The Colonel's Lessons
Tales from a constant soldier
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the world has witnessed a supposed superpower bogged down and bedeviled by a nation few had thought of as a military force. The utter ineptitude of Russia’s officer corps evident in the confused formations of its’ land assets, the sheer lack of preparation for the overall operation, the savage conduct of common soldiers caused by poor training and battle discipline, shows that Russian state propaganda along with CNN and BBC media analysis cannot create a reality which, in fact, does not exist. What everyone thought would be a blitzkrieg has become an embarrassing and horrific contest of wills that has tested European and American resolve and capabilities.
All of this brought to mind some of the lessons I learned from Colonel Ingvar Erich “Ivan” Lantzky, who I served with in the 9th Field Artillery Regiment of New York. Ivan was an atypical American army officer. Conceived and born in Germany in 1945 his parents thus met under, shall we say, the most unromantic of circumstances. His father was a Russian soldier, the son of a Commissar who later joined the KGB. His mother was German, the daughter of an officer in the Wehrmacht. Years later, when Ivan was at the Pentagon, Army Internal Affairs interviewed him and asked to what did he attribute this unusual parental history; he answered “love”.
After the war Ivan’s parents moved to America and settled in the Bronx where Ivan graduated from Fordham University with a degree in education. He then joined the Army. In those days Vietnam was the game but Ivan never played at war. He commanded Montagnards in Laos and stood on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Fire stations in the Highlands and training South Vietnamese Rangers rounded out his tour of duty. That’s when he got into a disagreement with a Vietnamese Major, his superior in rank at the time. The blouses came off and the fight began. “Little bastard knew Tae Kwon Do. Put me in the hospital for three months. Became my best friend all the time I was there”. And it was there that he honed his skills as a leader, teacher and above all, a constant soldier.
“Never pursue a defeated adversary unless you have the resources to finish the job. If he feels that he has nothing to lose he might turn and make a stand, and then you may be in trouble.” Good words, I thought, which apply not only to military matters but to life in general. Because of his background the Colonel held Russian soldiers in high regard. He would be shocked at their current performance in Ukraine. Remember that this war was supposed to last a few days, two or three weeks at the most. But the Ukrainians, with nothing to lose, stood and fought. Added to that was the fact that the Russians did not have the resources to finish the job. Their tanks are inferior and the tank commanders even more so. Tanks are the original all-terrain vehicle, yet the Russians rarely leave the roads. No sweeping flanking actions, no huge encirclements; just sticking to the roads and getting blasted from the sky mile upon mile for their lack of basic tactical knowledge. This is not the Russian army of the Second World War, this is more like the army of the First, fighting for yards, not miles.
“Never underestimate your adversary. Every individual holds surprises”. I guess the Vietnamese Major taught him that and the Russians are learning it now. They did not anticipate the fierce motivation and tenacity of their adversary and they are now paying a heavy price. The Ukrainians are willing to have their cities destroyed, their soldiers taken prisoner and executed, their civilians “relocated”, but they will not surrender. The Russians showed the same stoic bravery when the Germans invaded in 1941 but did not believe that another Slavic people could emulate their example. Bad miscalculation.
“Take care of your people, they’ll take care of you”. Ivan gave as an example the evening before the battle of Blenheim. The Duke of Marlborough had his army’s quartermasters and commissaries ride ahead and prepare the campsite for the night. Sergeants where told not to drill the men and to let them rest. Each man was given two pairs of dry socks and a hot meal. The next morning each man was issued a hot breakfast. The soldiers felt valued. The French, however, were drilled and not issued hot food and in the morning stood in formation on the battlefield in soaking wet uniforms from the rain of the previous evening. The result was one of the greatest victories in the annals of British military endeavor.
Today in the Russian army food seems scarce or irregular. Troops are told to “live off the land”. But Vodka rations are plentiful. “Drinking during a conflict is a sign of poor discipline. No commander should sanction it. It destroys unit cohesion and leads to needless violence in an already violent situation”.
The citizens of the town of Bucha would attest to that – if they were alive.
After Vietnam, Ivan served in other locales. He earned his Spanish Foreign Legion Parachute Wings in Morocco; “don’t ask”, he said. Being a Green Beret he took part in the 1989 invasion of Panama, “it was an object lesson for Central America. It had been planned long in advance and had very little to do with Mr. Noriega”. In 1991 he was assigned to Operation Desert Storm and the following year he graduated from the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Then, he and I and our mutual friend Colonel John (Jack) Warren Pershing - yes, grandson of “Black Jack” - were anticipating going to Haiti. I speak a little French, the “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” variety. But I knew the Colonel didn’t parle any, so I asked him what language he would be speaking when we got to Port-au-Prince. He was cleaning his M-16 and without looking up said “I’ll be speaking my own language”. Alas, the call to arms never came. And poor Jack, he never could catch that star for his shoulder.
In his career Ivan was awarded two Bronze Star Medals for Valor, the Air Medal, two Army Achievement Medals, the Combat Infantry Man’s Badge, the Ranger Tab, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, among others. I was curious why he never sought a teaching position at a college, in military history or military science perhaps. “I guess every generation needs to learn the hard way”, he said with a wry smile.
Colonel Ingvar Erich “Ivan” Lantzky reported to his most important posting in 2015. But his lessons remain with me and all those who were fortunate enough to have served with him, not just concerning military service but about life and duty and personal responsibility.
Thanks Ivan, and say hello to Jack for me.