WAR­RIORS RE­FLECT

NA­TION MARKS 50TH AN­NIVER­SARY OF ITS IN­VOLVE­MENT IN VIET­NAM JERRY DAVICH,

Post-Tribune - - Front Page - JERRY DAVICH [email protected]

The draft. Na­palm. Agent Or­ange. Protests. Ca­su­al­ties. Deaths. “Char­lie.” Crossfire. Friendly fire. Flash­backs. Viet Cong. Kh­mer Rouge. Fall of Saigon. The Tet Of­fen­sive. “Apoca­lypse Now.” Con­tro­versy. Re­gret.

These are my im­me­di­ate thoughts when I think of the Viet­nam War, which marked a fateful “can’t turn back now” mile­stone 50 years ago this month. That’s when Gen. Wil­liam West­more­land suc­ceeded Gen. Paul Harkins as com­man­der of the U.S. Mil­i­tary As­sis­tance Com­mand, Viet­nam, or MACV.

That’s when U.S. mil­i­tary strength in South Viet­nam in­creased to 23,000, with hints of many more troops head­ing to that enigma of a coun­try in South­east Asia. That’s when Un­cle Sam bit into a very rot­ten ap­ple and has been spit­ting it out ever since.

To this day, a half century later, there is still de­bate whether it was a “war,” a “con­flict” or sim­ply the dark­est smudge on our coun­try’s il­lus­tri­ous track record of mil­i­tary in­volve­ments around the world.

“My first thought is al­most al­ways, ‘What a waste,’ ” said Walt White, who en­listed in the U.S. Ma­rine Corps in 1964 and served more than a year in Viet­nam. “I was there at the front end, one of the first troops to go in.”

“They just kept pour­ing in men and money, wast­ing both, lit­er­ally throw­ing away bil­lions and killing off our soldiers with those inane rules of en­gage­ment,” the Portage vet­eran said. “All the while alien­at­ing most of its indige­nous pop­u­la­tion.”

White squarely blames the ex­ec­u­tive branch of the govern­ment, not the mil­i­tary, and cer­tainly not the soldiers from any branch.

“We were just do­ing our job,” White said with a shrug. “We did what was asked of us, and we were re­viled for it.”

Flash back with me for a minute to the United States of Amer­ica in 1964 and af­ter­ward.

Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy re­cently had been as­sas­si­nated, re­placed by Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son, a good old boy with good old-fash­ioned views about war, com­bat and “vic­tory.”

The coun­try feared the domino ef­fect of com­mu­nism across the globe. The fall of Viet­nam and South­east Asia would top­ple a lot more domi­noes, even­tu­ally land­ing on U.S. soil, many Amer­i­cans were con­vinced.

Con­ti­nu­ity in the White House was of the ut­most im­por­tance to John­son, who bat­tled nu­mer­ous fronts in his pres­i­dency. So he kept send­ing troops, money and mis­guided in­tel­li­gence into a tiny coun­try that most Amer­i­cans couldn’t find on a map.

“There ain’t no day­light in Viet­nam ... not a bit,” John­son would later con­fide to Sen. Richard Rus­sell, re­veal­ing his hid­den pes­simism about the war.

Then U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert McNa­mara, who later be­came known as the “ar­chi­tect of a fu­tile war,” voiced pub­lic sup­port time and again for our in­volve­ment in Viet­nam while whis­per­ing pri­vate wor­ries to John­son.

“We don’t know what’s go­ing on out there,” McNa­mara told John­son, who put too much trust in his ad­vis­ers. (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

If only some­thing hap­pened, they rea­soned, to pro­voke us into a le­git­i­mate rea­son to be in Viet­nam, the ever-gullible, fear­ful Amer­i­can pub­lic would rally be­hind it. Sim­ply put, they were look­ing for a pre­text to flex Amer­i­can mus­cle on for­eign soil. (Sound fa­mil­iar again?)

That pre­text con­ve­niently took place in early Au­gust 1964, with the “Gulf of Tonkin in­ci­dent” when North Viet­namese tor­pedo boats sup­pos­edly at­tacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off Viet­nam, in a pair of as­saults. The sec­ond at­tack, al­legedly two days later, never hap­pened. And the cause of the first one is still a bit of a mys­tery.

