May 26, 2015
A colleague asked if I would introduce Rory Kennedy’s film The Last Days in Vietnam, which was screened at Santa Monica College earlier this month. At first I declined. I’d had enough of war. But then I reconsidered and decided I did have something to say.
For more than forty years, I’ve sought a justification for the Vietnam War--or at least my role in it.
After my discharge from the Army in 1969, I just pretended that I’d never served or that the war ever existed. I was a walking contradiction, though, because I immersed myself in studying about Vietnam, the land, the people, the history, and politics --always searching, I suppose, for the elusive justification.
Memorial Day 2015 has passed, right on the heels of April 30, 1975, the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Along with millions of Americans, I watched on television as Vietnam fell to the communists. Or looking at it from the perspective of our so-called enemy and many of their South Vietnamese sympathizers: Vietnam was finally liberated.
I don’t think any of us who had served in Vietnam wanted to admit then that South Vietnam was facing a total collapse. We’d been led to believe the South Vietnamese Army would provide for the country’s defense. But I think deep inside, we all knew better.
I remember those images flickering across the screen, the last helicopters flying off the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. I felt ill--then angry, betrayed, and finally bitter. I remember thinking: what a waste it had all been. Chicanos served in large numbers. How ironic that the first American to be captured by North Vietnam was a Chicano, pilot Everett Alvarez. And the last American to board the last chopper out of Vietnam was also a Chicano, Marine Sgt. Juan Vasquez.
For years after, I refused to vote, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or to hold my hand over my heart during the National Anthem. I hid the Army in a cardboard box: the photos, medals, and citations. I didn’t want my son or any of my nephews seeing them and glamorizing war. I felt that Chicano families had sacrificed enough, sometimes for no other reason than to prove we were American too.
In Vietnam, we fought communism. It was drilled into us as children that communism was evil, that it would invade and conquer us. In school, we hid under our desks: trial runs in preparation for Russia’s atomic bomb. We learned that Khrushchev was a madman, and we had to be protected from him. Then, under Nixon, we opened relations with communist China. The Soviet Union and East Germany collapsed under their own weight. Today we trade with Vietnam and are opening relations with Cuba, finally.
So then, why did we kill two million Vietnamese and sacrifice nearly 60,000 Americans, bringing so much pain to so many families?
In 1995, the ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara published his memoir titled: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, as if the slaughter had been some sort of scholarly exercise: like telling us how to do it better next time. Essentially McNamara was telling the American public that the government had made a terrible mistake.
To be fair, McNamara realized in 1967 that the war was wrong, even immoral. He pressured President Johnson to end it--and found himself no longer Secretary of Defense but head of the World Bank. Many politicians and generals knew, even then, that it was a no-win war. But no one would pull the plug. Who was benefiting from this war? How many millions went into the pockets of Colt and other weapons’ manufacturers or the corporations that supplied the uniforms, vehicles, and supplies?
A few years ago as I walked through a local bookstore, I noticed a title glaring at me from the rack-- The Tiger Force: A True Story of Men at War.
The Tiger Force, I thought. My artillery battery of the 101st Airborne supported a recon outfit called the Tiger Force, guys we admired, wild, insanely courageous characters, guys who’d go into the jungle in small groups and sometimes initiate contact with much larger forces. I thumbed through the pages. Sure enough, it was the same Tigers that we had supported. Maybe I’d find a justification for the war in these pages.
Instead, I read that from June through October 1967, in the pastoral Song Ve River Valley, the Tigers had turned the peaceful landscape into a killing field. For nearly six months, the Tigers had executed, in the most heinous ways, hundreds of Vietnamese farmers and civilians. And it hadn’t been a secret. The brass knew. I remember thinking, “June through October, 1967-- that’s when I was there.”
I didn’t miss the part in the book where it said the Tiger Force called in artillery strikes. So was the artillery called in for the sole purpose of watching innocent civilians die and their hamlets and villages turned to ashes?
It was my job to remove those shells from the canisters and hand them to the gun crews who loaded them into the Howitzers and sent them flying into those villages. What sin did those villagers commit? They rejected forced relocation into filthy, unsanitary compounds the military called Relocation Camps. How much blood is on my hands? Can I be like Robert McNamara and just say, “Well, in retrospect….”?
Can I just pass it off as a lesson learned?
A reporter who saw McNamara years later said he looked like a “haunted man.”
For me, like many veterans, the Vietnam War is not abstract or theoretical. It isn’t an academic problem. It’s as visceral as a fist in the gut. That’s why it is difficult for many of us to talk about it. I can’t think about Vietnam without thinking of myself in it.
Memorial Day has come and gone. So, too, has Kennedy’s The Last Days in Vietnam. I suppose I hoped that maybe I’d find the justification I’d sought--or some resolution to the war.
But no, as beautiful as the movie is, and as uplifted as I felt when I left the theater, I found no justification for the war, not even in the faces of those Vietnamese desperately seeking a passage out of their country. Or surprisingly, on the faces of those Vietnamese waving North Vietnamese flags and welcoming the conquering army into Saigon. I suppose many just wanted the peace they’d been seeking for so long.
Daniel Cano is the author of three novels, Pepe Rios, Shifting Loyalties, and Death and the American Dream, and received best historical fiction by the 12th Annual International Latino Literary Awards. His writing has appeared in such publications as Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Fiction, Fire and Ink: an Anthology of Social Action Writing, Aztlan in Vietnam, Pieces of the Heart, Unnatural Disasters: recent writings from the Golden State, and the French literary journal Breves. He has held administrative positions at UC Davis, UCLA, and CSU Dominguez Hills. Daniel currently teaches English at Santa Monica College.