Sometimes the herd is wrong

Terry Garlock

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.]


  1. Darn – the last bit of Gen Ulmer’s talk got lost in the shuffle. What he said was that years later in his career he was an attache in Moscow. At a cocktail party he was talking with a Russian and they got on the subject of Vietnam. Turns out the Russian had be the chief logistics officer sending stuff from Russian to North Vietnam. He told General Ulmer that we quit about 6 months too soon because the Russians were rapidly running out of things to send. When the Russians went into Afghanistan and President Reagan chose to help the Afghans fight back it sapped them to the point of hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a additional data point the Soviets lost 50,000+ troops in Afghanistan and those that returned brought back a serious drug problem which haunts them to this day. There is some history you probably didn’t know.

  2. Good article, but missing one point. The deaths on all sides were not wasted. As pointed out by Lt. General Walt Ulmer, our time in Vietnam wasn’t wasted. Part of what happened in Vietnam was that we helped wear the Soviet Union down to the point where it fell apart without a nuclear war. Don’t believe that? Listen to General Ulmer talk about the battle of An Loc. At the end of his talk (which is interesting) he drops a very interesting fact – listen and learn. – BTW – I was a FAC on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in both Laos and Cambodia (Mar 70 – Mar 71.)

  3. Again, Mr. Miller, thank you for your service to our country.

    If you and Mr. Garlock must revise history to feel better about our military involvement in Southeast Asia four decades ago, no legion of historians will deter you. Many Southern citizens assert that slavery was incidental to the South’s ill-fated hostilities with the Union 150 years ago despite over a century of historical scholarship that universally says otherwise. We live in post-truth America anyway where our highest elected officials enjoy only a casual relationship with the truth.

    BTW, as a pragmatist, I could never belong to a political party. One must drink the tainted Kool-Aid of ideology to kneel at the shrines of either political party. That is a bridge too far.

  4. “Stanger than Fiction” is such an appropriate name.

    Like Mr. Garlock, I served in Vietnam. Got to go twice as an Army helicopter pilot. Once in late 1968 as my civic duty; a second time in late 1971 for some coward who fled to Canada. And then a third time in 2007 as a tourist.

    Failure of the US to achieve our strategic goals in the Vietnam War begins and ends with Democrats. An incompetent President Johnson flooded the country with almost 500,000 military personnel by 1968. His incompetent general, William Westmoreland, only knew World War II tactics. Together, they wasted tens of thousands of American lives and pushed the South Vietnamese Army to the sidelines keeping them equipped with WWII weapons. President Nixon and General Creighton Abrams changed everything and began withdrawing troops. By the early part of 1972 we had less than 50,000 troops in South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese Army was doing almost all the of the fighting. The war was essentially won by then.
    But, as Mr. Garlock points out, in 1974 Democrats led an effort in congress to pass legislation that cut off all aid to the South Vietnamese regardless of our obligations under the 1973 treaty. As a result, in early 1975, the North Vietnamese Army gave up their guerrilla warfare strategy and a began a massive conventional invasion of the south. Despite a hopeless situation where they ran out of fuel and ammunition promised by the 1973 treaty, the South Vietnamese forces fought valiantly to the end. “Stranger than Fiction” should read about the battle of Xuan Loc in late April 1975.

    And had “Stranger than Fiction” bothered to study post war publications of the North Vietnamese, he/she would have found ample evidence that the North Vietnamese government created the myth of a civil war in the south beginning in 1959 by sending military personnel to the south to create the Viet Cong. Those forces were destroyed during Tet of 1968 and all we faced after that in the south were uniformed North Vietnamese forces. So much for the myth of a “Civil war”.

    My wife and I went to Vietnam as tourists in 2007. Had someone left the south in 1972 and had no knowledge of the years from 1973 through 2007 and returned to visit as we did, their conclusion would be that South Vietnamese forces had prevailed. Capitalism flourishes due to the wonderful collapse of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of those living in in southern Vietnam love and respect Americans. They often express great contempt for the Russians who followed us.

    Like Mr. Garlock, I have no regrets about US involvement there or what I did there. Nor do the people in nearby countries like Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore where the Soviets in the early 1960’s were attempting to create other “civil wars”. Because we focused on South Vietnam, so did the Soviets and Chinese, thus giving those other countries an extended opportunity to fight off those efforts.

    • Mr. Miller – Thank you for your service to our country.

      Like Mr. Garlock, it seems that you have adopted an unconventional and nuanced interpretation of the history of the Vietnam conflict which conforms to your political position. However, the salient point in which we concur wholeheartedly is that South Vietnam failed for want of United States intervention. That is paramount since it validates the truth that the south could not sustain itself within the political and economic structure of the Vietnamese population. America’s error was entering the fray to begin with. Like Robert McNamara concluded before he died, every reason for entering the war and continuing it were based on faulty logic. He should know since he was largely the architect of the debacle.

      Our politicians’ and generals’ failures do not reflect negatively on fighting men such as yourself. Again, thank you for bravely serving our nation regardless of the fruitlessness of the venture.

      • STF, I appreciate your measured and considered response. Do you have a real name?

        We agree on only one thing: Robert McNamara made poor decisions based on faulty logic. I should have included his name in my previous post along with the incompetent President Johnson and General William Westmoreland. Together, the three dug a deep hole at the beginning of the war. But with General Abrams, we became successful. That is, until the North Vietnamese and the Democrat Party decided to ignore the 1973 treaty and give the North Vietnamese a victory they could not achieve on the battlefield. Nothing nuanced or unconventional about this. Just often ignored by those who still supposedly continue to be opposed to our involvement in that war.

        You argue that the South Vietnam could not fight without our assistance. It is a false and irrelevant argument since North Vietnam had an unending supply of weapons and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and China. In WWII, Western Europe and much of the Pacific region could not sustain itself against the Axis powers. But we fought there anyway.

        As I wrote earlier, despite failing to achieve our goals in Vietnam, some neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore and the Philippines owe their continued freedom to our involvement in South Vietnam.

        Which makes me incredibly grateful to have served in the war.

        • Mr. Miller – Obviously, we are observing the same data but analyzing it quite differently. The vast majority of 20th century academic historians discredit the validity of Vietnam being a proxy war pitting the U.S.A. against the U.S.S.R. and China and its companion “Domino Theory.” Hence the “herd” title in Mr. Garlock’s essay. It is a minority position to believe that our military conflict in Indochina had any protective effect on Pacific Rim countries. I’m not attempting to modify your position, merely to identify its paucity of historian exponents.

          I see our involvement in the Vietnam as ignoble hubris from which Presidents Johnson and Nixon were loath to admit or rectify even while millions died. You and Mr. Garlock adhere to a more gallant analysis. Like you, I am so very pleased that Vietnam today embraces capitalistic economics and welcomes American who visit. This is an outcome that we can all appreciate.

          As an aside – I’ve often considered that if Vietnam were truly a proxy war, wouldn’t President Nixon’s 1972 champagne toasts in Moscow with Brezhnev and in China with Chairman Mao been treason? I couldn’t see FDR and Churchill toasting Hitler and Mussolini in 1944. Just an interesting rabbit trail.

          • STF: No, we are not obviously observing the same data. You are ignoring some critical data in coming to your conclusion. That data occurred between 1969 and 1974. Most of our 450,000 troops were gone by late 1971. The South Vietnamese Army did almost all of the fighting from that point until April 30, 1975. You also ignore the terms of the 1973 treaty and the Democrat decision in 1974 to stop all support to South Vietnam. The Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Your party did the same in 2011 when Obama withdraw all support from Iraq. Do you see a pattern here?

  5. Ya STF – while I don’t have the man-crush on Noah Webster like yourself, sometimes its fun to pretend. Only when your Kool-Aid gets too sugary will you get something from me. Lately it’s been somewhat bearable – but stand by.

  6. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. An individual who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, kill or die for is a miserable coward who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men.

  7. Thanks Terry. Your service and the service of all military men and women who were willing to lay it all on the line during those turbulent times was honorable and, finally, is deeply appreciated by those who matter.
    David Epps

    • Thanks David. I know you have given much spiritual support to both military and police, and I know it is your labor of love, same as the things I do with Vietnam vets. I wrote a book about them, Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam, worked on it for 5 years and talked to a LOT of them, learned much about them and myself, the itch too deep to scratch, the something wrong deep inside that can never be set right, the populace who think they know the answers but don’t. Mike King and I spoke to a student group at Newnan High School today, and one thing I told them is their parents and grandparents know things for sure about the Vietnam War that have never been true. All in all, I think most vets at this late date just want the truth told about them.
      Terry Garlock

  8. Poor Mr. Garlock. After all these years, he can’t admit that gallant servicemen like himself were thrust into a conflict that was ultimately unwinnable. No matter how many battles we won (even Tet), we would one day go home. The South Vietnamese either couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up to the north, so their defeat was inevitable. Our presence merely delayed the inevitable and needlessly sacrificed 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese.

