Vietnam’s Shadow Reaches Obama

Will February 17, 2009, someday be regarded as a date of great historical import, the starting point of what could be a dangerous road into an unwinnable military conflict? That is the alarm being sounded in light of President Barack Obama’s decision to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The Vietnam parallels and warnings are plentiful. Prior to the announcement, Newsweek’s ominous January 31 cover proclaimed: “Obama’s Vietnam,” and an essay by John Barry and Evan Thomas opened by describing a 2008 interview with Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House military adviser coordinating efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq: “‘We have never been beaten tactically in a fire fight in Afghanistan,’ Lute said. To even casual students of the Vietnam War, his statement has an eerie echo. One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Colonel Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, ‘You never defeated us in the field.’ To which the NVA officer replied: ‘That may be true. It is also irrelevant.’”

The parallels are disturbing, as Newsweek noted: “the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to ‘win.’ The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries.” Many, however, are dismissing the comparisons as much too simplistic. After Newsweek’s cover story, an Associated Press article reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, cautioned against comparing the Pentagon’s renewed focus on Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, citing terrorism and a nonoccupation strategy as “dramatic differences” between the two conflicts.

While politicians, historians and commentators will disagree about the extent to which these conflicts are comparable, what is undeniable is the relevance, four decades later, of the Vietnam War experience to the critical decisions of war and peace today.

Tonkin Resolution: ‘My worst vote’

As the 111th Congress convened in January, Michigan Democrat John Dingell became the longest-serving representative in the history of the House. First elected in 1956, Dingell has since cast literally thousands of votes in his 26 terms. In a Detroit News interview, however, Dingell was quick in identifying his worst vote.

“The worst mistake I ever made was the Gulf of Tonkin vote authorizing the Vietnam War. I went to the floor with the assumption I was going to vote against it. When I got to the well, I got to thinking that the president should be able to conduct the foreign policy of the United States. Let’s give him what he wants. It wasn’t long before I realized I had made a terrible mistake. That was one of the reasons I suffered so much over George H.W. Bush’s vote to go into Iraq after they invaded Kuwait, which was the right thing to do. I voted with him on that.” But, Dingell added, “I didn’t vote with George W.”

A Sad Milestone

Army officials reported in February that suicides among soldiers in 2008 rose for the fourth year in a row, reaching the highest level in nearly three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, surpassing the suicide rate in the civilian population for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Officials are cautioning that the 2008 count, which includes soldiers serving in the Army Reserve and the National Guard, is actually expected to grow. An additional 15 deaths are still being investigated, and it is believed that the majority of those will ultimately be ruled suicides.

After 37 Years, Jane Fonda’s F.T.A. Antiwar Revue Resurfaces on Film

When film documenting a subversive, satirical traveling revue that targeted U.S. troops stationed around the Pacific Rim—featuring antiwar activist actors Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Peter Boyle—was first released in 1972, it had a very short run. Its title, F.T.A., is an acronym for either “Free the Army” or, more likely, a favorite profane soldier’s reference—or command—with regard to the Army. Just as the documentary was released to theaters in the summer of 1972, Fonda’s infamous trip to North Vietnam and her photograph sitting atop an anti-aircraft gun hit the news. The film’s distributor quickly yanked it from theaters—and it has rarely been seen since, until now.

Including a recent interview with Fonda, the newly restored film premiered at New York’s IFC Center in February prior to its DVD release. F.T.A. chronicles the radical troupe’s 1971 tour of U.S. military bases in Hawaii, Okinawa and the Philippines—and their efforts to encourage opposition to the war among the troops. Barred from performing on U.S. bases, they played in nearby coffeehouses and other venues. In its 21 engagements, 64,000 servicemen and women reportedly attended. Fonda conceded recently that many of the GIs likely were there to see the sex kitten Jane from the movie Barbarella, not the radical Jane with clenched fist denouncing the war.

Along with bawdy skits that take shots at the war and top-brass privilege, and protest songs from the revue, the film includes interviews with individual soldiers about army life, including many black GIs recounting racism and abuse in the service.

Transglobe to the Hall of Fame

It was a favorite target for Viet Cong guerrillas twice a month as it cruised up the Saigon River to Da Nang, loaded down with American war supplies. Sinking the WWII-vintage SS Transglobe would have been both a militarily significant and a morale-boosting feat for the VC. They never did. In honor of its service in Vietnam and World War II, the ship and its crew were recently inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

During World War II Transglobe was a cargo ship then named Marine Wolf that transported GIs across the North Atlantic, shuttled troops between Britain and France and returned GIs to the U.S. after the war. Renamed Transglobe in 1966, the ship was chartered to shuttle supplies from Okinawa to Da Nang. The ship, with its sandbagged bridge, flak-jacket-wearing crew and heavily armed Marines at bow and stern, would cruise up the Saigon River shadowed by swift boats alongside and helicopters overhead. Even so, the ship took many hits from enemy mortar and rocket fire, but always managed to get through. From 1966 to 1972, Transglobe saw the most action and became the most decorated U.S. merchant vessel of the Vietnam War.

