Vietnam: The Longest War

Let me start by saying I am not a Vietnam Veteran, nor am I an historian or political scientist… but I am a veteran of the Vietnam era who was never shot at, nor did I ever shoot at anyone.   I served in the U.S. Army from February of 1966 to March of 1969, an span that history suggests was at the height of the war and a time in which public sentiment turned against the war.  I should also say that I’m pretty sure I would not be where I am today except for the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is my war.  The war of my generation.  The war that killed and maimed, and psychologically damaged hundreds of thousands of men of my age.  The war that became known as the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of America.  The war that was fought by common men who fought with uncommon valor, and who thought that their sacrifice, their heroism was not only in our national interest, but also a critical element in a larger fight against the spread of communism.  Of course, sadly, they were wrong.

One might think it unusual that I would be writing of Vietnam when Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are dominating current news cycles and presenting serious new challenges for our policy makers and our military.  You’re right, I probably would not be writing this piece if our small town in Northeast Texas were not preparing to host an exhibit of the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I was asked to present a lecture on the history of the Vietnam War as a part of a month-long program honoring Texas Veterans of the War.  My preparations for this lecture stirred long dormant memories and feelings about the War and my small part in it.  I spent a year training to lead men in combat, presumably  in Vietnam and another two years in a classified project to field computer systems to support combat division in the field. Unlike most of my colleagues, my most dangerous assignment was safely navigating happy hour on Friday at the Officer’s Club.  Now all I can do is reflect on the meaning of what happened in a part of the world that few knew about, and even fewer cared about.

Historians would have us believe that the passage of time provides an opportunity to achieve greater clarity and deeper knowledge of important events, but in many ways the Vietnam War is not so far removed.  People are still suffering from damage done to their bodies and their minds by this War.  New information is being unclassified even today.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC wasn’t dedicated until 1982, and it was only in 1995 that the U.S. gave full diplomatic recognition to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  When I visited visited Vietnam in 2010, I was told by a member of the Vietnamese Parliament that the United States was only rated 11th in foreign direct investment in Vietnam.  Billions to fight a war and now only meager investment in their burgeoning free-market economy.  Now, in 2017, we are 7th after the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.  Go figure.  Perhaps, then, this is exactly the right time to look back at the ongoing tragedy of Vietnam, as we are yet again faced with strategic and military decisions for which the consequences will not be known for decades, and the costs will be with us forever.

One of the many oddities of what we call “the Vietnamese War” and the Vietnamese call “the War of American Aggression,” is that it has no beginning.  No official beginning, that is.  I’m tempted to say that at least the antecedent, if not the start, was in 1950 when Truman turned his back on Ho Chi Minh’s entreaties of alliance, and supported instead our friends the French who wanted nothing more than a return to the pre-war colonial domination of Vietnam.  Actually, it was in 1945 that we suffered our first casualty – an OSS officer killed by the Viet Minh.  Others would say the war started in 1955 when Truman established the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V).  Maybe it started when JFK sent the first organized U.S. military force to Vietnam in 1961.  Or did it start on August 7, 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized Lyndon Johnson to use “conventional forces” in pursuit of our objectives in Vietnam.  Certainly the war was well underway when LBJ agreed with General Westmoreland’s request to commit forty-four combat battalions to Vietnam.  I’m not sure that the start date for the war makes much difference now, but the parallels with what has been happening in the Middle East are obvious.

The end date of the war is a little clearer, but not by much.  The Paris Peace Accords, for which negotiations began in 1968, were finally signed by the United States and North Vietnam on January 27, 1973.  Note that the government of South Vietnam did not sign, nor were the Accords ever approved by the U.S. Senate.  Another one of those pesky Executive Agreements that we’re still arguing about.  In June 1973, the Congress did pass the so called Case-Church Amendment, which prohibited further combat operations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The legislation allowed us to continue bombing until August 15, which we did.   On April 29, 1975 two marines serving in the protection detail at the U.S. embassy were killed. On April 30, 1975, one day later, the last Americans left Saigon. You tell me when the war was over.  All of this just to try to get to the alpha and omega of the war.

