50 Years Later - Reflections on the Vietnam War
By Warren Hunt
Although my personal opposition to the Vietnam War began while I was there, it took many years of studying the historical context of the war before I was able to clearly understand it and coherently express it. To have opted to remain ignorant and blame the loss of the war on the media and student protesters would have been an insult to those who paid a far greater price than I did.
I served in Vietnam from July 1968 to July 1969 as a radio operator with the First Infantry Division. I was drafted in 1967 at age nineteen and sent to Vietnam when I was twenty-years-old. My unit, the 121st Signal Battalion, lost a total of sixteen soldiers in the Vietnam War, six of them during the years I served in Vietnam. During the campaigns of World War II, a total of five of the unit's signal corpsmen were killed.
Of the twenty young men in my school cohort, the class of 1966, twelve of us served in the armed forces, nine of us served in Vietnam, and three were seriously wounded. By the time I was drafted in late 1967, two of my classmates had already been injured in the war. A third childhood friend survived his wounds, but was never the same after that, and committed suicide at the age of 50.
Even before entering the service, I sensed that there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for the war. Americans did not seem to have a sense of urgency, as was the case during the Second World War. Our country was then clearly in mortal peril, and Americans understandably rallied to the defense of their homeland. On the contrary, I often heard the ironic observation that the North Vietnamese had not attacked California, so why are we bombing them?
Nevertheless, I went to Vietnam with the hope that it would be all worthwhile in the end and that, like my parents' generation, I could live out my life feeling that I had contributed to something historically significant that would lead to a better world. Unfortunately, what I experienced in the war and learned after returning from Vietnam did not justify that hope.
The Vietnam War was not worthy of the sacrifice and suffering of my lifelong friends and the members of my unit who were killed and injured by incoming or were massacred when the VC overran Nui Ba Den. It did not justify my having to frequently dodge shrapnel for a year and live forever with the memory of seeing a GI blown to bits from a direct hit by a .122mm rocket. Nor did it justify the 58,000 US military deaths and the over 300,000 total American casualties. Most of all, it did not justify the killing and maiming of millions of Vietnamese by bombs, bullets, unexploded munitions and the bizarre effects of exposure to massive doses of defoliants.
Looking back on it, I now understand the awful sense of dread and insecurity I felt the entire time I was in Vietnam. It was the feeling that every molecule of that country was trying to puke us out. My grudging respect for the enemy gradually evolved into a realization that their situation was not unlike that of our forefathers during their revolution against British colonialism.
For us Vietnam veterans, the story did not have a happy ending. Instead of dramatic footage of marines victoriously raising the stars and stripes, we were taunted by televised images of marines pushing back our frantic South Vietnamese allies as they rushed the last Huey choppers leaving the US Embassy, desperately trying to escape the coming retribution at the hands of the conquering Communist forces, distraught at their abandonment by the most powerful nation on earth.
Over forty years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War. The victory of the People's Army of North Vietnam did not result, as predicted, in the inexorable spread of communism to the rest of southern Asia. On the contrary, since the end of the war much has changed for the better. We now have full diplomatic and prosperous trade relations with a unified Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Although the country is still ruled by a Communist government, it is gradually liberalizing its economy and has become a favorite tourist destination, especially for young Americans. Many of them are children or even grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. Perhaps, in some inexplicable sense, we did win the war.
But the irony of it still haunts me: if Vietnam is able to cultivate a fruitful relationship with us now, after surviving our devastating invasion and uniting under Communist rule, why couldn't we all have just agreed to skip the war and leap together into the future?
Warrren E. Hunt was in Vietnam with Co A, 121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division from July 1968-July 1969.