The War Nobody Won 11

But the war had impaired a large proportion of the veterans, both physically and mentally. Thousands were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide that was used to defoliate jungles and has been identified as a cause of cancer, congenital deformations and other afflictions. A Veterans Administration survey released in 1988 esti¬mated that some five hundred thousand of the three million U.S. troops who served in Vietnam suffered from “post-traumatic stress disorder”—a higher percentage than those affected by “shell shock” in World War I and “battle fatigue” in World War II, as a similar infirmity was termed in those conflicts. Its symptoms, which some¬times appear ten or fifteen years later, range from panic and rage to anxiety, depression and emotional paralysis. Divorce, suicide, drug addiction, crime and particularly alcoholism among Vietnam veterans surpassed the norm. A study published in 1981 by the Center for Policy Research and the City University of New York concluded that they were “plagued by significantly more problems than their peers.”
War is war. Why was Vietnam distinctive?
The danger was pervasive and chronic. I spent three years in the army during World War II, much of the time at airfields and supply depots in northeastern India, without ever hearing a shot fired in anger. But there were no secure areas in Vietnam. A GI assigned to an office in Saigon or a warehouse in Danang could be killed or injured at any moment of the day or night by Communist mortars or rockets. And during his one-year tour an infantryman humping the bush was in combat almost continually—harrassed by enemy mines, booby traps and snipers, if not engaged in direct clashes. Philip Caputo, one of the more eloquent chroniclers of the Vietnam war, has noted by com¬parison that U.S. marine units, celebrated for their exploits against the Japanese in the Pacific campaign, fought for no longer than six or eight weeks during all of World War II.
The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen, seven years younger than his father had been in World War II, which made him more vulnerable to the psychological strains of the strug¬gle—strains that were aggravated by the special tension of Vietnam, where every peasant might be a Vietcong terrorist. William Ehrhart, a former marine, recollected a flash of the past that, years after the war, he had not forgotten: “Whenever you turned around, you’d be taking it in the solar plexus. Then the enemy would disappear, and you’d end up taking out your frustrations on the civilians. The way we operated, any Vietnamese seen running away from Americans was a Vietcong suspect, and we could shoot. It was standard operating procedure. One day I shot a woman in a rice field because she was running—-just running away from the Americans. And I killed her. Fifty-five or sixty years old, unarmed, and at the time I didn’t even think twice about it.”
Paradoxically, the wonders of modern science contributed to the plight of Vietnam veterans. Medical helicopters were so fast and ef¬ficient that a GI wounded in action could be on an operating table within fifteen minutes. Statistics tell the story. During World War II, roughly one out of every four U.S. marine casualties died. But sur¬vivors in Vietnam outnumbered the dead by a ratio of seven to one, and men who might have perished on the battlefield are now alive— though often invalids in need of constant care.
American soldiers in other wars gauged progress by conquering territory; seizing the next town on the route to victory sustained their morale. Their advances cheered the U.S. public, which could track their headway on maps. In Vietnam, by contrast, there were no front lines, and GIs became increasingly perplexed and dispirited as they fought for the same ground again and again. Their leaders, equally though privately discouraged, insisted on bigger “body counts,” the illusory measure of success. But butchering an enemy force prepared to accept unlimited losses was not only fruitless; it also made the war as inglorious as an abattoir. Thus, as they viewed the hideous scenes on television, Americans at home saw Vietnam as both an exercise in futility and a metaphor for horror. And many directed their disgust and frustration against the returning U.S. troops. John Kerry, later senator from Massachusetts, recalled his experience after serving in Vietnam as a naval officer: “There I was, a week out of the jungle, flying from San Francisco to New York. I fell asleep and woke up yelling, probably a nightmare. The other passengers moved away from me—a reaction I noticed more and more in the months ahead. The country didn’t give a shit about the guys coming back, or what they’d gone through. The feeling toward them was ‘Stay away—don’t contaminate us with whatever you’ve brought back from Vietnam.’ ”
Some veterans have clamored for better jobs or social counseling. Other, wrestling with their memories, continued to wage the war or protest against it, and many could still not grasp what had happened. Above all, they sought respect and justice—the debt that nations tra¬ditionally owe their warriors. Parades and monuments and requiems were not enough.
Many U.S. military planners concluded in retrospect that Vietnam had been the wrong war in the wrong place. In the future, they contended, Americans ought to stick to the sort of conflict they under¬stood—waged in open terrain by large infantry units, heavy artillery and modern tanks in combination with ballistic missiles, supersonic aircraft, sophisticated ships and the latest in high technology. They shelved the counterinsurgency programs once designed to check guer¬rillas in the jungles of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and returned to conventional concepts. In 1987, I visited Fort Hood, Texas, home of the First Air Cayalry Division, which had distinguished itself in Vietnam. Flying above a mock battle in a helicopter, I observed ar¬mored vehicles maneuvering across prairies that resembled the plains of central Europe or a Middle Eastern desert. The commander es¬corting me, one of the few Vietnam veterans left in the division, said after we landed, “This is our kind of war.” It was the kind of war that other Vietnam veterans, by then senior officers, would fight in the Persian Gulf.

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