- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger died for Lyndon Johnson’s sins. On Tuesday, President Obama paid tribute to Etchberger by awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry he displayed during a losing battle in a war that officially did not exist.

Etchberger participated in what became known as the “secret war” in Laos, which was an extension of America’s military involvement in South Vietnam. Laos was declared neutral after 14-nation negotiations in Geneva in 1962. Under the terms of the agreement, all foreign forces then present in Laos were to withdraw, including several hundred U.S. and Soviet troops. Most countries complied, but 6,000 North Vietnamese troops then in the country remained and soon were reinforced by thousands more.

In time, northern Laos was overrun by tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops. The Viet Cong supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran down the eastern length of the country. Communist troops launched attacks from Laos into South Vietnam and retreated back over the border to their safe havens. President Johnson would have been in his rights to declare that the communists were in violation of the Geneva agreement, launch conventional strikes to protect U.S. troops in South Vietnam, and enforce the treaty by driving out North Vietnamese forces. However, Johnson chose to cling to the fiction of Laotian neutrality and instead began a “secret” war against the communists in 1965 using proxy forces supported by the CIA’s Air America and coordinated by U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan.

Because the United States wanted to maintain the notion that conventional forces were not operating in Laos, Etchberger was “discharged” from the Air Force in 1967 and sent into Laos under the cover of being an employee of Lockheed Corp. He and a small team manned a mountaintop radar station at Lima Site 85 in northeastern Laos, helping guide U.S. aircraft based in Thailand on missions over North Vietnam.

Etchberger’s moment of destiny arrived on March 11, 1968, when North Vietnamese forces overran the radar site. Eleven of the 16 men at the site were killed. Etchberger and six others retreated to a defensible position near a cliff, and the sergeant fought fiercely through the night until a rescue helicopter arrived the next day. Etchberger loaded his wounded compatriots into the chopper, then grabbed onto the final evacuee who was being raised on a hoist. After he was on board the helicopter, a final enemy round pierced the aircraft’s thin skin and found Etchberger, killing him.

Etchberger’s commanders recommended him for the Medal of Honor at the time, but because the sergeant technically was a civilian and because the war was to be kept a secret, Johnson rejected the proposal. Instead, Etchberger was awarded the Air Force Cross, given to his family at a private ceremony. The citation gave some details of the sergeant’s heroism, but made no mention of where he had died.

By then, the “secret war” was fairly well known to close observers of the Southeast Asian conflict. Reports of a “twilight war” in Laos were circulating as early as 1965. It was no secret in Washington; the relevant congressional committees were briefed periodically, and appropriations eventually reached the order of $500 million per year. Official delegations visited Laos, in particular Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri and Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. They voiced full support for the effort, and former CIA Director Richard Helms wrote in his memoirs that Congress thought “it was a much cheaper and better way to fight a war in Southeast Asia than to commit American troops.”

Two years after Etchberger’s death, the country had soured on the conflict in Southeast Asia. Reports in the New York Times and other major papers on the “secret war” in Laos led to a series of hearings on Capitol Hill. Mr. Fulbright and Mr. Symington expressed “surprise, shock and anger” at the “recent discovery” of the extent of U.S. involvement in Laos, pretending outrage at an operation they had known about for years. But they also knew that the details were classified, and they would not be held accountable.

This political grandstanding left an indelible stain on the Laotian operation, such that it has taken four decades for the country publicly to recognize Etchberger’s sacrifice and heroism. Richard Etchberger was fighting a just cause under unjust circumstances created by politicians who lacked the courage to fight a stand-up war against an enemy pursuing victory by any means necessary. It is recognition long overdue.

James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).

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