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© Copyright 1996-2005
by David H. Hackworth
All Rights Reserved

Vietnam Will Never Go Away

Twenty five years ago this month, the last American helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and ended our country's longest war -- an agonizing and terrible misadventure that divided America as no conflict has since our Civil War.

Besides killing four million Asians and 59,000 Americans and wounding countless more Asians and at least 300,000 of our own countrymen, the Vietnam War forever scarred the collective souls of those of us who lived through that decade of fire. The horror and the guilt continue to haunt those who fought that bad war, those who protested it and those who actively or passively supported it. And the wounds will probably not heal until all involved have gone to their maker.

On a personal level, not a day passes since I left Vietnam without my seeing the faces of the men who died under my command during my five tours of duty there.

Gardner, Perry, Torpie and ten score more.

The names of these good men who fought along side of me are forever burned in my mind. Silently their faces come up on my mental screen as roll call sounds in my heart.

I gave them the order. They died.

They were all young, some just boys who couldn't buy a beer in their hometown. But they were deemed old enough by politicians to kill and be killed in places with strange sounding names like Tuy Hoa, Dak To and Cai Bai.

And I was not only their commander -- too frequently I was their executioner. Many of these young men died or were maimed following my orders. They believed in me and I believed in our country, our cause, our mission to get out there and destroy the Commies.

I discovered too late the enemy was motivated not by ideology but by the same reasons my ancestors fought the British: freedom and independence. It was only then that I realized we had no business being there.

The Vietnam War wounded me more severely than any of the eight Purple Hearts I received during almost eight years of Infantry combat. Until then, I'd always been an idealist who believed the professional soldiers who served our country did so for DUTY, HONOR, AND COUNTRY. But in Vietnam, as the youngest full colonel in our military, I got a look inside the inner circle of the Army -- and witnessed such dereliction of duty that it rocked my belief system to the core.

I discovered most of the senior leadership was concerned mainly with themselves and most neither understood the nature of the war nor had a clue about the impossible mission with which they'd tasked their soldiers.

Most were there merely to get combat command assignments and the glory medals that would punch their career tickets and speed them up the promotion ladder.

Few cared about either their men or the mission.

All but the brain-dead among them knew the war couldn't be won; yet not one general stood tall, putting country before career, and spoke out. Instead, they ignored the consequences of their actions and continued to mindlessly dispatch young men to their deaths.

After almost a half decade of observing the obscenity, I flat couldn't take it anymore. While in uniform and from Vietnam, I stuck out my neck and became the only high ranking serving officer to tell the American people the truth -- that they were being lied to, the war was unwinnable the way it was being fought and we should get out now.

General William Westmoreland responded by hauling out the guillotine and coming after me, violating every principle that differentiates America from places like Iraq. (For details, see ABOUT FACE: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, Simon & Schuster 1989).

Disgusted and disillusioned with my country, which my forefathers had settled in 1622, I went to Australia in self-exile. But there, much as I tried to forget Vietnam, the war wouldn't go away.

And then Westmoreland launched a new campaign, one of disinformation to rewrite what really went down in Vietnam. His propaganda machine claimed we lost the war not because of his strategic and tactical blunders, but because of: THE PEACENIKS, THE COMMIE PRESS AND WEAK-KNEED POLITICIANS. Spin as untrue as his comments to Congress in 1967 that our forces in Vietnam "would prevail." His campaign to rewrite the history of the war compelled me to write ABOUT FACE.

Thousands of books have now been written about the war either to set the record straight or to spin Westmoreland's myth. They've been penned by historians or the men that did the fighting or the generals and their apologists trying to put a winning face on what went down in that futile war.
I suspect most of the historians have tried to bring clarity, understanding and a tidiness to the conflict. However, a few have either swallowed the revisionist's line or are members of the rewrite team.

And if my experience in writing ABOUT FACE is a guide, most of the Grunts wrote their stories to counter Westmoreland's snow job or to try to scrub the war from their souls or tell it like it was on the ground where the killing took place.
But the Generals and their aides -- rationalizers and revisionists for the Vietnam War such as the late Colonel Harry Summers -- have tried to turn the disastrous defeat into victory. Like there really was "light at the end of the tunnel" and, get ready for it, folks, we did in fact win the war.

Their standard line goes something like the following bit of nonsense written in September 1999 by conservative writer Fred Barnes: "America was right to intervene militarily (in Vietnam), for the worldwide consequences would have been far worse for the non-Communist world if it hadn't… Not only was the war winnable, but it had actually been won by sometime in 1970… all but snuffed out the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as major threats in South Vietnam. The war was ultimately lost not because of limits on the American military but because American support for South Vietnam was removed."

I was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1971, down in the field where the dying occurs, and if you believe this gobblegook, let me show you a slightly-used bridge I can get for you cheap.

The conditions and situation Barnes describes simply never existed. On the contrary, each year the American and then the South Vietnamese efforts became weaker while our supposedly "snuffed out" opponent grew stronger.

Unfortunately, as we enter the 21st Century, the revisionists are gaining momentum, and those who've shouted or continue to shout wrong, wrong, wrong are being painted as card-carrying liberals rather than the truth-tellers they in fact were and are.

Even many combat vets who fought there and know better are buying into the standard revisionist line that "We won all the battles, but lost the war."
Perhaps they're allowing themselves to be conned because they want to be perceived as winners the way their dads were after WW11. Perhaps it helps them make some sense of the madness. Perhaps, it takes the hurt out of their never being "Welcomed Home" or never receiving a pat on the back for their extraordinarily brave deeds in one of the toughest wars we've ever fought.

Meanwhile, today's youth haven't a clue about Vietnam. A Vietnam Veteran's organization recently reported that one third of American students age 12 to 17 haven't received any instruction on the war and can't find Vietnam on a map. Over seventy-five percent think the U.S. won a decisive victory even though they have relatives who fought in the war and should know better.
Even though our superpower Army was repeatedly clobbered in Vietnam by a lightly armed foe, it's never conducted an after-action review to identify the mistakes that were made. The truth about the war has been swept under the carpet. And so nothing's been learned.

ABOUT FACE was published shortly before I turned 60 and began a new career as a defense reporter. All too soon, I discovered the same old story that sent me reeling off to Australia -- that most of today's senior military leaders' values are frighteningly similar to the generals of the Vietnam era, the careerists who sold their men and their country down the bloody drain.

Most of the present crop of our senior military leadership are into ME, ME, ME. They've gone-along-to-get-along and stuck their heads in the sand concerning learning anything from the Vietnam experience -- which explains the mini-Vietnams occurring in sinkholes such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo (for more details see HAZARDOUS DUTY, William Morrow 1996).

For most of the 2.5 million Americans who fought in Vietnam, the war was a lie from the beginning to the bitter end. For me, it became the first step of my present journey -- to do everything in my power not to let that sort of bloodbath occur again.

Vietnam gave me a mission: To continue speaking out and to do everything in my power not to let my children or your children or our children's children repeat the horror and the terrible waste of that apocalypse.

My hope is that an enlightened citizenry will give more respect to George Santayana's too often ignored comment, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," than was the case in Somalia in 1993 -- when 44 Americans were killed and almost 500 wounded because nothing was learned by our Army or our politicians from the tragedy of Vietnam.


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