I had previously posted a portion of this essay about eight months ago. Here it is in its entirety. The only additional thing that I will mention is that the part about the B52 bombers creating craters that swallowed soldiers was exactly what inspired the poignant scene that Martin’s father tells him about ‘Nam in my first novel “Beauty Rising.” I hoped that my writing captured the horror that that scenario would have created for any soldier close enough to see it happen. After the works cited, I made a couple notations about two of the sources.
Military historian John Keegan has said that warfare is nearly as old as humankind and it “…reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king” (3). A quick survey of warfare of the mid to late 20th century provides a vivid picture of the all-encompassing way in which war affects the person. The Vietnam War in particular tested the boundaries of physical and psychological survival. The American soldier faced a faceless enemy which could appear or disappear seemingly at will. It was a place where the tired rhetoric of the powerless political machine of both America and South Vietnam plummeted the soldier into a purposeless world where survival would become possible only through the clever tricks of human instinct.
The Vietnam War created a surreal environment where normal rules of civility did not apply. Soldiers had to live with the immediacy of death. This psychological game of trying to cope with war’s grim reality distanced them forever from their former civilian life. Tim O’Brien in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried describes a war in which the soldiers would do anything to cope with army life if it meant that they could distance themselves from the atrocities around them. Euphemisms for death like someone being ‘lit up’ or ‘greased’ were tossed around casually (19). Death became so much the norm that it seemed like their deaths were ‘scripted’ (19). They were there to fulfill their roles and one of the more prominent roles of war is death. They trudged along in the game resigned to their fate whatever that may have been.
The role of fate in the minds of the soldiers on both sides of the conflict played a large role in how they acted and thought. Truong Nhu Tang in his book A Viet Cong Memoir describes the terror of hunkering down under the relentless B52 bombing raids. He describes it as an ‘Apocalypse’ where soldiers would scream uncontrollably and lose control of their bodily functions and where guerrillas would suffer nervous breakdowns (123). However, he describes how eventually the shock of the B52 bombing raids would wear off. The soldiers began to look at them in irrelevant terms, and they would have a fatalistic attitude that there was nothing to be done except prepare yourself for death (Truong 123). In this way, survivors were able to view their life in a more serene and philosophical manner (Truong 124).
As the B52 raids played havoc on the psyche of the Viet Cong, the mental state of the American soldier in Vietnam was likewise shredded by what many saw as an illogical struggle against an unseen enemy in a strange and foreign environment. The Vietnam War had no ‘fronts’. There was not a Maginot line or 38th parallel. The enemy could come from any direction, at any time, in nearly any form. It was more like an endless front. Bombs and booby-traps were everywhere. It was impossible to distinguish a common peasant farmer from a Viet Cong insurgent. This deeply contributed to the fatalistic attitude that a soldier’s life was not in his own hands. O’Brien called these faceless enemies the ‘enemy ghosts’. Vietnam became a game of hide and seek with boogeyman enemies – only partially seen – slipping in and out under the moonlight – spooking hardened soldiers into ghost believers (192-193). Even in the daytime, a soldier would tire from the constant snipers. Or it may be that a soldier could be plodding along a well-known path in a flooded field only to be swallowed up completely by a massive B52 bomb crater which was undetectable under the water (Truong 123). It was these types of events that made many soldiers feel that everything was out of their control. Or perhaps more precisely, maybe there was not anything to control in the first place. Even soldiers who worked in offices in Saigon were never out of danger. They were susceptible at any moment of any day to a bomb or rocket attack (Karnow 33).
