Mike & H&S Companies
Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
1999 Veterans Day Address
Marin County Civic Center
San Rafael, California
Good morning to you all.
When Colonel Jack Potter invited me to give the remarks at today'sceremonies, I was intrigued. When he told me the general topic that I was to address, I was concerned. There appeared, said Jack, to be a widening gulf between those who served in Word War II, and those who served during our involvement in the Vietnam War.
As we stand on the verge of a new century, and the torch passes from one generation who served to another, would I speak to this problem, Jack asked, with a view toward setting the stage for a "New Beginning" between these two groups? I gave it some thought, and believe the best way to address this issue, which is a real one, may be to make some comparisons between the two generations, then attempt to debunk some of the popular "mythology" that's been applied to those of us who fought the war in Vietnam.
Part of what I'm about to say I will give to you as though I were lecturing to a section of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where I delivered a series of talks in "Art" in the 1970s. The rest is going to be "one man's opinion".
It is noteworthy here to say that your appreciation when hearing the term "Art" will probably not square with that of the Academy's, where my lectures were delivered as part of the curriculum known as "History of the Military Art". And I think the Academy's title is right: history and the military are inextricably intertwined, and the skilled use and deployment of men, will, and resources in war is, in fact, a form of "art". Most of what follows are my own observations and opinions. Some of it is extracted from a couple of recently-published books that go much further than the usual in taking the covers off a lot of the misinformation and disinformation that's floating around about the Vietnam war. I highly recommend them to you. They are "Stolen Valor", by Burkett, and "Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War", by Dunnigan and Nofi. Regardless of their titles, both are very much worth reading. And no, I do not own stock in Amazon.com!
Let's begin by looking at a "snapshot" of World War II, and a contrasting snapshot of the Vietnam War. During World War II, fascism was a major and direct threat to U.S. security. The war was truly global, with operations in every theater, and on all continents. Pursuit of the enemy's forces and units, anywhere and everywhere, was the word of the day, with very little restriction. The war was a full national effort, with the full mobilization of the U.S. economy, and the full support of the American people.
The U.S. fought on the side of its "United Nations" Allies: Britain, France, Russia, and others. There was universal military conscription, with very few deferments granted, except for medical problems and war-essential work. All of the Reserve and National Guard units were called to active duty. In fact, the unit which actually landed at the "Dog Green" sector of Omaha Beach in the first assault wave on D-Day was not the 2nd Ranger Battalion, as portrayed in the recent hit film "Saving Private Ryan", but Company "A" of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, a Virginia National Guard unit, and the direct lineal descendant, recruited from Bedford, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Brigade of 1862.
That real "A" Company from the Virginia National Guard was totally destroyed. It never made it off that beach. That is the reality of war. Any man serving in the armed forces in World War II was in "for the duration". That meant that no one expected to be released from active service until the war was ended. The war had the full support of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Many stars went into the service. Some examples: Clark Gable became a B-17 air gunner, Jimmy Stewart led B-24 bombing raids over Germany, Robert Taylor became an Air Corps instructor pilot, Sterling Hayden joined the Marines and became an OSS operative in Yugoslavia and Greece, and so on. Even the music of World War II was inspirational, with songs like "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer", "Remember Pearl Harbor", "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree", "I'll be Seeing You", "My Buddy", and others. Great bands, like Glenn Miller's, and singing groups like the Andrews Sisters, provided the music of that era. Some of those tunes are still popular today. The stipulated Allied policy in World War II was total and unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. The war lasted just under four years, from December '41 to August '45, and the result was total victory in both global theaters: Europe and the Pacific. Service men and women returning from World War II were welcomed home with unbridled enthusiasm, and the VFW and American Legion became popular and politically powerful post-war organizations.
Now let's look at Vietnam.
