Who Will Apologize For Vietnam?

Posted: July 04, 1989

In the spring of 1966, at the age of 17, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Lyndon Johnson had only recently warned the American people that if we did not stop the communists in Vietnam, we would one day have to fight them on the sands of Waikiki, and the words of John Kennedy were still reverberating in my heart as if he'd spoken them directly to me: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." I was going to serve my country in Vietnam.

I had never heard of Archimedes Patti or Christian de Castries, Edward Lansdale or the Binh Xuyen - key figures in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict. I did not know that China had occupied Vietnam for a thousand years, or that Ho Chi Minh had sought and been refused an audience with Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

I knew only what was necessary to do my job: How to fire and clean my rifle, how to apply a pressure bandage to a sucking chest wound, how to make a stove from an empty C-ration can.

Whether the United States should have been in Vietnam or not was a question I never asked myself before I arrived there. That was not part of my job. That was the job of men like Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, and I trusted my government leaders, elected and appointed, to do their job just as I was doing mine.

There is an implicit but sacred bargain struck between those who ask others to put their lives at risk and those who do the risking, and for those who do the risking, it goes like this: I will give you my life to do with what you will so long as your cause is worthy of my sacrifice. I accepted that bargain willingly, proudly, because those who put me at risk assured me and my country that the cause was worthy.

During the long and painful passage of the 13 months I fought in Vietnam, however, I found myself less and less confident that either I or my government knew what we were doing. In a world of free fire zones and "Bouncing Betty" mines, punji pits and Zippo raids, it became increasingly difficult to believe in anything but my own survival. In a world where helpless old men were beaten bloody and small children were included in the body count of Viet Cong dead, it became impossible to avoid the conclusion that I was fundamentally, perhaps pathologically, evil.

By the time I left Vietnam in the waning days of the Tet Offensive and the battle for Hue, I had become acutely aware that something had gone horribly wrong in Vietnam. But I didn't know what.

I thought maybe it was me. Men like Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow were still insisting that the cause was worthy. They would soon be replaced by men like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but they, too, would insist the worthiness of their cause right up to the very moment North Vietnamese tanks crushed the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, achieving at an incalculable cost in human suffering what might have been achieved without the loss of a single life 30 years earlier.

I paid a terrible price for the bargain I struck with the people who sent me to wage war on Vietnam: more than a decade of nightmares and alcohol and self-loathing; a white-hut fury, shapeless and unpredictable, that seared anyone who came too close; a loneliness profound as the silence beyond the stars. And I was lucky.

I have friends whose names are carved into that ugly black slab in Washington, D.C. I have friends who were dumped into wheelchairs at 19 and won't be taken out again until they are laid into their coffins. I have friends who still can't see an Asian face without trembling. I have friends whose wives are afraid to touch them while they are sleeping.

OK. My friends and I made a mistake, and we paid the price. I've learned to accept my share of responsibility for that mistake. I can live with myself. But where now are the people who asked us to take the risks? Where have they been these past 20 years?

Willy Crapser spent 17 years in and out of psychiatric wards, and Robert McNamara became president of the World Bank. Ron Kovic never had the chance to have children before he was paralyzed for life, and McGeorge Bundy became president of the Ford Foundation. Kenney Worman and Randy Moore have been dead longer than they got to live, and Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk are professors at respected universities.

Not once - not once in all these years - have I ever heard a single high- level policymaker of the Vietnam war apologize for what he did, ever admit that he made a mistake, ever show the slightest sign of remorse for all the havoc and misery, the shattered lives and shattered families and shattered nations left gasping in the wake of his decisions.

There is no regret, no sorrow, no shame. Some of these men merely skulked off the public stage quietly. Others continue to this day to insist that their cause was worthy, and always will be.

Honorable men, they asked my friends and me to get down and dirty in the rice fields only to abandon us under fire. We did the killing and the dying, and then they left us to find our own way back while they went on with their honorable lives as if nothing at all were out of order.

They struck a bargain with us, and then they broke it. And they have refused ever after to admit that it was broken.

I have often wondered how these men live with themselves. How do they get up each day and look themselves in the eye? How do they go on pretending that God's in His heaven, all's right with the world? Or are there private doubts, private demons, that they are simply too proud or too ashamed to admit?

I'd like to believe these honorable men are not evil, but only human. I'd like to believe these honorable men didn't just walk away from the wreckage they created without a second thought. I'd like to believe they have nightmares too. But nothing that has happened in the last 20 years has given me any cause to think so.

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