Lessons from Vietnam
After I graduated from WestPoint Academy, my father George literally screamed at me when I volunteered for early duty in Vietnam. He never let up on the notion that Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong enemy. I can recall his words like it was yesterday. “Howard, this ain’t our fight! This is the white man’s M-O getting into another country’s business when they’re fighting against themselves! You don’t need to be getting into the middle of this mess. Ain’t a Vietnamese alive who’s done us wrong. Enough is enough!”
Of course I was too headstrong to agree. I listened, but I didn’t agree. His objection to the war, at least in his view, was important and right but Vietnam was just something I had to do.
When I stepped off that transport plane in Vietnam the heat hit me like a blast furnace. The greenery was so glistening it almost hurt my eyes. The strange smell that hit my nostrils I later found out was the stench of death.
The first realization of war came to me two weeks later. It was 2 a.m. and I had been sleeping when someone was yelling outside my tent that a soldier had been shot. The next thing I heard was gunfire – lots of it. Days later I pieced together the story of a Vietnamese woman and her two kids who had been showing up at the camp for some time. For reasons I was unable to decipher the woman suddenly had opened fire on an American GI and shot him in the back. She and her kids tried to run but soldiers on duty had opened fire on them. I mourned for the children but I knew my honeymoon in Vietnam was over.
As James Fallows puts it in his book, More Like Us, “Vietnam was the most blatant class war since the civil war.”
I will go to my grave with this thought – the U.S. did not lose the Vietnam War, South Vietnam did. But let’s be clear, the U.S. lost the respect of its citizens just by being in Vietnam and getting in the middle of a country fighting against itself. Korea all over again. To me Vietnam lacked proper management and execution. I guess I’m in the conventional camp of thinking this way. But if I’m correct, over 58,000 were killed in Vietnam. Of those killed, 61% were younger than 21 years old. One of my buddies from the block was only 20.
Besides the amount of deaths, other atrocities happened while I was in Vietnam, mostly painful memories so I’ll spare you the details. Vietnam taught me about unnecessary death, the need to get home and being the best I can be for whatever reason my best is needed. This is the attitude that got me into the FBI Academy and this is the attitude that also got me through it.
By the way, my father smiled ever so slightly when he attended my FBI Academy graduation.
Talk soon. Peace