Like fascism, communism was also perceived as a major threat to U.S. security, although (and this is a big distinction), the communist threat in Vietnam was definitely not perceived as a direct threat to American security. Our involvement in Vietnam should also be viewed in the context of America's general experience in confronting communist expansion in the post-World War II environment. By the late 1950's, the U.S. had participated, with varying degrees of success, in various efforts against communist insurrections, invasions, or guerrilla operations. To name a few: support of the Greek government (successful) against their communist revolution in the late 1940's, support of the Philippine government (successful) against the Huk-Balahap guerrilla movement in the early 1950's, support of the South Koreans (as a UN effort, and ending in a draw) against the North Koreans and Chinese in the early 1950's, and support of the French (unsuccessful) during the French Indochina war. U.S. foreign policy in the 1950's can be best described as one of "containment of communist expansion", and a willingness to engage in what were then beginning to be called "brushfire" wars: dirty little guerrilla wars around the world. That policy was made and carried out by men who had fought in World War II, were in many cases veterans of O.S.S., and had migrated to its successor agency, the CIA Examples: Allen Dulles, Bill Colby, Cord Meyer, Ed Lansdale, and many others. Seen in the context of the above, then, support of the South Vietnamese government against the communist Vietcong was a logical commitment for the U.S. to make.
Now for a few key differences between Vietnam and World War II. Unlike World War II, Vietnam was a limited war, largely fought in a single theater of operations: South Vietnam. Though extensive air bombing of North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was conducted, no major protracted or sustained ground campaigns were conducted anywhere but in Vietnam. Even the "invasion" of Cambodia in 1970 was a relatively limited assault, and U.S. forces were withdrawn into South Vietnam fairly quickly. No major ground assault or other operation by U.S. forces was ever launched into North Vietnam or Laos.
Until the Cambodian invasion of 1970, the North Vietnamese Army (N.V.A.) enjoyed "safe-harbor" base areas in Cambodia and Laos. Division and regimental sized base areas were constantly used for replacement, rest, and re-fitting of N.V.A. units who would fight along the border in South Vietnam, then slip back into Cambodia or Laos at will. American forces were forbidden from pursuing them across a line on a map. And the United Nations stayed out of the war in Vietnam. The U.S. had to recruit its "allied" commitments locally, and even that took serious arm-twisting of foreign leaders by Lyndon Johnson. Korea sent a division of Marines, the Philippines sent a military engineering group, and New Zealand and Australia sent an excellent infantry regiment, aviation units, and their own superb SAS, counterparts of U.S. Special Forces. There was no UK presence in Vietnam, and there was definitely no French assistance. Any major allied assistance in Vietnam from the UK or other European nations would very likely have come with the prerequisite that the US fight the war to win it. President Johnson also made a key decision early in the war that enabled the U.S. to go on thereafter, year after year, fighting a war without a strategy to win it. The war, he and his advisors determined, would be fought using active-duty, Regular forces, with a very limited call-up of Reserve or National Guard units. The manpower to fuel the war would thereby come from the draft, pulling individual young men out of their otherwise normal lives, training them, sending masses of them as replacements to Vietnam for a one-year tour, and processing virtually all of them out of the service almost immediately, or at most within a few months, of their return from the war zone. That was a very clever decision, because the officer and senior NCO strength of Reserve and Guard units was (and still is) made up of men and women who represent key civilian personnel occupations: business executives, doctors, teachers, politicians (very important), mechanics, technicians, consultants and others, whose absence from their jobs and the economy for a protracted period of time could only be justified if there was a cohesive and direct plan to win the war in Vietnam relatively quickly, and return these key people to their civilian occupations.
