Sunday, July 22, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Homecoming--Indianapolis

November 1, 1966

Being reunited with my family, the pleasure of seeing them and being able to hug and kiss them, was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. The opportunity to touch and talk to them drove the demons of thought, which had been working non-stop in my mind, temporarily into the catacombs.

My wife Phyllis, our two daughters and two sons, my mother, and brother, Hunka, met me at the airport. Hunka, whom I visited at Nha Trang, left Vietnam November 1 and beat me home. He was noticeably less strained and agitated than he appeared at Nha Trang. Hunka gripped my hand strongly and welcomed me back. My second brother, Doc, and his wife, were also present to greet me.

For several moments after first seeing the children and my wife, I could not speak. Phyllis had the youngsters bedecked in their Sunday finery. They were scrubbed till they glistened. They were wearing warm shoes and stockings and heavy coats. All of their clothing was clean, without a tear, pressed, starched, and ironed. Their eyes danced and glistened with happiness. Theirs were not the dull, hopeless eyes of the beggar, orphan, and refugee children of Vietnam. They pranced with excitement, full of health, loved, well fed, and cared for. "They will never know how lucky they are," I thought.

When I put my arms around them and my wife, I did not want to let them go. They were so beautiful, so soft, so clean, and they smelled so good. I clasped them tightly, until the squirming of the young ones warned me to release the almost desperate grip in which I held them.

Traces of strain showed on the face of my mother. She had given her support for my visit to Vietnam, but she could not hide the concern she experienced by having two sons, one with the responsibilities of a family, involved in a war at the same time. Tears were forming in her eyes as we kissed, and she embraced me saying, "So glad you are safely home. "

The softly spoken message expressed the depth of her worries.

After claiming my luggage, the Johnson entourage headed for their cars. As we walked, I put my arm around Phyllis and she pressed closely to me. She gripped my hand, looked at me and said gently, but determinedly, "I'm never going to let you go anywhere again without me."

Phyllis smiled as she spoke. Despite her expression, I sensed the fears and emotions she experienced during my absence.


It was nearly like Christmas that evening. I unpacked and distributed the few gifts I'd been able to pick up, and rough-housed with the youngsters...smooching them at every opportunity.
They were so excited, Phyllis had trouble settling them down and getting them to bed. I helped her tuck them in and kissed them good night.

We could hear them talking for a long time after lights out. Eventually they went to sleep.

Soon, we gathered around the dining room table.

The first questions were: Are we winning? Will we win?

"Winning? Losing? In Vietnam, each is in the eye of the beholder," I said. "Our military doesn't believe they are beaten, and they claim many victories in battle. But the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese believe they are a step closer to a victory each time they spill American blood and destroy our equipment."

"Our installations are huge, and as our buildup of men and material continues, they will become even larger. All the static sites are and will continue to be constant targets. We lose men and equipment in every attack. VC and NVA losses are very high, but it's seldom they are wiped out. They hit without warning, inflict all possible damage, and vanish before large force retaliatory action can be brought to bear. They consistently avoid direct confrontations, set piece battles, for which the American commanders yearn."

"The VC and NVA leaders are willing to spend the lives of their men on the hit and run missions the way we spend our dollars. It's not as reckless as it seems. They are operating on Ho Chi Minh's principle of the fight between the tiger and the elephant."

"The only goal of the VC and NVA in every attack is to make us inflict a cut. Though we may thoroughly punish their attacking forces in battle after battle, if we suffer even one man killed or wounded, and so little as a jeep destroyed, the tiger has administered another cut. Our estimates after a battle may conclude that we we have won, while the opinion of the enemy is they have neither won nor lost. They have merely inflicted one more cut, which will contribute to eventual victory."

"If we consider the ramifications of their philosophy, we have not, are not, and will not win."

"Winning and losing doesn't seem so simple, does it?" I said. My family answered with sad shakes of their heads.

We had a few drinks, and the conversation continued until after midnight.

Phyllis had kept a scrap book of the columns. A fast count showed 22 dispatches had been published as of November 7. The latest article detailed the precarious position and living conditions of the battalion of Marines at Khe Sanh.

Discussion began with that article and enlarged.

"I believe the Marines at Khe Sanh are being used as bait by our military leaders, who hope to lure the VC and NVA into a major battle and give them a sound whipping."

"I'm not a military strategist, but I fear a backfire," I said.

I likened the close-by mountain tops around Khe Sanh to the hills which surround the valley of Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam. There, in 1954, the Viet Minh dug tunnels from the reverse side of the hills, to the front. They dragged large guns up the hills and hid them in the tunnels.

After they massed their artillery, they rained shells upon the French troops. After a siege of more than 50 days, the French suffered a humiliating defeat.

I told my family it took two days to grab a helicopter ride to Khe Sanh, because heavy rain and fog kept aircraft from flying. "What do you think will happen," I said, "if the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, under cover of bad weather, launch an attack? The Marines will be able to call in artillery, but the close air support and resupply missions the Marines need to survive will be grounded. And if the weather clears, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, with their weapons trained on the air strip, will punish the resupply flights. There is a road to Khe Sanh from Dong Ha (Route 9) which could be used for reinforcements. Marines call the road Suicide Alley because the area is infested with VC. Marine reinforcement and resupply columns will have to fight their way to Khe Sanh and back on that road."

"My assessment could be wrong, but even if the Marines at Khe Sanh are able to avoid another Dien Bien Phu, we will at the very least, suffer some deep cuts," I said.

"Why can't we stop infiltration?" was the next question.

My appraisal was that was partly because the country is a sieve and that we have underestimated the absolute dedication of the North Vietnamese to their cause. But other intertwining facts must be considered.

"Tons of supplies, all types of weapons and explosives from China and Russia, are captured regularly. We continually bomb and patrol the known infiltration routes, but the men and supplies keep coming, by sea, down the Ho Chi Minh trail from North Vietnam, and through the "sanctuaries" in Laos and Cambodia. Though we know these sanctuaries exist, so far, we have not attacked them because to do so would be considered an unauthorized escalation of the war," I explained.

"Another key in the successful infiltration of troops and supplies rests with the South Vietnamese rural population. We give them rice, protection, and propaganda during the day. But at night, they are controlled by the VC, whose terror tactics are more effective. We've cleared huge rural areas of inhabitants, resettled, housed, and fed them."

"That doesn't keep them loyal, make them fight, or cooperate, because usually, part of the people we've 'resettled and pacified' are Viet Cong cadre, who retain control of the people."

"None of the Americans like the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, but combat commanders have great respect for the fierce tenacity with which they fight. They are well trained, extremely patient, strictly obedient, incredibly tough, innovative, and seemingly immune to the hardships of their existence, a spokesman at MACV assessed."

"That view of the enemy is a sharp contrast to the overall opinion of ARVN troops held by Americans interviewed. Most do not trust and do not want to fight with the ARVN. One soldier said the ARVN either sell out or run out in a fight. He said each time he heard about how many of them are killed in battle, he wonders how many were shot in the back."

"Americans concede there are brave, dedicated, ARVN soldiers and a few effective units...too few for the time, effort, and dollars we've expended equipping and training them. One of the most confusing aspects in comparing Viet Cong, North Vietnam, and ARVN fighting troops is the fact all spring from a common people," I observed.

"People told me the ARVN are so weak and have so little resolve, if we withdraw our financial and military support, South Vietnam will rapidly be over-run."

"There are a couple of other matters which probably figure strongly in the sucessful infiltration."

"Numerous people report the South Vietnamese farmers are treated as badly, or worse, by the ARVN troops during the day as they are by the VC at night. ARVN troops, passing through villages, regularly plunder and mistreat the inhabitants. At night, the VC exact their 'taxes' by taking rice and other foodstuffs. The VC regularly kidnap villagers. Many they hold hostage to keep firm control of the village chief and the people. Usually, the hostages, who fear reprisals upon their families in the villages, are converted to the VC cause and sent to indoctrinate and control other villages."

"Villagers have no confidence in the ARVN's ability to protect them, and in view of the treatment received, have no loyalty to them."

"Unfortunately," I added, "American treatment of the farmers isn't much better. GIs hate the indifference and lack of cooperation they receive in the field while trying to root out the enemy. Several men, during interviews, admitted torching all the huts in a village and killing all of the farm animals, when, after an ambush, residents of a ville were suspected of harboring VC. Such actions and reactions by our forces build no confidence in the American presence with the Vietnamese farmers."

"Day to day living for the farmers and their families is perilous. All face mistreatment and/or terror from every direction. Most of the farmers are, in fact, refugees. They have been forced to endure numerous moves from one area to another. Severed from their ancestral lands, they are adrift, potential victims to all passers by."

"Their plight is terrible, and their choices limited. The most important hopes remaining to them are to be left alone and to get enough to eat. Nationalism, loyalty, and freedom, are meaningless words."

"Is there no Vietnamese leadership that could reverse the situation?" my brother Doc said.

"I asked that question frequently around MACV Headquarters. A few people pointed to Premier Ky, saying they believe he has the confidence of the people. Others voiced no confidence in Ky or his regime. Many others are certain the reason quality leadership has not emerged in the south is attributable to the solidly entrenched Viet Cong."

"VC assassins quickly eliminate any would-be patriot or leader before they become prominent, and will continue to do so, one spokesman said."

"If a would-be South Vietnamese patriot uttered Patrick Henry's statement," 'Give me liberty, or give me death,' VC assassins quickly deliver the death wish."

"A few people believe another reason for the lack of cohesion in South Vietnam are the strong differences between various factions. Catholics are at odds with Buddhists and vice versa. Highlanders don't like low-landers or city dwellers. Those from the south dislike people from the north, and all of the dislikes are mutual. In addition, remaining factions of the Diem government are engaged in a power struggle with the Ky regime," I related.

Thoughts I'd struggled to organize many hours had been expressed. My brother Hunka had not criticized or corrected the observations. I glanced around the table, noticing the intense expressions.

After a few moments I said, "We are supporting a corrupt military dictatorship...a police state. The word 'freedom' applies only to a few of the elite, and those few are making fortunes taking bribes from citizens to avoid military duty, from the black market, and from graft and corruption in the administration of American aid."

"Tips for stories came to me, but there was no time to check on them. A couple of the tips involved huge thefts of U.S. military supplies, and other thefts of fantastic amounts of construction materials from private American companies doing business in Vietnam on U.S. government cost plus contracts."

"There's no hope of creating a democracy in South Vietnam. I don't know what form of government would be supported or workable. So what freedom can we offer the people...only their choice of which bandits they want next to subjugate them. Whatever the reasons were for our involvement, we should discard them fast. If national, or some individual's pride is the reason we're staying, or fear of humiliation is the reason, it's already too late. Our pride is badly dented. We've been humiliated because we haven't won a clear victory. Staying will only increase our number of dead and wounded, heighten our humiliation, and further damage national pride."

"We've made a terrible mistake in Vietnam. We should get out...and as quickly as possible," I concluded.

Positive the expression of my views had monopolized too much of the conversation, I tapped the table and said, "What do you think?"

Brother Hunka nodded agreement and said, "I'm so sick of that place I don't want to talk or think about it...ever."

The Johnson round table concensus was disgust with the situation in Vietnam. They asked what I intended to do with my information. I said I was certain readers would likely reach the same conclusions if the articles did not receive heavy editing before they were published. Hopefully, I'd be able to write other articles incorporating many of the facts and views just expressed, to draw matters into focus.

We touched on several other topics as they were suggested by the published columns and current news.

My sister-in-law was vitally interested in the comments. Her father is a retired Army Brigadier General and a West Point graduate. Her two brothers are both West Pointers and career Army officers, and she knows they are destined for tours in Vietnam. (One of these brothers later died in Vietnam when his jeep struck a mine.)

It got late too soon. Doc, scheduled for early duty at the hospital, and his wife, were the first to leave. Soon, brother Hunka and my mother excused themselves.

Phyllis and I were alone. She looked gorgeous, and made me very proud she was my wife. We sipped our drinks, and for a while, talked about the antics of the youngsters while I was gone.

Soon, she announced it was time to retire. Not wanting to argue the first evening home, I cheerfully agreed and we retired.

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