|Download PDF of this full issue: v49n2.pdf (31.8 MB)|
I Started Learning the Real History of Vietnam
By Mike McCain as told to Richard Stacewicz
Excerpt from Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War by Richard Stacewicz,
Mike McCain was the son of a lifer in the Air Force. He joined the Marines after having received his draft notice because he believed that the Marines offered "the best opportunity for survival." He also wanted to be with the "best of the best."
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on May 24th, 1966. It was still what they called the "old Corps" where they could touch you and be up in your face. I mean, just intense. I personally got whaled on every single day for three months. Sergeant Bolton, our gunnery sergeant, would just walk up and, boom, coldcock you while he was asking you a question. I figured I'm going to learn how to fight and survive. I got other things that I want to do afterward.
Mike McCain (holding baby),
One basis of boot camp is to get you physically fit; the other is emotional, the ability to be able to react when told to without having to be critical. You're broken down psychologically and then rebuilt in the mold which can respond when the need arises, especially during wartime. There's nothing like the threat of death to focus your mind.
How did they prepare you for Vietnam?
We were getting straight propaganda. We got there the story of how poor little General Ky and Thieu were just standing facing these onslaughts of North Vietnamese hordes. They had asked us if we could come and help them out in any way. Of course, the United States government, being the kind and wonderful people that we are, said, Listen, we'll try and figure out something we can do to help.
You believed that?
Yes. I had no other basis of belief.
I was a radio operator. You carry this very peculiarly shaped package on your back and an antenna up in the air; the second lieutenant is standing next to you (laughs), so I got one of the few jobs that had less of a life expectancy than second lieutenants. My MOS [military occupational specialty] was 2533. I could operate any piece of radio gear the military had, AM-FM, single-sideband, radio-relay, cryptology stuff. I graduated first in my class in radio school, which is one of the most intense schools in the military.
Then I got sent to Defense Language Institute. There was an experimental class set up in the Defense Language Institute up in Monterey at the Naval War College where they took a 12-month language class and compressed it into 90 days. I was there with officers and enlisted people from every branch of the service. I graduated first in my class there too.
Every time I graduated, I got promoted. When I got out of boot camp I got PFC because I was the series honor man; I got the Leatherneck Dress Blues Award; I got every single award the Marine Corps could give you coming out of boot camp. Out of radio school, I was made lance corporal. Out of language school, I was made corporal. So I was an E-4 at the end of a year in the Marine Corps. I was an E-4 when I got out too. [Laughs.] I came close to sergeant, but by then I had an attitude.
I got offered to go to OCS then, and embassy school. I was the perfect size for going to embassy school. When I graduated from boot camp, I was 210 pounds of solid muscle with a 28-inch waist. I was bright and articulate and I looked good in uniform. They loved people like me. I had all the bases covered, but I said no. I had already enlisted for three years and in order to do either one of those things, I would have had to have increased my time in the military. I already knew I didn't want to do that.
I had already grown up in it. There were some problems of being a lifer in the military, and there was nothing that could be done about that. The class structure is rigid. I mean the guy that's the colonel could be the stupidest thing alive, but he's still the colonel. There's no future in being an enlisted man with 30 years in the Marine Corps, being an E-9 and knowing how to do everything and talking to some shave-ass lieutenant and calling him sir. I would have told them to fuck off. I turned all that down, knowing that the only alternative was going to Vietnam.
I got to Vietnam on May 28th, 1967. I was in the First Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, Com Company Radio Platoon, in Danang. We were the ones that ran the first Marine Division Com center. We went on every operation that the Marine Corps was involved in. I did convoy duty and I did operations. For not being a grunt, I was in combat about as much as it was possible to be, which is about 50 percent of the time.
What do you mean by combat?
Actually being in a position to get shot at and having to shoot back. Most combat veterans will say that the most intense periods of their lives were those wartime experiences. It was insane-flashes of intense terror and fright coupled with incredible moments of quiet and tenderness. You're never nearly as alive as you are except when your ass is on the line. Either some body's shooting at you, or you're shooting at somebody else. Everything is on. All your senses are alert. You feel everything. You smell everything. Sex doesn't have anywhere near the immersion of sensation that combat does.
In Danang, you had a few rockets come in now and then, but you walked around in a bathing suit and flip-flops, smoked dope and drank beer at the club, paid $5 to get laid, and stuff like that. It was like being in a resort.
