At the beginning of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, draftees made up only 21 percent of the armed forces fighting there. Many volunteer Marines and soldiers like Philip Caputo felt inspired by President Kennedy’s call to national service and sought excitement not available in their sleepy hometowns. “I joined the Marines in 1960 partly because I got swept up in the patriotic tide of the Kennedy era but mostly because I was sick of the safe, suburban existence I had known most of my life,” Caputo recalled in his Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War. Caputo recalled his youthful desire for adventure while growing up in Westchester, Illinois, near Chicago:
There was small game in the woods, sometimes a deer or two, but most of all a hint of the wild past, when moccasined feet trod the forest paths, and fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes. Once in a while, I found flint arrowheads in the muddy creek bank. Looking at them I would dream of that savage, heroic time and wish I had lived then, before America became a land of salesmen and shopping centers. This is what I wanted, to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.
Kentucky-born Curtis Gilliland, Jr., believed it was his duty to serve. The young man was raised “to follow the flag, and he believed in the war,” wrote authors Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller in their collection of interviews with Vietnam veterans, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us. Gilliland spent 10 and a half months on the front line, got hit in the hand and the nose by bullets, and had a typical soldier’s share of fear and boredom. But Gilliland told interviewers he fell in love with the country and the people.
Practically his first glimpse of them was through the wire mesh on the bus bearing the new-meat recruits from Bien Hoa to Di An; he saw little children lining the roadside, starving, with their hands out of food, and he felt embarrassed by the terrible distance between their poverty and the plenty waiting for him back home. Most of his buddies kept their distance; even the sex in Vietnam was impersonal in the main; not an act of love, but a service to be bought and sold. Gilliland wanted to bridge it. “I loved them,” he said. “I really appreciated them. I wanted to get close to them.”
Returning home, Gilliland suffered “no bad dreams, no sleepless nights, no sweaty wrestling matches with an unquiet conscience.” He believed he had served honorably. However, his “love affair with the Vietnamese never ended.” Gilliland was haunted by one image, that of a mixed-race child in Vietnam, “the homeless love child of a Vietnamese mother and a GI father. The image froze in his mind, along with the twinge of pity that he felt.” He wanted to adopt the boy and sent a letter of inquiry about the child that went unanswered.
Instead, in later years Gilliland would mentor a young Vietnamese man, one of the thousands of “boat people” who fled Southeast Asia after the victory of the communists in South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. Gilliland met this young Vietnamese friend at a college campus and became his spiritual brother. If Gilliland felt any bitterness about the war when he was interviewed in the early 1980s, it was because he believed the United States had abandoned the Vietnamese to the communists after the American withdrawal from the conflict in 1973 and had ignored the hunger and poverty there ever since. “The country’s got to the point that it doesn’t care,” he told Goldman and Fuller. “When we get bombed, then we’ll fight – that’s the way I think the country feels right now. We just got too selfish.”
Vietnam brought out the best and the worst in American fighting men. Sandra Collingwood, a community development worker in Vietnam during the war, recalled seeing soldiers sharing food rations with Vietnamese villagers. Journalist Anne Allen recalled meeting a six-year-old Vietnamese boy in Saigon who had been informally adopted by American GIs, who gave him child-sized fatigues that he always wore, and taught him English, including the four-letter words that peppered the troops’ daily speech. The boy, called Dewey, served as a translator for the soldiers and was brought along when the Americans negotiated with prostitutes. Once he finished negotiating terms, the soldiers rewarded Dewey with a soft drink for his translation work, and the boy was sent on his way. Allen reported that Dewey loved “his” GIs.
Sexual relations between soldiers and local women became commonplace, even though these women were looked down upon by other Vietnamese as no better than prostitutes. Many times, soldiers made promises to their “in-country” girlfriends that they didn’t keep, and the relationships ended when the men returned stateside.
At times, soldiers married or proposed to their Vietnamese girlfriends, but Americans wanting to continue their relationships encountered harsh legal barriers when they attempted to bring their loved ones to the United States. Some failed to complete a pile of paperwork before the communists took over South Vietnam, making the reunion impossible, while other women did not want to move to an unfamiliar land or were blocked by family members dependent on their work.
Vietnamese women who had American boyfriends or had borne a child of an American might be beaten or rejected by their parents, and most Vietnamese men would not even consider marrying them. "When you gave birth to a mixed kid, in the countryside, they hold many prejudices against you,” said Mai Thi Kim, whose mother had a relationship with an American naval officer who became her father. “... I was very bitter and shameful when they looked down on me that way." Biracial children faced ridicule by peers who called them "con lai" (half-breed) or "bui doi" (the dust of life).
The Vietnam War included scenes of deep compassion and horrifying cruelty. Doctors serving in Vietnam persuaded friends in the United States to send griseofulvin, a treatment for the terrible cases of ringworm. One doctor, Lawrence H. Climo, recalled GIs making poverty wages offering to pay for medical care for the daughter of a Montagnard tribesman who had been released from a local charity ward. As the girl’s condition worsened from lack of food and water, local soldiers pooled resources to save her life. With money collected from servicemen, Climo was able to place the girl in a “pay” ward at the hospital, where she recovered.
“I save food from the officers' mess (hot dogs, vegetables, etc.) and bring it to a hospitalized Montagnard with nutritional deficiencies and to a young girl low on . . . red blood cells,” Climo later recalled. “The hungry family, visitors and other patients gather about me.” Meanwhile, the United States Agency for International Development made available powdered milk, protein supplements and wheat for the underfed patients recovering in the Montagnard charity hospital.
Military medical crews provided the first effective care for many Vietnamese suffering from treatable diseases that in some cases had almost disappeared in the West. Climo, stationed near the Montagnards who fought as American allies in the war, said every member of the tribe he examined tested positive for tuberculosis and that leprosy was a common ailment. Many of his patients suffered from parasites like pinworm and hookworm. Typhoid fever, malaria and anemia claimed many Montagnard victims. About 50 percent of the children born near Climo’s station died before they reached age five.
Many diseases stemmed from haphazard or nonexistent sanitation. “There were no latrines for the families living with the patients,” Climo remembered. “They defecated outside the windows. Behind the surgery ward was a black, foul-smelling, fly-infested streamlet with pooled feces, urine and infected waste.” Climo, and the rest of his Army 33rd Advisory Team, spent their time outside of the hospital wards constructing shelters for families, sanitary facilities and hospital furniture.
“I never saw so many guys cry as I did while I was in Vietnam,” one nurse said after she returned from the war. “Some of those corpsmen and men from the field amazed me with how gentle they were with their buddies. One of the big fears the guys had was of dying alone.” The nurse recalled badly wounded GIs pleading with their friends, “Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.”
The reaction of the doctors to tragedy shocked this nurse the most. “I went over to Vietnam thinking that Army doctors were hard asses. It’s just not so,” she said. One night a 21-year-old Vietnamese girl cleaned the floors of the medical barracks. A flammable liquid had been used to remove wax, but a soldier struck a match on the floor while the woman was scrubbing the surface, and she burst into flames.
A surgeon named Paul treated her. “When he got to her, she was 100 percent second- and third-degree burns,” the nurse said. Plus, she had inhaled a lot of smoke. Usually these people are going to die, so you let them. The thing was, she was still conscious and talking, and her kidneys were still working. So he had to try and save her . . . Burn victims shed the inside of their lungs. It’s like getting sunburned on the inside and peeling. She would cough up her lungs and she’d be bleeding and slowly choking to death. She could speak English. She would hold on to Paul and beg him to not let her die.”
The doctor disappeared for an hour, saying he had to think about what treatment he should try next. The nurse found him in a room the size of a closet. “He was in there crying his eyes out,” she said. ‘What am I going to do? I never should have started that IV on her. I never should have put that catheter in her. But she was alive when she came in and I had to do something. I can’t trach her. She’ll live six weeks and then she’ll die horribly. What am I going to do with her?’” The doctor and the nurse did they only thing they could – as the woman slowly died they changed her dressings and tried to reassure her that they wouldn’t let her die, even as they decided to discontinue heroic measures.
Medical personnel dealing with emergencies always have to undertake triage – setting priority on which patients get treated first based on the seriousness of the injuries and the likelihood of survival. In Vietnam, doctors and nurses admitted later, the patient’s nationality and politics entered into the equation. “The GIs had first priority,” said Sylvia Lutz Holland, an Army nurse at the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. “[T]hen the ARVN, then Vietnamese civilians, and finally the Viet Cong. You’d look at the wounds, check the vital signs, and just make a decision – he’s a go, or he can wait. We had to move fast but we worked on trying to keep a calm voice and always had some kind of physical contact with the patients. A lot of times, as soon as you touched them you could feel the tension drift away.”
