‘The dominant feeling of being in Vietnam was confusion’

‘The dominant feeling of being in Vietnam was confusion’

‘Here was the truly unforgivable aspect of the war, at least stateside. American citizens, young and old, vented their frustrations with the conflict by being as awful as they could to their own soldiers.’

DUMMERSTON — I had assumed that if I got to Vietnam as an intelligence officer with the ability to speak and write Vietnamese, I would be assigned some peaceful work at the army headquarters in Saigon, a city still reflecting the Indochinese culture, the residual French colonial influence, the colorful and attractive Vietnamese civilians, women in áo dàis floating by on bicycles, favoring me with a smile.

I thought that the language and the rank would afford me far more interesting jobs than I would have had in the infantry. I had smoothly escaped its vile operations.

I would be able to write intelligence reports in English and Vietnamese, something authoritative about this odd and sad war. Perhaps I would compose explanations, maybe a finely cloaked novel, a study of the interplay of politics and emotions that...well, you get the idea. That all seemed to make sense.

But it didn't. I was assigned to nothing having to do with military intelligence.

In a blindingly unexplainable move, I was sent to train as an ordnance officer at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. I never learned why this misassignment happened or who did it.

My first task was to find out what ordnance was. Ordnance means all the machinery of war, all the explosive stuff, artillery pieces, tanks, small arms, anti-aircraft guns, trucks and radios, mines, and radars.

Most ordnance management in an ordinary war takes place slightly in back of the front line, but in Vietnam, where there were no front lines, the mission was as awful as being in the infantry, and in some ways worse. My main task would be changing artillery tubes, arriving by helicopter, and working on firebases in full view of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. No one mentioned this at the ordnance officer training.

* * *

These were politically infuriating times. The people responsible for the war were gone. Kennedy was dead. Johnson, after trying to win something, if not victory then at least a conclusion that looked like satisfaction, had given up.

Johnson had lost the avuncular TV journalist Walter Cronkite's support, and he said that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the American people.

The television news, probably more responsible for the start of the war than any other single factor, had turned solidly against more war. Luckily for Cronkite, no one remembered that Cronkite himself, in the early years of the American activities in Vietnam, was very much in favor of patrolling Indochina and fighting communism. He reported almost gleefully from the battlefield with much praise for what the American boys were doing.

So Johnson's fear that if he lost Cronkite he had lost the people was probably wrong. Cronkite got sick of the war because people were sick of it, and he had to get out ahead of popular opinion so as not to get blamed for his earlier support. It was pretty much a business decision.

Even then, though I didn't know exactly why, I could see that poor old Johnson had deceived himself. He thought the U.S. could control what happened, and that was fallacious. He said, “We seek no wider war.”

Well, maybe we didn't, but the decision was pretty much out of our hands. Maybe we didn't seek a wider war, but the North Vietnamese were fine with a wider war. And so were the Chinese, and the Russians, and the Eastern Bloc of communist countries. And in a way so were the Thais who rented the U.S. land for a huge airbase, and the Japanese, who sold tens of thousands of motorbikes to the Vietnamese and cameras to the GIs.

And so did the construction companies that built harbors and roads in Vietnam, companies like RMK, partially owned and controlled by Lyndon Johnson's hideous wife, Lady Bird.

* * *

Friends now are aghast, or at least act that way, when I tell them of this period, and ask why I didn't just throw away my uniforms and head out for Canada. They ask if I could have done that.

Well, I could have - or, more exactly, the person I am now could have done it. But who I was then couldn't, or at least didn't. It didn't occur to me as a real possibility.

It was not only that I was young and easily pushed one way or another but also that I had been raised to think that the United States, while confused and harassed by events, was generally on the side of good.

The history of World War II was sugared over for several generations after the victory over the Nazis and the imperial Japanese. We, the U.S., had won the war, almost singlehandedly, according to what Americans were told. Scant mention was made of the Russian contribution to the defeat of the evil Germans.

I recently admitted to some liberal friends, when we talked about current politics, that I had voted for Richard Nixon. In an odd sort of back-looking judgment, they condemned me and found this revelation unbelievable.

