The 25th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam was like a slow-moving, thousand-mile-long funeral procession. The media relentlessly barraged us with worn memories. The tube, magazines and newspapers picked at the scars of the war until they got down to the bloodless bone.
Rarely was anything substantial covered.
The tempo picked up after the Cuban kid, perhaps the last tragic captive of the Cold War, was returned to his Commie dad and as we drew closer to the anniversary of the day the Soviet tanks manned by North Viets wheezed and rattled their way into Saigon.
For the past couple of weeks the war’s been dissected, resected and intersected. Once again the guilty were nailed to the cross and the flawed strategies rehashed. The Black Wall was shot from every TV angle, along with the mourners gathered there — the amateurs with their cameras and the Old Guard professionals dressed in their standard, now-very-tired camouflage gear and beribboned hats.
Strangely, in all this dark deliberation, precious little has been said about the grunts who fought in Vietnam. You remember them, the kids who were sent there to be cannon fodder, so badly trained and with hardly a clue about the purpose of the conflict. You know, the 18- and 19-year-olds who toted the Black Stick, the M-16 rifle, the worst infantry weapon ever placed in an American soldier’s hands. A favorite, of course, of the racketeers in Washington who I’m sure bought Colt Industries low and sold high oh-so patriotically.
The average Viet vet’s age today is 52. Many still carry a hangover from “The Vietnam Experience.” When they got home, their dads from the “Greatest Generation” — who’d won The Big War — called them slackers who didn’t fight hard enough. “Or,” the vets of Anzio and Saipan said, “they would have won.”
Since most other folks gave our boys the same short shrift, they never were really allowed to talk about — to process — what happened to them.
For the grunts, Vietnam was one of America’s toughest infantry fights. In their fathers’ war, few groundpounders clocked up the frontline combat days like the Vietnam vets. The U.S. Army’s 3d Infantry Division, which fought from Africa to Czechoslovakia, had the record for more combat grunt time than any other U.S. foot-slogging outfit in World War II. Total line days: about 350. The average Viet grunt clocked 365 line days, unless he went out early by litter or body bag.
In their dads’ war, there were tidy fronts, reserve time, breathing space between invasions and the old “Two up and one back” tactic. In Vietnam, there was no reserve time, no fronts, no rest time, just the endless pounding over some of the worst terrain our infantry has ever slogged through. And every unit was fully committed — there was no “Two up and one back.” The generals had to have their high body counts and their follow-on promotions.
True, the Germans and Japanese were worthy foes. But the Viet infantry was as hard core as the Japanese and as professional at war as the Germans. And the Viets knew how to strike from the shadows. They were everywhere and nowhere, not easy to ID. The old man who cut the troops’ hair was really a Viet Cong colonel. The pretty girl on the side of the road selling Cokes spied for the Viet Cong and also set out mines at night.
The mines and booby traps were ever-present. They were wall-to-wall, ranging from a Coke can wrapped with barbwire and filled with C-4, to a dud 500-pound U.S. bomb rigged with a tripwire. Thirty percent of U.S. casualties came from these evil devices. Every time a grunt put down a foot, he didn’t know if he’d have a leg or a life when his boot hit the dirt. Try doing that for 365 days and see what it does to your head.
For sure, there will be another of these funeral dirges in another five years to mark the 30th anniversary of a war we had no business fighting. Maybe then the press will honor the unsung heroes of Vietnam and finally welcome them home. An act that might allow these brave vets to heal at last.
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© 2000 David H. Hackworth
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