    Unfortunately, we have learned nothing from this deadly escapade, and we are repeating it in Afghanistan. When we finally go home, that country will return to lawlessness. Lesson: you can’t make a people more democratic than they are willing to be unless you are willing to occupy them forever.

    Mr. Garlock – Believe what you have to in order to sleep well at night, but don’t expect sober people who read history to believe these revisions.

    • Poor Mr,Stranger Than Fiction…..Opinions are good,Rude is not…Two words out of your mouth beginning with Poor Mr.Garlock grabbed my attention..A man shares his soul about his time in the Military and you had better knowledge about his feeling and you do not know him..Apparently you never served your country and my guess a Democrate…This man was a young kid,through he was doing the right thing..His country needed men,he went you did not…He hoped and did save many lives..None of us can judge anothers feelings on a serious issue is these wars..He though back then he did the right thing and still does today..You have a choice as to how you feel about wars..He has his..Many i knew fought different wars….whatever their reasons…To insult them,degrade them when they came home was sad.Sadder still, is you have to condem his right to fight for what he believed in is the sadess….I am sorry for you….And salute him…Some run,some take necessary actions,and stand behind their choices..Saving the lives of women and children were the reasons this gentleman was there..He was young and brave,concerned only by protecting this country and the people he fought to save during this time…Was this war a mistake,one we could not win.A war that would not help these people stand on their own two feet and would give up in the end..At lest all concerned at the time tried.Right or wrong…..Mexico is a good example..Instead of taking their country back,they pour acroos the border expecting some one else to take them in…Most are men,men with criminal backgrounds..We neither want or need them.. My opinion. Many diseases being brought here..Yet we are fighting today as to the right thing to do to handle the thousands pouring in here and blending in,not to be heard from unti the next criminal offense or death…I could bet you choose to allow them to pour into this country,not build the Wall..Have you been to the Borders,are you abable to give an opinion on this serious matter..Im from Texas,if you have not been to the borders every one should take their next family vacation in one of the Border Towns…You say we did no good to fight this mans War because the people would not fight for control…So do you think Drug Dealers coming across the Border will solve the dillema by allowing them to be here illegally.Who to feed and care for grown men..It is not our responsibility and we can no longe be sympathizers..We need to stand behind and respect who ever is president if all possibable..If we can not come together and build a wall for our security how would we ever come together in Nucelar decisions…War decisions, Epidemics and diseases..Would we sit back and let some one under mind our President and his decisions.This issue as to who is the president is bigger than Building The Wall..Those who think they are smarter,better equipped at decision makng should/ did run for president and lost.Again it is respect and our responsibility to come forth as adults. One man chooses to join the Military,another does not…Each may be right in their own thought process..So respect each others opinion as much as possibable

      • Whoa Annie! Mr. Garlock’s gallantry and patriotism are not in question by me or anyone else on this website. His rendering of history is the only thing that is suspect. He writes this same column every few months citing another brave Vietnam serviceman but concluding that U.S. interference in a foreign country’s civil war by American politicians who were not fully committed to a victory was somehow not doomed. This revision of history is a significant outlier and contradicts both liberal and conservative historians. Perhaps he can’t accept that a soldier may serve bravely even if his country’s cause is suspect.

        As for your rant about border security, what does it have to do with this post? Perhaps you should return to Fox News so you won’t miss a breaking story.

        • Concerning some of the comments, and the answers by STF, I have lived for 80+ years and the news I see in the papers, and coming from our college campuses don’t quite match what I remember happening. This unfortunately applies to today’s news as well as historical facts. You can probably guess that I too am a VN Vet. I not only served there but lived and worked with the South Vietnamese military. As with the early Korean War reports about South Korean military, the Vietnamese were not very adept in the beginning. They suffered from lack of leadership and substandard equipment. As time progressed their proficiency increased, and they grew into a fighting force. I do not believe I will influence your mindset (look at the USA today, bitterly split with little impetus to come together. Both sides). Let me end by saying from personal experience, the South Vietnamese wanted us there, and appreciated what we were trying to do. Lost some friends with the victory of the North.