Memories of War | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Memories of War 

Before sending another generation of GIs into hell, let's pause to reflect on the experience of those who have already been there.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

A young American soldier sits in his M1 tank in Saudi Arabia, looking up at Dan Rather, waiting an instant before answering the question. He lowers his eyes and finally says, "I'm not a warmonger, but let's go in now and get it over with so we don't have to come back in a few years."

His answer reflects the almost schizophrenic attitude Americans have always had about war. On one hand, there is his bristling confidence that we can go in and get it over with. On the other hand, he feels compelled to declare "I'm not a warmonger . . ."--as if it is possible to fight a war without becoming warlike. There is a sense in this statement of a country that is quite willing to wage war but requires a morally compelling reason to do so; it's a sense of self-justification that may be one of our greatest virtues as a world power, but that also leads us to believe that wars can be fought in a moral way.

Armed by his conviction that he defends the moral high ground, the American GI has always been a good fighting man. Even in Vietnam, in a world 6,000 miles from home, fighting for reasons that were never clearly understood, he proved his mettle time and time again. When Colonel Harry Summers of the Army War College met a North Vietnamese counterpart after the war he told him, "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield." The North Vietnamese colonel's response was, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."

Vietnam was lost and it remains a black stain on the military history of the United States. Conservatives and liberals agree that they never want "another Vietnam." Everyone is quick to point out the differences between Vietnam and the situation we now face in the Middle East: this is a simple response to specific aggression; the enemy enjoys no powerful allies; we have learned the lessons Vietnam taught us. But what is also true is that America may again ask its soldiers to fight a foreign war in an alien culture for purposes that are not strictly defensive. Before the GI goes willingly into hell once more, we should reflect on the experience of those who have already been there.

No single veteran can speak for all, but few of them are more knowing than Carl Burrell, a Vietnam vet who's a counselor at the Oak Park Vet Center. The Vet Center is one of many created by Congress in 1985 to deal with veterans of the Vietnam era. The Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) estimated that of the three million GIs who served in Vietnam, some 700,000 suffer various readjustment problems. Burrell has been in constant touch with veterans who couldn't leave the war behind. He describes them as "one day here, one day there, and still in the mold."

A tall black man, Burrell speaks in a deep, careful voice. When the subject is Vietnam he strays frequently into the present tense, as if Vietnam remains an experience not quite past. He is persuasive but often repeats himself, like someone who suspects the listener is unwilling to understand what he's trying to say.

Burrell was born and raised in Maywood. He was a high school football star and a teammate of Fred Hampton, who would later become a leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago. After graduating from Proviso East he attended junior college, but in the summer of 1969 he decided to fulfill his military obligation.

"My father was in World War II. I knew I couldn't not go. That was something you did as an American. As part of being an American I couldn't run, I had to go into the service. I didn't even entertain going somewhere else. I couldn't face my family, my father--that's cowardice! You talk about freedom, well you're supposed to fight for it. That's what I was fighting for in Vietnam. We all were initially."

In 1969 America was full of passionate commitment. Burrell had lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King and seen the riots that followed. America was a nation at odds with itself. Yet his memories of the time before he joined the Army are almost fond. "You had people thinking for themselves and making decisions for themselves. It amazes me that that commitment just disappeared. Nowadays people aren't committed to anything. You wave a dollar bill in front of their faces and they'll change their whole fucking view about anything."

Like many Vietnam vets, Burrell views his time in the military as somehow more than a personal experience; he connects significant service dates to events in the larger world. The date he remembers most clearly is December 14, 1969, the day he returned home from boot camp.

"I remember coming into Chicago and calling home to get a ride from O'Hare, and my baby sister answered the phone. She said, 'Have you heard the news?' and I said, 'What news?' You know being in the service you're not conscious of hearing any news. And I said no, and she says, 'Do you see any papers around there?' I looked around and there it is, Fred Hampton dead right there in the front page of all the papers. You see that in itself had an effect on my service. I'm saying to myself, 'Wait a minute, I'm going to fight for somebody's freedom and people turn around and do this to black leaders and white leaders that are trying to change our society for the better?' Here they were getting killed off. Whoa!"

But Burrell found that the military is little impressed by personal convictions. He was sent first to Fort Lewis for training and then to Vietnam for 14 months as a military policeman. Besides his normal police work, he guarded convoys and went out on combat patrols. He was stationed out of Long Binh, but much of his time was spent in the bush with several other black soldiers who gave themselves the title "Soul Patrol." It didn't take long for Burrell to recognize what he had gotten himself into.

"Vietnam was a strange experience, particularly being a black man in the military police. For the first time, once I got there, I realized that the Vietnamese were people just like you and me. Prior to that, through the process of brainwashing, the Vietnamese were never people--Gooks, slant eyes, Charlie, VC, labels but never people. The purpose of that was that it's hard to kill a person, but to kill a thing is easy. That's the psychological breakdown and buildup of war, and I can understand that. But once you were there and started having an interaction with people, you start realizing that they were committed to fighting you because you were a foreign invader and they're going to kill you any way they can."

Burrell, like so many young men through the ages, had to overcome a basic premise of civilization--that it is wrong to kill another human being. What allows wars to be fought is that young men also do not want to die.

"At the same time your commitment was that you know this person was trying to kill you and you were going to kill this person because you don't want to die here, you want to go back to the real world. You have this conflict of what you know and what you feel. Oftentimes you have to hide behind something, whether it's alcohol or marijuana or whatever. Alcohol was the biggest problem in Vietnam because it was pushed--pushed all the time."

Vietnam became infamous for its deadlier pleasures. In 1971 the Pentagon estimated that 30 percent of the American troops there had experimented with opium or heroin. (Many of the statistics used in this article come from Stanley Karnow's monumental work Vietnam: A History.) The dope in Vietnam was very good and as available as alcohol. Burrell remembers a friend he left behind.

"There was this white guy named Gallagher from Boston that we used to hang out with a lot. We used to call him Booker. Gallagher got strung out on smack and he left after I did, so I don't know if he made it or not. When I met him he was six feet five, about 240 pounds, and when I last saw him he weighed maybe 170."

The idea of home receded with each passing day, more dream than reality. When the GI thought of home, he thought of home as it was when he left it. Time became distorted, yet a factor in almost everything. Most GIs could see no further ahead than their DEROS, their "date of estimated return from overseas," and most Vietnam vets can still tell you theirs 20 years after it no longer matters.

Says Burrell, "You never got off work in Vietnam. You got a chance to sleep but you never got off work. It was like one day was the same whether it was New Year's or your birthday. Christmas was just another day. You didn't realize time went on in the world, too, that there were people going on with their lives in the world."

The GI didn't understand this until he came home. Then the shock of discovering that people he knew had gotten married, had babies, grown older made him feel as if there was no common ground on which he could reestablish himself in the world. Many vets drifted to the fringes of society, possessed by devils inside them.

Carl Burrell discovered in his work how to overcome his devils; others never did. They vanished into the statistics that describe dark corners of society that you don't have to look into if you don't want to. They were only statistics to me until late one night two summers ago when one of them showed up in my living room in the form of my brother Steve.

Steve went to Vietnam in 1969, served his 13 months, and returned to the States, but he didn't come home. He went to Florida and found a job picking crops with migrant workers, and that was the life he lived after that, never going back home to Tucson for more than a few days; he'd stay just long enough to tell my mother a few stories about life on the road, and then he'd be off. I'd talk to him occasionally on the phone, but until that night in '89 I hadn't seen him since he left for Nam.

My memories of him as a child are of a kid who seemed to enjoy just being alive. He was active, soft-spoken, and often quite funny. Nothing seemed to bother him for long, and I always liked the fact that he was my brother. Whenever we talked on the phone I told him to come visit me in Chicago on his way to Michigan to pick the cherry crop, and he always said he would but never did. Then the phone rang that night. "Hey, Danny, this is your brother Steve."

I found him in an old man's bar on Cermak Road accompanied by a middle-aged hooker named Monica. I brought them back to my apartment. "Danny, your brother Steve's a pimp," he said. "You ever seen a white pimp before? Well your brother Steve's the only white pimp in the country." This pimping business had to do with a trip he'd taken to Tucson. He'd been living with Monica ("One thing Danny, I ain't never been Monica's trick. I may be a pimp, but I ain't never been anyone's trick") and he'd decided to visit my father. They had enough money to make it to Tucson but not enough to make it back, and he'd hoped to tap my father for the return fare. He gave them 40 bucks and dropped them off at the local strip in Tucson. Halfway back to Michigan they ran out of money, and Monica started turning tricks at rest areas with truckers for food and gas money.

Despite the hard years he'd seen, Steve was still an impressive figure. He stood six-four, thin, with long brown hair streaked with blond. He sat across the table from me, stretched his legs, and leaned back. Monica was dressed in flimsy, bright red short shorts, a tank top to match, and high-heeled sandals--nothing subtle in her looks or personality. She sat next to him, and they shared what remained of a cocktail they'd mixed in a plastic jogger's bottle--cheap whiskey and beer. When it ran low they added more beer.

Monica was unabashedly what she looked like, and rather likable. "My mama was a ho'. I'm a ho'. And my daughter's a ho'. We're three generations of ho'in'. Ho'in'--that's what you call it. Whore's someone that gives it away."

We shared stories about the family and then Steve began to tell tales from the road, most of them tales of violent confrontations. At one point he simply stared at my eyes and said, "Danny, I'm a violent man. No, like you don't know, I'm mean. I'm a mean man, Danny. You don't know some of the things I've done." He never stopped drinking, and sometimes a story would end in the middle and he'd start another.

I told him how our mother had died a few months before of throat cancer. She was with my youngest brother and a friend and they were trying to get her to speak, but she was so doped up she couldn't make the effort. Finally the neighbor picked up the Raggedy Ann vase Steve had sent her and kept saying, "Look what Steve bought." My mother looked at it and said, "He has a good heart." It was the last thing anyone heard her say. She was right. Even in the midst of all the stories he told, there was something decent in him, something likable, a good heart.

But there was also something else in Steve, something that hadn't been there when he was a child. It wasn't so much the meanness he spoke of as a sense of himself as not only mean but almost unworthy of anything better than what he had. Several times I asked him why he never really went home, and he never had an answer, nor would he respond when I'd begin turning the conversation to Vietnam. And then about 3:30 in the morning, after Monica had gone to bed and most of the whiskey and beer was gone, I asked him where he'd served in Nam.

He told me Da Nang, one of the more secure areas. I asked if he'd spent time in the bush, but he shook his head and said, "Naw, just guard duty." He seemed to have said as much as he was going to, but then he repeated, "Just guard duty. There was this one spot way out on point that they used to stick me and this nigger all the time." He stopped and looked at the space between his feet and then went on. "It wasn't no free-fire zone, and sometimes they'd take potshots at us, but we couldn't shoot back." He stopped again and began to look at his hands. When he started speaking again it was as if he was holding something in them.

"One time I was up there and these two niggers came way out there with a gook. They said this guy cheated them in a heroin deal. They had him all tied up and they took their rifles and they started beating him." Steve brought his hands up and brought them down as if he was remembering with his body. "They really started messing this guy and I told them to stop, but they had guns and I had a gun and I couldn't shoot no American, I couldn't do that."

He stopped and looked at his hands and then he looked up at me. "I remember how it sounded, but Danny, I couldn't shoot no American. They were marines and I was a marine and I couldn't shoot no American." He looked down again and said, "I've thought a lot about that night and I know what I should have done. I should have shot the gook."

"Why?" I asked.

He looked at me incredulously. "'Cause I couldn't shoot no American."

I went to sleep after that. Steve went out for a while, looking for something to eat, and when he got home I heard him take a shower. He left early the next morning. I told him to come back and spend more time the next time. He said he would, but I haven't seen him since or heard from him.

Steve's story may seem to be only an unusual incident, but war tends to create those kinds of incidents. In a world without morality terrible situations occur, and not always on the battlefield. Steve had been faced with a situation where there was no possible action that wouldn't have left him scarred. Shooting the gook would have left him just as guilty. What plagued him for all those years, what left him with such a strong sense of not being good, was that he had been unable to act. He hadn't moved on all those decent qualities inside of him, and I'm convinced he doesn't believe they are there anymore. And that's sad, because even in all the drunkenness, in all the tales of violence, in all the stories of hard knocks, the decency was still visible to me. So was the brother I was glad to have. I still am. I only hope he knows it.

Carl Burrell can tell you where the decent feelings go. "The Marines take that away from you. You can't fight if you still feel all those good things. They want to make a killer of you, that's their job." There is a spectrum of emotions that are dangerous on a battlefield, and one of the intentions of war propaganda is to take them away so they cannot harm the soldier. But nothing truly prepares any human being for the actual atrocities that are committed in order to win a war.

