Dispatch August 2007

Rereading Vietnam

The Vietnam analogy looms ever larger in the debate over Iraq, but the U.S. military has memories of that conflict that the public doesn't.

"Protests against the war spawned ideologies ... everything about Vietnam had to be rejected. The result was a shunning of this excellent book. Fashionable journals declined to review it," writes former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger in the preface to a reissue of Bing West's The Village (1972). While the battle in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down (1999) lasted a day, and the one in Harold Moore's and Joe Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once...and Young (1992) lasted three days, The Village is about a Marine squad that fought in the same place for 495 days. Half of them died, seven out of 15.

All of them had volunteered to go to "the village," a job they knew would likely get them killed. Their reason? As the commanding sergeant tells the author: "you have a sense of independence down here. There's no ... paperwork. You're always in contact with the Viet Cong. You know you have a job to do. You go out at night and you do it." And so, these marines left their base camp, with its "canvas cots, solid bunkers ... ice cream and endless guard rosters, and went to live with some Vietnamese ... "

In West's story there is no sense of defeat and doom and perversion like in classic Hollywood movies about Vietnam; no beautiful, ingeniously constructed, and introspective narration about soldiers and their vulnerabilities, beset with moral complexities, as in a work like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), a favorite of high school and college literature courses. West has not written a better book than O'Brien, himself a twice-wounded veteran of the war. But he has written a very different, equally worthy kind that, outside of the members of the military who have regularly recommended it to me over the years, is still relatively little known.

The Village is a story of interminable, deadly, monotonous life-and-death nighttime patrols, dryly and technically narrated, as though extracted from the pages of a hundred, strung-together after-action briefs. To wit: "He had fired twenty bullets in one excited burst, yet missed because he had used a magazine which contained no tracers. Unable to see his fire, he had failed to lead properly when the scout ducked around the corner of the house." The book is as absent of style as it is of negativity. Like any good field manual, it has no time for that. As I said, warriors are not fatalists. The Village deals with what works in a counterinsurgency struggle and what doesn't. It is a story meant for war colleges that the public, too, desperately needs to know. For the redeeming side of the Vietnam War it reflects was not an aberration.

The Marines of Bing West's story constituted a CAP (Combined Action Platoon), which moved into Binh Nghia in early 1966, a village terrorized by the Viet Cong, and over 18 bloody months pacified it, taking unabashed pride in their work. "Many of the marines," West writes, "let months go by without writing a letter or reading a newspaper. The radius of their world was two miles." The following passage helps explain why many Vietnam veterans I meet in the course of my reporting have not altogether negative memories of that war.

The Americans liked the village. They liked the freedom to drink beer and wear oddball clothes and joke with girls. They liked having the respect of tough PFs [Popular Forces government militia] ... who could not bring themselves to challenge the Viet Cong alone. They were pleased that the villagers were impressed because they hunted the Viet Cong as the Viet Cong had for years hunted the PFs ... The Americans did not know what the villagers said of them ... but they observed that the children, who did hear their parents, did not run or avoid them ... The Marines had accepted too many invitations to too many meals in too many homes to believe they were not liked by many and tolerated by most. For perhaps the only time in the lives of those ... Americans, seven of whom had not graduated from high school, they were providing at the obvious risk of death a service of protection. This had won them open admiration ... within the Vietnamese village society in which they were working and where ultimately most of them would die.

West, a former marine in Vietnam who made periodic visits to the platoon, ends his story thus: "In July of 1967, Binh Nghia was no longer the scene of nightly battles ... the enemy had accepted the persistence of the unit [the CAP], whereas his own determination to defend Binh Nghia had waned." That victory was won by marines who never accepted that "the village" was lost, even when the platoon was surrounded by 300 Viet Cong. The marines had done too many nighttime stake-outs, lying immovable for too many hours in filthy puddles, with rain pouring down as though out of a shower faucet, to simply retreat.

The Village demonstrates that the military has memories that the public doesn't. To many who grew up in the 1960s, Vietnam was a cause. But to those who fought it Vietnam was foremost a war, in all its gray shades: with its tactical successes and tactical failures, with its Marine CAPS and Green Beret infiltrations that worked, and its Big Army ones that didn't; with its Army generals who succeeded like Creighton Abrams, and its Army generals who failed like William Westmoreland; with its moments of glory like Hue, and its moments of disgrace like My Lai; and, above all, with its heroes, like the Son Tay Raiders and the Misty forward air controllers.

