Could the U.S. Have Won the Vietnam War? (2)

Following the change of policy under General Abrams, could we have persevered and won in Vietnam? I now believe that we could have achieved victory only by invading North Vietnam and creating huge damage. That probably would have drawn China into the war. It would have turned into World War III. We could have won such a war, but the cost would have been overwhelming. And it would have required enormous damage to North Vietnam, reducing it and its population to a stone-age level of existence. We chose, wisely I believe, not to proceed.

One handicap we faced during the war was that the government of South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem and those who replaced him was inherently autocratic and corrupt. The government had between minimal and no support from the populace.

Whether the U.S. could have reshaped Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is open to question. We did try, without success. But militarily, we thought we were on our way to victory when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame and defeat. Meanwhile, our political leaders concluded privately that the price—World War III and North Vietnam all but destroyed—was not worth the gain. In short, we chose withdrawal and defeat.

That said, if we as a nation have learned nothing else from our failure, let us learn not to abandon the allies who have fought at our side and leave them to the mercy of our joint enemy as we did in Vietnam. We left behind literally hundreds of thousands upon whom the North Vietnamese wreaked vengeance. Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.

Could we have won the war in Vietnam? Yes, at great human cost and with world-scarring destruction. We had the wisdom and decency to accept defeat.

Could the U.S. Have Won the Vietnam War?

I have ruminated several times in this blog on why we Americans lost the Vietnam war. Over the years, I’ve changed my opinion. I now believe that, given the inherent decency of Americans, we could not have won the war.

Until 1968, the U.S. had followed the Westmoreland strategy of search and destroy, assuming that if we killed enough Vietnamese Communists, they would give up. We underestimated the will of North Vietnam to win the war no matter what the cost. Ho Chi Minh had told the French, “It will be a war between and elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges only at night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”

More succinctly he said, “You will kill ten of us, and we will kill one of you, and in the end it is you who will be exhausted.”

When Creighton Abrams took over the command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, he altered the way the U.S. fought to stress working with the population, shifting the focus from body counts to population security, that is, protecting the people from the Communists. He emphasized small unit operations aimed at defending villages and hamlets, forcing the North Vietnamese to attack U.S. forces in places and at times advantageous to the U.S.

Abrams’ approach showed promise. But by then the U.S. population had turned against the war, and, after the peace accords of 1973, Congress eventually stopped even our air support to the South Vietnamese and withheld weapons, supplies, and funds from the South Vietnamese military, assuring that the North Vietnamese would win the war.

More tomorrow.

My Brothers Weigh In

Long ago in this blog, I wrote about the loneliness of men who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) from combat. My thoughts are worth a revisit.

Since I began promoting Last of the Annamese and started this blog, I have been receiving email notes and Facebook postings from other men who served in Vietnam. They have reinforced my memories with stories of their own and, in effect, confirmed for me that others have unspeakable recollections, too.

Sufferers of PTSI from combat invariably go off by themselves because they can’t talk about what they did and what they witnessed. That makes them feel isolated, as if they alone are tortured by monstrous memories. When they find the courage to face their experiences directly, they nearly always go through the maelstrom by themselves, away from their loved ones. On the one hand, they feel shame for what they have done—they are often accused of cowardice and weakness; on the other they don’t want to burden those they care most about. It makes for a lonely life.

So when other men speak to me of the combat they have been through, I come to understand that I am not alone. I am one of a band of brothers. We suffer alone, but we reach out to help each other when we can. I am comforted because I wrote both The Trion Syndrome and Last of the Annamese in part to confront my memories and in part to help others who suffer as I do. Annamese begins with the following dedication:

“This book is dedicated to those who suffered through Vietnam, were jeered and spat upon when they returned to the world, and have yet to be thanked for their service. May our country awaken, recognize your sacrifice, and honor you.”

For decades, any involvement in Vietnam was condemned. I went through many years of keeping my Vietnam experience to myself. But in recent years, the attitude of Americans about the Vietnam war has changed. I’m now more often thanked for my service and welcomed home.

Now I can take pride in my service. And I see that I was never alone.

My brothers, I thank you.

People in the Emergency Waiting Room

Last week I had to take a friend to the emergency room at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia. We were in the waiting room fourteen hours before she was admitted. I had ample opportunity to observe other waiting patients.

They were from all facets of American society except for the rich—I saw no obviously wealthy people but plenty of poor ones. Most looked very ordinary, but two stood out from the others.

One was a woman who talked on her cell phone in a loud voice for literally hours on end. She spoke constantly, not allowing her communicant on the other end time to speak. She discussed intimate details of herself, her family, and friends, sexual relations, and troublesome children. People kept looking at her, but she was so wrapped up in explaining her private affairs that she didn’t seem to notice.

The other was a young man with a damaged face, no shirt, and pants that kept sliding down his hips to reveal his navel and his underwear. He was with a woman who acted as though she was genuinely angry with him. He talked frequently on his cell phone in Spanish interspersed with the English “Okay” and “Now listen to me.” My guess was that he had been in a fight.

My fiction muse went to work on these and others. I imagined what had happened to them, what might have occurred to lead up to the event that put them in the emergency room, and what would happen after they were treated. Turns out the arresting moment that leads to one of my stories doesn’t have to be from my own history. It can come from others.

