By William Dowell
Global Beat-Knight Ridder Syndicate, 2004

Saigon 1975--when leaving turns out to be the only option

When asked how the Vietnamese are likely to see Senator John Kerry's war experiences in Vietnam, the Vietnamese-American novelist Lin Dinh remarked recently that for most Vietnamese, many of whom were born after the fall of Saigon, the war is now distant history. What is more likely to matter to the Vietnamese, Linh concluded, is that Kerry has actually experienced war first hand, and he is consequently likely to have a deeper understanding of what engaging in combat really means. Men who have seen combat up close, Linh suggested,   are more cautious about repeating the experience.
The 2004 election campaign has triggered more than a few flashbacks to a war that most people would just as soon forget. Like John Kerry, I can remember agonizing over the draft, and like Kerry, I finally decided against finding an easy way out. I reasoned at the time, perhaps naively, that you could not ask someone else to put themself into harms way, if you were not prepared to face that yourself.  I do not hold it against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz that they chose a different route. The majority of white, upper-middle class, American males who had the money to stay in college or to find a safe haven in the National Guard, did pretty much the same. If you had the money and influence, it was not difficult to avoid putting yourself into a risky, no-win situation, and at the time staying as far away as possible from Vietnam seemed like a no-brainer.
But ones who stayed at home missed the understanding that comes from actually being in combat. Without that experience, there is a temptation to see war as an abstraction, an exciting, gloriously patriotic adventure in which other people die.
No one who has really seen a war thinks that it is glorious. The men who saw action in Vietnam do not describe themselves as "warriors." Often, they do not want to talk about the experience.
During the Vietnam War, I spent 18-months assigned to a province advisory team in a small village called An Loc,  a few miles from the Cambodian border. I wondered each night if we were going to survive to the next morning.  
It was pretty clear to anyone who bothered to look back then that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. By the time I finished my tour of duty in 1969, the U.S. public had reached a similar conclusion.   Vietnam was a disaster that was going nowhere.   We were losing 500 G.I.s killed every week, while Americans at home were amusing themselves with football games and junk television.   Victory in Vietnam was no longer an option. The question was how to withdraw with minimum loss of face. While Washington pondered that question, another 20,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action.  
I went back to Vietnam almost immediately after leaving the Army, this time as a freelance journalist. I eventually landed a slot with NBC News. Reporting in Vietnam, I began to see what serious ncombat on the ground really meant.  
The first time I flew into a firebase on the verge of being overrun, the helicopter's crew had to kick terrified South Vietnamese soldiers away in order to find space to pile the bodies and wounded.  
I stayed in Vietnam as a reporter for four more years. No one had any illusions about winning the war, except for a few deluded brass too disconnected to realize what was happening. Every G.I., I talked to asked me the same question: "Why isn't anyone telling the U.S. public what is really going on here? Why are we being left here to die?"  
They were, it turned out, asking the same questions that John Kerry was at that moment putting to the U.S. Senate. Kerry had, in a sense, become their voice.
The criticisms of Kerry from the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" have more to do with Kerry's opposition to the war than they do to the specific details of Kerry's medals and wounds in Vietnam.  
John O'Neill, who was also stationed on Swift Boats, was cultivated by Richard Nixon to spearhead the administration's efforts to undercut Kerry's criticisms of the war in 1971.  But Nixon considered Kerry an impressive opponent, the most articulate voice against continuing the war. O'Neill was a different matter. He could not bring himself to admit that the war had been lost and that all that effort had been in vain. He simply couldn't let go.  
Larry Thurlow, another member of the group, is also seemed to be driven by an inability to recognize that the war was over.   Both men have criticized Kerry for accusing U.S. soldiers of having committed atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam.   O'Neill's reasoning appears to be that he did not commit any atrocities himself, and therefore they did not exist.
