Click here to go to My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later, PART ONE: “A REMF Way Out In The Front”
MEMORY, WRITING and POLITICS
That writer’s place inside the imaginative mind where things rise from the unconscious and find their way outward to the fingertips and onto the keyboard to become words — that place is neither fact nor fiction. This is a fact. Donald Trump has made this fact more clear than maybe anyone ever has in modern memory. In that writer’s place, I’ve always employed Bao Ninh’s character Kien from The Sorrow Of War and the ill-fated 27th NVA Battalion as stand-ins for the unit I helped locate for death and destruction. I see the lush terrain of Vietnam’s Central Highlands now in my mind as an opening master shot in a movie. The camera is looking out the open door of a Huey in the early dawn hours. There is actually no door at all on the chopper, and cool air is rushing into the passenger compartment where I sit on a canvas seat with no seatbelt holding my M14 rifle. (In 1966, REMFs still had long, wood-stocked M14s.) Everything is green and gold from the rising sun. I’m stunned looking at the winding Se San River like a golden snake slithering through the forest reaching to the horizon. This was probably the most amazing, most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. The image and moment is seared into the creases of my mind.
Earlier that morning, I’d leaped up onto the top of our three-quarter-ton truck’s box, and as an olive-drab behemoth, two-prop Chinook slowly lowered itself down toward me, I’d slapped a metal ring onto a hook below the massive copter’s belly. Out the door of the Huey, over the Se San River, I watched the truck with its box containing maps and DF paraphernalia trailing in the wind on a sling beneath the Chinook; a jeep and trailer had been driven inside the belly of the beast. Our mobile DF operation was headed toward the border as part of a huge operation to engage and clear the NVA streaming down from the north via the Ho Chi Minh trail and into the Highlands. There is an amazing sense of power one gets — especially as a kid — from being a small part of such a powerful and immense army of men. I realize now we were looking for young Vietnamese men like Kien and the 27th Battalion.
I actually saw men like Kien on two occasions. The first was when a very gaunt, hungry man in black with a khaki pith helmet, sick with malaria, turned himself in on our firebase perimeter. There’d been a wild shootout along the perimeter the night before, apparently the NVA testing the camp. The second time, I was about to go outside the perimeter with paper to move my bowels at the rough facility, when a rather bemused infantryman told me to hold up. “Maybe you don’t want to go out there night now, pal” he said. He had me look into a pair of night glasses he had set up on a tripod. Just beyond the shitter, I could see little white ghosts moving back and forth. It was news to me that we were virtually surrounded. My bowels tightened up and I returned to my little bunker, where I made sure my M14 was in good order and I had magazines loaded and ready. I later learned the lieutenant colonel who commanded the battalion had ordered leaflets dropped into the jungle challenging the NVA to hit our firebase. He was virtually calling the NVA “pussies” if they didn’t attack his fine base. The NVA didn’t fall for the bait and decided to move on. The colonel had ordered mines to be placed around the perimeter, and once the surrounding NVA left, he ordered them to be removed. Of course, a detail of privates was assembled, one of whom blew himself to kingdom come. I heard the BOOM! Then lots of hollering and running medics. In the end, a chaplain led a detail of other privates picking up the loose pieces of the unfortunate young draftee. I also learned that lieutenant colonels like the man who led this battalion served six-month tours and often asked their men to do brave things to accrue glory to the colonel’s record so he could make rank in the competitive environment of Vietnam. It was known as “punching your ticket.” Later, hearing Jonathon Winters do his routine as Colonel Robert Winglow — “OK, men, you can feel secure knowing I’m a thousand meters behind you up on a hill watching through the long lenses. Forward, men! I have you in the long lenses.” — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I’d be remiss in not recounting how this lieutenant colonel left our firebase on a stretcher. He passed by me carried by two men, headed toward the LZ and a Huey back to the division hospital. The tough warhorse to the bitter end, he was hollering, “Get that son-of-a-bitch! I want that bastard!” In his wounded condition, the colonel thought an NVA sniper had nailed him. Alas, this was not the case. A young private near me had been cleaning his M16, and not realizing there was a round in the chamber, had sent a round into the colonel’s tent, through the colonel’s gut and then through the executive officer’s calf. The two field grade officers had been discussing tactical issues. I’m not sure what happened to the poor private. A new lieutenant colonel was flown out to the firebase to punch his ticket and spur the unit on to even greater glory. Of course, I was there to help the colonel point his men in the right direction.
While I have zero trauma from my Vietnam experience, as you may have noticed I have a pretty bad attitude about the military and the war itself. I also have a whopping case of survival guilt. One, because I made it home without a scratch. And, two, because I had it so easy. My thinking now is all wrapped up in atoning for what I’d call my moral cluelessness at the time. Most Americans not active in the antiwar movement were guilty of this moral cluelessness during the war and many still are guilty of it. Like the cartoon Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes they keep it up by saying, “I see nah-thing!” It’s a failure — more a willful refusal — to recognize the tremendous suffering we caused the Vietnamese. We obsess on our own losses and our own suffering, our 58,000 dead on the wall in Washington. Not that we should not honor and mourn these dead; it’s that the Vietnamese lost so many more and suffered so much more than we did. And when distilled down to its essence, the war really makes little sense except as an expression of Cold War hysteria. We talk about “lessons” learned that never seem to really get at what should have been learned. Few dwell on the fact we slaughtered somewhere between two and three million Vietnamese and Indochinese people. And that’s not counting the immense destruction of infrastructure and upheavals in family life and the legacy of Agent Orange in the ecosystem and a host of other areas of suffering.
I recall a very diplomatic, English-speaking veteran from the North making a tour of the US in the late 80s; our Veterans For Peace chapter in Philly hosted him. I was on local TV news walking him in the rain under an umbrella past the Philadelphia Vietnam War memorial. He was a good man and very moved. ROTC officers at the university I worked at saw me on TV with him and made it clear they found it disgusting that I had taken him there. Later, I saw video of this man in a gathering of US Vietnam veterans in New York. I watched him break down into sobbing over what seemed to me frustration with the lack of understanding or sensitivity in these men for the great suffering of the Vietnamese. In my reading of the scene, these men couldn’t see past the idea of “communist” and could only focus on their own pain. Maybe peer pressure worked against anyone extending sympathy to this alien man from halfway around the world. The pain of these men was no doubt very real, but it was dwarfed by the pain this friendly, forgiving man represented, a man who showed great fortitude and courage to travel halfway around the world alone to reveal himself in the midst of American culture.
Memories like this only reinforce my disgust for the Vietnam War and the unnecessary evil it represents. Again, I challenge anyone to tell me what the Vietnamese ever did to us. The historian Mark Moyar recently suggested in an essay in The New York Times series Vietnam 1967 that the Vietnam War was “winnable” — if only we had done this or that differently. To me, that kind of what-if, alternative history is an utter waste of time that amounts to fiction like Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel The Man In The High Castle, an alternative history that imagines the Nazis winning World War Two. Rambo was that kind of alternative history as pop cinema entertainment. A malaise-ridden nation was presented with the macho Hollywood hero Sylvester Stallone — a man who spent the Vietnam War teaching in a girls school in Switzerland — giving us his trademark sneer all decked out in greased-up pectoral muscles. Brandishing a huge Bowie knife and hand-held M60, John Rambo did what the United States Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and Air Force could not do. He emotionally won the Vietnam War inside a darkened theater inside our hermetically-sealed, exceptional minds. It’s the same thing Donald Trump is trying to do with the collective American mind as it feels the haunting reality of decline gnawing at its perceptions of greatness.
Nursing our moral loss in Vietnam as if it were an insult doesn’t help. The Vietnamese beat us fair and square. They didn’t beat us in the capacity for mass, hi-tech slaughter; there’s no question we could have “won” if life was only about the ability to kill people by the thousands or millions. They beat us on moral grounds. They were right; we were wrong. As Ho Chi Minh reportedly said: “We can lose longer than you can win.” Or another famous line told to Robert McNamara by a Vietnamese diplomat in the 1990s: “We knew you would eventually leave. You Americans could leave; we lived here and we could not leave.” Or as Ward Just put it in a great little book written in 1968 called To What End: “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years.”
Revisionist “winners” like Mark Moyar should surrender and find another, more productive topic to research. It should be clear that such alternative histories on the Vietnam War are purely political and meant to reinforce our contemporary militarist class and its future options. There’s a reluctance to give the Vietnamese credit for their talent for suffering and survival, which is what beat us. There’s so much we could learn from the Vietnamese in the area of humility, resilience and forgiveness. But we prefer to see those traits as the characteristics of a loser and a patsy. We insist on being winners even if, to borrow the famous Eastwood line, it requires us to be “legends in our own minds.”
Truth and Fact are at the core of all this. It’s interesting that the Vietnam war correspondent Ward Just wrote his eloquent 1968 memoir To What End and, then, shifted his career to fiction and novel writing. Dealing purely in reality was not enough. Just was ahead of his time in this respect, anticipating the fact-free, truth-phobic Age of Trump where the art of bullshit prevails. Just quotes the playwright Harold Pinter as an epigram in To What End: “There is no hard distinction between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. The thing is not necessarily either true or false. It can be both true and false.” A writer’s mind is unlike a lawyer’s mind, which is always dependent on a citation from some governmental legal book. A writer’s mind is free and, accordingly, dangerous. The philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer in the 1950s said: “We’re geniuses at six, and it’s all downhill from there.” Today, we’re drowning in information, data and stories. Ironically, surveillance, secrecy and power dominate our lives like never before. Violence becomes a cynical tool like never before. Still, human connection is the key to getting anywhere, leading to the disaffected left’s cry-in-the-street, “The people united will never be defeated.” Trouble is, that kind of unity is much easier said than done, given all the distractions of culture and technology.
In 2002, I made a film in Vietnam and motor biked west of Hanoi with two friends, a seriously wounded Marine veteran named Frank Corcoran living and working in Vietnam, the subject of the film, and a Vietnamese woman who did translating. In 1968, Frank, also a kid, was in Vietnam 45 days when he was seriously shot in the stomach. As he lay bleeding-out under fire, two men crawled out to help him. Between them, these men managed to bandage him up, before they were both shot and killed. Frank healed physically but still deals with classic PTSD. In the 84-minute film called Second Time Around, he speaks eloquently about the humanity — the human love! — that drove these more experienced men to save his young life. It’s a tale that will make you shake your head in admiration for the sacrifice and bravery under fire of infantrymen in Vietnam. As Frank emphasizes, their actions had nothing — zero! — to do with country and patriotism.
As we drove our motorbikes westward out of Hanoi, we really had no idea where we were going, but we trusted the Vietnamese. We ended up in a village talking with a man our age who had been an NVA soldier along the DMZ between North and South Vietnam. In his little store he had a crude tin tank about eight feet high full of fermenting beer that he dispensed from a garden-style faucet sticking out of the bottom of the tank. It was probably the worst beer I’ve ever tasted, but that didn’t seem to matter. It had been a long, hot day and we were all delighted with each other’s company. As we drank his beer and began to get a buzz on, we told stories through our translator about our relative roles in the war. We all agreed that was then; this is now — and now is different. There were no recriminations either way; just a mutual respect and joy in telling stories and laughing together. In the back of our minds, we all knew that, in years past, we would have had to think about killing each other. My friend and I made it clear we were disgusted with our government and its policies, during the war and now. We then learned that this man felt the same way about his government, then and now. We toasted each other and cursed all governments, drank more bad beer and laughed. I forget the details, but he had been disgusted with some policies the government of the North had initiated along the DMZ. I concluded it was the North Vietnamese version of what is known in our military as “chicken shit.” The NVA soldiers we were fighting back in the 60s were just as trapped as many of us were; they had their own version of FUBAR: Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. What our World War Two fathers called SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. When we left the man’s shop, it was amazing we could stay up on our motorbikes. I recall it as a wonderful moment of human solidarity that transcended the self-perpetuating crimes of militarism and patriotism.
On a daily basis, now, we see the rise of arrogance and belligerence in the world. It seems to be seasonal, and we’re entering a new season of it. One of the most striking examples of this is the Philippines, where the sociopathic President Rodrigo Dutarte proudly advocates and oversees the murder of thousands by death squads and now — surprise! — finds himself at war in his home province against an uprising linked with ISIS. I read a story in The New York Times that quoted a civilian caught between these two murderous forces. It’s the-same-old-story from the Vietnam War and other wars, including gang wars and police violence in places like inner city Chicago. Civilians caught in the crossfire. Donald Trump, of course, adores Mr. Duterte’s authoritarian impulses, as he does Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s in Egypt and the Saudi royals on the Arabian peninsula. His connection with the authoritarian Vladimir Putin seems quite unsavory and somehow revolving around greed. How did it come about that the world should descend into this kind of seasonal maelstrom of overweening authority? Has it always been like this? And now with i-phones and everything connected on the internet we just have more access to information, making us more aware of how crazy life is? In exceptional American, we’ve deluded ourselves that being “ill-used by fate” — what the Vietnamese heroine Thuy Kieu was stoically inured to — is a very un-American fate. Faced with difficulty, we take charge, kick some ass and take some names. If things aren’t going our way, we fake it and make things up. Then, we mobilize and drop huge bombs and kill people from 12,000 miles away while sitting in an air-conditioned cubicle sipping a Diet Coke, anticipating the end of our shift and going home to play with our kids and watch TV.
During Memorial Day ceremonies, I attended a reading of Martin Luther King’s famous Riverside Church speech where he linked the Vietnam War with the Civil Rights Movement. Many believe this is why he was assassinated. It was chilling to hear the speech and recognize the resonances with our own insane time. He wanted to know where we in the US had gone wrong. Why didn’t we support the liberation movements fighting to lift the yoke of colonial oppression in places like Vietnam? He was the rare case in 1968 in that he knew the history and he publicly articulated it: The anti-colonial liberation movement in Vietnam had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with our forces against the Japanese and, in 1945 when the war was won, had quoted our Declaration of Independence from colonial oppression in their declaration of independence document. For speaking this, the man was murdered.
I’m not as naïve as I was 50 years ago on that mountaintop overlooking the Cambodian border in Vietnam. I know the rise of a seasonal wave of Social Darwinism when I see it. We’re probably closer to civil war in this country than at any time in modern memory. As is the nature of our times, this civil war may break out in “acts of terror” by “losers,” as Donald Trump would say. In an unprecedented fashion, President Trump is playing hard to his core constituency, the people who mobbed to his speeches, people he’d stroke like a giant cat by hollering, “Punch him in the face!” when a heckler disrupted his words. He’s abandoning sensible Republicans on things like the Paris Accords. He sucks up to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as he intentionally insults Germany, France and Europe. Established coalitions are being thrown into topsy-turvy confusion. Political factions, including the fragmented left, begin to wonder what strange bedfellow they should bunk up with. Corruption and war have crawled into our entertainment industry and found a lucrative home. We are becoming addicted to the i-phones we carry with us everywhere and becoming more and more lost in the world of the internet, which is becoming a major crime scene and cold-war zone.
As a kid sitting atop that huge mountain in the midst of the most beautiful terrain imaginable, the Se San River winding its way through it like a golden snake, I could never have imagined the leadership of America that had sent me there to help kill Vietnamese would eventually lead us to the cataclysmic condition we’re now living through. And let’s not delude ourselves: While not letting others off the hook, American leadership is implicated profoundly in the current disastrous state of the world. The slow-motion train wreck we read about on a daily basis makes me nostalgic for that simple meeting west of Hanoi, fueled by terrible, home-brewed beer, with a former enemy who years earlier would have wanted to kill me, and vice versa, because, in that case, my leaders could not find the humility to sit down and work out their problems with his leaders.
A Vietnam vet friend of mine tells me I should apply for PTSD status. Maybe it’s because of my brother and so many friends who served in the infantry that I feel it would be wrong. I really don’t feel I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I feel that the spirit of social Darwinism and war has become so intense that everybody in our culture suffers from war stress. What I have is Survival Guilt and POCS: Pissed-Off-Citizen-Syndrome. Bill McKibben, the environmentalist leader who founded 350.org, said it best in a Times op-ed following President Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Accords. He cited the “dysfunctional American political process” as the cause of our problem. That problem, he wrote, isn’t “because [Trump] didn’t take climate change seriously, but also because he didn’t take civilization seriously.”
We’re being dragged into a Hobbesian world of war in which everybody is being pitted against everybody else. We’re no longer imperially hunting the Vietnamese in far-away forests. Leaders like Trump are now fighting for themselves first and planning to search out and destroy those weaker and poorer than they are. The Resistance is growing and reaching into the mainstream. Maybe it’s not too late to learn something from the Vietnamese about resilience and how to resist and survive the crushing of the cooperative spirit.
Finally, from The Tale of Kieu:
Roosters crowed at the moon. She walked and walked,
leaving her tracks on the dew-sprinkled bridge.
Deep into the night, along a road unknown,
She braved the wind and weather and went on.
Click here to go to My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later, PART ONE: “A REMF Way Out In The Front”