(about 5 second pause, make eye contact with as many as possible in the audience)
Today we are not concerned with the intentions or results of the Vietnam War. Those debates – good or bad, communist dominoes or reelection politics – have no real answers even today. Even if they did those answers would not add or detract from the efforts of those who served in Vietnam. Their Vietnam was not experienced in conference rooms or the White House or around a table in Paris. Theirs was, if they were lucky, in Seabee-built plywood barracks or, if not so lucky, wrapped in a poncho in the rain, or, if unlucky, in the mud or an evacuation hospital. If really unlucky – well, let’s not talk about the bags. We are here today concerned with individual Vietnam veterans, the living and the dead, and their family members and survivors. What, on their personal level, did Vietnam mean?
‘Vietnam’ means something specific to each and every one of us here today. Nothing I can say will change your personal definition of ‘Vietnam’.
To some here, ‘Vietnam’ recalls the crack of bullets – miniature sonic booms, really – going past their heads. If you hear it, it missed. You don’t hear the one that gets you.
Others remember being unbelievably tired. Hot, humid, sweating, carrying heavy loads for long distances, very little sleep, tired.
Others cannot forget being absolutely terrified. Can’t think, can’t move terrified. But you forced yourself to think and move.
To some it means pain. Sudden, searing pain. Wondering if you will live pain. Treatment pain. Therapy pain. Chronic disability pain.
Many, too many, remember friends being killed.
To some it means feeling guilty for the rest of their life. “Why am I here and they are not?”
To some it recalls “Three days and a wake-up short”. But then a second tour. Maybe a third, thinking they couldn’t be lucky three times.
To some it still means “Give me another drink” to forget, but they can’t really forget. Those memories are still there when you sober up. But the numbness does help for a while.
None of those who were there are ever going to be the same. Some show it, some hide it inside, but none are ever the same.
None of those in the States who loved, or knew well, someone who was in Vietnam are ever the same either. No spouse or parent or stateside friend. The evening news and Walter Cronkite and letters, precious letters – all those changed the ones who waited. Seeing them different upon their return. Or finding out they would not return. Killed in Action. Did you know the KIA telegrams were delivered to the next of kin by taxi drivers? Not a Casualty Notification Officer, a taxi driver. Or Missing in Action. Never knowing. None who waited for those in service in Vietnam were not changed.
(another pause, make eye contact with as many as possible in the audience)
The French lost and got out. Eisenhower warned. Kennedy was pressured during the Cold War to expand our involvement. Johnson. Nixon. A growing war passed like a baton from administration to administration in a relay race where the finish line was never defined.
So what difference did the war make? Some say not much, except for those who were killed, wounded, or otherwise changed. Others say it preserved freedom. Maybe they are right in some ways. Witness the current ‘Made in Vietnam’ trade; their embassy in Washington, DC; their cities with multi-lane highways and tall buildings and tourists. American tourists. Vietnam War veteran American tourists.
In 1979 the Vietnamese, the best armed nation in Southeast Asia at the time thanks to what we left behind, stopped Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the former ally of North Vietnam. The Khmer madmen killed one third of the over six million population of Cambodia. Stopping the killing fields was good.
There is no shortage of madmen today. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the names change, but the madness seems ever present. What has changed is how we treated, then and now, those returning from war. This is perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the Vietnam War for those who served.
Let’s first consider the welcome for veterans who returned before Vietnam:
Those returning from World War II were greeted – except for those with low “point system” scores who came home well after the end of the war – with parades, celebrations, hugs and kisses. They had saved the civilized world from pure evil. This was no “let’s go to war for political reasons”, or even “let’s save those people”, this was “we have to fight to survive” and they won. The entire United States won. Everybody had pitched in. Victory gardens, rationing, everybody. It was finally over. We thought four years was a long war then. Military service organizations flourished and pressured Congress. The G.I. Bill created the middle class. It was the most cost effective social program in US history. The Marshall Plan saved Western Europe and created customers for our trade.
The Korean War – The Forgotten War: “Where is Korea? Why do we care about it?” And – the bottom line in more ways than one – “Those Asian people are not like us.” There was no total war effort, no babies postponed, no industries converted to arms manufacturing, few Rosies the Riveter, no rationing, no war bond drives, no delays of next-years-model cars, and hardly any weekly update newsreels before the main movie at the Princess and Indiana theaters. There was no personal feeling of a threat to be defeated and therefore no great relief when the armistice, our first non-victory, was signed. Proportionally, very few people contributed to the Korean War effort. Very few people cared – unless they cursed Truman for getting us involved or had a son overseas or both. The same people had cheered Truman’s decision six years earlier to use nuclear weapons on Japan. Korean War Johnny came home to “Where have you been? It’s too bad I have no job for you. Just six years and a different kind of war, the first US non-winnable war, resulted in a non-reception home. No parades. Just, “Where have you been?”
Let’s consider the welcome for veterans returning from wars following the Vietnam War:
Those returning from the first Gulf war had parades, yellow ribbons, and public ceremonies in which veterans of the “One Hundred Hour War” were treated as conquering heroes. American technology had decisively defeated Soviet technology. M-1 Abram tanks were much better than T-72 Soviet-designed tanks used by the Iraqis. Night vision devices beat being blind in the dark. Electronic counter-measures shut down Iraqi intelligence and communication systems. Laser and GPS guided bombs and cruise missiles made dramatic video subjects as they hit what they were supposed to hit. “Look at that cruise missile fly through that window! Those suckers didn’t have a chance!” The United States military was decisively, for sure, honest-to-gosh, just look at that road to Baghdad with all those burning hulks, the BEST! Let’s give those American men and women a welcome home they won’t forget!
Here we are today. Veterans returning from Afghanistan – the longest war in United States history, surpassing even Vietnam – and from Iraq have been, and continue to be, met by an “Honor our veterans!” mind set. There are designated volunteer greeters in airports. Military service organizations are recruiting new members as the WWII, Korea, and Vietnam vets’ ranks thin. There were, and still are today, television commercials for all sorts of products sold by heartwarming videos of veterans returning home. Veterans coming home and surprising their spouse, their children, even their dog. Facebook videos. Ads in magazines. We feel patriotic when buying the product being advertised. Stores and restaurants give veteran discounts. US flags are sold in Wal-Mart. We have great Memorial Day events and military floats in Fourth of July parades.
So how were the returning Vietnam War veterans treated in comparison to those welcomes we just described, including those happening now nearly every day?
Similar to the Korean War, people at home did not feel personally threatened by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army. At first, most were not even indirectly involved and lived normal lives, but that changed as the numbers of dead and wounded Americans started to mount. Johnny was sent home alright, but in a body bag or to linger in a Veterans Administration hospital, wearing a soiled diaper, sitting sedated in a wheelchair. The draft assured that by the end of the 1960s almost every town in the United States had lost someone to the war, or had someone maimed physically or psychologically.
The National Guard became the “poor man’s Canada” for those who could get in. Very few National Guard units were called up because the administration did not want the parents, siblings, and friends of neighborhood Guard unit members to be against the war. Parents, siblings, and friends vote.
Unlike the continuing emotional detachment from the Korean War, people at home did start to have strong feelings about the Vietnam War. Feelings strong enough to hate the war and protest and, in reaction, others had feelings strong enough to hate the protestors. The population was divided in a father against son, mother against daughter, neighbor against neighbor kind of way. Archie Bunker was a World War II veteran and did not understand Meathead’s attitude. Somewhere along the way, the protestor’s disgust with the war expanded to include those fighting it. The protestors hated the military and the military was soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. There was no dramatic, final victory with most of those who fought coming home about the same time. There were “tours of duty” in a seemingly never ending war, tours usually twelve months long. These Johnnies came home alone, usually by contract civilian aircraft, easily identifiable in uniform, defenseless – perfect targets for abuse and the venting of frustration by those opposed to the war.
Johnny was often called a baby killer. The My Lai Massacre – a result of poor command by third-string officers over frustrated soldiers who knew there was no victory possible and who had just lost several comrades – confirmed for the protestors that soldiers were killers of women and children.
So Johnny was spat upon, refused service, cursed, hit with ripe fruit, and physically struck. Men changed out of their uniform before leaving the airport. Hell, some before leaving the airplane. Men chose to go absent without leave and disappeared. Vietnam veterans did not return to wide spread comfort and understanding, far from it. Only close family members and friends tried to help.
There was no war victory, no real closure, to reduce the negative feelings. The “light at the end of the tunnel” was a mirage, another lie. Promises of secret plans to end the war were hollow. The US military – designed, trained, and equipped for rapid decisive action – became an occupational force with no end in sight. This same mistake was repeated in Iraq thirty years later by decision makers who had avoided serving in Vietnam. In the late 1970s I saw a T-shirt with blue writing on a white cotton background, three lines: “Southeast Asia War Games”, “1962 – 1975”, and the bottom line, “SECOND PLACE”. Most of us remember where we were when we watched the last helicopter leaving the roof of the US embassy in Saigon and those Vietnamese who had helped the Americans desperately struggling to get on board. “This is it? All the fighting, all the pain, all the death – for this?”
Many Vietnam veterans felt themselves to be outcasts and suffered alone. PTSD was not a fashionable diagnosis in those years. Treatment, if any, was primitive. Where was their victory? Who cared for them? What had they done wrong? Had they not fought as well? When hit had they not bled? Had they not also sacrificed the best years of their lives?
Then twenty years later a funny thing happened. There was a “yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.” Hundreds of thousands of yellow ribbons around everything that did not move and some things that did. The returning first Gulf War veterans were welcomed, nay, embraced by the media, the home towns, the major cities, and everyone felt good. If you looked hard, you could see forgotten Vietnam War veteran parents tying yellow ribbons for their sons and daughters coming back from the Gulf, and later for grandchildren returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. They did not want what had happened to them to happen to any other United States military men and women returning from war.
Too late for many Vietnam veterans to see, the rest of America has slowly come to realize that those who fought in Vietnam – those who fight in any war – are not to blame for the politics, the false promises, even the killing. The “crazed Vietnam War vet” jokes became less funny. Veterans courts were started to accommodate those who found it difficult to function within the norms of society. A Post 9/11 service G.I. Bill was passed. The Department of Veteran Affairs obtained better funding for medical care and a better appreciation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of the stealthy killer, Agent Orange.
More VA cemeteries have been opened. When I walk through them and read the “Vietnam” inscribed markers, I am stunned by how many lying below were born after me.
As I look out at you today, I see good men and women. You would not be here if you were not. I offer you this thesis for your consideration: was not the extent of gratitude shown by Americans to veterans returning from the first Gulf War and later wars not, in some way, a result of what had been denied the Vietnam veterans? Is there such a thing as collective regret? Resulting in a collective determination to do better? I think there was and is. The alternative, that there really was something uniquely bad about the Vietnam War veterans, is as incredible as it is undeserved. They served at least as well and at least as honorably as veterans of any other war.
If any benefits resulted from the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans, contributing to the restored status of veterans in America must rank as the highest.
In closing, the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone! Although the scars remain, yesterday’s gone. (say slowly and with emphasis) Yesterday’s gone.
(look up and smile!)
I will cheerfully accept my ten percent discount at Lowe’s! And a free meal at Texas Roadhouse and Golden Corral on Veterans Day! And remember the good days – there were some good days too – in Vietnam. And remember the comrades I made there and the ones I lost there. And the ones I’ve lost since. And blink back a tear. And move on.
2 thoughts on “Fifty Years Ago, More or Less”
Thank you, John for sharing! I was brought up to believe all of our veterans are heros and to show them the respect that they all deserve! They “are” heroes. I believed it when I was a child and I believe it still.
Hooah! John, I enlisted in 1976 (age 17) and had the honor of serving with a lot of great people who had been to VN , including you. As I recall, morale was low and talk of the war in the ranks was rare. There was a drug problem in the barracks (I saw it first hand). We have come a long way in many respects. The current politics and spector of sequestration have eroded some of the gains. I salute all Viet Nam veterans for all that they have done in and out of uniform to raise awareness and to influence our national discourse.