NOTE: I’m a member of a group of Vietnam veterans affiliated with Veterans For Peace called the Vietnam War Full Disclosure project. We would like to see a more historically accurate representation of the Vietnam War as presented by the pentagon in its 50 Year Commemoration of the war, which is scheduled to begin with the 50th anniversary of the March 1965 Marine landing at DaNang. The government wants to commemorate the war as about “the defense of our nation’s freedom,” whereas Full Disclosure sees the anniversary as an opportunity for a national dialogue. The Vietnamese did nothing to us that required an invasion and occupation; all they wanted was independence from, first, the French, then from the United States. This is not a unique struggle for us in this country. The new government in Japan is becoming more militaristic and is suddenly making an effort to quash generally accepted historical accounts concerning imperial Japan’s policies in the 1940s with the so-called “comfort women” in Korea and China. The Dutch a few years back went through a national dialogue concerning their brutal military occupation in Indonesia. As part of its mission, Full Disclosure has launched a Letter To The Wall campaign. My letter to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is below; it’s an effort to see my service for what it was. The letters will be gathered and placed at the Vietnam War Memorial on Memorial Day 2015. For more information, go to the Full Disclosure website.
Dear Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall:
You’re a wide granite gash in the earth, like the war itself, a man-made construction set within the order of nature. As I look back 49 years, I understand the war was a much more rude and shameful event than the grace of your shape in the earth might suggest. But you’re what you are and where you are to recognize sacrifice divorced of politics. Speaking to you is speaking to the dead, and like a good hospice caregiver must do, one first needs to respect the dying and the dead. Addressing you is different than addressing the flag. Your dead were all part of a massive historic enterprise; but the simple fact at the root of all religion is we die alone and the ultimate providence of those named on your surface remains an eternal mystery.
I was in Vietnam as a 19-year-old kid. I joined the Army and became a radio direction finder in the Army Security Agency. Once trained in DF principles and practiced in Morse code, I volunteered to go to Vietnam, as did my older brother, a lieutenant in the Army infantry. I went with a company by troop ship from Oakland; it took 17 days and the ship anchored off shore of Qui Nhon. In the morning, the entire company was loaded onto a large LCU, which chugged toward the beach. I’d watched John Wayne hit the beach at Iwo Jima, and I had no idea what to expect. They’d given us a clip of 7.62mm ammunition for the wooden stocked M14s we had been issued.
The LCU hit the beach with a long WHOOOOOSH. The high bow plate was slowly lowered, and we saw men in bathing suits sunbathing and several blue air-conditioned buses with steel grates over the windows to take us to the Qui Nhon airbase, where they would load us onto a C-130 for a flight to Pleiku. I recall two things about the trip to the airbase. One, the teeming movement of people and poverty I had never seen before. The heat was no issue, since I’d been raised in south Florida above the Keys. The other thing I recall was looking out the window and when the bus stopped for traffic noticing a young kid, maybe ten, out the window. He seemed older than his age. When he saw me, he flipped me a bird.
Our company ended up attached to the 25th Infantry Division based in Pleiku. In an odd coincident, the second day I was in Vietnam, the 25th Division flew my brother back from an operation out by the Cambodian border; I hadn’t seen him in two years. I was soon sent with seven other direction finders to firebases in the same area as my brother, all part of Operation Paul Revere. We were three teams of two given jeeps equipped with PRD1 DF radios that we had used to learn DF principles at Fort Devon, Massachusetts. We had been told the PRD1 was an obsolete WWII piece of equipment. When not using the jeeps, our teams were dispersed in the woods in armored personnel carriers or by helicopters. We envisioned ourselves romantically as foul balls sent to the boonies from the main company — a squad of rogues. We were kids and part of a huge army, and we felt we were special.
Our job was to spread out and locate tactical enemy radios, which amounted to a Vietnamese radio operator sending five letter coded groups of Morse code with a leg key along with a comrade working a bicycle generator. If we were lucky enough in the incredible mountainous terrain to get a tight fix from three bearings, we’d pass it on to division intelligence, who would process the coordinates and send out Air Force F4s, an artillery barrage or a unit of infantry. The Vietnamese knew we were looking for them, so the radio operators did their transmitting away from their dug-in headquarters. Over time, locating the same operator every day for a month, a pattern would become evident. We located them; others did their best to kill them.
We were REMFs — rear echelon mother-fuckers. On one operation, when my team partner and I were dropped by chopper onto a huge rock atop a mountain overlooking the border, I felt I was really out there. The half-squad of “grunts” also dropped onto the rock looked at the job of protecting these two REMFs as vacation duty from the normal task of humping the boonies.
After a year of this, I made it home without a scratch and without a bit of trauma. As I look back, considering all the names on your shiny black granite surface and what my brother and other combat veterans went through, in the spirit of confession, I have to say sometimes I feel unworthy to be called a “Vietnam veteran.” Of course, I know that’s not true, and I am a Vietnam veteran. I led a charmed existence with violence and horror going on all around me that never touched me. I know friends who suffered terribly. I’ve met vets who did horrible things and suffer for it. A friend earned a silver star for an act of incredible bravery. I’m friends with an African American veteran of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 1975 act of violence clearly rooted in PTSD. A federal judge ruled his conviction for First Degree Murder was a “miscarriage of justice” when what he was guilty of was manslaughter. The district judge was overruled, and Pennsylvania political leaders don’t have the courage to address such an injustice. For some reason I remember a captain commanding an infantry company I spent time with. This CO was respected, even loved; he seemed like an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. One of the grunts told me how the captain had crawled out under fire to save one of his men, only to find him dead — and how they had later found the man in tears embracing the dead man.
I’m a Vietnam veteran with survival guilt. It’s my lasting bond to the names on your reflecting surface. Oddly, I do not know any of the 58,000 people attached to those names.
At a firebase I was at, the lieutenant colonel in charge of the battalion dropped leaflets daring the NVA to attack his firebase. He had mines dug in all around the camp. An NVA push was moving through the area. A guy on the perimeter let me look through his night scope, and you could see them as moving white shapes. I was pretty scared and got all my magazines lined up for a big attack. When the NVA decided to pass us by, the colonel ordered all the mines removed. One of the young privates assigned to that job blew himself to pieces just outside the perimeter near my little bunker. I watched a chaplain’s detail pick him up in pieces and put him on a stretcher. I don’t know his name, but I presume it’s on your granite surface, even if his death was caused by his own team.
The closest I got to knowing a name on your wall was when, back in base camp, someone radioed me from the field that my brother had been killed. Friends fed me warm beers as I eulogized him; his wife had just had a baby. I was going to escort the body home. Four hours later, the Red Cross called to tell me it was another Lieutenant Grant. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. My brother became a lawyer.
Writing to you like this turns my mind to inglorious things. So I should tell you about base camp life and the whoring in Pleiku bars. Later, when the 25th moved north and we were attached to the 4th Division, a little constructed village of bordello/bars was set up outside the wire of 4th Division headquarters. Girls as young as fifteen worked there and were inspected regularly by division medics to avoid any down-time due to the clap. I was young, and at times the trysts with these girls felt innocent, even sweet. But now I know different; now I understand the erotic masculine power of being part of a massive imperial Army in a poor place like Vietnam. The Tale of Thuy Kieu by Nguyen Du was published in 1820 and is considered the national epic poem of Vietnam; it is about a young woman who, in order to save her family, works as a prostitute — before she goes on to become a guerrilla fighter. It was not only REMFs; whoring was an epidemic in Vietnam, literally and metaphorically. Sometimes sexual tension was expressed in terribly abusive fashion, like the time a drunken infantry staff sergeant shot up a laundry/bar outside Pleiku and wounded one of the girls. Sometimes in the field, the mixture of this tension with fear and adrenaline led to violent rape. I sometimes see myself and my comrades in Vietnam as the worst kind of cliché American tourists in the world. Instead of cameras, we had guns.
As I imagine your long gash in the earth with all those names etched into your stone, I think of how I read Graham Greene’s famous little novel The Quiet American when I was in high school. Besides my gung-ho militarist father, more than anything, I think Greene’s vision of a sexy colonial world seduced me to want to go to Vietnam. It was a desire to “see the world,” like the recruitment posters used to say. I had nothing against the Vietnamese, north or south. My ignorance was complete. I didn’t want to kill anyone; what I wanted was to see an exotic place and meet people different than myself. I really think this was the case. The fact the huge historical enterprise you memorialize ended up consuming 58,000 American lives, several million Vietnamese lives and destroying much of Vietnam is, for me, the major tragedy of my time.
And I was there. I was a part of it.
In 2002, I visited Vietnam twice and made an 82-minute film about a wounded US Marine veteran living and working there. The experience was as powerful as my first trip. I now realize the film is really about what can only be called my love affair with Vietnam. Some psychiatrists will tell you love relationships are really complicated love/hate relationships. Given the history of US/Vietnam relations going back to fighting the Japanese with our Vietminh allies during World War Two, I think this is the case with America and Vietnam. The Vietnamese loved us in 1945, but something went terribly wrong.
As I consider your elegant simplicity and the great suffering you represent, I realize now, 49 years after my first connection with Vietnam, that I’m committed to the love side of that complex state of mind and heart. In a better world, the war would never have happened. Maybe I would have gone somewhere else in the world and done something I felt better about.
And you would not exist.
Vietnam, August 1966 to August 1967