I came of age during the lengthy era of the Vietnam War.
This so called “police action” began quietly as a post-WWII policy challenging Communist expansion. Vietnam had been divided as had Germany, China, and Korea, leaving a divide of western leaning democracies pitted against Communist dominated systems. America’s commitment to the Vietnam conflict officially began in 1959, with US aid to the South, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Said another way, I was a preschooler when Ike dispatched advisers, and in my first year of college when Nixon ordered troops home.
Though almost moot today, opinions vary on why this war became so universally unpopular. One assessment claims the intense media coverage, particularly on American television, soured the public on the war, while others claim support declined when the draft expanded to middle class, college-bound sons. Not that it matters. In retrospect, whether soldiers were poor or affluent, the draft sent them hell in Southeast Asia.
The view that more affluent Americans across the country grew alienated, does hold some merit. the days, weeks, months, and years of guerrilla assaults, deadly fire fights in the jungle, and the daily tally of “body counts,”* drained public support for this sweltering nightmare.
I recall many evenings washing dishes from dinner, watching a little black and white Sony portable tv. The network didn’t seem to matter; Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, or Frank Reynolds, all showed the same harrowing footage. Sweating soldiers slogging through a blur of elephant grass, the wounded medevaced onto thundering Huey’s, then wrapping up with an updated casualty count.
The Vietnam War was not presented through paintings, photographs, or sanitized movie newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, Washington, absorbed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the world told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this war was awful. That war is altogether an awful ordeal.
Film crews exposed the jarring horror of surgical personnel splattered with blood, fighting their own war to save lives. The desperate Marines being interviewed while under assault at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue; the massacre at My Lai, all of it awful. Americans watched firsthand their native sons give what Lincoln called “the last full measure.”
So many years have passed, and this “little girl” is now officially a graying Grandmother. Yet, as I type, my recollections of fifty years ago remains vivid. And I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. And current American commitments have dragged on far longer than my childhood.
Still, the human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the the draft is inactive, and the American public distracted, the price of conflict remains the same for those young souls presently in harms way.
In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captures the true degree of awful, using no film crew, photographer, or painter.
By Siegfried Sassoon
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
*Covid 19 deaths are currently presented in the same visual manner. Grim statistics take a toll.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.