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Thursday, June 13. 2013
“Did you kill any babies, Bruce?” As we lay in bed on New Year’s Eve 1970, this is what the girl asked who a friend had introduced me to when I returned from Vietnam a couple of months before. I got up and drove home in the snowy streets from Queens to Brooklyn. I didn’t even try to date another girl for almost a year after. But, I moved past it and didn’t dwell on that night.
Some returned soldiers and Marines had worse experiences and some had better and almost all just blended back in after an initial adjustment. Studies show that most were more successful in their lives than their non-serving peers. But, what the major media and liberal opinion-setters painted was an image, usually grossly ignorant and mendacious, of a mentally and morally scarred Vietnam veteran. The purpose was to reduce support for the US commitment to South Vietnam. It took several decades before this image from the Left was reversed and due pride in veterans’ service returned to America. Yet, that erroneous and harmful image of Vietnam veterans still lingers in many minds.
Aside from the opprobrium poured upon us Vietnam veterans from the Left in the pop culture and academia, the goal of our war was lost and we had little reason to exhibit pride in the outcome of our service as millions of IndoChinese were murdered by the conquering communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The perfidy of so many of our Senators and Congressmen, and the indifference of most opinion-leaders, only deepened the alienation from authority, and increased the vulnerability to the anti-Vietnam messagers.
That’s what the fall of Saigon has to do with the life paths of Vietnam veterans.
Rarely do two books appear on widely different aspects of the Vietnam War which based on meticulous research weave an understanding of the still confusing Vietnam War that, as Paul Harvey used to say, tells us “the rest of the story.”
One book is a must-read breakthrough based on new Vietnamese sources who were the prime actors during the course of the war between North and South from the 1973 Paris Accords to the 1975 fall of the South. Almost all other Vietnam books concentrate on the US performance in Vietnam and the period before US troops left Vietnam, and are light on Vietnamese sources. To really understand the fall of South Vietnam, this book is indispensable. It is also essential to appreciate the incredible bravery of South Vietnamese defenders.
The other book is an 8+ year labor by a history professor too young to have served who sympathetically delved into the lives and psyches of hundreds of Vietnam veterans from New York City. Although unfortunately his publisher’s edits left the book somewhat tilted with anti-war vets, these two seemingly disparate subjects are closely intertwined.
The US loss of will and desertion of pledges to South Vietnam cascaded after Watergate but actually began earlier in the one-sided pressuring of Saigon to accept the destruction-seeded Paris Accords so the US could withdraw “with honor”. The demoralization of our homefront and the escalation of calumny heaped by the Left and most of the major media on our veterans, and the life-long impacts on them, were the rotten fruit of our failure to fully use our military resources during our heavy involvement in the war and, then, our dishonor in breaking our pledges of support as the essential bulwark to South Vietnam’s survival.
George J. Veith’s Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam 1973-1975 is endorsed by Henry Kissinger: “The courageous men and women of South Vietnam, who fought for their country’s freedom, have long needed a chronicle. Veith’s book fills that need. It deserves to be widely read.” Veith fills a glaring void in history of the Vietnam War with new access to high-level North Vietnamese documents and to South Vietnamese military leaders.
Veith, just as many surviving South Vietnamese military leaders, lays heavy blame at the door of South Vietnamese strategic faults in 1975 and a military built on the US model that was denied the necessary logistics and supplies to make it work. But, Veith asks the key question: “Why did Hanoi succeed in 1975 when it had failed in 1972?” when South Vietnamese forces and US airpower decimated the North Vietnamese offensive.
The key missing ingredient in 1975 was the denial of the promised US supplies and airpower to turn back the well-supplied and armed communist onslaught. (See the above link for the memoir of the South Vietnam Special Envoy Bui Diem to the US as he vainly begged for US help in 1975: “…an urgent necessity into a matter of life or death. The continued existence of my country was now to play out its final act in the halls of the US Congress.”)
The demoralization within many South Vietnamese forces without adequate supplies was palpable during 1975, while that of the North Vietnamese vaulted as supplies poured in from the North despite the Paris Accords. A few defeats of the South Vietnamese in the geographically crucial Central Highlands led to a cascade of defeats and setbacks unto the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. Most South Vietnamese forces fought valiantly and often turned back North Vietnamese forces. But, lacking in supplies and logistics the scattered defensive South Vietnamese positions were largely isolated from backup and coordination while the North Vietnamese were able to concentrate forces on a series of targets. The cut-offs of supplies and backup from the US that had been promised in 1973 destroyed South Vietnam’s ability to protect itself. The North Vietnamese knew they had to strike quickly and with overwhelming might in 1975 before South Vietnam, as other Asian nations, began to prosper in connection with the West and be fully capable of self-defense. The anti-war elements that came to dominate Congress after Watergate provided the strategic opening for the North.
