March 29 has been designated “Vietnam Veterans Day,” according to a proclamation issued by President Obama in 2012. The Vietnam War, according to the proclamation, “is a story of patriots who braved the line of fire, who cast themselves into harm’s way to save a friend, who fought hour after hour, day after day to preserve the liberties we hold dear.” Now I have no problem acknowledging the debt owed to all whose lives were affected by this war, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Americans alike. What I find intolerable, even disgraceful, however, is that even 50 years later, our leaders are incapable of telling the truth about the war and choose rather to perpetuate the lie that these “sacrifices,” at least those of the Americans, were “to preserve the liberties we hold dear.” Such rhetoric – although perhaps inspiring to some – hinders reconciliation, dishonors the veteran, and damages the moral integrity of this nation.
As we embark upon a congressionally mandated 13-year-long commemoration, probably “celebration” would be more accurate, of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, I feel a responsibility, as a veteran of that war, to contribute a perspective I fear will be ignored willfully at the official commemoration web site. I am certain that there are as many perspectives as there are individuals who served, observed, protested against and supported that very divisive war. Consequently, I offer no guarantee that my observations, interpretations and conclusions about the war are definitive, or better than those of someone with a profoundly different recollection and analysis.
What I offer in this essay, then, is my personal narrative and a perspective on the Vietnam War by a former Marine Corps officer, Vietnam veteran and philosopher who has spent many years studying the theory of war, diverse historical accounts of the Vietnam war and, perhaps more to the point, contemplating a life profoundly impacted by the experience. My hope is to tell the truth as I see it and offer an analysis of the war that counters what I fear is the goal and purpose of this proclamation and commemoration. That is, to continue to perpetuate, if not ratchet up, the lie of 50 years ago and the mythological portrayal of the Vietnam War as justifiable, necessary and in the national interest.
Childhood Memories: Learning About War
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My parents, like most immigrants at the time, were grateful to be living in this land of “unlimited opportunity.” Influenced by Catholic school education, John Wayne movies and John F. Kennedy’s admonishment to “ask what you can do for your country,” I grew up stridently patriotic with a strong sense of duty to God and to country.
The Old Ones
As the old men played Briscola, a card game of Sicilian origin, they smoked DiNobli cigars and drank Caffe’ Corretto, a grappa-laced espresso, in small cups. The cigar smoke lay heavy in the room, dispersing the glow of the single light bulb that hung precariously over the table. They spoke in broken English of coming to America. Some came illegally. Most flirted a bit with the mafia, and all worked hard to support their families in a difficult job market for laborers. Nervous and excited, I listened attentively, from a safe distance, hidden behind the old green sofa. On most occasions I was quickly discovered. And after a good-natured reprimand and a gentle “boot in the ass,” I was sent on my way. On a few occasions, however, my perseverance was greatly rewarded. For reasons I can only speculate about, no one seemed to notice my presence. Even as a 10-year-old, I realized that this was a special place and I had no business eavesdropping on such privileged conversation.
As they consumed the potent coffee, barriers lowered and the discussion, at least as I remember it, invariably turned to their experiences during the Second World War and the Korean conflict. Despite being immigrants, all were drafted into the American military. I listened intently as my father, while contemplating his next discard, recalled his experiences as a US Army interpreter fighting through the villages and countryside of Sicily, the land of his birth. Somberly, he described in great detail how American artillery and bombing had devastated the village in which he was born. How he had been torn between strong feelings of patriotism for his adopted homeland and a deep sense of shame and guilt he felt for the deaths of innocent villagers, some of whom had been his neighbors. I learned also that my Uncle Gasper, a SeaBee, had narrowly escaped being killed by a Japanese sniper while building an airfield on Guadalcanal. Uncle Tony, nicknamed “Squint Eye,” but only addressed as such by a few of his closest friends, told of nearly being blinded by shrapnel during a kamikaze attack against his minesweeper in the South Pacific. What impressed me most, I think, was hearing my Uncle Joe relate, with great emotion, the heroic last stand of the Marines at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I was amazed to see this very strong, austere and stoic man cry when he described gently holding a fellow Marine in his arms as the dying man gasped his last breath. As I listened to their stories, despite my young age, I empathized with their obvious pain and grief.
Surely, the Old Ones were aware of my presence behind the old green sofa. I often wondered why, on those few occasions, I was allowed to remain and witness such intensely personal discussions of aspects of their lives they kept so well hidden from all except those who shared similar experiences. Perhaps they thought it important that I know the family history. In my more whimsical moments, however, I fancy that they were trying to educate me and make me aware of war’s realities.
In my youth, I was fascinated and exhilarated by war. Because of what I had learned from my hiding place behind the old green sofa, however, I was also wary of its devastating effects. War was an enigma I wished I could have discussed with the Old Ones. My concerns could never be addressed, however, as I realized the inappropriateness of discussing such matters outside the sanctuary of “the warrior’s circle.”
Confronting the Vietnam War
In 1968, America was at war. Communism was the menace; Vietnam, the focal point of the confrontation between good and evil, the domino of choice that must, at all costs, remain standing. To the Vietnamese, however, it was a continuing struggle against another in a seemingly endless series of colonial or occupying powers intent upon denying them independence, national unity and self-determination. To Americans, it was portrayed as a grass-roots struggle between north and south, a noble and necessary intervention to exorcize pervasive evil seeking world domination. Ultimately, however, it was a disaster, a quagmire, an immoral, illegal, unnecessary and divisive war few chose to fight, so many were conscripted.
“The unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the indifferent and the ungrateful.” Anonymous Grafitti
As a consequence of the draft, many young Americans were confronted with a profound social and moral dilemma. Whether to severely disrupt their lives, possibly shame themselves and their families by expatriating – fleeing to Canada – or risk injury or death by answering the call, becoming a warrior and, in the view of many, a murderer, or an accessory to murder. However, I had an additional option. Upon graduating from college, I could have availed myself – quite rightly, my parents believed – of the deferment from military service offered to teachers at the time – a testimony, I guess, to the importance of education in creating the “Great Society” that Lyndon Johnson had hoped would be the legacy of his administration. Further, because the teaching position was at an “inner-city school,” the social importance of such an undertaking, I reasoned, justified accepting the deferment. In truth, such rationalization was unnecessary, because avoiding military service was quite common and un-noteworthy, especially for the wealthy and the influential. For me, however, to remain at home while others fought and died in my place was cowardice. More importantly, it was an affront to the parents of my childhood friend Ralphie, who, a few months earlier, had dutifully, albeit reluctantly, sent their son to war. All they received in return were fragments of bone and sinew and a form letter from the president of the United States expressing the nation’s regrets and gratitude for Ralphie’s heroic sacrifice in behalf of freedom and democracy. Code words for a mistake, a paranoia-driven crusade against contrived evil that demanded the life of their child.
As I watched the drama of Ralphie’s funeral unfold, I remembered playing stickball on East 87th Street not many years before. I smiled, recalling how a foul ball had broken Eddie’s mother’s window and how Ralphie had quickly handed me the bat before shrewdly escaping to the sanctuary of Anthony’s garage. No one believed I wasn’t the culprit, until Ralphie abandoned his hiding place and with cobwebs hanging from his forehead, bravely admitted to the deed. As they lowered Ralphie’s casket into the ground, I drifted among a tangle of childhood memories – ring-a-levio, kick-the-can on humid summer nights, and riding our bikes down “suicide hill.” Ralphie was 20 years, 6 months and 2 days old when war ended his life.
The lesson I learned from Ralphie’s death was that in war young people die and old people grieve. The rational response would probably have been to put the tragedy behind me, to accept the deferment and go on with my life. But those were not rational times. Instead, I enlisted in the Marine Corps – understanding full well that a trip to Vietnam was guaranteed.
I was excited and could not wait to tell my Uncle Joe. I thought for sure he would be pleased, proud that his nephew chose to emulate him and become a Marine. As I gave him the good news, I studied his time-worn face for approval. I sensed, perhaps for the first time, an uncharacteristic vulnerability, even frailty. He seemed much older than his years. “Why you do that?” he said as our eyes finally met. Without waiting for a response, he kissed me on both cheeks. “Che Dio vi benedica” were his last words to me as he turned and walked away. Rendered speechless by what had occurred, I didn’t even think to return the blessing or to say goodbye. Soon after I had arrived in Vietnam, I learned my Uncle Joe had died.
In retrospect, I’m not really certain why I decided not to accept the deferment. Perhaps, it was patriotism, or bravado, or even to avenge my friend’s death. Or perhaps it was just to fulfill my destiny as a warrior and heir apparent to the legacy of the Old Ones. I left on July 5, 1968, for Marine Corps officer training at Quantico, Virginia. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was that I was leaving behind, forever, all that I had cherished and held sacred for the past 21 years. Most tragically, I was leaving behind the innocence of my youth.
The Experience of War
Marine Corps training was truly a life-altering experience. What ultimately enables a Marine to ignore the ethical limits normally placed on the use of violence – to kill and to die in battle – is not abstract ideology, or even patriotism, but rather a personal code of honor, self-respect, loyalty and accountability to one’s comrades. I learned my lessons well and readily embraced the mythology of the warrior. Upon completion of my training, I felt part of a proud and chivalrous tradition, a select brotherhood of noble and courageous knights, empowered by God and country to exorcize the demonic agents of evil. I was prepared to kill and to selflessly sacrifice my life, if need be, for right and for good. After Ralphie’s death and the sacrifices of the Old Ones, how could I do anything less?
Soon after arriving in Vietnam, however, I learned that no one is truly prepared for the horror, inhumanity and destruction of “demythologized” war. Fear, inevitably, is the myth breaker, restoring to war a reality that is bleak, uncompromising and hellish.
“My first experience of war was not auspicious. As mortar rounds walked in upon us, like giant steps of death and destruction, I was mesmerized by excitement and fear. Frozen in place, gauging the next footfall, I was pushed, rather unceremoniously, into a sandbagged bunker, more to clear the escape route than from a concern for my well-being. All that I had learned forgotten, I burrowed, wormlike, into the muddy bottom, seeking sanctuary, cursing my inability to disappear into the earthen mother’s womb.” (war journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)
Despite my childhood fascination and Marine Corps indoctrination, I was never enthusiastic about war. Even those more motivated than I, those who viewed war as a means for advancement, lacked fervor for this particular enterprise. Yet men turned easily into killers, shedding a young lifetime of humanity and compassion. In a brief moment of frenzy, killing became orgasmic, and death, performance art.
“A body of a dead Viet Cong sapper stood upright impaled in layers of concertina wire marking the no-man’s land that surrounds the perimeter of a firebase north of Danang. Killed trying to breech the base’s defenses, his catatonic body adorned by holiday revelers with Christmas decorations and a sign, soiled with blood and entrails, wishing all peace and good will from the United States Marines. As we passed and entered the base, few even took notice. I heard one young Marine, newly arrived in country, whisper to no one in particular, “Ho, fucking ho, fucking ho.” The innocence of youth dies quickly when killing becomes a rite of passage.” (war journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)
The reality of the situation on the ground failed to match the rhetoric of our leaders. I felt a moral uneasiness with both the purpose of the war and the manner in which it was conducted. Because attrition became the strategy and the goal – seemingly the only strategy and goal – and identification of the enemy problematic, killing became indiscriminate and all too easy. Dying became routine, purposeless and seemingly inevitable … and Ralphie’s death all the more tragic. But yet,
“With the Marine Corps Hymn lingering in the background of my mind, I persevered, like Sergeant Stryker charging valiantly up Suribachi, dying quickly, quietly, gently, and without pain or regret. In truth, most linger, scream for their mothers like children, first imploring God to let them live, then begging for death to end their suffering. Final glances exchanged eyes burned deeply into my soul. Faces of the soon to be dead, I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” (war journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)
Patriotic hymns and anthems fade quickly amid the screams of the mutilated and the dying. As the warrior’s mythology crumbled, I felt an overwhelming burden of responsibility, no longer to Corps and country but to those whose lives depended upon my abilities and decisions. I saw Ralphie in each of their young faces, made empty and hardened by war, and was deafened by the heartbreaking and poignant cries of parents pleading for the lives of their children. Survival was all that really mattered. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was that, at least in spirit, we were all already dead.
War usurps the omnipotence of god, the power over life and death, and makes it anathema. Some found such power exhilarating. I knew people like that, didn’t like them much. Thought them lucky, though, as killing and dying meant nothing. In a perverse way, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the jazz, the excitement, the power. Intoxicated by war, such men hated to see it end. For me, the war never ends.
For the remainder of my time in country, I struggled with the conflicting responsibilities of an officer of Marines in war and of safeguarding the lives of those entrusted to my care. Tragically, what mattered least in this moral equation were those we were allegedly there to liberate and to protect. They became expendable as dead Vietnamese posed no threat to our survival and satisfied the military demand for body count. Like most, I did what “had to be done,” and this is something I will live with for the rest of my life. … All of war is atrocity.
We often hear our military and political leaders speak of our nation’s uncompromising commitment to the international and moral laws of war and rules of engagement. Such talk, however, is, in reality, part of the mythology, necessary to maintain a guise of legality and morality and to allow our national conscience to remain clean. As is clear from history, law as it applies to war, is merely a tactic of advantage, having relevance and application only should belligerent nations find such law and restrictions advantageous to the achievement of some important national goal or purpose. But when perceived political or military interest comes in conflict with legal and moral principles, it is inevitably the former that prevails. How else could one explain the systemic incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children as a consequence of the saturation and nuclear bombing of cities during World War II, while, at the same time, countries doing the bombing condemned the genocide of Nazi death camps. How else can one explain torture, “targeted” drone assassination and signature strikes during the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., while the perpetrators condemn the terrorism of al Qaeda.
Make no mistake, however. Few if any go to war to murder innocent people. Most exert great effort, often at considerable personal risk, to protect the innocent and conduct themselves with decency and integrity. Unfortunately, either under the rubric of “supreme emergency,” as was the case in World War II, or because of the morally untenable conditions of guerrilla and/or counterinsurgency warfare as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers inevitably become the unwitting instruments of slaughter. Such occurrences are always tragic and regrettable but never more so than when war is misguided and unnecessary. Those removed from the chaos and confusion of the battlefield are understandably appalled by what, from their perspective, constitutes brutality and murder. When public outrage demands justice, it is invariably the warrior who is held accountable while those who initiated the war or who supported or did little or nothing to stop it are themselves absolved of responsibility and permitted to continue their charade of moral awareness and concern as they sit in judgment of our actions. We are the victims of their hypocrisy, the scapegoats for the inevitable affront to the national conscience and the sacrificial lambs sent to slaughter in retribution for our collective guilt and inadequacies. In fact, no one knows the sacrilege of war better than we who must fight it and then have to live with the memories of what we have done and what we have become.
“The monster and I are one. I have feasted upon the flesh of decaying corpses and with their blood have quenched my thirst. The transformation is complete and I can never return. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” (war journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)
The Aftermath of War
All who are touched by war are tainted. Upon my return to the the United States world, I felt a stranger in my own home, disoriented and adrift between the world I recognized as my place of origin – although now quite alien – and the world of killing and destruction of which I was a part.
“Things were different . . . or maybe I was different. As much as I had come to hate the war, there at least I felt I belonged. I knew what was expected of me, and I had become proficient at fulfilling those expectations. Here I am a misfit, an aberration, isolated and alone.” (postwar journals, Bica, C.C., 1971)
Vietnam was the defining experience of my life. Although physical wounds may heal, the emotional, psychological and moral injuries of war linger and fester. Vietnam forever pervades my existence, condemning me to continually relive and question the past. Inevitable concerns of those who participate in an enterprise whose primary – no, sole – function is to take life and cause others to die. Despite the urging of well-meaning friends and loved ones, I can never forget Vietnam nor put it behind me. No one truly recovers from war. No one is ever made whole again. The best that can be hoped, I think, is to achieve a degree of benign acceptance. To that end, I strive each day to forgive and absolve myself of guilt and to live with the wounds of war that will never heal.
“The endless screams of the dying forever echo in my mind. A sacrificial offering of virgins to placate the elder gods. I’ve become an atheist.” (postwar journals, Bica, C.C., 1971)
Of late, I think often of Ralphie and his parents, of ring-o-levio, and bike rides down “suicide hill.” I often think too of the Old Ones, and sometimes, while deep in thought, or, perhaps, lost in a daydream, I can almost smell the faint aroma of DiNobili cigars and alcohol-tinged espresso. For a fleeting moment, I am 10 years old again, watching and listening from behind the old green sofa. But now the exhilaration, awe and wonder I enjoyed as a child is gone as I have learned the reality of war. I think of the Old Ones, still with admiration, but now tempered by understanding and sadness for all they had endured. I know now the true cost of war and the burden of life in its aftermath. I realize as well that all war is profane – and unnecessary war is sacrilege. And perhaps worst of all, I know the frustration of having to sit idly by, helpless, as it all happens again. I mourn young lives devastated by war. I see Ralphie in each of their faces and am deafened by the screams of devastated loved ones. Never had I missed the Old Ones more, especially my father. Never were my Uncle Joe and the Marine who died in his arms at the Chosin more clearly in my mind.
Perhaps war is a reality that will not soon go away, and sacrifices on the field of battle will again be required. But rather than “commemorate” and “celebrate” Vietnam with lies, let us end the mythologizing of war and demand truth. Let us question war’s purpose and necessity and ensure a clarity of vision rather than the blind compliance some wish to portray as patriotism. Let us ensure that war remains a means of last resort and that no other person will again have to kill, die or grieve the loss of their son or daughter for a cause that is misguided. Let us demand accountability for war criminals who dare to initiate such wars and connive to use deception and myth to encourage participation and support. Let us make this our legacy and celebrate peace rather than war.