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June 08, 2005

We Won't Get Phu'led Again, Oh No

I’m tired of the comparisons of Iraq to Viet Nam. You don’t have to read the NY Times to understand how common that allegation is, or to realize how historically ignorant much of our MSM is. But it seems to me that if we want to cast informed votes, or at least be less full of crap in barroom arguments about the war, then we owe it to ourselves to think, at least fleetingly, about what the historical facts about ‘Nam tell us. Believe me, you won't be able to spoil thanksgiving dinner for your Uncle Norm, the ex-hippie, without this stuff.

I used to study a lot of military history, and decided to go back to the primary source, back to an account of the most disastrous moment in the entire western involvement in Viet Nam, to see what kind of a whupping got put on the West by those plucky and independent nationalists, the minutemen of the ‘Nam.

Naturally, I picked up a book about the French involvement. When one wants to study defeats, one studies the French. They know how to lose, and to lose with elan and dash. I picked up a book that I think I may have read years ago as a young trooper, but completely forgot in the intervening years – Bernard Fall’s superb The Siege of Dien Bien Phu: Hell in a Very Small Place.

In addition to getting a few of my misconceptions re-punctured, I came away with… a hella lotta respect for the French Army.

[Pause for dramatic effect of Bigwig hitting the floor, noisily]

In my past life I worked through the UN on occasion with some French Paras and Legionnaires, along with some leg conscripts and senior staff officers, and I found the staff officers very… proud and Gaullist, and a mixed bag. Meanwhile the paratroopers and Legionnaires were great, great soldiers, and a walking riot to be around, especially if booze was involved, doubly so if a barroom brawl was under way. The best. I’d share a foxhole with the average French professional soldier – as long as my generals and colonels, not his, got to dictate strategy and logistics.

Go ahead, Bigwig. Fire me now. Sentence me to a year of reading the Daily Kos for this unfettered praise of our cheese eating erstwhile allies, or worse yet… oh, there’s no worse yet.

But hear me out.

In no particular order, I learned, or relearned, a few important things about the French from reading about the low point of western military involvement in Viet Nam, the Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Keep in mind please, this isn’t the only book I’ve read about this battle, or Viet Nam, so my observations may ramble a bit. (I’ve read maybe 150 books about Viet Nam over 25 years – it’s my second or third favorite mil history topic).

Nazi not, see.It wasn’t a German battle, ex-SS troops against the plucky reds. That myth is bogus, probably invented by leftists keen on burnishing the rep of the communist Viet Minh, and glossing over the slaughter (by starvation and summary execution) of perhaps 8,000 French soldiers on a death march to concentration camps. There were less than 2000 ethnic Germans in the battle, mostly in the Foreign Legion. While there was one indeed one battalion of the Legion that was very heavily German, that only accounts for 600 men. Most units had a few Germans, and the average age of the Legionnaire enlistees (the foreigners) was 23. There were indeed some ex- SS or ex-Wehrmacht present, but most of the Legion was young, Eastern European, and commie-hating. There were far more indigenous Vietnamese colonial troops than Germans. Admittedly, after the battle, LTC Marcel Bigeard stated that they could have held off the Reds had 10,000 SS troops been on the battlefield, but this was more by way of comment on the quality of those troops that broke during the battle, rather than a comment on the demographics of the troops actually present.

Screwing France.We complain a lot about France screwing us today, but the Gaullist notions underlying French chauvinism and contrarianism have some roots in Dien Bien Phu. The U.S. really screwed France badly, before, during and after this siege. In a fit of central planning, the U.S. decided that within NATO, the U.S. and Britain would share the responsibility for projecting power into the Warsaw Pact nations, while France (and Belgium and eventually Germany) would focus on building tactical defense forces. So while the U.S built heavy bombers, fighter-bombers, and lift, the French built tactical fighters geared toward shooting down MiGs. While the U.S. built tons of heavy airlift planes, the French staffed up their light infantry, and colonial armies for fighting the Reds in a succession of colonial mud (blood?) wrestling exercises. During the Siege, the French approached the U.S. for airpower assistance. It was envisioned that a couple strikes by a large heavy bomber force of B-29s would crush the Viet Minh troops, who had massed tightly in the valley around the fortress. That’s a viable theory since the Viet Minh were tightly clustered together, and thus vulnerable to tactical carpet bombing. The French had to ask for help because structurally, their military simply didn’t have the requisite punching power. The U.S., through the NATO framework, had directed their energies elsewhere. The U.S. denied their help, and French air power was unsuitable for saving the day.