We were living on the highest point of Danang harbor, which is one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. Our hootch in Danang was pretty cool. We had hustled mattresses. We had sheets. We had blankets and pillows. We had cantilevered porches built down the side of the mountain to hang out on. We had these huge stereo sound systems. We had cold water to drink. They're very comfortable. But then of course, when you're out in the bush, it wasn't like that at all.
As soon as I got over there, as a goof, I started going around and asking people that I would meet, you know, the mama-sans that would come into work around us, "Ay, which one of you guys invited us over here?" I started learning the real history of Vietnam and the war and the struggle of the French against the Vietnamese from the Vietnamese.
There are Marines there who are telling me, "Don't believe anything you heard, man; this place is fucked." It was like this, "Hey, new kid, what they just told you, you been lied to, asshole. They're fucking with you." These are Marines telling me this.
One story was being told in the United States, and people who had been there for a while knew what that story was, but that was not the reality of what was going on. I mean these great advances and military victories and all that was being reported in the United States papers, people were telling me were just not true at all. "No, man, that's bullshit. They kicked our ass."
How did this strike you?
It was like an epiphany. It was like, Wow, what's going on here? So I started asking. There wasn't any putting it together at that point. The conscious analysis didn't happen until much later, not until after Tet in 1968, after I had been there for a long time, that I started really questioning and understanding the politics of what was going on. But that was just the beginning of it. It didn't reach completion for years after I got out of the military and did anti-war work, because I had to study the history. There was just this feeling that there was some problem here.
Did you ever personally experience the problems you had heard of?
Oh, yeah. The experience with the ARVN was that. The ARVN was as much our enemy as the NVA or PRG [Provisional Revolutionary Government). That was the first real clue because these people were supposed to be fighting for their own country and there was no way in hell they were.
They were just a bunch of crooks. They would steal anything they saw that they wanted. If they saw a young woman who was particularly good-looking, she would get raped by all of them. Somebody had a piece of meat or some food they wanted, it would be taken. They couldn't be counted on for anything. They were worthless. They were a drain on society as a whole. This is what I saw. They didn't act like the soldiers who were supposed to be trying to free the people.
The military is always supposed to be in the service of the people. This is what I thought then; this is what I think now. I'm not anti-military, not at all. There are rules that you have to abide by. Neither the ARVN nor the United States military functioned in a way that I thought was right. I mean, there was always prostitutes around. They institutionalized prostitution around military bases, you could get laid for five bucks or a case of C rats. That, I felt, was fundamentally wrong.
There was another problem in that the United States military was not intellectually capable of understanding what was going on in Vietnam. One of the things that was going on then was that we would take places in the daytime; then move out at night; it would be taken over, and then go out and go through the same fight the next morning. We weren't educated about this hill as a strategic position; we were just told: Kill! Go kill!
I had a constant struggle with officers. Most of the officers didn't have a clue about what was going on, nor did they know how to lead, which I was already learning how to do. I was active in sports in high school, and growing up in the military, I knew what chain of command was, I knew what teamwork was. We're all in this shit together. Very seldom was there that relationship with officers.
One of my nicknames was "The Man." The Man was the guy who made sure you came back. I was always a squad leader or platoon leader, and nobody that was ever with me died-and we were in some pretty difficult places. I had a sense ... I knew when something was about to happen. I'd wake up from a dead sleep in our hootch and tell everyone to move and get in the bunker, and we'd get in the bunker and the first round would hit. Nobody would have survived.
You don't let ignorance rule just because it's wearing a bar. You don't allow yourself to be killed because some asshole says go do something. I mean the lieutenants in Vietnam had to be brought along. That's where fragging was involved. When push came to shove, if your only choice was to die yourself or getting rid of this dude who was going to put you in a position where you were going to be killed, the choice was reasonably simple.
The other thing was the callousness of the military itself that I found out about very quickly. If you got office hours, your punishment was to work in the mess hall. So people were doing disgustingly gross shit with the food because it was their punishment, right? Once you find that out, you say, "I don't think I want to go there anymore. I don't like this guy beating off into my coleslaw, pissing in the spaghetti, or whatever it was." [Laughs.]
We wrote to Senator McGovern, Kennedy, and the guy from Oregon [Senator Wayne Morse) who voted against the Tonkin Gulf [resolution), saying, Listen, we think we got a bad situation here and we don't think the Marine Corps should be doing this. We had already talked to our own officers and stuff and said, This is not such a good idea, guys; we all like to eat.
