The sky around the Air Force base was clear as far as the eye could see. The flight field was jammed with military aircraft of all sorts. Everything from short-range one-man helicopters, to the brand new C-5 "Starlifter" jumbo jets were parked nearby. The C-5's were said to be able to airlift a half-battalion of men and equipment clear around the world. But because the proper seats for long-range flights had not yet been installed, the Army was still relying on chartered commercial passenger jets to transport its personnel to foreign destinations.
Complete with stewardesses and TV dinners, the ride to 'Nam was to be, for some of us, a last look at an American female and a last taste of food cooked on American soil.
The Boeing 707 we would soon board had just arrived with a load of GI's returning from 'Nam. Only after they had disembarked and been escorted into a reception area were we allowed to walk out onto the flight field while the plane was being refueled and re-provisioned. Because we were locked away for the past hour none of us had an opportunity to see or talk to them. We would later learn the Army's policy of keeping both groups separated was not only intentional, it was wise.
With "TWA" painted in bright red on both sides and its tail painted golden yellow, the four-engine 707 looked like a Mercedes Benz misplaced in a military motor pool. Its bright colors did more than contrast the OD green and subdued camouflage colors of the military aircraft. It stood testimony to the polar difference between war and peace.
The Air Force used a variety of aircraft in Vietnam, 29 in fact. From the aged prop-driven C-47's valued at several hundred thousand dollars apiece, to the highly sophisticated attack jets valued at twenty-million plus. The jet I would later become most familiar with was the Phantom F-4.
With a range of about a 1,000 miles and an armament payload of approximately 1,600 pounds, the F-4 was a close rival to the M-16 as the GI's best friend in Vietnam. Although years later the grunt would be the GI most celebrated as the symbolic representative of the V'nam war, many grunts would claim it was the pilots of the U.S. Air Force who were the unsung heroes of the war. Their contributions frequently decided whether it was us or Charlie who emerged as the victor of a stalemated firefight. Anything anyone could ever write about the courage of the men who jumped into those narrow cockpits would still fall short of giving them credit and thanks.
Standing outside the 707 being readied, combat pilots training for V'nam made repeated fly-by's over our crowd. Although we all thought we had completed our ROT training a month or so ago, the Air Force gave us one last lecture. Probably the most important one we would receive.
Practicing a maneuver called marking, we would later learn this technique was as brilliant an invention for the Air Force as blind-fire was for the Army. Pilots would mark the position of allied troops in the dense jungle by flying directly overhead and pulling their sticks back sharply, steering their jets straight up in a near 90-degree angle. Looking up from the ground we could see directly into the vertical exhaust port and feel the heat of its bright-orange flames. On some occasions the jets flew so close to the tree lines in V'nam their flames would ignite the upper branches.
Seen from a distance by other jets closing in for a napalm or bomb run on nearby VC/NVA positions, the exhaust plumes generated by the marking jet would indicate exactly where the American or Allied positions were located. This was especially important when Charlie's position was so close to ours, a case of mistaken identity by a pilot unloading his eggs would have meant Americans being poached instead of Charlie. Also, having the Air Force mark our position in the air worked better than igniting smoke grenades on the ground. Surface indicators had the bad habit of also letting Charlie know exactly where we were. and because we knew what the jets were doing, and Charlie didn't, the ear-piercing sound made by their screaming overhead was anticipated by us. To muffle their roar we carried waxed earplugs. Charlie had to use mud, if he could mix some up in time. and a Phantom cruising 1,500 miles an hour at tree-top level didn't give him time to empty his canteen into the dirt and hastily whip a batch together.
Every instructor at ROT had a different opinion of the day-long flight to 'Nam. Some said it was too long, others said it was too short. Some complained that liquor should have been available. Others complained there was so much cigarette smoke in the air the plane looked like a London fog after only 10 minutes.
Tossing all those comments around in my mind, I decided to try to endure the worst and the enjoy best of it. After all, I sure wasn't going anywhere. Once they locked that door, I was committed.
It was on the plane to 'Nam that a GI had his first undistracted opportunity to seriously contemplate the decision he had made to go. Although V'nam was always on our minds during our training no one spent a lot of time thinking about it because no one could be certain they'd be going. During ROT, when it was certain, there wasn't much time to think because we were pre-occupied with trying to piece together everything we were told to prepare for. and because our Leave time was taken up hastily making our goodbyes, and trying not to make them sound final, there wasn't much time to fully grasp reality.
The only time we were alone with our thoughts was on our 22 hour flight. With no place to go, except to the head, thinking was the only thing we could do. The magazines our families gave us were on their 3rd pass-around after the first couple of hours. The constantly changing pressure in the cabin kept our ears stopped-up so conversation was limited to brief periods. and 10 or 15 minutes sleep was the longest we could sleep because the erratic turbulence jostled the plane for most of the flight.
From Ft Lewis, the Republic of South V'nam was said to be a little over 12,000 miles away. We were told it was dirty, smelly, and completely different than anything else we had heard or thought about it. As a Sergeant I sat next to put it, "This is going to be my 3rd tour. I found out after my first that V'nam is whatever you make it. If you want to have fun, you can. If you want to kill people, you can. Whatever you want, you can get."
The name on his ID tag read "Smith, Cary SSG". As I listened to him tell me I was in for the time of my life I was unsure whether he meant V'nam would be something I'd remember for the rest of my life or my swan song. Still, since I was stuck in the seat next to him for the next day, I decided I might as well be courteous and talk to him.
"Life over there is that good, huh?" I asked.
"Yep! Another name for V'nam is Variety."
"Is that why you're going back?"
"Yep! I like what it has to offer."
Startled by his answer, I was curious how he could find a place where GI's spent most of their time dodging bullets as also having something to offer. The smile on his face indicated that whatever he got out of his first 2 trips were positive. I was curious.
"Like I said, whatever you want is there. I got married twice the 1st time. Had 4 -----maids the 2nd. and this time I'm leaving myself open for whatever I think up."
"I could've had more but I only had 2 assignments."
"You mean you got married every time you got stationed some place different?"
"Yeah, but my CO kept turning down all my other transfers."
"What did your 1st wife say about your 2nd wife."
"She didn't say ---- 'cause she wasn't around."
"You mean you just left her."
"Yeah, but it was okay, I left her some money."
"Didn't you have to get a divorce?"
"Naw, I couldn't. I was a Catholic on my first trip."
Everything he said was too unbelievable. I waved him away.
"You're talking ----!"
"Naw, I'm for real. Look at these."
Reaching into his flight bag on the floor beneath his feet, he pulled out a handful of dogtags. Handing them to me one at a time, each was stamped with the same name and blood type, but a different religious denomination.
"Where'd the hell you get all these?" I asked.
"I had 'em made up a few weeks ago. Got to travel prepared, you know."
"But what if you get caught with them?"
"Caught with what? The Army can't say anything if a GI wants to have 15 religions."
"What about bigamy. Suppose somebody finds out you've got more than 1 marriage certificate?"
"And what the ---- are they going to do, throw me in jail for marrying a half-dozen gooks? Get serious."
He was right. The one thing I had never been when it came to V'nam was serious, at least in his sense of the word. While talking to him I wondered if I was naive or just plain stupid. Here was a man who thought about V'nam in a way I hadn't conceived. I had always thought about war in terms of fighting, dying, killing, and surviving. It never occurred to me that war could be fun.
"You know," I told him. "I never thought about doing some of those things over there."
"Didn't you ever hear that war was hell?"
"Yeah, I heard that."
"Well what do you think hell is?"
"What you make of it, I guess."
"Then just add it up. If V'nam is war and war is hell, then V'nam is what you make it."
"What do you call that, Sergeant Smith's Philosophy On War?"
"It makes sense, doesn't it?" he smiled.
I didn't answer.
"Let me show you a demonstration. Do you see that stewardess over there?"
One was standing a few rows up pouring a cup of coffee for an Army doctor. He called to her.
Turning around, the stewardess brought her coffee pot over.
"Yes Sergeant, would you like some coffee?"
"Nope." He smiled with a Cheshire cat grin.
"Then what can I get for you?"
"Yeah, you. Dog-style. 15 minutes from now in the forward lavatory."
The stewardess paused for a moment, smiled, then calmly replied, "Oh yeah, you and what Army?" She then turned around and pranced off.
I was shocked. The Sergeant leaned over his armrest to watch her rear bounce down the aisle. "You know," he said, "after a year of porking short, flat-faced, black-haired midgets, that stewardesses red hair and long legs are going to look like Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's."
Looking back at me, he went on. "See, nothing to it. War is hell. You can do whatever you want."
Still surprised, I asked him, "What if she gets pissed-off and reports you to the flight officer?"
"He'll just say he has first dibs."
I shook my head. "Man, you're crazy!"
"And you're not?"
"Then why are you on this plane?"
"The same reason why everybody else is. To fight."
"Oh, so you like to fight?"
"No, I didn't say that. I meant the war."
"Oh, so you like to fight wars, huh?"
"You're twisting my words."
"No I'm not. I'm just asking you why you're going to Vietnam?"
Pausing, I knew what he was getting at but I was having difficulty giving him an answer. I wasn't sure I knew myself what the answer was. and the expression on my face was probably indicative of it.
"Give me 1 reason why you're going."
Thinking for a second, one came to mind. "I'm going to fight communism."
"Really? and how many communists do you know and hate with a passion to kill?"
His question caught me off guard. I hesitated then admitted, "None."
"Then why do you want to fight them?"
"Because I'm a soldier and that's what I was told to do."
"Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?"
"It doesn't sound ridiculous. It's why we're all on this plane."
"Bull----! That's not why I'm on it. and I can prove a lot of other people aren't either."
Looking across the aisle, he noticed a Master Sergeant dozing off.
"Hey Top, wake up." He yelled.
Drowsy, the Master Sergeant looked over.
"Yeah, what's up?"
Point blank, Smith confronted him, "Why are you going to the 'Nam?"
"What kind of stupid ----ing question is that?"
"The kid here thinks we're all going to 'Nam because we want to fight communism."
"Well tell him he can fight my share. I've got 10 months 'til my retirement and I'm getting the ---- out with Sergeant Major's pay."
Sinking his head back into his chest, he closed his eyes again.
Looking back at me with a smile on his face, Smith boasted, "See, what did I tell you? He's going 'cause somebody told him he'd get promoted if he takes an assignment in 'Nam. You want me to check with somebody else?"
Conceding defeat, I answered, "No, I'll take your word for it. But there's got to be somebody on this plane who's going over to fight communism."
"Yeah," he smirked, "there's you. But you're not sticking to that story, are you?"
I paused for a moment to regroup my thoughts. "That was just one of my reasons."
"Oh yeah, well tell me another."
"Another is because I'd be sent to Leavenworth if I refused. and you would too!"
"How do you know? Have you ever refused?"
"No. But I know I'd be there if I had!"
"I know a couple guys who refused to go. They're not in Leavenworth. They got re-assigned somewhere else."
"That's bull----. If everybody refused to go, the whole Army would collapse."
"You're right! It would. and that would make Leavenworth pretty ----ing full wouldn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Leavenworth's already over capacity. They're only accepting people who've committed capital crimes?"
"If you refused the Army'd either have to send you some place else or discharge you as a conscientious objector?"
"I wouldn't want to be classified as an objector."
"And you wouldn't want to be somewhere else?"
"Then you want to go to 'Nam for another reason?"
I had to pause again. He was moving too fast for me to come up with answers that wouldn't leave me open for contradiction. Sensing the wheels spinning rapidly in my mind, he offered me time to think about our conversation.
"I'll tell you what, you take all the time you need while I get some shut-eye. and when I wake up, you give me your answer. Okay?"
Pushing the control button on the arm of his seat, he adjusted the rear of his chair back, slid down into it, then closed his eyes.
Sliding my chair back, I closed my eyes. Thinking about all he said I told myself that while he was sleeping I would be thinking. If not to arrive at an answer he would accept, at least to arrive at one I could. I thought back to the reasons I told others why I volunteered. I had to accept I hadn't been completely honest with myself or anyone else.
I remembered telling classmates during each of my 4 AIT schools that I didn't want to miss an important part of American history. I told my family I had no choice but to go when ordered or I'd be sent to jail. I told my Dream Sheet interviewer that I wanted to become a hero.
But with the down-to-earth confrontation I had just gone through with the Sergeant asleep next to me, I had to accept the absurdity of some of those answers. They now appeared as ridiculous to me as they must've appeared to the people I gave them to. I had to admit that what I thought were valid reasons, weren't.
I thought back to ROT. Most of the guys there concluded going to 'Nam was much easier if they thought about the good things we were told 'Nam had to offer. I recalled the lecturers telling us there was the extra hazardous duty pay, the relatively free dope, "50-cent -----", no tax on PX purchases, cigarettes and booze at cost, free 30-day Leaves before and after, and the "rewarding title of V'nam Veteran."
Having eliminated all those reasons for myself, I looked upon V'nam as being something new. It would be a new place to see. A new place to experience. My only travel so far had been limited to Southside Chicago, Three Oaks, Michigan, and South Los Angeles, discounting Army bases. But going to another country half-way around the world would be completely different. Most Americans never leave the continent because they never have the money. For me it would be an opportunity I might never have again for many years. and as far as the war was concerned I could look at that as taking the bad with the good.
For the guys on the plane who were my age, my reasons for going had to be relatively close to theirs. But as our individual motivations may have differed only slightly, the one thing we all had in common was that each of our families probably hadn't opposed us going. At least if any of them did, the fact that we were on the plane was evident they hadn't been successful in changing our minds.
Throughout the war there were always stories in the news about a few families who were encouraging their GI's to go to Canada, if they could afford to send them. Those who couldn't were saying a couple years in jail really wasn't all that bad. The decision for a family to encourage desertion was probably as difficult to make as it was for a deserter who had to make the decision on his own. Because no one was ever handcuffed and forced aboard a plane to 'Nam, it meant that everyone going there did so because he wanted to.
For the families who didn't try to talk their son or husband out of going, and later lost him, it wasn't until his death did they realize they failed him by not discussing his alternatives. Most vets who survived the war were expressing little sympathy for parents or wives who didn't encourage desertion but later blamed the President, Congress, the Press, Jane Fonda, or anyone else they could take out their anger on or transfer their guilt.
GI's who made the conscious decision to go were operating under a set of programmed ideas that told them not to resist. and our relatives were operating under a set of ideas that told them not deter us. Thinking it would be un-American, in poor taste, or simply out of line to suggest we slip into Canada or accept jail rather than risk dying, was a mistake they have to bear responsibility for.
Of course, families can argue that the ideas promoted by the government convincing GI's to go to 'Nam failed to provide other information that may have made him decide differently. But then it wasn't the governments responsibility to challenge its own propaganda, it was theirs.
Although I was lucky to have in my family a living representative of just about every generation dating back to the beginning of the century, only 1 thought it was important to talk to me about my going. Knowing everyone else in the family was aware of both his negative views on Vietnam, and his recommendation that I split for Canada, I couldn't help but wonder why no one else voiced any opposition. After looking into the personalities of a few of my relatives I discovered several reasons why.
For those in my grandparents generation there seemed to be a sense of apathy regarding Vietnam. They had lived through so many emotion-numbing wars they were no longer able to discern what real peace was, or if it was ever truly obtainable. Their hope of seeing worldwide peace in their lifetime was as dismal as their hope that human illness would have been conquered by now, as the optimistic predictions of earlier decades envisioned. For them, the back-to-back broken promises that "this was the war that will end all wars" had simply burned them out.
Those in my parents generation, who spent their young adult years growing up during the hardships and sacrifices of WWII, seemed to embrace those days as a time when the outside threat from another country brought families and Americans closer together. Reminiscent, they welcomed an opportunity to relive those memories through a war being fought by their kids generation. and even though it was over 20 years since WWII war ended, some of them still subscribed to the war propaganda of that period which said "American boys should want to go where ever they were needed."
For those who didn't have to serve in the military during wartime, they benefited from the industrial growth the war provided. To them, war meant more money, faster promotions, and better job security.
In searching outside my family on how others felt about V'nam I discovered the largest group of Americans supporting the war were people who would never have to fight one. They were women and older men.
Some women were saying that young men should not avoid the war, "but face up to it like a man." These were very brave words coming from people whose only threat of dying was by accident, bad health, or old age. Older men, a lot of whom never went to war, were saying that younger men should view their being young enough to fight for their country as an honor. Some went so far as to say that draft card burners should either "Love America or leave it."
For those of us going to 'Nam it was difficult finding credibility in the words of men and women who never had to worry about dodging bullets. Not to mention the fact that millions of others like them were voting for war-sponsoring candidates and issues, and most of us weren't old enough to vote.
When thinking about war in those terms, I began to understand more clearly why Americans always seem to find themselves constantly embroiled in one conflict or another. I thought by pursuing a greater understanding of why most Americans were pro-war might help me to understand why I personally volunteered to go.
In beginning that analysis I thought it best to organize my ideas in separate sections so I could give each area of thought the full benefit of reason, as limited as mine was. I arrived at 4 categories.
1, Americans were in V'nam because it was necessary to maintain our economic standard of living.
2, Americans were in V'nam because they were genuinely afraid that backing down to "communist aggression" would give the Soviets a territorial advantage, and an ego boost to grab more.
3, Americans had to prove in V'nam that our military's loss of morale in Korea was not because we were afraid of a direct confrontation with Russia, or couldn't decisively win a war against communism.
And 4, Americans were in V'nam because we've accepted violence as a natural way of life.
In thinking about the 1st category, I recalled reading a statement in my high school history book made over 65 years ago by Former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. He said, "The business of America is business." His correct analysis of America's business sense would later be amended by post-WWI pacifists to include, "...and the business of war is business." As "the arsenal of democracy" it was America's responsibility to rake in the big bucks by financing international war.
During the late 60's anti-war groups would use that amendment to support their claim that the Eisenhower Administration supplied arms to the French in Vietnam, among other places, because the military-industrial complex that fueled our GNP was still too hyped-up after WWII. Continuing to produce expendable war goods was too much of a temptation for industrialists and investors. Unlike automobiles, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and TV sets that had to be built to last for years, guns, tanks, jeeps, rockets, ships, planes, and bombs had very short lifetimes. and a high GNP is dependent upon high production.
By 1969, after 8 years of active American involvement in Vietnam, there were millions of Americans clinging to the security of the war-related paycheck. Most of the people in favor of continuing the war such as steel workers, truck drivers, government employees, medical equipment suppliers, machinists, and stockholders, confirmed the war was not being fought for the liberation of the South Vietnamese, as some hard-hat love-it-or-leaver's were claiming. The war, now America's major industry, was being fought to maintain economic growth. and because a lot of Americans were working in industries making millions of dollars from the war, they overlooked their principles, morality, and sense of right and wrong. To them, any student or GI who opposed the war, and threatened their economic security, was un-American.
With regard to the 2nd category, it goes without saying that since the close of WWII, Americans were very afraid of communism dominating the world.
In principle, some elements of pure communism had been around before America's Revolutionary War began. In a sense, America's Constitution contained some of its basic principles, such as freedom from (regal) autocracy, public representation, and a share in the common wealth. As a declared entity communism had been put into writing over a decade before our Civil War started. But as communism changed over the years, under the distortions of Leninism, (Russia 1917 and China 1948), it became an enemy of the free world. and because communism was an old enemy of America my generation could not accept the current trouble in V'nam as simply "another new challenge" the communists were provoking. Rather, the war was seen as another fire left over from previous generations finally passing down for mine to extinguish.
The trouble in V'nam had started generations before communism became an issue there. V'namese resistance to French colonialism began just after our own Civil War ended. But because of its segmented and feudal society, anti-French forces were unable to combine their fragmented efforts to seriously challenge French domination.
With the brief exceptions when France was obligated to defend itself during WWI and WWII, French occupation in Indo-China continued for almost a hundred years. It wasn't until just before the close of WWII, in Yalta (USSR), that V'nam got its last opportunity of peacefully obtaining independence from foreign rule. The frustration of losing that last chance convinced the peaceful factions of French resistance to unite under Ho Chi Mihn and seek a military resolution.
The Yalta Conference, (Feb. 4-11, 1945), attended by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, (France was reluctantly admitted during its final days), resulted in an "agreement" on how the post-war globe would be divided between the 3 super powers. Any uncontested areas would be left independent. and because neither Roosevelt, Churchill, or Stalin saw a strategic interest in dominating the Chinese sub-continent, with its 7 hundred million hungry mouths, China's Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai-Chek were left to fight it out. The victor would no doubt claim Indo-China.
Ho Chi Mihn, hoping he would be left alone long enough to consolidate his own plans for V'nam before the Chinese resolved their domestic squabbles, and the French completed rebuilding the destruction left by Germany, was greatly dismayed to have the vacuum left by Japan's occupation immediately re-occupied by France.
Then, coupled with the U.S. secretly financing over 70% of DeGaulle's bullying, and the U.S. State Department burying the letters sent by Ho to Eisenhower pleading for American assistance, it was no wonder V'nam sought help from their last alternative, Russia. and with Vietnam's agrarian unrest, colonial subjugation, close proximity with the Soviet Union, and hand out for help, it was a ripe project for Russia to begin its campaign for world domination. Stalin's view of the Western worlds "desire for global peace and security" was seen as an Anglo-American plan to blanket the world with democratic security. and to Stalin, "democratic security" was just another name for capitalist security, communism's arch-enemy.
America's fear of communism, at its apex during the Korean conflict, could not have been more irritating 10 years later. While slamming the heel of his shoe on the podium during a speech at a United Nations assembly, Stalin's successor, Nikita Kruschev loudly vowed "to bury our (parents) grandchildren." Needless to say, these were frightening words coming from a nation that had just successfully tested the H-bomb. But the real meaning of Kruschev's vow was not that the Russians would bury us under a mountain of nuclear debris. It was clearly understood by those in Washington, as well as those on Wall Street, that Kruschev was forecasting a world-wide demise of democracy and capitalism by way of gradual, well-planned, socialistic incisions into global and domestic Western interests.
For those Americans who didn't think the Soviets were able to successfully export communism, or didn't want to condemn a former ally, it wasn't long after Kruschev initiated antagonistic and de-stabilizing actions did they acknowledge Senator Joseph McCarthy's warning of an "ominous communist threat."
For a growing number of Americans who read the daily news stories about a wall being erected in Berlin, Russian tanks parading down the streets of Czechoslovakia, and missiles being ferried into Cuba, the recommendation made by General George Patton after Germany's defeat expressed the anguish they now felt about having foolishly helped the Russians (and communism) survive WWII. Just prior to his death in 1945 Patton made the statement that "We may have been fighting the wrong enemy (Germany) all along. But while we're here (on the Soviet border), we should go after the bastards now, 'cause we're gonna have to fight 'em eventually." There were other anti-Soviets, far to the right of Patton's ultra-conservatism, who didn't find Adolph Hitler's inhumanity too shameful to quote his description of communism as, "the true disease of global illness."
By the time Congress and the President were able to agree on beefing up our support to re-stabilize our periled interests in 3rd world anti-communist countries, our belated and inadequate responses resulted in what the Russians correctly termed "knee-jerk reactions." Belated because our ineffective use of "police-war" tactics weren't used soon enough. Inadequate because our Peace Corps volunteers were no match against highly skilled KGB agents.
Unfortunately, Americans didn't realize soon enough that to lose a war against communism, or even just to lose face, the Russian goal of burying us proceeded a lot faster than their post-war economy would have permitted them to do if they had to spend the kind of money we spent fighting the war in Korea, and right after that, in Vietnam. If more Americans had realized sooner that by allowing a compromise in Korea the North V'namese and other teetering countries would be encouraged to stalemate us into retreat, they may have backed MacArthur's judgment rather than Truman's.
As for our need to prove to the Russians that we weren't afraid to engage them face to face, many of us on our way to 'Nam had already seen indications that the military was more worried about the public and members of Congress working together in a united effort against our military preparedness than it was about fighting Russians. Besides, Harry Truman had already openly admitted during our stay in Korea that he feared making direct military contact with Russia and China.
Resurrecting Georges Clemenceau's statement that "war was too important to be left to the generals," Truman fired Douglas MacArthur. Although stating he distrusted MacArthur's aggressiveness, his critics were saying he was prejudiced against the military partly because Roosevelt left him out of the intimate details of WWII planning, and partly because conservatives wanted to draft MacArthur as their 1952 presidential candidate. In retrospect, Truman's pursuit of a political settlement, over MacArthur's plan for a military victory, established a bad precedent followed by future Presidents in Vietnam. Clemenceau's wisdom could have used a little more fine tuning by adding, "...but some politicians make very poor generals."
Military generals in the past have always sought to resolve war quickly and eliminate the possibility of it recurring in the future, at least as far as the particular enemy they were fighting at the time. But it was apparent in 1968, as it was 17 years before in Korea, politicians sought to resolve war in a fashion they hoped would enhance their own popularity and longevity.
By 1969 the constant intervention by politicians over the past dozen years into daily military and war policy made generals reflect more on the political, than the military, ramifications of their decisions. The elimination of astute combat commanders, like Patton's firing by politically-ambitious Eisenhower and MacArthur's firing by Truman, gouged a deep impression into the minds of career officers that they had better be responsive to contemporary issues, (rather than long-range military objectives), or their futures as soldiers were less than dim. Being led in V'nam by a military bureaucracy that seemed more political than military resulted in a demoralizing effect on the men near the bottom of the ladder. Men who's commanders' half-hearted war policy forced them to consider the public debate of the war being warranted and necessary, yet at the same time, illegal and immoral.
Although some credibility could be found in the Officer Corps' explanation that the "illegal and immoral" arguments were communist disinformation and propaganda, their order that we consult the Military Code of Honor to answer all ethical questions regarding right and wrong, good or bad, was insufficient.
The gist of the Code read that ours was not to reason why, ours was but to do and die. It prescribed that a GI's sole undebatable mission was 1st to obey the Code, and 2nd, to believe it. But not everyone believed it. For the GI's who demanded something more substantial to refer to than words that had been used and abused since the Victorian era, they were told to rationally examine the ethics of both sides fighting in Vietnam. There was even a prepared argument for that. It went,
"Point 1. Basically, both sides were fighting for the same cause, their different styles of democracy.
Point 2. Our style is freedom, as our Constitution defines it, their style is totalitarianism, by way of Marxist-Leninism.
Point 3. Our style is good because ours is approved by God, their style is bad because God only takes one side."
It didn't take a genius to see that the merits of the final point obviously stood on shaky ground. But the truly sad part about this "rationalization" was that it was hoped that anyone reviewing it would believe it. Anyone who didn't was simply considered to be un-American.
What a GI wasn't told was that the VC/NVA had another, more determined, reason for fighting. One the Brass weren't aware of or simply chose to ignore. The VC/NVA were fighting to preserve their right to decide among themselves the destiny of their nation, which was not North V'nam or South Vietnam, but all of Vietnam. We, in their view, were violating the same rule of non-intervention we detested the French for considering when we declared (during) our own civil war period to be our business and no one elses. But because the Administration and the general staff claimed V'nam was a war of democracy versus communism, they asserted that made it different than our civil war because full democratic privileges would have been maintained for everyone afterwards. (Except for non-whites if the South had won).
And like the weak ethics the Army provided in answering the morality question of the war, the democracy pitch was not much better. To us, the war wasn't democracy versus non-democracy, it was one form of democracy versus another form. The TV news pictures of Soviet citizens walking leisurely down Moscow streets didn't appear as though they were living under any hellish, non-democratic nightmare. and the pictures of North V'namese farmers working productively in the rice paddies above the DMZ didn't appear as if they were suffering from any non-democratic agony.
