Before I say another word, I want to go on record as saying that I was not a combat Marine in Vietnam. I was a radio repairman with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine regiment, 1st Marine Division. I was never in combat, and fired my weapon in anger only one time – well, more in fear than in anger – and the target was a solitary figure in the wire about 2- or 3 o’clock in the morning. My Vietnam experience was endless guard duty, 24-hour workdays, and getting drunk on my nights off. I spent a few days under six months in country at LZ Baldy, near the town of Hoi An, south of Da Nang.
For years, I had what I suppose was akin to survivor’s guilt about not having been in combat. I was just an REMF (ask a veteran about that) and didn’t feel I really deserved to call myself a veteran. The feeling was made stronger by a couple of smart-mouthed jackasses who, upon reflection, probably had even less claim to the title than I. In the early ‘80’s I was attending UNM, and met a fellow who had served two tours with the 5th Marines as a machine gunner. Whether he really had or not is not relevant to this anecdote, because he gave me something very, very valuable. I told him of my feeling of unworthiness and he shut me up right quick. “Look,” he said. “You put your [sensitive masculine body part] on the block. The axe didn’t fall. It’s not your fault. Get over it and get on with your life.” Thinking back on that fellow, I don’t recall his ever telling a single war story. I think he was probably the genuine article.
For my 58th birthday, my brother gave me a gift certificate for Border’s Books. With that certificate, I bought a book called, “Unheralded Victory – the Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army – 1961-1973,” by Mark W. Woodruff, Ballantine Books, 1999. The back cover says that Woodruff was a Marine in Vietnam, and that his book puts forth the idea that the war was an overwhelming victory for American arms. With an eye wary for revisionist propaganda, I started the book. By the time I’d finished it, I was proud, enraged, bitterly depressed, furious, really, really proud, and madder than a sonofabitch.
The book is 344 pages of text with a few photographs, 28 pages of footnotes, and 6 pages of bibliography. It does NOT include the famous photo of the naked little girl running from an American napalm strike, nor of the ARVN general blowing the brains out of a Viet Cong.
Woodruff sets the stage for America’s involvement in the war with a very brief history of the region, and a description of the world political atmosphere in the mid-50’s. To wit, there had been bad blood between the north and south for generations – bad enough to include several wars and a good deal of bloodshed. The French had tried to reclaim their colony after WWII, but couldn’t simultaneously feed that war and keep a legitimate army in France to bolster NATO. The Russians were rattling cages all over the world, and the US was extremely anxious that France be a major player in NATO. The French said they could only do that if we’d support them in Indochina. We supported them with money and material, but no troops. (I have read elsewhere that Ike’s cabinet discussed using tactical nukes to relieve the siege of Dien Bien Phu, but Woodruff does not bring this up.) After the French walked out, we already had many of millions of dollars invested in the region, and a vested interest in stopping the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism. The South Vietnamese asked us for help, and we gave it.
The first myth that Woodruff demolishes is that the war was a civil war. It was not. It was a war of conquest by the North. Period. Funded and equipped by the Russians and Chinese, the North Vietnamese recruited, trained, and equipped entire divisions of Viet Cong. The early VC were NVA in all but uniform and name – a far cry from the barefoot, freedom fighter militia the world press loved to paint them.
The second myth Woodruff tears up is of the efficiency of the VC as fighters. They were dangerous, and given an advantage, could do some damage. But the US and Australian military knocked the snot out of them on a regular basis. The main force VC were especially well-equipped and trained, but never learned to cope with the lightning reflexes of American company and platoon leaders, nor the savagery of the American air-ground team. (Woodruff is also generally complimentary of the ARVN, and especially so of the South Vietnamese Marines and Paratroops, and backs up his opinion with quotations and statistics from both sides.)
The first action that saw US troops meet NVA was, likewise, a serious butt-whuppin’ for the North: The Marines’ Operation Starlite. The Aussies gave them a shellacking at Long Tan. The US Army killed more than 3,000 NVA in the series of actions generally called the Battle of Ia Drang. Americans and Aussies died in those actions, but they gave better than they got, by orders of magnitude. Woodruff offers a list of 66 actions in which the enemy lost more than 500 men each, prior to June of 1968!
Typical of Woodruff’s analysis of these events is a quote by Army general Kinnard: “When General Giap says he learned how to fight Americans and our helicopters at the Ia Drang, that’s bullshit! What he learned was that we were not going to chase him across a mythical line in the dirt.” I have read Giap’s claim in many books, but never Kinnard’s refutation of it.
I have long known that the Tet offensive in January and February of 1968 was an unqualified catastrophe for the Communists, especially the VC. What amazed me was the degree to which I have been misled by the American media reports of that action. For example, I’d always believed the VC had taken most of the US embassy in Hue. In fact, they never got into the buildings. The Marine guards and a couple of soldiers on the grounds shot them down like dogs as soon as they crossed the fence. Another example: how long after the war was it made generally known that the VC murdered many hundreds of civilians in Hue and the surrounding area? We were finding the graves for years. The Tet offensive was not the masterfully organized thunderbolt we’ve been lead to believe. Some NVA outfits jumped off a full day early, so poor was their organization, due in no small part to the intense pressure put on their supply and communication lines by aggressive patrolling. Woodruff does not take a particle from the fighting ability and spirit of the NVA. He shows the courageous stand in the Citadel of Hue for what it was, and gives them full credit. But he doesn’t perpetuate the myth of their being superior to us in any way.
The Allied commanders were congratulating themselves on a brilliant victory, and were dumbfounded to read in the world’s press that they’d been defeated! General Giap, likewise, was amazed to see what the press had made of his debacle. It was at this point that he realized he had divisions and corps unnumbered in the copy rooms and news-stands of the world. He began to attack US troops with the specific intent of causing casualties in order to play his new-found ace for all it was worth.
