Forty years ago I was living in Houston and my then-wife was expecting the first of our three children. On that day, 27 April 1975, I had been back from Việt Nam fifty-four months – four and a half years. It sounds like a long time, but it wasn’t. Today, 27 April 2015, I’ve been back from Việt Nam for forty-four and a half years. That is a long time. Yet, it still isn’t.
When I joined the Army in 1968, I supported the war. That was part of the reason why I enlisted: to help fight my generation’s war. I can conjure up memories from the war, remembering moments and days and people. I remember the soft-faced innocence I possessed upon arriving in Việt Nam in 1969. I remember the first time I experienced hostile gunfire, dead bodies, smiling but untrustworthy foreigners, booby traps, midnight assaults, ambushes.
By the summer of 1970, nine months into my one year tour of duty, I had turned against the war. I had seen too much, done too much, lost too much, to just shut up and carry on until my 365 days were up. But it wasn’t enough to loudly complain or silently suffer with my friends. I had to do something about my opposition; I had to actually, physically oppose the war I said I hated so much.
I did do something. Exactly what I did is a story for another time. I just want to make it clear that I grew to hate the war, and to oppose it while I was still in Việt Nam, as well as during my final year in the Army after returning from Việt Nam.
In light of my beliefs about the war, you would think that on that April day in 1975, three days before the fall of Sài Gòn to the North Vietnamese army, I would’ve been happy that the whole awful, tragic thing was finally almost over. Or, if not happy, at least relieved. But I was neither happy nor relieved.
In the bedroom of the house we were living in at the time, I had a large map of South-East Asia that I had pinned to the wall. On it, I marked the progress of the North Vietnamese offensive that had begun in January 1975 with the capture of the provincial capital of Phuoc Long. Their offensive accelerated with the fall of the much more important, Central Highlands provincial capital of Buôn Ma Thuột on 18 March, and then the capture of Đà Nẵng on 29 March. The area I had been in, Quảng Ngãi province, was around 120 kilometers south of Đà Nẵng, and been taken by the North Vietnamese and Việt Cong a few days before that city fell.
As I write this, I have a sick, hollow feeling in my stomach. It’s the same feeling I have every time I read about the end of the Việt Nam War. It’s the same feeling I had almost exactly one year ago in Việt Nam, when I spent five days on the back of a motorcycle going through the Central Highlands with a veteran of the South Vietnamese Army. We spent one night in Buôn Ma Thuột, on our way north to Quảng Ngãi.
That hollow sickness would come up again if I looked at my map from 1975. I still have the map, but I can’t bear to look at it, because it’s a diagram of failure: a failure of the South Vietnamese Army and South Vietnamese leadership, yes, but a failure by America as well.
The American military had left Việt Nam for good by the end of 1973. Nixon declared victory and we went home. Like so many things having to do with the Việt Nam War, it was a lie. There was no American victory, unless you count as a victory the removal of American military units from the country without a Dunkirk-like retreat and evacuation. Then, in early 1975, with South Việt Nam falling apart, the American government chose to ignore the so-called Paris Peace Accords of 1973, and refused to offer any assistance to a people who had come to depend upon us.
No, I wasn’t happy on 27 April 1975, and I wasn’t relieved. I was sad, and I was angry, just as I am right now, forty years later.
So many people, of all nationalities and ages, died over the course of a thirty year war that began as the French War and morphed into the American War. For what did all those hundreds of thousands of people die, or suffer grievous wounds? Some died for an idea: patriotism, mostly, both Vietnamese and American. The majority, however, died for a lie, or a pack of lies.
The Domino Theory was a lie. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a lie. Body Count was a lie. Freedom in South Việt Nam was a lie, especially if you were a Buddhist or anyone the South Vietnamese National Police decided to question. Pacification and Vietnamization and Winning the Hearts and Minds of the People were all lies. The politicians and four-star generals who led us into and through the war were all shameless liars or, worse yet, clueless fools, blinded by hubris, and by ignorance.
What was not a lie were the men and women and children who died, or were widowed, or orphaned. Also not a lie was, and still is, the PTSD that so many survivors of the war carry around with them, four decades on. It is not a lie that I will never forget that year of my life, even if America would like to forget the only war we lost.
Each line I drew on my wall map in 1975 was a cut, a wound that was reopened and bled, and that continues to bleed. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore, all that blood. We’ve had other wars, fought by other young, patriotic men and women who began with soft-faced innocence; wars which have produced their own widows and orphans, and bearers of PTSD; wars that make me wonder if we’ve really learned anything in the last forty years.
I struggled to find an up-lifting note with which to end this essay, but I could not. Instead, I thought about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. If you stand on the National Mall and look east, you could almost not see that dark gash in the earth. It’s a perfect metaphor for the war, that black wall, filled with names, and almost buried.