"I think about the guys who didn't have the strong constitution I did," Burrell says. "My first five years back in the States were just horrible. I think of some of the behavior I went through when I came back, the way I felt towards people, anyone, here in the States. I just wanted to do them a job. You know what I'm saying? I want to kick your ass, not just kick your ass but kill you. Once, when you got in a fight, you just threw a couple punches and that's it. Now I'm literally trying to kill somebody, and that's it. You're my enemy and I'm going to eliminate you, and then I don't have to worry about you anymore. Everything I did, I did to the max. You smoke marijuana, you drink beer, you drink whiskey, you fight, you do it to the max."

This was not simply a hatred of the world, but a veteran's altered view of himself as a moral creature. "I have to carry with me every day some of the things I saw, some of the things I participated in, and, more importantly, some of the thoughts I had about people, some of the enjoyment of doing harm, maximum harm, and that's a horrible thing to realize in yourself."

The vet found himself in a difficult position. He returned to a society that, far from showing sympathy, blamed him in part for the war itself. He recognized that it was his compliance with authority that had put him in Vietnam, in a situation where survival demanded that he commit abnormal acts. And there was a new idea in his head that was hard to get rid of--the usual deference to authority could be dangerous. "You take saluting," says Burrell. "You didn't salute in the bush because this tipped off Charlie who you were. You salute an officer in the field and he might shoot you. Then you get some asshole officer in Long Binh and you want me to salute you? Man, screw you! You don't learn something in one place and then unlearn it in another. What you going to do, put me in jail? I'm already in jail. I can't go home."

Distrust of authority made it hard for GIs to readjust to peacetime service in the States, and a great many left the military with "bad paper"--a discharge that was not honorable or carried a "spin number" coded to let employers know that this was a vet with problems. Most vets never knew that spin numbers even existed.

Once employed, a lot of vets didn't get along with their bosses (many of whom had avoided the draft and finished college). It was not that they made bad employees, but that they were often viewed as insubordinate and aggressive. "Ninety percent of Vietnam vets will do the job if you tell them what you want and leave them alone," says Burrell. "But they can seem stubborn, especially when they give you stupid-ass orders. You told me what you want, now leave me alone."

Outside the workplace, the vet found an unaccepting world. Time haunted him. "You don't realize people have gone on with their lives. You want to talk to people about your experience, but you were shut out by America. It's over now, baby, and you don't have to worry about the war, you can go on with the rest of your life. Bullshit. I'm still in the war. I don't know what's happening here."

Adding to his estrangement was the version of the vet created by the media. Countless TV shows depicted the psycho killer as a Vietnam vet gone bad. The news media fell in love with stories of fraggings--an enlisted man tossing a grenade into an officer's tent--though they seldom gave details about actual occurrences. All the negative assumptions were confirmed in many people's eyes by the revelations of the My Lai massacre.

The average age of the Vietnam combat soldier was 19, but he found his peers to be the most active haters of anyone associated with the war. The peace movement, with its emphasis on avoiding the draft, often depicted those who fought as villains. "The Vietnam vet was labeled negative. You were a baby killer, a drug addict, a rapist. These assholes went to Canada. They get pardoned and they haven't lost a stroke in their lives. We put our lives on the line and we're treated like dogs."

The price that the veteran continued to pay for his service was compounded by the fact that the Vietnam war was lost. With the rest of the country, he felt the humiliation of helicopters plucking fleeing people from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the center of the city. The vet was left feeling betrayed by the very institution he'd been fighting for--his sacrifice had been wasted. "We could have won the war, but you know what America does? It fights by a book, a rule book, and Charlie didn't have no book. Don't make no fucking sense to me at all. How are you going to have some rules when the only rule is trying to kill some son of a bitch trying to kill you? They say this is not a free-fire zone and you can't shoot back. This son of a bitch is shooting at you, dropping mortars on you, and you can't shoot back? What kind of shit is this? What does this do to the GI? What kind of game are you playing?"

Because there were no clearly defined battlefields, the proportion of American ground troops that came under enemy fire was higher than in any other war in American history. A 1980 Veterans Administration survey found that 76 percent of the Vietnam vets surveyed had come under mortar or rocket fire and 56 percent had seen an American killed or wounded. Coming home to watch the war end in failure left many vets resenting not only the peace movement but also the politicians and generals who allowed this to happen.

"They didn't kick the GI's ass, they kicked the American government's ass in regards to how they fought the war," says Burrell. "I didn't lose the war. America pulled out. The GI didn't lose the war, America turned tail. What pisses me off is that they labeled us losers and they didn't have the guts to fight the war. They played games, and in the process of playing the game they lost almost 60,000 GIs."

There is a tendency among writers to make all Vietnam vets out to be troubled individuals, but the fact remains that of the three million GIs in Vietnam a vast majority blended back into society. Mike Biancofiori is a good representative of what might be called the silent Vietnam vet.

Mike still has the thick neck and barrel chest of the marine he once was. And he answers the question "Are you proud of being a marine?" with the standard, "You're damn right I am." He still gets together with marines he served with in Vietnam, but he admits, "To tell you the truth I don't remember it all that well. It was a long time ago."

Of the vets in this article, Mike saw the most combat. He went to Vietnam in April of '69 (he doesn't remember the exact date anymore) and returned the following Easter. "I had two Easters that year because I flew over the international time line." He served in the India Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Division, in an area just north of Da Nang. He spent eight months as a machine gunner at such memorably named places as Hill Ten, and went on long-range and recon patrols

The two war stories he tells sound like scenes from Platoon. In one firefight, the VC sent in sappers to aim the Claymore mines back at the Marines' positions, and then they came in waves, overrunning the base camp. Mike was out on point; he remembers melting down one barrel of his M60 and "shitting in my pants." The battle lasted for six or seven hours, during which "Puff the Magic Dragon," a DC-3 whose machine guns could fire 18,000 rounds a minute, joined the fray. They suffered 15 percent casualties that night and the next morning discovered 150 bodies, 30 percent of whom Mike is certain were Chinese, although the use of Red Chinese troops in Vietnam has never been confirmed. "You tell me," he says, "but I never saw no six-foot three-inch Vietnamese."

The other story is about the GI they forgot to wake up one night during a long-range patrol. When they went back to get him, they found him strung up by his thumbs, castrated, and disemboweled. A little later they approached a small village, not far away, and took sniper fire. That was all the excuse they needed to go in shooting. "We shot any male from 15 to 50. No women or kids. We didn't burn the hootches."

When asked what he felt when he was there he says, "I thought the whole thing was like a job. I had 13 months to do and I was going to do them and go home." When asked what his opinion of the war was then, he gives an interesting answer. "I really wasn't old enough to form an opinion. I don't believe a 19-year-old 10,000 miles from home can have an opinion. All he's trying to do is survive."

When he returned to the U.S., Mike had one big plus in his favor, a family that wanted to hear what he had to say. His mother remembers him as quiet about the war, but Mike says he never felt hesitant about talking about it and never felt people wouldn't listen. "The fear's over with when you're home." He got back into life, working first at a gas station and then as a truck driver for his father. "The whole family were truck drivers or owned trucks." He eventually started his own trucking company. He's been married for 17 years and has three children, and his only addiction is to golf.

This doesn't mean he's without opinions about the war and the way it was fought. He thinks that a lot of the aggression vets felt after the war had to do with the rules under which it was fought. "You want total domination when you get back because you were held back there. They told you when you could shoot and when you couldn't, and when it came to cease-fires the only one that cease-fired was us." He also feels the outcome of the war could have been different. "We didn't lose the war, we had no chance of winning it. I think we went over there to take up space. Spent all those years and all those lives to take up space. We could have won it in six months, but the way we were going about it we couldn't have won it in 600 years."

If that opinion sounds close to Carl Burrell's, it's not coincidence. A VA study found that 82 percent of the combat vets feel the war could have been won if it had been fought under different conditions, and 66 percent said they would be willing to fight it again. Would Mike? "Definitely, I'd do it all over again."

Mike's feelings about the peace movement are that it was less sincere than it pretended to be. "I feel 90 percent of them were hiding behind it, didn't believe in it, were just hiding out. I just don't believe there are that many peace-loving people in the world." His anger, however, spent itself long ago. "They got to live with that the rest of their lives."

