Heroes of the VietnamGeneration: By James Webb

The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great Depressionand then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from the leadinglights of the so-called 60’s generation. Tom Brokaw has published two oralhistories of “The Greatest Generation” that feature ordinary peopledoing their duty and suggest that such conduct
was historically unique.

Chris Matthews of “Hardball” is fond of writing columns praising theNavy service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation forits alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a startlingcondescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago comparing the heroismof the “D-Day Generation” to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the”Woodstock Generation.” And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film”Saving Private Ryan,” was careful to justify his portrayals ofsoldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.

An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now beinglionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today’s mostconspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The”best and brightest” of the Vietnam age group once made headlines bycastigating their parents for bringing about the war
in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse toremember.

Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the “generationgap.” Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining itsmanifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through themagical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby boomersnot to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the Depression andfought the largest war in history were looked down upon as shallow,materialistic, and out of touch.

Those of us who grew up, on the other side of the picket line from that era’scounter-culture can’t help but feel a little leery of this sudden gush ofappreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old counter-culture.Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from the dubiousassumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a unified generationin the same sense as their parents were, and thus are capable of being spokenfor through these fickle elites.

In truth, the “Vietnamgeneration” is a misnomer. Those who came of age during that war arepermanently divided by different reactions to a whole range of counter-culturalagendas, and nothing divides them more deeply than the personal ramificationsof the war itself. The sizable portion of the Vietnamage group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especiallythe men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War,are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak forthem.

In fact, they are much like the World War II generationitself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiledbrats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to paytheir tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draftavoidance, or protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal asthose their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.

Few who served during Vietnamever complained of a generation The men whofought World War II were their heroes and role models. They honored theirfather’s service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their father’s wisdomin attempting to stop Communism’s reach in Southeast Asia.

The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91 percentwere glad they’d served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their time in theservice, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that “our troops wereasked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washingtonwould not let them win.” And most importantly, the castigation theyreceived upon returning home was not from the World War II generation, but fromthe very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.

Nine million men served in the military during Vietnam War, three million ofwhom went to the Vietnam Theater. Contrary to popular mythology, two-thirds ofthese were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were volunteers. Whilesome attention has been paid recently to the plight of our prisoners of war,most of whom were pilots; there has been little recognition of how brutal thewar was for those who fought it on the ground.

Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America‘scitizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be trulyunderstood. Those who believe the war was fought incompletely on a tacticallevel should consider Hanoi‘srecent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield,compared to 58,000 total U.S.dead.

Those who believe that it was a “dirty little war” where the bombsdid all the work might contemplate that is was the most costly war the U.S.Marine Corps has ever fought – five times as many dead as World War I, threetimes as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in allof World War II.

Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States was deeply divided over our effort inVietnam. Thebaby-boom generation had cracked apart along class lines as America‘syoung men were making difficult, life-or-death choices about serving. Thebetter academic institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest againstthe war, with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which had lost 691 alumniin World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnamfrom the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princetonlost six, at MIT two. The media turned ever more hostile. And frequently thereward for a young man’s having gone through thetrauma of combat was to be greeted by his peers with studied indifference ofoutright hostility.

What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war andpossible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to theircountry. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and professional livesat their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of the Confederate Memorialin Arlington National Cemetery “not for fame of reward, not for place or for rank,but in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it.” Who sufferedloneliness, disease, and wounds with an often-contagious élan.And who deserve a far better place in history than that now offered them by theso-called spokesman of our so-called generation.

Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines.

1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam.Second only to 1968 in terms of American casualties, it was the year madefamous by Hamburger Hill, as well as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showingpictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one average week of fighting.Back home, it was the year of Woodstock,and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the Moratorium March on Washington.The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was seized uponby the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the war. Lyndon Johnsonleft Washington in utterhumiliation.

Richard Nixon entered the scene, destined for an even worse fate. In the An Basin southwest of Danang,the Fifth Marine Regiment was in its third year of continuous combatoperations. Combat is an unpredictable and inexact environment, but we werewell led. As a rifle platoon and company commander, I served under a successionof three regimental commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, andfour different battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea.The company commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam,or young first lieutenants like myself who were givencompanies after many months of “bush time” as platoon commanders inthe Basin’s tough and unforgiving environs.

The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam,its torn, cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In themountains just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Trail, the North Vietnamese Army operated an infantry division from an areacalled Base Area 112. In the valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Congbattalions whose ranks were 80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars movedagainst the Americans every day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed Ridgelines and paddy dikes were laced with sophisticatedbooby traps of every size, from a hand grenade to a 250-pound bomb. Thevillages sat in the rice paddies and tree lines like individual fortresses,crisscrossed with trenches and spider holes, their homes sporting bunkerscapable of surviving direct hits from large-caliber artillery shells. The VietCong infrastructure was intricate and permeating. Except for the old and thevery young, villagers who did not side with the Communistshad either been killed or driven out to the government controlledenclaves near Danang.

In the rifle companies, we spent the endless months patrolling ridgelines andvillages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire, hotfood, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside one’spack, which after a few “humps” usually boiled down to letter-writingmaterial, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio.We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear, causing atypical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the bush. When westopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches for toilets. Weslept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches,and when it rained we usually took our hootches downbecause wet ponchos shined under illumination flares, making great targets.Sleep itself was fitful, never more than an hour or two at a stretch for monthsat a time as we mixed daytime patrolling with night-timeambushes, listening posts, foxhole duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm,malaria, and dysentery were common, as was trench foot when the monsoons came.Respite was rotating back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An for four or five days, where rocket and mortar attackswere frequent and our troops manned defensive bunkers at night. Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock, orcamping at the Vineyard during summer break.

We had been told while training that Marine officers in the rifle companies hadan 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the experience of”Dying Delta,” as our company was known, bore that out. Of theofficers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded, theweapons platoon commander wounded, the first platoon commander was killed, thesecond platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding the thirdplatoons fared no better. Two of my original three-squad leaders were killed,and the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely wounded, aswas my right guide. By the time I left, my platoon I had gone through six radiooperators, five of them casualties.

These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many other units;for instance, those who fought the hill battles around , or were with the famed Walking Dead of theNinth Marine Regiment, or were in the battle of Hue City or at Dai Do, had itfar worse.

When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I amcontinually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of highschool, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in hell andthen return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of war but ofthe steady consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities, andof how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green 19-year-oldsthe intricate lessons of the hostile battlefield. Theunerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliarvillages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty when a fellow Marine was wounded and neededhelp. Their willingness to risk their lives to saveother Marines in peril. To this day it stuns me that their owncountrymen have so completely missed the story of their service, lost in thebitter confusion of the war itself.

Like every military unit throughout history we had occasionallaggards, cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate, these Marines werethe finest people I have ever been around. It has beenmy privilege to keep up with many of them over the years since we all camehome. One finds in them very little bitterness about the war in which theyfought. The most common regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able todo more for each other and for the people they came to help.

It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men. Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount.I am alive today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valorepitomizes the conduct of Americans at war from the first days of ourexistence. That the boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in ourfathers’ generation while ignoring it in our own is more than simple oversight.It is a conscious, continuing travesty.

FormerSecretary of the Navy James Webb was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, andBronze Star medals for heroism as a Marine in Vietnam .

Courtesy: http://www.jameswebb.com/articles/americanenterprise-heroes.html

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