Remembering: The Last Days in Vietnam
As another April 30th nears, I recall, a couple of years ago, a colleague asked if I’d say a few words to introduce Rory Kennedy’s film “The Last Days in Vietnam,” which had received excellent movie reviews and was being screened at Santa Monica College where I was teaching at the time.
Since the publication of my book Shifting Loyalties in 1993 (click link in title), I’d received letters from Chicano veterans and their families, expressing their gratitude for the stories I’d written about my time in Vietnam. At my readings, many Chicano veterans thanked me for using my voice to give their voices life.
Of all the mainstream books and movies about Vietnam, one would think that Chicanos had no place in the war. I remember teaching a Chicano literature class. We’d been reading Charley Trujillo’s book Soldados and Jorge Mariscal’s Aztlan in Vietnam. A Vietnamese-American student raised her hand to admit she’d never known Chicanos had fought in Vietnam. Her statement perplexed me. It reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: no matter how many sacrifices and contributions Americans of color make to this country, we remain invisible.
A letter I’ll always remember was from a Chicana who told me her father had died in Vietnam when she was a child. After reading my book, she said she felt closer to him, understanding what he might have experienced. So, how could I not say a few words to introduce Ms. Kennedy’s film about the Vietnam War’s last days?
For 42 years, I’ve sought a justification for the Vietnam War—or, at least, my role in it.
In 1969, when the Army discharged me, the country was in turmoil over the war, so I pretended that I’d never worn a uniform. I just wanted to hide. But no matter how much I tried to hide, I couldn’t.
Over the years, the reminders were everywhere: Tet, Kent State, The Chicano Moratorium, My Lai, Hearts and Minds, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Iraq, and ISIS.
Since I couldn’t escape, I immersed myself in the study of Vietnam, the land, the people, the history, and politics --always searching, I suppose, for the war’s elusive justification.
April 30, 1975, along with millions of Americans, I watched on television as Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communists, or looking at it from our so-called enemy’s perspective, Vietnam’s liberation, the images flickering across the television screen, the last helicopters flying off the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. I felt ill--then angry, bitter, and finally betrayed. “What a waste it had all been,” I’d thought.
How ironic that the Vietnamese student told me she didn’t know Chicanos had fought in Vietnam, when we now know the first American to be captured by North Vietnam was a pilot, Chicano Everett Alvarez, and the last American out of Vietnam was Chicano Marine Sgt. Juan Vasquez. Then there were the thousands of Chicanos who gave life and limb in those sweltering jungles.
After I watched Saigon fall, 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.
As the years passed, I asked myself, if communism was the justification for war, why then did Nixon open relations with communist China? Why did the Soviet Union and East Germany collapse under their own weight? Why do we trade with Vietnam and open relations with Cuba (finally)? Why did we kill two-million Vietnamese and sacrifice nearly 60,000 Americans and bring so much pain and suffering to so many families? (And that’s not counting the terror wrought on Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador under the auspices of salvation from communism.)
In 1995, the ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara published his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. “The lessons,” I considered the phrase, as if the slaughter in Vietnam had been some sort of scholarly exercise. McNamara concluded his memoir by telling us how to do it better next time. I took his thesis to be, “Sorry. Looking back on it, we made a terrible mistake.”
As early as 1967, McNamara realized the war was wrong, even immoral. He pressured President Johnson to end it. By speaking out, McNamara found himself booted from his job as Secretary of Defense and reassigned to head of the World Bank.
We now know that many politicians and generals knew early on that the war was unwinnable. But they, too, remained silent and allowed the massacre to continue.
So, who was benefiting from this war? How many millions went into the pockets of Colt and other weapons’ manufacturers and the corporations that supplied the uniforms, vehicles, food, and supplies? In the Golden Triangle, the sale of opium and heroin flourished (but that’s a whole different story).
A few years ago, as I walked through a local bookstore, I noticed a title glaring at me from the stack-- The Tiger Force: A True Story of Men at War.
My artillery battery supported a recon outfit called the Tiger Force, guys we admired, wild, insanely brave men (mostly kids, really), 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, after communist forces had killed the most experienced Tigers, the remaining Tigers, many inexperienced recruits, took their revenge by executing, in the most heinous ways, hundreds of Vietnamese farmers, and civilians. The Tigers who had self-destructed, turned rice paddies and farms into blood-soaked fields. And it hadn’t been a secret. The brass knew but didn’t stop them, in fact, in some cases, they ordered it.
“June through October 1967,” I remember thinking. That’s when I was there.
My artillery battery supported the Tigers. So, when they called in artillery strikes, was it for fun, to just to watch the villages burn? 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 send them crashing into those villages.
What sin had those villagers committed to deserve such a fate? They refused forced removal from their farms and hamlets into filthy, unsanitary compounds the military called Relocation Camps.
How much blood is on my hands? Can I be like Robert McNamara and say, “Well, in retrospect….”? Can I 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.
As I watched, Rory Kennedy’s film, “The Last Days in Vietnam,” I had hoped I might find the justification for that war.
But no, though it is a beautiful, uplifting movie, when I exited the theater, I found no justification, not even in the faces of those Vietnamese desperately seeking escape at the American Embassy, or, surprisingly, on the faces of the South Vietnamese throngs waving communist flags to welcome the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese into Saigon.
As another April 30th crawls closer, I wonder if has anything changed? We see the same desperation on the faces of Syrians, Afghanis, Yeminis, and Iraqis. Maybe, in the end, we should heed Lennon’s words and “give peace a chance.”
Editor's note: La Bloga implored Bloguero Daniel Cano to share his decorations and badges from his service in the United States Army because these are important parts of his, and the nation's, histories. Lest we forget: only 7% of the population ever wore the uniform.
La Bloga salutes the men and women who served and shed blood in foreign wars.
Daniel observes, "Vietnam vets still suffer from society's mixed messages of pride and humiliation."