Viet Nam Legacy

Viet Nam Legacy

By:  Garland Davis


I was just reading an article in this month’s VFW magazine about a Vietnam War Legacy program at Texas Tech University.  It was rather cryptic about the legacy of the war and concentrated on those who designed and staff the program.

I have thought a lot about our legacy from that war.  My first question is, “Why were we there?”  Was it to stop the subjugation of the corrupt South Vietnamese government and the South Vietnamese people by the communist North Vietnamese?  Or was it to hold the line and prevent the fall of other Indo-China nations if the south fell?  One prominent politician designated this the “Domino Effect” and presented a credible argument that if the South fell, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand would fall under communist domination.  When the South eventually fell in 1975, it seems the North Vietnamese had satisfied their mission to reunite Vietnam.  Both Cambodia and Laos were involved in civil wars of a sort and the Communist Vietnamese, after thirty-five years of war had no desire to prolong the fighting.  The Soviet Union and China were both experiencing economic and internal strife at the time.

The first reaction of most people is that the United States “lost” the war.  Is that our legacy, losers?  North Vietnamese General Giap stated in his memoirs that the North was defeated and on the verge of sueing for peace when the American media took up the call that America had lost the war.  After the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Walter Cronkite declared on the six-o’clock news that, “The United States is losing and has no chance of winning the war in Viet Nam.”  In the end, the Tet offensive was a military disaster for the North, but the American media made it a political victory for them in the West.” It is now conventional wisdom among American intellectuals of both Left and Right that the Vietnamese communist forces suffered a tremendous blow in that military effort, but the spectacle of such an all-out effort obliterated domestic support for the war in the United States.

So we didn’t lose the war, we surrendered to negative public opinion fomented by the media.  So, is our legacy the military after fighting and on the verge of victory are deserted by the politicians as they listened to the anti-war protestors and media, ignoring the Generals and Admirals.

Is another legacy to be the first American war directed, not by trained military officers, but by politicians, meeting at night, in the oval office, to pick the next day’s air targets in Hanoi and other Northern cities.  These targets were chosen for political reasons that, all too often, had no bearing on the military value of the target.  The North Vietnamese Generals learned that if they placed anti-aircraft batteries and Surface to Air Missile sites adjacent to schools and hospitals, they would not be bombed out of fear of war atrocity implications.  How many planes and pilots did this strategy cost the U.S.

What is the individual legacy of the war?  Thousands of American youth were conscripted into the Army.  Many thousands more volunteered for the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps ahead of the dreaded letter from Selective Service.  And many American youth, at the behest of anti-war organization,s were urged to flee the United States to Canada and Sweden where they were given sanctuary.  Others, already serving, were urged to desert.  I am sad to say that I have a relative, who took the oath, completed basic training and then deserted.  He hid in the hills of North Carolina, with the aid of his father, a highly decorated veteran of the North Africa and Italy campaigns of WWII.  Eventually, all was forgiven when, in 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation offering amnesty to those who evaded the draft or deserted their duty while serving.  What is their legacy?

Is the legacy of those of us who chose to honor our commitment and oath to the country, who either served successfully and continued to serve, served and returned home after our initial tour of duty, were maimed or wounded and recovered or ended up in VA hospitals and care facilities, or died as a result of illness, combat, or accident, that of a pariah?  Many of us who returned home, found no welcome.

At the ends of WWI, WWII, and the Korean conflict, soldiers and sailors were welcomed home with parades and speeches.  Much was made of them, they were treated with respect and as heroes.  Those of my generation, returning from Viet Nam were welcomed with beakers of pig’s blood or red ink thrown across our uniforms to signify us as murderers and baby killers.   We were spat upon and assaulted.  Even some family members wanted nothing to do with us.  You will find us in the American Legions, VFW halls, Elks Clubs and Fleet Reserve Clubs.  We relate to and understand each other.

Suddenly with the War on Terror, we were re-discovered.  Americans of today say, “Oh, the Viet Nam veterans were mistreated and never welcomed home.  The young people are quick to say, “Welcome Home” and “Thank You for Your Service.”  But, I have noticed that many people of an age to have served during the Viet Nam War are not so forthcoming with comments of appreciation.  Ashamed or do they still believe the propaganda of the media of those days.

Many of the men who served in-country, learned to dull the pain and hide the miserable conditions with drugs, primarily marijuana.  Much of the “Marijuana” available in Nam was laced with opium to give it a bigger kick.  Many of them came home as unknowing opium addicts.  Is being recognized as dopers our legacy.

Now another group of us are ill with many afflictions attributed to the U.S. use of a defoliant called Agent Orange.  Cancers, lung diseases, blood diseases, neurological conditions and birth defects in offspring are identified as probably caused by Agent Orange.  Is it our legacy to suffer and many die while fighting the beauracracy for assistance from the country that we served honorably?  Or is our legacy to become casualties of the Viet Nam War without a wall listing our names.

I have managed to confuse the hell out of myself writing this.  I set out to delineate and list our legacies of the Viet Nam War. I cannot define a single legacy.  The war itself is our legacy, from the General or Admiral in his air conditioned office to the lonely private burning the shit in the latrines or the mess cook scrubbing pots and pans in the ships galley.

We know who we are, where we served, and what we contributed.  We did our duty.  I can live with that as my legacy of Viet Nam.


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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.