Reflections In Their Own Words
If you really want to read something that expresses how I feel about my
generation, read this. I haven't found the ability yet to articulate my
full sentiments on the Boomer population that went to war, versus those who
avoided it at all costs. Fortunately, James Webb has...
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American Enterprise Magazine
Heroes of the Vietnam Generation
by James Webb
The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great
Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from
the leading lights of the so-called 60s generation. Tom Brokaw has
published two oral histories of "The Greatest Generation" that feature
ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct was
Chris Matthews of "Hardball" is fond of writing columns praising the Navy
service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for
its alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a
startlingly condescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago
comparing the heroism of the "D-Day Generation" to the drugs-and-sex
nihilism of the "Woodstock Generation." And Steven Spielberg, in promoting
his film Saving Private Ryan, was careful to justify his portrayals of
soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.
An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now
being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which todays
most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them
served. The "best and brightest" of the Vietnam age group once made
headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which
they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse to remember.
Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the "generation gap."
Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its
manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through the
magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby
boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the
Depression and fought the largest war in history were looked down upon as
shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.
Those of us who grew up on the other side of the picket line from that
eras counter-culture cant help but feel a little leery of this sudden
gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old
counter-culture. Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from
the dubious assumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a
unified generation in the same sense as their parents were, and thus are
capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.
In truth, the "Vietnam generation" is a misnomer. Those who came of age
during that war are permanently divided by different reactions to a whole
range of counter-cultural agendas, and nothing divides them more deeply
than the personal ramifications of the war itself. The sizable portion of
the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda,
and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during
the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have
claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II
generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors
were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs
in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual
exercise in draft avoidance or protest marches but a battlefield that was
just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.
Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. The men
who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. They honored
their fathers service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their
fathers wisdom in attempting to stop Communisms reach in Southeast Asia.
The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91
percent were glad theyd served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their
time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that "our
troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in
Washington would not let them win." And most importantly, the castigation
they received upon returning home was not from the World War II generation,
but from the very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.
Nine million men served in the military during the Vietnam war, three
million of whom went to the Vietnam theater. Contrary to popular mythology,
two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were
volunteers. While some attention has been paid recently to the plight of
our prisoners of war, most of whom were pilots, there has been little
recognition of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the
ground. Dropped onto the enemys terrain 12,000 miles away from home,
Americas citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may
never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought
incompetently on a tactical level should consider Hanois recent admission
that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to
58,000 total U.S. dead. Those who believe that it was a "dirty little war"
where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most
costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever foughtfive times as many dead as
World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed
and wounded than in all of World War II.
Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States
was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam. The baby-boom generation had
cracked apart along class lines as Americas young men were making
difficult, life-or-death choices about serving. The better academic
institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest against the war,
with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which
had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from
the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princeton lost
six, at MIT two. The media turned ever-more hostile. And frequently the
reward for a young mans having gone through the trauma of combat was to be
greeted by his peers with studied indifference or outright hostility.
What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war and
possible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to
their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and
professional lives at their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of
the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, "not for fame or
reward, not for place or for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they
understood it." Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with an often
contagious land. And who deserve a far better place in history than that
now offered them by the so-called spokesmen of our so-called generation.
Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines.
1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of
American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill, as well
as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showing the pictures of 242 Americans
who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home, it was the
year of Woodstock, and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the
Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was
seized upon by the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the war.
Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation. Richard Nixon entered
the scene, destined for an even worse fate.
In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment was in
its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is an unpredictable
and inexact environment, but we were well-led. As a rifle platoon and
company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental
commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different
battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The company
commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam,
or young first lieutenants like myself who were given companies after many
months of "bush time" as platoon commanders in the Basins tough and
The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn,
cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the mountains
just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese
Army operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In
the valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were
80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every
day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridge lines and paddy dikes
were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from a hand
grenade to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in the rice paddies and tree
lines like individual fortresses, criss-crossed with trenches and spider
holes, their homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from
large-caliber artillery shells. The Viet Cong infrastructure was intricate
and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, villagers who did
not side with the Communists had either been killed or driven out to the
government-controlled enclaves near Danang.
In the rifle companies we spent the endless months patrolling ridge lines
and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire,
hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside
ones pack, which after a few "humps" usually boiled down to letter-writing
material, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor
We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear,
causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the
bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches
for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and
when it rained we usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos shined
under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful,
never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we
mixed daytime patrolling with night-time ambushes, listening posts, foxhole
duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were
common, as was trench foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating
back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five
days, where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned
defensive bunkers at night.
Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock, or
camping at the Vineyard during summer break.
We had been told while in training that Marine officers in the rifle
companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the
experience of "Dying Delta," as our company was known, bore that out. Of
the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded,
the weapons platoon commander was wounded, the first platoon commander was
killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding
the third platoon, was wounded twice. The enlisted troops in the rifle
platoons fared no better. Two of my original three squad leaders were
killed, the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely
wounded, as was my right guide. By the time I left my platoon I had gone
through six radio operators, five of them casualties.
These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many other
unitsfor instance, those who fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or
were with the famed Walking Dead of the Ninth Marine Regiment, or were in
the battle for Hue City or at Dai Dohad it far worse.
When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I
am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of
high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in
Hell and then return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of
war but of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their
responsibilities, and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of
constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green
19-year-olds the intricate lessons of that hostile battlefield. The
unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar
villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty
with which they moved when coming under enemy fire. Their sudden tenderness
when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed help. Their willingness to risk
their lives to save other Marines in peril. To this day it stuns me that
their own countrymen have so completely missed the story of their service,
lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.
Like every military unit throughout history we had occasional laggards,
cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate these Marines were the
finest people I have ever been around. It has been my privilege to keep up
with many of them over the years since we all came home. One finds in them
very little bitterness about the war in which they fought. The most common
regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able to do morefor each
other and for the people they came to help.
It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men.
Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive
today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valor epitomizes the
conduct of Americans at war from the first days of our existence. That the
boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in our fathers generation
while ignoring it in our own is more than simple oversight. It is a
conscious, continuing travesty.
[Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver
Star, and Bronze Star medals for heroism as a Marine in Vietnam. His novels
include The Emperor's General and Fields of Fire.]
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Let's hope that our Vietnam Veterans get their due recognition before it is
too late. And always remember this -- Vietnam Veterans didn't get anything
but a slap in the face or a turn of the back from their peers when they
returned home. It is these same scoffing peers of Vietnam Vets who are
living the good life today -- a life of prosperity, freedom, and
self-indulgance second to none. A life paid, in great measure, with the
blood of our Vietnam Vets...