Today, we know that the Americans ordered to risk their lives at Khe Sanh did so under a commander-in-chief who already believed that victory in Vietnam was unlikely. We know that the brave men who fought impressively to save the base would be ordered to abandon it utterly almost as soon as the enemy’s forces had withdrawn. And we know that the United States later withdrew from Vietnam in defeat, abandoned its allies, and watched the country fall to communism (then suffer the repression, want, and starvation so often caused by that economic system).
What followed Khe Sanh doesn’t diminish the courage or sacrifice displayed by U.S. forces there, but does remind us of our obligation as citizens to urge against dumb wars and to spare young Americans from being asked to die for a politician’s mistake.
With that in mind, one artifact of Khe Sanh that I gravitated towards while marking this anniversary was an official U.S. military account of the battle printed and declassified in 1969. At the time, the war raged under Richard Nixon, a corrupt commander-in-chief who sabotaged peace talks while running for president and spoke privately as if getting reelected was a major factor in prolonging the war. The report was authored by Captain Moyers S. Shore II, with a prologue by Commandant of the Marine Corps L.F. Chapman Jr. and a Foreword by Westmoreland.
Put another way, it was produced by men and institutions who wanted to keep prosecuting the war in Vietnam, and who hoped anti-war protesters would not prevail.
“As a history, this work is not intended to prove any point, but rather to record objectively the series of events which came to be called the Battle of Khe Sanh,” the report’s preface stated, suggesting the ethos of a straightforward accounting of facts.
But that same preface declared that the battle “not only denied the North Vietnamese Army a much needed victory but reaffirmed to the world the intention of the United States to hold the line in Southeast Asia,” adding, “in addition to having been a contest of men and machines, this was the test of a nation’s will.” Finally, it stated, the battle showed Hanoi “the futility of its war of aggression.”
In fact, America lacked the will to stay in Vietnam, though it did have the will to hold Khe Sanh. And Hanoi did not conclude from the battle that its warmaking was futile.
The body of the report makes a better attempt at straightforwardness, but is nevertheless interesting in the ways that it departs from that ethos and leads readers astray.
It is too much to expect the Department of Defense to describe war in the manner of Paul Fussell. But anyone who has delved into accounts of what it is like to be under artillery shelling, or spoken to veterans recalling the experience years later, can grasp the disservice done to returning vets by romanticized passages like this one:
"Attention to Colors."
The order having been given, Captain Wiliam H. Dabney, a product of the Virginia Military Institute, snapped to attention, faced the jerry-rigged flagpole, and saluted, as did every other man in Company I, 3d Batalion, 26th Marines. The ceremony might well have been at any one of a hundred military installations around the world except for a few glaring irregularities.
The parade ground was a battle-scarred hilltop to the west of Khe Sanh and the men in formation stood half-submerged in trenches or foxholes. Instead of crisply starched utilities, razor sharp creases, and gleaming brass, these Marines sported scraggly beards, ragged trousers, and rotted helmet liner straps. The only man in the company who could play a bugle, Second Lieutenant Owen S. Mathews, lifted the pock-marked instrument to his lips and spat out a choppy version of "To the Colors" while two enlisted men raced to the RC-292 radio antenna which served as the flag-pole and gingerly attached the Stars and Stripes. As the mast with its shredded banner came upright,the Marines could hear the ominous "thunk," "thunk," "thunk," to the southwest of their position which meant that North Vietnamese 120 mortar rounds had left their tubes. They also knew that in 21 seconds those "thunks" would be replaced by much louder, closer sounds, but no one budged until Old Glory waved high over the hill.
When Lieutenant Matthews sharply cut of the last note of his piece, Company I disappeared; men dropped into trenches, dived headlong into foxholes, or scrambled into bunkers. The area which moments before had been bristling with humanity was suddenly a ghost town. Seconds later explosions walked across the hilltop spewing black smoke, dirt, and debris into the air. Rocks, splinters, and spent shell fragments rained on the flattened Marines but, as usual, no one was hurt. As quickly as the attack came, it was over. While the smoke lazily drifted away, a much smaller banner rose from the Marines’ positions. A pole adorned with a pair of red, silk panties––Maggie’s Drawers––was waved back and forth above one trench line to inform the enemy that he had missed again. A few men stood up and jeered or cursed at the distant gunners; others simply saluted with an appropriate obscene gesture. The daily flag-raising ceremony on Hill 881 South was over.
The episode was just one obscure incident which coupled with hundreds of others made up the battle for Khe Sanh.
Compare and contrast: