Vietnam

We wanted to be part of something important.  Our fathers and uncles had brought home a victory in World War II and an honorable peace in Korea.  We looked for something far more important than medals on our chest; we wanted our young lives to make a lasting difference.  Here was a tiny nation ten thousand miles away, struggling against Communist aggression.  So we went as “freedom fighters” and liberators, never seeing the possibility that we would eventually be viewed as imperialistic invaders.  How naive we were!

The learned soon that the enemy understood us better than we understood them.  They had dealt with the French for a century, and when those forces were soundly defeated in 1954, we took their place.  Our senior officers thought only in terms of conventional war, while the enemy fought a guerrilla war, mostly at night.  They knew the terrain; we felt lost on completely alien soil.  Most of us had never seen rice paddies and triple-canopy jungle, elephant grass, huge leeches, and a host of other oddities. Then came the biting flies and the mosquitoes, the snakes and the rats.  The heat and humidity beat us into exhaustion; the monsoon rains pelted and battered us from every direction.  I was never as hot or as cold as I was during my tour of duty.  Strange to admit it, but I often shivered all night in the mountains, lying on soggy ground while torrents of water cascaded from the mournful skies.

I suppose we were too idealistic.  We were proud to represent “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  We had heard President Kennedy tell us, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  We believed that our nation was worth serving…and worth fighting for.  The peace demonstrators didn’t bother us at first.  We regarded them as misguided leftovers from the beat generation of the fifties.  They were misfits who really didn’t understand the global scope of America’s interests, especially the fight against communism.  Many of us had practiced air raid drills, “duck and cover,” during our years in public school.  We knew about the Soviets’ hydrogen bomb, space program, and the Cuban missile crisis.  We also had read about the rise of China as a global threat to freedom-loving people in Asia.

And so we went across the Pacific as crusaders, and bearers of the American torch to enlighten the darkened races of Indochina.  But how quickly our outlook changed!  We learned that our foes were seasoned in battle, that they moved much faster than we could, and that they were committed to liberty as much as we were.  In fact, their leader, Ho Chi Minh, had quoted the American Declaration of Independence early in their struggle against the French occupiers.

We found ourselves bogged down in a quagmire, quicksand that started to pull us under from the beginning.  The other side resorted to atrocity to accomplish its purposes, and far too often we responded in kind.  History will never record the heinous brutality of that conflict; it was beyond the bounds of anything resembling humanity.  Our leaders kept telling us to abide by a code of conduct, and we tried.  Most of the time.  But potential My Lai massacres were in the ravaged thoughts and seared emotions of too many or our troops, especially those who had seen heads of friends blown apart right beside them.  Rage and revenge have a way of taking over a man’s morals at a time like that; the ancient Vikings called it “going berserk.”

I remember with painful clarity an event in October, 1969, when my platoon was commanded to seize a cache of rice that a village family was storing.  Our commander’s rationale was that this was more rice than that family needed, and the assumption was that they were keeping it for the VC to eat. I’ll never forget that old woman’s cries as we attached her rice to a chopper line and watched it disappear on the horizon.  For the first time, I felt disgusted by and ashamed of America’s treatment of the simple, common people of the country.

And then came more protests back home, followed by counter-protests and the chants of, “My country, love it or leave it!”

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Thoughts and emotions raced through my head and heart as I watched episode after episode.  I knew the ending but tried to believe it would turn out differently…this time.

It looked like a disaster from the beginning.  Backing our French allies as they exerted their control over a fiercely independent populace in Southeast Asia.  Trying to prop up one corrupt regime after another in South Vietnam.  Not understanding the land or the people, the topography or the culture.  Attempting to stop the spread of global communism and halt what President Eisenhower called the “domino theory.”

Trusting our leaders in the government and the military to do the right thing.  But soon realizing that they had never understood the will of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to fight for their homeland.  We were impelled by the myth of American exceptionalism and justice : that we always did the right thing and we always won.  As the casualties mounted, our hubris kept us from quitting.  No president wanted to be known as the “one who lost Vietnam.”

The question has haunted many of us Vietnam veterans for decades, “Was it worth it?”  To keep our sanity, we’ve had to find an answer we could live with.  Mine was that I did my duty; it was not my decision to go to Vietnam.  The American people, through our elected leaders, were the ones who bore the responsibility for the outcome.  So many warriors of the sixties and seventies have felt the pain of betrayal for most of their lives.  “Why fight a war that was deemed ‘unwinnable’ almost from the outset?”  “Why wasn’t our nation told the truth about the action on the ground?” “Why were our faithful South Vietnamese allies abandoned as we withdrew to lick our wounds?”

I have found peace in knowing that my Marines and I accomplished mission after mission.  We can hold our heads high because we answered the call to service.  Of course running to Canada was an option that we considered, but a rich tradition of honor, integrity, and valor compelled us to move forward, whatever the outcome.  We came to realize that although historians label it a failure, the conflict of long ago can be of great value if we learn from it.  Fifty years later, I’m not sure we have.