What goes round, comes round.Eisenhower called the majority and minority leaders together at the White House, to discuss the request. When Eisenhower laid out the request for U.S. air power from the ground commanders at Dien Bien Phu, there was a long pregnant pause. The then Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson, broke the silence and said that there was no way he would ever support the president taking military action without a congressional vote, and that he wouldn’t bother seeking a vote unless the intervention was multilateral, i.e. the Brits had to be there, along with some other friendlies. In forcing Eisenhower to refuse to provide substantial air power, Johnson created the pre-condition for full-on U.S. entry into Indochina. Nicely done – yet another example of a multilateralist Democrat dove, who kicks the can down the road, only to have his evasion of the historical moment create a great war just a few years later. Ring any bells? Meanwhile, France wept.

If not you, who?Johnson and Eisenhower, as well as Churchill, realized the value of the Southeast Asian penninsula quite late and expected the French to hold out against the Chi-Com backed VietMinh, recognizing the efficacy of the domino theory even then. Was racism part of it? Probably not. The Vietnamese colonial troops fought pretty well, and the fortress, so-called, was pretty well dug in. Logistics was probably part of the calculus. Until Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Dinh had yet to fight a successful set piece battle. It was unthinkable that they could do so. Yet they humped a couple hundred thousand rounds of 105 mm artillery through the jungle, a couple hundred miles from China. They put hundreds of Chinese flak guns on site. Had this been anticipated, the other side of the logistics battle – the French lack of lift, and inability to provide heavy reinforcing materials for the bunkers in the fortress – would have counseled avoiding the battle in this location. The communists around the world realized the value of Southeast Asia as well. The backdrop of this siege was the Geneva summit between the former allied powers. The VietMinh wanted to destroy Dien Bien Phu, to give the communist powers something to lord over the West in negotiations concerning how the world would run for the next few decades. Churchill, an elderly man at the time, naively believed along with foreign minister Anthony Eden that there could be a negotiated peace with the tyrants, as very young and very old people are likely to believe. The VietMinh were much closer with the Russians and the ChiComs, much more strategically wired in, than I suspected. This left the French out in the cold – nobody wanted to do anything that might jeopardize these (ultimately fruitless) negotiations. If not the U.S. intervening in Indochina, then who? Only France, still war weary from WWII, and not built correctly to take on the Viet Minh. It wasn’t the first time Churchill was snaked by the reds; see, e.g. Yalta and Potsdam.

Screwing France, Pt. II. The French again and again made desperate requests for air power. The U.S. belatedly offered hundreds of planes, but no crews. Couldn’t risk Geneva. The French couldn’t man them, since they didn’t have enough air crews to do so. All their pilots flew fighters, and tiny cargo planes; it would have taken years to get them large multi-engine flight ratings. Meanwhile, the U.S. Sec State Dulles, was strategically ambiguous about whether or not the U.S. would help, even letting DOD go so far as to paint 400 B-29s with French markings. Until very near the end, the French troops on the ground were under the impression, spread by the French diplomats and generals, that a massive U.S. air strike would soon be underway. It never came. That’s a deception that cost lives, and just one more reason to dislike our own diplomatic corps, and one less reason to hate France. They have good historical reasons to look askance at U.S. diplomacy. Or as my father, a Korean War vet used to say, “the only thing worse than being an enemy of the U.S., is being one of our friends.”