In his testimony to Congress, Kerry did say that he thought the U.S. had taken actions that constituted war crimes.   In his testimony to the senate, he referred to "free fire" zones in which the U.S. felt free to shoot anyone, whether they were civilians or military. He felt that being ordered to open fire on a village with .50-caliber machine guns, without knowing who you were shooting, was a violation of the Geneva Convention, and he spoke of worse atrocities which had been rcounted to him by other veterans returning from the battlefront. Kerry admits that some of his comments may have been over the top.  
They may have been, but what Kerry actually said is mild stuff compared to what really happened in Vietnam. Most U.S. soldiers behaved decently considering the circumstances, but some did not.  
Before leaving for Vietnam in 1967, I was ushered into a large auditorium with hundreds of other G.I.s for a briefing on what to expect. A slide was projected on a moviescreen showing U.S. Special Forces troops crouched around a campfire. Several of them held spears with human skulls. "I can't believe they are showing us that before we even get there," said a soldier next to me.
A friend, who was asked to brief a U.S. general at headquarters in Saigon, came back ashen-faced. The general had had a jar filled with a human ear floating in formaldehyde on his desk. When the My Lai massacre broke, I was back in Vietnam as a reporter and I interviewed the commanding officers of the Americal Division, which was responsible for the massacre of women and children at My Lai. It was pretty clear after a few minutes conversation that they had created the command environment which opened the door for Lieutenant William Calley's murderous rampage.
What differentiated the U.S. from other countries involved in this kind of conflict was that the U.S. actually prosecuted many of the offenses committed by its own troops. 
The bottom line is that there were atrocities on both sides in Vietnam. The evil was the war itself, which turned decent men into temporary monsters.
That is what war does, and that is why, as Lin Dinh suggests, the Vietnamese might prefer to have an American commander-in-chief who understands what war really means.
In the final analysis, Vietnam was based--much like Iraq--on a flawed political analysis.   It turned out to be a war in which there was nothing of lasting strategic importance to gain.   The United States did not really lose the war; we simply decided at a certain point that there was no longer any reason to fight it.   The indisputable proof of Vietnam's complete absence of any strategic importance is that once the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam, the Vietnamese never had even the slightest impact on American foreign policy again. The Russian navy briefly used Vietnam as a base. No one noticed or cared. Far from complying with the famous domino theory of communist expansion, Vietnam soon defeated the Chinese in a border clash, and eventually threw the Russians out.   The Vietnamese did not need the U.S. to accomplish either task.   Of course, it is painful to admit, even now, that all that carnage was for nothing. It was, in fact, a painful learning experience. Yet the dubious rational for the war, in no way diminishes the heroism of the men who fought and died in Vietnam.   
These men were heroes, and what they did was often heroic. John Kerry clearly earned the right to be counted among them. Chicago Tribune editor, William Rood, who commanded the Swift boat accompanying Kerry during the incident which earned Kerry his silver star, describes in a column in Sunday's Chicago Tribune, that Kerry was a decisive leader, whose strategy was to make a sudden 90-degree turn and drive at full speed with all guns blazing, directly into enemy fire (This was the same tactic used by U.S. armor to react to ambushes). One can nit-pick the details and question the motives, but it is hard to deny that just showing up for duty in Vietnam required guts. The Swift Boats took 82 % casualties--either dead or wounded--the year before Kerry arrived. Being on an aluminum boat with a noisy motor and an ambush around the next bend in the river took a lot more than ordinary courage, and that is obviously a problem for the men who avoided serving in Vietnam, but then went on to engineer the current disaster in Iraq.
I went back to Vietnam on an assignment for Time Magazine in 1995 and interviewed some of the leading North Vietnamese generals who had fought the war.  
They were quiet, reflective, intelligent men. We discussed strategy a bit, and then one of the generals volunteered, “You know, we have always felt a great deal of respect for the American soldier, and we still do.” Watching the campaign attack ads that have poisoned the political debate in the last few weeks, it struck me that it would be a relief if we could do the same at home.