"If you think of history, and the battles over religion and politics always seem ridiculous in retrospect. One fact remains; it's the nature of any human society to expand until it collides with another. It then is repulsed or swallows the other. A nation without enough good fighting men is bound to be swallowed. In time of peace no one likes fighting men they are a reproach to our morality. But when the bugle blows as it does and will in almost any generation, a nation stands or falls according to the strength of its fighting men. Nowadays Industry and Science have a lot to do with the fighting of wars, but they would be useless without the cutting edge of fighting men." --- Sloan Wilson, Pacific Interlude

The Men

It’s so hard at this distance to really call up their faces, their personalities, and individualities. That may be because I taught myself early on not to get too close to any of them. We all taught ourselves that: harden yourself off, don’t let anyone get too close. They could be gone literally in an instant, in the most horrific ways imaginable. Oh, we’d have our late night philosophical discussions, and talk about women - God, was there any more constant topic then this, and no one really knew anything for sure - and home, and aspirations, but you still kept the personal place in your heart off-limits. No one could afford to open it up completely.

At this point, then, they’re not a great undifferentiated mass - I mean I can see them, see them on the move, see them in action, see them at night scared, or full of C-rations and smiling - but I’m just a millimeter away from really seeing them as individuals, like, “Oh, yeah, there’s . . .”

What they really are to me now, except for the people who stand out because of the incidents we were involved in together, are a mass of emotions, with a head and face poking through here and there. Emotion oatmeal, yeah that’s it, with raisins.

What with two different platoons (both under strength), for eight months in the field, and replacements and all there were a total of about 70 of them. Seventy troopers. And they were all Americans. I don’t mean that to restate the obvious. It’s just that on a very general level that was their most distinguishing and common trait: they were all Americans. In all our country’s strengths, and in her weaknesses and doubts, they were Americans. Ever since Vietnam I have truly loved Americans, my countrymen, and I’ve loved the country that produced them. That’s not to say I LIKE all my countrymen, or that I liked all my troopers, but as a group, as an idea, they are worthy of deep love. And hey, if we don’t love us, who will?

I may not be able to pick a lot of them out by name, but I know very clearly who they were demographically. They were young, to begin with. There weren’t any seventeen-year-olds and few eighteen-year-olds, that’s a bunch of crap. The U.S. Army wasn’t sending high-schoolers over to be killed in Vietnam. The vast majority couldn’t BE drafted until they were eighteen, and with Basic Training, Advanced Training, Leaves and processing, few showed up in Vietnam with any but a few months left in their eighteenth year. Most were nineteen. At the other end of the range, I was the oldest person in my platoon, at twenty-three. You have to understand that this was really the world turned upside down for the Army. Army tradition was that the shavetail young lieutenant always had five or six NCOs in their thirties in his platoon, to give him experience and balance. But here, I was the Old Man. God preserve us.

And they were all draftees. All of them. Except for me, of course, who volunteered because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Nobody was volunteering to go fight a decaying, corrosive war in 1970. They had all been requested by Uncle Sam to put their lives on hold for a couple of years, and they’d all submitted. With grace, don’t forget that, WITH GRACE. In most cases.

Many backgrounds. I did have some kids straight from the ghetto, but that didn’t describe the majority of the troops. If I had to put them in a socioeconomic class, I’d say lower middle class, with the tails of the distribution in poverty and in solid middle class. No college grads, but a number of people with one or two years of college under their belts. They had let their student deferments lapse for any one of a number of reasons, and then suddenly it was, “Get your shit together, you’re goin’ to the field.”

Individuals: I had the obligatory kid from the streets of Detroit, who’d been given the choice between the Army and jail for car theft. I had a barefoot hillbilly (actually, the Army had issued him boots and required him to wear them - all the time). Lots of redneck types from the South and Texas. Like Sgt. Bales, you crazy sonovabitch. Always smiling, always coming up with those insane ambush ideas, and they made sense to me and we’d do ‘em and get ourselves straight in the shit. Don’t ever look me up, I can’t afford it.

A number of California surfer dudes, like Dave, my E5 shake-and-bake platoon sergeant. Dave, you always wanted to do what was right, the Army way, but had no idea what that was. So you’d ask me for advice, not knowing that it was supposed to go the other way round. The young lieutenant asks the experienced NCO. What the hell, you never got down, you were always there for me and the others, and we got through it, so I guess that makes us a success.

Not too many guys from the Northeast. Hey, where were you guys? We got a fight going on, and Texas and California are handlin’ it. Didn’t you want to join in? It wasn’t a private fight.

And one Congressman’s son. Yeah, surprised the hell out of all of us. We’d get real subtle with Dave (another Dave), trying to probe into the reasons why he’d ended up in ‘Nam, like, “Dave, what the fuck you doin’ here, man? You’re a Congressman’s son.” Dave had great composure and perspective, even at twenty. He said that his draft number came up, he talked it over with his Dad the Congressman, and they both agreed that he shouldn’t use his student deferment; he’d let himself be drafted. And Dave was comfortable with it. He believed that since others like him still had to go to ‘Nam, still had to fight, then he was obligated to do the same. I never had a special Congressional inquiry about Dave, or any special requests. He did his duty like everyone else. Truly extraordinary.

The platoon members’ American-ness was the basis of their nobility. This numb-nuts part of the American culture which says, “Aw, shit, I’m not going to pussy around and look for ways to get out of this. I really don’t know if the fight’s right or not, but my government tells me it is and that I have to go. Can’t have some guys seeing what’s on the other side of the Mountain without me seeing, too. And maybe I’ll get to find out if Oriental poontang is, ya know . . .”. It didn’t have much to do with national security, and it wasn’t very philosophical, or even deep, for that matter, but it was real and good. A penchant for action rather than reflection. Affect the world before it affects you. Let’s get it on.

God bless these boys, they did get it on. Even in 1971, when two-thirds of the ground units had already stood down and gone home, we’d fight. Loyalty, altruism, charity, humor and forbearance; these were Men, and caring Men, while only nineteen years old. Oh sure, we had our weaknesses, American weaknesses, mostly - rashness, insensitivity, lack of perspective - so we weren’t perfect. But we were good.

Sometimes I think, reflecting on the group loyalty, commitment, heroism, and self-sacrifice I saw, that, although none of us wanted to DIE there, those who did actually gained an advantage on the rest of us. Because they died demonstrating - living - some of the highest of human virtues. And they died uneroded by years of trying to make their way as a member of our society - raise a family, hold a job, acquire property, worry about the outcome of football games, get fat sitting in front of the TV. Relatively untouched by the lawyers and politicians and bureaucrats who diminish our character by daily contact.

What would it have been like to die uncompromised? To die having the emotions of love of your fellow man, and of sacrifice for a group good, locked in your heart for all time? In any event, there you have them, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Vietnam Vets, Grand Cru 1970-71. Let’s have a round of applause for them. Ah, anybody?

From Tears in the Rain (an as yet unpublished manuscript by Rick Whitaker


"'When Kennedy said we would bear any burden, I believed him. I bought it, and I wanted to do what was right. Then when the war was lost, when men I served with were frittered away like low-denomination poker chips in a backroom game, I was angry. But I still believed in what the country had tried to do in Vietnam. That was the box I came home in.'"

Alfred Coppel, A Land of Mirrors, 1988