And when the time comes to discuss whether going or not is right or wrong; when we argue con and pro this new war—is it just and true and worth dying and killing for?—it will be well to recall some of the old stories, truths, and lessons learned.
He was 34, ancient by combat standards and those of the NFL, when New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson interviewed him for her massive meditation on Vietnam, Winners and Losers. He was about the age of the oldest who'll be called when the new draft for George Bush's "war on terror" is instituted. The eligibility requirements before Congress right now top out at 36 and include both men and women, an acknowledgment of the changing nature of warfare (more computer, technical, and language skills) and feminism (women have the right to die horribly in battle just like men).
He grew up a peaceful boy in the Midwest, a big chunky likeable kid who didn't want to go to Vietnam but did, because prison seemed even worse. He knew a little bit about that because before the war he'd been a civil rights organizer in the deep south. He scoffed at the notion of what they called PVS in those days—Post-Vietnam Syndrome, the guilt and anger and frustration that combat veterans experienced upon their return. We've since expanded the definition and come to call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His name was Randy and he preferred to call the condition Post-Vietnam Struggle, not syndrome. Whether he's dead or alive today I cannot tell, but I can assure you plenty of Vietnam Veterans will speak to the truth of this matter, in words equally compelling.
"I was in Mississippi in 1964," he told Miss Emerson, "and I had the same situation. When I came back I'd say 'Wow, wow, man, the dogs jumped on these people and the sheriff's patrol beat us and blah-blah' and pretty soon people would say 'I went to a party last night,' he said. "You could have the Post-Black Mississippi Struggle or the Post-East Harlem Struggle or the Post-Prison Struggle. It's being put in a situation you don't understand and that nobody else you like or relate to can understand either. You say 'I saw this brain laying there in the dirt and somebody put a cigarette package inside the skull to take a picture' and people answer 'I have a date tomorrow' or 'I got laid last night…'"
Because of his professed nonviolence, the army made Randy a medic—technically a non-combatant—and assigned him to the Wolfhounds, a unit of the 25th Infantry Division, deployed in and around Cu Chi, one of the largest concentrations of American troops in Vietnam. The infamous Cu Chi tunnels, a 75-mile-long underground maze of billets, infirmaries, mess halls and recreation rooms, located 45 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (which we used to call Saigon), remain to this day, a tourist destination and reminder of the ingenuity of the Viet Cong. Significantly, the nearby Museum of War Remnants, with its collection of American weapons and accounts of atrocities visited upon the Vietnamese, recently amended its name. They used to call it the Museum of American War Crimes.
Like a lot of us, Randy didn't want to carry a weapon in Vietnam, but "that was a hassle," so he did.
"The first firefight I shot up all the ammunition I had in about three or four minutes. Somebody had to come down and tell me to quit shooting. It's pretty hard to be Gandhian unless you've had a lifetime of training. I fired all the time, I fired at anything."
In retrospect, years later back in the world, Randy professed that he thought he had been a good medic. He certainly had always tried his best, but sometimes things went very wrong. Once, when the commander called in artillery because he wanted white phosphorus to "neutralize" some enemy bunkers, the shells fell short. The Willy Peter came down about two hundred yards from Randy's position.
One guy caught a great gob of it in the chest and he fell down screaming. I ran over, but I didn't know whether to shoot him with morphine and let him die happy or try and dig it out with a knife real fast. But it was burning through his chest cavity so fast that with one hand I was trying to scrape it off and with the other hand I was shooting him full of morphine.
He kept screaming. The morphine took effect in twenty minutes and he lived about forty minutes.
Back in Kansas, Randy managed to get a job with the Head Start
program. He worked with Native American children, with migrants, and later in a career development program. He allied himself, like Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry
, with local antiwar groups, and he gave speeches and showed his slides from Vietnam. He didn't have any pictures of Americans dying. He had always been too busy when there were American casualties.
Sometimes he just didn't feel like digging out the camera. After a while it became so ordinary to see their own dead strewn about the countryside like obscene flora that soldiers stopped seeing them at all. The dead became invisible. The living ate their ham n motherfuckers among the corpses like characters in a play. They had to eat somewhere.
One morning in the war they'd been out on a mine-sweeping detail when they discovered some Americans that had been ambushed. The faces of these men had been deformed, by machete or entrenching tool, perhaps, which was what the army called a small shovel that folded in half. It was a precaution taken by the VC, Randy imagined, to make sure the soldier was dead. None of the living felt sick or swore revenge. It was just one morning in the war.
"Maybe they did it that way to save ammunition," he said. "We used to go around and do it with a rifle, making sure everyone was dead. We had no reaction. After the first two or three you didn't pay any attention, unless, of course, it was a friend."
A dead man he remembered was a Vietnamese who was just beginning to stiffen a little. A GI stomped on his hand to open it and then wrapped the fingers around a beer can. He raised the dead man, an arm around him, to pose for a photograph. The colonel had seen it and been furious. "Leave that body alone, you sadistic son of a bitch!"
"But those colonels," he said, "they were as much a cause of it as anyone else. They didn't give you a pass unless you killed so many people—then they came out and gave you hell for doing stuff like that."
Back in the world, he had gone to see Congressman Richard Bolling in Washington, D.C. He was a powerful Democrat from Missouri, a civil rights leader who later had a Kansas City office building named after him. First been elected to the house in 1948, Bolling was a World War II veteran who'd been active in national veterans' groups. The congressman was unmoved by Randy's story.
"He wasn't really curt with me, but what he was saying was that I didn't represent the large majority of veterans. He didn't want to hear me out. And as far as me having any strength to do anything about the war, I could just go back to Kansas City and forget about it. I guess he was right."
Randy and the millions like him are no longer young, though it may be hard to picture them as grandfathers with cataracts and hearing aids, many of them men whose dreams never did come true. There had been discouragements, Randy said. The huge changes had seemed so close at one time, and then they didn't get any closer at all. "But even the people in the war-against-the-war could not have forgotten all that they learned," he mused hopefully.
Look at me, yes, look at me. There is no way I'll buy the American dream again. I've seen what we've done to people. I see what we do to people in prisons, I've seen it in Vietnam, I've seen it in the civil-rights movement. I mean you're never going to sell me that shit again.
That's all there is to it. There were a lot of people clubbed in Chicago who said the system is all screwed up and who are now driving Cadillacs and working as IBM salesmen. But they had experience, they got some foresight into the system. That's never going to be purged; it has a carry-over that is never going to be taken away from them.
Randy still had hope back in 1974.
But others among the hundreds that Ms. Emerson interviewed for her National Book Award-winning effort to get the story straight once and for all, others were not so sure:
Again and again there is someone to say
we have always been people who dropped the past
and then could not remember where it had been put.
Randy's old regiment, the Wolfhounds of the Second Brigade Task Force, is stationed in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana, 1905
Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War, Gloria Emerson, Random House, New York, 1976.
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers