Afghanistan and Vietnam

The media has been concerned about what America’s loss in the Afghanistan War will mean for veterans.  There is a pretty good precedent in the Vietnam War.  If anything, being a Vietnam veteran was worse because the people back home hated them as baby-killing war criminals.  When they came home, they were greeted with derision and insults.  At least people feel that they have to express support for Afghanistan veterans, whether they really feel it or not.

Among Vietnam veterans, there were relatively few who served out of patriotism compared to Afghanistan vets, many of whom volunteered after 9/11. Many of the Vietnam vets who ended up with the most dangerous assignments were drafted. They didn’t want to be there; the citizens back home didn’t want them to be there; only the politicians wanted them to be there. Because of the draft, a much higher percentage of Afghanistan soldiers were “lifers” than in Vietnam.

There probably is more emotional loss for Afghanistan veterans because they went there to do good, to respond to 9/11, to make Afghanistan a better place. Most Vietnam veterans had few illusions that they were doing anything good for either the US or Vietnam. That probably made the service harder, but the loss easier to accept.

American veterans of the Afghanistan War appear really to have bonded with the Afghans interpreters they served with. In general, I thought that most Americans in Vietnam did not trust the South Vietnamese.  There may have been some good examples of Americans and Vietnamese working together, but in my experience they worked separately. However, if the Afghans were so close to the Americans, how did they collapse so quickly and fully? It looks like they were simply mercenaries, fighting for money. It looks like that is what the Afghan warlords have done for centuries. The US just turned out to be a rich ally in a never-ending Afghan war, like the Soviets, and Alexander the Great were before them. 

There were a lot of books and movies about the hardships of coming home from Vietnam, and there will be more about the hardships of coming home for Afghanistan. But one of my favorite movies is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” made about World War II veterans in 1946 by William Wyler. In its depiction, the veterans coming home from World War II were not that different from the veterans of Vietnam or Afghanistan. They couldn’t get jobs; their wives or girlfriends left them. Any transition is hard, particularly coming back home from service where danger and death were frequent companions, is hard. I often wonder what it was like for German and Japanese soldiers to return home after losing. After all three wars, the US economy was more or less in good shape, while the Germans in particular returned to a country that had been devastated and impoverished by war.  Ironically, the nuclear bombs that destroyed two cities saved Japan from a land invasion that would have destroyed Japan the way never-ending strategic bombing and house-to-house fighting destroyed Germany.

Bottom line: Coming home from a war is hard, whether you win or lose. It’s tough for Afghanistan vets, but probably no harder than for the veterans of other wars.

Vietnamese and Afghan Refugees

I have had two brushes with Vietnam during my life: one was serving in the Army artillery in Vietnam during the war, the second was overseeing databases of Vietnamese who wanted to go to the United States after the war. 

When I was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, I had very little interaction with the Vietnamese. I was in a heavy artillery battery that supported American Army soldiers on the ground.  Most of the time we were stationed at firebases in the middle of nowhere, with no Vietnamese around.  A few times we had Vietnamese units on the same firebase, but we did not interact.  They supported Vietnamese units and we supported American units.  We were in northern South Vietnam, which the Army called I Corps.  Occasionally I would ride into town with supply trucks; so, I occasionally saw Hue and Quang Tri. At Firebase Barbara, on a lonely mountaintop not too far south of Khe Sanh on the Laotian border, all of our resupply was done by helicopter.  When Saigon fell, I had no personal connection to any South Vietnamese left behind. 

At the American Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1984 to 1986, I was in charge of the embassy’s computers.  I was primarily responsible for the computers in the embassy, which mainly handled administrative tasks like maintaining personnel and financial records.  However, as the senior computer person in the embassy, I had oversight responsibility for several other computer operations.  One of them handled data for the Orderly Departure Program for Vietnamese still in Vietnam who wanted to leave the country.  The Orderly Departure Program had been established to try to stop the dangerous exodus of Vietnamese “boat people.” Another handled data for Vietnamese refugees who had already escaped across Laos or Cambodia to Thai refugee camps and who wanted to go to the United States.  This was about ten years after the fall of Saigon, but I don’t know how many of these people had worked for the US during the war. 