Veith’s book offers an almost day-by-day detailing of the military campaign that is unique, interwoven with details of the two Vietnams’, US, and international political context. It is the most complete and rare description and tying-together of the battlefield nitty-gritty and the grand strategy that any reader of history could hope for. It is too late for the millions of casualties in IndoChina of the communist takeovers, and the encouragement that, for example, it gave Russia to take over and destabilize Afghanistan for which Afghanis and we are still paying. So, the ultimate value of the book is whether enough will take its lesson to heart and action in not again having the US irresponsibly bug out.
The second book is Philip Napoli’s Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History Of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans. (Don't waste your time looking for author intent, Bob Dylan fans. The title was not the author's.) For disclosure, Philip Napoli is an Assistant Professor of history at my alma mater Brooklyn College. He approached me in 2004 for interviews about my choice to join the Marine Corps as an enlisted man after graduating Brooklyn College and my experiences after. Over the years I got to know him well as a deeply feeling individual concerned about the misrepresentation of Vietnam vets in the pop culture as “baby killers”, John Kerry’s characterization of acting like the hordes of Genghis Kahn, drugged out psycopaths, losers, and so on.
For Veterans Day 2007, Phil Napoli penned the following for a blog I wrote at:
Oral history is subject to much criticism as poor history, more a bunch of anecdotes suffering the vagaries of memory than verified details combined into a scholarly narrative. But, as Napoli writes in his “A Note On Method” at the end of his book, “Instead, [oral history] looks for the meaning of events…it reveals the shape and structure of individual memories and what those memories share…” Napoli continues, oral history “insists that the competing voices of historical actors cannot and will not resolve into a single story with a solitary meaning.”
Professor Napoli intensely interviewed over 200 New York City Vietnam veterans. The publisher reduced the number presented to about 20, and most were then or since anti-Vietnam veterans, many associated with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (a group that never reached more than several thousand out of the 2 ½ million of us who served in Vietnam, a group whose Executive Director and many members never served in Vietnam, and which was tightly intertwined with the most radical pro-Hanoi protest organizations in the US). Their stories are “dramatic”, moreso than the veterans who returned and didn’t protest nor go through deep angst or substance troubles, and didn’t exaggerate the negatives of their experiences in Vietnam. So the publisher, whose goal is to sell books, apparently selected those stories. My story which was part of the book draft went into the garbage can icon. I actively supported the US involvement in Vietnam, returned as a civilian to Vietnam in the Summer of 1971, returned to graduate school, succeeded in corporations and my own company. So, apparently, did others go into the garbage can icon for not being dramatic enough, or perhaps not ideologically appealing to the editor. The publisher commonly seeks out bookcover endorsements. One such is Marilyn Young, who romanticizes the Viet Cong in her anti-Vietnam war book.
Similarly, much of Professor Napoli’s professional background explanations and interpretations that can be expected of a serious scholar can be assumed to have also hit the garbage can icon, likely to make the book more appealing to a mass audience by removing academic underpinning. But, that leaves the book too much a series of tales by malcontents of a certain political stripe, rather than “competing voices.”
These two faults undermine the worth of this oral history in presenting the diversity of experiences. I know Phil Napoli’s integrity and decency so, although like any author he would take responsibility, the faults most likely lay on the publisher’s desktop.
Regardless, Napoli succeeds admirably in showing that the veterans did not fit the stereotypes of the pop culture and did reach successes in their lives and peace in their hearts. That is the common story achieved by this oral history.
Whether a Vietnam veteran of opposite political leanings or non-political, most Vietnam veterans were disheartened by their service in Vietnam having little lasting impact for freedom and their service being disregarded and criticized at home. A natural reaction was to feel bitter. Many of the Vietnam veterans in the book are Jewish (like myself), hardly a representative sample of Vietnam veterans, and all are New Yorkers (like myself), hardly representative and subject to more intense pop culture negativity toward the war than elsewhere in the country. However, they were not pop culture stereotypes, nor were their millions of comrades who served in Vietnam.
