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.”

Burns-Novick: The Vietnam War

I completed viewing the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, yesterday—I bought the complete set on DVD so I could watch at my convenience. I’m enormously impressed with the quality. And I’m delighted that Burns and Novick so often saw the war the same way I did.

About the ninth installment, “A Disrespectful Loyalty,” that was telecast last night: It hurt to watch the way the American public greeted returning GIs. Mobs met soldiers and screamed “baby killer” and “butcher” at them and spat on them. I was among the returning troops and was yelled at and spat upon. As I’ve said before, it sickened my already damaged soul. Seeing it portrayed in all its ugly glory on the screen brought back my pain.

I was in Vietnam almost constantly during the 1970s. I didn’t realize until I saw the documentary how widespread and brutal the opposition to the war was in the U.S. I know that American public opinion finally caused our withdrawal and the cutoff of funds for the South Vietnamese government, but I wasn’t here when it was happening. It took my breath away.

Nor was I aware until I watched the video how dishonest American political leaders were with the American people. I was particularly shocked at Nixon’s outright lying.

I’ll have more to say on the subject. I want to offer my observations on the aptly-titled last episode, “The Weight of Memory,” after it has been telecast. One sentence from the final installment will stay with me because it is intrinsic to my own experience: “Everyone came home from Vietnam alone.”


The Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, hints at criticism of General William Westmoreland, the head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the military command for forces operating in Vietnam. Westmoreland pursued a strategy of attrition, believing that if the U.S. killed enough Vietnamese Communists, Hanoi would sue to end the war.

In virtually every battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, the U.S. won hands down. But all too often, the U.S. couldn’t locate the enemy—he attacked, then disappeared. What Westmoreland never understood, it seems to me, was that the North Vietnamese were following to the hilt Mao Tse Tung’s formula:

Enemy advances, we retreat.

Enemy camps, we harass.

Enemy tires, we attack.

Enemy retreats, we pursue.

On 10 June 1968, Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton Abrams as commander of MACV. Abrams changed the emphasis in the war to concentrate on the hamlet-village level, winning over the population, and engaging the enemy at the small-unit level. The Abrams strategy was working, but the U.S. public by then had become so adverse to the war that the U.S. Congress pushed for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. The end result is that the U.S. and South Vietnam lost the war.

The criticism of Westmoreland I hear most often is that he looked and acted the part of a general but lacked the intelligence to understand the nature of the North Vietnamese approach. The military outcome under his command suggests that the diagnosis is accurate. I can’t say I knew him well enough to judge. I briefed him several times. He was always cordial but asked few questions. I wondered at the time if he was in a hurry to get through the briefing or perhaps didn’t understand what I was telling him or maybe simply didn’t accept it.

1969 in Vietnam

I saw the seventh installment of the Burns-Novick The Vietnam War yesterday. It focuses on 1969. The documentary matches my memories. It was the first full year that General Creighton Abrams commanded MACV, and I watched as he shifted the emphasis in the war to winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese population. I knew the North Vietnamese well from exploiting their communications, and I was sure Abrams was on the right track.

But that year, like so many years, I travelled back and forth between Vietnam and the U.S. and I saw the rising opposition to the war among Americans. When I came through the San Francisco airport with the troops, protestors spat on me and called me “baby killer” and “butcher.” I was sickened to my already damaged soul.

Watching the documentary, I learned all over again of the atrocities committed by both sides during the war. I’m beginning to agree with one of the veterans interviewed that war changes human behavior. It brings out the savagery inherent in us all.

Back to the Cassandra Effect

The last two installments of the Burns-Novick documentary, The Vietnam War, broadcast last Thursday and last night, dealt with 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam. I was there part of both years and was deeply involved the Dak To battle (1967) and the Tết Offensive (1968). The Burns-Novick film suggested broadly that U.S. forces were alerted in both instances before the North Vietnamese attacked. I can verify that. I was instrumental in issuing the warnings, derived from signals intelligence—now declassified.

I wrote some months ago in this blog about the Cassandra Effect, the failure of U.S. commanders to believe or act on warnings from signals intelligence. It happened to me so often that I coined the term. The Cassandra Effect was in full force for both Dak To and Tết. General Westmoreland at MACV and the commanders of both the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Brigade were briefed on the signals intelligence evidence of North Vietnamese plans. They took no action to prepare. The rest is history.