While there definitely was a draft during Vietnam, it was a limited draft. There was no universal military conscription. Many deferments were issued, and deferments were easy to obtain, given enough influence or guile. Many men evaded the draft by going to Sweden, or to Canada. While there was general support for our involvement in Vietnam at the outset, that support transitioned over time to apathy, then to general opposition to the war. On American college campuses, opposition was both active and virulent, with the establishment of Students for a Democratic Society, protests, shut-downs, and other forms of overt activity. President Johnson and his advisors decided that the U.S. economy during our involvement in Vietnam could support the war effort, the needs of an active consumer economy, and his "Great Society" social programs, all at the same time. The deficit spending that funded all of that simultaneously gave an enormous boost to our national debt, and to the general inflationary spiral which lasted on into the 1990s. Hollywood was generally opposed to Vietnam war. No stars went into the armed forces. Jane Fonda, however, starred in an infamous role supporting the North Vietnamese, in which she visited Hanoi, and browbeat American POWs at the "Hanoi Hilton" prison, all filmed for propaganda purposes by the communists.
In a famous photo from that trip, Fonda is seated at the controls of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, a helmet adorned with a big red star on her head, and an enraptured look on her face as she gazes into the sky through the gun's sights, while beaming North Vietnamese gaze upon her with awe. That episode earned Fonda the undying enmity and disgust of almost every man who wore our uniform during the Vietnam war.
Many stars, however, visited U.S. units in Vietnam, among them Bob Hope, Joey Heatherton, Joey Bishop, Martha Raye, Charlton Heston, William Holden, and John Wayne. Martha ("Maggie") Raye was even made an honorary lifetime member of the U.S. Special Forces. Bill Holden, in an episode that became legend, once stayed up all night playing poker with the commander and XO of a Special Forces "A" Team, in a fighting camp on the Cambodian border, and drank his hosts under the table, while cleaning them out in the card game.
The music of the time was apocryphal, rather than inspirational, from groups like the Doors and the Rolling Stones, and with songs like "So Long Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb", "Draft Dodger Rag", and "The Eve of Destruction". Oddly, there were no films made about the war, during the war in Vietnam. And the ones made afterward are as dark as the music of the time: "The Deer Hunter", "Apocalypse Now", "Platoon", "Jacob's Ladder", and "Taxi Driver", all portrayed Vietnam as some sort of psychotic experience, and the men who fought there as on the hair-trigger verge of insanity or violence. There was no clear, stipulated American policy in Vietnam. American involvement began in the early 1960s as an "advisory" role to the South Vietnamese government forces, evolved in the mid-60s to direct combat, with the commitment of half a million men and some of the most famous units in the U.S. military, then in 1970 to something called "Vietnamization", during which we tried to get the South Vietnamese to pick up their share of the war (...wasn't that where we began with the "advisory" role?), and finally to withdrawal of all U.S. forces in 1973.
America's involvement in Vietnam lasted for thirteen years: from 1960 to 1973. Our own Revolutionary War was shorter. The result was no victory at all. Not even a cease-fire and demilitarization of a strip of land between the two separate nations of North and South, as had happened in Korea. Just negotiated terms, under which the United States could execute a "withdrawal with honor". Whatever that meant. So, instead of coming home victorious with his unit, to parades, acclimation, and the support of his fellow citizens, as did most of the returning soldiers, sailors, airman or marines of World War II, the average American returning from Vietnam came home alone, in most cases as just another passenger on a chartered civilian airliner or an Air Force cargo plane, and wound up dumped onto a windy ramp at some military airbase, usually in the middle of the night, to indifference, antipathy, and in some cases antagonism.
No wonder many veterans of Vietnam prefer not to talk about their experiences. If you were yanked out of your normal life at home, trained for and shoved into a war with no end, served your own year and returned alive, often wounded, and had then been treated by your country (and especially the media) like a piece of used Kleenex, or as something the dog dragged across the doorstep, you wouldn't be quick to talk about it either.
So we see the general differences in the context between our two wars. Now, what about the perception of those who fought them?
