The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

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The American South and the Vietnam War by Joseph A. Fry

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I graduated from a Pittsburgh high school in 1951 and from Penn State in 1955. While talking about the American Civil War, my teachers inculcated me with the belief that the eleven states of the Confederacy were still a world apart from the rest of the nation. As northern liberals, my teachers had looked down on Southerners, disparaging their pride and dedication to the Confederacy and its lost cause.

Since 1956, except for overseas military assignments and extended vacations, I have lived in the South. I have encountered situations that confirmed or denied my teachers’ lessons. But long ago, I learned to accept each event according to its own merits.

Historian Joseph A. Fry resuscitated a few prejudices for me in The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (University Press of Kentucky, 467 pp., $35.57, hardcover; $33.79, Kindle). The book describes the struggle between pro- and antiwar individuals and organizations, emphasizing the influence that like-thinking people from the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) exerted on the Vietnam War and America at large.

Fry approaches this with a brief history lesson about Southerners and United States foreign relations from 1789-1973. Fry’s twelve southern states share a distinct regional perspective, viewing needs of the world as contrary to their domestic desires and favoring “unrestrained military intervention aimed at decisive victories rather than diplomatic negotiations.”

He next addresses Southerners’ opposition to the Vietnam War. As they do throughout the book, racism and other sensitive issues play a large part in the discussion. Ill will, anger, threats, violence, shootings, and killings frequently accelerated the dissension between opposing sides. Fry withholds judgment and allows facts to tell the story.

He astutely shows how powerful conservative Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Harry Byrd of Virginia influenced the nation to minimize overseas military assistance from 1953-64. They contended then that intervention in South Vietnam would be too costly and its people were an inferior race unwilling to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, obsessed with a need to contain communist expansion, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson gave aid to South Vietnam. A strong sense of honor and manhood made maintaining international credibility a necessity for Johnson. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the impetus for him to gain a congressional resolution to prosecute war in Vietnam, Fry says.

Unfortunately, the resolution, which Congress overwhelmingly supported, did not solve the problem of how to run the war. Fry clearly shows that debates over the scale, pace, duration, and cost of the war never ended.

The book’s second half covers Southerners’ views on the war’s conduct, their contribution to the decision to withdraw from Vietnam (1968-70), and their views on ending the war (1971-73). Southern thinking seldom matched national attitudes about domestic policies, racial problems, military appropriations, foreign aid, and other contentious issues. Often, southern regionalism promoted self-serving behavior, which compounded disagreements. At times, racial assumptions and the quest to procure government military spending trumped party politics, Fry says.

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LBJ and Sen. John Stennis

Two sections—”Southern Soldiers” and “Southern College Students”—interrupt the book’s chronology. These chapters might hold the greatest interest for Vietnam veterans. “Soldiers” exemplifies southern manliness by describing horrific combat scenes in which Southerners engaged. But Fry’s argument here is weak because men from all sections of the country experienced similar horrors in Vietnam.

Much of Fry’s support material comes from books written by Southerners. Nevertheless, this chapter might educate readers unfamiliar with the war about death and destruction, leadership, religion, race relations, and post-war attitudes among fighting men.

The chapter focuses on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, including the fighting at Landing Zone Albany, all but glorifying them as engagements led by southern officers in which Southerners suffered the highest number of casualties. In fairness, Fry then cites the My Lai massacre, which was led by Southerners, as a failure in ethics. Later in the book, Fry reviews the political fallout from My Lai. He points out that it required “moral courage” by another Southerner to reveal the breadth of the massacre.

I disliked Fry’s long and emphatic references to characters from novels to “celebrate the South’s warrior tradition,”  even though one character reflects the thinking of former Marine and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, according to Fry. I believe Fry should have quoted Webb directly or quoted other courageous infantrymen—there are plenty of them—to make his point. As I see it, fiction is fiction and does not adequately serve a history book’s purpose.

“Students” does an excellent job reporting on the diverse antiwar activities by organized groups. Until the end of the war, University of Texas students, for example, led protests that unbalanced the South’s pro-war stance but never toppled it. Within Dixie, “antiwar students lost all the battles and the war for majority southern opinion regarding Vietnam,” Fry says.  He quotes fellow historian George C. Herring on the student issue: “The antiwar movement lost every battle but eventually won the war—the war for America’s mind and especially for its soul.”

Fifty-seven pages of endnotes support Fry’s study. Rather than listing sources alphabetically, he includes a bibliographic essay that relates sources to each other. Fry’s research included delving into oral histories, transcripts, interviews, memoirs, and letters by leaders, along with those from ordinary citizens, students, and military personnel.height-200-no_border-width-200

Andy Fry taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for nearly forty years. His courses included U.S. foreign relations, the history of the American South after 1850, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At times I feel that Americans have overburdened themselves with their arguments about the Vietnam War. After fifty years of arguing, we should accept that we learned nothing from the war. Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, tricked us into fighting in Southeast Asia, which we failed to recall when another Southerner, George W. Bush (aided by Dick Cheney’s misdirection), misled us into Southwest Asia.

In this election year, Fry’s book might best serve as a voters’ guide: Do not cast your ballot for anyone who professes a correlation between manhood and war.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson

The Vietnam War Debate by Louis B. Zimmer

When you think of the most influential voices in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, the names Dr. Benjamin Spock, David Dellinger, Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Daniel Ellsberg, Jerry Rubin, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone, and J. William Fulbright go to the top of the list.

According to Louis B. Zimmer, a professor emeritus of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey, another name belongs in the group: the legal scholar and activist Hans J. Morgenthau of the University of Chicago. In The Vietnam War Debate: Hans J. Morgenthau and the Attempt to Halt the Drift into Disaster (Lexington Books, 430 pp., $85), Zimmer details Morgenthau’s extensive anti Vietnam War activism. Zimmer, as the subtitle indicates, also strongly condemns those who took America into the Vietnam as well as those who prosecuted the war.

The book, Zimmer says, “is the story of a great man who first established the specialized study of international relations with the publication of his earliest book and who then applied the principles contained in those studies that appeared in hundreds of articles and public forums in the attempt to alter American policy in Vietnam.”

Morgenthau, Zimmer argues, made the case that the the communist insurgency in Vietnam was never a threat to American national security and that the war should never have been fought.

Morgenthau is Zimmer’s hero in the book. As for his villains, they are the usual suspects: the government officials and journalists who supported the war. That list includes Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as top Vietnam War presidential advisers Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara, and the journalists Leo Cherne, Norman Cousins, and Joseph Alsop.

—Marc Leepson