CAUSES 

It’s a challenge to rationally discuss the cause of a war, when even agreement on when it started is so illusive.  But I must at least try.  Let me give you the punch line first.  As you might have suspected, there is no single cause of the war in Vietnam, but there were major events that contributed to the tragedy.

  1. The failure of French colonialism in Indochina. (1893-1954)
  2. World War II and the rise of Ho Chi Minh
  3. The Cold War, including the pervasive fear of communism, the Theory of Containment, and the so called Domino Theory.

Each of these has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly writings, and no, you will not be burdened here with more of the same.  I will only say that in looking back, what now appears to be irrational fears of communism, and that leading us to a strategy of stopping the spread of communism (Theory of Containment), were the principal villains in the decision to commit our country to a military and economic adventure that ultimately failed at such an  extraordinary cost.  You will be more familiar with the Domino Theory, which held that we must draw the line on communism in Vietnam, or else the whole of Southeast Asia might collapse under the nefarious weight of the commies.

I suspect, but don’t know, of many among us who could extemporaneously define the principle tenets of communism, but those of you of a certain age can certainly call to mind the John Birch Society, and Nikita Khruschev pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations and shouting, “We will bury you!” or words to that effect.  We can also call to mind the witch hunt for communists in the government, the Army/ McCarthy hearings which peaked in the 1950s,  and the blacklisting of artists who might have had “relationships” with some dirty commie organization or person.  Yes, we were afraid of the communists, and their rhetoric and their missiles in Cuba and elsewhere.  We hated the Berlin Wall, which was built by the commies, and what it stood for, and we knew that communism had to be stopped in its tracks.  And we would do whatever it took anywhere in the world, and evidently, regardless of the cost.

So the principle rationale for our “intervention” in Vietnam, as reported in a detailed foreign policy analysis by the American Institute of American History, and validated by every serious look at our strategy, was as follows:

  1. A communist takeover of South Vietnam would open the way to communist expansion elsewhere in Asia.
  2. This, in turn, would cause our allies and our adversaries (read USSR) to question the credibility of the United States’ commitments around the world, and
  3. Would invite further aggression and endanger other U.S. alliances.

So you see, we had to do it.  We had absolutely no choice but to commit the blood and treasure of our Commonwealth to the jungles of Vietnam.  Or did we?  A CIA report on the consequences of losing in Vietnam, published September 12, 1967 (we were already thinking about losing?), was finally declassified in December of 1993, and said in part: “Losing…would not permanently damage the U.S. position in the world by opening the way to a devastating chain of communists takeovers or destroying US credibility….further it would not unduly embolden the USSR to mount new insurgencies.”  

What?  Our own national intelligence service opined in 1967 that losing to the dirty commies in Vietnam really wouldn’t be such a big deal…tactically or strategically?  Yet still we forged ahead anyway  We spent more lives and more money; divided our country into war and anti-war factions; the Chicago convention riots; shooting college students at Kent State, and on and on and on.  All for a war whose rationale was fallacious and whose outcome was so disastrous for so many.  Even Robert McNamara, who some would say was the chief architect of the strategy of “containment,” commented with the benefit of hindsight, “…The ideology of a generation of policy makers and a flawed set of policies, more than anything else, explain why the U.S. intervened in Vietnam and ultimately failed.”  An understatement if I’ve ever heard one.

COSTS 

Oddly, the number crunchers who do so well in other endeavors, don’t seem to prosper in times of war, for the truth is that no one really knows how much the war cost.  Well, maybe it’s not so odd, given that the beginning and end dates of this war is rather a moveable feast.  Believe it or not, I’ve seen estimates of the direct military costs that range from $173 billion to $770 billion.  Hmmm?  Quite a spread, wouldn’t you say.  The indirect cost estimates range from $250 billion to $1 trillion.  Who knows what the bean counters put in the indirect pot, but I know for sure what they don’t include.  They didn’t include my brother Craig, who died thirty years after cessation of hostilities from a failed liver transplant necessitated by cirrhosis of the liver.  I’m no doc, but even I can trace his failed liver to the alcoholism and dope addition he brought home with him from eleven months in-country.  Btw, the numbers above are U.S. costs only.  Who knows what the costs were for our allies, much less our enemies.  We surely need another indirect cost category that would input all the lives lost and damaged in the war.  I’ll give you the particulars below, but suffice it to say that these costs, to me, are incalculable.  To put a number on it would be, well, so horrible that I can’t even contemplate it.  So I’ll not even try, but I will remind you of my friend, bunkmate and comrade-in-arms, Charlie Grizzle, about whom  I wrote in a previous blog entitled http://garyjfernandes.com/in-memoriam.