In 2002, Bing West returned to Binh Nghia. In a new epilogue he writes:

Once a year, the villagers gather to pray for good crops and no floods [by] ... a cement wall bearing a Vietnamese inscription to the Marines who built the well and the shrine in 1967 ... The Village remembers.

Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (2003) by John Stryker Meyer is even more compact, technical, and intense than The Village. Like Bud Day's Duty Honor Country, it was published by a tiny press, in this case Real War Stories, Inc., and went unreviewed. It was recommended to me by a Green Beret sergeant major from rural Pennsylvania, Jack Hagen, whose friend had fought in the unit Meyer writes about. The book constitutes an intimate memory in its own right, another example of stories that warriors tell themselves.

The cheap and slightly out-of-focus jacket design suggests a term-paper quality manuscript that will be a chore to read. Yet as combat writing goes, Across the Fence is pure grain alcohol. It is not replete with rich, unforgettable descriptions, but rather a work of dry realism that makes no attempt at profundity, and is thus unburdened by doubt—the warrior's great strength. There is bitching about physical discomfort, but no complaints about the purpose of the war. So little emotion is there that the author allows himself only a brief and passing broadside against Johnson's ceasefire and what he considers the antagonism of the media.

John Stryker Meyer and the men in his unit, as he writes, "were triple volunteers." They had volunteered for Army parachute jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia; then for Army Special Forces training at Fort Bragg; and finally to serve in the Command and Control element of MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group). This was a joint unit engaged in classified, unconventional warfare in Laos and Cambodia: places known respectively as the "Prairie Fire" and "Daniel Boone" AOs (areas of operations), or just plain "Indian Country" in Meyer's own words. The book's title is military lingo for across the border from Vietnam, where "the North Vietnamese Army," as the author writes, "had moved soldiers, supplies, rockets, guns, and propagandists south into the eastern provinces" of these so-called "neutral" countries, whose territories were an integral part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Complex.

Across the Fence was published only in 2003. Meyer had "signed a government document in 1968 pledging never to write or talk publicly about SOG for 20 years." After that, he explains, "anti-Vietnam" sentiment "made it difficult to find a publisher who would buy the concept of a Vietnam book that dealt with real people striving against unbelievable odds in a politically handicapped war." Encouraged by his writing teachers at Trenton State College, Meyer eventually produced a battlefield diary of daily forays into Laos and Cambodia in 1968 and 1969.

Arriving at a SOG base in Vietnam, the author was shown into a barracks, where on "one double bunk, sweaty and naked, was a couple heavily involved in the rapture of the moment." Nearby, he "found an SF [Special Forces] trooper showering, while a naked Vietnamese woman squatted in the water, washing herself." Seeing that he was an FNG (fucking new guy), a sergeant explained to him that the prostitutes were given weekly health check-ups and what the prices were. These were men away from home for many months: A significant percentage of them were soon to die. Meyer himself was momentarily to enter an existence where life was "a matter of inches":

Three rounds slammed into the One-Zero's [recon team leader's] head, blowing off the right side of his face ... Nothing in the months of pulling garbage detail could prepare ST [spike team] Alabama for the grisly horror unfolding at that moment. The One-one [assistant recon leader] buried his face in the dirt and started praying. Black and the remaining ST Alabama ... returned fire. The Green Beret stood there, firing on single shot, picking off NVA [North Vietnamese Army] soldiers on top of the rise ... Both the NVA and ST Alabama tended to their wounded while the living combatants slammed loaded magazines into their hot weapons ...

Enemy troops quickly reinforced the ambush site. It was always thus. As Meyer documents—through his own experiences, as well as through interviews he conducted for years afterwards to recreate the combat sequences—whenever SOG units crossed the border into Cambodia and Laos, they uncovered a beehive of North Vietnamese Army concentrations. The border truly meant nothing. The battlefield overlapped it. Meyer spends 18 pages describing a savage, day-long firefight in Laos that ends with many dead, as well as beer in the canteen for the survivors near midnight, before another insertion that meets another enemy troop concentration the next morning. From beginning to end, Across the Fence is a record of extreme heroism and technical competence that few who fought World War II surpassed.

Every time Meyer crossed the border it was with South Vietnamese "indigs" (indigenous troops) integrated into his unit. He writes about their exploits and personalities in as much detail as he does about the Americans. He identifies with them, and with the enemy whose skill he admires, more than he does with elements of the home front.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Professor in National Security at the U S Naval Academy. He is the author, most recently, of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, to be published in September.

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