Let's begin with World War II. Here you have a generation that, except for a few exceptions, has had a very hard road. Born largely in the decade following World War I, they were barely old enough to begin those golden years of 10 to 13 or so years old when the Stock Market Crash of 1929 heralded the decade of the Great Depression. So, instead of enjoying a period of unobstructed happiness as teenagers, this generation endured uncertainty, and in many cases hunger and privation. Many of them saw their families' possessions and property foreclosed. 1933 was an important year for this generation. Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States, and his Administration began the initiation of the immediate policies and programs necessary to stop our country's economic downturn that became known as the New Deal. In the same year, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and began to secretly re-arm that country. Even though America maintained an official policy of neutrality and non-interventionism during the Thirties, it was quite clear to all but the most oblivious of my parents' generation that fascism was on the rise both in Europe and in the Far East. Not many of them were under any illusions about the future, and I'm sure that most of them had a certain degree of fatalism as they faced it.
When the call to arms did come for this generation, in December of 1941, the great majority of them, as we have seen in our comparison of the two wars, went, if not willingly, then with a sense of purpose and conscience as they saw their duty. There are many representations of the men who served in the generation that defeated the Axis powers in World War II; perhaps one of the most endearing is that of "Willie and Joe", the two scruffy, slouching, seasoned combat infantrymen portrayed in Bill Mauldin's cartoons in the "Stars and Stripes", the newspaper read by almost everyone in the armed services at the time. Or perhaps it was the spirit of "GI Joe"; the Everyman who soldiered on every front, as found in any one of the excellent dispatches written from the combat fronts by Ernie Pyle, the beloved newspaper correspondent who met his own death on the tiny island of Ie Shima in 1945. For many at home, it was embodied in the distinctive voices of Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer, Bob Trout, and Walter Cronkite, as they filed their radio dispatches from around the world, reporting on the generation of the "Little Guy", the average American G.I., who confronted and defeated the myth of the Nazi Superman and the fanaticism of the spirit of Bushido and emperor-worship that drove the soldiers of the Japanese Empire.
These men and women came home from the greatest war of all time in 1945, and picked up their lives again. Robbed of the innocence and opportunity that would have been theirs in a time of peace, they had grown up far beyond their years, and the vast majority of them had no greater desire than to get jobs, marry, settle down, and raise families. Many of them went into business, believing they could shed their wartime experiences as easily as they folded up their old ODs and put them in mothballs. But as Sloan Wilson's landmark book of the early 1950s (later a superb motion picture, starring Gregory Peck) "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" showed, it was not going to be that easy. That film had many messages; one of the most impressive to me was that simply meeting the stresses of everyday life in a modern world, day in, year out, requires a quiet degree of heroism for many that is every bit as impressive as that of a man faced with the immediate choices and fears of combat. The GI Bill enabled many of the returning men and women veterans to obtain college educations at America's finest universities, and as they passed through the postwar Forties, the sound of new babies crying in unprecedented numbers heralded the largest birth spurt in our nation's history to that time. It was the beginning of the "Baby Boom", and what was in process was the production of the generation that would confront, fight, or protest the Vietnam War.
In the summer of 1950, Americans were in combat again, this time in Korea. Many of the World War II veterans were called back to active service, and many of them were killed or wounded in Korea, which turned out to be a very hot war in a very cold place. Korea was a precursor to Vietnam, in that it was the first war that America had never decisively won. And the absolute shock and surprise when millions of Chinese soldiers swarmed unexpectedly into North Korea in the winter of 1950 had deep policy ramifications later, when American Presidents contemplated widening the war in Vietnam.
One evening in May, 1954 at West Point, my father, then an Army captain, told us at dinner that the New York Times had reported the surrender of the French garrison that day, at a place called Dienbienphu. I remember two things about my father's statement. The first was that he actually pronounced "Dienbienphu" properly (my father had been in OSS during World War II, and nothing he ever did surprised me). The second was that he predicted that America would wind up involved in Indochina somehow, someday.
It's strange to me that historians and the media of late seem to look back at the Fifties as a time of gentle lassitude, when America was gripped in the peaceful, consumer-goods-oriented, bringing-up-the-basic-family eight years of the Eisenhower Administration; a sort of celestially imposed "job well done" reward period, in which everything was just fine, while the generation that had survived a major depression and a global war got busy, raising their kids to have absolutely everything they had never been able to enjoy themselves.