The Dover Dilemma

During the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, feared that photos and television footage of caskets of dead soldiers being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base would undermine support for the war. Their ban on media at Dover remained through the George W. Bush administration as nearly 5,000 U.S. KIA have been returned through Dover. On February 26, the Obama administration reversed course— somewhat—announcing that news organizations can now cover Dover homecomings of war dead if families give permission.

The Vietnam experience echoed loudly during the debate about the ban. A February 18 Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Tim Rutten called the restrictive policy: “A distortion of one of the so-called lessons of Vietnam. Yes, there’s a line of conventional wisdom that says media coverage of the war in Southeast Asia, particularly television, fatally undercut public support for the war. According to that version of events, nightly network news footage of coffins rolling down conveyor belts from Air Force planes at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii pushed popular approval of the war into the basement.” Citing Vietnam Magazine’s founding editor Colonel Harry Summers, Rutten wrote: “Summers, who was a career Army officer first, last and always and the furthest thing from sentimental, utterly rejected such an approach. Summers made it clear that Americans did not lose faith in the Vietnam War because they abhor sacrifice, but because they were unwilling to suffer enormous losses in the service of a mistake.…As he told an audience in Berkeley in 1996, ‘I think the American public has learned the lessons of the Vietnam War fairly well.…And all of the comments made about how we can’t stand casualties [are] baloney.’”

2009 POW/MIA Seminar Schedule

The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) has announced its slate of 2009 family seminars around the country. Specialists travel to various cities each year to meet with MIA family members, address their individual needs and provide new information. Officials will also meet one-on-one with family members.

The DPMO also conducts monthly updates and annual briefings for families of American service members who are missing in action, designed to keep their family members informed of the government’s worldwide mission to account for MIAs.

This year’s seminars are:

March 28: Baltimore
April 25: Denver
May 30: Walla Walla, Wash.
June 27: Nashua, N.H.
July 23-25: Washington, D.C.
August 29: Minneapolis
October 23-24: St. Louis
November 21: Jackson, Miss.
For more information: www.dtic.mil/dpmo

‘Magnum P.I.’ Joins VVMF

Actor Tom Selleck of Magnum, P.I. fame is now the national spokesman for the campaign to build the Education Center at The Wall. Selleck is a Vietnam-era veteran who served with the 160th Infantry of the California Army National Guard. His role as Thomas Magnum in the 1980’s television series is widely regarded as among the first positive portrayals of a Vietnam veteran in broadcast television. Selleck claims a close connection to those who served in Vietnam, and especially to a friend who is remembered on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At an estimated cost of $75 to $100 million, the Education Center at The Wall will illustrate America’s legacy of service through the lens of the Vietnam War. Nearly $18 million has been raised so far. Selleck and others are filming public service announcements to raise awareness for the project.

North Dakota’s New Vietnam Veterans Day

North Dakota’s Senate unanimously approved a bill that sets aside March 29 to honor Vietnam Veterans. The bill, headed to the North Dakota House, needs a two-thirds approval there. A number of states have designated March 29—the day the last American forces were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973—as Vietnam Veterans Day.

Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, Marine Legend

Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, who headed all U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific during part of the Vietnam War, died in January at age 95. He famously summed up the America’s challenge in the war by saying, “It has no front lines. The battlefield is in the minds of 16 or 17 million people.” He commanded 100,000 Marines as the United States dramatically built up its forces in Vietnam in 1964-68. In retirement, he was a critic of the handling of the war, writing that it could have been won only if the South had been protected and befriended and the North’s supply routes cut. “The destruction of the port of Haiphong would have changed the whole character of the war,” he said after Saigon’s fall.

Ronald Scott Taylor, Que Son Hero

A highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who went on to become a lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department, Ronald Scott Taylor, 64, died in January. According to his family, Taylor reportedly died from complications from diabetes stemming from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Taylor served two combat tours in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division Airmobile and the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam. At the start of Tet in January 1968, Taylor’s unit was heavily engaged in the Que Son Valley and his platoon was encircled by an NVA regiment that repeatedly tried to overrun it. During a 26-hour fight, 20 of his 50 men were wounded. Taylor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for rallying his men while constantly exposed to enemy fire as he called in a concentrated ring of some 7,000 rounds of artillery fire.

 

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here