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“Why We Are in Vietnam”

March 18, 2007

Sometime after I arrived at my unit in Nha Trang, those of who were not out on missions were herded one morning to the outdoor movie theater. As we perched on the wood benches, a young lieutenant carrying a clipboard strode in front of the makeshift screen where World War II movies and other old Hollywood flicks were shown some evenings. Those were strange, exciting nights, with lounging GIs and South Vietnamese soldiers raptly watching war scenes exploding on the screen while a stealthy war with the shadowy Viet Cong lurked out there just beyond the airfield lights.

“Listen up, you men! I’m here to inform you why we are in Vietnam,” the lieutenant said, just as a flight of bomb-laden T-28 fighter-bombers took off barely a hundred yards behind the screen. RAAAROOOAAAR! The planes shot by, one after another after another, their full-throttle, full-throated engines yowling into the morning sky—as the lieutenant read an official proclamation that no one could hear. It made no difference to the men in our unit. We’re here because we’re here, as the doughboys sang in World War I. We were in Vietnam because that’s where the action was, such as it was. “Not much of war, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” went a GI joke.

Warriors

B-26 bombers from World War II,
Helicopters left over from the Korean War,
Old trainers converted into guerrilla-bombers,
We provide a new war with the surplus of past wars.

If guerrillas can’t be found,
Suspect villages and rice fields are bombed;
Water buffalo and wild elephant herds
Are strafed and scored: “enemy transports.”

War has its own logic.

If no enemy will rise up in soldiers’ sights,
Those who are in sight may be provoked to fight.
“Made some more Viet Cong today!” swaggering fliers
Back from burning villages joke in the chow line.

Officially, we were in Vietnam because America was holding the godless, freedom-threatening Soviet Union and Communist China in check with a Free World ring of military bases, outposts, naval and aviation patrols. But that big picture was way too big for what we were doing in Vietnam. Our small units scattered over hundreds of miles of seacoast and mountains and the Mekong Delta acted as though we owned the place. The formidable Soviet armies that fought the Germans to a standstill in WWII, the enormous Chinese armies that fought the US military to a draw in Korea, were an abstraction to our little detachments lording our military superiority over the nearest Vietnamese town.

We were in Vietnam, those of us in the 18th Aviation Co. and other units of the expeditionary force in Indochina, I suspect, because life at home was boring. We wanted to live exciting, dangerous lives. And here we had a distant, exotic corner of the world to play in, where the natives were our foils and toys. We paid little attention to warning signs that the natives had minds and plans of their own. Most of us did not speak Vietnamese and could care less what they thought of our turning their stunningly beautiful land into a battleground.

We occupied old French Foreign Legion posts, contemptuous of the French for being defeated by a Vietnamese army. Now the Americans had arrived, supremely confident in our military prowess. We were so cocky that we flew with just pistols for protection in the seemingly unlikely event of being shot down. Our rifles and pistols were locked up at night while we went drinking off-post in Vietnamese bars. A bunch of us laughed one day when informed that the Viet Cong somehow got a machine gun set up on a remote mountaintop. The suggested mocking response was to fly around the mountain just out of range. To accommodate “happy hour” at officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs, we operated a 9-to-5 war. On weekends, duty ended at noon in our unit. Saturday nights were devoted to partying downtown in Vietnamese bars and restaurants, looking to hook up with a girl for the night or stumble with a buzz on back to our quarters just before curfew. It seemed we were in Vietnam to truly enjoy the Army recruiting promise of fun, travel and adventure. But party poopers started crashing the party.

Saturday Night

An explosion heaves me out of bed.
Grabbing boots and pants, I stumble
for the door. The hootch lights burst on.
“Mortars!” an old-timer screams.

Abruptly the lights go out.
Outside, men are milling around.
Our weapons are locked up, so we don’t
shoot each other up Saturday nights.

It’s Saturday night. We’re drunk as skunks.
And the armorer, who has the only key
to the weapons conex, is in town
shacked up with his girl.

A tremendous racket of gunfire
is going on out along the flight line.
“Who’s on guard down there?” someone shouts,
all realizing he’s alone, except for Vietnamese.

Unarmed, a company of soldiers is reduced
to a wavering mob. “Somebody’s got to
get our guy out!” Three of us jump
into a jeep and drive blindly toward the firing.

Just then, the battle abruptly stops,
followed by deathly silence—
the attack broken off before we drunks
in the jeep got too far in our folly.

I was saved from the rashness of driving a jeep into the middle of a barrage of wild shooting by a Special Forces guy with a submachine gun who stepped out of the shadows and whispered “Hold it right here, boys.” I admired how he stood motionless while alertly sorting out what was going on amid all the gunfire out across the dark airfield. And then, the shooting stopped. The attackers, we found out in the morning, blew up a C-46 transport plane used for Special Forces missions and slipped away into the night.

After that, I bought a silver-plated .45 caliber pistol from a soldier headed stateside and hid it in my gear, hoping for a chance to use it. I was too inexperienced to understand what my communications section sergeant, a Korean War vet who drank booze for breakfast, said after that attack. The real reason we were in Vietnam, he darkly implied, was to be sitting ducks—that is, targets to trigger a wider war. Staring out the doorway toward the misty mountains that stretched from the edge of our seaside airfield all the way to Laos, North Vietnam and beyond to China, Sarge turned and gave me a look that said: Kid, you haven’t the faintest frigging idea what the Army’s about.

Mud in Your Eye

Monsoon rain pounded sand
splattering in the commo shack. “Kiddo—”
Ol’ Sarge, shot up in Korea, breathed morning beer:
“When they want this place, they’ll walk through here.”

Ten years since surviving a Chinese human-wave assault,
twenty-one after MacArthur’s army surrendered on Corregidor,
Sarge stared out of our tiny outpost and softly cursed.
“Long hike home, son. Could get damn well worse.”

With his weary, beery eyes, Sarge was washed up.
Hit by a heart attack, he was medevaced out.
“Holy shit!” Sharpe said, packing Sarge’s gear—
raising a fistful of medals with battle stars.


Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.