Carl Burrell breaks down the Vietnam experience into five distinct phases, and vets I've talked to recognize them easily. The first is the simple act of going to war. "A friend of mine saw me off at the airport," says Burrell. "I was more afraid then because of the uncertainty of returning. I remember the door closing and I knew I was going someplace I might not return from."

Even in Korea the GI usually reached the war zone after a long voyage that isolated him from home and family, giving him time to ruminate on the possibilities. The GI in Vietnam stepped on a plane and in less than a day went from home to hell. The GI came to other wars as part of a group of people, many of whom had trained together for months and all of whom shared the same inexperience. In Vietnam, the longest war the U.S. has ever fought, the new man was usually a replacement for someone who had completed his 13 months or been a casualty. His welcome by the veterans was often less than enthusiastic.

The second phase was being the "cherry boy," the new kid. "In the first two months before you understand certain things you're afraid, just learning your job, how things get done, what to expect, what you're supposed to be careful about." This learning experience was not always an easy one. There was a saying in Vietnam that it was better to get it in the first few weeks than later on, after you'd already gone through the hell of it all. To some extent, this was a way the veteran could avoid feeling the awfulness of some callow kid buying it after getting off the plane. It was also a way the veteran could avoid responsibility for him, because trying to look out for someone who didn't know what he was doing could be dangerous, and most veterans knew that however stupid the war may have been, dying in it was even stupider.

The third phase came after the newness wore off. "For eight or nine months everything was cool because you had adjusted to it and you had learned how to compartmentalize things in your life. You knew what to expect every day and you came to the realization that it don't mean nothin'." "Don't mean nothin'"--that was the phrase heard so often in Vietnam. To allow something to matter was dangerous; it made you concerned about something other than the task before you, and that task was to deal with death every day.

"In the first two months you learn to block out all emotion--that's the key to survival. You don't have it, you don't deal with it, you don't recognize emotion. You take on this attitude until it becomes a part of you and nothing means anything, no emotions, no connections. It's just relationships, superficial relationships. Some become strong--but you don't want to make them strong enough that it would bother you if something happened to that individual. If this sounds callous, it isn't. It's simply war, and war makes everything practical. Emotions not only don't help the individual, they don't help the group, which depends on each member doing their proper function in order for the most to survive. To some extent, this helps everyone. It's important to know that the man standing next to you will do what is needed for you to survive even if you don't get along with him, and it's important for him to know that too.

"Don't mean nothin'--that's the attitude. One thing that's clear throughout your stay in Vietnam after you've gone through the emotions is that it don't mean nothin'. This is the way to cope with things. If it meant something to you then it could cause you to get hurt or somebody else to get hurt. Don't mean nothin', just do your job. Nothing else means anything."

This attempt to squash emotions was not totally successful. Burrell himself still keeps in touch with members of the Soul Patrol; and the pictures on his bulletin board at work attest to the strength of the relationships created in war. Many vets who lost comrades in the war have found the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a place to focus those long-repressed emotions. They often describe their encounters with the wall in almost religious terms.

The next phase of the experience brought a vision of home as the 13-month combat tour neared its end. "Then something happens when you get down to that last three months, something else sets in. You made it this far and you start becoming aware of the danger again. You start seeing home. Before you can't see home because you got too much time, but when you get down to three months you start seeing home. You become very cautious, almost to the point of being paranoid. You start refusing a lot of things."

Because the entire theater was dangerous and because most vets had seen how quickly death could come to others, the GI began to try to hedge his bets. "You still got to do your job, especially when you still got three months, but then you got two months and then at one month you're in rebellion almost. You say, 'Look, send me back to the rear, let me run mama sans [mama sans were the Vietnamese women who came in to clean the barracks, shine shoes]. Let me do this or that, but I don't want to go back to base camp.' You see that paranoia has set in. You become supersensitive about everything."

No one in Vietnam could really tell the enemy from the friendlies, and this compounded the paranoia. "Everybody becomes the enemy. You get short with people you're dealing with, snapping out orders at mama sans or anyone, because anything can happen. You don't know, maybe one of the mama sans was Charlie."

But eventually the day comes and the vet returns home, to a country torn apart by the war. "Everything in Vietnam was a life-and-death situation. You want to talk about it when you get home, get it out and no one wants to hear. They got their own thing going and you don't know nothing about that. 'Forget it'--that's what they say. Like you can."