Still, it was enough for John­son to de­clare, well, the Gulf of Tonkin Res­o­lu­tion, the clos­est thing there ever was to a dec­la­ra­tion of war. It sailed through Congress with help from mis­guided, sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic me­dia and fear­ful, ig­no­rant Amer­i­cans. (Sound fa­mil­iar once again?)

That res­o­lu­tion au­tho­rized John­son to take any “nec­es­sary mea­sures” to re­pel more armed at­tacks against the U.S. and, of­fi­cially, the war was on. That in­ci­dent trig­gered a com­plex con­flict that we at­tempted to fight with con­ven­tional mil­i­tary think­ing.

Those 23,000 troops swelled to 75,000, then 125,000. We kept fill­ing the cracked vase called Viet­nam with the blood of U.S. soldiers. It leaked into our TV sets, our homes, our con­science.

A new kind of Amer­ica — with its ugly un­der­belly of gov­ern­men­tal ig­no­rance and ar­ro­gance — was ex­posed to the world. And to our­selves. It was a slip­pery slope and we’ve been slip­ping into the abyss of re­gret, shame and con­tro­versy ever since.

“They called us baby killers,” re­calls Mickey Radovich of Val­paraiso, who was 19 when he was drafted in 1971 and sent to Viet­nam. “Well, how many U.S. moth­ers lost their ba­bies in ’Nam?”

“That is how a lonely 19-year-old sol­dier boy felt sta­tioned half­way around the world in hell who, on oc­ca­sion, cried him­self to sleep not know­ing if he’d ever see an­other sun­rise or his fam­ily again,” said Radovich, now 62, who served with the 101st Air­borne and the 196th In­fantry Bri­gade.

When Radovich re­turned to the states, land­ing at an air­port in San Fran­cisco, he re­mem­bers par­ents pulling away their daugh­ters to avoid any in­ter­ac­tion with soldiers.

“Be­cause, I guess, they thought we would rape them right there on the spot,” he re­called.

White, who re­turned home from Viet­nam ear­lier than Radovich, said, “I wouldn’t have re­sponded well to be­ing spit on and called a baby killer. The in­dif­fer­ence I re­ceived from people was bad enough.”

In 1969, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon in­tro­duced a pro­gram called Viet­namiza­tion, with the South Viet­namese Army as­sum­ing a larger com­bat role and the MACV be­gin­ning a phased with­drawal of U.S. troops. In early 1973, the Army’s role for­mally ended.

In all, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and mil­i­tary per­son­nel were killed in Viet­nam. More than 153,000 were in­jured, not to men­tion those emo­tion­ally wounded to this day.

“The only time any­one ever thanked me for serv­ing at that time was on my very last day of ac­tive duty,” Radovich re­called.

While stand­ing alone in his dress greens at Denver’s air­port wait­ing for his flight home, a lit­tle old lady walked up to him.

“She looked me right in the eyes, smiled, lightly touched my crossed arms and softly said, ‘Thank you.’ Then she slowly walked away,” he said. “I couldn’t say any­thing be­cause I was in shock. I felt like an (ex­ple­tive) for not say­ing any­thing in re­turn.”

White, whose ve­hi­cle proudly dis­plays his Ma­rine Corps loy­alty and Viet­nam com­bat, said, “I got a wel­come home from the Gulf War that I never got from Viet­nam. It kind of changed my feel­ings about Viet­nam. But I haven’t for­got how I felt. I’ll never for­get.”

Con­nect with Jerry via email, at [email protected], voice mail, at 713-7237, or Face­book, Twit­ter, and his blog, at jer­ry­davich.word­press.com.

| JERRY DAVICH/SUN-TIMES ME­DIA

Walt White of Portage en­listed with the U.S. Marines in 1964 and served in Viet­nam from 1965 to 1966.

| JERRY DAVICH/SUN-TIMES ME­DIA

Walt White of Portage en­listed in the U.S. Marines in 1964 and served in Viet­nam from 1965 to 1966. He still wears POW bracelets for fel­low soldiers.

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