Realizing this, what Americans defined as true democracy became totally inapplicable in the V'nam war. Because what democracy really is, or meant, took on as many forms in America as their were Americans with an opinion on it. Of course, even if everyone could eventually agree on one interpretation, the 2nd issue of how a nation should package that interpretation and export it to other nations creates another complex debate. and since it was impossible for the Administration to get all Americans, let alone all GI's, to view democracy one way, the zeal some of us had in establishing American democracy in V'nam was severely handicapped from the outset.
On the opposing side the VC/NVA call to duty had only one motivation for fighting. They weren't fighting for communism, Karl Marx, or Soviet interests. They were fighting and dying for the single purpose of eliminating us from their soil. and having only one cause they were a good deal more unified in their resolve that we were in ours.
Also, for us, it was important that we survive war to enjoy the democracy we fought to preserve, or install. In contrast, the VC/NVA believed it was okay for him to die for his cause. Their religion placed their "true nation" in another world. As a consequence they vowed to continue the battle until their last man, believing final vengeance would be leveled upon America by their eternal God who would maintain his ownership of Earth even though his worshipers were no longer in residence.
And because of their zealotry, for us to even hope to win in battle our contingency plans would have to include a pre-debated and agreed upon final option calling for their near-total elimination in a nuclear fireball. Simply because, by their own vehemence, at no point in the process of our winning would they concede defeat. and for some of the men who encountered the VC's sacrificial human-wave warfare, the idea of exercising a final option was not above their serious consideration.
In past wars our enemies sought to preserve some earthy remnant of their culture by conceding defeat rather than allow it to suffer total annihilation. Of course, there would have been problems in carrying out a final option in dealing with an unbeatable enemy because American democracy, with its majority Christian/Judaic ethics, would never permit our waging that kind of total, all-out, war. Those factions held in check the more aggressive factions who, out of morbid fear of communism, would probably not hesitate to take military steps that would drastically reduce the VC to non-threatening numbers. North V'nam knew this and, with the financial support and political encouragement of the atheistic Soviet Union, exploited it.
As a result, it was the philosophical war between these 2 opposing factions, not the military war between the 2 opposing armies, that was bringing about the end of the war and our defeat.
When thinking about Americans being self-conditioned to wage war, my 1st thoughts took me back to high school where I recalled reading parts of "Caesar's Gallic War".
Of the many different strategies Caesar committed to paper, I found one of those to be especially applicable to why America always found itself at war.
Caesar wrote that before he sent out his army to plunder a tribe of hostile villagers, from whom he anticipated fierce resistance, he'd 1st send in missionaries to pacify them. The missionaries would begin their pacification plan by distributing large amounts of effeminizing and domesticating trinkets. The goods were sold at cost if the villagers could pay or trade for them or simply given away if they couldn't. Among the trunks of goods sent by Rome were "effeminizing articles" like hair combs for the men and "domesticating articles" like kitchen utensils for the women. After the missionaries were accepted by the villagers Caesar shipped in agricultural tools, currency, and books.
The tools were sent to condition the villagers to shed their semi-nomadic way of life for a more refined one. The currency was sent to teach the villagers the principles of self-regulation and to worship the images of Caesar and Roman heroes impressioned on them. The books were philosophical works that encouraged the men to introspect their place in the universe and encouraged the women to develop an inner grace and outer beauty.
With the influx of these new toys and food for thought the townspeople began to gradually transform their former aggressive way of life into one having more aesthetic and passive values. Concern for the villages defense, such as maintaining the barriers erected to slow down a spirited invasion, gradually became a desire to redesign existing structures to have an architectural flair. Instead of keeping a watchful eye for the possibility of an attack the townspeople now engaged in semantic debates over pointless issues. and an incorporation of Roman democratic values into their social and political system replaced their feudal and violent ascension to the village hierarchy.
Then after a predictable period, with the assimilation of his pacification plan complete, Caesar entered the village and kicked ass all up and down its countryside. Killing the men who couldn't be rehabilitated for the arena or the army, distributing the women amongst his troops for breeding, and re-educating the children. Caesar then moved on to his next conquest.
In many cases, Caesar wrote, his reserve legions were all he needed to conquer most tribes, saving his seasoned veterans for other tribes he was unable to sedate with missionaries and imported goods. He wrote, "Some of the barbarians made household ornaments of our missionaries heads, and wore our pots and pans thinking they were hats."
But having been subjugated by violent means, kept in check by violent threats, the vanquished nations Caesar integrated into the Roman system lived with violence as a natural way of life until they died. It had to be that way because the growth of Rome was dependent on perpetual war to achieve an ever-growing need for new products, slaves, cultural anomalies, and territory.
Patriotic allegiance was directed to Rome and Caesar. Both of which being the sum of all the parts of Rome's bureaucracy, from the criminal organization at the bottom to the military organization at the top.
Roman citizens were kept content because most of the things they worked to attain in life were obtainable. Subjects were indoctrinated that the things unobtainable were placed out of reach by their own inability to attain them, rather than the State's refusal to make them accessible. Americans, in that regard, are similar. Even the poorest groups that have to make a greater effort to obtain the extra benefits hard work gives them access to are not totally discontent in missing out on a few material incidentals, especially the ones they don't know about.
After decades of living under what evolved to become a natural order, every Roman citizen and subject was conditioned to believe their way of life was civilization. The negative things like crime, corruption, and racism that unfortunately went along with being civilized were considered inevitable and un-removable ills.
And because this system worked to the benefit of most Romans it wasn't challenged until those who were victimized by it grew to a level that permitted them to change it. But before that time came the individuals and isolated groups of dissenters who argued against the system were violently disposed of in one form of or another. and like Rome, America's single most negative quality has been its pre-occupation with violence. Domestic and international.
