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War and Correctness:
January 31st 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, which altered the course of the Vietnam War. Seventy thousand North Vietnamese (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces better known as (Charlie) launched the Offensive (named for the lunar New Year holiday called Tet). It was a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. By April 8th the offensive had been turned back with 45,000 Communist troops killed. Although defeated across the battlefield spectrum the Communists had won a strategic victory. The U.S. casualties were over 9,300 with more than 1,500 killed in action (KIA), compare that to the 4,200 American military personnel deaths in the eleven year Iraq War.
I grew up with the war on the nightly news. There were only three network channels, and the advent of cable television was several years away. I was ten years old when the news coverage of Tet exploded across our televisions. The names Hue and Khe Sanh became common. The Vietnam conflict was an undeclared war waged conventionally on the ground, air, and water. It was the last war the U.S. military would fight against a quality opponent, highly motivated, well trained and supplied. I have an affinity toward the Nam Vets, as they called themselves. I would first meet them when I enrolled in college in the mid 1970’s. I count several today as friends and compatriots in my SCV Camp and Division. They were treated pitifully upon their return home and then largely forgotten. It is quite a contrast comparing today’s over the top military worship with the public distain and attacks on the returning Nam Vets. The 1970’s TV and film industries portrayed them as drug crazed, alcoholics, who delighted in killing unarmed Vietnamese. On their return to America they were depicted as bitter, substance abusing, guilt ridden malcontent’s one eye blink away from a mass shooting. They were branded as losers, the first American soldiers to have an “L” in their column. I would argue the first American defeat was in 1865, and the Red Chinese delivered a tactical defeat to the American military in Korea, but that is for another discussion. Even when the public and political elites decided to bestow a Washington D.C. memorial to the men who fought and died in Vietnam it wasn’t without controversy. Various special interest, cultural Marxist groups tried to insert their nebulous messages into the Memorials design. The Feminists further sullied the debate by demanding and getting a statue placed at the Memorial honoring the minor role of American female personnel.
The war was fought by young men and boys. The average age was 22 years, with sixty one percent of those killed were 21 or younger: compared to the average age of the World War II veteran was 26 years old. Young men like Pfc. Richard Mehlhaff age 20 from Farmington New Mexico, Ensign David Schoenewald age 21 of Phoenix and 1st Lt. Rob Griffith of Big Spring Texas, who was an old 24 when he was killed in combat. These three men were killed over a fourteen month period from 1969 to 1970. Most of my generation knew a man or knew someone that knew a man killed in the Vietnam conflict. While on the war’s causality statistics I have to dispel a common myth of the war that a disproportionate of minorities particularly Blacks were killed in the conflict. The percentage of Black’s who were KIA was 12.5 percent and 1.2 percent of other races with the balance of deaths being Whites. The figure is proportional to the number of Blacks in the U.S. population at the time and less than the proportion serving in the Army at the war’s end.
I enrolled at a Southwest Agricultural college in for the fall semester in 1975. The school had roughly 8,000 full time students with an average age of 26. This was attributed to the significant number of former military men utilizing their G.I. college benefits. The nomenclatures of the time were ex-army, navy, etc., or former military with the term Veteran reserved for those who actually served in combat. The term has been bastardized to include anyone who has served in the military regardless if they never heard a shot fired in anger. Quite frankly I don’t believe I owe a debt of gratitude to someone who spent their military service cleaning teeth on a state side Air Force base, but I digress. There were two distinct groups among the university Veterans. During the official Vietnam era from August 1964 to May 1975 there were just over 9,000,000 active duty military personnel, of these 2, 709,918 served in Vietnam. The Vietnam Vets I knew maintained the distinction that only those who had been “in country” could claim the mantra “Nam Vet”. This distinction has gone un-honored with the contemporary twisting of the term “Veteran”. A witless Houston news reporter was opining for a reasons I don’t recall about an incident from the late 1970’s. A man of low character whom she referred to as a Vietnam Veteran displaying his photo in full Army dress uniform drowned in an area bayou. His drowning was blamed on the Houston police. The details of the incident are unimportant for the point is calling this man a Vietnam Veteran was insulting to those who actually served “in country”. The miscreant was in the army for less than a year in the early 70’s and was dishonorably discharged. Having never left the continental United States.
