By Fred Benson
Turning the calendar over to a new month recently brought with it the stark realization that exactly a half-century ago, I began a one-year tour as the commander of an aviation unit with the 1st air Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
It is very difficult to recall with any sense of pride having served in a war that we lost. But I do believe there is merit in reminding ourselves not just of our successes but also of our failures.
Why revisit a war that ended before most living Americans were born? Why dredge up the horrors of an event that cost more than an estimated 2 million lives, including 58,220 Americans? Why suffer with the memory of our nation’s first defeat in history; one that was a military, political and societal disaster? The answer is quite simple.
It is a worthy effort solely because the country has not understood the prime lesson to be learned from that failed conflict: not just whether a war is winnable, but whether we need to be there in the first place.
Fourteen times since the end of World War II, the U.S. has deployed significant combat forces overseas. In each case, the incumbent president created an aura of strategic importance to justify the commitment, and eventual death, of more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel. The requirement to march to the Yalu River in Korea; The Tonkin Gulf incident that triggered congressional approval for major troop movements to Vietnam; the assessment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq; the need to rescue U.S. students at risk in Grenada and many other such claims turned out to be misleading, if not totally false. The results speak for themselves in every case.
Our military might is indeed a big hammer on the world scene; but why this unrelenting lust for using it so impetuously? Increasing self-granted presidential powers; cowardly congressional equivocation; the unintended consequences of the voluntary military force (the creation of a “we-they society”); and the simple fact that war provides lots of jobs and is generally good for business, have combined to make it far easier to go to war than ever before.
There are times, of course, when violence must be countered by violence, but those decisions should be taken only after all other courses of action have been exhausted.
Combat veterans learn quickly that when family or friends ask what it was “like over there,” the best response is to change the subject, as they don’t really want to hear your answer. So I will simply report that memories of losing one dead (my tent mate, Tom Goddard – Panel 16E, line 105 on “The Wall.”), six wounded and one soldier captured and never found will remain with me forever, as will the fact that not one helicopter I inherited at the beginning of my tour survived to the end.
But what I will talk about freely is the day that reinforced my growing concern about the conduct of the war. My longest day in Vietnam, 13 hours in the cockpit, occurred during a battle that served as the model for the (greatly exaggerated) film “Apocalypse Now.” During the real battle, the commander of the lead battalion was seriously wounded when he ran out in front of his own troops and was hit by “friendly” aerial rocket fire.
Two of my men also were wounded in the fight to rescue him. The next morning the brigade commander and I visited the wounded commander before he was evacuated to Japan. As we left the field hospital, I saw tears streaming down my colonel’s cheeks. I looked straight ahead and pretended not to notice. But as we were getting into the helicopter, it was clear to me that he was very upset, and I asked, “Are you going to be okay?” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, I am not okay. We have no business being in this damn war.” I was stunned. But hearing the commanding officer for whom I had such great respect utter those words relieved me of the guilt I was feeling from having had the very same thought.
So these are the musings of an aging Vietnam vet. I have seen the worst in us, I continue to see and abhor our penchant for irrational violence, and I don’t see much hope for a brighter picture.
The last verse of Scotsman Eric Bogle’s song about visiting a WWI graveyard, “The Green Fields of France,” says it all.
“And I can’t help but wonder, private William McBride, do those who lie here know why they all died? Did you really believe when you answered the call, did you really believe this war would end all? Oh, the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the shame, the killing, the dying, it was all done in vain. For Willie McBride, it all happened again, and again, and again, and again, and again.”
And it continues still.
Fred Benson lives in Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.