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America's Longest War: The Legacy of Vietnam, Part II

Vets in Rome, Georgia.

To pick up right where I left off, by 1966, there were 362,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam. General Westmoreland and the US government told the American people that defeat of the Viet Cong was due at any moment. Jim Lynch, an Army photographer began getting suspicious about the government's propaganda when his photos documenting American deaths were never used while those depicting Vietnamese casualties were.

As anti-war demonstrations started heating up [(LINK TO ANTIWAR PROTEST?? (Too new to find URL? - alyssa)], many of the returning vets, far from being hailed as heroes for serving their country, found themselves being spat upon and shunned. When David came back to the US, he found a job as a construction worker. His boss told him, "I hate Vietnam Vets. How many babies did you kill?" David replied, "Every darn one I could." The taunts of vets as "baby-killers," he says, "made you feel lower than scum. In a way, I understand now how blacks feel about their treatment in this country." His words sadden me -- I can't imagine risking your life for your country and then coming home to such a disgraceful reception, especially when the government was the one that ordered these men to go over there.


Scott and Terry both entered college and began learning about the history of the strange country their own nation had sent them to "defend." It was a shattering education for both men. They started learning about the US helping Ho's troops during WWII and how the Vietnamese had been fighting for independence and freedom for 2,000 years. They realized the US had subverted the Vietnam's one chance at democracy by installing Diem as a puppet leader in South Vietnam. "Suddenly I could see the forest from the trees," said Scott. "And I wasn't the good guy. I was the bad guy. It was very hard to accept that my government had used me like that." Terry now believes, "If I had done the slightest bit of research before going to Vietnam, I'd have gone to Canada instead."

The My Lai massacre saw Americans kill 300 unarmed civilians including women and children. Only one person was ever prosecuted for the atrocities.

Scott believed it was now his duty as a patriotic American to tell people what was really going on regarding the Vietnam War. Along with a bunch of other veterans, he testified for a committee about the atrocities he had seen and committed in Vietnam. The documentary about these testimonies does not make for easy listening. Soldiers recall women being raped and mutilated, torching villages and killing children. As part of a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Scott and Terry both participated in one of the most dramatic acts of protest in American history: they threw their war medals at the US Capitol at an anti-war demonstration in 1971. "It was very satisfying," said Terry. "It was telling the government to stick the medals up their a--."

The Supreme Court did not allow the anti-war veterans to march. They did anyways.

The war would drag on another 2 years before President Richard Nixon finally negotiated a "Peace with Honor" settlement. Troops were withdrawn in 1973, and Nixon promised $4 billion in aid to help rebuild Vietnam. Not a penny has ever been delivered to the Vietnamese. Scott declared that this is because, "Americans are bad losers. We don't like to admit we've lost." To this day, there are raging debates about whether America could have won the war or not. Larry Sexton insisted that, "We didn't lose the war. When we left in 1973, Vietnam was still a free country. We never lost a battle." By 1975, the Communists had gained control over South Vietnam. You would think that was the end of the story...that the Vietnamese finally could live in peace as a unified country. But there were only more wars ahead with Cambodia and China. Jim Creaven, who now works for Veterans for Peace, said, "We learned to grudgingly respect the Vietnamese soldiers. They were brave and dedicated and willing to fight at all costs."

Ever since we withdrew from Vietnam, Americans have debated mostly what the war meant to us, as citizens of this country, and to our "national pride." Many still defend the war as a "noble cause" that used the wrong tactics. While we often debate our military strategy in Vietnam, rarely do we seem to ask whether it was moral for us to have been there in the first place. Scott is adamant that it was not. "I can't tell you how hard it is to have been wounded twice, to have murdered people, to have friends blown up, and to have it all be for nothing. All that suffering for nothing. I will never stop being pissed at the United States government for what they did."

This monument to dead veterans is in Florida

The US dropped two million tons of bombs in Vietnam, more than the total amount of bombs dropped during WWII. Three million tons of explosives, and 18 million gallons of poisonous chemicals were poured on Vietnam. Many veterans and Vietnamese children are still feeling the ravages of the toxic defoliant Agent, a situation the US government mostly refuses to acknowledge. 58,000 Americans perished in Vietnam. The Vietnamese lost over three million of its citizens. All this death happened because our policy makers cared more about the "Communist threat" than they did about "democracy and liberty" for the Vietnamese people.

This has been one of the most emotionally exhausting dispatches I've had to write on the Trek, mostly because of the traumatic wounds Vietnam inflicted on everyone involved-the Vietnamese, the veterans, the land that will be lucky to recover in a hundred years from all the landmines, chemicals and bombs used to destroy it. I have not been able to get out of my mind FB Jones' stories about the fact that his body had fallen apart because of Agent Orange, or Scott Camil's hushed pauses as he tried to compose himself when talking about his 'Nam experience. The pictures of burning villages and the naked Vietnamese girl running from the fire will stay with my conscience forever. I used to believe war in some cases was necessary and noble. I used to believe that America was a force for good in the world. I don't anymore.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca – Bayonets and pencils just don’t mix
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 1
Stephanie – A personal account: Cambodia’s civil war
Jennifer – When the going gets rough, the tough go underground
Nick – Bucking the draft
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Jennifer – Students united can never be divided
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq