Review: Tattoo: A Memoir of Becoming

The life and times of Colonel W. Patrick Lang

Technically, Colonel W. Patrick Lang is a criminal.  Whether it is a high crime or a misdemeanor, he enlisted in the National Guard when not of legal age.  It must run in the family as his father enlisted underage as well and more or less blessed his son's law breaking.

Colonel Lang has admitted to the transgression and in print no less.  Even in this age of wokeness and cancel culture, he probably need not fear the knock on the door in the middle of the night.  Maybe his 201 file is at variance with his birth certificate?  

Your reviewer became aware of Colonel W. Patrick Lang when someone recommended his blog, Turcopolier. It has been regular reading ever since and his commentary of great value. 

Colonel Lang is also the author of a Civil War trilogy that has received much praise, but due to time constraints, I shall probably never get to read.

Much of his life and career has been illuminated in the blog, but all is detailed in Tattoo: A Memoir of Becoming.  

Post-crime he was one of the best troopers in his national guard unit.  Lang would take responsibility when needed and so impressed those above him that he was assigned to lecture in summer at Camp Drum.  Clearly, he was on his way to being a real soldier.

His father had been long serving in the military, but it appears the man he had most regard for as a warrior was John Lang, his uncle who "was thought by many to be one of the navy's greatest heroes."

How many other American service men can boast of being personally decorated by the Son of Heaven, His Imperial Japanese Majesty, The Emperor?  Due to the death of a sergeant of Japanese Marines against Chinese warlord forces on the Yangtze River in the 1920s, he would lead the fallen man's troops in assault, and earned the admiration of the Japanese officers such that they thought him a Samurai.

This led to a trip to Tokyo for the decoration, Order of the Chrysanthemum.  The award included a stipend more than his service pay.  Even the World War II did not end permanently the remittances.

John was an interesting fellow, and there is more to his story worth reading, but on to the Colonel and his life and times.

Pat had a typical American boyhood, but he was more of an achiever than most.  Thus, the Guard enlistment and a standout, if not long, career, becoming a noncom while just a kid.

He was not enamored of the ring knocker mentality and rather than seek attendance at West Point, Lang went to and graduated from Virginia Military Institute. As a "Distinguished Military Student" he could expect a regular army commission.  Of course, the "Point" is the preferred academy, and all the graduates from that class year had three days seniority right off the bat no matter the class standing of the VMI grads.  Reminds one of the old joke, what do you call the lowest passing scorer on the medical boards? That would be "doctor."

The author waxes eloquent about the merits of his alma mater.  It was a hard school that trained up many, but few were interested in pursuing the profession of arms.  This seems odd in that he speaks highly of the emphasis on honor and makes note of how it was better esteemed in Lexington than up on the Hudson.

Unlike the West Pointers, the VMI men were committed to battle in the Civil War while still cadets.  It was at the Battle of Newmarket late in the conflict.  The Colonel says "It was a glory to be treasured…"

So, Pat passed out into his career in the United States Army.  As his pre-VMI service had prepared him for the nuances of military life, he seemed to take much in stride, such as his company commander at his first post who was needless to say a problem.  

As always, he applied himself to the task as evidenced by his performance at the Infantry Officer Basic course where he placed second to the West Point cadet brigade commander from that year.  The young lieutenant knew how it worked and who was going to get what.  Military politics may not be as vile as, say, the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but they exist.

The post-Korea peacetime army was not going to stay a peacetime army forever.  We were edging into the Vietnam War. Training and promotions more than qualified Lang and he was not going to be left out.  

Lang arrived in Vietnam in 1968 and his description of Saigon says it must have made quite an impression on him.  His words, I am not surprised that the French fought so hard to keep this place emphasize that point.

He was not going to be kept from the provinces for long.

Lang's adventures in the field would be as part of the 525th Military Intelligence Group (MIG). He got to be Mr. Fixit in a place called Song Be because, as the battalion commander said, "You must be Lang.  Group called. They think you are nuts and so do I, but things are a mess in Song Be. Make it right, and I will support you."

As Lang noted, "It was not a good beginning."

To get an even better idea as to how the stars did not seem to be aligning in his favor, there is this:

"The Sergeant Major of 3/525 MIG announced his opinion of Lang's operating area when they first met. "Well," he said, "At least you won't have far to walk to Cambodia when you're captured.""

As read, Song Be felt like a mini-Stalingrad with us in the German role of defending against the onslaught of Russians.

