Skip to comments.Heroes of the Vietnam Generation("Mr.Brokaw,Mr.Matthews,Mr.Bennett,Mr.Spielberg,Meet My Marines")
Posted on 06/01/2005 8:10:13 AM PDT by fight_truth_decay
The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from the leading lights of the so-called 60s generation. Tom Brokaw has published two oral histories of The Greatest Generation that feature ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct was historically unique.
Chris Matthews of Hardball is fond of writing columns praising the Navy service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for its alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a startling condescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago comparing the heroism of the D-Day Generation to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the Woodstock Generation. And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film Saving Private Ryan, was careful to justify his portrayals of soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.
An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which todays most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The best and brightest of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse to remember.
Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the generation gap. Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through the magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the Depression and fought the largest war in history were looked down upon as shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.
Those of us who grew up, on the other side of the picket line from that eras counter-culture cant help but feel a little leery of this sudden gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old counter-culture. Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from the dubious assumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a unified generation in the same sense as their parents were, and thus are capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.
In truth, the Vietnam generation is a misnomer. Those who came of age during that war are permanently divided by different reactions to a whole range of counter-cultural agendas, and nothing divides them more deeply than the personal ramifications of the war itself. The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance, or protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.
Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. The men who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. They honored their fathers service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their fathers wisdom in attempting to stop Communisms reach in Southeast Asia.
The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91 percent were glad theyd served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win. And most importantly, the castigation they received upon returning home was not from the World War II generation, but from the very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.
Nine million men served in the military during Vietnam War, three million of whom went to the Vietnam Theater. Contrary to popular mythology, two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were volunteers. While some attention has been paid recently to the plight of our prisoners of war, most of whom were pilots; there has been little recognition of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the ground.
Dropped onto the enemys terrain 12,000 miles away from home, Americas citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompletely on a tactical level should consider Hanois recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to 58,000 total U.S. dead.
Those who believe that it was a dirty little war where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that is was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought-five times as many dead as World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all of World War II.
Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam. The baby-boom generation had cracked apart along class lines as Americas young men were making difficult, life-or-death choices about serving. The better academic institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest against the war, with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princeton lost six, at MIT two. The media turned ever more hostile. And frequently the reward for a young mans having gone through the trauma of combat was to be greeted by his peers with studied indifference of outright hostility.
What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war and possible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and professional lives at their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, not for fame of reward, not for place of for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it. Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with an often-contagious élan. And who deserve a far better place in history than that now offered them by the so-called spokesman of our so-called generation.
Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines. 1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill, as well as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showing pictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home, it was the year of Woodstock, and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was seized upon the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the war. Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation.
Richard Nixon entered the scene, destined for an even worse fate. In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment was in its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is an unpredictable and inexact environment, but we were well led. As a rifle platoon and company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The company commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam, or young first lieutenants like myself who were given companies after many months of bush time as platoon commanders in the Basins tough and unforgiving environs.
The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn, cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the mountains just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In the valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were 80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridgelines and paddy dikes were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from a hand grenade to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in the rice paddies and tree lines like individual fortresses, crisscrossed with the trenches and spider holes, their homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from large-caliber artillery shells. The Viet Cong infrastructure was intricate and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, villagers who did not side with the Communists had either been killed or driven out to the government controlled enclaves near Danang.
In the rifle companies, we spent the endless months patrolling ridgelines and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire, hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside ones pack, which after a few humps usually boiled down to letter-writing material, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio.
We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear, causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and when it rained we usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos shined under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful, never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we mixed daytime patrolling with night-time ambushes, listening posts, foxhole duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were common, as was trench foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five days, where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned defensive bunkers at night. Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock, or camping at the Vineyard during summer break.
We had been told while training that Marine officers in the rifle companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the experience of Dying Delta, as our company was known, bore that out. Of the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded, the weapons platoon commander wounded, the first platoon commander was killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding the third platoons fared no better. Two of my original three-squad leaders were killed, and the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely wounded, as was my right guide. By the time I left, my platoon I had gone through six radio operators, five of them casualties.
