Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Still in Saigon

The sight of Vietnam veterans shouting at each other during the recent march in Washington brought me the realization that we are all still fighting the Vietnam war as we debate the war and occupation in Iraq. I and my fellow anti-war veterans see the same lies and errors that put so many of us into a pointless war. The pro-war veterans argue against making same mistakes that led to the collapse of our war effort in Vietnam. I see the conflict as a generation trying to justify its actions 40 years ago.

War turns human beings into killers, "citizens of death’s gray land". We all became killers and must come to terms with that fact. One way is to insist that our actions were absolutely justified, that we were right to kill. Another way is to recognize that what we did was not justified, that we were either fooled or acquiesced to killing. I have always considered myself in the latter category, which has left me with a legacy of self doubt and anger. On the surface, I would think that believing in what you did would be easier to deal with but the vehemence of the pro-war veterans suggest to me that they can only be sure of their actions as long as no one questions them. When fellow veterans question war, their certainty is at risk.

So here we are, 40 years later, still fighting each other. The Washington Post profiles two veterans, one on each side of the veterans’ debate. I, of course, identify with the anti-war vet. He is my age and was an Army draftee who served as a telephone operator in the central highlands near Pleiku and was wounded during an attack on his base. He came away from his experience with a profound skepticism about war and the honesty of America’s leaders. Just like me. The pro-war vet is about 10 years older, served as an Air Force photo intelligence lieutenant on the big American base in Saigon, retired after 22 years as a colonel and has unquestioning faith in the commander-in-chief.

Perhaps some of my fellow enlisted grunts may feel the same way as the colonel but the distinction in rank and orientation to the military suggests that the debate is between world views as much as their Vietnam experience. The anti-war veteran was, at best, a reluctant soldier who came under direct fire. The pro-war veteran was career Air Force. I don’t see them as equivalent in any real respect other than they were both in Vietnam. I don’t discount the colonel’s service but as career military his experience was very different from the enlisted man’s and my own. The story would carry more weight for me if the pro-war vet had been Army enlisted. This comparison doesn’t ring true to me.

I am also always skeptical of the Air Force which believes that all war can be won from the air. They’ve been saying that since WWII but it’s still the Army and Marines who end up going in on the ground. So the colonel’s faith in the bombing campaign rings hollow to me. It’s also a different form of killing. Not exactly bloodless, but the air warriors rarely engage the enemy directly and do not have the experience of hands on killing. To me that makes a big difference.

Labels: ,

12 Comments:

Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i was involved with some pretty intense discussion with a friend of mine who was a marine f-4 jockey in viet nam. i finally trumped him by saying "pilots make headlines and movies. grunts make history." one duty that i always pulled when i could get it was to go after downed pilots. it was a little bit of decency and honor in that shitty world. over and over i saw these fine young men totally appalled and uncomprehending when they saw the results their activities had on the ground. it's one thing to push a button and then climb and bank to admire the spectacle that your napalm drop is. it's another thing to be close enough to feel the heat and smell the roasting of every bit of flesh in the area. it was always touchy making first contact with those guys. they were scared shitless and not that well versed in handling small arms. my standard schtick was to creep on them then when i was sure that they wouldn't shoot me i would say "look, i know you're scared, i am too. but this is my jungle. i can get us out of here alive. you need to shut up, you need to be absolutely quiet and do everything i tell you to do. if you can't do that i will just go home and tell them i found you dead."

i try to give my fellow vets of all services a little extra latitude when we talk. extreme times and measures and all. we all did what we thought we had to do. i even count a songwriter who fled to montreal as a close friend. he followed his conscience, i followed mine. my war ended when i quit fighting the whole thing. some wisdom from jean-paul satre finally sunk in (and i'm paraphrasing here)

if you see an individual in conflict with the world. bet on the world.

i think bush is down to only barney on his side. laura's spending more and more time in her suite of rooms at the watergate.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I am not American and hesitate to get involved in your debate. I was in Vietnam for the better part of ten years ,the first part involved in the US participation. I think one needed a very long stay in the country to begin to understand it. I am trying to put my thoughts into my blog as I felt at the time.
Regards,
http://vnpersonalwar.blogspot.com
http://www.vnrozier.net

3:04 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Minstrel Boy, you write the most chilling comments--all too real. I'm with you on not judging others on how they handled the difficult choices of those years. Unless, they stayed way the fuck out of danger but believe(d)in war. Even so, I claim some cred for having been under fire even if I was scared shitless and even if my time was mercifully short.

Christopher, you are correct that a long time is necessary to understand Vietnam. I didn't even try beyond the extent necessary to stay alive. What I did understand about Vietnam was that neither I nor my country could defeat the insurgency. I also figured the South Vietnamese would be dynamic entrepreneurs (hustlers?) no matter what the outcome.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Fixer said...

I've found those Air Force vets opposing the war are those who've had 'close combat experience', myself included. When you know what it means to 'see the whites of their eyes', you also see the true costs of war, the lives squandered, the carnage, the children, and the reasons given for you to be put in the situation and somehow those don't square. The ones I've met who are 'rah-rah, kill the ragheads' were photographers, pilots, and admin types.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Lurch said...

This is a very touchy topic to discuss. It dangerous to argue from generalities because they are never absolutes, but here goes:

I think most vets who were actually involved in ground combat - like you, and Fixer, myself as only three examples of many, dismiss war as brutal, stupid, expensive in both blood and treasure, and rarely justified. More veterans who were not faced with the eyeball to eyeball realities seem to support this atrocity in Iraq.

I honestly feel they support it because they don't understand what the realities entail.

It is very easy to kill another human. Justifying that killing is very hard. I'll bet there's a good chance if that 22-year AF LTC photo interpreter had been an E-4 11B he might have had a different view of the Viet Nam meatgrinder.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Lurch said...

This is a very touchy topic to discuss. It dangerous to argue from generalities because they are never absolutes, but here goes:

I think most vets who were actually involved in ground combat - like you, and Fixer, myself as only three examples of many, dismiss war as brutal, stupid, expensive in both blood and treasure, and rarely justified. More veterans who were not faced with the eyeball to eyeball realities seem to support this atrocity in Iraq.

I honestly feel they support it because they don't understand what the realities entail.

It is very easy to kill another human. Justifying that killing is very hard. I'll bet there's a good chance if that 22-year AF LTC photo interpreter had been an E-4 11B he might have had a different view of the Viet Nam meatgrinder.

7:17 AM  
Blogger antimedia said...

I have two questions for you.

1) What is a "democratic socialist"?
2) What do you think about the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians who died after we abandoned South Vietnam?

9:47 PM  
Blogger Jeany said...

A friend sent me this link a couple of days ago; I read the post, but not the comments. My take-away from the first reading was to recall Gary Hart's last entry on HuffPo, wherein he stated that we hadn't yet learned the lessons of Vietnam, while anticipating the new industry of Lessons Learned from our Iraq adventure. But I've been thinking about this post a lot (I share the age cohort of Vietnam vets), because I had never made that connection between the branch of service and those who came out of the war agin' it, and those who still raged about traitorous opposition to that war.

But this morning, I was scrolling through Crooks and Liars, and saw they'd posted Steven Colbert's wicked Baghdad NeverNeverLand segment from the other night, which characterizes McC's view of the war as "clap your hands and believe." And I thought of this post. And I remembered that McCain was a flyer... and Bush was a flyer, such as his service was, and even recalled that Rumsfeld was AF, and I have to ask if there's a persistent cultural divide in our military services, and is this something we ought to be aware of, and concerned about?

I realize I'm taking this discussion off-topic, and apologize; feel free to dump this if it seems inappropriate.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Anti-Media,

1. My definition of democratic socialism is an economic system that distributes wealth broadly to to labor as well as capital. Since capitalism creates wealth but tends to concentrate that wealth, some form of public intervention is warranted to provide what John Kenneth Galbraith called countervailing power. I prefer that countervailing power to be exercised democratically.

2. I think the many Vietnamese and Cambodian deaths that came after America left Vietnam are as tragic as all the death that occurred in southeast Asia during our intervention. They are a legacy of a century of French colonialism and American neo-colonialism colliding with Vietnamese nationalism. I think most of them would have been avoided had the United States had accepted Ho Chi Minh's request for his Declaration of Independence in 1946.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Jeany,

You are not at all off topic. I don't think pilots are necessarily insensitive to the consequences of their actions but the experience of war seems very different from ground level combat. Pilots are also officers which brings a whole different perspective and mindset to the enterprise. I don't discount anyone's combat experience because it's all about killing but it does seem to me that the closer you are to those you kill the more you will find it to be something you never want to happen again.

10:49 AM  
Blogger antimedia said...

Rez Dog, thanks for the answers.

I'm puzzled at to how you would implement your system of democratic socialism. What sort of intervention do you think is appropriate in a democratic system? How would that system work if a majority were opposed to intervention? Finally, you state that "capitalism creates wealth" but you advocate redistribution of the resulting wealth. Wouldn't that hinder or retard the creation of wealth?

11:04 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Anti-Media,

Probably the best example would be the New Deal in America or the Scandinavian countries. And, yes, there are all kinds of problems with implementing my concept. I don't have a lot of answers. I do know what seems right to me based on the Golden Rule. In my own affairs I am a landlord who has shared a portion of my gains with tenants who have helped make those gains possible.

11:23 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home