Over the lifetime of our republic violence in America has become as much a part of our heritage as popcorn at a movie. We shoot, stab, burglarize, rape, cheat, steal, lie, and threaten each other to such an extent that most of the basic impulses Americans manifest in their daily lives are expressed in violent-related terms. So much so, it has even become a romantic obsession with Americans to revel it. Our most popular forms of entertainment are basically violent. War movies, for example, are made more for their entertainment value than historic. This is evident when history is modified by Hollywood to suit the palate, and fictionalized to stimulate interest.
And it may be this affinity and affection we have for violence that requires our periodical need to vent the anxieties it creates by participating in real-life human dramas like Vietnam. Unfortunately one of the reasons we had difficulty winning the war there was because we were not conditioned to real violence, or more specifically, violence with a purpose. When it came to killing the enemy we weren't killing for the cause of furthering our nation's democratic principles, we were killing for the reasons we were familiar with: rage, crime, and entertainment. The violence and killing we grew up with in America was for senseless and artificial motives. and that type of killing does not win wars.
The bulk of the men who made up Rome's marching legions were either captured at youth or bred from its working classes. In parallel, the 4 American military services have always been successful in recruiting the bulk of their troops from the barrios, ghettos, and rural communities because it is from those backgrounds that military service has traditionally been made to appear secure.
And like Rome, every GI on my plane was a recipient of years of similar conditioning. The traditional effort in America to instill a patriotic, unswerving allegiance to serve the whims of our system had dissected the ability, and desire, within many of us to resist those whims even if it meant our deaths. But looking up and down the rows of closely-shaved heads and freshly khakied bodies on the plane, it was easy to see there wasn't a GI on board who could be called a true soldier. True soldiers either have to be born in the military or made at West Point.
None of us were born to be killers or village destroyers. We were all just a group of civilians dressed to look and act like soldiers. We were issued an M-16 and as many bullets as we could carry. and America had bestowed on us their consent that we take that gun and go to V'nam and kill as many natives as we could find. It didn't matter that the only crime most VC and NVA could be charged with was fighting to defend their country from us. Americans recognize foreign loyalty and patriotism only if it is to America, or its values.
We weren't allowed to find out about the VC's background, his feelings, or his personal life. Our only job was to kill him. Yet, in America, it was a crime for legitimate local governments to execute individuals who had committed heinous crimes against other Americans.
Several months before I enlisted in the Army a candidate for the President of the U.S. was killed by a crazed madman. The killer's death sentence was later commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. To some of the men sent to V'nam this was hypocrisy at its worst and the medals they were being awarded for "performing admirable acts of valor in the name of universal justice and democracy" were just as hypocritical. A nation's heroes can only be as noble, as valid, and as successful, as the nation they come from.
Because it didn't take a lot of GI's long to realize that both the war and the medals were a waste of our time, any idealistic feelings or moral purpose we may have had for fighting was quickly lost. and with the loss of that commitment, the only commitment left was to do our time there and get the hell out.
After having been in V'nam for almost 10 years already, our presence began to look like an eternal occupation with the end nowhere in sight. The day-to-day losses were no longer discouraging, only the overall duration. and even with a few major successes now and then, the vets returning home would say they stopped counting the victories that were now occurring fewer and farther between, they were only counting the days they had left in-country. Their advice to us was "the only thing left to be won was a ticket back home."
After thinking about all those things, the sheer number of them would have required more time to explain to the Sergeant just waking up from his nap even if we'd just taken off. I decided it would be best if I admitted pure and simple that I had make a mistake in judgment when I volunteered and let it go at that.
"Well, what did you figure out?" He asked. Dragging his hands across his face.
"I figured out that I ----ed up. You were right."
"No, it's not that I'm right. It's that you were misled.
"Well if I was, then I misled myself. I made a mistake in judgment."
"That sounds like a good explanation for the war. 30 years from now people will walk up to us and ask, What was Vietnam? We can look them in the eye and say, A mistake in judgment."
"Yeah, and I can say, You heard it here 1st."
"Now that you know the illness it shouldn't be too hard to figure out the cure."
"By straightening yourself out."
"And to do that....?"
"By taking another look at the world. I know what you're going through. I went through it myself when I was your age. It's called growing up."
"I wish I could do this all over again when I'm 35."
"No you don't."
"Because I'm 35. and even though I'm making fun out of what I've got to do, I'd much rather be doing something else."
"Like running a corporation, teaching school, being a mad scientist in my own laboratory, directing movies, judging cases. I'd like to be a lot of things it takes a career to develop."
"But you're only 35. You'll get out with half-retirement pay and still be young enough to start a new career."
"Even though you sound like an old man talking, you're right. But when I retire it won't be starting out like a 20 year-old. I've got too much ---- under my belt to walk into something brand new. With all that I've seen and done I'd probably try to change a new experience before I'd let it change me. Youngsters like you have the advantage of letting new things change you."
"Yeah, but it's obvious I wasn't that smart when it came to winding up on this plane."
"But look what you did. You came into the Army with a desire to do something worthwhile. You're learning something new every time you talk to old men like me. and because you'll stay and listen, where somebody else your age might just get up and walk away, you're going to get a lot out of this experience."
"I sure the ---- hope so."
"Don't even worry about it. I can see in your eyes that you're going to walk through 12 months of V'nam and come out without a scratch. You're not even afraid of dying, are you?"
"To tell the truth, I've never even thought about it."
"That's what I mean. Because you aren't worried about getting killed, you won't."
"I wish I could be that positive."
"Think about this without listing me the details. Have you or have you not just about gotten all the things you really wanted to get out of the Army?"
"Well, practically everything."
