When I was nineteen I was stationed in a remote Laotian village on the Mekong River. I was an Irish kid from the Bronx, over twelve thousand miles from home. It had been a twenty-two hour plane ride to get, “in country” and another four excruciating hours strapped to a cloth harness in the perimeter of a cargo plane to get to Nakhon Phenom, a town Bob Hope called, “the armpit of the world.” My first day in town seems surreal now. I remember walking up a dirt road and gaping at a yak being prodded by a toothless woman in a sarong.
Sadly, I remember even more clearly the nausea in my own well-fed stomach, as I turned a corner and was confronted with throngs of swollen bellies huddled on the side of the road. Attached to the swollen bellies were revoltingly emaciated bodies with twig like arms extended for food. The voices belonging to the bellies wanted money: money to buy food, money to make the pain of hunger go away.
I had some money, not enough for their needs, not all of them. “Do I give all I have?” I thought, “How else could I claim to be human? But what about tomorrow? There won’t be any fewer of them tomorrow.” I was only nineteen and I had no idea when I signed my enlistment paper a year earlier that this dusty dirt trail in a remote village I had never heard of was where I was destined to have a head-on collision with my humanity. A boy should not have to make a decision like this. I loved my country in a way maybe only an immigrant can. I felt I owed it everything and when my country led me to believe I was needed to stop communist aggression, I was happy to settle my debt.
The heat is heavy in the jungle and like a spoiled overweight child it insists on being carried everywhere. You can’t put it down for a second. The heat wears you out and beats you up and when it goes away after nine tedious arid months, the jungle hands the baton to another thug to finish you off. The thug that grabs the hand off is called monsoon, and he brings with him a never-ending torrent of rain every day and night for three months. Monsoon turns the soil into a gigantic sponge which sops up every drop of water from the jungle canopy and turns the cracked soil into a sea of mud.
Mud was everywhere, not just midst the mangroves, but in the hootches where we slept, in the showers where we washed, on our toothbrushes and shaving gear; mud was in parts of our body almost as remote as the jungle itself. The mud mixed with the dampness and gave it a texture much more permanent and penetrating, like cement.
Not surprisingly, the enlistment brochures didn’t contain any pictures of the mud nor of the seventy thousand American boys who were shipped home inside body bags. Those seventy thousand poor young boys who were once dirty and wet were now clean and dry, clean and dry and dead. They believed that their sacrifice was necessary so that the Vietnamese could be free and make their own choices; to insure this fundamental right of man, they would, in the words of President Kennedy, “pay any price, bear any burden.” The price they paid was the ultimate one.
The men who paid this exorbitant price were swindled, they were not shown U.S. intelligence reports declaring that if there were free elections in Viet Nam, Ho Chi Min and his communist party would have won overwhelmingly, and so there could be no free elections. Instead, the U. S. would install a Christian puppet friendly to our government, Diem. According to then Secretary of Defense McNamara, President Johnson called Diem, “a son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch” (McNamara 141).
The installation of Diem was only one of several deceitful actions taken by the U.S. government during the war. According to President Johnson, the U.S.S. Maddox was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. This so-called attack in international waters led to the direct and massive build up of American forces in the region. Many years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, however, President Johnson said, “Hell, for all I know, we could have been shooting at a bunch of seals out there” (McNamara 141). The young soldiers in the field were not privy to such remarks.
No the generation of young men who fought the Viet Nam war trusted authority. We thought because people in authority are experienced, they usually know best. We were hopeful and idealistic, and the majority of us believed in our country. We were told that freedom has a price and we lived in a country that represented democracy and freedom around the globe. We also believed, as we know now erroneously, that our government was committed to this paradigm. Age has not blessed me with wisdom, but I do know old men make the wars, and I sincerely believe that they feel truth is just a game, a game for children and a game that must be played by young idealistic boys.
Old men make the wars, but they don’t fight the fight. The congressmen that declare war are too important to fight, too important and too busy. They are too busy lobbying, too busy collecting the lucrative pensions they have allocated themselves, and too busy assigning defense contracts to companies that will employ them after their tenure in congress. Combat is for the young, who have mountains of time and for whom the years mean nothing. A young man may feel immortal, but a body bag doesn’t have room for such a delusion. Reality registers quickly in combat and options must be weighed: he cannot desert, for all that’s out there is the enemy and the jungle. If he decides the stockade is preferable to death, he is abandoning his brothers and forfeiting his honor. The young hold both honor and the approval of their peers priceless, so once they get to the battlefield they commence to kill.
The perpetual conundrum of the old men who declare war is how to get the young boys to commit to the battle field. They have solved this conundrum by selling young boys on a counterfeit cause: freedom. War is somehow always about freedom, whether it is insuring it, or making the world safe for it; the men who spin these yarns preach that the only way to insure freedom is to liberate the villages, liberate the towns, and liberate the cities. We did that in Nam. We would send in mortars to soften up a village and then spray it with machine gun fire before occupying it and killing whoever we suspected might be the enemy. After the patrols, some of us would wash away the memories of such philanthropic antics with tumblers of Johnny Walker. We drank at the community lean-to back at the base, a lean-to which was appropriately christened, “Bombs for Peace.” I vividly recall guzzling a pitcher of Manhattans and looking up at the television set to see President Nixon making an urgent address to the nation. His words were clear, emphatic, concise, and complete bullshit. “We are not now, nor have we ever, bombed the country of Laos”(Sheehan 310). So I finished my drink, rolled a nice fat joint, and went outside to smoke it, because it was 8:45 now. The Air Force usually started the napalming of Laos about nine. I didn’t want to miss the show. After all, how many people get to see bombs that don’t exist?
I am old enough now to comb what little hair I have left with my hand, and age has replaced my innocence with cynicism. It has been six years now in Iraq, long past the six weeks or six months that the war makers predicted. The people whose country we have occupied did not have links to Al Qaeda and they were not responsible for blowing up the World Trade Center. We have long since given up finding the weapons that we were told they had. We have forced two million Iraqis to leave their country and have killed, by most accounts, a million more. We have obliterated their bridges, hospitals and schools. We have succeeded in getting four thousand brave Americans killed and we have managed to get seventy thousand more maimed at a cost of what could ultimately be three trillion dollars.
The Iraq War is a national travesty that brings to my mind a distant echo, an echo that reverberated in my brain much too often in Viet Nam. An echo which belonged to a voice heard more than half a century ago in another country in yet another war for freedom. An anonymous young soldier, just arrived in Normandy during WWII, look around him at the devastation wrought by the withdrawing forces and said, “Boy, we liberated the hell out of them.”
William P. O’Connor enlisted in the Air Force on August 1, 1966. He served in the Vietnam War from August 1969 to August 1970 in Nakhon Phanom in Northern Thailand. William was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1948. He is a former pub owner and retired NYC fire fighter. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.