Many of the lessons learned in Vietnam did not serve the veteran well in civilian life. Burrell returned to school at Eastern Illinois. He found it hard to accept the regulations. "In Vietnam, what you did and how you did it was important. When I was at school they tell me I've got to take some bullshit course because that's the rule. That was bullshit, it wasn't important." Impatience laced the vet's attitudes about a lot of things. He'd lived in a world with little to restrain him, and had come back to one that looked down on him and expected him to fit in.

"You saying I can't take no beer to my dorm because there's a state law? Well, screw your law! I don't got no time for that shit!" Rather than being addressed, the veteran's problems were largely ignored by the government, which let almost 20 years go by before creating its Vet Centers. Vietnam was an embarrassment, and most people wanted to forget it. But it was not easily forgotten by the GI.

"I got to carry around this shit for the rest of my life. It's not like I can erase it," says Carl Burrell.

The way in which any GI responds to leaving a war is as unpredictable as his response once was to entering it. The Vietnam vet often had a series of reactions over time, with problems appearing as long as 10 or 15 years after the fact. The Vietnam fighting man was young, and that is part of it; but also Vietnam as an issue was a complex one, about which the GI knew little before he went to war but learned more and more after coming home, from a debate that has never ended. Should the U.S. have been involved at all? All too often the issue of Vietnam is seen as a conflict between the vet and the peace movement. But for a large number of vets, the peace movement became a way for them to respond to the horror and the guilt they were left with. These vets I know well, because I'm one of them.

My service in Vietnam was aboard a rocket-firing, flat-bottomed scow called the USS Clarion River, an old World War II LSM converted to fire five-inch spin-stabilized rockets. These rockets were an ungodly effective weapon that destroyed a specific target by annihilating everything around it within a quarter mile. During an early shoot, our spotter, Scrappy Two Six Charley, watched from the air as our rockets mowed down a forest where the Vietcong had taken refuge and muttered into the radio, "My God, it looks like the grim reaper!" That became our unofficial logo, and all over the ship sailors carried mugs with a picture of the grim reaper standing on a rocket.

We wallowed up and down the coast of Vietnam blowing the hell out of whatever needed the hell blown out of it. I never humped a backpack through the jungle, but we were engaged in some type of combat almost daily, killed a lot of the enemy, occasionally took enemy fire, and were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for our efforts.

Because we drew only six feet of water, we operated a lot closer to shore than other naval units, and the Clarion River was a great platform to watch the war from. I saw vertical marine assaults and Cobras sweeping the beach with machine-gun fire; we were often entertained at lunch by the sight of a black gunner's mate named Henderson surgically tearing apart small villages with the 40-millimeters. At night I'd sneak up on deck to watch the firefights, often from no more than a few miles offshore, and I remember the beauty of the multicolored tracers and the night I saw Puff spew out bullets like shards of lightning. Occasionally there'd be bursts of white phosphorus, but most impressive was napalm, a sudden piece of hell erupting through the darkness. For me the war was mainly a distant show, until one night, far from the battle zone, it was brought home to me in a most uncompromising way.

Every four to six months we'd cross the South China Sea to Japan, where we'd have major work done on our engines and pumps. During one of these stays I ran into a black marine wandering the strip with a lost look on his face. It was unusual to see a black in that area of Yokosuka, because the bars for blacks were miles away. I didn't share the Japanese sensibilities, and I knew a bar called the Manhattan that didn't do enough business to be picky about its clientele.

He was quiet at first, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone enjoy a beer quite that much. He was in Yokosuka because he'd been wounded in Vietnam, and when he saw my ship's patch he asked what kind of ship it was. I told him who we were and what we did, and he stared at me for a long time and then hunkered over his beer and told me how he'd come to be in the hospital in Yokosuka.

He was part of a vertical assault that passed over a small ship they all thought was some kind of supply boat. Actually, it must have been the Clarion River. Their helos approached the beach in two waves, but only the first made it. They'd been dropped in the middle of a large pocket of VC, and he told me how he could hear the bullets hissing overhead and thwacking against the trunks of trees. "Thought I'd bought it," he said. Then an officer came down the line and told them they had to move out to open up a perimeter, and somehow they did and then retreated back to where they'd begun. He remembered it being unearthly quiet, and then came a rumbling of explosions that walked right toward them and around them and on by. The Clarion River had done its job. What he said next I'll never forget.

"We just walked out of there and there wasn't nothing, no trees, no grass, no people, no village." He looked at me and he said, "You didn't kill the enemy, you killed everything." He got up and left. He never said how he was injured and he never thanked me for saving his life. I don't think he felt thankful.

That story didn't bother me immediately. It wasn't until years later when I had children of my own and knew the joy of family that I thought about what horror those guerrillas must have felt, when a ship they never saw destroyed not only them but their women, their children, and their world, and it was all accomplished with no more emotion than it takes to go to work and do a job.

When I returned to the States I shared many of the experiences that Carl Burrell describes, a lot of the resentment, a lot of the anger, and I supported the war very strongly. But then I began to look into the history of Vietnam, and I came to the recognition that no matter how strong the loyalty I felt to those fighting there, Vietnam was a war that we probably couldn't and most definitely shouldn't win. We weren't fighting for anyone's freedom, we were simply imposing our will on a nation that had been trying to rid itself of foreign influence for 40 years. I began helping to organize protests at a small college in North Dakota. People know that we lost the war in Vietnam, and they see this as a terrible tragedy. But I'm convinced that it would have been even more horrible if we had won and continued to feel that we had the right to impose our will on small, undeveloped nations.

It's easy to say that the peace movement finally won on this issue, but that simply isn't true. The peace movement also lost. We have not been a nation that has actively pursued peace. Since Vietnam, we have spent more money on the military than we ever spent before or during the war, and one of the reasons we are now facing another war is that we've built an enormous arms industry and with our allies in Europe provided aid and encouragement to a bloody butcher named Hussein. One of the songs of the early 60s was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" with the line that goes, "When will they ever learn?" The answer, it's sad to say, is not yet.

The GI does not make the political decisions that bring war. His duty is to follow orders, and his inclination is to believe he is serving his country. The Vietnam vet was like this, and now there are things to be learned from his experiences. When asked about the Middle East, Carl Burrell is more equivocal than he is about Vietnam. "I don't think the American public wants war. We have this great capacity, this great intelligence for dialogue, to talk things out. And what do we do? We take up arms and annihilate each other. Should we go to war in Iraq? I haven't really looked into it, I don't know. I don't think anyone has the right to march into anybody else's country, but still, what do the people over there think of him?"

If Burrell is like many Americans in not being sure whether we should go to war in the Middle East, he is not at all uncertain about how the war should be fought if there is one. "When it comes to warfare you can't be a pussy. The only thing the military is good for is to kill, and what it comes back to is that he should be a killing machine." Burrell is also certain that the costs of war will be long in accumulating and that there will be no clean victory. "It affects everybody, and not just the people in the war. Everybody's a loser--family members, friends, everyone, and there's no winning in war. It affects everybody, even those in the rear. You isolate yourself and there's no going back. Is it ever worth it? Hell no, there ain't nothing but losers in war."

But events seem to be marching in war's direction. That young man in his tank in Saudi Arabia may have to enter hell in the name of his country before the winter of '90-'91 is over. Would the Vietnam vet, after all his experiences, go with him? Says Burrell, "Some vets would be willing to do it under the condition that they let us go in there and kick ass and get out. They support the fact that if they go in, they should go in there and wipe those fuckers out. Yeh, I'll go in there, if you'll go in there and kick ass and not make this a police action." Mike Biancofiori says much the same thing. "If you're going to fight, then go in like you're going to win. If not, then don't bother going at all."

So what does the Vietnam vet have to say on behalf of the GI in Saudi Arabia? What can he ask for him that needs to be asked? It's not that he be allowed to live; it is the soldier's duty to face death in war. It's not that he be spared atrocities; war itself is an atrocity. It's not that he be spared the killing of innocent civilians; this is unavoidable.

But there is a question the Vietnam vet feels he must ask for today's GI, and if the answer is not the right one, God help us, let's not fight this war. The question is this: "Will you let him win this time?" If this next war is not important enough to allow the GI to use every conceivable strategy to kill the enemy, then this war is simply not worth fighting.

There's one last thing the Vietnam vet can tell the GI in Saudi Arabia. In the end, if the war is fought, win or lose, it don't mean nothin'.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Dan Swain

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Broken Bone Bathtub Humboldt Park
October 30
Lit & Lectures
November 12

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories