Each of us carried in his heart a separate war which in many ways was totally different . . . we also shared a common sorrow; the immense sorrow of war.
– Bao Ninh, The Sorrow Of War
It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago I was a 19-year-old kid in Vietnam sitting on a mountaintop near the Cambodian border in the forests west of Pleiku trying to locate equally young North Vietnamese radio operators with a piece of WWII RDF equipment I’d been told was obsolete. I was part of a two-man team, working in conjunction with two other two-man teams; our job was to listen for enemy broadcasts, which were sent in coded five-letter groups of Morse code. Sometimes we searched and located random operators. Other times, we’d get an intel lead on when an operator would come up. Using the silver-alloy rotating antenna of the obsolete PRD1, we obtained a bearing that was then plotted on a map; hopefully, the three bearings would provide a tight “fix” and locate the operator. We’d give the map coordinate to division G2, who would assign some death-dealing operation to search and destroy whatever was on or near the coordinate. Throughout it all, I remained relatively safe, while the men I most respect in this business of war — the mostly drafted infantrymen, or “grunts” — did the dirty work “humping the boonies” with weapons and packs. I went to Vietnam on a troop ship (a rust-bucket named the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey) in August 1966 with an Army Security Agency company; once we arrived in division base camp in Pleiku, seven of us were assigned to a tactical DF team with, first, the 25th Division, then the 4th Division. I later spent some time at a cushy strategic DF site in Camrahn Bay.
I had it pretty good in Vietnam, compared to many in the infantry and other dangerous jobs. My brother was there during the same time; he was a platoon leader in the 25th infantry. Fortunately, he made it home unscathed. I ran into him once as I and my DF teammate were dropped into a firebase in the saw grass west of Pleiku, a place I describe as a cigar burn in a shag carpet. I’d been there two days, during which we dug and fortified a small bunker against mortars. I looked across the LZ and told my comrade, “I think that’s my brother over there. I’m going to check.” My brother’s infantry company was on what was called “palace guard” protecting the battalion firebase, which featured a 105mm howitzer battery. I stayed there maybe four days and moved on, which was how it went for me and the other DF teams. The day after I left, the place was hit. As I look back 50 years, I realize I was a wide-eyed kid and led a lucky, charmed life in Vietnam, always moving from one place to another, never really connecting, then moving again. Sometimes we worked off the back of our jeeps; sometimes we did DF on Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) patrols; sometimes we were dropped off on forest hilltops. So I witnessed many aspects of that historic conflagration known to us as The Vietnam War and to the Vietnamese as The American War.
Our protectors set out trip flares around the base of the rock. One night one went off, scaring the hell outa me. We concluded it was an animal; I imagined a very surprised roaming tiger tripping the flare. Sometimes, we’d hear firefights going on at the base of the mountain, but there didn’t seem much chance the NVA would come up the mountain for us. One day, F4 Phantoms were screaming low over our heads and dropping like missiles down the side of the mountain, firing 40mm guns at the NVA below us. We began to hear noises like rustling leaves in the woods below us. Holy shit! They’re coming up the mountain! We all jacked our weapons and got ready, laying down on the rock and pointing them down into the forest below, waiting for Charlie to break through the trees fleeing from the F4’s guns. We waited and we waited. Each time an F4 came over we’d hear the rustling again. Eventually, we figured out the noise was empty shell casing hitting the ground. I went back to my duties listening on earphones to Morse code and getting bearings on NVA radio operators. But in those minutes waiting for Vietnamese men to appear out of the forest, I realized I was quite capable and willing to shoot a human being. Of course, I had no clue why I was really there on that mountaintop doing what I was doing. But I came to quickly understood the thing that drives war: Someone wanted to kill me, and he’d do it if I or my comrades didn’t kill him first.