Khe Sanh gets a chapter of its own, and, like Tet, Woodruff tells a story I’d never heard before. Grossly underestimating the resolve, toughness, and flexibility of the Americans – and their willingness to carpet bomb entire grid squares - Giap figured he’d blow past the little post at Khe Sanh and flood the south with men and supplies. As the American press was portraying the Marines at Khe Sanh and the Special Forces at Lang Vei as demoralized, whipped, and scared, Giap’s divisions were being more than decimated. In the end, he pulled in his horns and slunk back across the DMZ and into Cambodia and Laos, being saved only by the totally arbitrary and whimsical sense of propriety of Washington. Unlike Meade at Gettysburg, the victorious Americans and South Vietnamese were more than ready and able to annihilate the routed enemy.
The reason so many Blacks were killed? According to Black writers and leaders, it was because they volunteered to go where it was hottest. They’d found a way to be, not just equal, but superior, and they took it. Where else have you heard this perspective?
Did the American’s fixation on body count lead to wildly exaggerated claims of enemy casualties? I heard from one of our grunts that if they found a foot, a hand, and a head, they counted three enemy dead. Based on that, I’d always looked with contempt on the published figure of 500,000 enemy dead. However, in the late ‘70’s, Hanoi admitted to more than 1.1 million! Hanoi admitted that!
According to Woodruff, drug use in the US military was less than in the general population in the States, especially in combat units. This is one particular point that has challenged me. I have said that in the six months I was in country, my battalion lost 16 men to drug overdoses. Now I know for a fact there was at least one, because it was a fellow from my platoon. However, being encouraged by Woodruff to really ask myself where I got that number, I must admit it came from scuttlebutt. I have thereby resolved to do some research and see just what the real number was. [As of Nov., 2010, I have not investigated this. One more thing I need to do! WAR]
There is a short chapter on men who lied about their service – some of them so convincingly that they became leaders of veterans organizations, or even counselors to veterans! How many times have we all heard claims of individuals having been in the SEALS, Recon, Green Berets, LRRPS, Operation Phoenix, or other elite organizations? I have met not less than 100 men who claimed to have been in one – or sometimes two! – of these elite groups. I’ve met a dozen Navy Cross claimants, but not one of them appears on the official list of recipients – ditto Silver Stars. Oddly, I’ve never met anyone who claimed to have the Medal of Honor. Could it be that at least one thing is held sacred by liars? I’ve probably met two dozen who claimed to have been assassins with Operation Phoenix. Unfortunately, some of these clowns have received a great deal of attention from the press, and even after their lies have been made known, the press has never recanted or withdrawn the articles and programs.
Woodruff goes to some length to discuss the stories of American troops being abused on their return to the States. This is one item on which I’m unwilling to grant his point. He says that documentable cases of people spitting on veterans or otherwise assaulting them are extremely rare. He posits that most of the stories are hearsay – “A buddy of mine said…” or “…the buddy of a buddy said….” Until, over time, the stories have achieved the status of unimpeachable fact. Now, I know for a fact that when we landed at Seattle for refueling, we were allowed to walk through the terminal for a little while. A few people threw garbage at us and sneered. At least one bitch yelled, “Babykillers!” to the group I was with. That is not hearsay. Other than this, though, I must admit to believing without questioning what I’ve heard from other veterans. Perhaps Woodruff has a point, but I’ll have to see some more serious research done by someone who has no political axe to grind.
In chapter after anecdote after statistic, Woodruff lays down an unassailable case to show that we not only whipped the VC and NVA, we utterly destroyed their will and ability to wage war. This was not, as it has been patronizingly called, a case of winning the battles but losing the war. We won the stinking war, too! The NVA withdrew from the fight. The VC were reduced to starving bands of hobos and bandits, able to do nothing more than mine a footpath or murder the odd schoolteacher.
Giap, with his allies in the press and the US antiwar movement, broke our government’s will to win. No, that’s not exactly it. They convinced our government that we’d lost the war, after we’d already won it! Woodruff devotes several chapters to exposing specific lies and mythology about the war, from “combat correspondents” who never left the Saigon whore houses, or who deliberately and knowingly fabricated stories about the wily Viet Cong making fools of the fat Americans, and on and on and on. Eddie Allen, the man who took the photo of General Loan killing the VC, bitterly regretted what had been made of his photo. (The VC had just confessed to having slit the throats of Gen. Loan’s best friend and entire family, including several children.) Other correspondents and photographers are quoted expressing regret about how their work was either ill-advised, inaccurate, or twisted for propaganda’s sake. Where have you ever heard anything like that?
And you know what makes me just absolutely pig-bitin’ mad? The bastards are doing the same thing again in Iraq! Exactly the same thing! Treason is too weak a word for what they are doing.
This book was obviously a very powerful experience for me. I don’t know just yet what I’m going to do about it, but I think I need to take some action to get Woodruff’s message out. I wish to goodness my own kids would read this book, because it gives a stunning portrait of the power of the press to manipulate a nation’s resolve. This is not just a history lesson; we are seeing this same thing again every day. It is absolutely current events!
I recommend “Unheralded Victory” without reservation to veterans of Vietnam or other wars. (My own father, a Marine veteran of WWII, once sneered at me and said, “At least my generation never got their asses kicked by a bunch of gooks!”) I recommend it to all Americans, including Americans of Vietnamese descent. I recommend it to all members of the press, including those who would write books or produce video works on the present war, whether fiction or non-fiction.
And I’ve just got to say it again: We whipped those suckers to a fare-thee-well, and we didn’t lose the war. The war was won before the politicians went back and gave it away later.
To my fellow Vietnam veterans, “Well done and welcome home.”