A Reader’s Response

A regular reader of this blog and a friend, Trinh Binh An, was born in Vietnam. She was twelve when Saigon fell. Some years later, she escaped from Vietnam and came to this country. Cô An responded to my blog post on the Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics. She quoted the statement about the views expressed by conference panelists that the U.S. saw the enemy as communists when they were first and foremost nationalists, striving for independence:

“I am tottaly disagree this view ! Hồ Chí Minh and his group had killed many natiolists of other pasties such as Quốc Dân Đảng, Đại Việt . Before US got involved in VN, people in the South Viet Nam had been fighting over French and communists (they still nowadays) such as Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo . In the North Viet Nam, catholics and budists had teamed up together to fight against Hồ in Phát Diệm province .
“Hồ and his party is successful in brainwashing people, rules them in iron fists. They use all terrorized methods to achieve their goals. They follow Lenin and Mao ‘s communism not Max and Egel’s communism .”

I agree with Cô An’s characterization of the Viet Minh as ruthless dictators, and she is right that over the years they murdered members of other nationalist groups. But that doesn’t make them communists. When Hồ Chí Minh repeatedly approached the U.S. in the mid-1940s asking for help to free Vietnam from the French colonialists (we ignored his pleas), he was more nationalist than communist. When he got no help from us, he turned to China and the USSR, who continued to assist him with weapons and money long after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and ceased its support of the South Vietnamese government and people. Communism became the dominant doctrine of the Viet Minh, and they became more despotic as the struggle continued.

Late in the twentieth century, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as it now calls itself, abandoned a principal tenet of communism and adopted a capitalist economic philosophy. The result has been an economic boom, especially in tourism. So Vietnam is no longer a truly communist country. That doesn’t mean it is in any sense democratic; it is as much a police state today as it was during the Vietnam war.

The thrust of my original argument in this blog is that if the U.S. had assisted Hồ from the start, the nationalist character of the Viet Minh might have prevailed and democratic tendencies might have caused them to cooperate with other nationalist groups to achieve independence. The U.S. could have used its influence to thwart the growing autocracy as the regime was formed and insisted that the government include all nationalist groups and proceed with democratic principles dominant. It could also have pressured its ally, France, to grant Vietnam independence. Such actions would have been in keeping with the anti-colonialist philosophy inherent in American political thinking.

My sense is that history would have been very different and much better had we taken that route.

Naval Institute Conference on Military and Politics

I didn’t do a blog post yesterday because I attended the Naval Institute’s conference on the military and politics, a discussion of the proper role for military personnel, especially senior officers, in politics. Among the participants were Colin Powell, John McCain, Bob Woodward, John Allen, and Michael Mullen. Definitely an all-star show.

There was a broad consensus, with various shadings and disagreements, that professional military people can properly participate in the shaping of policy but should remain neutral in politics. Of far greater interest to me were observations offered by various panel members on issues directly bearing on this blog.

I was surprised that Vietnam came up frequently. The panelists generally agreed that the Vietnam war was misguided. The U.S. saw the enemy as communists when they were first and foremost nationalists, striving for independence. Their dedication went much deeper than ours did. They were willing to fight to the last man to oust the corrupt South Vietnamese government and foreign domination, first by the French, then by the Americans. U.S. commitment was nowhere near as strong.

Moreover, if Vietnam taught us nothing else, we should have learned that you can’t win a war when the U.S. population is not supporting the war effort.

To my understanding of the nature of leadership—that the leader must be focused equally on the mission and the well-being of his followers—John McCain, in a video interview with Bob Woorward, introduced another factor that was new to me: determination to do the right thing, no matter what. That adds a moral component that I had never considered.

The judgments about Vietnam, especially coming from the military, greatly comforted me. As a regular reader of this blog will recognize, they closely match my own views as expressed in text posted here going back to last November. My broadened understanding of leadership was more than welcome. In days to come, I’ll post a blog summing up my definition of the leader’s role.

Autumnal Melancholy

As the days shorten and temperatures cool, the daylight changes its look. The burnished colors of summer lighten as the mists dissipate and the sunshine purifies. The rich azure of the sky pales to a bright, gentle blue. The landscape sharpens. Trees shine green. The air turns brisk.

As nights become longer than days, a few errant leaves change color. Their number grows, and they begin to drop. The end of the year lies ahead. Denying it, pretending otherwise, putting the thought out of your mind doesn’t work. Nothing can stop it.

