One glaring similarity I share with all those who served in SEA is the inability to this day to discuss it with those who weren’t there. It’s not for lack of finding the right words. To this day, few ever vocalize what we endured or sum it up in descriptive adjectives. Simply put, I doubt there are enough adjectives adequate to describe even one tenth of it. Worse- no one seriously has a hankering to know the depraved depths of war at its most elementary level.
With the new Ken Burns Vietnam series comes a panoply of visual insults that can only attempt to presage what our mental fate would be forty or fifty years hence. As I’ve pointed out in a few articles I’ve written over the last eight years, not everyone’s brain is prepared to handle what we mentally inhaled on the Indochinese peninsula. I’ve been permitted to help a few of you attain what the Government and the VA have held just out of reach in those intervening years. I would never be so presumptive as to think another agent or attorney couldn’t accomplish what I’ve done, but then I can virtually count those who served over there and came home to practice VA law on my fingers. Some names you will easily recognize like Bob Walsh. Others, perhaps like Charlie Brown out of Florida, who earned the Navy Cross, may be strangers to your lips. These men have an advantage few others do. They walked in those boots.
I’ve watched interviews of some of those affected by their 13 months in country (Marines). I’ve listened to Senator John McCain bloviate on his travails. Yes, he was recently maligned by the President but cry me a river and paddle to the other side. What does this have to do with the series? He managed to survive, become a congressman and marry into the Budweiser beer fortune so he wasn’t that damaged. Few of you know he collects a 100% compensation check monthly from VA, too. In fact, I’ve listened to many stories but the whopper was Ken Burns himself explaining last week he was draft-age himself and “almost had to go”. That ‘s akin to serving in Saudi Arabia during the Afstan conflict and saying you feared for your life. From what? Lack of Scotch?
Talking with other combat Veterans here in my cocoon on the Key Peninsula, one ringing truth stands out. We survived. Bullets or B40s aimed at us either missed or failed to kill us. It wasn’t luck. I don’t believe in that. If it were luck, we’d all have cheated death. I met a few guys in my two years there who constantly insisted they were lucky right up to the moment they were not.
Revisiting Vietnam in a new television series will never bring peace to those of us who came home to screaming, insane crowds with a superior entitlement mentality who considered us untermenschen and irredeemable. Mr. Burns’ cinematic attempt to recast Vietnam as a study in what went wrong is misguided. That’s yesterday’s news. It doesn’t bring closure. We should throw a big, Nationwide block party and truly embrace our Sons of War to our collective bosoms. Hey. We took third place in Vietnam. Why can’t we be proud to settle for a Bronze medal in those Olympics?
All those Queshuns
Some of the things I heard or was asked during the ten years after coming home that make me smile to this day:
“So what did you do on weekends? Get drunk and party?”
“I almost went but I felt I had a greater obligation to America to finish college. Ya know?”
” I went to Canada but it was too cold in winter so I came back after it was over.”
“How could you kill all those women and children?”
“I protested that war. Somebody had to. I felt it was my duty to America.”
“You must really like violence to want to do that shit.”
“Is Napalm hot?’
Now, fifty years later, I hear equally inane comments from the very same group of fellow non-participants:
“Wow, that was a rough time, huh? I have a lot of life experiences almost identical to it.”
“How did you ever survive it? Did you smoke pot and shoot up junk?”
“Does it still affect you today?”
” I feel your pain. I had that very same feeling when my dog died.”
“Did you lose any friends?”
“Why did you stay two years if you didn’t have to? Did you have a death wish?”
And of course, the worst one of all-about 50 years overdue:
“Welcome home, Bro.”
Cupcake #1 became aware of my “history” in 1973- a mere 14 months after I returned. I managed to burn through that relationship in less than five years. I was ‘too warped’ and dwelled in the past in her words. Cupcake #2 has always wondered how two short years in a foreign country could cast such an enduring pall on me considering I’ve lived to the ripe old age of 66. Last night, watching footage of Tet 1968, she said she finally “got it”. Few of those who were never there ever will. It wasn’t survival of the fittest. It was survival-period- for many.
Mr. Burns cannot capture the essence of calling in a CBU 26 hailstorm in words; the roar and whoosh of nape when it sucks all the oxygen out of the air. You can hear it equally well flying overhead at 250 feet above the engine noise. Contrary to popular misconception, you can’t hear the screams of agony for several seconds over that deafening whoosh. But why revisit a discussion of something so revolting no one has been willing to talk about it for five decades? Why poke and prod at those of us who survived with foolish questions meant to pretend you share our angst? What is gained by reliving it? Let it be.