Well, that's partly true, but there were a few unpleasantries. There was, for example, The Bomb. The lives of all of us born in that postwar baby boom have been overshadowed by The Bomb. Since my father was a career Army officer; my life as an Army Brat meant that we moved to some new and strange place about once every two to three years. And during the Fifties, the threat of global nuclear war was always just around every corner. I never believed that business about building fallout shelters for survival; I always thought that if the bombers and the missiles ever did fly, it would be the end of the world as we knew it.
I'm sure that beneath their studied self-assurance, my parents knew it, too. So to me, the sound of the Cold War will always be the sound of the Alert Horn that was at every army and air base. If you've never heard it, you won't understand what I mean; suffice to say that if you have heard it, you'll never forget it.
But through it all, the generation of World War II raised their kids, and gave them everything they wanted, if it was within their power. After all, that was the American way of life, wasn't it? Yes, it was.
Until the Sixties. It was an incredibly powerful watershed era for the United States: so many books and films have been made about it that it seems that the entire decade was swathed in psychedelic lights, and gyrating bodies, with an overlay of rock music and the sweet smell of burning hemp, while everyone just loved each other to death.
But that wasn't the way it was for everyone. For the generation that had fought World War II (and many of them entering their forties at the time, contemplating impending middle age), the start of the Sixties was much like the Fifties. Dwight Eisenhower was succeeded by a much younger man, an ex PT boat skipper named John Kennedy, who brought a sense of elegance and style, a dynamism, wit, and charm, to the Presidency, that the nation welcomed. I know, because I was in high school through the few years of Camelot, and Kennedy's exhortation to "ask not what your country can do for you", caused many of us to evaluate careers in one sort of national service or another. One of my best friends in high school chose the Peace Corps. I chose the Army.
A lot of things were happening in 1963. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, U.S. Army advisors, mostly Special Forces, an elite unit with an unusual and unorthodox hat called a green beret, were assisting the South Vietnamese military in what at the time was termed "pacification". The war in Vietnam was a small-scale, guerrilla war, being handled by an unorthodox branch of the Army, so not much to pay attention to there. The war wasn't going to our satisfaction, however, and American policy makers identified the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, as the primary problem. As the result of a coup engineered by senior officers of the Vietnamese military, approved by John Kennedy, and backed by the American command in Vietnam, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated.
It was the late summer of 1963. If we had ever been able to claim any innocence or altruism in our engagement in Vietnam, those days were over. And it turned out, that late summer, to be later than we thought. November was just ahead. I believe the killing of John Kennedy that November was the watershed point in post-World War II American cultural history. From that incredible moment onwards, I don't think anything has really been able to shock us. The Vietnam War, Watergate, the incredible excesses of our current crop of politicians, nothing after John Kennedy's death has really been that much of a shock.
And we lost something far more important in 1963 than our president.Something fundamental to our national psyche was destroyed that November afternoon; I think we're still looking for the pieces. During the four years of my cadetship, the war in Vietnam went from a side show to a powerful engine, going full blast, and pulling into it thousands and thousands of young men, who, given the chance, would just as soon have been "back on the block', chasing girls, going to school and doing all those things that young men do. So now we come at last to my generation.
There are a number of points I'd like to make about those of my generation who served in Vietnam. I'd also like to debunk some of the enduring mythology that been hung on those of us who served in Vietnam, The first myth is that somehow, we suffered a major military defeat in Vietnam. Our Americans forces were never defeated in combat in Vietnam, but the American people were unwilling to pay the price of victory. That is an important distinction.Sure, there were temporary, small-unit defeats, as in the Ia Drang Valley battles in 1965, at Hamburger Hill, at Dak To, and many other places, where units the size of companies were savagely mauled. But as we have seen from World War II, that's the price of war.
Overwhelmingly in Vietnam, where the enemy could be found, he was defeated. The maxim was "find him, fix him, and finish him". And we had the firepower, the technology, and the logistics to do so. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces operating in South Vietnam were so badly hurt that they were unable to rebuild and launch another major offensive until 1972. But that didn't matter to the enemy. The North Vietnamese leadership could afford to lose the war on the battlefield. They knew they would eventually win it in the minds of the American people, as they eventually tired of the war, and were no longer able to accept continued American casualties.
This phenomenon is not historical precedent. In every one of our wars, it has taken a lot to get Americans to commit big time. As casualties build up, especially if there is no dramatic progress in the war, public support wanes. Even in World War II, seen as the "Good War", the isolationist movement was very strong before our entry into the war, and the American people were unwilling to become involved, until Pearl Harbor. By 1945, though on the verge of victory, the American people were terribly weary of the war, and President Truman knew that a weary public would never accept the casualties predicted if American forces were to invade the Japanese home islands. Hence, his decision to use nuclear weapons to bring an end to the war in the Pacific, a decision which was overwhelmingly supported by the American people at the time Could we have "won" in Vietnam? Probably. But always in the back of the minds of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, there lurked the example of Korea, as a lesson to them both not to allow American forces to get bottled up in a no-way-out fight against the Chinese. And victory in Vietnam would have taken a lot more military power than the half-million men we had in Vietnam at the height of the war. Here's a paradox: in 1964, America wanted to keep Communists out of South Vietnam, and U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported that goal. By 1968-69, we were well on the road to accomplishing this, but by then, most Americans wanted to keep Americans out of South Vietnam. That's how it works in a democracy, and the American people got what they wanted. The second myth is that the Vietnam soldier was "very different" from his World War II counterpart.
The Vietnam soldier, so we have been told, was much younger (usually about nineteen), poorly educated, forced to go to war against his will, and disproportionately came from minority groups, while his better-off social superiors sat it out at home. The truth is very different. The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was just under 23. Still younger than the average 25 to 26 of those who fought in World War II, but that was a total war, with mass conscription, which picked up a lot of older men, raising the average age. And the enlisted-grade Vietnam soldier was actually the best-educated soldier in the U.S. Army up to that time. 79% of them had completed high school, as opposed to the 24% of enlisted-grade World War II soldiers who had completed high school. In the Vietnam army, 20% of the enlisted men had completed university as well. Proportionately, three times as many college graduates served in the Vietnam Army as in World War II. And that's what happens in a democracy with a draft: your Jeep driver may be better educated than you are.
As far as social misrepresentation, post-war studies have proven that if anything, the numbers of blacks and Hispanics who served slightly under-represented the relative percentages of their groups in the U.S. population base. A 1992 study showed that of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, 30 per cent came from families in the lowest third of the income range, while 26 per cent came from families earning in the highest third of the income range. Hardly a great disparity there. The third myth is that during Vietnam, draft evasion was at record levels, far higher than experienced during World War II. Wrong again. During the Vietnam War, while about half a million men (including Bill Clinton) were draft dodgers, only about 9,000 cases were prosecuted. Relatively few actually served any prison time. Contrast that with World War II. There were more than 350,000 prosecuted cases of draft evasion, and thousands were convicted and sent to Federal prisons. And while about 10,000 Americans went to Canada during Vietnam to avoid the draft, up to 30,000 Canadians entered the U.S. military, and about 10,000 Canadians actually served in Vietnam.
Another major difference between Vietnam and World War II was the way draft dodgers were perceived. During World War II, draft avoidance was considered to be reprehensible; the act of a shirker, even of a coward. By the time of the Vietnam war, draft dodging had become the ethical, moral thing to do - somehow to be considered as a badge of courage - while those who had enlisted were somehow considered morally inferior, stupid, or luckless.
