I just completed ten blog posts summarizing Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War series and inserting comments about what I was doing at the time or how that particular segment related to my Vietnam War satire, Cologne No. 10 for Men, or the songs on my “Skytroopers” CD.
This war went on … and on … and on. The last of our troops left in March of 1973. By that time I was in my isolated mountain community designing and building custom homes, building my family (three children by 1975), building my business by adding a small prefab housing facility, immersed in energy-efficient passive solar design, and participating in community theater and other events. The war to me was very far away. But gradually I began to look back through the lens of hindsight and contemporary morality.
Every soldier’s war was different. Much of the difference depended upon what year or decade one was there and what job one had. Some shuffled paperwork on safe military bases. Others drove trucks, repaired helicopters, built roads and bridges, Military police, Judge Advocate Corps, Medical Services . . . . Somewhere between five and fifteen percent actually saw combat.
If you’ve read my posts, you may have noted that I was a “hawk” and supported my government’s actions throughout the events of the entire KB/LN series. At some point though, after I left Vietnam, I began to reassess this support, especially after we withdrew from the war after losing 58,000 of our men KIA and 153,000 wounded. South Vietnam suffered the majority of an estimated 2,000,000 civilians killed. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam ARVN suffered 266,000 killed, and there were 1,011,000 North Vietnamese combat deaths.
(I didn’t know it then, but now, in 2017, it is estimated that fifteen percent of Vietnam veterans [389,100] came home with PTSD. Thousands more are homeless, and thousands are addicts or alcoholics. “More than 150,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since coming home from Vietnam. This is almost three times the number of soldiers that actually died during the war.” Thousands of others have suffered cancers from Agent Orange.)
In 1978, in our secluded mountain community, we heard about Vietnamese boat people escaping Vietnam and coming to the United States after living in refugee camps in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In the U.S., the Lutheran Church established an organization to help the new arrivals, and I thought that our rural Methodist Church should get involved.
I had also made acquaintances with members of an Amish church nearby, and they wanted to help. Eventually, our two churches took a family of ten Vietnamese. The Amish people had a vacant house that they made available. It had a coal furnace, gas refrigerator, and no electricity, but every night an Amish neighbor would come in, stoke the furnace, light the kerosene lights, and shovel the snow off the walks. My mother and sister would drive the family to doctor’s and dental appointments, and on shopping trips, and our nephew, the dentist, donated his time, as did the doctor. After a while, I employed one member on my carpenter crew building houses. Many other people helped. The family stayed a year and then moved on to a relative in Chicago and later to Santa Ana, California, a large Vietnamese community, where the weather was warm like Vietnam. Now, today, most of the children have graduated from college and have secured good jobs. Several recently came to visit us and their Amish friends.
Meanwhile, I kept looking back at my Vietnam War experience, wondering whether we should have been fighting there. “In November 1967, to the flag-waving warriors of the Vietnam Era, [Robert] Kennedy, on national television, had said the following: ‘We are killing South Vietnamese, we’re killing children, we’re killing women, we’re killing innocent people because we don’t want to have the war fought on American soil, or because they’re 12,000 miles away and they might get to be 11,000 miles away.’”
I began to consider all the illusions and delusions of the war, and my mind began to swing toward opposing the war. Many tactical operations seemed absurd, like our:
Free fire zones, where we or our helicopter support could kill anything that moved. Anyone who was running was assumed to be the enemy.
Search and Destroy missions (later called Search and Clear) that sought to win the hearts and minds of civilians by sometimes burning their homes.
Measuring our success by counting enemy bodies (KIA) and “friendly” bodies and dividing the enemy KIA by our KIA to determine “kill ratios.” A ten-to-one kill ratio was considered pretty good. Unfortunately, commanders started gaming the system and finding bodies or killing civilians to increase their kill ratios. In other wars, we measured our success by taking and holding ground, but not in Vietnam. Listen to my song “Counting Bodies in the Nam” (2007), lyrics.
Fighting our way to the top of a hill, losing untold men to enemy fire, and then giving the hill back after we conquered it. What was the point?
The one-year tour of duty for troops made the soldier’s goal surviving for the year and going home rather than fighting until the war was won and the mission was accomplished. Was our objective to win or survive? I remember the World War I George M. Cohan song: “Over there . . . we’re going over . . . and we won’t come home till it’s over over there.”
The idea that we could win by dropping bombs on the enemy. This destroyed his homes and family, but never his desire to rid the country of us, the enemy.
The idea that killing thousands of people with bombs and artillery is not an atrocity, but Lt. Calley’s actions at My Lai were.
Our hubris–the idea that we were invincible, and superior to our enemy, who were intellectually backward, primitive, aboriginal “third world” people. This was basically a racist idea.
We were fighting against Communism, but the U.S. Military was the second largest socialist dictatorship in the world. It provided us with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, transportation, jobs–everything–as long as we did what we were told.
We were even told that Agent Orange, which we used to defoliate jungle canopies and destroy rice crops (to drive refugees to the cities) doesn’t hurt humans. However, the Agent Orange Act of 1991 accepted a presumed link between Agent Orange and many cancers.
TV reporters in Vietnam sought grisly material to report on the evening news at home–the more revolting, the better.
Harassment and Interdiction Fire–every night on an artillery fire base, the artillery would fire randomly outside the perimeter (not at an enemy target), I guess to scare any forces who might attack us. [“Who are they firing at?!” “Nobody!”]
Artillery Preps: Before we made a combat assault, jumping from our helicopters to surround a village, the artillery would fire rounds at our helicopter landing zone (again, not at an enemy target), which let the enemy know exactly where we would land.
After considering these things, I found myself on the wrong side of history and decided that I had to get on the right side through my writing. I began writing Cologne No. 10 For Men, a satiric novel like Catch-22 or M.A.S.H., only one about the Vietnam War instead of World War II or Korea. I wanted to tell an engaging story that would highlight some of our illusions and delusions in Vietnam.
Decades later, in 2002, I again found myself on the wrong side of history and decided that the Republican party no longer represented me. This was when Trent Lott, Republican Senate Majority Leader, agreed with Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, that the country would have been better off with racial segregation. Lott said: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either,” a veiled reference to Civil Rights Movement strife. In his presidential campaign, Thurmond had called for the preservation of racial segregation, states’ rights, and overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment, and public buildings. The Republican party also seemed to be spendthrift at the time, whereas I always leaned toward fiscal conservatism. So, I said, “Wait. This is not my party! This does not represent what I believe,” and I became a Democrat.
My wife reflects upon the fact that she grew up in Montgomery, AL, without an awareness of the Civil Rights Movement even though it was taking place near her while she was growing up. Some years later, she felt that students of color in an African American studies class she was taking in graduate school did not believe her when she told of her unawareness. On the other hand, they themselves did not know much of the history of African Americans in this country either.In a Cleveland suburb as a teenager, I raised the question about why no people of color lived in my town. [A real estate representative told me that people of color didn’t want to live in the town.] At least by the time I was in graduate school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, I had enough awareness of race relations in this country to volunteer to work for Carl B. Stokes [the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city] in his first campaign for mayor. But I didn’t explore the issue of residential segregation any further until almost fifty years later when I was writing Canoedling in Cleveland and had my characters pursue the questions I had not asked back then. Well Considered and Masjid Morning were also written in response to what I saw happening in my world. //