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Notes From the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
I was sitting around the other day, fully aware that the deadline for the next Veteran was fast approaching, and experiencing my usual trauma associated with that realization. I got nothing to say, I'm thinking. So I had a couple of beers and thought — wait a minute, I just retired after 35 years as a probation officer. I can tell some really funny stories about my child molesters and drunks and drug dealers. That'll bring the house down. Better yet, I can just e-mail Jeff a couple dozen pictures of my grandkids. That'll fill up two or three pages. Needless to say, neither of those ideas sounded quite that clever the next morning. I decided I needed a Plan C.
So guess who came to my rescue? The Veterans of Foreign Wars! I got my monthly magazine, which contained an article entitled "Teaching The Vietnam War." Some readers may recall that I have been doing that at the local high school since the late 1990's. I admit to some trepidation here, however. What if I read the article and discover a couple of dozen things I've been doing wrong? Or what if it's written by some Curtis LeMay lookalike or one of Westmoreland's grandkids trying to salvage his reputation? As it turned out, the article was written by someone a lot more knowledgable than I, and was not, well, what I expected out of the VFW. With one or two exceptions, I thought that it was pretty well written.
Most of the courses to which the article refers are college ones, and most are not taught by Vietnam veterans. But to the credit of the instructors, they go out of their way to bring into their classrooms as many Nam vets as they can find. The obvious advantage of this is that the students hear from everyone who changed flat tires in a base camp to those who — what's the word? — got shot at. Readers will understand that, MOS's not withstanding, we usually didn't have a hell of a lot of choice where we wound up. And even the guys pounding a typewriter at Cam Ranh have their story to tell.
Of course, those guys changing flats and pounding typewriters in base camps, God love them all, have one slight disadvantage. Every single Vietnamese they met loved them. "GI number 1, VC number 10," they used to say. "They," by the way, were the bartenders, laundry women, drug dealers and prostitutes who constitute about 90% of a base camp indigenous population. Did it ever occur to these guys that they were paying the Vietnamese to be nice to them? They weren't all that happy to see us out in the field.
Further to the credit of the instructors, they insist that they're not on a mission either to defend or to criticize the war. Quite the contrary. As one professor explained, "I don't teach them what I think was right or wrong about the war. I want our students to pound this stuff out and make their own decisions about the war." Having said that, asking a Vietnam veteran to avoid the judgment issue entirely may be asking too much.
Most of the time it's not, though. I learned a long time ago that I'm a lousy lecturer, so I just start out with a brief history of what I did in the Army, then turn it over to the students for questions. The teacher has been asked to make certain that they have some, and they seldom disappoint me. And most of their questions are not all that ideological. "Did it ever rain while you were there?" "Did you eat a lot at McDonald's?" "Did your iPhone work in the jungle?" OK, that's not true. The students ask some very good questions. When the question is something like "How big were the monkeys?", it would be difficult, and probably unethical, to turn the answer into a ten-minute monologue on the virtues of Ho Chi Minh. Inevitably, though, I do get "Do you think the war was just?" Something there about the rubber meeting the road.
Of course, my first inclination is to bring out a VVAW banner and start with "1,2,3,4, we don't want..." You remember how that goes. But I don't do that. I start by saying, quite honestly, that while I am not a supporter of that war, I'm able to take that position with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight. I tell them that males in my generation grew up on Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy movies (say who?), and for most of us it was unthinkable that America would invade a foreign country against the wishes of the vast majority of its citizens. And our government certainly wouldn't lie to us. Seriously, that was one of the reasons why I volunteered for Vietnam. I finish up with reminding them that, even though good old Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy was long gone, the 60's were still part of the Cold War. Fifty years ago, Americans took that seriously, along with the old domino theory argument about the dangers of international Communism and the need to "stop them somewhere."
I then trot out the usual litany of lies, beginning with our support of French colonialism between the end of WW II and Dien Bien Phu; our refusal to allow free countrywide elections in 1956 as called for in the 1954 peace agreement; the Gulf of Tonkin lie — completely unacknowledged by the VFW as recently as last month, by the way; and on down the line of ruthless South Vietnamese dictators we supported until the war's end in 1975. And in the interest of what we proudly trumpet as our commitment to self determination, I mention Eisenhower's statement, in his memoirs, that if free elections had been held in 1956, Ho would have garnered something like 80% of the vote nationwide.
What else strikes me about this VFW article? An instructor at the US Naval War College notes that his students spend a lot of time talking about "media biases, specifically the press always and unfairly bashing US troops" during the war. To tell you the truth, I don't remember that. But you know the old saying: if you can remember the 60's you weren't there. I probably shouldn't go down that road. But there was certainly a lot of troop bashing going on in this country back then. I have spoken with dozens of veterans who recount being cursed and spat upon when they appeared in uniform, and I'm certain that they're telling the truth. The reason I'm so certain is that there has never been a shortage of stupid people in the world. As old Bobby Zimmerman said, we were just pawns in their game.
One instructor said something which didn't surprise me, although I guess I just hadn't thought of it before. "In the 70's, no one wanted to admit he was a Vietnam veteran. Today you have people who fake being one." Oh yes, and it is certainly disgraceful to do that. Contrary to the feelings of the VFW and the American Legion, however, I agree with the criminal justice system that lying about one's service record is only actionable (criminal) if one profits significantly from that lie. You can tell me about your bogus Silver Start until the water buffalo come home. I don't have to believe you, and the longer you go on about it the more obvious that lie will become.
You know what really frosted me in this article? I quote: "One time, an anti-war protester who had gone to prison to avoid going to Vietnam came in and tried to share his views. He was not at all popular with the students, (the instructor) said, laughing." Oh yeah, that was a real knee slapper. While I'm preaching to the choir on this subject, one good thing came out of my having read this part. I guarantee that the next time I walk into a classroom to talk Vietnam, I will tell them precisely why those Americans who went to Canada, based upon their sincere opposition to the Vietnam War, should be regarded as heroes. If they don't agree, it won't be because I haven't told them.
Oh, and 1,2,3,4...we don't want your f'in war! (I had to throw that in.)
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.