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The tragedy and lies of the Vietnam War

• Oct 29, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Fifty years ago this month, I walked out of the jungles of South Vietnam — soaked from the unremitting rain, heat and humidity and the fear of a senseless war.

On Oct. 27, 1967, I boarded “The bird with the Golden Tail,” and left behind those thoughts that can consume and ravish a rational mind. I consider myself blessed with the ability not to dwell too often on the past, even though I’m forever destined to remember it.

I give no thought to my minor wounds because they’re just that, minor.

I don’t suffer from nightmares or post traumatic stress disorder, even though I witnessed death first-hand.

In one breath I called in close air support that rained destruction, hell fire and napalm on the enemy, while in the next, requested a medivac chopper for the wounded, knowing that the dead would be “airlifted out” only after the fighting ceased.

On certain days of each year I recall those battles, along with the names and faces of so many departed comrades. However, I never lose sight of reality either, being thankful that somehow “ ... out of the battle I escaped.”

There are those who never served, and for reasons unknown, think they have become authorities on the Vietnam War. Namely, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who presented their one-sided views in a recent 10-part documentary on PBS titled, “The Vietnam War.” I say one-sided simply because it’s PBS.

Two recent comments, however, about the documentary caught my attention.

Robert Houk, Opinion page editor of this newspaper wrote, “[he] felt there were many dogged facts missing about the war and simple questions left unanswered.”

While Mark Moya, of “The Wall Street Journal,” said, “Burns intended to produce a definitive account that would bring America together. He could have pulled it off, but he chose instead to make it another partisan harangue that is certain to keep Americans divided.”

More than 2,500 years ago, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

Daniel Ellsberg, author of “The Pentagon Papers,” reminded America that “the government lied to the country about Vietnam. The papers revealed a policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman administration onward.”

Of course, several names come to mind when addressing the Vietnam War, but the two names that continue to haunt the Vietnam veterans are Gen. William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

In his book, “War of Numbers,” former CIA operative Sam Adams uncovered the truth about underreporting troop strength of the enemy in Vietnam as a fabrication or deception leading the American public, which had grown war-weary, into believing we were winning the war — hoping support would continue.

In June 1967, following a meeting with Westmoreland and other top military officials, the CIA sent a telegram to Westmoreland that said in effect, “It’s time to tell the truth.”

Westmoreland didn’t, and played the blame game to the bitter end.

“I have no apologies, no regrets,” he once said. “I gave my very best efforts. I’ve been hung in effigy.”

On the other hand, McNamara never issued a formal apology for his role in this quagmire, but made it clear he “was haunted by the blunders made under his watch that cost the lives of thousands of U.S. troops.”

This raises the question: If he was continually haunted by his blunders, why not say, “I’m sorry for the mistakes made,” instead of a string of “candid mea culpas for misjudgments?”

That simply would have been too easy.

Unfortunately, the Vietnam War continues to be surrounded by controversy, and plagued with confusion, deception and wrong-headed opinions as it enters yet another decade of incertitude.

In the annals of war, nothing pales in comparison to Vietnam and the struggles experienced by its veterans, their families and the people of the United States.

It was a war fought in graphic black and white and reported nightly by the three major networks, all set against a backdrop of green jungles choked by Agent Orange and where more than 58,000 soldiers died, while bleeding red.

While it was 50 years ago today that I arrived home and was able to leave the horrors of war behind, it is impossible for those who never served in Vietnam to even remotely comprehend the incomprehensible. It remains the most senseless war ever fought by this nation.

So, I ask myself: How should I celebrate this 50th anniversary?

Perhaps, I will reflect and look around as autumn gradually transfigures into the bleak days of winter and seek solace in my thoughts and remember those who died for a cause they believed in and yet were unable to escape the battle.

May they rest in peace.

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You can reach him at frenchl@etsu.edu.

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