Most of the time up on that incredible rock amounted to amusing myself from the boredom. I remember reading a dog-eared copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 I’d found laying around. I’d also climb down from the rock and walk into the woods, where I’d sit on a log and just listen and look around, amazed that I was on a huge mountaintop along the Cambodian border in the middle of a bloody war zone. The forest along the ridgeline atop that mountain felt peaceful. I’d hear little critters scurrying around. I saw flying monkeys soar from one tree to another. I ran into lizards and peculiar insects. I saw a strange-headed, very large predator bird gliding over us and riding the wind currents. It was not until the 1990s and a reading of The Sorrow Of War, the magnificent novel by Boa Ninh, that I realized, for the Vietnamese, the forests were animated by spirits and ghosts. I’m not sure if the spirits Ninh’s character Kien speaks hauntingly of inhabiting the forests of the Central Highlands stayed in the valleys and avoided the mountaintops or whether I was, again, too dumb to be aware of them. Or maybe they just left me alone, figuring (erroneously) that I was harmless. Here’s how Ninh describes the forest and the ghosts from the 27th Battalion in The Sorrow Of War:
Like Ninh has done with his American War, I’ve written fiction about my Vietnam War. My fiction was two short stories in Penthouse magazine in the late 1970s. “Polyorifice Enterprises” was modeled on the black humor of Catch 22 and satirized the prostitution that spread like an epidemic in places like Pleiku; for security and health reasons, the Fourth Division supervised bordellos just outside the base camp gate. Everything a horny 19-year-old American soldier wanted was catered to by entrepreneurial elements among the South Vietnamese. We were young American males feeling great power as part of a massive army, and we had money burning holes in our jungle fatigue pockets. Young peasant girls were an attractive commodity to be exploited. It’s worth noting that the most famous work of literature in Vietnamese — the narrative poem The Tale of Kieu written by scholar Nguyen Du around 1810 — is about a young woman who becomes a prostitute to save her family from ruin in a period of war lord rule. She eventually becomes a guerrilla chieftain and prevails. The first stanza of the poem ends with these lines:
One watches things that makes one sick at heart.
This is the law: no gain without loss,
and Heaven hurts fair women for sheer spite.
Later, a character says this of the protagonist, Thuy Kieu.
She is a woman much ill-used by fate!
But then it’s nothing new beneath the sun.
A poetic sense of stoicism and the dignity of life in times of disaster and trial are the core of this great work. When I came home from Vietnam, I submerged and began haunting used bookstores, reading things like The Tale of Kieu and books like Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall and his other books on the French war against the Vietnamese and the insidious transition to the American war. Slowly, I began to understand what I’d been floundering around in in my charmed youth. I began to feel a sense of mission to tell this story, which to this day is like pissing up a pole in our mainstream American culture.
Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior,
is it me they conjure?
in the Central Highlands, and a Chinook lifting a load on a sling
Earlier that morning, I’d leaped up onto the top of our three-quarter-ton truck’s box, and as an olive-drab behemoth, two-prop Chinook slowly lowered itself down toward me, I’d slapped a metal ring onto a hook below the massive copter’s belly. Out the door of the Huey, over the Se San River, I watched the truck with its box containing maps and DF paraphernalia trailing in the wind on a sling beneath the Chinook. Our mobile DF operation was headed toward the border as part of a huge operation to engage and clear the NVA streaming down from the north via the Ho Chi Minh trail and into the Highlands. There is an amazing sense of power one gets — especially as a kid — from being a small part of such a powerful and immense army of men. I realize now we were looking for young Vietnamese men like Kien and the 27th Battalion.
