communist KIA’s (Killed in Action) soared. MACV estimated that from January through June 1967 the total enemy losses exceeded 15,000 men per month.  Since the Viet Cong could recruit about 3,500 men per month, and NVA infiltration ran to about 7,000 per month, the ‘crossover point’ had been reached, that is, more Communist soldiers were being put out of action than they could recruit in-country or infiltrate from the North.” (Davidson, page 435)

But when that point was plainly reached in 1967 there was no discernible indication that it mattered.  Achieving "crossover", however, emboldened Westmoreland and other prominent American officials with whom McNamara now disagreed.  The military effort was largely successful.  Westmoreland publicly declared that "we have reached an important point where now the end begins to come into view."  As 1968 began, the expectation by American politicians, the press and public was that war would soon be winding down and Saigon would be able to take it from here as the Americans began to withdraw.  The Politburo in North Vietnam, however, had other ideas.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sideways at the 50-day Moving Average

Last week the Dow consolidated in a sideways path along the 50-day moving average, reclaiming about 50% of the ground it lost threes ago.  For the moment the 50-day MA is serving as resistance for the Dow.  This Forbes article states: "It’s unclear what motivated the market merriment, but some analysts suggested that the Federal Reserve’s dovish tone might have had some impact. In its semiannual monetary policy report, the Fed pointed to an upswing in inflation toward that end of the year, but didn’t suggest that it would prompt a more aggressive monetary policy, meaning that it’s still, at least for now, on track for three rate hikes this year. It stuck to its belief that inflation would hit or come close to its 2% goal."  We are approaching 600 days since the Dow last touched the 200-day MA, an extraordinary run - and also a possible indication that the "correction" has yet to fully express itself.  It will be interesting to watch this play out over the coming weeks.  In the meantime, the bull market's continuation is technically uncomfirmed. Once again, volume trended downward as the market went upward.  We are possibly in a lackluster phase for the moment.  But the longer the Dow hangs around its 50-day MA the more likely the bull will continue.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Dow Rebound

Donald Trump said the stock markets were "making a big mistake" two weeks ago when the sudden downturn I mentioned in my previous post occurred. Well, this past week was a different story.  This bull market is showing historic resilience.  The Dow powered upward all five days last week in what was its best week since 2013.  Was Trump right?

In 2017, the Dow rose 5,000 points, a record!  Trump has mentioned 30,000 as a target for 2018.  So, perhaps the minor "snapback" of two weeks ago was an anomaly. Maybe we are never going to touch the 200-day moving average again (that's sarcasm). 

My last post mentioned that many of the technical indicators used when charting stocks were flashing "overbought," sending the Dow into correction territory.  The republican tax cut fed fuel to the already hot markets.  Initially, the concern was for the economy overheating - sending interest rates and inflation higher as well as driving up the debt.  In almost bi-polar fashion, this past week no cared about any of that.  It seems now that no one can agree on why the markets went down to begin with.  Apparently, a reinterpretation of bond yields partly explains the rise this past week.

Here is the chart reflecting the power of this bull market over the past week. 
The reversal of the alleged correction gave us the strongest week on the Dow since 2013.  The Dow returned to the 50-day moving average which might be a sign of strength.  But notice the red circle.  Those bars across the chart represent volume, the number of shares traded on a given day.  Volume went down as the market went up.  This is a reflection of buyer uncertainty and may suggest a still underlying weakness yet to reveal itself.
Despite an amazing week, my bet is still on a snapback to the 200-day moving average.  It simply defies the gravity of the markets for the Dow to go so long without touching or testing that level.  Still, instead of a snapback we might see something else.  Snapbacks are violent and sudden, moving straight up or down as quickly as possible.  We saw the "down" part in 1987, 2002, and in 2008.  But a less violent occurrence is a "range-bound" return to mean average, moving rather insignificantly up and down over a period of time necessary for the still rising 200-day MA to "arrive" at the level of the Dow.  Which will it be?

