Officer a Participant in Pivotal Events; World War II to Vietnam, Helping to Shape World History

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He is the last surviving member of the Cuban Missile Task Force at the Pentagon. He was the chief of current intelligence for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. He commanded an infantry battalion and completed two tours in Vietnam after serving in World War II and Korea. He received multiple Purple Hearts. And this just scratches the surface.

For readers interested in military history and the steely reality of combat, retired Army Col. Charles E. Thomann has so many stories that his career seems larger than life. They span everything from individual combat to his involvement in strategic decisions made at the highest levels of civilian and military leadership.

He recently granted an interview to Jack Trammell, a frequent contributor to this page, and this transcript represents a portion of what was discussed.

Question: In your own experience, what are the aspects about war for individual soldiers that do not change?

Answer: My experience is that soldiers do not question why they are in the war zone, and they believe they have been sent there to accomplish a mission for their country. I know of instances in Vietnam when the antiwar movement got to some of the men and they attempted to frag their officers, but in reality, that was rare, and it did not happen in the combat units to my knowledge, only in the rear areas where there was little or no combat action and where the living conditions were much more comfortable.

I believe that the combat soldier thinks about three things: his family, his survival and the survival of his unit, and that he is doing a service which is helping to keep his country and our way of life safe from enemies of our republic.

Q: Technology has certainly changed war. In your opinion, how much difference can an individual soldier still make?

A: Technology has always been a big factor in war, and the side with superior weapons will probably win if they are not undermined by political issues at home [or] if they fail to follow through with men to occupy essential ground. ...

As an example, in World War II, our M1 rifle was technically superior to the Japanese rifle That made a big difference in the individual fighting, [as] we could outshoot the Japanese. Our superior aircraft and Navy made a great difference in our winning the war, but we still had to occupy enemy territory and neutralize enemy forces in order to bring the war to an end.

In the future, whoever controls space with laser weapons and advanced surveillance devices will undoubtedly control the battlefield and could change the need for massive troop intervention in battle, but we are not at that point yet. It would still not change the need for occupation troops to assure that the enemy areas are no longer threats.

Q: You've experienced several crises in your work and experience (Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, etc.). Do you think the world is more dangerous now, or are Americans usually shielded from the real aspects of external threats?

A: Certainly, the present terrorist movement is dangerous, and we must defeat it. However, at the present, we are not faced with the imminent threat of another technically advanced and large military power such as we were in World War II and the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

However, the enemy we fight in the necessary war on terror has none of the sophistication that China and Russia are developing, and we are the ultimate winners [in Afghanistan and Iraq] unless the politicians lose the war for us, like they did in Vietnam.

Q: You've met and interacted with many well-known personalities in the course of your career (Generals Curtis LeMay and Maxwell Taylor, the Kennedys, etc.). Is there something special about men and women who rise to the top levels of leadership, or would you just reiterate that they are ordinary people in extraordinary situations? …