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Mike Toliver

American Soldiers in Vietnam

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The following is an extract of a larger essay posted on my web site, which John wanted me to extract for discussion here. It was written in response to a widely-circulated speech given by the Alabama State Auditor, Beth Chapman (a link to her speech is provided on my website - look in the page entitled "Standing up for America").

"I joined the Marine Corps in December, 1967, much against the wishes of my parents. My parents did not want me to join the military; and if I had to join the military, they wanted me to join anything but the Marine Corps. They did not want me to join because they wanted me to go to college, and they didn't understand why we were fighting in Vietnam. (BTW - my father is a WWII veteran who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos). I remember arguing with my mom, pulling out Patrick Henry's famous speech "My country, right or wrong..." in answer to one of her points. One of the main reasons I joined was because I thought the South Vietnamese needed and wanted our help.

I went to boot camp in January of 1968, finished my training there and then trained to be a radioman. On 25 June, 1968, I went to Vietnam. There, I joined the 3rd battalion, 1st marine regiment, 1st marine division. We operated mostly south and west of DaNang in I Corps - one of the bloodiest areas of Vietnam. In the spring of 1969, I estimate (from the casualty reports I took as a radioman) we lost the equivalent of a third of our combat strength in 3 months (around 500 men). I myself came through unscathed, though I did earn my combat action ribbon (the Marine Corps equivalent of the Army's Combat Infantryman Badge) firing at the enemy and being fired at in return.

On my very first patrol, it became abundantly clear to me that the South Vietnamese did NOT need or want our "help". I got two responses from the Vietnamese anytime I went out - either extreme fear, or extreme hate. If looks could kill, I would've been dead a thousand times.

The most important reason for my being in Vietnam evaporated on that first patrol - after that, the only thing I was fighting for was survival (which may be the ultimate case in combat, anyway, but it's not much of a reason, is it?).

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It seems to me I was asked to join this forum because of my experience, which - if I'm willing to share it - may help students understand what happened. So, I'm going to try and share some of my 'Nam experience here - maybe others will want to join in. Below is an essay I wrote shortly after the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed. It was eventually published in the Peoria Journal-Star as a Memorial Day essay. I've tinkered with it over the years. It is, in fact, an essay. The only parts I've made up are the names of people killed.

NAMES - by Michael E. Toliver

"Tonight, as we did last night, we close our newscast with the names of the servicemen killed in Beirut and Grenada." The face of Robert MacNeil fades from the television screen and, in silence, the names begin to roll across the screen; credits in a movie no one wanted to make. In silence, other names from a different war begin to roll through my mind. The tears come again - I can't stop them.

It is June, shortly after Memorial Day - rush hour on Friday afternoon in Washington, D.C., and Peg and I stand near the Vietnam Memorial. I check the ledger for the names, but I'm unsure of the spellings. Most of them were known by nicknames, or by some corruption of their last names. Spelling was never a priority until we were leaving to go home and were swapping addresses. The names in the ledger didn't swap addresses with anyone before they left.

I know approximately when they died, so I locate the panels of the memorial where the names should appear, and we walk to them in the rain. I look on the panels, but it is impossible - there are too many names. Names, names, stretching away on either side of me in unbelievable profusion. For a moment I am stunned. I turn to Peg and she is weeping. It is too much, these names representing 58,000 sons and daughters, brothers and sisters - names I knew when they had flesh and spoke to me of hope and fear.

I hold Peg close and our tears fall together. Two older women, whose son's names could very well be lost among all those I see, come up and one of them briefly hugs us. "We're crying too." she says, and then they fade away into the rain.

It is May, 14 years earlier, and I am listening to the obscene thump of the helicopter rotors carrying us into "Dodge City" for the umpteenth time. I crouch, trying to become as small as possible to avoid incoming rounds. There is a loud crash, and a huge hole appears in the tail ramp. A .50 caliber machine gun is on the ground, probing upward, searching for a target. The gunner didn't lead us enough. I recall the helicopters I've seen go down. I've seen the awful hesitation when the engines stop, the rotors disintegrate, the fire starts and then the helicopter drops like a stone. They're alive in there, knowing that they have only 20 seconds of life left before they hit the ground. Please, please let me die on the ground. At least on the ground, death seems to be something of a surprise.

