Friday, May 15, 2015

That Isn’t The Way It Was

I have been an admirer of Ken Follett’s novels for years. I believe that he is one of the very best novelists of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries. Beginning with his first big hit, The Eye of the Needle, I have awaited each of his books with anticipation and enjoyed them all. His recent project has been a three-volume saga covering the Twentieth Century through the eyes of several families in a variety of countries. Follett has shown a firm grasp of history in all of his works. I began reading his third Twentieth Century volume, Edge of Eternity, expecting the reading pleasure I had experienced in all of his earlier works, and I was not disappointed until about two-thirds through the book when I came to the section on the Vietnam War.

I know something about the Vietnam War. I served “in country” as operations officer of a Seabee battalion for a total of seventeen months. I was there during the 1968 Tet Offensive and its aftermath. I worked closely with the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, the famous “Screaming Eagles” for a good part of my last tour. What I write about them is based on my personal experiences and observations. Most of the characters in my Vietnam Seabee book, Asphalt and Blood, are based on real people.

As I read the section on Vietnam in Edge of Eternity, I felt like salt was being rubbed into raw wounds on my body. Those of us who served in that war were not welcomed home as honorable men who had done their duty to their country. We were vilified as “baby killers” and war criminals at New Left rallies, in some of the press, and in a number of Hollywood Movies. It took us decades to convince most of our nation that any problems with Vietnam were, in the words of current Secretary of State John Kerry, “with the war, not the warriors.” Ken Follett’s Vietnam War sequence undermines all our hard work.

Follett’s story portrays the “experiences” of a British journalist who was drafted into the Army. The story has his platoon of the 101st Airborne Division occupying a mostly deserted South Vietnamese village. Upon entering the town, one of the soldiers beats an unarmed Buddhist monk to death to stop him from playing a religious drum. When a Vietnamese man, his wife, and young daughter are found hiding, the soldiers first beat the man and woman to try to get them to tell where Vietcong are hiding. When they plead ignorance, he orders his soldiers to gang rape the daughter in front of her parents. They end up killing all three. The writing creates the distinct impression that such actions were common conduct by U.S. troops throughout the war and that “everybody did it.” Follett is a masterful writer, and at the end of this sequence, I would have been enraged if it were not for my personal experiences. The sequence is great fiction. It is horrible Vietnam War history.

I am not saying that incidences such as Follett portrayed did not happen during the war.  No one can deny the crimes of My Lai. I am challenging the assertion such actions were common among U.S. troops, especially the “Screaming Eagles.” The officers and men with whom I worked for months in the Hue/Phu Bai area were professional and principled warriors, not war criminals.  Even if Follett actually interviewed soldiers who had committed such actions before writing his book, it is wrong to attribute them to the whole U.S. Expeditionary Force.

An underlying assumption in Follett’s book appears to be that war inevitably turns men into unprincipled beasts. This is an especially damaging doctrine at a time when the U.S. is reintegrating thousands of veterans of the Middle East wars back into society. Fortunately, these men are currently being welcomed home as the heroes they are. Those of us who returned from Vietnam were shunned, insulted, and even spat upon. Seldom did we see any appreciation for the sacrifices we had made for our country. We were further vilified by a string of anti-war movies from Hollywood that perpetuated the impression that we all became unprincipled barbarians.  But the truth is, that just isn’t the way it was!

Thousands of Vietnam Veterans were mentally crippled by their horrid experiences in the war. Few received any sympathy from the public at large. They came to believe that the general public thought they were just getting their just rewards. To deal with their mental horrors, many turned to drugs, became homeless, and died alone in their misery. As I said earlier, it has taken us years to get recognition that Vietnam Veterans were generally patriots who just did what our country asked of us. I’m disappointed that one of my favorite authors doesn’t seem to agree.

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