The pride and pain I share with veterans is accompanied by another emotion: shame.
Starting in 1968, as I returned home with the troops from my many trips to Vietnam, they and I were exposed to insults that left permanent psychological damage. When we disembarked from the transport planes in San Francisco, we were met by angry mobs that spat on us and called us “butchers” and “baby killers.” I and a lot of the troops returning were already showing the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), and the crowds decrying us exacerbated psychic wounds. We had prosecuted a criminal war. Our pride was turned to dishonor. We were shamed.
For decades, I didn’t speak of my time in Vietnam. My short stories and novels about the war were rejected. I struggled with my PTSI knowing that in the view of the American public, I had participated in a shameful war.
Then, something like five years ago, I was invited to an event called “Welcome Home” for Vietnam veterans. Young people, who hadn’t even been born when Saigon fell, came up to me and said, “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” As I have reported several times in this blog, those words still make me cry.
I and the men who fought by my side can again be proud of our service. Now, 43 years after the fall of Saigon, the days of shame have passed. Our pride is intact.
A reader reacted to yesterday’s blog post, pointing out that in emphasizing the pain that memories of combat inflict, I failed to mention the other feeling that combat veterans share: pride.
He’s right. It’s true that living through combat leaves behind vivid memories of grisly events one has witnessed and participated in. But it’s equally true that combatants come away knowing that they stood their ground in the face of threats to their lives. They were prepared to die for their country. They risked everything to do their duty. That gives them pride.
I share I that pride. I wasn’t a combatant on the battlefield, but I faced mortal danger to provide urgent intelligence to the men fighting for their lives. I stood side by side with the soldiers and Marines. Some were killed in ways so hideous that I still can’t speak of it to this day. But others survived because of the intelligence I was able to deliver.
For me—and I suspect for all combatants—the greatest pride comes from the knowledge that what I did saved the lives of the men fighting next to me. And they were, and still are, my brothers. I know of no bond stronger than the love I felt for the men fighting by my side. And I know of no grief greater than that which comes from watching them die.
I’ve devoted several posts in this blog to the time I spend with veterans and my sense of kinship with them. These men are my brothers in arms. We understand each other in an unspoken way. They share my tortured memories of combat.
I’ve now given my presentation on the fall of Saigon more than sixty times. I’m struck by how people react to it. I recently did it for a group made up primarily of women who had never done military service. They were much more responsive than most of my audiences. They laughed openly at the humor, gasped at the bloody memories, and were visibly moved by those moments that always bring tears to my eyes. And they awarded me with a standing ovation.
When I do the presentations for veterans, the reaction is much quieter. They give me their undivided attention but rarely respond audibly. When I am silent, preparing for or recovering from the telling of a particularly grievous event, the silence in the room is profound. These men know and understand what I’m talking about. Nothing need be said.
Over time, my favorite audiences have been men known for their courage in combat. Typically, they are Marines or Special Forces. I feel with these men the strongest sense of brotherhood. I know that my stories bring up their own memories. They watch me with pain on their faces. They are profoundly silent while I tell of ghastly events. I see in their eyes a shared anguish. They are with me, and I am with them.
Thanks to the veterans in my audiences, I know without being told that I am not alone. I am with my blood brothers.
“Number one,” “number ten,” and “gook” were just the beginning. The GIs used “dinky dow” to mean “crazy.” It’s a corruption of the Vietnamese điên cái đâu (down tone on the last word) which means “crazy.” From “dinky dow” came “dink,” meaning a Vietnamese. Then there was “chop-chop,” meaning “fast,” borrowed from Chinese; “deedee mow,” meaning “hurry” from the Vietanmese đi đi mau which means “to go fast;” “mama-san” and “papa-san,” meaning an older woman or man, borrowed from Japanese; and many others.
The way we Americans used slang to refer to all things Vietnamese during the war said a lot about us. It demonstrates our humor and irreverence and our inborn inclination to see the bright side.
But it also reflects our superiority complex. Our borrowing of pidgin-English terms from Japan, Korea, and China to use with the Vietnamese shows how we failed to distinguish one Asian race from another. And all the terms were demeaning. The Vietnamese, whom we called “the little people,” were assumed to be inferior to us.
My sense is that we Americans need to understand that our racial arrogance and condescension pose real dangers. In Vietnam, for example, we assumed that the North Vietnamese were inferior. President Johnson referred to North Vietnam as a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country,” clearly not competent to win a war against the U.S. In Vietnam, we won every major battle but lost the war.
Have we learned anything from our experience?
The other term I repeatedly heard soldiers and Marines in Vietnam use was the word “gook” to refer to the Vietnamese. The term’s origin goes back to the Korean War.
The words in Korean, mi gook, mean “American.” They are derived from the Chinese mei guo (美國) which also show up in Vietnamese as Mỹ quốc. The first word in all three languages literally means “beautiful,” but it was used to mean “American” because of the similarity in sound to the letter “m” in “American.”
When Koreans came across Americans, they said “mi gook.” That is, “Americans.” The GIs thought they were referring to themselves, meaning “I’m a gook.” To Americans, who tend to think of themselves as superior, Asians, over time, were all the same. They were all gooks.
The way we Americans used “number one,” “number ten,” and “gook” in Vietnam reflects our own sense of our pre-eminence among nations. Our condescension toward Asian races does not reflect well on us.
During my thirteen years of trundling between “the world” (what we called the U.S.) and “in-country” (Vietnam), I worked regularly with army and Marine units on the battlefield. I was under cover as one of them and lived with them and wore their uniforms—slept beside them on the ground, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt next to them, shared their latrines. I heard lots of GI slang during those years. Two examples still make me laugh and wince at the same time.
While talking to the Vietnamese, the soldiers and Marines used “number one” to mean “the best” and “number ten” to mean “the worst.” When I asked them where that terminology originated, they told me they got it from the Vietnamese. I asked the Vietnamese where the terms came from. They told me “from the Americans.”
It’s true that in Vietnamese, the word nhât with a rising tone following a word used as a modifier indicates the superlative. Nhât by itself means “one.” But the words meaning “number one” or “the first,” dê nhât, are never used to mean “the best.” They simply designate the first in a series.
The GI slang term “number one” comes from the time of the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War II. The Japanese do indeed use the term “number one” or “the first” to mean “the best.” In Japanese, it’s Ichiban. But the Japanese do not, as far as I know, use “number ten” to mean “the worst.” That, apparently, was a GI invention. American GIs incorporated both terms into their lingo. Senior non-commissioned officers who learned “number one” and “number ten” from their predecessors began using them in Vietnam in the 1960s with the Vietnamese. Their unconscious assumption was that all Asians are alike and must speak the same way.
In writing here about my three addictions, I said that I was born to write. One of the men I worked with in Saigon, before it fell in 1975, disagreed with me. “You were put there,” he said, “to do what you did for all those years for your country, and most of all for those 43 beings that depended on your good judgment in April 1975.”
He’s referring to the fall of Saigon and my determination to get all 43 of my people and their wives and children safely out of the country. I was able to do that, even though the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my guys and their families. I lied and cheated and stole to be sure that none of them would be killed when the attack came. By the end, there were only three of us left, me and two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end. We escaped under fire as the city fell. As I told that reader, “Had any of you guys died under my watch, I’d still be grieving and blaming myself.”
My sense that I was born to write stays with me. But some things are more important than a life goal. People’s lives are one of those things. I did what I had to do. I had no choice. I couldn’t let my guys or their wives and children be killed. It took everything I had in me to get them out of danger’s way. I’ll always be thankful that I was able to save them and proud that I did it. That’s more important than writing.