The Vietnam War was not any different from the other 20th and 21st Century American wars. It was needless with the escalation justified under dubious if not outright false circumstances. With Southerners over weighting the military ranks. Over 58,000 men were killed in the 11 year period with 26 percent coming from the 11 states of the former Confederacy. Include the Border States Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and West Virginia the figure increases to 35 percent. Two thirds of the men who served in Viet Nam were volunteers. Compare to the World War II military force of 16 million men whom 63 percent were draftees. The 11 Dixie states provided no less than 30 percent of the so called “Good War” fighting force. It is not to disparage the Vietnam Veterans who were drafted. They didn’t want to be there but fought as well as those who volunteered. At least they answered the summons unlike Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney’s and John Bolton who obtained multiple deferments and even fled the country to avoid service.
There are similarities to the War in Vietnam to the 1861-65 American war. Both sitting U.S. Presidents Johnson and Lincoln in order to inaugurate war had to lie to the public embellishing on ambiguous incidents to justify their actions. President Lyndon Johnson micro-managed the military strategy as did Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States President Jefferson Davis. President Johnson insisted on a static defense of South Vietnam with American troops prohibited from crossing into bordering countries of Laos and Cambodia to pursue and strike the enemy. A thrust across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Vietnam was never undertaken. Johnson’s predecessor Lincoln did not believe in such a strategy and took to the offensive waging Total War on the Southern American populace. It was Confederate President Jefferson Davis who insisted on strictly a defensive strategy fighting fruitlessly for every mile of Southern territory. Davis relegated the best military mind of both armies, Robert E. Lee, to digging trenches and field advisory roles with no authority for the first year of the war. He ignored General Thomas Jackson’s and Lee’s calls to take the war into the Northern United States. When he did give approval to Lee’s 1863 Pennsylvania campaign he withheld over 11,000 of the Army of Northern Virginias battle hardened troops, fifteen percent of the army, for needless defense of Richmond.
By the end of Tet the NVA was severely diminished and the VC were no longer a viable guerilla force. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) requested 200,000 more troops to augment the nearly half a million in country. General Westmoreland rightfully believed Charlie was on the ropes, however the offensive had debilitating effect on the Johnson Administration. Prior to January 31st Johnson’s so called best and brightest advisors believed the end of the war was in sight, Westmoreland notwithstanding. Tet destroyed the beliefs of President Johnson and his cabal that the war they brought to fruition was winnable. Westmoreland’s request was denied and Johnson’s closet advisors, led by the chameleon Clark Clifford argued for a scale back to the war effort. A beleaguered President Johnson agreed and ordered U.S. bombing to be limited to the area below the 20th parallel, thus sparing 90 percent of Communist territory. He set in motion what would evolve into the Paris peace talks and announced he would not seek re-election in November. During the next five years of peace talks more Americans would be killed than in previous years. The Tet offensive was truly a military turning point in the war and in American history unlike other contemporary myths of American history such as Gettysburg.
Ultimately the war would be lost, and ended in 1975. The Vietnam Vets would argue they whipped Charlie at every turn in the field and the South Vietnamese (ARVN) lost the war. For the most part this is true but the laurels of the victory would go to Communist Charlie and the stain of defeat would be thrown on the American Vietnam Vet by an ungrateful public and the very elites who sent them there. Perhaps the American war effort was doomed to fail even before Tet due to the short sighted policies and tactics determined in Washington just at the old Confederacy was doomed by the same from Richmond. In 1964 the political and military elitists believed no force could withstand long-term the U.S. military might. I would hope the memories of Vietnam would tamp down the hubris political wonks wanting to poke the Russian bear.
My Vets rarely spoke of their military experiences. One Vet from Ohio told me told me he turned eighteen mid-term in his final high school semester in 1967. That spring he received his draft notice the day before his graduation ceremony. “That was a hell of graduation gift”, he said wryly. He began his Vietnam tour of duty in January 1968, Tet was his welcoming party. The names Hue and Khe Sanh draw blank looks from anyone under fifty, but they jar my memory back to 1968. Those winter days after school watching the black and white TV images of those young men fighting and falling at far and away places with strange indelible names.