In short, Charlie was one of those people that you just knew would succeed at anything he did.  But Charlie was killed less than sixty days after he joined the 5th Mechanized Infantry in Vietnam.  Sadly, we will never know what he would have done in the life he did not lead.    There is clearly a cost to our society in his death, but I don’t know how to put a monetary value on it.

CONSEQUENCES

These run from the general to the very specific.  Let me give you a few you might not have thought of:  the draft was replaced with an all volunteer military; the voting age was reduced to eighteen; the War Powers Act was adopted; the monetary cost and related debt of the war initiated a cycle of inflation that plagued our economy; the morale of the military plummeted; our foreign policy tilted toward nationalism and isolationism; the Democratic party was split and its effectiveness undermined; Nixon was elected, leading ultimately to Watergate; the liberal reforms of the Great Society were weakened; trust in government institutions reached a nadir; and the massacre at My Lai and other acts committed in the name of war diminished the moral superiority of the U.S.  I’m sure you could think of others.  All of this before we even get to the KIAs, wounded, missing,   those with PTSD, agent orange victims, drug addicts, and those who suffered and still suffer from a potpourri of emotional and mental distress.  Not a pretty list to be sure.

The death toll of U.S. citizens in all our wars is difficult to contemplate, and toll of deaths related directly to combat in Vietnam is only fourth in a long list behind the Civil War, WWII, WWI, and just in front of the Korean War.  But for deaths related to a failed foreign policy to contain communism, and authorized by legislation relating to a fake event called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,  the Vietnam War is the leader by far.  Pinning down the exact number of deaths is surprisingly difficult.  Should the death toll include “friendly fire” deaths (yes), suicides (no), training deaths in-country (yes), training deaths in the U.S. (no), ex post facto deaths, i.e. agent orange or other war-related wounds (no).  You see what I mean.  The Vietnam Memorial has 58,315 names etched on its granite face today, but it started with 58,191.  Another reputable source puts the number killed in Vietnam at 58,520.  And that’s just deaths for United States military.  We also suffered 303,640 wounded, of which 74,000 became quadriplegics or double amputees.  If you were to add the 6,000 or so of our allies that were killed, the military deaths of the Republic of Vietnam, Viet Cong and North Vietnam, and then topped it off with the Vietnamese civilians who died, you get pretty quickly to about 2,000,000 men, women and children who died as direct result of the war.

Was it worth it?  Of course, not.  Today, if you were of a mind and had some loose change or an unlimited credit card, you could  buy some fake or authentic Louis Vuitton luggage or a Mercedes Benz sedan in Ho Chi Minh City or even in Hanoi.  Or you could stay at a globally-competitive five-star resort at Hoi An or Nha Trang, or Danang…all of which were scenes of fierce combat not that long ago.  I looks much like the invisible hand of capitalism at work.  Is this what we spent our precious blood and treasure for?

So much for containing Communism.

N.B. I was in Washington, DC last week for a board meeting and was rewarded with a free morning.  After a trip to the Apple store in Georgetown to get yet another iWatch charging cable, I was drawn again to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  I was early so I didn’t have much competition in finding the wall location of several of my friends.  As I stood in silent sadness, a veteran volunteer approached me and asked if I needed help.  I tried to speak, but couldn’t.  He put his arm around my shoulder and shared my grief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evil by Any Name

Al-dawla al-islamiya fi al-iraq wa al-sham.  There you have it.  This is the full name  (in arabic) of the group that is currently terrorizing large swaths of Iraq and Syria by using inhuman terror techniques more familiar to the middle ages.  They also have a significant number of the citizens of the civilized world shaking in their boots and shaking their fists clamoring for retribution and then destruction.

