Prior to crawling through the subterranean battle fields known as the Củ Chi tunnels, located twenty miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City, travelers are herded into a barrack-styled classroom to watch a video.
“Here is VietNam’s number one solider,” the translator announced as a uniformed woman salutes amid a thicket of bamboo. “She killed more American troops than any other sniper in the American War while defending our homeland!” The music swelled triumphantly, and the few westerners in the room shifted uncomfortably and swapped wide-eyed glances.
Today American travelers to VietNam come away with quite a different perspective than the one represented in our own history books, and films like Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. And unlike the American military who fought and died in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Americans are now sipping snake wine and testing out an AK-47 at Củ Chi’s adjacent shooting range. The rat-a-tat-tat of the automatic weapons creates an unnerving live-action soundtrack as my fellow travelers and I squeezed through the suffocating tunnels. As I finally crawled out — gasping for air — back into the daylight, I reached for the extended hand of my smiling VietNamese guide. I looked around, wiped my brow and thought, When my stepfather was shot up in these tunnels in the late 1960s, his perspective — his life — was irrevocably changed.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal of its combat troops in the VietNam conflict. And the day the U.S. refers to as the “fall of SaiGon;” VietNam refers to as Reunification Day.
Perspective is everything. Currently President Obama’s lead men in foreign relations, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are both multi-decorated VietNam veterans. Both went to fight for their country, and both come back doubting the war’s validity. Kerry returned to protest the VietNam war and even appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He later worked with Senator John McCain to normalize VietNam relations in 1994. Neither man was known to simply toe their parties’ lines. While Kerry and Hagel voted for the Iraq Resolution, both agreed it was a mistake and Hagel opposed the surge in Iraq (against a Republican administration) and later in Afghanistan (against a Democratic administration), yet he approved military action in Kosovo and against al Qaeda.
Their time honorably serving in a dishonorable war has given the men a valuable perspective. Unlike McNamara and Bundy, and Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, G.W. Bush and Cheney, Kerry and Hagel have felt the baptism by enemy fire — they actually returned stateside able to function and even flourish. That is more than can be said of most vets who were lucky enough to come back home in the 1960s and 1970s.
Peter Goldman, former senior editor at Newsweek and co-author of Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us spoke to Glittersnipe about what he, and his team of correspondents, learned interviewing sixty-five U.S. servicemen twenty years after their return home.
“They weren’t the ‘volunteer army; we’ve got now,” Goldman said. “They were drafted and deployed as cannon fodder in a war almost none of them understood.”
“Most of them were teen-aged and working-class, looking at futures as factory workers; the college boys, like Dick Cheney and others of their generation, had ‘other priorities’ and had found ways to evade the draft, and the actual human costs of war.
“I teared up a lot writing that Newsweek story and the book that followed. I thought of myself as an 18- or 19-year-old, and how totally unready I’d have been to see other human beings — our guys and their guys — with their guts blown open and their faces shot off. It’s a truism among grunts that you’re not fighting for the USA or for General Westmoreland or for the First Infantry Division or for somebody’s geopolitical notion of right or wrong — you’re fighting for the guys you know, because you feel or pray that they’d fight for you if you were in danger.
“Our boys — the boys of Charlie Company — had no idea what strategic goal they were fighting for. They’d set up ‘fire bases’ on patches of ground in a particularly bloody sector called the Iron Triangle, defend them for a few days, then abandon them and set up a new fire base somewhere else. At every stop, they saw buddies die, and they killed people their own age on the other side, never quite knowing why — except that they’d kill you first if you let them.
“All but two of the men in our sample had turned against the war by the time their tours ended. The two who supported it were brothers who were raised as unquestioning Christians and patriots; one of them came home blind and crippled and still believed that Vietnam had been a just cause. The other men hadn’t become peaceniks; they felt betrayed not by the fact of the war but by the restrictive rules of engagement. They felt they hadn’t been permitted to win.
“Their homecoming was bitter. The word when they boarded the stateside-bound planes at the end of their tours was to duck into the nearest men’s room on arrival and change into civvies so you wouldn’t be called a baby killer. Some of them survived and entered the normal (or normal-appearing) lives available to them as vets with high-school diplomas; some were permanently scarred. One committed suicide. Another came home for a couple of weeks R&R and deserted. Yet another became a drug user and trafficker — the trafficking paying for the anesthesia that let him forget what he’d seen Over There.
“What was common to almost all of them was silence. They couldn’t talk even to their own wives or parents about what they’d seen and done — why they’d wake up screaming in the night or have sudden, explosive tantrums during the day. Society told them they were alone. We romanticize the ’60s peace movement now, but they were the vanguard of the unwelcome-home committee — they blamed the pawns for the decisions of the kings.
“A lot of the grunts turned inward in some mix of shame, sorrow and anger at having been used. One of our reporters interviewed a Charlie Company vet — a wannabe rodeo rider — at his home in Texas. The interview was going well, the stories of blood and combat were spilling out, when my guy glimpsed the vet’s wife listening, half-hidden, just outside the living-room door. It was eleven years on, and she’d never heard her husband’s stories before.
“I think back of those men-children thirty years later, in their late middle age, and wonder how they’d feel about Iraq and Afghanistan and about the late-middle-aged warhawks who’d made those wars happen when they’d never experienced the ground-level reality of war themselves. I’ve fallen out of touch with all but one of the boys of Charlie Company, a combat medic who saw a lot of blood and stanched a lot of bleeding during the war and tried to drown his memories in alcohol for years afterward before he finally dried out. But my guess is that most of them look at our recent imperial adventures as bad trips. Not for conventional “progressive” reasons — they left what remained of their young innocence and of their belief in wars you can’t win.”
One of the most popular tourists’ destinations in Ho Chi Minh City is a building formerly called the Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes that was later renamed in the mid-1990s, the War Remnant Museum.
On the wall in the last room is a shadowbox frame that is filled with American medals: a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, among others, that were given to the museum by Sergeant William Brown, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 503rd Infantry. To the left of the medals is a small engraved plaque inscribed:
“TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM. I AM SORRY. I WAS WRONG.”
So how will Hagel and Kerry deal with international aggression and diplomacy? Only one thing is certain: It would be best for both men to remember what it was like to be mud-deep in the rain for days with VietCong bullets whizzing by — best to remember what it was like seeing their teenaged buddies shipped back in coffins — and best to remember that the people they fought didn’t deserve what our governments did to them.
If they can hold on to those memories, hopefully they won’t have to make bronzed apologias in shadowboxes for all the boxes of boys they sent off to war.