My political drawings and writings in recent years would make such an act seem to be impossible - shocking, even. I tried to explain, but they weren't convinced. Didn't I see that Nixon had been lying about having a secret plan to end the war when he campaigned in 1968? Didn't I realize that he would do anything to avoid being the first president to lose a war? Couldn't I see that he was a calculating crook and possibly the worst president we had ever had, even though now that judgment has to be reconsidered?

No. I couldn't see any of that. First, because I was young, and second, because the choice was between Nixon and Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Johnson's yakety-yak vice president.

So, forced to choose, I chose to believe that Nixon had a secret plan to end the war. We now know that it was so secret that even Nixon didn't know what it was.

Still, it was plain that Humphrey would be more likely to continue Johnson's approach. Besides, for some reason I didn't like Humphrey. And, in truth, I didn't think Nixon was going to win.

I liked Eugene McCarthy, but he seemed to lack energy, content to be surrounded by people who agreed with him, and they were no help. If anyone were to stop the entrenched pro-war politicians and businessmen, he would need to preach beyond the choir. And Eugene McCarthy didn't.

* * *

I began writing this memoir after a dinner conversation with some young people who seemed interested in what Vietnam meant and how we fought in such prolonged and bloody battles against people who were now making clothes they could buy at Banana Republic.

They found it amazing that the government could order young people, just like themselves, off to a war, under threat of prosecution and prison. They found it amazing that anyone obeyed such orders. Why wasn't there wholesale revulsion, if not at the war, then at least at the enforcement of such slavery? Wasn't that unconstitutional?

I was amazed they knew so little about the Vietnam War. It is glanced at in American high schools, relegated to political science courses in college, and ignored in current political journalism. The war itself is called a loss for the U.S., although the outcome was far more complicated and intricate than a simple loss.

It is said that Americans are shallow thinkers, trained by advertising and the consumer economy to judge problems quickly in whatever way requires the least reading or analysis. This is true, and it is troubling.

I didn't want to come across sounding sorry for myself, because I don't feel sorry for myself. In truth, being pressed into the military and sent to war was destabilizing, hot, miserable, lonely, and crazy. It was also, in an awful way, interesting. War is interesting if you can avoid getting killed, and don't mind loud noises.

The one dominant feeling of being in Vietnam was confusion, a confusion that increased with every assignment I was given. I began to think that either I was more sentient than my fellow soldiers or that they had somehow been brutalized or baffled into mental submission and their own survival mentality.

My father had joined the army “for the duration.” But in Vietnam the tour lasted one year. If you could stay alive one year you were sent home.

The trick to getting home was to survive somehow, in any manner, avoiding any and all risks. And the concurrent trick for the army was to force us to take those risks.

In addition to all that confusion, or maybe replacing the personal confusion in my mind, was an increasing sense that the government and the army were working against me. They were working to waste my time, get me killed, and at best turn me into a distrustful, resentful version of the hopeful person I had always been.

The Catch-22 definition of the enemy is anyone who is going to get you killed. Many on your own side. Undrafted, I probably would have sacrificed gladly for the nation, for its history and traditions, and for what I had been told was the overall goodness of the country.

But now, everything that I had been taught was suspect, and my list of things to hate and distrust grew every day.

* * *

Relations with civilians didn't improve, either.

I began to plan for the time to come after the war. While at Aberdeen Proving Ground, I decided that I would apply for a graduate school, law or journalism.

I had loved working for newspapers while in college in Denver. I liked the people and the excitement and the daily output of judicial and political writing. I liked printing and typography and the pounding roar of presses, which in my own colorful thinking I compared to the resounding triumph of drums at the end of a symphony. That's a little bit of a stretch, but the daily intensity of getting the paper out was invigorating and seemed important.

I decided to apply to graduate journalism schools - Columbia and Northwestern. I took the train from Washington to New York for an interview with a dean, whose name, luckily for him, I have forgotten.