As I previously opined in a piece about the former dictator of Libya, Muammar Khadaffi, it’s nigh well impossible to focus on an enemy if you can’t agree on a name for the evil.  Let’s see,  Obama and his crowd insist on referring to them by the acronym ISIL which stands for The Islamic Sate in Iraq and the Levant, and there’s some support for that naming convention in that the arabic “al-sham” evidently most correctly translates  to  “The Levant”.  The fourth estate, at least in the western world, insist on using ISIS or The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and there is also some logic to this as they are doing most of their current damage in Iraq and hide out in Syria.  One hold-out of the pen and ink crowd is the Associated Press which eschews any high fallutin’ name as giving them too much credit for the sicko, killer, creeps they are and merely refers to them as “Islamic militants”. I rather like that terminology, but I would substitute terrorists for militants; unfortunately, in retrospect, “Islamic terrorists” is already pretty overworked.  They themselves, likely after having consulted with a good public relations outfit somewhere in The Levant, have been referring to themselves in their tweets and blog posts simply as The Islamic State.  You can probably see why.

After several hours of frustrating research, I determined that if we were going to have these guys as public enemy number one, I would have to take it on myself to straighten this naming mess out, because I want to get rid of these murdering bas*@#ds.

I’ve ruled out the Obama construction of ISIL for many reasons, not the least of which is that no one, and I mean no one, knows who or what or where The Levant is.  One possible meaning of levant is that it is the present participle of the french irregular verb lever to rise.  Translated to the King’s english it would mean “rising” or if you added the article “le” to it-the rising.  Nah.  I don’t think that’s it. Our government types don’t learn French anymore.  If it’s referring to a place, well, it’s a poor choice because almost no one knows where it is, and if they think they know they’re wrong.  One, usually impeccable source identifies it as “the eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt”.  I know the Med, but Littoral and Anatolia goes for naught.  This definition goes on to say that “it includes Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Aleppo Vilaytel”.  See what I mean. Cyprus for chris sakes.  I dug deeper.  Another usually definitive source said that it is an area, “bounded by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the West, the northern Arabian desert to the South and Upper Mesopotemia to the east.  Does that help?  Ever been to the Four Seasons Mesopotemia.  Of course not.  ISIL is another case of the Obamaites being too particular about the facts, getting caught up in the details of things, and missing the big picture.  Many of the pundit class say they use it because it implies that the threat goes beyond Iraq and Syria.  I agree with that, but it gets a little fuzzy when you throw in Upper Mesopotemia.

ISIS won’t work because it’s just too confusing.  First of all Isis, as you all know, is the name of the Egyptian goddess who is the offspring of Nut, the Goddess of the Sky and Geb the God of the Earth who then married her own brother Osiris.  This Eqyptian god and goddess stuff get pretty kinky.  So you can see why CNN and the New York Times have made a really big mistake insisting on using ISIS to refer to this particular group of murdering thugs.   In addition Isis is also a perfectly good, and fairly common name of certain of the fairer sex including one Isis Martinez of Miami who has started an on-line  campaign to keep the news media from corrupting an old and honorable name.

I would never go for The Islamic State as the bad guys would really prefer if only because that’s what, after consulting with some PR types, they seem to prefer.  Seems to me we have plenty of Islamic States already, that is, those sovereign states which have adopted a theocratic basis for their governance.  Even most of this crowd are, apparently, joining up with us to get in on the destruction of these  pretenders to Islam who murder indiscriminately any who gets in their way.

That leaves us, then, with only the AP appellation of Islamic militants, but that just doesn’t get it for me.  It’s overly broad, overly used and doesn’t convey the heinous nature of what they do and how they are doing it.  I’m open to suggestions, but in the interim, I propose, PIMIPIS&OPifWLT.  It’s a little long and unwieldy, but I think it says it all.  Perverted Islamic Murderers of Innocent Peoples in Iraq and Syria and Other Places if We Let Them.

I’m still open to suggestions.

 

 

 

 

The Father I Didn’t Know

My father died on the day my first grandchild was born.  His death and her birth are all of a piece.

