“We all went to Gettysburg, the summer of ’63:
Some of us came back from there
And that’s all,
Except the details.”
Captain Paxiteles Swan, Confederate Army,
Complete Account of the Battle of Gettysburg
I think I know how Captain Swan felt.
In my generation, we all went to Vietnam in the summer of ‘65.
All Americans were involved.
My 3rd Platoon, A Co, 1st/28th Battalion, 1st Division in December 1965 before a patrol in South Vietnam. I'm first on the left. Most men in this photo would be wounded or killed by the summer of 1966.
The war divided us as a country. We took sides. Initially most were in support. As time went on, more were opposed and then the war became very popular to oppose and demonstrators took to the streets by the tens of thousands.
American flags sewn to the seats of dirty jeans vied with those hung, reverently, traditionally from front porches of simple homes.
As a song of the time noted, the war happened during the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” a time when we went to the moon, killed a president and a King, harnessed the atom, discovered the computer, swooned over Elvis and questioned authority. It was a time of radically expanded horizons.
Americans were pumped, masters of the world. The communication explosion provided instantaneous coverage of events around the world, and the speed of air travel shrunk the size of our world to hours, minutes. Increasing numbers of satellites circled the earth. The U.S. military/industrial complex produced awesome weapons of destruction because Communism — a godless, harsh, angry political ideology lurking beyond our borders — threatened our way of life. Communist leaders said they would bury us. They armed their missiles and aimed them at our centers of commerce. Americans dug bomb shelters in their backyards; elementary school teachers held “duck and cover” bomb drills.
Then Vietnam burst on the scene in 1964 and war there quickly wove itself into the fabric of our society. It became the lead story on the evening news as Americans sat down to supper — a panorama of monk immolations, rice paddies, Hueys, B-52s, dirty GIs, M-16 rifles, screaming children, Tet, Vietcong, Jane Fonda, POWs, dope, dust-offs, and lush bamboo jungles in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, where no building was safe from enemy sappers, where the Communists were willing to die and did, in fact, die by the hundreds of thousands — attacking in waves, blowing whistles, beating drums, running headlong into mine fields. It was an extravagant show unlike anything Americans had ever seen or imagined before. Clear good, clear bad, dramatic, easy to hate.
Some Americans went to Canada to avoid the military draft. Others in traditional fashion answered their country’s call — 2.6 million Americans served in Vietnam.
Whether protesting, fighting, or standing on the sidelines, we all were involved. In my generation, we all went to Vietnam in the summer of ’65.
For those of us who fought the ground war there, we found ourselves at some point kneeling on a spent jungle battlefield, exhausted, wet from the monsoon rain, stinking from putrid sweat, arms hanging loosely at our sides, eyes sunken into our heads, ears still ringing from the explosions of battle, and lungs filled with the smoke of gunpowder. And we knelt beside our buddies whose blood turned the soil black as they lay dying or wounded. A terrible anguish swelled deep inside us, and we tried to conquer our pain. For the most part we were citizen soldiers. The emotional consequences of war — killing each other — were hard to put into perspective and those moments always came as our emotions crashed following the adrenaline high that had sustained us in battle.
After a firefight, a soldier is emotionally wasted and helplessly watching a buddy die stuns the senses.
War expands the human experience. In war, a soldier sets aside his survival instinct because of a compelling obligation to unit and friend. He risks violent death because the men he serves with expect it. In the jungles of Vietnam, wealth, personality, and ambition counted for nothing. By simply closing his eyes and going to sleep a soldier displayed his extraordinary trust in his buddy. In the jungle, the military group — the fire team, the squad, the platoon — was everything. My battalion in Vietnam was the 1st/28th Infantry, 1st Division. I would have died for it, for my commanders, for my soldiers.
Faithfulness and death were common elements among U.S. combat units in Vietnam. So was youth. We were all youngsters. I was twenty-two years old when I first went. Most of my men were eighteen or nineteen years old. We knew little about life; we were so impressionable. For most of us, before Vietnam, we did not know anyone who had died. Yet, in this war, we saw friends, who meant more to us than any other friends we had ever known, die in the catastrophic way that men die in combat — ripped by shrapnel or torn apart by booby traps. They died in our arms. Their blood stayed on our clothes for days.
