Above photo is at the village of Dong Loc where there is a shrine for ten little girls killed by American bombs. Bruce Weigl is the tall person on the left, I am the tall person on the right.
Yes, I have a PhD. But my real education began in 1967 as a corpsman with a marine rifle company in I-Corps, the northern most American combat sector in Vietnam. I knew something was wrong with the war the first week I was there and saw an old man beaten by a marine squad leader. The squad leader had become embittered by the war because we were failing, because we’d been told one thing about the war and to our dismay, discovered another. I was horrified by the beating and later I understood the squad leader did not have the intelligence to see what was going on. We were fighting for the Saigon aristocracy but eighty percent of South Vietnam, the mostly rural areas, hated the regime.
The war was structurally impossible. A marine would step on a mine set in a paddy dike. We had observed villagers walking up and down that dike for weeks and NOT stepping on it, therefore they’d been warned by the local Viet Cong cadre. Our solution, again a stupid choice, was to beat the villagers, burn the village down and thus create new enemies. This happened over and over again. Some of us got it: we were fighting for the wrong side. That statement will get me called “traitor” but a goodly number of veterans thought as I did. My platoon commander, a good and kind man, fifty years later said to me, “…and all they wanted was their independence.” It cost thousands of Americans killed and maimed, and four million Vietnamese, half of whom were civilian. We poisoned their land with defoliants and destroyed their agriculture to the extent that this rice-producing country had to import rice to feed itself. How could this have happened? For starters, the politicians who were so enthusiastic about the war understood nothing of the Vietnamese and their history and were deluded by the "domino theory," a hangover from the red scare of the McCarthy witch hunts. Sadly, most of us who actually did the fighting had never heard of the country and couldn't find it on a map prior to joining up or being drafted. We were tabula rasa and not real smart.
Me in the battalion CP, 1967
For thirty years I’ve been an affiliate of the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Its Social Consequences, a remarkable organization that has brought Americans and their former enemies together through writing. I attended and taught in the summer workshops they offered and through the Institute made trips back to Vietnam and made contact with my Vietnamese creative counterparts. It has been the most rewarding experience of my life.
Hanoi, January 2000