He had always been in my life, but I didn’t know him well, at least not as a son should know a father.  Throughout most of my adult life I more or less ignored him.  Of course, I did the obligatory things that one does, but with little interest or feeling.  His gentle nature and lack of apparent drive or ambition had caused me to conclude that he was, at his core, a weak person.  I, on the other hand, had already achieved things that he could never understand (or so I thought).  We had no basis to relate, except that biology and my mother had conspired to create me as his son, and we had, for a relatively short time, shared the same roof.  We had no common language or frame of reference, thus no basis for real understanding.

It was not always so.  I remember him teaching me to tie a fishing knot.  He could build a fire, set a trot line, and clean the fish we caught.  We shared his Saturday tradition of sardines and crackers, cheese and salami, and pickled sausages.  He taught me a proper batting stance and how to put topspin on my ping-pong serve.  He coached my Little League teams, and cheered my wins and losses on the basketball court.  He gave my friend Hollis a spare pair of football cleats when he showed up for practice in cowboy boots.  He integrated our youth baseball team when integration was not “appropriate.”
I admired his Army Air Force uniform with all its stripes.  I played with his service medals and wondered how he got them.  I asked how much money he made.  He said, “I take home a little over $100.00 a week.”  Wow, I thought.  So much money. The world and a father seen through the eyes of a child.

It didn’t last.  I began to notice other things.  Our house was a lot smaller than those of my friends.  We had one car that had clearly seen better days. Dad worked weekends and some nights as a fill-in butcher at the local supermarket.  He no longer came to my games.  He had given up, I think, trying to hold my mother in check.  Her reach always exceeded his grasp.  Sometime during my second year in college, he called me.  I was surprised, because at that point we hardly ever talked.  He said that he and my mother were “having problems” and probably they wouldn’t make it.  I wasn’t entirely clear on what he meant, but I didn’t pursue it.  I didn’t care.

I graduated college, married, started a career, and ultimately a family while my dad searched for a way forward.  He tried insurance for a while; then he was a handy man for an apartment complex.  He sold mattresses but couldn’t pay his bills.  I became a corporate executive.  How could I, I mused, have come from his seed?

He became ill.  Another sign of weakness, perhaps.  Glaucoma.  Colon cancer.  He was not going to make it much longer. I visited him in the nursing care section of the assisted living center that I paid for.  I tried to think of something to say that would make a difference to him now.  I said, “ Dad, you have lived a good and full life; you should have no regrets.  You have remained true to your wife of more than fifty years.  You have raised three children to be able to live on their own.  You should have no regrets.”  He said, with the emotion that can only come near death, “I should have done more for my children.”

I went to New York the next day to be with my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter to be, and he died.  I returned for the funeral and, in fact, gave a eulogy to the small audience that attended.  I sketched in the basic facts of his life, mentioned his service career, about which I knew little, and made the point that everyone who knew him thought that him to be a “very nice” man.  It wasn’t my best effort, and he deserved better from me.  Some years after his death, and with my mother’s health in further decline, she gave me a box of materials.  She said, “I want you to have these things of your father’s.  They are all that is left of him.”  I took them without reply, not knowing what to say.  At home, in a quiet moment, I shuffled through the papers and other odds and ends, and picked out his flight wings, thinking to have them framed for my office. Having done that, I lost interest again.  Perhaps I thought my duty of remembrance complete.

From time to time, I was drawn back to the box of my father’s memorabilia.  I visited my mother just before her death, and she gave me an old photo album which contained faded photos from before their marriage and the war years until about my second birthday.  Among these photos were some of him with other airmen in various flight uniforms.  Beneath the photos were hand-lettered captions, “Corsica, Sardinia, France.”  It was, finally, these few photos that ignited my curiosity and caused me to resolve to learn more about this man, my father, about whom I knew so little.

He was the youngest son in a family of six siblings composed of two older brothers and three older sisters.  His father died of a heart attack when he was 9, and subsequently he was nurtured by his mother and older sisters who doted on their baby brother.  His mother was of the genre of mothers that required lace doilies on every overstuffed chair in the very formal living room, demanded that everyone eat oatmeal every morning, and insisted that her sons wear short pants to school long beyond the time at in which they were comfortable doing so.  My father, and presumably all his siblings, were inculcated with a moral code rooted in the Catholic church, but based on the view that “what people thought of you” was, in fact, your reality.  Behavior was certainly based, in part, on what was right and wrong, but was more heavily influenced on what others might think of you.