Patrick Lang comes upon a mess and sets to comb out dead wood while instituting order.  He was to be running a local CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development) counterinsurgency effort.  CORDS, according to Lang, "was in the process of becoming the major focus of U.S. strategy in Vietnam." CORDS teams were spread through every level of Vietnamese government and life.

Lang's detachment grew to over a hundred including Americans, Vietnamese, and Montagnards.  There would be others, including French who worked for the rubber plantations.  They would be the targets of the VC, and built up an esprit as "Constant danger and an insistence on high standards of performance made the detachment a destination for men who would not soldier willingly elsewhere."

Lang's men would use the cover provided by CORDS to find natives or Europeans willing to penetrate the enemy's units and bases to get info.  Sometimes that information was ill used.

An arrogant Lieutenant Colonel brusquely dismissed the import of Lang's intelligence and sent his men into a meat grinder.  Lang's account of the debacle at Ap Bu Nho is difficult not merely because of the bloodletting of American servicemen, but also in how a certain type of man can gain the authority to waste the lives of soldiers under him.

The big battle for Song Be was coming up. It was presaged by a humorous event that happened to a man in the CORDS team concerned with supply of local building projects. He drove into a town with material to deliver and did not notice it had changed hands.

He told some troops to unload the stuff and it took a while to register they were not South Vietnamese.  Too late, terror took hold. The leader signed the receipt and let the man go. He also put a note on it.

The man, visibly shaken, brought the receipt and note to the soon to be Major Lang and asked what it meant.

In French it said, "Dit au tirailleur que nous le vistererons tôt."  It was a note to Lang, "tell the rifleman we will visit him soon." 

They meant it.

The battle began, at least symbolically for Lang, during his promotion ceremony to major.  Small arms fire came over the wall.

Montagnard agents gave information of the upcoming attack.  A large force of VC infantry and sappers was ordered to take Song Be.  With slender resources, Song Be prepared to receive the attack.

Just past midnight the enemy began with artillery and mortars. The sappers would execute demolition attacks and the infantry assaulted the wired defenses.  The defenders killed a dozen enemy.  Assaults continued all night with the bombardment. 

A building that was holding up the VC advance with an M-60 machine gun from an upper window was ordered evacuated by Lang. A tad of humor ensued as one of the last men out asked permission to blow up all the paperwork to keep it from falling into enemy hands. That records clerk destroyed all the hated forms with a smile.

Morning came with an enemy pull back to avoid US airpower. Lang was able to contact higher headquarters and was asked if the detachment should be evacuated? He replied that if they did that, the intelligence detachment would never be able to operate in Song Be again. "As long as there were Americans defending Song Be, the MI soldiers had to stay with them or leave forever."

Those above him in the MIG were not happy that intel men would stay, but accepted it.  William Colby, deputy head of CORDS and later famous for other reasons, came in to pull his people and suggested Lang get his out too. When Lang demurred, Colby accused him of trying to make his group look bad and said they, "would not forget this."

Lang's men refused to shake hands with the departing, and turned their backs on them.

The battle was to continue with Song Be prepared as well as possible.

It became clear that the townspeople saw the situation such that they were taking down South Vietnam flags and raising the enemy banner. 

Lang and his men would hold on fighting. At the climactic evening engagement, he would call down fire on his own position, or close enough. He and his men survived and the powers that be saw that Song Be should be saved and committed the necessary resources.

In a moving incident, Lang met with some captured men. He had actually had an encounter with them when a deal had been struck to leave a town unmolested.  Lang asked an enemy sergeant what had happened to the Major who had been there and was told that he had been killed in the fight.  The man asked in French if Lang was the "Rifleman." He told the sergeant that the rifleman had also been killed in the same battle. He would say to his driver that there was some truth in that.

Maybe so. 

About the enemy, he would quote Sir Walter Scott that they were "foemen worthy of our steel."

After the climactic fight, Lang wrote that he "did not know it at the time but the central point of his life had passed that night. His father had said that an unfortunate by-product of a fighting soldier's life was that the logical climax of existence would come before you were done living. For his father it had come when he was seventeen in Mexico, when his regiment made a mounted attack against a walled hacienda called "Ojos Azules." For his great-grandfather, it had come in the stand of the Sixth Army Corps in the town cemetery of Middletown, Virginia during the Battle of Cedar Creek."

Lang does not say when he realized the truth of the quote above. No matter, Lang would lead a useful and productive life in the rest of his military career and after.  Maybe there could never be another critical point, but it would be a rich career and life and more interesting than the trajectories of those of high rank who are managing (or mismanaging) our current adventures.

Lang would go back to Vietnam as the conflict wound down. His account of the events is as if a tragedy.  Remembering the final collapse as shown on TV, who would argue?

Post-Vietnam, while stationed in Turkey, Lang "made a decision to become an area specialist in the Arab world." The quote did not mention if he knew something the rest of the army did not know, but he would not be idle.

As he knew, choosing an interesting and necessary field would most likely ensure an elevation to general would never happen. Such a life choice actually speaks well of the man.

Major Lang would attend Arabic language school with his wife, Marguerite, who would take the course as well.  After that, a little more school, but a job in the field would have to wait, as he would have to teach at West Point first.

His Arabic was good enough that he would be a professor for probably longer than he wanted.

Eventually, Lang would escape and would replenish his store of anecdotes as well as witness and participate in history. 

It was off to Yemen as an attaché. Yemen, as we know it in the news now, is different from the land as it was. There was fighting, but maybe not the starvation.  Whatever one might want to say about the place, it does not lack for interesting characters.

His driver was a major in the Yemeni National Police keeping an eye on Lang. Lang would travel with him through the country and makes it sound like the major was his facilitator as much as watcher.

Lang's trips among the people out in the country and association with military and foreign advisors gives a flavor of a land nothing like ours.  Despite disapproval of some embassy people, he developed a friendship with a Soviet general that was useful to both. He would accompany and work with them assisting the Yemeni government in fighting insurgency.

Pat and Marguerite enjoyed Yemen and were sad to leave. His judgement of the people, "Yemenis are real fighters no matter what side they are on."

The Saudis might want to reflect on that as they are not.

Lang would go on to have an important involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed, Tattoo starts off with that involvement and how Iran Contra messed things up. At the beginning of tattoo, he gives a flavor of working with the people we would eventually heartily denigrate.

He left the army to become a Defense Intelligence Agency civilian member of the Senior Executive Service.  It was in that capacity he would go back to the Middle East.

There was work to do there, and it may not have included life events the same as Song Be, but it would be important in a historic sense. His meeting with the king of Jordan and explanation of what the Iraqis might change and his future involvement were part of a war the outcome of which to the United States was of much concern.

The U.S. government did not wish to see Iraq go under and Lang would do his part to improve Iraqi performance. That, in and of itself, was big, but more important according to Lang was Iraq's perception of itself. Being befriended by the U.S. Iraq took heart and would take the offensive. Their success would lead to the Iranians giving it up.

Lang would continue working, but there is not too much in the rest of the book. He references Bob Woodward's The Commanders as to his role in our Iraq invasion. After the Middle East, there was another assignment that would see his career in government end.

He would go on to have success in the private sector, but as he puts it, "the only life that mattered to him ended the day he left government."

That government was not always easy to work for. He had to deal a lot with petty bureaucracy and functionaries defending their little empires.  Yet, he stayed the course as long as it lasted.

Tattoo has unexpected and interesting turns. Your reviewer wonders how many U.S. officers had known about Sir John Bagot Glubb. I learned of him as a college classmate had a copy of his A Soldier with the Arabs. Glubb and the Colonel had many similar experiences, Glubb with Bedouin and Lang with Montagnards, and this led to correspondence and an eventual visit.

Glubb is known these days among people with an interest in history for his short work, the Fate Of Empires and Search For Survival.  Glubb posited that Empires rise for a time and then decline and saw it happen for each entity in around two to two and a half centuries.  Guess where that puts us?  Nothing I read in the Colonel's memoir leads me to believe it is not possible.

There was a Glubb moment in Lang's book. Out observing SANG (Saudi Arabian National Guard) training with ten native soldiers, He told a lieutenant across a fire they were standing around that he was not a Saudi. The officer asked Lang what the colonel thought he was.  "I think you are an East Bank Jordanian, probably from the Amman area." Pretty impressive mastery of language.

Colonel Lang's book was a pleasure to read. For anyone with an interest in United States and world history for the cold war era, one can learn much of, as Boston talk show guy Larry Glick put, "the story behind the story."

If you have a young relative who is contemplating a career along the lines of the author's, a gift of Tattoo: A Memoir of Becoming would be suitable. Not to discourage the aspirant, but to let him know the reality of such service.