The Vietnam War was by that time so unpopular that almost no respect was paid to soldiers or veterans, so traveling in uniform was seldom done. But in uniform you got half-price fare on the trains. I got on the train in Washington's Union Station. Halfway to Baltimore the conductor informed me that if I hadn't bought my half-fare ticket at the station I had to pay full price. He said he couldn't give me the military fare on the train.

Whether or not this was a real rule, I saw no reason why the military fare shouldn't be awarded on the train. I was serving the goddamn country, wasn't I?

The conductor, a man with substantial girth, seemed cruelly amused by a situation in which he could annoy and inconvenience anyone, especially some young shit of an officer. I said I wouldn't pay.

The train stopped in Baltimore, and the discussion of my fare and the rule in question became heated. A variety of slurs, some impossible to retract, were exchanged. Other passengers took sides. The discussion became a screaming match, bellowsome, with some accusing the conductor of being little short of a commie; some accusing me of being obnoxious and a smart-ass, and probably a baby killer; some offering to pay the difference for my ticket.

The conductor ordered me off the train. Like hell, I said. Make me, I said, you fat bastard. Some of my backers among the passengers thought this uncalled for, and certainly unbecoming an officer.

So the train sat there in Baltimore, unable to move without the conductor's approval. I knew I was screwing up everyone's travel schedule, but I didn't care. Worse than that, I perversely enjoyed being able to make my dissatisfaction with nearly everything and everybody into something real.

After a short wait, several Baltimore police officers came on the train, and the other passengers were treated to the sight Americans have grown accustomed to after things get bad enough - that is, Americans fighting with each other.

But the police, like me in uniform, refused to do anything.

The conductor refused to give up, and there we sat. Into this cauldron appeared a small man from the railroad, an unlikely savior, a ticket agent. He gave me a ticket, no charge, and thanked everyone for their patience. And the train moved on.

* * *

The interview at Columbia Journalism School was a similar disaster. I had brought no civilian clothes, so I was in uniform when I went to the Columbia campus to see the dean, who looked at me strangely.

I wasn't thinking very clearly. The Columbia campus was a hotbed of antiwar activity. Students took over the president's office. Black and white students fought over the university's obviously racially prejudiced decisions in real estate and admissions. The New York police restored order only to see disorder erupt as soon as they left. The confusion grew violent, and the racial divide was, even for those times, surprising. Every day a new outrage bubbled up.

Into this steaming mix I walked, not so much naïve as uniformed and uninformed. The dean probably thought I was a practical joke. He treated me with a disdain and disapproval I could not understand. Columbia was an unhappy place, a very unhappy place. The dean could have been more human, but he wasn't.

Here was the truly unforgivable aspect of the war, at least stateside. American citizens, young and old, vented their frustrations with the conflict, the waste, the cruelty, and so on, by being as awful as they could to their own soldiers.

At first, for me, and I think for my fellow draftees, this attitude was at least puzzling. The puzzlement, unexpected from a nation that had praised and rewarded the soldiers of World War II, turned into exasperation and then reciprocal disgust.

It was my mistake to go for an interview in uniform, but I didn't know how offensive this was. I still thought that people in high academic ranks at an Ivy League school would know that the soldiers weren't actually enjoying the war and were wearing uniforms because they were trying to save a few dollars on a train ticket. But no one involved with Ivy League schools hangs on to a high opinion of Ivy League schools for very long.

As I remember, the dean couldn't bring himself to say anything encouraging, or even shake my hand at the end of the interview.

* * *

The training for newly commissioned ordnance officers was six months at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Parts of the schooling were interesting, but Maryland was not.

The clotted summer heat was destructive to anything resembling happiness. We studied artillery pieces, ammunition, explosives, tanks and tank recovery, how to repair broken tank tracks, and, a part I liked, how to replace engines in lumpy old Korean-era three-quarter-ton trucks.

The trucks were old Dodges. The engines were flathead sixes, ancient cast-iron monsters, inefficient but easy to understand.

During this training we made a note to ourselves that at least car repair might be something useful in our post-military careers. Even at this desperately late date I can take rudimentary care of my car.

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