That was the first time I got in trouble. I got called up before very high brass. "How dare you tell somebody else that there's something wrong with our Marine Corps? You should have come to us first." Our response was, We tried. Nobody would pay any attention to us. "Well, you must have not done it right." It became totally our fault. We became the ones who had done something wrong. We had circumvented the chain of command, which is a deadly sin. We refused to accept it. They were wrong.
I was bucking authority. They were doing two o'clock in the morning inspections and shit like that. I told them, This is really stupid, man. I had grown up in a family that said you should always fight for what's right. Your bosses are supposed to take care of you, all of this shit. I've always been an uppity sort of guy. I've always been willing to accept that people might be smarter than I was, but they damn well better take my opinion into consideration because I was just like anybody else. Our society is supposed to be about that kind of stuff.
Very few people would argue, if they'd been there very long, about the correctness of what we were doing. It just wasn't an argument that held a lot of water. It was always talked about, but there were always people who didn't want to admit it. Because then it means, What's my life about? What's my country about? Questions like that are hard to deal with. Most people don't want to raise the questions.
At one point, my commanding officer decided that the way to deal with me and that phenomenon was by getting rid of me. I was made the commanding general's bodyguard of Task Force X-Ray, which was the unit that was in Hue City. It was Brigadier General Foster Carr Lahugh, a graduate of VMI [Virginia Military Institute], straight, traditional, old Corps. I couldn't leave the boy's side. I was like connected with an umbilical cord with this guy.
We moved up to Phu Bai, which was a combined Army and Marine Corps unit. It was either the 101st or 82nd Airborne. We were the ones who had to go into Hue the 30th or 31st of January when Tet started.
The first night of Tet, when I was in Phu Bai, the CIA officer in Hue City came through the lines and walked into the command center totally unannounced. He and his Vietnamese radioman got through our lines and just walked into the commanding general's bunker to make their report. These guys were tripped out to the fucking nines. They're dressed in solid black. They got weapons I'd never seen before. They had the highest-quality, most brand-new radios that existed—weighed half as much as I had, twice the battery life. They had stuff that I would have given my eyeteeth to have.
He came in and he just gave the list of names of thousands of people that the CIA thought were sympathetic to the north. As far as I know, all the reports of the NVA coming into Hue and killing all these people and burying them in mass graves was not done by them at all but was done by the United States military.
I quit carrying bullets after that. I didn't carry bullets in the last six months I was in Vietnam.
What about that experience made you stop carrying bullets?
I had already had the Vietnamese do several things for me, like I'd be out in the ville having dinner with people and somebody leaves the room and comes back a few minutes later and says, "There's a sweep coming through here; you'll have to come hide." I'd get put in a cellar or tunnel or something, and there'd be me—this big old white boy-and a couple of other Vietnamese, who I later figured out had to be the PRG or NVA because I could talk Vietnamese. So we'd talk.
They talked about their families and their life and what they wanted to do, just like I did. It was the most elemental of political discussions. "Are you married? Got any kids? My daughter's in high school now. She's doing pretty good. I'm worried about this guy she's going out with." I felt that they were all good people. They were just like anybody else.
As soon as Tet was over, the general got reassigned to the states, and I got sent back to radio platoon and was even more of a jefe than when I left because I had been up in Hue. When I got back to Danang at the end of February, we had this big party. That's when I found out about all the guys that died up on 337, which is the radio hill.
It's the most painful [holding back tears] . . . having your friends die. It's the most difficult thing next to your wife and children. The only comparison is family . . . It's not really a comparison - that's what they really are, is family.
How did you make sense of their deaths?
I didn't. I smoked reefers [and] drank to numb it, because there was no mechanism. My first introduction to drugs was in Vietnam. I started smoking reefers there and took speed and barbiturates because there were times on operations where you didn't want to go to sleep, so the corpsman would give us a thousand-tab jar of 10-milligram straight methamphetamine. We'd take that out with us.
A political consciousness is growing in the entire military by that point. We started to occasionally get glimpses of an alternative analysis of what we were doing there. There were active-duty GI projects in some of the places around the world. People in Vietnam were starting to wear peace symbols on their helmets. "Vietnam for the Vietnamese." "Get the GIs Out of Here." "Peace Now." All those kinds of things.
I was there when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The MPs were almost all white. The cats were just happy-very, very happy. They thought that was the coolest thing since white bread. I mean, it was all that traditional shit. "Thank god the nigger's dead. He deserved it." That sort of shit. They came across the street mouthing off. We had a couple of black people in our platoon, and we locked and loaded on them. Said, "Mother fucker, get your ass out here, or you will die. I don't want to hear that shit anymore."
One of the guys I was involved with was from Chicago, "Honey Bear." He had been telling us about the Black Panther Party. He had been getting the newspaper from them. We were all reading it. We read anything.
There was an underground system of radio stations. The last operation I was on was the first incursion into Cambodia trying to break the Ho Chi Minh trail. So I'm sitting on top of the highest point in South Vietnam, which is a hill called Ba Nai . . . I think it was Hill 1327. We were a mile or so up. After midnight, all these underground radio stations would start coming on the air. The entire country was connected from top to bottom with this underground system. You'd have the guys from Detroit with the Motown show and the guys from Texas would be doing the country-and-western bit. There'd be a salsa show and rock and roll, and all of this was interspersed with news about what was actually going on. That was the first time we actually started hearing about the mutinies in the Army. Of course, we had done the same things in the Marine Corps already.
What do you mean?
You know, "I want you, Joe, to take your platoon out here. I want you to make a perimeter. You go out three klicks to this point, head east, then do this, and this whole thing . . ." "Yeah, right." [Sarcastically.] You go out like half a mile, find yourself a nice place, sit down all fucking day and come back at night. "Yeah, I checked everything out and it's fine." That had been going on for a long time.
The stupidity of the—you know—"Go out and take a hill during the day and come back at night and give it up to the enemy" was the start of that. There was a futility to anything we were doing, People just said, "If there isn't any reason for it, what the fuck am I going to do it for?"
You discussed this?
Absolutely. A major topic of discussion, particularly after Tet. I mean, Tet's the epiphany. That's where everybody got their eyes opened. That was an eye-opener. "How did these little motherfuckers do this? How could this possibly have happened?"
We had not been told the truth. What Westmoreland was doing was a denial of the reality for so long that we didn't understand what had happened. We didn't realize that after Tet, the war was over. We destroyed huge percentages of the infrastructure of the PRG and NVA. They were decimated, but we didn't perceive that at the time.
Tet starts the end of January, is over by the end of February, and I left the country at the end of October of 1968. I had gotten my flight date, and like in 10 days before I was supposed to go home, I got busted for possession of a tenth of a gram of marijuana. My platoon commanding officer walked into the hootch and caught me with it. Within seconds of him walking in the door, people came in both doors of the hootch behind him, covered both doors, locked and loaded, and would have killed him on the spot if I had said, Do it. After he busted me, people were lining up to take him out because of the respect and position that I had in my unit, and I said, "No, you can't do that. It's wrong." He got transferred very shortly thereafter. Somebody made a phone call and he got sent to Fifth Marines in An Hoa, which was not a fun place to be. He was killed within two weeks of getting there with an M-60.
Because there was no longer any witnesses, I went from general court-martial to summary court-martial, where you have one officer who's judge, jury, defense, prosecuting attorney, and everything. It ended up being this hippie captain, a graduate in history from Berkeley. We talked about the great quantity of marijuana in Vietnam for an hour or so. He fills out the form, "not guilty," and I was on a plane in 48 hours and I was gone, but that took almost six months. I ended up doing almost 18 months in-country.
I got out late fall of 1968. Got transferred to Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina, and basically did not do anything. I went to another school, to microwave relay school, where I learned how to work with microwave transmission. I then got an early out and was released on April 1, 1969.
I was still married to my first wife, Elaine. We packed the car. Sean was born then. We drove in a Volkswagen van from North Carolina to Los Angeles. Her family was in Los Angeles. I went to college. I was a straight-A student. I started studying political science, history, economics-trying to learn the history of what I had just been involved in.
Then Jackson State and Kent State and the invasion of Cambodia happened in early 1970, and I just got to where I felt I had to do something. I didn't know what it was I was supposed to do; I just felt that there was something I was supposed to do.
The military was killing our babies. You don't send the military into your schools. That was wrong. That's what we had done. We knew it. It was a gut reaction. There wasn't any analysis. There was just this overwhelming sense that what had just happened was very, very wrong. Something had to be done. We didn't know what.
So the killing at Kent State was what motivated you...?
We came home with nightmares about . . . [Chokes up.] I did some stuff over there that I still refuse to talk about. I did stuff to children and women that I don't even want to think about, that I did in the heat of being in war, that I think is totally wrong. There's too much pain. That's part of what got me looking at stuff. There's no excuse for it. It's wrong. You get to thinking, Is there some other way to do things? The answer is yes, but it's a lot harder to do those than it is to kill people.
Copies of Winter Soldiers can be purchased through Haymarket Books at www.haymarketbooks.org/books/859-winter-soldiers.