What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (Growing Up With Vietnam, II)

[As the title indicates, this part of the story concerns my two-year tour of active duty in the U.S. Army, 1966-1968. (Go here for Part I, on my pre-Army life and the early years of the Vietnam involvement.  For a list of sources, see Part IV]

* * * * *

All able-bodied male students at my university were required to take two years of ROTC; the last two years of the program, which led to an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army, were optional.  I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect, but neither was I worried.  I figured that I could put up with playing soldier for a couple of years, spend the last two years making fun of ROTC, and get on with my life.

During my first two years in college, though, things in Vietnam began to change rapidly–and for the worse.  In 1963, the U.S. withdrew its support from South Vietnamese President Diem, who had steadfastly refused to make any reforms in his corrupt, unpopular government, and we actively backed a group of officers who overthrew Diem and murdered him.  This change brought no improvement, however.  By the time President Kennedy himself was assassinated later that year, there were 15,500 American advisers in Vietnam.

I got a mild surprise in the summer of 1963, when I read in the local paper that Larry, my former soccer teammate, old “super nerd,” had joined the Marines upon graduation from high school.  I remember thinking that, of all the boys I knew, Larry was the last one I could picture as a “gung-ho” Marine.  In the spring of 1967, I learned that Larry had been killed in Vietnam.  By that time, I had completed Advanced ROTC, graduated from college, and been in the Army for nine months.

There was no real crisis of conscience involved in my decision to enroll in Advanced ROTC.  Like a lot of people of my generation, the so-called “silent generation” of the 1950s, I had been brought up to do what I was told, and one thing I’d been told over and over was that when my country called me, I must answer the call, with no questions asked.  More practically, draft calls were up, the marriage deferment was no option for me, and, as a History major, I certainly could not qualify for the only other available deferment, one open to those engaged in certain “critical occupations.”  Thus, only by signing up for the last two years of ROTC could I be assured of finishing college before being summoned for military service.

By the time I graduated in June 1966, the U.S. was deeply committed in Vietnam.  In the summer of 1964, Congress had approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which handed President Lyndon Johnson a blank check to deal with what we were told was “Communist aggression.”  During my junior year, 1964-65, we began bombing North Vietnam, the first American combat forces landed in the South, and our troop strength soon grew to 184,000.  In this country, the anti-war movement began.  Since I was a white, lower middle-class male who could (just barely) afford a college education and, thus, qualify for a student deferment, I watched these developments as a spectator rather than as a participant.

* * * * *

My luck continued to hold once I went on active duty in the summer of 1966.  Of the 28 officers in my specialized training course, 26 went to Vietnam upon graduation.  I was one of the two who did not.  Instead, I was sent to a large Army base in Maryland.  My new job kept me busy for long hours, so I didn’t have much time to sort out my feelings about the war.

When there were more than 500,000 American troops in Vietnam and we were paying $30,000,000,000 a year to support our effort there, it was hard to fault the reassurances from our leaders that the war was going our way, that there was, in a favorite Administration phrase of the time, “light at the end of the tunnel.”  Yet, victory continued to elude us, and a number of officers I knew asserted that, unless the Administration changed its policies and allowed our forces to wage all-out war, we would never win.  Then came Tet, the Lunar New Year, 1968, when Communist forces launched simultaneous attacks on 27 South Vietnamese cities, including the capital, Saigon.

The Tet Offensive broke the back of domestic support for our continued involvement in Vietnam.  It also brought me the only really worthwhile assignment I had while on active service and made up my mind about the war.  One of the Americans killed in Saigon during Tet was an Army major whose family lived a few miles from where I was stationed.  I was assigned to work with the Major’s family.  My duties included  arranging for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery, accompanying his family to the military funeral, and seeing to it that his widow and son received all of the government benefits to which they were entitled.  During the six months I worked with the Major’s family, the whole direction of the war in Vietnam changed.  President Johnson stopped the bombing of the North, called for peace talks to begin in Paris, and refused to run for re-election in 1968.

It was clear at last that we were not going to “win” the war in any meaningful sense, that in fact our policy was now–and perhaps had been from the start–bankrupt.  Like Humpty Dumpty, our grand crusade had fallen from the wall, and all the blood, money, and technology we possessed could not put it back together again.  I understood that, then; what I could not grasp was a more troubling question:  however pure our intentions, did our policy justify the sacrifice made by Larry and by the Army major I had helped to bury?  What sort of consolation did Tet and its grim sequel offer to the Major’s widow, his 6 year-old son, and to the rest of his family?  I never learned the answers to those questions.  All I do know is that, for me, the events surrounding Tet were a turning point:  I could no longer support the war in Vietnam, and the end of my two years’ active duty could not come quickly enough.

[End of Part II]

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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2 Responses to What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (Growing Up With Vietnam, II)

  1. David N Muxo says:

    While you were having your “turning point” regarding Vietnam, I was finishing up my B.A. and getting ready to go into the Army. I joined up, but not out of any burst of patriotism. I was about to be drafted because I had had two deferments already, so I signed my life away on a delayed entry contract, and entered the Army in June 1968, I spent a year in training, then went to Vietnam on June 13, 1969. By that time Tet was old news. And no officer ever asked me if I believed in the war. It was not required. During the entire year in the mountains and jungles of central Viet Nam, I don’t remember a single discussion about whether or not the war was right. As far as we, the grunts in the field, were concerned, were not there to win or lose, we were there to survive and keep our people alive. My goal as squad leader, SSG, was to protect my men, both from the Viet Cong and the NVA, and from the US officers above us, whose mission, at least it seemed to us, was to get us killed. Once I returned from Vietnam, was spat upon in the airport in Seattle, and lost jobs because I was a combat Vietnam veteran, I went underground as most of us did. I did not obsess about the war, or whether is was just or not, I never have forgiven Jane Fonda. Today I recognize the futility of that war, but I still believe that we, the troops, deserved the support of the American people. For me the greatest disgrace of the time was the way the returning troops were treated. For me, it is a scar which will never heal.

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