Any Vietnam veteran reading Phil Napoli’s book will feel the brotherhood with those selected for inclusion in the book, not because of politics but because of the shared experiences that can only be felt by disappointed comrades in arms.
If Professor Napoli’s book is chosen by any college for its annual Common Reading, as it should be, young students will, of course, be influenced by the left-tilt of the narratives. But more important – especially if faculty-led discussion does not lapse into “victimology” but is an informed understanding of the feelings of war veterans at near the same age as the college students – the college students will gain more valuable exposure to real life than from the more removed politicized screeds the students are usually subjected to. Although most faculty have never fought for more than a parking space, there are many Iraq and Afghan war veterans on our college campuses who are well qualified and more competent to lead such discussions.
Now, we need oral histories in English of the South Vietnamese soldiers who managed to survive the sad fate of hundreds of thousands of their compatriots through execution, torture, concentration camps, and more, continuing to today in official discrimination, lack of jobs or services at the hands of the conquerors from the North. Their bravery and reputations also require rehabilitation.
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Dear Mr. Kessler:
Once again you have made us proud you are a member of MF! And, once again I will tell you thank you.
Also, once again I will remind you that in 1984 the women's movement had gained enough of a foothold in the US as to make it impossible for a Viet Nam veteran to be hired as a faculty in the college classroom. FACT: very, very, very few veterans with doctorate degrees get to teach on America's campuses. When I testified before state legislature committee I got pushed around by some pimply faced young man screaming at me that "they are all dopers!". In in 1986 he was about 20 years old--so way too young to have served. However, someone from the university had authorized him to be one of the two to give testimony on behalf of the university (state school) as to why Viet Nam vets were not good enough people to be allowed to teach. Clearly, he was doing his 'service' to the fem nazi in charge. The first time I had seen someone so young, so poorly informed sent to the state house to testify against a generation of people he had never met. Now, of course they bus 5th and 6th graders to demonstrate in the street over political issues, usually teacher's salaries, etc. But, back then the first I saw was in the committee hearing room.
I am acquainted with a SVNAF Major who managed to get here with his wife after the fall--boat people. He went to work for my father-in-law, got a better job, raised four intelligent daughters, sent them to college... Just your basic immigrant success story.
Bruce , I served in the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-1969 with a brief time in Long Binh as a security guard at the end of my year. I was drafted out of a dying Rust Belt town and came home to several years of drugs and madness.
In early 1978, I became a Christian and have lived a rich productive life .
I feel like the war made me better and solidified my commitment to try to make a difference in the world.
I just got done reading Michael Herr's amazing book, "Dispatches" for about the tenth time. It really captures what was to us who served a very profound and life changing experience. Herr wrote "instead of happy childhoods we had Viet Nam".
I also recommend "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam" by Lewis Sorley.
It is an interesting read on how Abrams turned the war around after taking over from Westmoreland. We won, then gave it all away in Paris, and left the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves.
Just crazy bad leadership - LBJ and Nixon both were pitiful.
"millions of IndoChinese were murdered by the conquering communists in Vietnam". Very true. Probably the saddest and least talked about factoid of the war. But It should be noted that the media, people like John Kerry and Jane Fonda were unindicted co-conspirators in the killing that followed the Americans leaving SE Asia. We probably should have never entered the war and allowed the communist to take over and kill with impunity. I am not sure the effect on many/most who died and sufferred all those long years of the war and the aftermath would have been significantly changed. I do think the communist always intended to purge and re-educate most of the people there and would have even if we never tried to stop it.
I disagree that LBJ and Nixon both were pitiful. LBJ was incredibly pitiful and created the mess. Nixon was elected to end the war and began a drawdown of troops as soon as he took office. The North extended the war bouyed up by the likes of Jane Fonda and John Kerry and our own media. Nixon was certainly not a "hero" of the war but given the reality he pretty much did all he could to bring it to an end. I suppose he could have (and arguably should have) just pulled out in 1968 and left them to their own devices.
Nixon brought it to an end - by listening to naive diplomats instead of Abrams. He did all he could to shrug off all blame for turning his back on an ally.
I'm not saying Nixon was a wonderful person or a great commander in chief. He ran for office promising to bring the war to a honorable end and that is what he did. He began reducing the number of troops in Vietnam starting in his first month and kept trying to get the North to the peace table. Most of the problems and setbacks along the way were simply the North vying for position on the battlefield gaining confidence and propaganda from our media and peace protesters. Personally I would have preferred that he just walked away in 1968 but who knew then that the war would drag on. But the war wasn't Nixon's fault and the dragging on of the war wasn't his fault either, this is how the communists like to fight a war.