During my years in Vietnam, I all but forgot autumn. The end of the summer there meant the last of the monsoons and a time of relative ease, temperatures dropping as low as eighty. The heat and humidity, for a time, stopped robbing me of comfort. As readers have noted, Last of the Annamese plays out between November and April. None of the characters give much thought to the weather until rains, unheard of in April, herald the fall of Saigon.

Back in the world (the U.S.) after the conquest of South Vietnam by the North, I was, for the first time in years, acutely conscious of the moderate summer and the onset of fall. Now, forty-two years later, autumn feels melancholy to me. As I age, I feel the approaching end of the year like the coming end of my life. I find myself remembering the words of “September Song,” as sung by Frank Sinatra in 1965:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December

But the days grow short when you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game


Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few

September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

These precious days I’ll spend with you

Vietnam Myths

Last Sunday’s Washington Post included an article in the “Outlook” section by Lan Cao addressing myths about Vietnam. I was delighted. Dr. Cao opens the article by saying: “Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say their multi-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam, which concluded this past week, was intended to unpack a complex conflict and embark upon the process of healing and reconciliation. The series has catapulted the Vietnam War back into the national consciousness. But despite thousands of books, articles and films about this moment in our history, there remain many deeply entrenched myths.”

He then debunks five myths. The important facts that I drew from his text are that: (1) the Viet Cong were totally under the control of Hanoi; they were in no sense independent. (2) Refugees who escaped to the U.S. at the conclusion of the war and later were of all classes, not just the elite. (3) U.S. soldiers who fought during the war were not majority draftees—four out of five were volunteers. (4) The Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese that turned into a psychological success. And (5) South Vietnamese soldiers were, on the whole, devoted and effective fighters. They lost to the North Vietnamese for a variety of reasons, but the most important was that the U.S. cut off air support and monetary aid, while the North Vietnamese went on receiving substantial financing and weaponry from the USSR and China.

I am vindicated to see that the facts about the Vietnam War are surfacing, thanks in large measure to the work of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Burns-Novick: One More Memory—Misnomers

One more reverie brought on by the Burns-Novick The Vietnam War:

American troops were in Vietnam for so many years that soldiers and Marines over time attributed to the native Vietnamese words and expressions that they themselves had actually introduced. The Vietnamese, who learned American English from the GIs, incorporated the lingo into their own speech. Their use of these expressions looked like proof of their native Vietnamese origin. These linguistic somersaults made me laugh.

Three examples will illustrate.

During the Korean war, soldiers and Marines heard Koreans say “미국” (miguk) which in Korean means “American.” The U.S. military misunderstood and thought that the Koreans were referring to themselves, saying “me gook,” meaning “I’m a gook.” The term “gook” came to be a disparaging word for Koreans and, eventually, for any member of an Asian race. When U.S. military personnel arrived in Vietnam, they called the inhabitants gooks. The term is so commonly used that it’s now in the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. I heard more than one GI say that “gook” was the Vietnamese word for a native.

During the occupation of Japan following World War II, Americans picked up a number of terms from the Japanese. One of them was “number one,” a not-quite-accurate translation of the Japanese “Ichiban” (一番) (which really means “first). The Japanese, like the Chinese and other Asians, used “the first” to mean “the best.” Americans assumed that if “number one” meant the best, “number ten” must mean “the worst.” Both expressions became common military slang. The military carried those terms with them to Vietnam and eventually came to believe that they were native Vietnamese terminology.

Also during the occupation of Japan, GIs frequently heard Japanese use San, an honorific added to the end of a name or title to express respect. The soldiers and Marines borrowed the term mamasan (mama means “mother in Japanese), a term honoring a mother, to refer to a woman in a superior position, especially a madam—the owner or proprietor of a whore house. Once again, the term stuck in GI slang and got carried to Vietnam where it came to mean any older Vietnamese woman. By the late 1960s, military personnel assumed the term was Vietnamese.

The misunderstanding of these and other expressions is so common that even Burns and Novick misidentify their source and buy into the assumption that at least some of them are of Vietnamese origin.

The Burns-Novick The Vietnam War: Assessment

My final judgment of the Burns-Novick documentary is that it is a splendid piece of work. I was frankly astonished that the creators uncovered so much information about the war known to me but not generally written about. But I was equally amazed at the facts they reported that I didn’t know, mainly about what was going in the U.S. while I was in Vietnam. And I greatly admired the approach they took of presenting commentators of all stripes without qualification.

The question that recurs eternally is: was the war justified? In the broadest sense, my answer is no. I’ve talked before in this blog about Ho Chi Minh’s approach to the U.S. in the mid-1940s asking for help in attaining independence for Vietnam. The U.S. decided instead to side with the French, despite its long-standing tradition of opposing colonialism. After the defeat of the French in 1954, the U.S., in its dread of communism, sided with the autocratic South Vietnamese regimes. Ho was more a nationalist than a communist in the 1940s. Had we responded to his pleas, history would have been different and, in my estimation, better.

The issue of shame needs to be dealt with. When I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, the U.S. population was so opposed to the war that I kept my Vietnam service to myself. During the last half of the war, from 1968 on, I had been repeatedly spat upon by crowds in the San Francisco airport as I returned with the troops from my many trips to Vietnam. Already suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) even then, I felt the burning shame of being denounced by the citizens of my country for defending their interests in war.

One of the intriguing facts I learned from the film was that PTSI had other names in earlier wars. During the civil war, it was called soldier’s heart. In World War I, people spoke of shell shock. Battle fatigue was the term in World War II. The malady can be traced historically back to the Greeks. I didn’t know any of that. After Vietnam, I thought I was the only one with the symptoms. Like all victims of PTSI, I didn’t want to talk about my experiences in combat.

Over the decades that followed, I never spoke of my time in Vietnam. My work there was still classified until 2016, but, more important, the American people wanted to forget there had ever been a Vietnam. When a few years ago the attitude began to change, I discovered I wasn’t the only one with PTSI. My sense of shame shifted. I was ashamed for my nation’s people who blamed the warriors for the decisions of the elected officials. I was enraged that Americans denigrated the soldiers and Marines who had risked their lives for their country. That rage lingers even today.

The Vietnam War, in sum, was painful to watch. It reopened old wounds, brought old memories back into sharp focus. It reminded me of why I remained silent and alone in my own despair for more than thirty years. But the documentary also described that very silence, isolation, and suffering of so many vets. Most important, it brought the bitter silence about the war to an end. It told the story of why I was silent. Now I and so many others like me need be silent and alone no more.

The Weight of Memory

The final episode of The Vietnam War was telecast last night. It was called “The Weight of Memory.” That title speaks to me.

My memories weigh on me. I’ve gotten better over the years, but the images in my mind haven’t faded. I’ve learned by bitter experience to cope with them. I did the best I could to vent them by writing, especially Last of the Annamese.

Several random reactions to the last installment of the Burns-Novick documentary:

I was surprised, not only in the final episode but in earlier ones, at how many of the featured commentators I’ve met—Lewis Sorley, Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, Jan Scruggs—some face to face, some only in email exchanges.

I have searing memories of watching provinces and cities fall to the North Vietnamese, all of them numerated in the film—Phuoc Long province and its capital, Phuoc Binh; Ban Me Thuot in the highlands; and after a twelve-day heroic defense by the South Vietnamese, Xuan Loc, the last obstacle to the North Vietnamese sweep into Saigon.

The many shots of the Vietnam Memorial, which so many of us call The Wall, brought tears to my eyes. I don’t go there often, even when I’m doing public readings on the Mall on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I can’t hold in my emotions, and I’m embarrassed.

I read several articles before the documentary came out advising veterans that it might be best not to watch the episodes alone. I see why. All of the installments, but especially the last one, put me in touch again with my own despair.

The portrayal of the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, left me feeling grimly vindicated. It’s now public knowledge that he failed to heed the warnings of those of us who knew that Saigon was about to be attacked. His failure to call for an evacuation resulted in the deaths of many thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with us.

A fellow Vietnam vet expressed disappointment that my story didn’t appear in the documentary. I reminded him that the presence of National Security Agency (NSA) personnel in Vietnam was classified. The complete declassification of my time in Vietnam as an NSA representative only occurred in 2016. In all likelihood, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick never uncovered our operation and didn’t know we were in country. On the public record, we weren’t there. We didn’t exist.

The film cemented my feelings about going back to Vietnam: no way. Too many anguished memories of men butchered in combat, of friends lost, of America shamed.

I watched the end of the last installment feeling again the isolation I felt in 1975. The line I cited yesterday said it well: “Everyone came home from Vietnam alone.”