Our helicopter lands and we quickly scramble out, so glad to be on the ground that it doesn't matter that the ground is filled with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, waiting to meet us. We establish a perimeter, and there we sit for three days - patrolling in the vicinity and making only light contact. We begin to think that this will be one of those times when we might scrape through - perhaps they've left, in search of bigger fish than a marine infantry battalion.

Still, the nights in the foxholes are uneasy. Around two in the morning is a favored time; they think we're worn down, sleepy, discouraged and they try to slip in then. A rat in the foxhole, the frogs in the rice paddies, a strange bird croaking from the tree line - all these and more cause our eyes to widen as we stare fearfully into the dark. Please, please - not now. I've only got a month and a half left. Not now, not now.

On the third day we pack up. We're going to walk out instead of riding the choppers. Thank God, thank God. It isn't that far to the battalion command post. We start early. It is cloudy and therefore cool and my pack and radio aren't too heavy for a change. We're getting out.

Within minutes of our start, there is a single explosion. Someone has tripped a booby trap, and another name is ready for the wall in Washington. We wait for the medevac, and then we get under way again. Soon, another explosion, another ugly cloud of grey smoke and another name for the wall. While we've been sitting in our "secure" position, the V.C. and NVA have ringed us with an incredible number of booby traps, made from hand-grenades with shortened fuses attached to trip wires. No other booby trap is so portable and so effective in turning marines into hamburger. During our morning stroll, I count nine separate explosions leading to who knows how many new names for the wall. I watch where I step.

By afternoon, we have moved out of the area where most of the booby traps seem to have been placed. At about one o'clock, we come to a river - not very wide - that we'll have to ford. As we prepare to cross, a single shot rings out and the round cracks over our heads. We hit the ground and try to figure where it came from. A sniper? A trigger-happy soldier from an ambush? Being trigger-happy is not a mistake the V.C. or NVA make: this stuff is old hat to them. I have been here nearly twelve months - it's almost old hat to me, too. Still, this is the perfect place for an ambush. What the hell - it was probably just a sniper, and a bad one at that. We might as well cross now; we've got to get to our command post before dark.

We get up and move down the bank. I feel them on the opposite bank - so do most of the other marines - but we've got to go through. This is what we came out here for. We're half-way across when we get our answer: it was a trigger-happy soldier from a very large ambush. The opposite bank explodes in a cacophony of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. I see the shrubbery on the opposite bank waving as if in a strong wind - leaves are flying off into the river, to drift passively while the world explodes above them.

Names appear on the wall in reckless profusion now. There is no leisurely "Thump!" as the booby trap goes off, the corpsman arrives, the medevac is called and ALFREDO MALDANDO appears on the wall. Now, the names are in an anarchy of multiplication WILLIAMJONESMICHAELSMITHROBERTTHOMPSONWILLIAMOLIVEROSCARHAKES: they fly to the wall in Washington with the speed of light and another panel fills up - the one containing the names from May 25, 1969. On this day and all other days surrounding it, names are collected for final deposition on black granite, 10,000 miles and 14 years away. The names from that nameless, insignificant river are but a drop lost in the swirl of 10,000's.

The fire knocks us back and we get down and try to return fire. We've got to throw more bullets at them than they throw at us, so we can make them get down: there's marines trapped on the opposite bank who are in danger of losing their names. It's no use; if your head goes up to see where you shoot, your name goes on the wall. Finally, the jets come in and now Vietnamese names multiply, scorched in napalm and fragmentation bombs. Gradually, technology has its temporary way with Will and we advance across the river, picking up names along the way.

Later, I will wonder why. Why did we sit in one place for three days while the V.C. and NVA planned our monument? Why did we go to "Dodge City" time after time accumulating names for panels yet unquarried? Having arrived, why did we leave, taking with us only our names? At the time, I am merely glad that I am leaving without surrendering my name to black granite.

Now, fifteen years later, new names confront me in the privacy of my bedroom. What were they dreaming as they slept in their barracks? What were their thoughts as they boarded the helicopters to assault the beaches of Grenada? We will never truly know, as they left behind only their names. The madness continues. In silence, the names roll by on the television screen and in silence, I weep for the newest set of names."