France Screws back After Dien Bien Phu fell, the French foreign minister stated prophetically, “well, it is now America’s turn in Indochina, and she must bear this burden alone,” or words to that effect. In insisting on multilateralism when quick unilateral action was needed, yet another democrat (Lyndon Johnson) created a rod for his own back. The French knew that the domino theory wasn’t a clever joke to be told back and forth by anti-war protestors; it is how the world works, and the U.S. would have to pick of the slack in Indochina, since France was politically exhausted and the cream of its military was exterminated at Dien Bien Phu and the death camps afterwards.

Great Field & Company Grade Officers, and NCOs and men; Horrible Generals The French field grade officers at the fortress were generally of superb quality, with an amazing amount of fight in them, especially the “airborne mafia” that ran the battle once the garrison commander, Colonel De Castries slumped into his mid-battle torpor. The bravery exhibited by the officers and NCOs was simply stunning, and some of the officers were clearly bound for great things, such as Marcel Bigeard, an indefatigable airborne Major, who could quickly rip off a successful op plan to execute critical counterattacks on a moment’s notice, with little manpower. [He went on to command the French forces in Algeria, and later became prominent in French politics.] The men themselves were seemingly pretty good. The paras (whether French or Vietnamese or other colonials) were good, and the Legionnaires fought as the Legion is expected to fight, with one or two minor exceptions over the several month siege. Interestingly, the Legionnaires would take great risks to look out for other Legionnaires, but at times would only tolerate “ordinary” privation and risks to assist non-Legion units. For anybody who says that U.S. generals’ focus on unit cohesion in commenting on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and single sex combat units is ill founded, I’d offer the Legion’s counterexample. How a unit bonds together is critical to its hanging together in battle, especially in a huge battle of annihilation. When a battle like that starts, it’s too late to wonder if the units involved have sufficient coherence – and any failure therein will result in total disaster.

At the same time, much of what the generals in Hanoi did was simply wishful thinking. They established an airhead three hours away from the supply depot. There were no heavy cargo planes, except for the ones bravely flown by the American CIA operatives of Air America. Al Franken, take note: the real Air America hated lefties. The nearest supply depots were not set up to handle heavy supply traffic, and there was not even a dedicated rigging shed, for rigging parachutes necessary for supply drops once the airfield was cut off early in the battle. Worse, it was an airfield in the middle of a valley, surrounded by hills in which artillery could dig into the reverse slopes, under heavy jungle cover. Admittedly, the U.S. held out at similarly situated Khe Sanh successfully 15 years later, but the U.S. had several variances in its favor. The Marines controlled the dominant hills surrounding Khe Sanh, thanks to brave and plentiful helicopter resupply flights during the Khe Sanh rock fights, or hill fights. Additionally, there was plenty of steel and wood for building bunkers at Khe Sanh. Some bunkers caved in under artillery at Khe Sanh, but most held up, unlike the soggy bunkers (near the Nam Yum river) at Dien Bien Phu, which were un-reinforced and always collapsing. Moreover, there was plenty of lift capacity, and plenty of tactical air cover, to prevent the massing of the three NVA divisions attacking Khe Sanh, and a lot fewer coolies making it unmolested to the NVA position. For another thing, the Marines had extensive artillery fire support, and good counterbattery fire. This is partly due to the Marines’ holding onto the hills overlooking Khe Sanh, but also due to Army and other assets within range, with “heavies” – many 8 inch and 155mm guns. Simply put, the U.S. generals learned the lessons of Dien Bien Phu, and other than putting an airhead on flat ground overlooked by tall hills, did not repeat the encyclopedia of bad choices made by the French generals.