According to Wikipedia, from 1980 to 1997, 623,509 Vietnamese were resettled abroad under the Orderly Departure Program, of whom 458,367 went to the United States.  As I recall, a friend at the embassy in Bangkok who worked in the Orderly Departure Program went to Vietnam about once a week to process a planeload of Vietnamese going to the US.  Outside of the Orderly Departure Program, the number of “boat people” leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totaled almost 800,000 between 1975 and 1995.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea without reaching their destination.  About 40,000 Vietnamese refugees were held in Thai border refugee camps until they could be resettled. 

If Vietnam is an example, there will continue to be many refugees fleeing Afghanistan for years to come. 

Lieutenant Dangerous

This book, Lieutenant Dangerous, by Jeff Danziger sounds familiar to many of us other Vietnam veterans. It’s interesting to me that he ended up as an ordinance officer in Vietnam replacing artillery tubes. Since I was in a heavy artillery battery, we had many tubes (gun barrels) replaced because heavy artillery tubes could not fire very many rounds. Heavy artillery tubes were large and weighed tons. The worst place for this was called Firebase Barbara. One tube exploded there, killing two men. Another replacement tube was being hauled up the mountain we were on by a huge truck, when almost at the top, the tube began to slip off the back of the truck. It did, and rolled down to the valley floor. I suppose it is still there.

Grandfather Was on Torpedoed Ship

My grandfather was on board the Tuscania, a troop ship on its way to France in World War I, when it was sunk by a German U-boat on February 5, 1918. Many of the survivors, including my grandfather, were rescued by the people of the island of Islay in Scotland. On the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the people of Islay held a memorial for those lost when the Tuscania sank.

I found out about the Tuscania and my grandfather’s experience through Marilyn Gahm, who has written a book about the sinking because so many men from her home of Spooner, Wisconsin, were on board when it sank. She had posted a remembrance on line for my grandfather, who is buried in Arlington Cemetery. She has written a book about the Tuscania, which is available at https://www.tuscaniamemorial.org/book.html. There is a short history of the event here.

A Scottish record of the sinking is located here. A posting on the island of Islay’s website is here.

 99893168 ww100islay lw006
The memorial service on Islay
 99891746 tuscania1
The memorial service on Islay
 99882489 3123993c 7c96 4d55 87e6 edfe363a83c5
The Tuscania

Returning from Vietnam

The media focus on current and former military members’ involvement in the January 6 assault on the Capitol makes me wonder how much longer Americans will honor those who serve in the military. The press reported that the FBI was investigating the backgrounds of the thousands of National Guardsmen who were called to protect the Capitol during Biden’s inauguration, and that several were told to leave because of detrimental information found about them.
It reminds me of the horrible way that Vietnam veterans were treated by their fellow Americans when they returned from Vietnam. I was not actually spit on, and I don’t know anybody who was, but there was a lot of contempt for veterans, even to the point of calling them baby-killing war criminals. On one hand it is good that there is a Vietnam memorial to remember those killed in Vietnam; on the other, the memorial is anything but heroic. It could be interpreted as a dark slash in the ground, a stark recognition of those who tragically wasted their lives by dying in Vietnam.
It is interesting that the Vietnam memorial was built before the World War II memorial. World War II veterans were widely respected for their service, although the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” shows that many WW II veterans faced the same kinds of problems that Vietnam veterans faced. Nevertheless, no one felt when they returned that they needed a memorial. Their service was memorial enough.
The World War II memorial and the various Confederate memorials that are being torn down followed similar paths. Neither set of veterans felt that they needed a memorial, but as they began to die off in greater and greater numbers, the people left behind, often wives and daughters, worked to build them memorials to preserve their memory.
I fear that after a generation of honoring veterans, mainly starting after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, we are moving back to suspicion of veterans. Now, instead of being war criminals returning from Vietnam, they are pictured as traitors, insurrectionists, white supremacists who are dangers to the nation. Now the proportion of the populations serving in the military is even smaller than it was during Vietnam, meaning that less and less of the population has any personal understanding of what military service is like. No recent President has served in the military, and few senior political or other public officials have. How many of the “talking heads” pontificating about American politics on TV have served? Not many. There is a group of veterans in the Congress, mostly because of 9/11, but it will probably shrink as time goes on.
I worry that people will more and more view the military as something subversive, a hotbed of Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists, and thus military service will become less and less respected and more and more suspected.

Family Veterans

For Veterans Day I should recognize my dad, who served in the Army in World War II and Korea, my grandfather, who served in the Army during the Spanish-American War and World War I, and my great-grandfather, who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

I served in the Army in Vietnam.