Dad’s next older brother, Al, was two years ahead of him in school and set a high (maybe impossibly so) standard by which his siblings naturally compared themselves.  Al was a school hero in sports; basketball and baseball in particular.  He averaged over twenty points a game in an era when the team total rarely exceeded thirty points.  Dad, however, evidently did not shy away from the comparison.  He also played basketball, baseball and was a pole-vaulter on the track team.  Little of the emerging profile that I uncovered by digging through old newspaper archives squared with my knowledge or perception of my father.  Pole-vaulting?  My father?

In his senior year (1939/1940) he was listed on the team roster at five feet seven inches.  It didn’t list his weight, but he couldn’t have been much north of a hundred pounds.  In fact, the local sportswriters had a tendency to refer to him in their colorful game accounts as the “tiny” Arthur Fernandez, and more than once as Arthur Fernandez, the “little guard” with a good set shot.  I don’t know how many points he averaged per game, but I found more than one account of his propensity to shoot and score.  Wow, my father, the basketball gunner.  I also found one of his report cards from high school and noted that he was an average but inconsistent student.  He received straight A’s in citizenship though.  Not surprising.  So I had added a bit more to an emerging profile.  The youngest in a large family with no father.  Mothered excessively by the women in his family.  Required to “keep up appearances” in the community.  An older brother that he idolized and who cast a long shadow by his achievements.  From all of this, my father seemed to emerge largely unscathed as his own person.  I imagine him as a smallish youngster who had enough grit enough to want to make it on his own, and after a fashion, he succeeded.

He graduated high school in May and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in June of 1940.  He and his brother Al enlisted together.  His oldest brother, Joe, was already in the Army where he would spend much of his service in Burma.  Although Dad had only just removed his graduation robes, Al already had two years of junior college playing basketball and professional baseball.  I don’t know if they were motivated by patriotism and the darkening war clouds in Europe, if he couldn’t figure out what to do next, or if he merely wanted to get away from home and all the doting.  He received his early training at several camps in Texas, winding up assigned to Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas.  It was there he met, and after a courtship expedited by the war, married my mother, Mattie Lee Williams.  He completed his flight engineer and gunnery training in Harlingen, Texas and left for Avon Park, Florida for his final crew training on the relatively new medium tactical bomber, the B26 Marauder.  He suffered one training crash which critically injured two of his fellow crew members, but the crash did not delay his assignment to the 441st Squadron of the 320th Bombardment Group in Decimomannu, Sardinia.  All of this must have been a steep learning curve for a young man who had never been out of Texas until he zipped up a flight suit for crew training in Florida for a couple of months before.

Over the next eleven months and twenty days he slept and shivered in tents pitched in the remote villages in Sardinia and France while waiting for his next mission.  When he first arrived with the 320th, the protocol was that any crew member completing twenty five missions would rotate back to the United States.  When he reached twenty five, they raised it to thirty.  When he reached thirty, they raised it again.   He began to think he would never make it home.  While the casualty/loss rates were not as high for the B26 units as they were for the large strategic bombers, it was not unusual to lose a plane or two on a mission.  He flew sixty four missions before his unit was deactivated.  He was awarded five Air Medals (more correctly one Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters) for his conduct during combat and two unit citations for his unit’s contribution to the Allied war effort.  I read the actual mission reports of the five missions for which he received Air Medals.  They were written in a language that I could understand but couldn’t relate to.

I’ve tried to imagine a twenty two year old version of my father suited up in a bulky fleece-lined flight suit, cradling a .50 caliber Browning M2 machine gun that fired seven hundred fifty rounds per minute and weighed more than he did, waiting to mount his B26 and assume his position as a waist gunner for another mission from which he might not return.  I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine it even in the face of the evidence.

