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Many vets saw nothing noble in Vietnam.

Byline: ROBERT WINSLOW For The Register-Guard

THE VIETNAM WAR was a just and noble cause, former Marine Bing West says ("The Vietnam Myth," Commentary, July 28), and "those who fought are proud that they did so."

The many Vietnam vets who joined the anti-war cause after honorable service in Vietnam may not agree. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, formed in 1967 by six Vietnam vets, quickly expanded to more than 30,000 members and received extensive press coverage for its anti-war efforts in the 1960s and '70s. The organization still maintains a lively Web site and continues to promote veterans' welfare.

Others who do not fit into Mr. West's neat category of veterans who loved the Vietnam War include former Marine Ron Kovic, crippled for life by his service and author of "Born on the Fourth of July"; former Marine W.D. (Bill) Erhart, author of several compelling memoirs of his wartime and postwar experiences; and Philip Caputo, author of "A Rumor of War."

Caputo served as a young Marine officer in Vietnam at roughly the same time as West. Both began their tours, apparently, with supreme confidence in the virtue of their cause.

In his memoir, Caputo recalls, "When we marched into the rice paddies on that damp March (1965) afternoon, we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions, we lost."

Caputo lost his illusions; apparently West never did. His simplistic claim that "our soldiers in Vietnam fought as valiantly and as humanely as did the Greatest Generation in World War II" is belied by the historical record of atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam. As Caputo observes in his memoir, "the aspect of the Vietnam War that distinguished it from other American conflicts (was) its absolute savagery. I mean the savagery that prompted so many American fighting men - the good, solid kids from Iowa farms - to kill civilians and prisoners."

Contrary to "myth," American forces were "never beaten on the battlefield," West says. I agree. Col. Harry Summers, one-time instructor at the Army War College, confronted a North Vietnamese colonel after the war with the same complaint. "That may be so," replied the Vietnamese colonel, "but it is also irrelevant." I agree.

More than 4 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed or wounded during the course of the Vietnam War - 10 percent of the population. Six hundred thousand of the dead were North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, more than 10 times the number listed on the U.S. Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C.

Ho Chi Minh warned the French that they could kill 10 of his men for every one lost to his forces, but "even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." The French didn't believe him, nor did the Americans, neither does Bing West. "(E)very nation has a breaking point," West says, and blames "policy fickleness in Washington" (whatever that is) for not getting the job done in Vietnam.

The second myth West seeks to invalidate is that of the "moral equivalency" of war protesters and "American soldiers fighting the Vietnamese." The air goes out of this balloon as one realizes that many of the protesters he condemns had just returned from fighting the very war they were protesting.

And finally, West says, "(T)he third myth is that losing makes little difference ... . To this day some countries are wrongly emboldened, believing we can be beaten on the battlefield." A cynic might suspect that West's careful omission of the names of these potential enemies indicates a hollow argument, indeed. North Korea? Iraq? Bangladesh?

The "best and the brightest" who brought us the Vietnam War were ideologues, not realists. Their sacred mission: fighting godless communism. In his masterful history of the Vietnam War, Stanley Karnow notes that "a more prevalent strain in American expansionism was evangelical - as if the United States, fulfilling some sacred responsibility, had been singled out by the divinity for the salvation of the planet."

But the American holy crusade eventually had to deal with reality. After five bloody years of no apparent permanent successes, with the enemy everywhere and nowhere, with one-year tours severing institutional memory and military morale going down the tube, eminent military historian Col. Robert D. Heinl, writing in the Armed Forces Journal on June 7, 1971, reported that "By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous. ... Only the Marines ... seem to be weathering the storm."

Marine Col. Heinl's attempt to exonerate his corps is understandable, but in far too many cases Marine discipline and esprit de corps did not "weather the storm." When I retired from the Marine Corps in 1970, I truly believed that the disastrous Vietnam experience had destroyed the Marine Corps I knew. Proving me wrong, after decades of rebuilding, the Marine Corps and sister services are once again in fine fettle, except for one dangerous possibility:

There are alarming indications that Bing West's wishful thinking about Vietnam is shared by our present commander in chief and his cohorts. If so, we are doomed to repeat the tragic mistakes of Vietnam wherever the whims of the perpetrators of the perpetual war on terrorism take us.

Sgt. Maj. Robert Winslow of Eugene retired from the Marine Corps in 1970. He served in Vietnam during 1966 and 1967, and again from late 1968 to mid-1970.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 2, 2002
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