Well into the autumn of my life, I am occasionally reminded the end is not too far over the horizon. Mortality puts thoughts in my head, like, “What have I done to leave this world a better place?”
There actually are a few things that I think made my existence worthwhile. I will tell you just one of them, because so many of you need to hear it.
No matter how much this rubs the wrong way, I am quite proud to have served my country in the Vietnam War. Yes, I know, most of you were taught there is shame attached to any role in the war that America lost, an unfortunate mistake, an immoral war, an unwise intrusion into a civil war, a racist war, a war in which American troops committed widespread atrocities, where America had no strategic interest, and that our North Vietnamese enemy was innocently striving to re-unite Vietnam.
The problem is, none of those things is true. That didn’t stop America over the last 50 years lapping up this Kool-Aid concocted by the anti-war machine, a loose confederation of protesting activists, the mainstream news media and academia. They opposed the war with loud noise, half-truths and fabrications. They are the ones who still write their version in our schoolbooks, and their account of history conveniently excuses themselves for cowardly encouraging our enemy while we were at war. You see, having the right to protest does not necessarily make it the right or honorable thing to do.
So, yes, I am defiantly proud to have been among those who raised our right hand swearing to do our duty for our country while so many others yelled and screamed and marched, burned their draft cards, declared, ”Hell, no! I won’t go!” and some fled to Canada.
In that period of uncomfortable controversy, even patriots tended to look the other way when activists heartily insulted American troops as they returned through California airports from doing the country’s hardest work in Vietnam. War correspondent Joe Galloway summed it up nicely in a column about Vietnam vets in the Chicago Tribune long ago; “They were the best you had, America, and you turned your back on them.”
To be sure, there were lots of warts and wrinkles in the war. We were fighting a tough Communist enemy, defending South Vietnam’s right to remain free. At the same time we were betrayed by our own leadership in the White House with their incompetent micromanagement and idiotic war-fighting limitations that got thousands of us killed while preventing victory. And we were betrayed by fellow citizens encouraging our enemy.
I was trained to be an Army Cobra helicopter pilot. I remember many times, with no regrets, shooting up the enemy to protect our ground troops, firing to cover fellow pilots, and firing to keep the brutal enemy away from South Vietnamese civilians. A high school student asked me last year how I deal with the guilt. I answered that I don’t have any guilt, that I was doing my duty and would proudly do it again.
When John Lennon turned the Beatles into a protest band, his song “Give Peace a Chance” was hailed as genius. Look up the inane lyrics and judge for yourself. At protest rallies, crowds of tens of thousands would raise their arms to wave in unison while chanting in ecstasy, “All we are asking, is give peace a chance!” over and over. Luminaries like Tom Smothers, presidential candidate George McGovern, writer and self-acclaimed intellectual Gore Vidal and a host of others lauded Lennon’s song and observed, “Who wouldn’t prefer peace to war?”
What self-indulgent, naive stupidity!
My friend Anh Nguyen was 12 years old in 1968, living in the city of Hue, the cultural center of Vietnam. One morning when he opened the shutters to his bedroom window, a shot was fired over his head, the first he knew the enemy’s Tet Offensive had begun. The Communists had negotiated a cease fire for their New Year holiday of Tet, then in treachery attacked on that holiday in about 100 locations all over South Vietnam.
The enemy was well prepared and they took the city of Hue. They had lists of names and addresses provided by spies, and they went from street to street, dragging from their homes political leaders, business owners, teachers, doctors, nurses and other “enemies of the people.” The battle raged four weeks before our Marines retook the city. In the aftermath, mass graves with nearly 5,000 bodies were found, executed by the Communists, many tied together and buried alive.
Anh and his family had evacuated to an American compound for protection. Anh says when the battle was over and they walked Highway 1 back to their home, the most beautiful sight his family had ever seen was U.S. Marines lining the road, standing guard over South Vietnamese civilians.
To follow John Lennon’s plea, Anh’s family and countrymen could “Give peace a chance” by surrendering to the Communist invaders, but even a mush-head like Lennon should know there are some things worthy of your fight. I doubt Lennon would have understood the best way to ensure peace is to carry the biggest stick.
Want to know what causes me shame?
In 1973, when we basically had the war won, the U.S. gave it away in a peace agreement when escape from Vietnam was the only politically acceptable option. In the peace agreement, the U.S. pledged our ongoing financial support to South Vietnam’s defense, and pledged U.S. direct military intervention if the North Vietnamese ever broke their pledge not to attack South Vietnam.
In the 1974 U.S. elections, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation, Democrats were swept into Congress and promptly cut off all funding to South Vietnam in violation of the U.S. pledge. North Vietnam was watching.
In early 1975 when the North Vietnamese attacked South Vietnam, President Ford literally begged Congress to fund the U.S. pledge to intervene, and Congress refused.
The same news media, protesters and academia who had screamed against the war, firmly turned their back in 1975 and refused to notice the slaughter and inhumanity as the Communists overwhelmed the ally America had thrown under the bus. Even today, few on the anti-war side know or care there were roughly 75,000 executions, that a panicked million fled in over-packed rickety boats and died at sea by the tens of thousands, that a million were sent to brutal re-education camps for decades and also died by the tens of thousands, or that South Vietnamese who fought to remain free — and their descendants — are still persecuted to this day. Abandoning our ally to that fate is America’s everlasting shame.
We could have won that war if our military had been allowed to take off the soft gloves, but it went on far too long with no end in sight, mismanaged to a fare-thee-well by the White House and became America’s misery. Through it all, even the betrayals from home, we fought well and never lost one significant battle.
Leftists think they know all about the war and the Americans who fought it. They don’t know didley.
At the 334th Attack Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa, we Cobra pilots were 19 to 25 years old with very rough edges. We thought of ourselves as gunslingers and might have swaggered a bit. We drank too much at the end of a sweat-stained day, for fun or escape or both. We laughed off close calls with the bravado of gallows humor. We toasted our dead and hid the pain of personal loss deep inside. We swore a lot and told foul jokes. We pushed away the worry of how long our luck would hold, and the next day we would bet our life again to protect the South Vietnamese people and each other.
To properly characterize my fellow Vietnam vets, I need to borrow words from John Steinbeck as he wrote about the inhabitants of Cannery Row, and ask you to look from my angle, past their flaws, to see them as I often do, “… saints and angels, martyrs and holy men.” America’s best.
I am proud to be one of them because we faced evil together in a valiant effort to keep the South Vietnamese people free, doing God’s work for a little while, even though it failed by the hand of our own countrymen working against us from safety at home.
More than any other class of people, I trust and admire the American men and women who served in Vietnam and met the test of their mettle, even the ones I don’t know. I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for a thousand leftist anti-war elites.
Everyone deserves a second chance. But for the naval-gazing flower children who remain unrepentant about encouraging the enemy we were fighting, who still smugly know all the wrong answers about us and the Vietnam War, who have never known mortal danger and didn’t give a fig when Saigon fell and the Commies made South Vietnamese streets run red with the blood of innocent people, I want to be sure to deliver this invitation before I get too old and feeble: kiss me where the sun don’t shine.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. firstname.lastname@example.org.]