Tuesday, July 14, 2015

1969: One week's dead in Vietnam

I was discharged from the U.S. Army in November, 1968, after spending two years as a draftee, serving in Germany. I did not have it so tough, not as tough as some of the men I later worked with, who had served in Vietnam. One of my supervisors had been an infantryman. He went on search and destroy missions, taking fire and firing back. In comparison, my time at a desk plunking a typewriter, seems very tame. In the end, as we were often reminded, every soldier is an infantryman, can be handed a rifle and be expected to use it. I was just lucky it didn’t happen to me.

But both the combat soldiers and officer personnel were parts of the overall organization. Had I been sent to Vietnam, who knows? I might have been killed, like thousands of other men. Draftees or career soldiers, rifleman or clerk, when a bullet or a bomb gets you, you are just as dead. When I got back from the Army I immediately went into civilian mode. I wanted to forget the whole experience, and I did not want to think about the thousands of men who were sent to fight “that crazy Asian war,” as the song put it. I did not want to think about my friends from high school, or those I served with before we got our overseas orders, who did not make it back from Vietnam.

In June 1969 Life published this article, “One Week’s Dead” — and I’m sure the people who saw it were as profoundly moved as I was. We can shrug off statistics, but to see faces reminds us that soldiers are humans who come in all sizes, shapes, colors. They could be someone we knew. The main things these dead had in common was dying in a war, and being young.

I didn’t think like that then, but I think about things like that now when I look at my visiting grandchildren, or at my son or his wife. Finding this article again after 46 years brought back a lot of feelings, but my feelings are heightened by the knowledge that these men, some of them just boys, never got a chance to grow old. Their government sent them into the middle of another country’s civil war, and now they are memories, not a grandparent like me. Had they lived these young men would have been in their sixties by now. The loss of potential is devastating. Who among those boys was the scientist who would discover a cure for cancer, or win a Nobel Peace Prize, or be a writer or artist, or a policeman, fireman, factory worker, going to work every day to support his family?

One week’s dead. Multiply that week by all the weeks we spent in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1969 Time Inc.


DEMiller said...

Very touching statements. I was in the last draft lottery and had the possibility of being sent to Vietnam hanging over my head. I remember that anyone who took a negative position of our efforts over there were considered communist sympathisers and anti-American. My best friend and I argued about Nixon's expansion of the war. I was against it. I was young and naive, tho. I had been raised to trust our Government, but the whole thing seemed pointless. I have been amazed at how the general public has taken a complete 180 degree turn on the war. They almost all agree it was a mistake. I sure don't recall hearing that back then. The same for the war in Iraq. I saw people waving flags in the streets supporting the war. Where are they today? It seems Americans are eager to go to war and support the troops who volunteer to fight them, but when the dust has settled they shrug their shoulders and say it was a mistake. I'd sure like to show that LIFE article to those people. Thanks for posting.

Postino said...

Dave, the Vietnam experience/disaster caused me to make an assumption that turned out to be naive and completely wrong. I used to tell people that the only good thing about Vietnam was it taught us that invading someone else's country was a very dumb thing to do. I did not know that neocons who had gained power were more than eager to commit young people to war. Iraq, in retrospect, is a bigger mistake than Vietnam because it means the same error was committed twice.

I think powerful elements of the United States government are often too eager to let someone do the dying...as long as it is not them or their children.