I thought back about my Dream Sheet. I remembered that I wanted to get a Green Beret. I wanted to go to OCS. I wanted to go to Vietnam. I wanted to get The Congressional Medal of Honor. I wanted to kill a few VC. and I wanted to be thought of as being one of America's best. But in thinking about all those things I began to realize that beyond all that, all I really wanted to do was to be able to say to myself that I had set out to accomplish a goal I made for myself and that I was proud to have achieved it.
Looking back at the things I'd done so far I realized I really couldn't be too disappointed even though some of the things I wanted to do were yet to be accomplished. But even so, every place I'd been I had met a lot of interesting people and seen a lot of interesting things. and although along the way some of the new things I learned had changed some of my old goals a little bit, the new one's that evolved from them were now just as important as the old one's.
"I guess I can say that I'm not really displeased with what I've gotten out of being in the Army so far."
"I knew that even before you answered."
"Because I used to be you 16 years ago."
I looked at him. His eyes were still young, though maybe a little weathered. The wrinkles around his eyebrows and creases around his mouth were only slight.
"Is that what you meant by growing up?"
"Exactly. and it's also what I mean when I say you can do anything you want to do. All you've got to do is believe in what you want and you'll get it."
"You know there's a lot of people on this planet who would like to believe that but can't because it's hard to get the things they believe to come true."
"That's because it's like you say, they want to believe rather than just believing. That's what I meant when I said you won't get killed in 'Nam because you never considered the possibility that you would."
I smiled. His words were reassuring to say the least.
Noticing my approval, he went on, "I'm not trying to make you feel good. I'm making a point I believe in. Look at guys like Westmoreland. He's a 4-star general and probably the longest-serving V'nam vet in the whole ----ing war, and what did he get out of it. Promotion to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a ------- scratch on the hand."
"Light duty, huh?"
"And he probably started off just like you and me. He probably went into the war never even considering the possibility that he would get wasted."
His words were starting to make me a true believer. But still a warning bell inside my head told me to reserve final acceptance because I had heard a lot of sergeant tales before.
Just then the pilots voice came over the planes intercom.
"Good afternoon gentleman. This is your friendly neighborhood pilot sending you greetings from the lonely room where only fools walk in and bigger fools re-enter."
Everyone on the plane laughed.
"We just want to let you know that we are making our final approach to beautiful downtown Cam Rahn Bay. The weather is a comfortable broiling hot. The sky is clear. and the war is still in progress.
"My navigator tells me we're cruising at an altitude of 25,000 feet. I have to believe him because none of the dials on my side of the plane work properly. But at any rate we're well above Mr. Charlie's and Mr. Joe's artillery range. We'll be going silent now until our wheels hit ground. Please relax and enjoy the landing. I'll try to make it without bouncing too much."
I asked the Sergeant who Mr. Joe was.
"Mr. Joe is you. Me. Us."
"What's he mean about going silent?"
"They have to concentrate on monitoring the military frequencies because we don't want to get hit by artillery fire Charlie may be throwing on the airbase or we might be throwing at Charlie."
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his wallet. Flipping through the photograph leaves he stopped on a picture of an airplane.
"See this?" he asked, handing me the wallet.
"What is it?"
"A plane I photographed on my 2nd tour. In fact, today is August 4th. That makes this picture 2 years old yesterday."
"Where'd you take it?"
"A tiny little place called Haphan."
"What's so important about a picture of a plane?"
"10 seconds after I took that picture an artillery round cut it in half. Both sections hit the ground like bricks. The 3 crewmen were killed instantly."
"Who fired the artillery round?"
"Some dumb-ass jerks on the base. You'd think they'd wait until the plane landed before firing."
"What were they shooting at?"
"That's the punch line, nothing. The brigade general was visiting the next day for a field inspection so they were going to surprise him by using smoke rockets to print a big star on the sky."
"How were they going to do that?"
"They line up 5 or 6 105mm howitzers and aim each one at a certain point in the sky. After practicing for a few hours they can explode smoke rockets to print anything."
"And they didn't wait until the plane got out of the way to do that?"
"That kind of ---- happens all the time in 'Nam. That's why the pilot listens to the military frequencies."
"You mean we're going to be crossing a rocket path?"
"Yeah, but there's only a small chance of getting hit."
"Real small. The pilots stay at a high altitude until they make their final run on the landing field. Then they drop altitude at about a 1,000 feet every 2 or 3 seconds."
"What's it feel like?"
"You'll feel your stomach move up into your chest and your ears pop like firecrackers."
"They didn't tell us that in ROT."
"Can you blame 'em? The Army probably knew they wouldn't get anybody to board this plane if some of these guys knew what they'd be going through. Besides, you'll only feel it for a second or two."
"I can feel it now."
I could feel the flaps lower, the thrust of the reverse engines get louder, and the pressure decrease rapidly. The sensation felt like a combination of having a 200 pound barbell placed on your chest while standing in a elevator free-falling 30 stories.
"Move your mouth like you were chewing gum. It'll clear your ears." He smiled at me.
I began masticating but found trying to pretend chewing difficult. Noticing my difficulty, he reached into the seat pouch and pulled out a magazine. Ripping a section of the back page off, he wadded it up and handed it to me.
"Here, try this."
Cramming it in my mouth I began chewing it. After a moment I could feel my ears pop and the pressure on my lungs diminish.
"It's working, thanks." I told him.
"Now open your mouth, take a deep breath, and hold it until you feel the wheels hit the ground."
"Because if we get hit with a rocket you'll feel it more if you're inhaling than you're exhaling, but you won't feel it at all if you're holding your breath."
"Yeah, I am. But it's a good thought, huh?"
I closed my eyes and held my breath.
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