Phillip Coleman reduces screaming rockets and bomb bursts to hushed typing at his cramped, backroom work station. He retreats to the computer keyboard whenever possible. There, he escapes the tedium of gaily colored aerobic outfits at the Redondo Beach apparel store he co-owns, and spends hours logging stale facts and fresh info into The Vietnam Data Resource and Electronic Library.
Coleman has been busy since starting the library in July, filling the computer's memory with an official outline of US military involvement in Vietnam. Anyone with a home personal computer has free access to the info. But only Coleman can program it. For him, the documents comprise more than a dry compilation of facts about a protracted war America didn't win. Instead, the documents - and hindsight - tell Coleman that the war effort was doomed with US officials trapped between ignorance and politics while choreographing policy. "I made a promise to some friends of mine in Vietnam", Coleman, 38, said. "One, those of us who survived would live for those who didn't. And, those who made it out would do what we could to educate American people about the war."
18 years after his tour of Army duty, Coleman kept his pledge. with $12,000 of his own money, he bought the IBM computer to catalog info about the Vietnam War, then began culling documents from US government archives. Detached stuff about death and destruction. Obscure material which Coleman pores over. Just to understand. Coleman has logged 296 documents so far, and figures the has 1,000s more to punch in, ranging from expert analyses to raw statistics. "It really is a lifetime project." one computer file, for example, is an internal US government memo on the "Diem Coup Attempt" which failed to oust South Vietnamese Diem in November 1960. Another document lists "Allied Troop Levels, 1959-1973," detailing the number of men sent to fight in Vietnam by the US and other Western powers. One packet awaiting computer entry is a CBS transcript of the network's TV documentary asserting that Genl William Westmoreland inflated the enemy's body count to try to convince White House policymakers that America was winning the Vietnam War.
Still other materials arrived recently from the US State Department. "They said they may have some other things that haven't been published elsewhere," Coleman said. Only official government policy papers and communications are included from a range of agencies and official sources. On occasion, Coleman includes such materials as the Westmoreland documentary transcript, depending on their relevance to the war. But he excludes books, independent analyses, news accounts and opinion pieces because he contends they are too interpretative. He tries to be faithful to history, he said. Or, at least, not stray too far from its official version. "I try to deliver both pro and con. I don't delete one word (from the documents entered)," Coleman said. "I want to include all the facts and allow people to make up their own mind." After all, he says he made up his mind only after weighing the facts: "Had I known then what I know now, I would not have gone to Vietnam."
A tough concession for the South Chicago native, whose family preamble might well have been "God and Country." Duty was a badge of honor. As far as the knows, no Coleman able to fight for his country ever shirked his obligation. The same June day in 1970 that Coleman returned from Vietnam, his brother left for combat in Southeast Asia.
I come from a long line of family who served in the Army," Coleman said. "Generations served in the Army." His turn came in May 1969 at age 19. He enlisted and told his family. "No one encouraged me or discouraged me," he said. "I think it was their way of dealing with the possibility of the death of someone they knew." He served as a US Army specialist in communications, rigging radio communication for the Green Berets. "I went with an open mind. I believe we were there in a noble effort. It's just that things' happened along the way."
The war crystalized for him one terrifying night when the communications company to which he was assigned was hammered twice within hours by arty shelling. Mistaken friendly fare from US forces? Hostile action by the VC? Miscalculated shelling by South Vietnamese forces? No one knew for certain. Confusion and horror were common-place, Coleman said. "People dealt with the war differently. I saw guys use drugs and mess themselves up. I avoided drugs and that stuff. I deal with it in my own way." He returned after one tour of duty, landing at Oakland Army Base to the sound of demonstrators' jeers. Baby killer, they called him. Genocide artist. "I told myself in the very beginning that when I went to Vietnam, I would go with a clear conscience. and I would go home with a clear conscience. I wouldn't let those things affect me," Coleman said. But he never went home to the Midwest, choosing California's "laid back" life instead.
Working as an assistant store manager for a major Department store chain in Southern California, Coleman and his co-worker bought their Redondo Beach store on Pacific Coast Highway 8 years ago. Their shop's success gives Coleman time to work on the library. More than 2,000 documents are still to be programmed, and probably hundreds of thousands more await, Coleman said. Meanwhile, people who never fought in Vietnam, besides those who did, are beginning to use his fledgling library. and Coleman continues to keypunch more info. "I think this was inevitable. I think so much had been done by people to suppress their feelings about Vietnam, it was inevitable the floodgates would open. People didn't want to think about it. "Now, we do."
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Please refer to 94th Year, Number 312 - 11 November 1988
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