What Is Courage? (2)

A faithful reader commented on yesterday’s blog about courage pointing out that love lies at the heart of courage (her comment and my response can be accessed from the upper left hand corner of that blog post).

The more I thought about her observation, the more I came to see how it applied to me. What I did to save my 43 subordinates and their wives and children during the fall of Saigon sprang from love.

I loved those men and, by extension, their families. Men are not supposed to love each other. It’s not masculine. It smacks of homosexuality. Notwithstanding, the feelings I bore for those men are among the strongest I have ever felt, similar to those I had for men who fought beside me in combat. The men under my command were among the finest I’ve ever known. We struggled together, working as hard as men have ever worked for anything, to save South Vietnam from the communists. We failed.

They were quite a bunch—everything from PhD’s to high school dropouts. Each was an expert in his field, and the work they did amazed me. Their toil gave me the intelligence I needed to warn the ambassador that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me and forbade me to evacuate them and their families. I did it anyway, using any ruse I could think of. I didn’t tell them about the ambassador’s order. They had enough to worry about. I learned years later that they knew about his prohibition but didn’t let on to me to save me even more stress.

My predecessor as chief of the operation was a martinet who forbade his subordinates to drink and party. He even sent his security man to follow them and spy on them, then disciplined them. When I replaced him, I held an all-hands meeting and told my guys that those days were over. I asked that if they got into trouble to come straight to me. I’d work with them. I didn’t care what they did in their off-hours. I only asked that they do nothing to cause a problem with the embassy.

I never had a single disciplinary problem my whole tour. The guys worked harder than I had any right to expect. Toward the end, they worked nonstop, grabbing what sleep they could in the office. They were as devoted to me as I was to them.

Yes, I would have given up my life to save them. I have no doubt they would have died to save me. Greater love hath no man.

So my reader is right: love is what underlies courage. I lived it. I know.

What Is Courage?

When I first started this blog several years ago, I pondered the question of what courage is. Here’s what I wrote:

When I tell the story of the fall of Saigon, listeners come up to me afterwards and accuse me of having courage. I plead not guilty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courage is facing danger without fear. Believe me, I was scared the whole time.

Men and women I’ve talked to who are, by my standards, heroes for their acts of bravery, often say something similar: all they did was what was required by the circumstances at the time. And I remember reading somewhere long ago a description of a man standing in front of a mirror and watching himself tremble with fear after carrying out an act of bravery and thinking wryly to himself: “This is the portrait of a hero.”

What the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, does at the end of the book could be described as courageous. But he clearly doesn’t see it that way. He’d use words from his friend, Ike: “You do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Looking back on the last days in Saigon, what I remember most vividly is my determination to get all my men and their families out of Saigon safely before the attack on the city started. It took every scrap of strength I had; I didn’t have time to dwell on my fear that I might not make it out. Toward the end, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of ours back in the states and told her to deliver that letter to my wife if I didn’t make it. At the time, I really didn’t see how I was going to get out of Saigon alive. That letter was another thing I had to do, whatever it took. When I made it back to the world [as we referred to the U.S.] alive, the marriage collapsed. I burned the letter unread.

So what is courage? I honestly don’t know. What Chuck and I had doesn’t fit the description. Maybe what drives people to risk their lives is more like determination or focus on a goal of overwhelming importance. Maybe some things are more important staying alive.

Making Fiction Out of Fact (4)

The Trion Syndrome was much more personal than my other books. It’s the story of a Vietnam veteran, like me, with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and how he copes. The inspiration for the book was my imagining what it would be like if I decided I couldn’t stand the irrational rages, nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks and chose to end my life. When the characters of Dave and his wife, Mary, revealed themselves to me, I pondered what they would do faced with the dilemma I was dealing with. The critical moment that led to the book was my imagining Dave trying to drown himself to stop the unbearable memories.

What sparked Last of the Annamese, my most recently published novel, on the other hand, was my memory of the moment of jubilation I had when I knew that all my subordinates and their families were safely out of Saigon as it was falling. After that moment came to me from my memory, I let my mind wander and the three main characters of the book came to life: Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine officer who returns to Vietnam to help win the war because he can’t stand the idea that his son who died in the war had died in vain; Tuyet, a member of the Vietnamese royalty forced to marry a commoner for the good of her family; and South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, the common man Tuyet had married, who cannot tolerate the idea of living under the communists. What would each of these people do faced with the conquest of South Vietnam by the northern communists? They told me what they would do, and I wrote it all down.

The events of Annamese were already firmly in my mind—I had lived them myself. After 1973 when U.S. troops were withdrawn, I was assigned as the chief of the covert NSA operation in South Vietnam.

As it became clear to me that the country was going to fall to the North Vietnamese, I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their wives and children safely out of the country. The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my people—he didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon. I knew better from intercepted North Vietnamese communications. So I used every ruse I could think of to get my people safely out of the country. I had to stay. The ambassador wouldn’t permit me to leave. I succeeded in getting all my people out. Then, the night of 29 April 1975, after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city, I escaped by helicopter under fire.

So the events of the story for Annamese were already there. My job in writing the novel was to put my three principal characters through that string of events and to watch what each of them did.

Hence Tom Glenn’s stories: fiction in name only.