“The Vietnam War,” Episode Four: (Jan. 1966 – June 1967)

Today is the International Day of Peace, Thursday, September 21st,  established in 1981 by a unanimous United Nations resolution. At a time when our President is threatening to nuke North Vietnam, we might consider re-reading Hiroshima by John Hersey to remind us of the devastation nuclear weapons cause. “Most of the city is destroyed and thousands of its inhabitants died. Some of its citizens survive and suffer the debilitating effects of terrible burns and radiation illness.”

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[What follows is a brief summary of Episode Four of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Special “The Vietnam War” along with my personal commentaries, songs, and writings about where I was during this period. – Former 1Lt. Richard Morris, A Co. 2nd Bn 5th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1967-68]

In January 1966, I left my graduate studies at Western Reserve University in Cleveland (now Case-Western Reserve) because I decided that I did not want a career doing research and teaching at a college. Knowing that I would likely be drafted if I dropped out (the monthly draft increased from 10,000 to 30,000 in 1966) and wanting to serve as an officer in the military like a favorite uncle had in World War II, I enlisted in the Army to go to Infantry Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning in Georgia, after taking basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC, and advanced infantry training at Ft. Gordon, GA. Then I volunteered to serve in Vietnam, knowing that’s where they would send me anyway. I met Barbara while I was in OCS in October of 1966, we married in March of 1967, and after two weeks of Jungle School in Panama, I was shipped to Ankhe, Vietnam in June 1967.

Combat Air Assault

In 1966, we had 2344 soldiers killed in Vietnam and a total of 184,300 troops in country. I joined A Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile):  A2/5 as a platoon leader. The man I replaced had had both his legs blown off below the knee (I saw him at a reunion a few years ago and he was walking quite well on his prosthetic legs). The company commander had been killed, and the new commander was said to be a real SOB. Everything had to be done by the book, including establishing a defensive perimeter by digging chest-deep foxholes every night everywhere we went and sleeping holes to get our bodies below the surface of the ground so that mortar shrapnel would miss us. We hated him, but after several months when we received no casualties while killing and capturing many enemy soldiers without committing an atrocity or burning a hooch, we learned to love our commander.

Fullbright Hearings

In the fall of 1966, while I was in OCS, hearing, “What’s the mission of the Infantry?” “To kill!” “I can’t hear you!” “To kill!”  “I still can’t hear you!” “To kill!!”, Senators William Fullbright and Wayne Morse were holding hearings on the war, including some atrocities, and George Kennan, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and advocate of a policy of containment of Soviet expansion, was saying that we had “illusions of invincibility” in Vietnam. The anti-war movement was gaining steam, although a majority of Americans still supported the war.  In 1966, the war started to affect the middle class–the military was drafting out of college. Protest shifted from moral to self-interest. The Viet Cong were now said to control seventy percent of the country. Cologne No. 10 For Men is about the illusions and delusions of the war.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, Jan. 1961 – Feb. 1968

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara believed that everything could be quantified. Our generals were discussing the “Crossover Point” at which we kill more of them than they can replace from the north. This involved keeping track of enemy KIA (killed in action). It was also useful to count friendly KIA so that we could divide enemy KIA by friendly KIA to determine the kill ratio. Ten to one was a “good” kill ratio and meant we were winning. However, the process tended to motivate our soldiers to kill civilians and count them as enemy KIA. Cologne No. 10 For Men, my Vietnam War satire, is all about counting bodies, and my Skytroopers CD contains a song entitled “Counting Bodies in the Nam . . . to prove that we have won.” Unlike World Wars I and II and Korea, no ground was held in Vietnam. We could take and hold a hamlet during the day, and the VC could take control at night and draft soldiers, get food, and tax the villagers. We could count hamlets as pacified that were really under the control of the VC.

In 1966, we mounted a Search and Destroy Campaign – a forty-two-day offensive – in which we mounted air assaults of hamlets, searched them for VC, weapons, and food caches. If the hamlet was found to be harboring VC, it would be destroyed, which was at odds with the goal of “winning the hearts and minds” of the people.

VC/NVA munitions, weapons, food, and uniforms, and other equipment formerly was supplied by small junks sailing from North Vietnam to the South in the South China Sea, but when a naval blockade ended that route, the VC/NVA began carrying and then trucking gear down the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” along the border between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–12,000 miles of unpaved roadway under the canopy of trees. The U.S. bombed it with B-52s leaving large craters in the road. But the North had 230,000 teenagers work to keep the road open–filling in the craters, repairing bridges, etc. The U.S. sprayed Agent Orange on the jungle to expose the road. Still, the trucks rumbled and the shipments went on. Gen. Westmoreland wanted 200,000 more troops to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. Johnson sent “only” 47,000.

 

North Vietnamese gunners were becoming more proficient in shooting down our bombers. In tens of thousands of sorties, aimed at Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, many bombs hit residential areas, and a hundred airmen were eventually put in the old French prison, tortured until some of them recorded the confessions their captors demanded.

Many of our leaders–military and civilian–were lying about Vietnam, but we had to keep going because we couldn’t let our soldiers die in vain.

Next Episode: Five: “This Is What We Do” (July 1967 – December 1967), Thursday, Sept. 21

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