Al Baker: The Good Soldier

AS THE MILITARY DOWNSIZES, THE WAR-HARDENED VIETNAM GENERATION IS RETIRING, INCLUDING ARMY LEGEND ALFRED BAKER

By ROBIN WRIGHT

Of The Los Angeles Times

In the summer of 1969, Alfred M. Baker was blown up by a satchel full of Viet Cong explosives. The explosion threw Baker 20 feet into air; the impact broke his back in two places, ripped off almost half his face and snapped bones all over his body. Medics deposited him in the triage section for those left to die. Before a priest began giving him last rites, Baker managed to clear away the teeth and bits of gum knocked into his mouth.

“Get the f— away,” he mumbled to the priest. “I’m not Catholic. And I’m not going to die.”

Baker was awarded a Purple Heart. It was his fourth in three years.

And Vietnam marked only the early phase of Baker’s career. Later assignments — including two “black book” posts delegated by the secretary of the Army — were just as dangerous and often more challenging. Yet no assignment, Baker contends, has been as painful as his post as chief of staff, U.S. Command, Berlin Brigade. Next month, he will oversee the closing of the only U.S. base behind enemy lines, ending a half-century-old American presence in a city that symbolized the Cold War. And as he turns off the lights of the headquarters built for Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goring, Baker will also end a three-decade career.

“In some ways, this has been the toughest assignment I’ve ever had. It’s saying goodby to a city and a mission that has played such a role in history. It feels like amputating your own leg,” Col. Baker, 53, reflected recently in the cavernous office that once served the Luftwaffe. “Plus the whole kaleidoscope of what I’ve done and all I’ve been for 30 years ends here. This is the last stop. There is no more.”

The end of the Berlin Brigade and the cashiering of one of the Army’s most decorated soldiers are microcosms of the changes within the American military during the final phases of its massive drawdown. Their last days symbolize the passing of a certain kind of mythic American soldier and an ambitious mission that first led the United States to international power. The result is transforming the U.S. Armed Forces.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, more than half the 1,669 U.S. military facilities overseas have been eliminated, reduced or inactivated — just short of the 54% reduction of 1990 levels expected by 1996. More than 600 were in Germany. And since the height of the U.S. deployment in 1987, more than 200,000 of the half-million soldiers overseas have been reassigned to home bases, left the military or retired. The overall goal is a 56% reduction of 1985 levels by 1996; the largest drawdown is again in Germany. From more than 250,000 troops in 1987, the U.S. presence will be reduced to less than 100,000 soldiers after cutbacks culminating with the deactivation of the Berlin Brigade.

Like Baker, many of those affected by the cutbacks in posts and personnel are the most war-hardened officers still serving in the military. Due to either time, notably the 30-year career limit, or the new streamlined military, many who cut their teeth in the foxholes, marshes and jungles of South Vietnam are now being retired.

Among them is one of the Army’s contemporary legends.

It took more than 15 operations to put Baker back together; he underwent 10 just to reconstruct his face.

“I told them I had looked like Rock Hudson. They obviously screwed up,” he laughed. The only visible reminder of Vietnam is a lump on his upper right lip, which he opted to keep rather than undergo more surgery.

As a professional soldier, Baker didn’t take a military discharge. Eighteen months later, he was back in Vietnam. During his third tour, he worked under John Paul Vann, the acclaimed but controversial military maverick dissected in Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “A Bright Shining Lie.” It was a turning point in Baker’s life.

Vann appraised the Saigon government early on as corrupt and inept. He understood the war was being lost among the peasantry, and he knew high-tech weapons were often producing more guerrillas than they killed. After failing to win promotion and thus forced out of the Army, Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser and architect of a different strategy to counter the Viet Cong. His eight-man teams, culled from the diplomatic, intelligence and military communities, worked on a U.S. program advising villagers at the grass-roots level on economic, political, agricultural and health issues. Baker became one of Vann’s boys.

Years later, colleagues referred to Baker’s final tour in Vietnam as his Col. Kurtz period, after the officer played by Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” who pursued the war on his own terms. Shortly after Baker arrived in the jungles and rice paddies of remote Phu-Yen Province, he dismissed the other seven members of his team. “They were the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong jobs. It wasn’t their fault,” Baker explained.

For the next 19 months, he lived mostly alone, moving among the villages to work on their problems. “I thought if I was going to get them to follow my advice, I had to live like they did,” he recalled.

“So I went on operations with the local Vietnamese home guard to show we were confident of their security. I slept in villages to show we weren’t afraid to live alongside them in exposed areas. I worked on problems of rats and agriculture to prove we were interested in their lives. And I spent a lot of time drinking tea and talking about what concerned them. Every two months I went into town to get rip-roaring drunk, then I came back and lived like a Buddhist monk, never raising my voice.

“But,” he stressed, “I never went native.” During that last year in Vietnam, however, the 6-foot-1 Baker dropped to 135 pounds from 170.

Vann was a role model for Baker. Their lives took similar turns. After World War II, Vann, a Southerner, pulled himself out of poverty through the Army. Baker grew up on a farm near a West Virginia coal camp; his father worked for the railroad. He joined the Army because “the military represented the prospect of a middle-class life,” he said.

Vann excelled rapidly in the Army. He distinguished himself in combat during the Korean and Vietnam wars, although his heroics led to tales of recklessness as well as valor. He also spoke his mind and rarely hesitated to take on the military brass, often drawing awe from troops but disapproval from superiors. The combination ultimately cost him a general’s star.

Baker also rose rapidly through the ranks; he was a major within seven years of his first commission. Soldiers who knew him in those early years remember archetypal blood-and-guts prowess. “He was a tremendous hunter, a natural hunter. That’s why he was so good in combat,” recalled Everett Thomas, who went through Ranger and Airborne training with Baker in 1963.

Besides the Purple Hearts, Baker also won two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star medal, two Legion of Merit awards and an Air Medal in Vietnam. He is “either the luckiest or unluckiest soldier I’ve ever known. Al Baker should have died a couple of times. But he was just too tough and too stubborn,” said Lt. Col. Jay Erb, who is now at the Pentagon.

Flamboyant and funny, with a propensity to break into nasal renditions of country and Western songs, Baker sees himself as an outsider. Officers who have served with him on four continents speak of Baker in almost adoring terms. But he’ll also leave the Army short of a general’s star, despite interventions by military peers.

“My way of thinking is different to almost everyone else in the officer corps. It often puts me out of step,” Baker said.

Vietnam’s climax, however, had a vastly different impact on Vann and Baker. Vann’s ambitions ultimately undid him. His criticism of U.S. strategy softened; his hawkish actions hardened. Obsessed with victory as proof of America’s rightness, he began to let the ends justify the means. And as that victory proved ever more elusive, he called for air strikes and even boasted of the smell of dead bodies wafting in from nearby jungles after their hits. Vann died in a 1972 plane crash during a North Vietnamese offensive.

In contrast, Baker was one of many officers who, angered by the American experience in Vietnam, became wary of war. “During the first two tours, I had one job,” Baker said. “It was to seek out the enemy and destroy him. That was my mind-set and that’s what I did. During the last tour, I began to understand we weren’t going to be able to win. And I began to see why.”

One of Vietnam’s most potent legacies was a generation of officers reluctant to engage militarily without clear goals and support from well-defined policy and the public. Without all three, many in this generation became gun-shy, sometimes reluctant to use force or even prepared to speak out against it. Many were outraged as the U.S. military was subsequently burned again by policy in places such as Beirut and Somalia; others urged the White House to think through its goals before taking on Iraq.

Baker came out of Vietnam transformed — as his family quickly noticed. Haunted by his friendship with a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy, Baker once went home on leave to find his children’s bikes unused because they had flat tires. “They were waiting for me to fix them. They wouldn’t do it themselves,” he said. “So I took all the bikes down to the thrift shop. It wasn’t fair to my own children. But I was living shoulder-to-shoulder with people struggling to survive. One of them was a little kid getting up in the morning and working and then going to school and coming back to work. So the piling up of possessions seemed irrelevant. I didn’t want them to possess my family.”

He hasn’t changed. When they leave Berlin, the Bakers have no home to return to in the United States. His wife, Joan, has put bids to buy much of the furniture in their Army-supplied home in Berlin for “whatever we end up in wherever that turns out to be.”

Since Vietnam, Baker has also never personally owned a gun. He concluded that there were different ways to wage and win a war. And firepower, he decided, had its limitations. Once again, it goes back to Vann.

