Dak To

Sometime back I wrote here about my experience during the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands. I regularly give a presentation with slides on the battle and my role in it, now that my work in Vietnam has been declassified. In 2017, the New York Times published my article describing the battle and what followed. You can read it at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html

The Dak To story stands out in my memory for two reasons. First, it was one of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam war. More than 2,500 men from both sides were killed. Second, it was a primary example of how the intelligence I was able to offer was ignored on the battlefield. Because to do my job I had to be in the combat zone, I knew some of the kids (they were eighteen and nineteen years old) who were slaughtered. I grieve over them to this day.

I am so often asked why the intelligence I was providing wasn’t believed and wasn’t acted on. I don’t have a factual answer to that question. I can only offer surmisals.

The failure to believe and act on the intelligence I was furnishing was far more common with army commanders than with Marine officers. I know that the Marines were trained to exploit intelligence and knew very well what signals intelligence (SIGINT)—what I was offering them—consisted of and how valuable it could be on the battlefield. The army officers too often were unaware of SIGINT. They didn’t even know it existed. They were disinclined to accept information from a civilian pretending to be one of their troops delivering information from a source they had never heard of. The results, as at Dak To, were sometimes disastrous.

Part of the reason for the army’s ignorance was that the U.S. SIGINT agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), was so successful in maintaining its secrecy. Even NSA’s existence was little known. Many people had never heard of it. Back in those days, employees of NSA never mentioned where they worked. They said only that they were employed by the Department of Defense. Those of us in the know joked that NSA stood for “no such agency.”

More tomorrow.

Presentation on PTSI (2)

Continuing my post of several days ago:

In my attempts to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I even wrote a novel on the subject. The Trion Syndrome is the story of a Vietnam vet and his struggle to come to terms with his memories. The book, in effect, is my own story told as fiction.

Over time, I came to realize that I could help others by speaking publicly about PTSI. I could inform people that PTSI is not a sign of cowardice or weakness. Most important, I could let my brothers in arms know that they are not alone. I could encourage them to take pride in their service, an important way to counter PTSI.

The prospect was daunting. I’ve been giving presentations on my writing and my experiences in Vietnam for many years. But this was different. Now I’d be talking about a deeply personal and private matter, something I instinctively find embarrassing. It feels like putting my dirty laundry on display.

Then, a few weeks ago, United States Post Office brought out a postal stamp with the words “Healing PTSD” above a picture of a plant opening its leaves. The issue was now so public that the U.S. government was commemorating it with a stamp.

I understood that for my own good, I had to overcome my fear and speak out. It would be another way to vent my anxieties. Most important, it could help others.

So I have prepared a presentation with slides on PTSI. I’m already scheduled to do it twice in the next two months. I’ll have to practice it so that I can keep my emotions I check while I talk. That will take some doing.

As I grow older, it becomes more and more apparent to me that my purpose in life is to help others. I now have found one more way to do that, through speaking publicly of my own affliction.

Dialects of Vietnamese

During my thirteen years of wandering around in Vietnam, I encountered many different versions of the Vietnamese language. The hardest to understand was that spoken by foreigners (mostly the French and Australians) and by the Montagnards, members of the mountain tribes who were not Vietnamese and whose native language was unrelated to Vietnamese. But I also had considerable trouble with the dialects of ethnic Vietnamese.

The three principal dialects were the northern, central, and southern. The preferred dialect was the northern. It was considered the most prestigious. Like the New England dialect of American English, the northern dialect of Vietnamese was language of the elite and well-educated. Its pronunciation distinguished carefully the six tones and many variations in vowels and consonants indicated by diacritical marks in the written language. And because all my Vietnamese teachers were well educated, it was the dialect I learned.

The southern dialect, like southern English in the United States, was spoken more slowly and blurred distinctive sounds. Two of the six tones were pronounced the same way (which led to southerners sometimes mixing up the tone symbols when writing), and many of the vowels were pronounced in a way that, to my ear, made them indistinguishable. As a result, I had far more trouble understanding southerners.

I can’t say much about the central dialect. I encountered it rarely, and people from central Vietnam almost always switched to the northern (or occasionally the southern) dialect when speaking to those not from the central part of the country. I did occasionally encounter a pure central dialect. I mostly couldn’t understand it. To me it sounded like the southern dialect spoken by someone with a mouth full of food.

Since my return to the U.S. in 1975, I have sometimes run into Vietnamese and have spoken to them in their language. Nearly all of them used the northern dialect with me, even though it was sometimes obvious to me from their pronunciation that they were not native northerners. They were always astonished that an American could speak Vietnamese.

All my languages (I have spoken seven) are fading. Lack of opportunity to practice means that the memory weakens. Vietnamese was far and away my best language—I spoke it constantly for thirteen years—but now it, too, is withering. That’s the way it is with languages. Guess I’d better get used to it.

Presentation on PTSI

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The malady resulted from my years in combat in Vietnam and the unspeakable experiences I went through during the fall of Saigon. For years, I was subject to the most common symptoms—nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, and irrational rages. The memories will never fade—they’re indelibly ingrained in my soul—but I have found ways to come to terms with them. I am able to live a normal life.

I am among those who call the disease Post-Traumatic Stress Injury rather than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to emphasize that it is the result of an externally inflicted wound to the psyche, not the mind internally going awry. The number of us using that nomenclature is growing.

I realized early on that to cope with PTSI, I had to bring the unbearable memories into my conscious mind and face them. I had to learn to control my emotions. To force myself to confront those memories, I wrote down what happened on the battlefield and during the final days of Vietnam. That gave me the raw material I used to write my four novels and 17 short stories, all now published.

I always assumed, like all sufferers of PTSI, that I was unique and alone. My inability to handle my memories was a weakness and a symptom of cowardice. After all, other men went through what I experienced and came out fine. I was at fault. The shame that resulted, combined with the shame for having participated in the killing of others, is profound enough to cause some veterans to take their own lives.

Then, half a dozen years ago, I stumbled across articles on PTSI. I discovered that the malady affected many men who had experienced combat. I eventually decided that no one who has lived through fighting on the battlefield is completely untainted. I was severely affected, but all of us were hurt psychically, some worse than others. Combat inflicts a wound to the soul.

I learned that each sufferer of PTSI imagines that he is the odd ball, the guy that, unlike his buddies, was deeply affected by combat. And I realized that we afflicted could help one another by talking to each other about our memories. I began to reach out to other veterans. I wrote of PTSI and blogged about it.

More tomorrow.

The Death Penalty (2)

Beyond expense and the lack of deterrence, the death penalty is meted out unfairly. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The death penalty system in the US is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place.  People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.”

But far and away the strongest argument for elimination of the death penalty is that it is unconstitutional and immoral. The ACLU states the case: “The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.”

In sum, capital punishment does not discourage murderers. It is expensive, unfair, and an unacceptable denial of civil liberties, and it is inconsistent with the fundamental values of our democratic system. The United States is the only western country to still use the death penalty. The United Nations General Assembly has adopted, in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition. Yet we maintain the death penalty.

It is long since time we banned capital punishment.

The Death Penalty

On July 25, 2019, Attorney General William Barr, presumably with the agreement of and perhaps on orders from President Trump, reinstated the death penalty for federal crimes after 16 years of no executions. The federal government also scheduled the execution of five death row inmates. But the Supreme Court upheld a stay on these executions, and none have occurred to date.

The question before us, as Americans, is do we wish to execute? My answer is no for the following reasons:

Research evidence makes it clear that capital punishment does not deter murderers. According to Amnesty International, “Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect.  .  .  .  States without the death penalty continue to have significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital punishment.”

Besides, it costs far more to inflict the death penalty than incarceration for life does. The Death Penalty Information Center argues that “the average cost of a case without capital punishment involved is $740,000. For cases where the death penalty is sought by prosecutors, the average cost off the case is $1.26 million. In addition to the prosecution expenses, the cost of housing a prisoner on death row is $90,000 more per year, on average, then a prisoner in the general population. With the average length of time on death row at 15 years in the United States, housing a prisoner for execution may cost more than $1 million more than housing a prisoner for a life sentence.”

More tomorrow.