Having talked with many folks whose brains are not able to assimilate what they endured over there to this day, I gained one insight that didn’t need vocalizing. It was a no-brainer. No one who endures combat wants to relive the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. VA is fond of Kumbaya group encounters where you stand up and say to your fellow bent brain compadres “Hi, My name is Bob. I did a year up in I Corps and I lost my entire platoon in less than two minutes west of Quang Tri. I haven’t been too tightly wrapped ever since. I just thought I’d share and relive that experience with y’all a few more times for its power to heal. Oh yeah. And pass the Sertraline down this way, please.”
Many know of my disdain for Veterans Service Organizations and their insane desire to be nothing more than an extension of the military mentality. I get a bang out of calling them up and asking if they have any of the records for a Veteran who has finally come to me for “real” representation. If you’ve ever seen a pit bull physically stretch a stout 1/4″ chain several inches and clothesline himself on his choke collar when you approach, I’m guessing you can visualize the analogy. To a man (or woman), the response is uniform- “Wait a minute, buddy. Just who in the hell are you? What organization do you work for?” That defensive mindset of someone entering into the bailiwick of Veterans Advocacy who is not accredited by a VSO raises the hackles on their neck. Few, if any, of these folks are real combat Veterans in spite of the tall tales you hear at their VSO bars. They have no conception of what we witnessed. Sadly, neither does the Veterans Administration. It’s one of those ‘walking in the the valley of the shadow of death’ things.
I remember my post-Vietnam years and the early movie fare the public viewed that formed the basis of their misconceptions. Remember Apocalypse Now ? I couldn’t get a handle on that one. It didn’t jive with anything I ever experienced or heard of.
How about The Deer Hunter? Here again, I guess I didn’t hang out in bars where Russian Roulette was in style like pool tables. Quite possibly more authentic than most was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. That at least had some remote cachet of reality like Platoon and both had excellent special effects.
Oliver Stone didn’t seem too awfully concerned with continuity in Born on the Fourth of July. If you want to engross and entertain the viewer, the very least you can do is adhere to reality. Look at Mr. Cruise’s medals and ribbons and you see the incongruity of a Marine combat Vet with a Purple Nurple and a BS but no Combat Action Ribbon. And why is the NDSM in the bottom row? Some will think I’m anally retentive but if you were there, you want to see reality as you remember it. If the film was just made of fluff to sell tickets with no basis in reality, I expect that’s fine. Why not insert a disclaimer? Ditto Good Morning Vietnam.
Charlie Sheen in Platoon looks too cool for school in this picture but who in their right mind would be running around with a finger on the trigger of an AK on ‘safe’ with Charlie inside the wire. Sorry. Reality is AWOL.
The war I remember was filled with emotional highs and lows. It wasn’t a doom and gloom gig 24/7. There were moments of high humor. How many of you can remember taking the plastique propellant off a 60 mm mortar round and folding a c ration can lid around it with a protruding wire to make an impromptu bottle rocket? The SFs up in Laos liked to take apart those small Swedish hand grenades and reduce the fuse to about 2 seconds. They’d leave them out on the trail for the VC to pick up and use. Now that’s my kind of humor. They also would leave 7.62mm ammo in cases with a round or two filled to the top with powder to demoralize the troops. It’s a bitch to shoot when you’re shaking like a leaf on a tree wondering if your SKS is going to explode in your face when you pull the trigger.
Kubrick and Stone, in their wildest dreams, can never conceive of the the hi-jinks that went on in RVN, Cambodia and Laos. We lived each day as if we were bulletproof. We had to assume that or turn into morose, depressed troops. The thrill of Victory wasn’t the medals but the camaraderie of your fellow companions. The close bonds that many develop in this new Snowflake world we inhabit today can never approximate what went through your noggin when you and your buds were being shot at. The only other group I can see relating to this warped view are the guys who served, or are currently serving in Iraqistan or Afstan.
As they say, War is Hell but combat is a horse of a different color. If you got your ass kicked, you armored up philosophically and stoically proceeded to kill them right back. There was no rule book in this game from what I could gather. Animosity was a product of seeing your friends killed- not some story line about how your best friend back in Nebraska was having an affair with your girlfriend. And frankly, a point was reached after a few encounters that there was very little ‘against the law’. When the shit hits the fan, the ROEs¹ fly out the window.
I won’t go into semantic gerrymandering on whether it was right or wrong to fly over to a foreign country and take out a one-year hunting license for humans with a bonus for being good at it. I don’t need to. And most especially, I don’t need someone to moralize all over again about the legitimacy of it. We came. We saw. We got our ass handed to us on fine china by a militarily inferior force-one driven by an urge to be free- much like America in 1776.
If Mr. Burns and Miss Novik’s series does nothing else, it will provoke much thought that may give pause to doing this again sometime in the future. Unfortunately, George Santayana’s admonition and axiom that we have to revisit history about every fifty years to “relearn” it still holds true. One look at Southwest Asia is all you need for confirmation.
Welcome home, Gentlemen. As you were.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
¹Rules of Engagement.