NationalismThe French underestimated Vietnamese nationalism, and the Viet Minh overestimated it after the battle, probably for calculating political purposes. Yes, the Viet Minh were communists, and their ruthless political officers, who drove raw conscripts into the battle, were probably instrumental in winning the battle. But the nationalism of many Vietnamese appears to have been somewhat lukewarm. Nationalism may have gotten conscripts to the recruiting point, but the ruthless apparatchiks drove them from their into battle. That nationalism spurred recruiting, is what killed the French in part. The experienced Viet Minh regulars were good, tough troops. They were also decimated by human wave attacks on French positions, by brutal French hand-to-hand tactics, and by rapid French counterattacks, usually employing tough paratroopers or Legionnaires. That the Viet Minh could replace these stunning losses, is the material fact that probably contributed most greatly to the Viet Minh’s eventual swamping of Dien Bien Phu. After the battle, much like the myth of the SS battle, the Viet Minh argued that their win was nationalistic, and had little to do with communism. But the fact remains that the organization was communist, and it’s main strategic goal with the timing, was to offer a great present to the Chinese and Soviets at Geneva, to improve the red bargaining position. Given the fact that only 5% of France’s troops in Indochina were tied up at Dien Bien Phu, it’s hard to see any other strategic purpose to the battle.


So is Iraq like Viet Nam?

No, not really. The primary difference is that the nationalist component seems to be on our side. The folks who hate the notion of being ruled from Tehran, or by Sunni clerics in Saudi universities, appear to be on our side. Yes, there are some Baathist nationalists, but they appear to be coming in from out of the cold, and the insurgency is now primarily either Islamacist, or criminal in nature, or sometimes both simultaneously.

The territory is completely different. Yes, there is some urban fighting, but the South Vietnamese government got most of the Viet Cong insurgency under control in the cities, and the one general uprising – reminiscent of Hue city – occurred in Fallujah, where the insurgents were wiped out. Moreover, the insurgents aren’t able to mass conventional weapons. They best they seem to manage, on a consistent basis, are some mortars mounted in the backs of trucks or some other mobile means, suicide bombs and IEDs. There’s no way they can take on U.S. conventional forces and win.

Finally, the goals of the “occupiers” are completely different. We’re not really trying to keep out a global power with colorable global ambitions. We’re trying to keep out the gang that usually can’t shoot straight, with its masturbatory fantasies about wiping out the infidels. It’s more like putting down a thuggee rebellion, than staging a defensive action against a war of national liberation. We aren’t handing over the government to a strong man, instead we’re trying to hand it over to the people. And finally finally… Michael Moore is a hell of a lot uglier than Jane Fonda, which makes him, and his easier to fight. And those wankers – the Islamacist-loving peaceniks – are the real enemy that we have to worry about. It’s their ilk that broke the national will to fight effectively in Vietnam, and they’ll do it here too. (Don’t forget, Dien Bien Phu was a small battle in the grand scheme of things, and left Giap’s main battle forces nearly crippled: it was French domestic politics that made Dien Bien Phu, a 5% loss of a colonial army, a strategic victory. Likewise, Tet was a complete route that broke the back of the Viet Cong; domestic opposition to the war, and Walter Cronkite’s axe-grinding, turned Tet into a strategic loss.

Oh, and one other thing. The French didn't actually surrender, per se, at Dien Bien Phu. They were either slaughtered in place, or fought to the last rounds, then ceased resistance. Big difference between that, and surrender. All jokes aside, these were some cheese eating battle monkeys, not a bit of surrender in them.

So yeah, what Michael Moore says. Iraq is just like Viet Nam, except for the fact it’s completely different.

Posted by Blackavar at June 8, 2005 12:09 AM | TrackBack
Postscript:
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Comments

Nice piece. I'd always meant to read Fall's book on DBP, but never got around to it. Maybe now I will. I'm not sure it supports your assertion, but great reading nonetheless. I wonder if Harry Summers will write a book on the Iraq war, after it is all over (or at least quieted down some).

Posted by: Mike C at June 8, 2005 02:58 AM

Which assertion do you disagree with? I make a lot of them.

Once you get past the book review, I'm pretty sure that what I'm saying is the French involvement in Indochina is in its essence fundamentally different from the U.S. involvement in Iraq. There, the French were fighting a delaying action against communism and holding out hope they could preserve the last shards of a colonial empire; here, we went in to liberate a people, with the express goal of not holding on to the land. Regarding specific battles - there's really nothing like Dien Bien Phu / Khe Sanh, the Plain of Jars, the North Central Highlands, or the Red River Delta fights in Iraq. Yep, there's a bit of urban insurgency in a few locations that resembles Hue City, post-Tet, but not much else.

Thoughts?

Posted by: Blackavar at June 8, 2005 05:54 AM

Comments, yes, and I'll sum 'em up thus:
It's my considered opinion that you're exactly right. The "another Viet Nam" crowd gets me annoyed in the same way that Creationists do- they're either ignorant, or willfully misleading, and I can't stand either.

Posted by: Sgt Franz at June 9, 2005 12:42 PM

Iraq is exactly like Viet Nam in one respect: the hard left in America want us to lose. I think the idea is that by repeating endless Viet Nam comparisons (aided by poor reporting) the defeatists can convince the general public we are losing/will lose.

Posted by: T at June 9, 2005 05:41 PM

Y'know, I almost forgot a few of my favorite quotes from the best movie of all time, The Big Lebowski. They are relevant:
.....
The Dude: "God damn you Walter! You f***in' asshole! Everything's a f***in' travesty with you, man! And what was all that shit about Vietnam? What the F***, has anything got to do with Vietnam? What the f*** are you talking about?"

....
The Dude: I don't see any connection to Vietnam, Walter.
Walter Sobchak: Well, there isn't a literal connection, Dude.
The Dude: Walter, face it, there isn't any connection.
....
The Dude: Walter...
Walter Sobchak: What?
The Dude: What the f*** does Vietnam have to do with anything?
------

So there you have it. The anti-war left: Always playing Walter Sobchak, to my Dude, but still forgetting...

The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.

Posted by: Blackavar at June 10, 2005 12:28 AM

Ah, I thought you were talking about comparing US/Vietnam and US/Iraq. They're similar in a few ways, first of all, and most obviously, (and apparently enough for some folks) they both involve(d) guerrila warfare and the both involve(d) the US. Second, they are/were supported from priviledged sanctuaries the US will not strike directly against, i.e. China, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam (aside from Linebacker, rolling thunder, mining of Haiphong harbor, half measures) and well, just about every damn country that borders Iraq. Last, they both put a strain on other US commmitments around the globe.
Of course, that doesn't make them the same thing, or even that similar. The US casualty rate is MUCH lower in Iraq. Second, the opposition does not have a unifying charismatic leader. Zarqawi and Sadr, I just have trouble putting them in the same league with Ho, or even Kim Il Sung for that matter (that's sinking pretty deep). Third, aside from ousting the US and the current Iraqi government, the opposition has conflicting and incompatible goals. Fourth, the opposition seems to be in the same public relations league with Nazi Germany. Their general offensive MO seems to be "OK, lets explode a car bomb in a crowded urban environment, that'll show the infidels". Fifth, the US no longer is opposed by anything remotely like a regular army (NVA). Sixth, different motivations on the part of the opposition, communists vs Islamic extremists/criminals. Well, I could go on and on.
It's a familiar debating strategy, this is just like that other thing (when of course there are significant differences) so it will turn out exactly the same. Hell, by that reasoning, a cat is just like a dog. If you're emotionally disposed to follow their reasoning, it's easy enough, but it just doesn't hold up to scrutiny, IMHO.

Posted by: Mike C at June 10, 2005 06:47 AM

Oh and a few other things, the US entry into Iraq and Vietnam were MUCH different, and done for different reasons Also, the communists were in Vietnam before we were but our opponents in Iraq weren't (or were cowed to the point of irrelevance).

"Regarding specific battles - there's really nothing like Dien Bien Phu / Khe Sanh, the Plain of Jars, the North Central Highlands, or the Red River Delta fights in Iraq. Yep, there's a bit of urban insurgency in a few locations that resembles Hue City, post-Tet, but not much else." THat pretty much sums it up.

THanks for giving the French military their due. Bigwig's old French posts were pretty funny, but any army that could go through Verdun has my respect. Now there was a fight!

Posted by: Mike C at June 10, 2005 07:11 AM
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