Holland found the carnage numbing and sometimes wondered if the doctors and nurses had done a favor to the soldiers who lives had been saved. “We had a lot of men who had stepped on land mines,” Holland said. “It was a guerilla war and the whole idea was not to kill but to maim and injure and decrease morale. The Viet Cong were really good at that.” The tactic was effective, Holland said.
Very few of the wounds we had in Chu Lai were the result of bullets. When the mines exploded people often lost their legs, but the heat of the blast would cauterize all their big vessels so they didn’t bleed out. Sometimes they were still conscious and talking. We had two gentlemen who were gone from the waist down and their arms were gone but they still had a bladder and some bowel and they were alert and oriented. They had surgery and lived. I often wondered what kind of life that was. Quality of life isn’t supposed to be an issue when you make triage decisions, but you’re saying to yourself, if you send a nineteen-year-old home without his arms and legs, who’s gonna want him? Or the guy whose face is all disfigured and burned. Is someone going to love him and share their life with him? I thought about that a lot. We saved their lives, but what life?
If medics experienced death firsthand, for some soldiers American military technology made killing an abstract, distant experience. This, in turn, encouraged an indifference to Vietnamese lives. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in the war, and 300,000 suffered injuries, making it the fourth costliest in American history and creating psychological scars still shaping American politics five decades later. These numbers, however, pale alongside Vietnamese casualties. The South Vietnamese military suffered 224,000 deaths and 1 million injured. The government of Vietnam announced in 1995 that 1.1 million communist troops, including the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, died; and 600,000 were wounded during the American war from 1964 to 1973. The number of civilian casualties, North and South, remains controversial, but most estimates place the number between 1 and 2 million.
The American air war played a prominent role in Vietnamese military and civilian deaths. In 1961 and 1962, the U.S. military began experimentation with a variety of counter-insurgency tactics aimed at crippling the Vietcong guerillas. Military scientists developed defoliants aimed at poisoning food supplies for the communist forces and stripping bare the trees in forests and jungles where the VC camped and launched surprise attacks. The plan was to deny the VC food and places to hide. In the six years between 1962 and 1968, the United States military sprayed almost 700,000 acres of farmland with “Agent Blue,” a chemical compound damaging rice crops, which caused hunger among peasants in the Vietnamese countryside.
Operation Ranch Hand, whose pilots parodied the well-known “Smokey the Bear” anti-forest fire advertising campaign with the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forests,” began dropping highly carcinogenic chemical compounds like Agent Orange on Vietnam in January 1962, with 100 million pounds dumped over four million acres in South Vietnam over the next eight years. The bombings and the defoliants destroyed about half of the country’s timberlands.
Decades after this campaign, Vietnamese as well as American veterans of the Vietnam War suffered from side effects of Agent Orange and other defoliants, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, lung cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer. After the war, American veterans reported abnormally high rates of children born with spina bifida, or lacking arms and/or legs, or with Down syndrome. Agencies like the Red Cross estimate that by 2003, a half-million Vietnamese had died from health complications caused by Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war, and that 650,000 still suffered health problems. The Vietnam food chain is still poisoned by dioxins introduced into the soil and water by defoliants.
Americans also dropped 400,000 tons of bombs containing a petroleum-based jelly made of polystyrene, gasoline and benzene known as Napalm-B. This fire-starting agent burns at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the military used it to destroy villages suspected of being enemy bases, to clear areas with heavy foliage to allow airborne surveillance, and to terrify the Vietcong and their supporters. Victims of napalm suffered as the chemical created a burning sensation and ate away skin to the muscle layer. One American soldier later recalled witnessing an accidental napalm attack against a friendly village:
"A hooch [hut] went up in a ball of flame, and a woman and a couple of kids came running out of its suffocating core, the burning jelly charring the soles of their feet black. One of the men hurdled the concertina wire [surrounding the village] . . . and pulled them screaming out of the fire, but there was no way to put out napalm; it was made to cling to human flesh and keep eating inward until it burned itself out."
Nurse Holland spent part of her tour of duty working in the “Vietnamese ward” at a hospital in Chu Lai. She frequently dealt with the casualties of America’s chemical warfare. “Mostly we had women and children and elderly men,” she said.
They were country people – fishermen or rice farmers – who came in with amputations, abdominal wounds, head wounds, pneumonia, infections, everything. Some of the children came in with napalm burns. Most of them were burned pretty badly and when you touched them a white, powdery dust would come off of their skin. It was like their skin was evaporating. It had a really pungent odor of burned flesh and chemicals. Their beautiful country and their homes and family were torn apart and yet they managed to survive. They took care of one another and would absorb people from other families who weren’t even blood relatives. They were warm and caring. Family members were always in the hospital.