Soldiers coped the best they could. They laughed at the horror to help lessen its sting. In one absurd tale, a soldier sings “Lemon Tree” as he pulls the remains of their comrade Curt Lemon out of the tree where an explosion ripped him to shreds (O’Brien 79). O’Brien writes the story of Norman Bowker and how he almost got the Silver Star for nearly saving his buddy but ultimately watched him slip to his death in a muddy field on the banks of a flooded river. It is revealed later, however, that it was actually the author who held the leg of the one who slipped away and not Norman Bowker (154). This clever storytelling technique illustrates the mental games of war. A horrific incident beyond description seems more palatable when placed at the feet of another. It was survival instinct which distances oneself from that which makes no sense or which is too painful for a sane person to deal with.
War creates an instinct to survive not only for the soldiers in the trenches or the soldiers humping through the jungle but also for the political figures on a more macro-governmental level. Politics and war provide a canvass in which survival often becomes the eminent theme even beyond winning or losing. Leaders will manipulate, intimidate, and inspire in order for a nation and its’ soldiers to follow their lead. Before World War II, Hitler invoked a personalized national pride and insisted that his soldiers swear a personal allegiance to him (Keegan 367). The American soldiers who went to war in Vietnam certainly displayed a national pride and a willingness to defeat Communism, but when they arrived, they only saw a political situation that offered the soldiers little hope or honor. The political players on the American side of the Vietnam War displayed paranoia, deceit, and shrewd political games in order to either keep themselves in power or to sway public opinion in one way or another.
South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky put on a show execution of a Chinese businessman accused of corruption which ultimately provided him with a scapegoat in order to protect himself from his unsavory dealings (Karnow 456). Ky’s predecessor Khanh did all he could to protect his own authority but did virtually nothing to create a competent administration which would enable the South Vietnamese government to wage war (Karnow 358). The successive infighting amongst the South Vietnamese government led to massive dissatisfaction among the South’s population. Coup after coup left the South Vietnamese government in a state of disarray and left America holding the political baggage forcing them to put a positive spin on things for the American people. The government used the media as a propaganda wing to promote their view of what was happening. For example, the U.S. press gave vivid accounts of the North Vietnamese unprovoked attack on an American vessel even though it never happened (Karnow 386). This made-up event helped speed up the escalation of the war. The media seems to have taken its’ cue from a government which rewarded positive war reports even if they didn’t resemble the truth (Karnow 271).
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in hopes of stopping Communism from spreading threw in the towel himself deciding not to run for re-election after the devastating “Tet” offensive of Jan 31, 1968. The coordinated Viet Cong offensive caught the Americans off-guard and drastically turned public opinion against the war leading to the many vocal and intense protests that typified the late 1960s (Karnow 558). All of this disinformation and backbiting created a cloud of confusion over the whole Vietnam War. The political in-fighting certainly played a crucial role in the disillusionment of the Vietnam soldier.
The Vietnam soldiers that went home were damaged both physically and mentally. By 1971, it is estimated that one-third or more of American troops were using drugs (Karnow 31). There were many cases of soldiers not only disobeying orders but even murdering their superiors with grenades (Karnow 31). Nearly one-sixth of all Vietnam veterans experienced some form of post-traumatic order (Karnow 33). It is no wonder that eighty-two percent of veterans believed they were sent into a war which they couldn’t win because the government tied their hands (Karnow 480). In an environment like this, what purpose could a soldier possibly find? Nothing but survival.
O’Brien describes war as not being a moral, virtuous, or instructive venture. He writes, “You can tell a war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (65-66). This perhaps describes better than anything else the human experience of the Vietnam War. The war penetrated deeply into the inner chasms of their heart only to find there was nothing there to comfort them.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1991. Print
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.
Truong, Nhu Tang; David Chanoff, Van Toai Doan. “A Viet Cong Memoir”. War and Human Experience: Additional Reading. California State University Dominguez Hills Custom Publication #16679, 1996. 122-126. Print.
NOTE: I highly recommend both Karnow’s history and O’Brien’s work of fiction. O’Brien’s work is moving, deep, and powerful. Karnow’s history was one of the most thorough histories of Vietnam at the time it was originally published in the early ’80s. He was a long-time journalist that covered the Vietnam War years.