Thank you, Bruce. Not only for the book recommendations of course, but for the spot-on analysis of where the mistakes were made and who made them. If only this were, as it should be, more common knowledge versus the lefts version of events.
There were many factors involved in my decision to volunteer for two tours in SVN. And for the chief factor among those I have been tauted as naive, dishonest with myself, and immature, or, sometimes all three and more. That chief factor was that I wanted others to enjoy the same freedom and liberty that I was luckily born into. I don't think the Fonda's and Kerry's of the world have it in themselves to believe that some would place themselves in harm's way for others to live free.
In my first tour I was able to meet and converse with a number of Vietnamese, civilian, military, men and women. They all expressed a simple desire to live their lives in freedom.
I still carry a great sadness in my heart that we let them down.
III MAF - 66-67/Mike 3/9 - 67-68
Our nextdoor neighbor has often told us of the horrible reception he got on returning from service in Viet Nam.
Veith's book is must reading for anyone who wants to understand what the South Vietnamese did in defense of their freedom. They were much and unfairly maligned in the US for their supposed failures.
Sorley's book is good but suffers from a misunderstanding that is corrected by a more recent work by Andrew Birtle analyzing PROVN - http://www.viet-studies.info/kinhte/PROVN_Westmoreland.pdf
While we Vietnam vets were serving our country, the communists were busy taking over America. With Obama they have almost succeeded. It remains to be seen if the people of America will wake up in time or if the seeds of Vietnam will destroy America in the end.
What irony that the very worst of our generation, treasonous rats like Ayers, Dohrn and Kathy Boudin are setting the agenda while those who served quietly live our lives
It's a crime what some people did toward our service men and women returning from Vietnam. Let's not forget the shameful acts of our present Secretary of State (who has never grown out of them).
It is an honor to tell you, Bruce, and those like you who served in Vietnam, "Thank you for your service to our country." In fact it's an honor to thank all service men and women for their service, but I think it's even more important to tell Vietnam vets because of what they endured during and after their service. Unfortunately, the former is just an aspect of that service, but the latter is a price nobody should have ever had to pay.
Almost commented 1st but, since I'm a guest,...I held off.
These 2 songs (via my friend FT) are for you:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zTfzeg4Ygs ( a good song for "that 'girl' who asked the question...
I can't imagine what you went through. Thank you...
I add this tune (apologies if I'm out of line) but I think it speaks volumes for a converted "folk singer"...
Thank you for your service.
I love music but...I love REAL people even more.
TC (aka "The Canuck")
Vietnam vets got a bad rap. I served one tour flying into North Vietnam from Yankee Station. Six of my friends didn't come home.
My next duty was as a recruiter on college campuses in Northern California. The abuse we took from college administrators and a portion of the students incited a deep, seething rage in me. How dare these draft dodgers heap abuse on me and the memory of my friends?
When I saw that our leaders would not do what was necessary to win the war (Bomb the North in earnest.), I submitted my resignation. It was my personal protest against what I considered a criminal waste of blood and treasure. We never really used any decisive air power until Operation Linebacker (December, 1972), which Nixon approved to get the North Vietnamese to bargain in earnest in Paris. Had he continued those bombing raids, IMO, the North would have had to accept a real peace treaty that split the country into north and south like we achieved in Korea.
When we abandoned the South, I went into a funk. My friends and all those other warriors had died for nothing! I was living a normal life flying for an airline, but there was a deep rage roiling inside of me. I kept successfully repressing it and went on until our son was killed in a mountain climbing accident. That piled a load of grief onto my anger. I troopered on for about five years until I went into a period of pretty deep depression. Fortunately, I realized I had to get help if I wanted to keep working and keep my family together.
It took over a year of talking to a therapist, getting in touch with all the anger that I had been repressing and then learning to deal with it in positive ways. That was 28 years ago and it made all the difference. I am still angry (But it's not repressed! I vent it in positive ways.) and I miss my son and friends terribly. But my life has been blessed. I look back on what I've accomplished with satisfaction and can say I'm ready to meet my Maker with head held high.
I think the war was part of our strategy to keep Communism from gobbling up more countries and people. I agreed with the aims, but fighting with one arm tied behind our backs was really stupid. Unfortunately, we have not learned that lesson to this day.