Tom Wolfe wrote that the antiwar movement had performed a real feat of magic: "They had not only been smart enough to duck the threat of death in combat," he said, "they also managed to shift the onus onto those who fought. Never mind Ho Chi Min and socialism and war atrocities and the rest of it... the unspeakable and unconfessible goal of the New Left on the campuses had been to transform the shame of the fearful into the guilt of the courageous". The sad paradox is that draft dodgers during the Vietnam war weren't morally opposed to all wars. In April of 1975, when North Vietnam invaded and overran South Vietnam, thereby violating the agreement under which the U.S. had withdrawn from Vietnam, the American antiwar movement didn't say a word. They were only worried about wars which might effect them.
William Smith, dean of the anti-draft lawyers during the Vietnam era, helped about three thousand men avoid the draft. He later wrote, "Most of them - regardless of what they said - were primarily motivated by not having their lives interrupted. It became very obvious to me that it was mostly a personal, selfish thing. We could just about guarantee we could get anybody out - and we did - but somebody else always went in their place."
There's the real badge of shame for the draft shirkers of Vietnam: somebody else always went in their place.
The fourth myth is that casualties were much higher among enlisted men than among officers in Vietnam. Enlisted men make up the majority of combat casualties in every war, because there are more of them, and the infantry (which typically carries the brunt of the fighting) is mostly made up of enlisted men. However, officers killed in action accounted for 13.5 per cent of those who died in Vietnam, although they represented only 12 per cent of the troop strength. Proportionally, the Army lost more of its officer corps in Vietnam than it did in World War II. Twice as many company commanders (captains) died in combat as did platoon leaders (lieutenants), a function of the fact that, in a jungle war, company commanders lead best from the very front, where the action is most intense. In the units I served in, there was a tongue-in-cheek saying that "if you don't get hit, you're not trying hard enough". And twelve generals were killed in action in Vietnam. So much for the myth that senior rank equals safety. Here's an intriguing fact: volunteers accounted for 77 per cent of combat deaths in Vietnam. That's right. 7 out of every 10 men killed in action (and we're not talking about deaths by accident or disease, but deaths as a result of enemy action)... had voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces. Hardly the myth that those doing the fighting were somehow "shanghaied" to the war.
When people think of the number of eighteen year-old draftees who died in Vietnam, they believe the number must be in the thousands... after all, the hapless 18-year-old is the quintessential victim of the Vietnam war. The real number? 101, or less than one tenth of one per cent of all those who were killed.
The fifth myth is that most Vietnam veterans are suffering from some sort of psychological disorder as a result of their "horrible" experiences.This one is perhaps the most insidious of all the mythologies about Vietnam. Most Vietnam veterans, this one goes, are traumatized by their combat experiences, and are suffering from "post traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD). They are schizoid personalities, needing only some spark to set them off. They make up most of our homeless population, are failures in real life, and are usually drug users.
Let's look at PTSD. The "tooth-to-tail" ratio in Vietnam was about 1 to 9. That meant that for every one man in the jungle, there were nine others driving trucks, manning radios in the rear areas, flying support missions, cooking food, and pounding typewriters. For the ninety per cent that weren't in the jungle, Vietnam was as different an experience from that endured by their infantry counterparts as night is from day. Sure, there were attacks on rear area bases, but they were relatively rare. Most times, the biggest threat to the men in the rear areas was boredom. So, with about 1/10th of the men actually doing the fighting, with combat occurring intermittently (not to detract for a moment the horror of combat), in a climate where it was warm, and never freezing, against an enemy who had no heavy artillery, no aircraft, no tanks, and usually only light infantry weapons to use against us, how do we justify the more than half a million Vietnam Veterans who are reported by various sources to suffer from some form of PTSD?
There is no doubt that men legitimately suffer from combat-related stress, and my heart goes out to those who really do. But men have suffered this sort of result from combat in all of our wars. Steven Crane wrote about it in "The Red Badge of Courage"; the story of one man grappling with his fears in the Civil War. An interesting tale, too, since Crane himself had never seen any combat before he wrote the book, but he got it dead right. In World War I, it was called "shell shock". In World War II; "combat fatigue". An Army Medical Corps study published in the 1980's indicates that the percentage of combat-related psychological disorders has historically been about 4 to 6 per cent of the men committed to combat. If that were applied to Vietnam, the number would be grossly lower than the half million men who are supposedly wandering around out there with PTSD.