I actually saw men like Kien on two occasions. The first was when a very gaunt, hungry man in black with a khaki pith helmet, sick with malaria, turned himself in on our firebase perimeter. There’s been a wild shootout along the perimeter the night before, apparently the NVA testing the camp. The second time, I was about to go outside the perimeter with paper to move my bowels at the rough facility, when a rather bemused infantryman told me to hold up. “Maybe you don’t want to go out there night now, pal” he said. He had me look into a pair of night glasses he had set up on a tripod. Just beyond the shitter, I could see little white ghosts moving back and forth. It was news to me that we were virtually surrounded. My bowels tightened up and I returned to my little bunker, where I made sure my M14 was in good order and I had magazines loaded and ready. I later learned the lieutenant colonel who commanded the battalion had ordered leaflets dropped into the jungle challenging the NVA to hit our firebase. He was virtually calling the NVA “pussies” if they didn’t attack his fine base. The NVA didn’t fall for the bait and decided to move on. The colonel had ordered mines to be placed around the perimeter, and once the surrounding NVA left, he ordered them to be removed. Of course, a detail of privates was assembled, one of whom blew himself to kingdom come. I heard the BOOM! Then lots of hollering and running medics. In the end, a chaplain led a detail of other privates picking up the loose pieces of the unfortunate young draftee. I also learned that lieutenant colonels like the man who led this battalion served six-month tours and often asked their men to do brave things to accrue glory to the colonel’s record so he could make rank in the competitive environment of Vietnam. It was known as “punching your ticket.” Later, hearing Jonathon Winters do his routine as Colonel Robert Winglow — “OK, men, you can feel secure knowing I’m a thousand meters behind you up on a hill watching through the long lenses. Forward, men! I have you in the long lenses.” — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I’d be remiss in not recounting how this lieutenant colonel left our firebase on a stretcher. He passed by me carried by two men, headed toward the LZ and a Huey back to the division hospital. The tough warhorse to the bitter end, he was hollering, “Get that son-of-a-bitch! I want that bastard!” In his wounded condition, the colonel thought an NVA sniper had nailed him. Alas, this was not the case. A young private near me had been cleaning his M16, and not realizing there was a round in the chamber, had sent a round into the colonel’s tent, through the colonel’s gut and then through the executive officer’s calf. The two field grade officers had been discussing tactical issues. I’m not sure what happened to the poor private. A new lieutenant colonel was flown out to the firebase to punch his ticket and spur the unit on to even greater glory. Of course, I was there to help the colonel point his men in the right direction.
While I have zero trauma from my Vietnam experience, as you may have noticed I have a pretty bad attitude about the military and the war itself. I also have a whopping case of survival guilt. One, because I made it home without a scratch. And, two, because I had it so easy. My thinking now is all wrapped up in atoning for what I’d call my moral cluelessness at the time. Most Americans not active in the antiwar movement were guilty of this moral cluelessness during the war and many still are guilty of it. Like the cartoon Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes they keep it up by saying, “I see nah-thing!” It’s a failure — more a willful refusal — to recognize the tremendous suffering we caused the Vietnamese. We obsess on our own losses and our own suffering, our 58,000 dead on the wall in Washington. Not that we should not honor and mourn these dead; it’s that the Vietnamese lost so many more and suffered so much more than we did. And when distilled down to its essence, the war really makes little sense except as an expression of Cold War hysteria. We talk about “lessons” learned that never seem to really get at what should have been learned. Few dwell on the fact we slaughtered somewhere between two and three million Vietnamese and Indochinese people. And that’s not counting the immense destruction of infrastructure and upheavals in family life and the legacy of Agent Orange in the ecosystem and a host of other areas of suffering.
I recall a very diplomatic, English-speaking veteran from the North making a tour of the US in the late 80s; our Veterans For Peace chapter in Philly hosted him. I was on local TV news walking him in the rain under an umbrella past the Philadelphia Vietnam War memorial. He was a good man and very moved. ROTC officers at the university I worked at saw me on TV with him and made it clear they found it disgusting that I had taken him there. Later, I saw video of this man in a gathering of US Vietnam veterans in New York. I watched him break down into sobbing over what seemed to me frustration with the lack of understanding or sensitivity in these men for the great suffering of the Vietnamese. In my reading of the scene, these men couldn’t see past the idea of “communist” and could only focus on their own pain. Maybe peer pressure worked against anyone extending sympathy to this alien man from halfway around the world. The pain of these men was no doubt very real, but it was dwarfed by the pain this friendly, forgiving man represented, a man who showed great fortitude and courage to travel alone and reveal himself in the midst of American culture.
Memories like this only reinforce my disgust for the Vietnam War and the unnecessary evil it represents. Again, I challenge anyone to tell me what the Vietnamese ever did to us. The historian Mark Moyar recently suggested in an essay in the New York Times series Vietnam 1967 that the Vietnam War was “winnable” — if only we had done this or that differently. To me, that kind of what-if, alternative history is an utter waste of time that amounts to fiction like Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel The Man In The High Castle, an alternative history that imagines the Nazis winning World War Two. Rambo was that kind of alternative history as pop cinema entertainment. A malaise-ridden nation was presented with the macho Hollywood hero Sylvester Stallone — a man who spent the Vietnam War teaching in a girls school in Switzerland — giving us his trademark sneer all decked out in greased-up pectoral muscles. Brandishing a huge Bowie knife and hand-held M60, Rambo did what the United States Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and Air Force could not do. He emotionally won the Vietnam War inside a darkened theater inside our hermetically-sealed, exceptional minds. It’s the same thing Donald Trump is trying to do with the collective American mind as it feels the haunting reality of decline gnawing at its perceptions of greatness.