On our return home from Vietnam — when our homes were quiet late at night and we felt secure — we tried to tell our mothers and fathers or our girlfriends or our wives about the pain, how we felt fear, how we loved the men who died, how the experience plumbed the depths of our souls, and how, deep inside us, we had changed. But war is sensorial and difficult to put in words. We didn’t know until we tried to talk about our combat experiences how indescribable they were. We also realized that the telling took away from the joy our loved ones felt at our homecoming. So after a while, after we’d hemmed and hawed and seen our loved ones uncomfortable, we stopped talking.
To people outside the family, we were quiet for different reasons. We were apprehensive because, in this war, American soldiers were called “murderers” and “baby killers.” The television commentators — so clean, so self-assured — droned on incessantly with their dark litany about the “bad war.” No one said that our sacrifices had been worthwhile or had value. No one thanked us. Instead we heard, “disgraceful,” “debacle,” “tragedy.”
And we did not win. In our culture, nobody likes a loser. Nothing excuses losing — not bad government, not ineffective strategy, and not blundering diplomats. Because we didn’t win on the battlefield, we received no parades when we came home. Despite our love for our country and respect for its tradition of duty and service, we had the feeling among us that our country did not love us back or respect our patriotism.
So we didn’t talk much. To give dignity to the memories of our friends who had died so violently in Vietnam, we did not discuss their sacrifices or how we felt about their loss. We did not risk having our hard-to-explain feelings trampled and trashed by an unsympathetic public that saw us as part of a losing proposition.
Winning at war gives meaning and value to death in combat. For citizen soldiers in this war, there was no dignified alternative to victory, no way to soothe their souls — second place lost.
Like Captain Paxiteles Swan, who also fought bravely for an army that did not win, we who served in Vietnam became sullen, sensitive, and uncommunicative. We said, after a fashion:
I went to Vietnam,
I came back
And that’s all.
And the curtness was defensive — the brevity out of some embarrassment, some perceived notion that the listener really was not interested.
We did not win the “bad” war.
The Vietnam War now belongs to history and no longer divides us as a nation. There are other headlines, other TV lead stories, other conflicts, other issues. Protestors have grown up and gone on to jobs in the market place and academia. Retired. To them Southeast Asia combat is of fading interest.
This is not true of Americans who saw combat there. We have, after all these years, developed a clear voice about our service. We say with more confidence, “I served proudly in Vietnam.” There is the sense among us veterans that we are family. That we experienced something extraordinary in our jungle combat. We realize the enormous excitement and adventure in what we did and the unique closeness to the men we served with developed a fraternal bond unlike any relationship in ordinary American life, that brings us together now in reunions, that makes us stand so proudly when our country’s flag passes by. We know our fidelity helped preserve the concept of allegiance to our country during the tumultuous “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” when American ideals were reassessed.
And we are proud of the gritty manliness to our service, about enduring all those hours of boredom, slogging through the jungle, getting wet and dry a dozen times before changing fatigues, staying awake at night on ambush patrols and then fighting sleep on daytime sweeps, eating out of cans, drinking 100-degree iodized water out of plastic canteens, battling the fire ants, crapping out behind a tree, cussing, hacking at saw grass — and then suddenly, sheer stark terror. We have memories that cannot be duplicated in video games or movies. Or protest.
And we have the experience of coming home, which may be one of the greatest things about the war in Vietnam that non-vets will never know. Coming home to your mother. Seeing her for the first since fighting in a cold dark jungle so far away, you realize how much you had missed her. How deep inside, during those hours of combat horror, when you called out to your God, you also hungered for her comfort and safety. Her warm, tight, loving embrace. And then in final answer to your prayers there she is. In all of my life, there was no single greater joy than holding my mother when I came home from war.
I went to Vietnam,
I came back
And that’s all you’ll ever really know unless you went there too.