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Mike, I have interviewed a large number of soldiers about their experience of war. Many are reluctant to discuss details of the fighting. They much prefer to talk about the comradeship they experienced than the men they killed.

I am reminded of something that Jeff Needle wrote during the war (Please Read This):

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive.

Ernst Toller, a German soldier during the First World War, wrote in his book, I Was a German (published in 1933, only six years before he committed suicide):

I saw the dead without really seeing them. As a boy I used to go to the Chamber of Horrors at the annual fair, to look at the wax figures of Emperors and Kings, of heroes and murderers of the day. The dead now had that same unreality, which shocks without arousing pity.

I stood in the trench cutting into the earth with my pick. The point got stuck, and I heaved and pulled it out with a jerk. When it came a slimy, shapeless bundle, and when I bent down to look I saw that wound round my pick were human entrails. A dead man was buried there.

A dead man.

What made me pause then? Why did those words so startle me? They closed upon my brain like a vice; they choked my throat and chilled my heart. Three words, like any other three words.

A dead man. I tried to thrust the words out of my mind; what was there about them that they should so overwhelm me?

And suddenly, like light in darkness, the real truth broke in upon me; the simple fact of Man, which I had forgotten, which had lain deep buried and out of sight; the idea of community, of unity.

A dead man. Not a dead Frenchman. Not a dead German. A dead man.

All these corpses had been men; all these corpses had breathed as I breathed; they had a father, a mother, a woman whom they loved, a piece of land which was theirs, faces which expressed their joys and their sufferings, eyes which had known the light of day and the colour of the sky. At that moment of realization I knew that I had been blind because I had wished not to see; it was only then that I realised, at last, that all these dead men, French and Germans, were brothers, and I was the brother of them all.

After that I could never pass a dead man without stopping to gaze on his face, stripped by death of that earthly patina which masks the living soul. And I would ask, who were you? Where was your home? Who is mourning for you now? But I never asked who was to blame. Each had defended his own country; the Germans Germany, the Frenchmen France; they had done their duty.

A recent study in the UK revealed that Tony Blair has lost considerable standing from the older generation as a result of the Iraq War. However, the one group where he gained particular support was from male voters aged 18-30. Is it possible, that young men who have never had first-hand experience of war find the idea noble and exciting? Is it a coincidence that Blair and Bush have never fought in a war. Would Bush have been so keen on the war if he had served in Vietnam?

Have your experiences in Vietnam influenced your ideas about the need to fight wars? What about your former comrades? Were any of them strong advocates of the war in Iraq?

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Is it possible, that young men who have never had first-hand experience of war find the idea noble and exciting? Is it a coincidence that Blair and Bush have never fought in a war. Would Bush have been so keen on the war if he had served in Vietnam?

Of course it's possible - even likely. That's one reason why armies everywhere like to get young men (and, to some extent, young women) - it's not solely because they're physically fitter. Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War "a noble cause". I used to regard that with scorn, but you know what? - he's right; right in the sense that we, the American soldiers, were willing to lay down our lives for the freedom of people we had never met. That's why I joined, and that's why my buddies joined - and that's why most of the folks (even draftees) allowed themselves to be sent there.

We were wrong - but that doesn't mean we were ignoble. And here's the real kicker - war IS exciting. In my first real firefight I felt more alive than I'd ever felt before; all my senses were as keen as they'd ever been. I'll tell you all about it in two weeks - don't have the time now - but it was a shock to realize that fighting for your life, and trying to kill another human being, can be a real rush. It certainly wasn't always like that, but it was often enough to convince me that one of the reasons we keep having wars is that they are "exciting".

The aftermath is a different story. After the fight I allude to above, we policed up the paddies and found 16 bodies - mostly very young men (like us). One had died of a shot in his foot - bled to death in the night. It ain't pretty, folks - and we get to live with that, that and the knowledge that we killed or tried to kill them and got a charge out of it.

Would Bush or Blair been less anxious to get in Iraq if they'd experienced combat? I'd like to think so, but I'd say "it depends". Lots of vets have a very different take on the Iraq War than I do (they support it). Still, I think having combat experience should make one pause before getting into a situation that produces still more combat vets. In my opinion, we have enough of those already.

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