I have overdosed on the Vietnam War this month. A while ago I began thinking about Cowboy, the flamboyant interpreter I met at Buon Beng in June 1964, in hopes that it might make an interesting ebook. I don't know if it will, because there are such gaps in the record of his short life, 1936-1968, but the quest has taken me down some fascinating byways.
Take this image, for example. It shows Y Ju, the chief of a Rhade village called Buon Enao, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. (There is a connection with Cowboy. He was at that time — early in 1962 — a truck driver and apprentice interpreter at Buon Enao.) I studied the weapon Y Ju is carrying, and I just couldn't figure out what it was. So I sent the photo along to some Special Forces veterans, one of whom sent it along to yet another, who identified it as a US Army M1 carbine, dating from the Second World War, but in a variant with a folding stock. Y Ju is carrying it with the stock folded, and the sling is attached to the bottom of the modified pistol grip. There's a 30-round magazine loaded, with a spare magazine taped to it.
When I arrived at Fort Bragg in 1956, I was assigned a standard-issue carbine with the serial number 1048803. (How is it that I can rattle off those numbers so easily today, when I routinely forget, by the time I reach the top of the stairs, what I went upstairs to do?)
It was a truly awful weapon. Every time I was sent to the firing range to shoot off the mandatory ten rounds, the bolt would jam halfway open, so thoroughly that it had to go back to the supply room for an armorer to work on it. I do hope it was never sent to Vietnam, but it may very well have made the journey. The village defense program centered at Buon Enao received 1060 M1 carbines in the first half of 1962.
It upsets people when I say that I loved Vietnam. I especially loved the Highlands, both the scenery and the people, who were mostly aborigines like Y Ju. As boys, they had hunted with spears and crossbows. Then America came along and gave them firearms, trained them, supplied them, led them in combat, and eventually ran out on them. It was not our finest hour.
Anyhow, the project has taught me a lot, and introduced me (vicariously, as we now do, through email and the internet) to some interesting people who had their lives changed by Vietnam.
And now there's Ken Burns! I've only watched four episodes of his documentary series on what we call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War. I find the programs exhausting, sometimes befuddling, and often wrong-headed. In 1990, Mr Burns created the mother of all documentaries, about the US Civil War, a masterpiece that is worth watching no matter how many times we've seen it. I doubt that we will remember the present effort in the same way. Both wars, or maybe all wars, took place across bafflingly different terrain, with abrupt changes in personnel, and were remembered very differently by the men who did the dirty work. (Well, and women too, at least on the North Vietnamese side.) But Mr Burns's Civil War series tells a story, and his treatment of Vietnam never seems to achieve that most fundamental goal.
Here are some terrified US Marines, ambushed on Hill 875, pinned down and squirming and taking terrible losses, filmed in living color by a combat photographer from NBC or CBS. And here are some industrious North Vietnamese troops, preparing the ambush over the course of several months, in black-and-white propaganda film that may well have been staged back in North Vietnam. Perhaps I'm imagining it, but the footage seems hyped, as if I'm watching something from the First World War, filmed at one speed but projected at another, so that the work of a minute is shown in fifty seconds. Gosh, those North Vietnamese are perky!
In the end, of course, the Americans take Hill 875 with the help of air-dropped napalm and artillery bombardment, turning it into a wasteland. By this time, of course, the North Vietnamese troops have "melted away," as the narrator loves to tell us, taking most of their dead with them. The Americans eat a hot meal, then abandon Hill 875 to let nature heal its wounds.
So it was pointless, right? Except that it wasn't! The North Vietnamese troops took terrible losses in that battle, and while Mr Burns readily shows us images of weeping Americans, we never see weeping North Vietnamese. Yet they did weep, and get depressed, and refuse to get out of their hammocks, as J.P. Harris records in Vietnam's High Ground, one of the best books I've ever read about the war.
The difference, of course, was that they were willing to sustain the losses, and we weren't. I don't claim to have guessed the outcome, but in 1965 I did sit down at my Olivetti typewriter and tap out a story about Vietnam, with Captain Olivetti as one character, Cowboy as another, and myself in various guises as the hero, the anti-war heroine, and What's-His-Face, the new clerk-typist.
The story goes like this: An American counterinsurgency team is sent to garrison an old French outpost, which it does with a company of local irregulars. The Viet Cong attack; the Americans reinforce; North Vietnamese troops lay siege — then there's a change in strategy. No more of these isolated outposts! So the Americans are told to "exfiltrate" by helicopter, leaving the locals to fend for themselves. Incident at Muc Wa was published in 1967. It was a near-perfect forecast of actually did happen in Vietnam, six long years later.
Here are a thousand or so files on airplanes, pilots, and the wars of the past hundred years, grouped under these headings:
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted September 2017. Websites © 1997-2017 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.