These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many other units; for instance, those who fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or were with the famed Walking Dead of the Ninth Marine Regiment, or were in the battle of Hue City or at Dai Do, had it far worse.
When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in hell and he return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of war but of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities, and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green 19-year-olds the intricate lessons of the hostile battlefield. The unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed help. Their willingness to risk their lives to save other Marines in peril. To this day it stuns me that their own countrymen have so completely missed the story of their service, lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.
Like every military unit throughout history we had occasional laggards, cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate, these Marines were the finest people I have ever been around. It has been my privilege to keep up with many of them over the years since we all came home. One finds in them very little bitterness about the war in which they fought. The most common regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able to do more for each other and for the people they came to help.
It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men. Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism, such valor epitomizes the conduct of Americans at war from the first days of our existence. That the boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in our fathers generation alone constitutes a conscious, continuing travesty.
Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star medals for heroism as a Marine in Vietnam. His novels include The Emperors General and Fields of Fire.
Yes, it amuses me to hear them now. In the 60's these same people were throwing off on "The Greatest Generation" for their hard work to build an American society of family and faith. And set out to destroy the values these men and women represented. What hypocrits.
Interesting article..he is completely correct, yet also completely wrong. The folly of the way the Vietnam war was fought is best illustrated by the pictures of LBJ and McNamara reviewing recon photes and deciding which targets to bomb. Remember? And allowing Soviet ships to unload SAMs in Haiphong harbor, without bombing them..when in a few days they would be fired at our pilots as they made bombign raids in the north. Remember? Probably 40K of those killed died unnecessarily, fed into the meatgrinder of war, piecemeal..instead of one decisive push. You fight wars to win..not to achieve a stalemate. And the vast majority of those troops performed valiantly. YET ALL DURING THE WAR, NOT ONE SENIOR OFFICER RESIGNED IN PROTEST AT THE MANNER IN WHICH THE CIVILIAN COMMAND WAS FIGHTING THE BATTLE, AND SACRIFICING TROOPS NEEDLESSLY. THEY ALL PREFERRED TO KEEP THEIR RICE BOWL, THEIR PERKS, AND GET THEIR TICKETS PUNCHED FOR HIGHER SLOTS...THEY COMMITED THE GRAVEST SIN ANY OFFICER CAN..THEY SOLD OUT THEIR TROOPS.
I treasure the Navy Achievement Medal certificate that this man signed. He was the real deal SecNav. I recieved higher awards, but none more meaningful than the one with his name.
I think Sec. Webb's points were that:
1. The WW2 Generation was in positions of power during the Vietnam War. Politicians from that generation were calling the shots, politically & militarily.
2. His second point -- the one that you seemed to have missed -- was that most of those who served in Vietnam actually agreed with the WW2 Generation (their parents, basically). I was a tad too young for Vietnam, but I personally have found this to be true among those who did serve there.
LBJ & his defense secretary were using the Korean War as the model for prosecuting the Vietnam War. In hindsight, we see that this was wrong. Perhaps a more insightful president might have noticed it at the time. LBJ did not.
If ever a man was more aptly named than Robert STRANGE McNamara, I do not know who it is..
No argument..my comments were directed at SENIOR officers..flag rank..that was thee travesty of the war..
My word, what superb writing and thoughts.
It is ashame that this will not be seen in schools across America. It is too truthful and heartfelt. Now THAT is a tragedy.
I saw a lot of these men cruise through Washington, DC this past weekend on their Harleys. Great, big, tough-looking guys with hearts as big as all outdoors, standing in front of the wall, heads down and weeping for their "buddies". It breaks your heart to see this, but their sacrifice, all of them, continues to make America a good and decent place to live in and to fight for.
Good work By Mr. Webb. My thanks to Gen. Brown for sending it.
I heard a war story from a reliable source who flew over 100 missions over the north! On this particular mission a strike was planned against a North Vietnamese steel plant. Since Mig Airfields were off limits the tactical plan was for the F-105 squadron to drop their bombs and drop to low level where they would exit the area by flying over the airfield. They would go to after burner to shake things up! The expectation was the AA guys would be asleep at the wheel since the field was "off limits". The last F-105 was flown by the newest squadron guy. As he came upon the airfield a Mig was accelerating down the runway. In that split second he had the Mig in his sights. He was a fighter pilot so he squeezed the trigger. The Mig went up in a magnificent explosion and when the pilot returned to U Tapoa, (sic), he claimed a Mig shot down.