Nursing our moral loss in Vietnam as if it were an insult doesn’t help. The Vietnamese beat us fair and square. They didn’t beat us in the capacity for mass, hi-tech slaughter; there’s no question we could have “won” if life was only about the ability to kill people by the thousands or millions. They beat us on moral grounds. They were right; we were wrong. As Ho Chi Minh reportedly said: “We can lose longer than you can win.” Or another famous line told to Robert McNamara by a Vietnamese diplomat in the 1990s: “We knew you would eventually leave. You Americans could leave; we lived here and we could not leave.” Or as Ward Just put it in a great little book written in 1968 called To What End: “Of course the war was unwinnable. It was useless to fight the Vietnamese. They would have fought for a thousand years.”
Revisionist “winners” like Mark Moyar should surrender and find another, more productive topic to research. It should be clear that such alternative histories on the Vietnam War are purely political and meant to reinforce our contemporary militarist class and its future options. There’s a reluctance to give the Vietnamese credit for their talent for suffering and survival, which is what beat us. There’s so much we could learn from the Vietnamese in the area of humility, resilience and forgiveness. But we prefer to see those traits as the characteristics of a loser and a patsy. We insist on being winners even if, to borrow the famous Eastwood line, it requires us to be “legends in our own minds.”
Truth and Fact are at the core of all this. It’s interesting that the Vietnam war correspondent Ward Just wrote his eloquent 1968 memoir To What End and, then, shifted his career to fiction and novel writing. Dealing purely in reality was not enough. Just was ahead of his time in this respect, anticipating the fact-free, truth-phobic Age of Trump where the art of bullshit prevails. Just quotes the playwright Harold Pinter as an epigram in To What End: “There is no hard distinction between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. The thing is not necessarily either true or false. It can be both true and false.” A writer’s mind is unlike a lawyer’s mind, which is always dependent on a citation from some governmental legal book. A writer’s mind is free and, accordingly, dangerous. The philosopher/longshoreman Eric Hoffer in the 1950s said: “We’re geniuses at six, and it’s all downhill from there.” Today, we’re drowning in information, data and stories. Ironically, surveillance, secrecy and power dominate our lives like never before. Violence becomes a cynical tool like never before. Still, human connection is the key to getting anywhere, leading to the disaffected left’s cry-in-the-street, “The people united will never be defeated.” Trouble is, that kind of unity is much easier said than done, given all the distractions of culture and technology.
In 2002, I made a film in Vietnam and motor biked west of Hanoi with two friends, a seriously wounded Marine veteran named Frank Corcoran living and working in Vietnam, the subject of the film, and a Vietnamese woman who did translating. In 1968, Frank, also a kid, was in Vietnam 45 days when he was seriously shot in the stomach. As he lay bleeding-out under fire, two men crawled out to help him. Between them, these men managed to bandage him up, before they were both shot and killed. Frank healed physically but still deals with classic PTSD. In the 84-minute film called Second Time Around, he speaks eloquently about the humanity — the human love! — that drove these more experienced men to save his young life. It’s a tale that will make you shake your head in admiration for the sacrifice and bravery under fire of infantrymen in Vietnam. As Frank emphasizes, their actions had nothing — zero! — to do with country and patriotism.
On a daily basis, now, we see the rise of arrogance and belligerence in the world. It seems to be seasonal, and we’re entering a new season of it. One of the most striking examples of this is the Philippines, where the sociopathic President Rodrigo Dutarte proudly advocates and oversees the murder of thousands by death squads and now — surprise! — finds himself at war in his home province against an uprising linked with ISIS. I read a story in the New York Times that quoted a civilian caught between these two murderous forces. It’s the same-old-story from the Vietnam War and other wars, including gang wars and police violence in places like inner city Chicago. Civilians caught in the crossfire. Donald Trump, of course, adores Mr. Duterte’s authoritarian impulses, as he does Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s in Egypt and the Saudi royals on the Arabian peninsula. His connection with the authoritarian Vladimir Putin seems quite unsavory and somehow revolving around greed. How did it come about that the world should descend into this kind of seasonal maelstrom of overweening authority? Has it always been like this? And now with i-phones and everything connected on the internet we just have more access to information, making us more aware of how crazy life is? In exceptional American, we’ve deluded ourselves that being “ill-used by fate” — what the Vietnamese heroine Thuy Kieu was stoically inured to — is a very un-American fate. Faced with difficulty, we take charge, kick some ass and take some names. If things aren’t going our way, we fake it and make things up. Then, we mobilize and drop huge bombs and kill people from 12,000 miles away while sitting in an air-conditioned cubicle sipping a Diet Coke, anticipating the end of our shift and going home to play with our kids and watch TV.