“KILLING IS THE EASIEST PART”
Dennis Deal, a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, remembered being almost overwhelmed by the lushness of Vietnam when he first arrived. “We landed and it was almost bucolic,” he said. “It was just so beautiful out. It was like a national park – really, really peaceful.” Deal landed in November 1965 and he anticipated a heroic, John Wayne-style romp. “I thought I was really a bad ass, and what five-foot, one-hundred-pound little Asian punk was going to hurt me? I soon found out.”
Ground troops felt unprepared for the physical demands of fighting in Vietnam, where temperatures often soared as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat enhanced by high humidity. Salt tablets became part of a soldier’s necessary survival tools. Meanwhile, fire ants and leeches tormented soldiers, leaving the surface of the skin painfully itchy and fiery red. Abrasive elephant grass growing as tall as eight feet also tore at the troops’ skin. Rubber and bamboo trees so densely crowded the jungle landscape that the sun at times could not be seen in broad daylight. Soldiers often could move no more than 100 feet in one hour, even as they were overwhelmed by the smells of gunpowder, sulfur, diesel fuel and rotting corpses.
“War is not killing,” one soldier said. “Killing is the easiest part of the whole thing. Sweating twenty-four hours a day, seeing guys drop all around you of heatstroke, not having food, not having water, sleeping only three hours a night for weeks at a time, that’s what war is. Survival.”
Added to this suffering, soldiers experienced sensory overload. They focused on the tiniest sounds that could indicate an activated booby trap. Sometimes they felt overwhelmed by the intense brightness of the colors in the brush, shades of green that many veterans said vibrated before their eyes. “Sometimes it was beautiful,” another soldier recalled. “We were in a bamboo forest and came upon an old Buddhist temple with vines climbing all over it, big Buddhas, brightly colored with reverse swastikas and leaf designs.” Booby traps set across the most thickly wooded parts of the countryside shattered such reveries.
Military personnel had to watch each step for punji stakes, sharpened bamboo sticks hidden under leaves and other cover.
Marines and soldiers sometimes accidentally tripped an explosive, and when they dropped to the ground, they were impaled on the punji stakes, which had been coated with animal excrement in order to cause infections just in case the stab wounds failed to kill the victim. Trip wires on jungle floors released huge wooden slabs or large, heavy balls of mud containing sharp spears that swung down and struck passing infantry.
Once while on reconnaissance, an unfortunate Marine stepped on a bear trap that could be opened only with a special key. As a medical evacuation helicopter waited to carry the wounded man to safety, other Marines discovered that a chain connected the trap to a concrete slab buried three feet deep. Medics had to dig up the heavy anchor and carry it along with the chained Marine to get him to doctors. At the medical station in Da Nang, a team used torches and hacksaws to cut loose the Marine’s leg.
“My first encounter with death was a booby trap,” a veteran told author Mark Baker. “ . . . A bomb was in the ground with wires leading to two VC, sitting in a hole about a hundred yards away, just waiting until the main part of the column got there. Then they stuck two wires to an eight-volt battery and eleven men were blown up . . . I was angry. Angered because we didn’t have a chance to fight back. We just got blown up . . . We went into the jungle totally different from that moment on.”
Soldiers feared so-called “Bouncing Bettys,” land mines with a spring that activated an explosive when stepped on. The explosive propelled four or five feet into the air and sprayed metal shards and other cutting projectiles downward and outward. Such explosives could kill several infantrymen at the same time. Even in the cities, soldiers had to watch out for hidden explosives in abandoned toys and even in the bodies of dead Vietnamese. On top of these dangers, soldiers and Marines witnessed women and small children tossing hand grenades at Americans and sometimes discovered that Vietnamese to whom they had grown close were secretly fighting for the Vietcong. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish friends from foes.
“About five of us went out on a short recon patrol,” a soldier told Baker.
"We came around the bend and there’s two guys in green fatigues throwing hand grenades in the river. So right off we say, ‘Boy, that’s the enemy, man, and we’ve got ’em.’ We jumped out there and captured them, tied them up with wire and about half killed them. We drug them all the way back to camp. Me and two other guys were going to take them to the POW compound . . . We had only been there two days but – oh boy – we were in Combat. We dropped them off at the POW camp. The interrogator steps up and says three words to them. Come to find out they’re National Guard, Popular Forces. They’re on our side. What were they doing throwing hand grenades in the river? They were fishing."
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.