He was called into the Commander's office and told that a review of his gun camera film showed that his bullets had struck the Mig's belly tank but that the landing gear was still on the runway, which violated rules of engagement. The options were simple. Change his post mission statement and the film would disappear. Press his claim and face courts martial for violating rules of engagement!
We should have plastered the Mig airfields, mined Haiphong Harbour and bombed Hanoi in 1966 and it would have been over in 1966!
MacNamara's book alludes to these policy blunders and as Defense Chief he could have done something about it but he demurred!
About the only thig I would differ with is your assessment of how JFK would have fought the war, had he lived. Despite his many flaws, he recognizied the need to confront, and stop, Communist expansion.
I agree, and have held and expressed this opinion from the time I was in Vietnam. I remember attending the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial dedication in 1982 and marching by the reviewing stand with Westmoreland standing there and questioning whether he had right to be there. Those of us marching were there not because he had been our leader, but in spite of his leadership. How much more honored he would be today had he laid his stars on Johnson's desk and demanded an end to "the folly of the way the Vietnam war was fought".
The policy was that our F-86 pilots could not cross the Yalu river into Manchuria (where the MiG bases were located). Many times formations of American aircraft were bounced from MiG's forming on the Chinese side of the border. Then the unofficial tactic was to send a pair of F-86's across the Yalu below radar level (so the ATC on our side couldn't see them cross). The Sabres would takeup station over the MiG airfields until the strike package had gone in. Then they'd leave. If any MiG had dared attempt a takeoff, he'd have been dead before he got wheels-up.
This is profoundly true - it is true, as well, of a number of Gulf War vets I've met. One of them told me it was like looking at his old friends through a glass window - and the only people he could talk to about it were other vets.
I am convinced that part of the adulation that the "Greatest Generation" is belatedly receiving is not only compensation for the failings of the anti-war wing of the Vietnam generation, but yet another subtle sneer on the part of that wing's participants on their peers who did serve during and in Vietnam. "You are not worthy." Water off a duck's back by now - they didn't understand then and they choose not to still.
Up to now they didn't have to. But it became a great mystery to many of them why Kerry was so loathed by their counterparts who did serve and why he lost so decisively within that demographic. I see no sign whatever that anyone who rode the antiwar wave to a lucrative career in politics or journalism actually understood that during the election campaign of 2004. To them Webb's article might as well have been written in Greek.
While at Squadron Officers School in 1968 a classmate who had over 100 F-105 sorties over the North told of such "Cowboys" who were doing the same thing. The movie Top Gun suggests that the State Dept would classify those "incursions" and that those involved would fall into the black hole of cover ups!
The Vietnam war was the longest in our nation's history.
1st American advisor was killed on June 08, 1956,
and the last casualties in connection with the war occurred on May 15, 1975, during the Mayaquez incident. Approximately 2.7 million Americans served in the war zone; 300,000 were wounded and approximately 75,000 permanently disabled. Officially there are still 1,991 Americans unaccounted for from SE Asia.
Vietnam was a savage, in your face war where death could and did strike from anywhere with absolutely no warning. The brave young men and women who fought that war paid an awful price of blood, pain and suffering. As it is said: "ALL GAVE SOME ... SOME GAVE ALL"
The Vietnam war was not lost on the battlefield. No American force in ANY other conflict fought with more determination or sheer courage than the Vietnam Veteran. For the first time in our history America sent it's young men and women into a war run by inept politicians who had no grasp of military strategies and no moral will to win. They were led by "top brass" who were concerned mainly with furthering their own careers, most neither understood the nature of the war nor had a clue about the impossible mission with which they'd tasked their soldiers. And the war was reported by a self serving Media who penned stories filled with inaccuracies, deliberate omissions, biased presentations and blatant distorted interpretations because they were more interested in a story than the truth! It can be debated that we should never have fought that war. It can also be argued that the young Americans who fought so courageously, never losing a single major battle, helped in a huge way to WIN THE COLD WAR.
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