During Memorial Day ceremonies, I attended a reading of Martin Luther King’s famous Riverside Church speech where he linked the Vietnam War with the Civil Rights Movement. Many believe this is why he was assassinated. It was chilling to hear the speech and recognize the resonances with our own insane time. He wanted to know where we in the US had gone wrong. Why didn’t we support the liberation movements fighting to lift the yoke of colonial oppression in places like Vietnam? He was the rare case in 1968 in that he knew the history and he publicly articulated it: The anti-colonial liberation movement in Vietnam had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with our forces against the Japanese and, in 1945 when the war was won, had quoted our Declaration of Independence from colonial oppression in their declaration of independence document. For speaking this, the man was murdered.
I’m not as naïve as I was 50 years ago on that mountaintop overlooking the Cambodian border in Vietnam. I know the rise of a seasonal wave of Social Darwinism when I see it. We’re probably closer to civil war in this country than at any time in modern memory. As is the nature of our times, this civil war may break out in acts of “terror” by “losers,” as Donald Trump would call them. In an unprecedented fashion, President Trump is playing hard to his core constituency, the people who mobbed to his speeches, people he’d stroke like a giant cat by hollering, “Punch him in the face!” when a heckler disrupted his words. He’s abandoning sensible Republicans on things like the Paris Accords. He sucks up to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as he intentionally insults Germany, France and Europe. Established coalitions are being thrown into topsy-turvy confusion. Political factions, including the fragmented left, begin to wonder what strange bedfellow they should bunk up with. Corruption and war have crawled into our entertainment industry and found a lucrative home. We become addicted to the i-phones we carry with us everywhere and become more and more lost in the world of the internet, which is becoming the new cold-war zone.
As a kid sitting atop that huge mountain in the midst of the most beautiful terrain imaginable, the Se San River winding its way through it like a golden snake, I could never have imagined the leadership of America that had sent me there to help kill Vietnamese would eventually lead us to the cataclysmic condition we now are living through. And let’s not delude ourselves: While not letting others off the hook, American leadership is implicated profoundly in the current disastrous state of the world. The slow-motion train wreck we read about on a daily basis makes me nostalgic for that simple meeting west of Hanoi, fueled by terrible, home-brewed beer, with a former enemy who years earlier would have wanted to kill me — and vice versa — because, in that case, my leaders could not find the humility to sit down and work out their problems with his leaders.
A Vietnam vet friend of mine tells me I should apply for PTSD status. Maybe it’s because of my brother and so many friends who served in the infantry that I feel it would be wrong. I really don’t feel I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I feel that the spirit of social Darwinism and war has become so intense that everybody in our culture suffers from war stress. What I have is Survival Guilt and POCS: Pissed-Off-Citizen-Syndrome. Bill McKibben, the environmentalist leader who founded 350.org, said it best in a Times op-ed following President Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Accords. He cited the “dysfunctional American political process” as the cause of our problem. The problem, he wrote, isn’t “because [Trump] didn’t take climate change seriously, but also because he didn’t take civilization seriously.”
We are being dragged into a Hobbesian world of war in which everybody is being pitted against everybody else. We’re no longer hunting the Vietnamese in far-away forests. Leaders like Trump are now fighting for themselves first and, in a way, seeking to search out and destroy those weaker and poorer than they are. The Resistance is growing and reaching into the mainstream. Maybe it’s not too late to learn something from the Vietnamese about resilience and how to resist and survive the crushing of the cooperative spirit.
Finally, from The Tale of Kieu:
Roosters crowed at the moon. She walked and walked,
leaving her tracks on the dew-sprinkled bridge.
Deep into the night, along a road unknown,
She braved the wind and weather and went on.