An old investing adage goes something like this: "The stock market always does what it is supposed to do, we just don't know when it will do it."  That certainly seems to apply here, even if this Bull continues to power upward.

It is noteworthy that while the Dow and the S&P 500 were up, the NASDAQ was down on Friday, though strongly up for the week.  The S&P had its strongest week in five years.  Gold was also up big for the past week, its best week since 2016, on inflation fears and a weak dollar.  Even though I have added some mutual funds over the past couple of years, I am still vested in gold.

This Frobes article from yesterday is the best overall analysis of the current situation I have read.  Meanwhile, the strength in the stock markets and in the economy as a whole seems to play right into Trump's luck.  This bull market started in 2009, it accelerated when Trump was elected.  But it has accelerated before.  The economy reached a hot 5% GDP in 2014 (something even Trump can't crow about yet) and the Dow had a great year.  The current strength of the U.S. economy is not a new thing.  We are living in a rare time of low unemployment, consumers are spending more.  Will the underlying strength of this to continue?  As I have posted before, no one knows for sure.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Strength on the Verge of Weakness

Since the day after Election Day 2016 the Dow Industrial Average has not touched its 200-day Moving Average.  Technically, the Dow has been above this important average since late-June 2016 (the present bull market began in 2009 under President Obama) - that's roughly 19 months, over 570 days ago.  I have not been able to discover what the Dow’s current record is for days above the 200-day MA, but we must be close to it.  (The record of the S&P 500 is over 600 days and dates from the mid-1950's.) I have watched the stock markets for over 30 years now and I have never seen anything like this.  The previous longest streaks for the Dow are in the area of 300-350 days.  The strength of this Bull Market is highly unusual. 
Here is what the last six months of the Dow Industrial Average looks like in a technical chart.  The Dow has moved from under 22,000 to over 26,000 during this time frame.  Incredible resilience! The red candlesticks represent down days. The white represent up days.  The longer the candlestick the more volatile the trading for that day.  As you can see, the Dow has experienced a steady rise over this period of time and has only become volatile recently.  The blue line represents the 50-day Moving Average.  The red is the 200-day MA.  Notice how the distance between the red line and the Dow was widening in early 2018.  This is setting up a possible "snapback" scenario as the market wandered farther and farther from the mean average

The graph above the chart is the Relative Strength Index (RSI).  The shaded area of the RSI shows strong upward strength (overbought conditions),  You can see the strength has tapered off  in the past week or so.  Below the chart are graphs for the MACD which have been elevated over the past six months as well and are now trending negative.  Below that is a graph for the slow stochastics which is useful for short-term market measurements.  As rule, anything above "80" reflects a hot upward trend.  Anything below "20" is a strong downward trend.  Technically, neither the RSI nor the MACD nor the slow stochastics are in what could be termed "oversold" territory, suggesting the downward trend might continue.
To review the past several years since the Great Recession, it is useful to keep in mind this summary: "On October 9, 2007, the Dow closed at its pre-recession all-time high of 14,164.43. But fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth contracted 1 percent, announcing the start of the recession. (It was later re-estimated at a positive 2.9 percent.) The Dow started declining gradually. After the failure of Bear Stearns in April 2008 and a negative GDP report in Q2 2008, the Dow dropped to 11,000. Many analysts felt that this 20 percent decline was the market bottom.

"But it wasn’t the bottom. On Monday, September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. On Wednesday, panicky bankers withdrew $144 billion from money market funds, almost causing a collapse.

"On September 29, 2008, the Dow fell 770 points. That was its most significant single-day point drop ever. Investors were stunned that the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a $700 billion bailout bill to save failing banks. The Senate reintroduced the bailout as TARP on October 3. Nevertheless, the Dow plummeted 13 percent in October. By November 20, 2008, it fell to 7,552.29, a new low.

"That was still not the real market bottom. The Dow climbed to 9,034.69 on January 2, 2009, before screeching down to 6,594.44 on March 5, 2009.

On July 24, 2009, the Dow finally reversed course. It beat its January high, rising to 9,093.24 by close of day."

The Dow at the close on Friday was at 24, 190.90.  More than 300% up from its 2008 low.  An astonishing bull market.  The Dow essentially doubled under President Obama.  Under Trump it has enjoyed roughly a robust 31% gain in much shorter span of time.  Now, entering its 8th year, it is prudent to ask is it overheated?  The Dow closed at 26,616 on January 26, 2018.  In terms of Dow Theory, that number now becomes the resistance that must be matched or exceeded in order to confirm the bull market's continuation.  Unlike in 2008, we don't seem to have any major issues among financial institutions themselves at this point in time.  The "real world" of economics seems solid.  So, maybe the bull will continue to romp upward once this (actually healthy) correction is complete.

Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the market's bullishness as a KPI for his economic policy.  Well, "policy" might be overstating it.  Trump really has no policy of any kind.  He wants to kick immigrants out.  He wants to build a wall.  He hates Europe, loves RussiaIsrael, and Saudi Arabia.  That's about it for the Trump idealism so far.  To be fair, however, the Bull Market he inherited loved him.  It loved him so much it rose in classic "irrational exuberance." But he was more of a cheerleader than a policy maker.  The recent massive tax cut, for example, was hammered out by the republicans in congress.  All Trump did was sign the final bill.

Which is ironic in a way.  Trump's party may have killed the very thing it was trying to drive onward and upward.  The economy was clicking right along when the republicans decided to "step on the gas" with the tax cut.  Trump wanted the economy to grow faster and much larger and tax cuts can (theoretically) add fuel to the fire.  Trouble is, the tax cut is an inflationary move.  Now the markets are skid-ish on inflation and downright terrified of the inevitable interest rate hikes associated with inflation.  Plus the tax cut will also add to the massive national debt of the country.  It all seems pretty pointless since things were zipping along just fine before the tax cut.

Now the stock markets have turned sour.  Trump is trying to distance himself from all those earlier statements in connection with the markets.  Suddenly they are no longer a KPI for his "policy," instead he is now all about "the fundamentals." Whatever.

The interesting thing for me currently is watching as the markets "snapback" again toward the 200-day MA.  It has been a very long time since the Dow touched the 200-day MA; too long actually.  This Bull Market was gathering too much steam.  It was becoming unnaturally parabolic like cryptocurrency.  Which is why the past week has been so violent.  Strong declines and surges intermingle like a great battle is being fought by the forces of economic equilibrium.  As Richard Russell used to proclaim (paraphrasing) "the further the market moves up or down away from the 200-day MA, the more violent the pullback to the mean."

This is how all the same technical indicators look in a two-year time frame.  The red circle denotes Election Day 2016.  You can clearly see how the Dow's momentum accelerated after that point in time.  You can also see the more variation in the various indicators, the RSI going wild after remaining range-bound in the months before the election, the MACD remaining high even before the election, and the slow stochastics recording short-term upward or downward strength.
So, now we are witnessing a snapback.  It will be interesting to see if it actually (finally) takes the Dow down to the 200-day MA or if it has already discounted higher interest rates, inflation, and the increased debt trajectory - all three at least partially related to the republican tax cut.  January 2018 was the Dow's best month since March 2016.  It was up on Friday in highly volatile trading.  Is the correction over? Let's watch and see what happens next.
The same chart and indicators going back to mid-March 2013.  Notice how the RSI remained pretty much in the middle of its scale, driving a healthy bull market upward throughout 2013-2014 under President Obama.  Volatility struck the Dow in the fall of 2015 and the early part of 2016 with two dips below the 200-day MA. Also notice how the Dow regularly touched the 200-day MA throughout this period.  This is typical market activity.  Nothing too extreme.  You can clearly see how out of whack things got looking at the MACD in the most recent weeks.  WAY above the norms.  The slow stochastics isn't that valuable at this scale, but it does provide a look at the "seismic" nature of that indicator.