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When I Was Stupid
By Bill Shunas
When I joined the Army and went to Vietnam I was older than most, having already graduated from college. At the time I was a supporter of the war, taking my cue from US News and World Report, Newsweek and the daily newspaper. I thought communism needed to be stopped. I wasn't gung ho enough to enlist, but when the draft board called, I said okay. I did support the war so if it was my turn, well...
Actually, I had thought about this before there was a Vietnam war. When I was twelve, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. I knew then and there that we had to stop the commies. At the age of twelve I also noticed that we were having a war every five to eight years. I figured that we were due for a war about the time I would be the right age. That was scary and about the only thing I had correct before Vietnam.
So the draft board got me, and eventually orders came for RVN. I thought that me being in a non-combat MOS that maybe this wouldn't be a bad year. I could be safe, and because we were kicking ass I would be lucky enough to experience both war and post-war operations. At Cam Ranh Bay, where I landed, I noticed the troops who were leaving. Unlike us who had fresh fatigues and fresh faces and hope, these guys had a different look. I couldn't place it, but it was like "Whatever."
For my first five or six months in-country I still supported the war although I was becoming cynical and anti-Army. Guys didn't generally talk against the war. Mainly they bitched about being stuck here. Then there was Hans. When I arrived, Hans only had three or four months left in his tour. He lived in the same barracks down at the other end. Never once did I talk with him, but a friend told me that Hans said that when he went back home he was going to protest the war. At the time I was still pro-war, but I was impressed with Hans, maybe a little in awe at his defiance.
Eventually my mind changed. Maybe a contributing factor was visiting Saigon a few times and seeing poor people in the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, while downtown were the fancy buildings left by the French. Maybe it was the time a buddy talked me into going golfing. Where? The Saigon Country Club. There we became a threesome with the wife of a CIA agent. After golf we sat around on the terrace, and she bought us a few drinks. Too spooky. Same guy liked the horses and talked me into a trip to the Cholon racetrack. If golfing was elegant, this was dicey. Cholon and its track had been a center of attention during Tet as you could tell from all the bullet pockmarks on the walls. It had been closed for months after Tet. Didn't seem like they wanted us here.
Then there was the mama-san who cleaned our hooch. Due to language differences, communication was pretty simple. But I did find out that she thought President Thieu was a big number 10. Other casual contacts with Vietnamese civilians produced the same number.
I was always interested in newspapers and in the back of my mind had an interest in journalism. That being the case, press freedom was an important concept to me. Somewhere around Thanksgiving I read where President Thieu closed down a Saigon newspaper. This was the thirty-fifth newspaper closed by the Saigon government. Maybe it wasn't a big issue in and of itself, but for me it was the final nail. This war was wrong. We were fighting on the wrong side for the wrong people.
About two weeks later I received a Christmas present from my sister. It was a shirt she had made with a peace symbol on the front. Wow! What to do with it? The company was going to have a Christmas party, and I decided that I would wear this shirt to the party as a statement. After that decision, days were filled with dread and angst until Christmas came. On the day I put the shirt on and with much anxiety went to the party. This was probably the second most proud thing I did in my life.
It turned out that my shirt was no big deal. That's because I was tame compared to many of my fellow soldiers. This party had a local band and lots of food, beer and booze. Guys became surly. The US Army was cussed up and down. The CO, the XO, the First Sergeant and the Supply Sergeant sat at a table in the middle of the area. Guys were yelling at and disparaging them and their war and Army life and what have you. Things were said in no uncertain terms. Those at the CO's table sat stone faced with their arms folded tight against their chests. More beer brought out more threats. It wouldn't have surprised me if things had gotten physical. And so went the night. My Christmas shirt with its little peace sign was background material.
I returned to the States in April of 1970. If you remember your history, in April of 1970 there was a large troop withdrawal, and there was our invasion of Cambodia. That invasion sparked more anti-war rallies and marches. At one of those rallies at Kent State, four students were shot down.
I came home on a Thursday, and on a Saturday, nine days later, there was a march in downtown Chicago to protest the Cambodia invasion. I went down there, and I was a little late. The march had already started and was going by me. Then in the proudest moment of my life I stepped off the curb and joined the march. I was razzed about my GI haircut, but accepted. Two weeks later I went to another march protesting Cambodia and Kent State. That was two marches in less than four weeks as a civilian. About face.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.