A democracy has been attacked. The United States saw a threat to an ally and also to the entire world order, but feared that sending troops would trigger a nuclear war. So instead he provided weapons. And a small number of American special operations trainers began to work quietly with the local army.
This was the situation in South Vietnam in 1961, a few years before full American military involvement, when the American presence was limited to a military “advisory group”.
This is also the situation in Ukraine today. As a bloody conflict unfolds, small teams of American special ops veterans train Ukrainian soldiers near the front lines and, in some cases, help plan combat missions.
There is, however, a noticeable difference. In Vietnam, the trainers were active duty troops under the control of the Pentagon. In Ukraine, where the United States has avoided sending troops, trainers are civilian volunteers, supported by online donations and operating entirely on their own.
“That’s why I became a Green Beret,” said Perry Blackburn Jr., a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel who spent 34 years in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Somalia and Jordan. He is now in Ukraine as a civilian doing what he once did in the military: training local forces to fight a common enemy.
‘Not using my talents in real time would be a waste,’ said Mr Blackburn, 60, who was one of a handful of special forces soldiers who rode horses in Afghanistan at the start of the invasion in 2001. and currently funds similar efforts through thousands of small online donations from the public.
“At my age I’ve seen enough death and I want to try to stop the bloodshed,” he said. “We have to give people the means to defend themselves.
Whether this new type of crowdfunded military support makes sense is up for debate. Some experts warn that the presence of American volunteers could lead to some sort of tragic accident that would drag the United States into a Vietnamese-style escalation. Russia says it would treat the volunteer fighters as mercenaries and they could be executed if captured. The United States discourages Americans from participating in the conflict. It withdrew its 150 military trainers before the war started and now relies on a few dozen commandos from other NATO countries to coordinate the flow of weapons inside Ukraine.
But the volunteers reject the idea that they could fuel a larger war. Instead, they say, they are working to prevent one, training Ukrainian fighters to better resist the Russians and deter further aggression.
Anyway, the Americans are in Ukraine. An unknown number are fighting in the front line. Others volunteer to be part of casualty evacuation teams, deminers, logisticians and trainers. At least 21 Americans have been wounded in action since the war began, according to a group of volunteers evacuating them. Two were killed, two were captured and one is missing.
Mr. Blackburn and a small group of volunteers work directly with the Ukrainian military, teaching marksmanship, maneuvers, combat first aid and other basic skills while constantly moving training camp locations to avoid Russian rocket attacks.
They say they are doing all this without any input from the Pentagon.
“We have no communication with the US military, period,” he said in an interview from his home in Tampa, Florida, where he recently returned to refuel before returning to the war zone. . “It’s a line they don’t want to cross. They will take no responsibility for our well-being or our actions.
Better understand the Russian-Ukrainian war
Then he laughed and added, “Actually, they’d probably do the exact opposite.”
Not all volunteers seeking to work with the Ukrainian military have decades of experience. Mr. Blackburn and several other veterans in Ukraine said they met potential trainers with exaggerated resumes and, in some cases, no military experience.
In a statement, the Department of Defense said it “is not affiliated with any of these groups” and recommends “U.S. citizens not to travel to Ukraine or leave immediately if it is safe to do so. security”.
Prior to the war, the U.S. Army regularly deployed uniformed trainers to Ukraine. As soon as Russia invaded, the Biden administration withdrew all troops. “We will not fight World War III in Ukraine,” President Biden said.
The president promised that the United States would continue to support Ukraine with weapons and committed $6.8 billion in security assistance. US troops train Ukrainian forces in Poland and Germany. But Mr Biden drew a clear line in May, saying the US military would not fight the Russians directly.
The attempt to avoid direct conflict, however, left a vacuum just as the demand for Ukrainian army training soared. And independent volunteers fill it.
“We execute American foreign policy in a way that the military cannot,” said Andrew Milburn, a retired Marine Corps special operations colonel who leads a group of volunteer veterans who provide training. and advice.
Speaking by phone from a village about 15 miles from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, Milburn said his efforts supported US goals while insulating the US from any involvement. “I’m plausible deniability,” he said. “We can do the job, and the United States can say they have nothing to do with us, and that’s absolutely true.”
Shortly after the war began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for international volunteers to join the fight against Russia. The first Americans to heed his call were often amateur adventurers and military misfits looking for action, several volunteers said in interviews.
The training-focused group tends to be older and more experienced. Many have risen through the ranks of elite special operations units and done similar work all over the world.
For 31 years in the Marine Corps, Mr. Milburn held leadership positions with the US Army’s Joint Special Operations Command, including as Commanding Officer of the Marine Raider Regiment. He first traveled to Ukraine as a freelance journalist, but said he changed course after seeing Ukrainian army hand-held assault rifles to students, shopkeepers and other inexperienced citizens before sending them into battle.
“This country has no shortage of trigger pullers. They didn’t need one more,” he said, explaining why he chose not to fight. “But I knew if I could train the trigger shooters, I could have an exponential effect.”
Mr Milburn bonded with around two dozen other special ops veterans in Ukraine, and soon they called themselves the Mozart Band – a name chosen as a cue for a private Russian army. company, the Wagner group. Thanks to the contacts that Mr. Milburn and others had established years before with Ukrainian special operations troops, the Mozart group quickly set up training camps close to the fighting. Mr Milburn said he had trained around 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers.
The group provides basic military instruction to soldiers headed to the front lines and occasional lessons in the use of American weapons, such as the shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missile.
It also provides specialized instruction and advice to Ukrainian commandos.
Mozart would be a natural conduit for American military support, he said, but when he tries to contact American military officials in Western Europe, both through official communication and through secondary channels, he receives no answer.
“Every time we reach out, we get pushed back,” he said. “They’re so scared that something bad is going to happen and it looks like it’s the government’s job. We are persona non grata.
But the United States is wise to be cautious, said George Beebe, a former head of Russia analysis at the CIA and director of the Quincy Institute, a nonpartisan foreign policy research institution.
“Just like in Vietnam, the risk is that we get pulled deeper and deeper, one small step at a time,” he said. “The difference is that the stakes are higher in Ukraine. It would be much easier for the United States and Russia to enter into a direct conflict which could quickly become very serious.
Few people ever envisioned that Vietnam could turn into a huge war, he noted. US involvement began with a group of 300 soldiers in 1955 who trained South Vietnamese soldiers to respond to what some US officials at the time called “a minor civil war”. Slowly the United States committed more men and more firepower – decisions that at the time seemed not only reasonable but necessary, Mr Beebe said.
The Americans began to accompany the South Vietnamese platoons on missions and then to support them with aircraft. As the effort grew, so did the presence of American troops. Finally, a 1964 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin dragged the United States directly into the war, ultimately leaving 58,000 Americans dead without achieving any strategic goals.
“I’m not saying the escalation in Ukraine is automatic,” Mr Beebe said. “But the danger is that we start crossing the red lines before we even know where they are.”
There are, of course, stark differences between Southeast Asia in 1961 and Eastern Europe today.
The government of South Vietnam at the time was unpopular, wracked by corruption, and faced with a communist uprising in the countryside. The Ukrainian president enjoys high popularity in a country united against Russian invaders.
But just like in Vietnam, Mr. Beebe said, the United States is now forced to choose between the wrong options, trying to support an ally without antagonizing a powerful enemy.
Americans on the front lines say Russia is stoking a wider conflict and the United States has no choice but to respond.
Mr. Milburn and Mr. Blackburn said that the United States should react more aggressively and that it should send more sophisticated medium-range weapons.
Mr Blackburn said he understood US caution but felt it was misplaced because caution would only encourage Russian aggression.
“They are destroying entire towns, killing civilians indiscriminately. If that’s not an escalation, what is? he said. “I don’t see it being so much like the years before Vietnam. For me, it’s more like the years before World War II. People will wonder, in hindsight, why we didn’t do it sooner.