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I Walked Pointless in Vietnam

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I just got through watching Episode 5 of the Burns/Novick Documentary “The Vietnam War.” The title of the episode is: This Is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967) I am only going to make remarks about this episode. Please keep that in mind. I have probably watched 7 episodes of this 18-hour series. I felt that Episode 5 had a tremendous amount of information in it, along with some powerful historical footage. You can critique that information and put it under a microscope if you want to. But, I want to refine what I saw to write this article.

If I were a conservative Vietnam veteran, I would find this episode very disturbing. I have not forgotten my conservative upbringing.  I was raised in the military. My father was a career Army Officer and combat veteran in North Africa during World War II.

The pathology of this episode was that the war was over by November 1967. Of course, you could say the war was over before it started. As someone on the left, I think most of us know this. The United States was nothing more than the identical twin sibling of French Imperialism. It is not that complicated.

So, I’m going to look at just this episode and I’m going to put another hat on that says, “Proud To Be A Vietnam Veteran.” If a Vietnam veteran is wearing that baseball cap when he is watching Episode 5, he might later become very depressed. If he was watching that episode with some other Vietnam veterans at a Vet Center, he might want to drive his car off a cliff when he left that Vet Center to drive home.

Now, why would he want to do that?

It’s 1969, and this veteran is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam with an Army unit attached to the 4th Infantry Division. His platoon is caught in an ambush in the mountains 15 miles South of An Khe. In a matter of minutes, 14 of his fellow soldiers are killed with AK-47 small arms fire. Four others are critically wounded, including both medics. Within minutes after the ambush, the Viet Cong vanished. The RTO (Radio Telephone Operator ) calls in Medevac helicopters from Fort Radcliff.

The Vietnam veteran who watched Episode 5, was on that mission, and lost three very close buddies, one of them on the helicopter during the flight back to 8th Field Hospital, who happened to be one of the medics. The two of them read each other’s letters from home. They knew every member of each other’s family, and had shared many pictures.

When this soldier returned to the United States, he suffered from many years of depression and lost just about everything due to his alcoholism. Eventually, he was able to sober up, and joined three communities that saved his life. Between AA, church, and the Vet Center, he was able to put his life back together. Twice a month, he meets with half a dozen close friends who are also vets, who share similar conservative values.

Now, let’s go back to Episode 5, and remember all the dead Marines who were killed near the DMZ, called, “Dead Marine Zone,” by one Marine who was interviewed in the episode. Remember, these Marines are not too empathetic about all the Vietnamese being killed. Because, at the time, their instincts are obsessed with moment to moment survival.

And then, there is Hill 875, involving the Army 173rd Airborne, also covered in the episode.  A lot of Americans were killed and wounded on Hill 875. One of my best friends was on Hill 875. He put his best friend in a body bag, piece by piece. That experience has never left him.  I see him occasionally in Salem, Oregon. He has devoted his life to helping veterans who get caught up in the criminal justice system because of their raging PTSD.

After soldiers of the 173rd finally got to the top of the hill, the enemy was gone, and the U.S. Military High Command decided to abandon Hill 875. Later, a U.S. commander said, “It wasn’t worth it.”

So, my friend who was on Hill 875 might be watching Episode 5, as I need to talk to him. I wonder what he has to say about it, although I have heard him express some very angry opinions in the past.

By November 1967, 20,000 Americans have been killed in Vietnam. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara is replaced by Clark Clifford. McNamara privately admits to President Johnson that he believes the war in Vietnam is unwinnable, and that is brought out in Episode 5.

Now, let’s go back to the Vietnam veteran who was in that ambush in 1969. He is the one who watched Episode 5. Let’s get this straight: President Johnson decides not to run for reelection in 1968, and President Nixon is elected. By the time Nixon leaves office in utter disgrace on August 9, 1974, over 58,000 Americans are killed in Vietnam. That’s 38,000 more dead after Robert McNamara tells President Johnson that the war in Vietnam is unwinnable. When the war is over, 300,000 Americans are wounded, and more Vietnam veterans will commit suicide than were killed in Vietnam. Can you imagine what is going through the head of that veteran who was ambushed in 1969 by the Viet Cong, and… by his own government? He went to Vietnam in a cattle car, riddled with bull shit. The Viet Cong tried to kill him, but they did not betray him like his immoral government. As Malcolm X once said: “To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.”

Can you imagine what is going through the heads of every soldier who served in Vietnam after November 1967, when the war was over, and we stayed in that war under President Nixon to Save Face! Can you imagine what is going on with tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who will be watching Episode 5? The war had its own momentum. How do you stop a war that is making millions and millions of dollars for corporations across the United States? For me, W A R stands for, Wealthy Are Richer. When politicians and the rich start sending their kids to war, I’ll start believing in noble causes.

When Episode 5 finished, it ended with the Rolling Stones playing, “Paint It Black.” When I got to Vietnam in 1970, as an Army medic, my naive little head was eventually catapulted into another world. My core belief system as someone who was raised in the military, was completely dismantled.

There was a Medevac helicopter in my unit that had the word, WHY painted on the nose in large white letters. I saw American teenagers die in Vietnam for absolutely no noble cause.

The philosophical denial part of me died a long time ago. And, for the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, who were killed in that war, along with millions who were wounded, and the physical and spiritual destruction of those countries, it will be a genocide that haunt the ages. The most powerful military force the world has ever seen, bombed the holy hell out of three of the poorest countries in the world. That is an immorality that is almost beyond comprehension.

America, you will get away with nothing…

 

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Mike Hastie served as an Army Medic in Vietnam.

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