My mental picture of my father is of a smallish man who didn’t smile very much.  He was overly concerned (to my way of thinking) of what others thought of him and those he loved.  He was a diligent and reliable worker who was depended on by his superiors but never received the recognition or rewards that he probably deserved.  He avoided confrontation to a fault, even with my mother, who wore him down over the years.  He was a sensitive man who wore his feelings on his sleeves, yet he was always willing to do for others what he could not or would not do for himself.  He would never put himself before others.  At least that was what I thought I knew of him.  Now I know more, and it doesn’t describe the whole man.  Yes he was physically small, but he had grit that I didn’t know about.  He escaped the clutches of a household dominated by his mother and older sisters and succeeded in the classroom and in athletics. He could have huddled safely in the shadow of his older brother, but he did not.  He succeeded on his own as a basketball player, on the baseball field, and even as a pole-vaulter on the track field.  He left home as soon as he could by joining the Army Air Force to see the world and serve his country.  He met, wooed and married a beautiful young girl, and he drank and danced at the local honky-tonks while he trained to fight in the war.  He fought in the war as others of his generation did.  He did his duty and he did it with honor and courage.  He saw friends die, and he killed an enemy who was trying to kill him.  At last, he came home to safety, but to an uncertain future with the responsibilities of a father and a husband.  Fifty-one years later, he died wishing only that he could have done more for his family.

I don’t know why I didn’t know these things about him when he was alive.  I don’t know why I never talked to him about his life.  If I could talk to him now, with what I now know, I would ask him to tell me his war stories, and I would ask him if he was ever afraid of getting shot down.  I would ask him if he and his brother Al were ever on the same team and how many points he averaged his senior year and what his batting average was.  I would question him on why he didn’t go to college and why he got married knowing that he was going to a war from which he might not return.  I would ask him how difficult it was growing up without a father and with a mother and three sisters always looking over his shoulder.  I would ask him why he joined the Army Air Force and not the Navy or the Marines.  I would let him tell me what it was like in Victoria, Texas in the 30’s.

Of course, I cannot now know the answers to these questions.  I will not have the benefit of the conversations we never had, but, at least,  I see him more clearly now.  I think I would really have liked him.

 

First published January 15, 2011

 

In Memoriam

I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day celebration in the small town near our ranch.  I guess they had gotten the word that I was an easy mark when there was a podium and a microphone involved.  For reasons unclear to me at the time, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to accept.  I’m sure they weren’t looking for much.  A few words in memory of those members of America’s military who had sacrificed in our behalf and in celebration of those who still served. No jokes, no pithy stories.  Just a few words to make people feel a little better.

Before making my decision, I spent more than a little time trying to figure out what I would say and how I would say it.  It isn’t the kind of occasion that one would want to just wing it.  It shouldn’t have been tough in that it’s a rich field, sad to say.  It’s a sad commentary on the nature of human kind when there is so much material so close at hand about America’s wars and those who have served and suffered.

I tried to recollect the names of America’s wars, and did a pretty good job only omitting (of all things) our war with Mexico in 1846.  In all I recounted twelve “official” wars, and this I verified with the knower of all knowledge, the internet.  I was momentarily deflected from my deliberations by trying to determine some standard by which one could determine a war to be “official”, because my list of twelve left out such bloody altercations as the Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902) and the Barbary Wars (1800-1815), and the French-Indian War 1775-1783.  As it turns out, there is no official standard for official wars.  They are only official if we think they are and history agrees.

No, I’m not going to make you look them up. They are:  RevolutionaryWar, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War ( or War Between the States, if you prefer) Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm (Kuwait), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afganistan), and finally, but probably not last, Iraqi Freedom.  I’m not kidding about the last three names.  That is how they are “officially referred to. In numerical terms that is on average one war every 19.3 years.  Otherwise said, if one lives to a reasonable four score, one should have the opportunity to participate in or observe four wars.  To complete the tale of the tape, we’ve suffered 1,007,831 deaths and 1,456,093 wounded in these wars not to mention the pain and suffering of untold millions otherwise affected.

When I processed these data in the context of formulating some remarks for the citizens of our town, I found that the numbers were both too large and too impersonal to have an impact on me or those assembled to receive my  clever remarks.  So I thought of Wendy.

Charles, “Wendy” Grizzle was my cube mate at the Infantry School, Ft. Benning, Georgia.  We were thrown together in the random manner that the military has perfected.  We were soldiers of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion preparing for our gold bars and war in Vietnam.  I was a most reluctant soldier, and perhaps Wendy was as well, but he never showed it or never said it.  It was as if he had been born to do this.  The facts were that Wendy was from a small town in Indiana, had had a lackluster academic career, graduating from high school with a slightly better than C average.  But Wendy was the go to guy for everyone that knew him.  When there was a problem, Wendy solved it.  When there was a dispute, Wendy resolved it.  When a decision had to be made, Wendy guided the group to the right decision.  In short, Wendy was a natural born leader.

Upon graduation from high school, Wendy went to work on the assembly line at the nearby GM plant, and within three years had been selected by his fellow workers as their union representative, verifying once again that Wendy was an acknowledged leader.  And along the way, he married his high school sweetheart. Life looked good to Wendy, and he and his wife had resolved to start a family the next year when they thought they could afford it.  Secretary of Defense, McNamara, thought otherwise.  Wendy’s draft notice was followed by his decision to volunteer for Infantry Officer Candidate School even though it meant another year of service and almost certain assignment to Vietnam.  Wendy thought, “it was the right thing to do.”  They also decided to wait on starting a family.

1st Platoon was the “honor” platoon for our company, meaning that we screwed up less than the others.  For that, we got space on the 1st floor.  I was platoon leader and Wendy was platoon 1st sergeant, which meant we got the cubicle just inside the door and that we had to keep our floor spit shinned to a high gloss at all times with all our gear in perfect order.  Spit shinning floors was not my gig, I didn’t even like to shine my belt buckle, but Wendy did.  And he drug me along with him.  He got me to do things that I would not have otherwise done, and do them at a level of quality that seemed senseless to me but made Wendy and the tactical officers very happy.  As a result, Wendy and I had it about as good as one could have it with four hours of sleep per night, and crawling through mud and over concertina wire by day.

We talked about our wives and about the future.  We talked about our chances of getting assignments in Germany rather than Vietnam.  We talked about the burden of being responsible for other people’s lives, and we wondered if we would be really prepared for what was surely to come.  We didn’t talk about the possibility of death, because we were young and we were soldiers.  It wasn’t in our frame of reference, although every one of our instructors at the Benning School for Boys told us in no uncertain terms in every class segment, “learn this well, or you will die in Viet Nam.  How little did we know how right they were.

The night we pinned on our gold 2nd Lt’s bars, we celebrated with our wives.  Wendy was looking forward to his assignment with the 5th Mechanized Infantry in Ft. Carson, Colorado, and I was reveling in my transfer out of the Infantry and into the more civilized and safer environs of the Adjutant General Corps.  We promised to stay in touch and to get together after we got out two years hence.

Three months later I was at Ft. Hood, and Wendy was dead.  Wendy’s unit of the 5th had shipped to Vietnam almost exactly ninety days after he arrived for more unit training. He stepped on an anti-personnel mine after a short time in country.  I’m sure he was leading his platoon they way he had been taught.

I was living in Washington, DC when the political acrimony finally burned itself out and work was begun on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, but I didn’t have the courage to visit it for several more years after its dedication in 1992.  When I finally walked down the Mall to the sleek black granite walls etched with 58,159 names and ran my fingers across the letters of Wendy’s name, an overwhelming grief almost suffocated me.  I thought of Wendy and the life he did not live, the children unborn, a loving wife left to find her way alone, his parents knowing that a part of them could never be repaired, his friends missing the solace of his company, his community not receiving the benefit of his contribution, and his colleagues in arms who would not have his leadership.  A Memorial volunteer approached me and put his arm around my shoulder, saying nothing, but sharing my grief.

Of course there are many who suffered more loss than I.  And off course, there have been many more like Wendy through the ages.  If my numbers are right, 1,007,831, to be exact.  I’m not big enough nor do I know how to grieve them all this Memorial Day, but I can grieve Wendy, and I can honor abstractly the memory of the others.

So I won’t be speaking at the park in Honey Grove tomorrow.  I just don’t think I could do it. I will remember and honor in my own way.  I will enjoy the presence and the love of my family and our time together.  Time that Wendy did not have.