R.T., Vietnam veteran
Overland Park, Kansas, USA
Growing up in a small Kansas town in the 1960s, my main sources of information were the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle and TIME Magazine. The Eagle printed just-the-facts wire stories about the Vietnam War, mainly reflecting the administration and U.S. military slant.
Years later I learned that TIME publisher and rabid anti-Communist Henry Luce ordered his editors to slant their coverage in favor of the U.S. effort in South Vietnam. When I discovered that deception, the wickedness of it took my breath away. So I was getting favorable information about the war from those important sources. But lots of what I learned in TIME and the Eagle didn't add up.
I watched the anti-war protesters and read stories about their actions and beliefs. They were in my generation after all. But a lot of what THEY said didn't add up. It seemed to me most protesters were parroting the slogans and ideas of a handful of radical professors and student leaders. Their vision of Vietnam was highly selective. And they turned me off by burning buildings, closing schools with "strikes" and actively supporting the Viet Cong who were killing South Vietnamese and Americans.
Then Nixon got elected in 1968, in part because he told America he had a secret plan to end the war. "Good," I thought, "it will all be over and I won't have to take sides." Well Tricky Dick's plan was to bomb the North Vietnamese to the peace table! Interesting tactic, but the war was still raging when I graduated from high school in 1969.
There I was, bored silly with school, feeling like the world was passing me by while I sat in a classroom. I wanted to go to college, but not right away. Of course, if I wasn't in college I would soon be drafted. What to do?
First, believe it or not, I tried to join the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel and have adventures and answer JFK's call to serve my country. But the Peace Corps wouldn't have me because I was too young. What to do?
I knew my parents would never give me a moment's rest if I didn't start college in the fall of 1969. So living at home and working was out of the question. Besides there were few jobs in small-town Kansas for high school kids. Certainly none that paid enough to live on. At a minimum, I needed to be independent. What to do?
I finally decided to join the Marines. I would be independent, making my own way in the world. I would travel and have adventures. I would be
spared the classroom for a couple of years and maybe get motivated to attend school again. In fact, the GI Bill would allow me to attend
college without taking money and orders from my parents. And if I wound up in Vietnam I would finally learn who was right about that baffling war. There's 18-year-old logic for you. It never occurred to me I could be killed.
I did wind up in Vietnam and learned that TIME and the anti-war movement were both wrong about what was going on. Vietnam was full of complexities and contradictions that were simply too detailed and layered to be learned in years of magazine articles or teach-ins. A series of books could be written about the religious aspect alone ... the animism of the peasants, the Bhuddism that underlies the whole culture, the militant Hoa Hao, and the nature-worshipping Montagnards. And, oh yeah, the rabidly anti-Communist Catholics who were in many ways the best and most "American" of the Vietnamese culture. That kind of complexity has to be experienced and studied to make any sense.
In Vietnam I was too busy to think about whether the war was right or wrong. I was trying to stay alive, keep my buddies alive and complete our mission. When I returned home, after years of reading and reflection, I began to grasp the "big picture." I finally concluded that, for literally hundreds of reasons, we should not have fought in Vietnam.
But that conclusion did not give me any respect for the anti-war protesters. I still thought most of them had no idea of the real issues and were mindlessly reflecting the views of a radical cadre. In time the draft ended and even though thousands of Americans were still fighting in Vietnam, the anti-war movement deflated like a pricked balloon. I concluded most of the males who opposed the war did so for selfish reasons ... they didn't want to go. My own brother was a prime example of that ethos. Without a political bone in his body, he never attended an anti-war protest but he strove mightily for six years to evade the draft. He found serving his country inconvenient.
The only anti-war protestors I respect are those who fled the country to avoid being drafted. Whatever their reasons, they made a stand and paid a high price, much like Vietnam veterans. I applauded when they were given amnesty.
And I was scarred by the hatred for Vietnam veterans I found among my generation of college students. Stationed in California after Vietnam, long-haired kids threw beer bottles and curses at us from passing cars. I was refused service, or more often just ignored in restaurants. Girls saw our military haircuts and gave us the finger, or crossed the street to avoid us. I got a little taste of what it is like to be a despised minority in America.
Back home in Kansas it wasn't so bad, but it wasn't good. In college I was called a baby killer and a war criminal, a murderer and an idiot duped by the Nixon "regime." My solution was to go completely underground. I grew my hair long, wore a civilian wardrobe and never, ever talked about Vietnam. There are people I attended classes with for years who still don't know I am a veteran. And of course I had to hide my Vietnam service while applying for jobs and working 20 years in the news media. It was only when the Gulf War broke out that it became okay to be a veteran with most of America. Still I didn't trust of the wave of patriotism that washed over the Gulf War vets. I think there were elements of guilt and mass hysteria in that outpouring.
Today, at least, I can have a Marine Corps sticker on my car without fear of vandalism. I can put up a website about my experiences and not get hacked or flamed. In fact, the most common reaction to my website is from kids too young to remember. They say, "I thought Vietnam was 'Rambo' and 'Apocalypse Now', but I've learned differently from your site."