“Vann’s idea was not to fight on a military basis. You had to offer people a better alternative, to show they could make government better without taking up arms. So the idea was to rebuild a nation from the grass roots up. It was a beautiful concept,” he said.

After Vietnam, Baker’s foreign postings reflected a determination to do right what Vann had failed to do in Vietnam. Baker hasn’t always succeeded. But he often made a difference.

In the 1980S, as the Middle East replaced Vietnam as the leading hot spot, Baker landed in Lebanon and found his life increasingly embroiled in the world’s longest ongoing conflict. In 1981, he was first assigned to work for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which monitored tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Baker headed UNTSO’s mission in Lebanon — at the time, the region’s most explosive border.

“The chances of being killed randomly were incredibly high,” Baker laughed. “There wasn’t just one war going on. We were tracking 80-odd groups and trying to referee all their fights.” Among them were Christian and Muslim rivals fighting a civil war, Palestinian groups in and outside the PLO challenging Israel, and foreign-sponsored militias, from Kurds to Libyan surrogates, playing out regional tensions.

The mission, which forbade U.N. observers from carrying arms, was to get the PLO and pro-Israel militias to honor the latest of many truces since UNTSO went to work in 1948. Both militias were resisting deployment of U.N. observers to monitor their activities.

To build relations with the PLO, Baker took his bedroll to a PLO guerrilla camp — contact banned by U.S. law, but allowed while he worked for the United Nations. After a dinner of rice stew, he listened late into the night as they talked about their cause and their lives. He then slept among them under the stars. Over time, he persuaded the PLO to let U.N. troops deploy at Beaufort Castle, the 12th-Century fort on the hills leading to Israel.

He then trekked across the front line to the Christian militia, an Israeli surrogate force based as a buffer inside the Lebanese border. “I told them it was a shame that they were losing business to the PLO, because the U.N. wives were shopping every Sunday in (PLO-dominated) Tyre, where they felt safe because of the U.N. presence. I told them I’d like to throw some business their way,” he said, chuckling at the memory of his guile.

“Well, there was nothing to buy there, but I brought the wives along and told them to buy whatever they could. They were dutiful and pulled out $100 bills. Within two weeks we could drive wherever we wanted. The U.N. finally had access to the town,” he added, chuckling again. The peacekeepers were thus deployed in the rivals’ two most strategic bases.

Compared to progress on Mideast peace in the 1990s, Baker’s achievements in the 1980s seem minor. Yet each marked a breakthrough. And not all who held the yearlong position were as successful. A predecessor was kidnaped by Palestinians. A successor, Lt. Col. William Richard Higgins, was abducted by Muslim extremists and died in captivity.

“Baker was able to do things that were almost impossible, that other people could only dream about, real miracles,” said Herman Kafura, an American who served with Baker in UNTSO. “He would talk to people and make sense to them. They trusted him.”

In 1983, Baker returned to Lebanon a second time, as chief of the Office of Military Cooperation, a so-called black book post because of its sensitivity. His mandate was to revamp and retrain Lebanon’s army as the basis for rebuilding the fractured state. But he arrived just three days before a suicide bomber drove into the U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241. From then on, the U.S. presence was in retreat.

Unprotected by the barricades or military backup afforded Marine peacekeepers, Baker quickly became the most exposed American soldier in Beirut. Within one 24-hour period in 1984, his car and apartment were hit by militia rockets and artillery. When he was forced to camp out on a cot at the Defense Ministry, an explosion then blew out a wall of windows above his head.

“I remember looking in on him to see if he was hurt,” said Alex Franco, chief of operations. “The blanket over him, all the furniture and the floor were completely covered with glass. Baker peeked out from under the blanket, looked at me and said, deadpan, ‘Next time I think I’ll ask for a room without a view.’ “

After the Marines finally sailed away in early 1984, Baker and his crew, who operated independently, remained behind. When the second U.S. Embassy was blown up that September, Baker was widely recognized as one of the heroes for rescuing the wounded and then operating a makeshift American mission. But by the end of 1984, most of the key American players were gone. U.S. diplomacy had failed to bring Lebanon’s warlords together; the political chasm actually deepened, throwing the battered country into a new round of violence. Throughout those three years, the only partial U.S. success was the Lebanese Army, traditionally dominated by minority Christians.

“Baker understood what the policy types didn’t: that he had to establish circumstances in which Christians and Muslims were equal, that he couldn’t let them stall or argue about change. That new reality was supposed to create a new instrument for stability,” said Robert d’Entremont, Baker’s second-in-command.

Baker coaxed, cajoled and prodded Lebanon’s foot soldiers as well as their generals to coexist. After Beirut’s Shiite areas became dangerous for Americans, he met with the army’s Shiite leadership on their turf to discuss grievances. He then held the hands of nervous Christian generals, while pushing them to remove inequities toward Muslim troops, including uneven distribution of equipment.

“He was good at building coalitions among factions. Sometimes he did it by sheer force of personality. He was always walking a tightrope, but somehow he made it work,” D’Entremont said.

Under U.S. direction, Lebanon’s army brigades, once divided by religious affiliation, were integrated for the first time. The process was slow, and many Shiite Muslims split after warfare resumed. But then they laid down their arms, refusing to fight other parts of the army — leaving it to the militias. Before they left, more than 50 Shiite officers individually contacted Baker to say they were still committed to a unified army, but that they couldn’t turn their backs on Shiites under bombardment by a renegade Christian army unit. Today, as Lebanon is finally at peace, the seeds of that army program are again the basis for reconstruction.

Before Baker left in late 1984, the Lebanese president awarded him the Order of Cedars, one of the country’s highest honors.

As in Vietnam, Baker unexpectedly went back a third time, in 1988, as chief of staff of the Sinai Force, the multinational peacekeepers set up by the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. In his second black book post, Baker finally got to practice the theme increasingly running through his life: how to get people to do things to overcome hatred and injustice by means other than force. He made a deep impression.

“I will never forget when he invited me for a drive from Israel to Egypt. As we drove across the Sinai and later went horseback-riding among the pyramids, I learned more from him about the Middle East in that short time than I could have in a university,” said Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under whom Baker served three times.

“He understood the smells and sounds of the region — and the challenges and opportunities. Regrettably, guys like Al Baker don’t come around often. He’s more in tune with today’s challenges than half the generals walking around.”

Baker’s career will end where it started — in Berlin. Shortly after the Wall went up and the Berlin Brigade was formed in the early 1960s, Baker was a young lieutenant often assigned to patrol East Berlin.

“It was like looking into day on one side and night on the other, like living in sunshine while looking into a storm,” he recalled. “As I drove around, people would sometimes signal, ‘Don’t forget us.’ “

Now Berlin, Los Angeles’ sister city, is preparing again to be the capital of a unified Germany. A key step is removal of all foreign forces, including the historic Berlin Brigade.

Since he returned as chief of staff in 1990, Baker has orchestrated its dismantling — an operation equivalent to closing down a city of 16,000, including dispatching almost 7,000 troops, their dependents and local employees. He’s also disposed of or transferred $5 billion worth of property, from tanks to elementary schools and hospitals, from 40,000 dining room chairs to three libraries with 400,000 books.

The job ends Sept. 7, when the U.S. flag is taken down from the old Nazi headquarters, a daily ritual known as the retreat. This ceremony is called the final retreat, after which all flags and references to the Berlin Brigade will officially end.

“I take great pride in the fact we finished our mission here, that a threat is over and we are able to end an era,” he reflected. “But you have to be careful about having your dreams come true.” He leaves Berlin without a job, facing an uncertain future.

In some ways, it’s an anticlimactic finish. “This is an odd way to end my career. I’m used to hot spots,” Baker said. “It’s quieter than I would have liked.”

Yet in other ways, Berlin may be appropriate. During the past three decades, a U.S. account of the Berlin Brigade concludes: “Probably no force of its size in history has contributed more to peace, stability and freedom in the world.” Yet, it adds, “the Berlin Brigade has never had to fire a shot in anger.”

Al Baker al.jpg

3 thoughts on “Al Baker: The Good Soldier

  1. Pingback: Churchills « Eating Out In Harrisburg

  2. Thanks so much for the great article that I just happened upon as I reflected on my career and the officers and Soldiers I worked with. Happened to be thinking of my days in Berlin working for COL Baker and typed in his name and the google search got me to this article. I certainly learned more then I already knew, but nothing was a surprise. A great officer and Soldier – a pleasure to work for.

  3. Al Baker is my mentor and friend. I read (and have re-read) this article when I need inspiration. COL Baker is not just a great Soldier, but a rare kind of a Man.

    I’m proud to know him.

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