So where do these huge estimates come from? Programs for treatment of PTSD are now government-funded, and the agencies that handle veterans reporting these disorders wouldn't be able to justify their current budgets if they didn't have active constituencies. Again, I don't not detract from men who truly suffer from these disorders, but there is an excellent economic maxim that says: to diminish an activity, tax it; to encourage an activity, subsidize it. Unlike any other combat-related disorder in our history, we've created an open-ended subsidy program for this one. And, more recent surveys of Vietnam veterans actually give some surprisingly different numbers than those contained in the popular "myths" about Vietnam veterans. These studies show that 91 percent of Vietnam veterans are proud to have served during that war, and 74 percent believe their service was necessary. The overwhelming majority of those who served in Vietnam (about 92 per cent) received honorable discharges. About 88 percent have transitioned to civilian life without difficulty, and the income of the average Vietnam veteran is 18 to 20 percent higher, with a lower unemployment rate, than his non-veteran contemporaries. Fewer than 0.5 percent of them have been in jail, contrasted to the national lock-up rate of 1.5 percent. Men who served in Vietnam are also less likely to be homeless than those who did not serve.
Finally, we come to the saddest Vietnam myth of all: the bogus Vietnam Veteran. At a dinner in the 1980's given by a local chapter of the Decade Association, the alumni group of ex-Special Forces soldiers, one of the members said, "Is it my imagination, or is everybody I meet these days claiming to have been a Green Beret in Vietnam?
The truth is that there are men out there claiming to have been war heroes, or to have served on secret missions in Vietnam, whose service records, if given close scrutiny, will show they never served in Vietnam, or if they did, did not participate in combat, and certainly never earned the awards and decorations they so blithely wear on their well-weathered camouflage-patterned fatigues. Which brings me to another point. Camouflage-patterned fatigues were seldom issued during the Vietnam war, except to certain types of special operations units. Unless a man served in Special Forces, Rangers, Marine Force Recon, or SOG, for example, he wore a rather drab-looking, jungle-green fatigue uniform, which faded to a light green with weathering and/or launderings. Even the airborne units like the 101st, the 82d and the 173d Brigade wore plain jungle green. And the camouflage pattern that was worn was a very distinctive tiger-stripe, that you don't see on the current crop of Stateside "commandos".
In the 1980's, when I worked in downtown San Francisco, I used to see a lot of guys standing on street corners with signs saying "Homeless Vietnam Vet", or "Help a Veteran". I used to stop and ask them where they served. I don't do that anymore. Most of them, I found, had never served in the military, or if they had, had never got closer to Vietnam than San Diego. It is a sad thing when one man robs another of his honor, his glory, and his reputation, but that's been happening for some time now. And, I don't think it's unique to Vietnam; it probably happened to the World War II generation, too.
Well, it was an interesting time, as the Chinese say. The war in Vietnam brought out the best and the worst of the American people. The real story of how that war fits in our national and psychological histories probably won't be written dispassionately until the generation that fought it, protested it, and then argued over it interminably are dead and gone. I leave that to future historians, but I hope what I've offered you this morning has cleared the air a little bit about the disparity between the generation that fought World War II and the one that went off to Vietnam.
In closing, let me say that if you older guys look in the mirror and squint a little bit, you'll find the face under the helmet looking back at you from Hue and Khe Sanh and Bu Dop and Tay Ninh isn't so different from the one you wore in North Africa, or Normandy, or at Guadalcanal, or on Tarawa.
Thank you very much, and may God always watch over our nation.
Phil Gioia is ex-Mayor of the Town of Corte Madera, and CEO of a local high-technology firm. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1967, and served two combat tours in Vietnam in airborne infantry, air cavalry, and special operations units. He was awarded two awards of the Silver Star and two awards of the Purple Heart. Phil and his wife and daughter live in Corte Madera.