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"Images of War: An Oral History of Vietnam"

The war is over, it says here, but no American who visited Vietnam these past
two decades escaped unscarred. The pain of mangled ideals, loyalties and
assumptions -- the so-called Lessons of Vietnam -- is obviously most searing
for the soldiers, politicians, journalists, businessmen, ambassadors and
activists who have been there. Some by choice, some not, they have become
members of a troubled minority for who the war will never fully be over. We
phoned some of them, asked them to think of Vietnam and the images that word
inspired. Following is whatever enlightenment, defoliated by memory, they
could salvage from the visions of tunnels.

The one overriding impressions I have is that the people in South Vietnam
didn't want to be run by the communists... They're a very fine people and I
talked to hundreds of them while I was there. I remember once I went out
tiger hunting for 48 days; I didn't catch a tiger but I had a hell of a lot
of fun. My guide was a Mr. Chi -- he'd come down from the North and he didn't
want to have anything to do with the communists. And that's the way it always
was, talking to the people, kidding with them, playing golf and badminton and
tennis: Some didn't like Diem, but none of them liked the communists.

Elbridge Durbrow
U.S. Ambassador
South Vietnam, 1957-1961

There weren't enough plows or bulldozers so they were making the villagers in
Ba Chuc act as mine sweepers. They had to clear a wooded area every morning
which was mined at night by the Viet Cong. Every Vietnamese male between 15
and 60 had to do it; they also got women. They were using human beings as
mine sweepers. The people tried to hide when it was their turn to go out but
the hamlet chiefs warned them they would be punished if they refused. The
people were too poor to pay bribes. They couldn't run away. Four of them were
killed and 14 terribly wounded. The Americans there said it wasn't any of
their business and the South Vietnamese officials didn't care about the
people. They never cared. Twenty-one villagers signed a petition to have the
clearing operation stopped. They were brave men, desperate men. No one paid

There was a 62-year-old man, an elder, who begged me for help. He was a proud
man, but he thought if he pleaded I might help. "God cannot hear what we are
trying to say," the man said. "We are choked by the hands of the government
so we cannot shout out."

Gloria Emerson
NEW YORK TIMES Correspondent
South Vietnam, 1970-1972

The one story that sticks out in my mind occurred in July of 1968. I was
secretary of defense at that point and very concerned about the failure of
the South Vietnamese to raise their level of troop morale. I was very
concerned with their desertion rate -- about 30% per year -- and I had a
conference with Vice President Ky about it. I told him I was disturbed and
asked what could be done about it. Ky said the high desertion rate was due to
the fact that the troops weren't paid enough.

"Well, whose responsibility is that?" I asked.
"It is yours," Ky said.
"Ours?" I asked and then Ky said that if we just cut back our bombing a
little, we'd have the money to pay the troops more.

I remember I registered utter disgust at that suggestion, and said that I was
under the impression that it was their's and we were just supposed to be
helping out, not the other way around. Ky just smiled and gave me a good,
old-fashioned Vietnamese shrug.

Clark Clifford
Secretary of Defense
South Vietnam, 1968

I think of the day I was shot. I think of lying in the sand, bleeding in the
sand. Just as the bullet hit my shoulder, I felt everything disappear. It
went numb. I felt my whole body was completely blown apart. I just waited to
die. I could barely breathe -- my right lung was punctured. I took short
sucks of air. I put my hand to where my leg was -- I felt a body. I felt so
glad to know my body was there. I remember not wanting to die in Vietnam --
how worthless it would have been. The most important thing was being alive.
An American came up to get me and they killed him. I didn't feel anything. I
just wanted to be alive. Another guy came out and saved my life and I
remember feeling the top of my body being dragged back. For the next couple
hours I was in twilight between death and life. I fought with everything I
had inside... I wanted to die in my own backyard. I remember seven days in
intensive care near Da Nang. I was in and out of morphine for six days. The
doctors told me three-quarters of my body was paralyzed. I would never walk
again. I felt angry.

Ron Kovic
Sergeant, Marine Corps
South Vietnam, 1965-1968

We had a boy in the 2nd Platoon who picked up a Viet Cong claymore. He lost
both legs and he took out about six other kids. It was in the woods near Dau
Tieng, in the rubber plantation area, just a base camp with three or four
bunkers, nothing special. He bent over and picked it up. It wiped out at
least a third of the 2nd Platoon. When we heard them scream that day it was
hard to move. We had had a lot of people hit before that day but you were
always there, you always thought that as a medic you could go, you could
move. That's your job, to move, to get there. You just went, you moved. But
that day, it was the hardest to move. Screams and screams and screams.

David Rogers
Sp5, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army
South Vietnam, 1969-1970

I think of the women crying and the dead children. Perhaps the strongest
image -- I later wrote a song about it -- was an old woman scratching around
in the rubble by a giant crater where her son had been killed. She was
singing... "Oh my son, oh my son, where are you?"

Joan Baez
Antiwar Activist
North Vietnam, 1972

I went to My Lai a year ago last January -- my son Mike was killed very near
there. That's no man's land -- that country is just full of explosives and
mines and you daren't go off the road. I visited the civilian amputee center
(run by the American Friends Service Center). While I was there some poor
peasant was brought in who had just had his leg blown off -- and this was

If you could find some consolation for Mike's death, it might be all right --
but he really died in destroying a beautiful country.

Robert C. Ransom
Antiwar Activist
South Vietnam, 1974

Flying over Vietnam, two things were always apparent to me -- dirt roads and
bomb craters. It was relatively easy for the VC to plant land mines in the
dirt roads, and we made the bomb craters. ...Vietnam looked like the surface
of the moon. Water would collect in the craters and algae would grow, making
a grotesque rainbow. Some of them had been there for four or five years and
yet they seemed of undiminished size. I used to wonder -- how long does it
take for a bomb crater to disappear?

Merek Lipson
Lieutenant, U.S. Navy
South Vietnam, 1970-1971

Since I was trained as a Vietnamese interpreter before I went over I had a
lot of opportunity to talk with and get to know the people. The Vietnamese
are very beautiful. Some nights when we would sneak out of the compound
against regulations, the people would hide us in their homes when the MPs
came out.

Vietnam is a land of many dichotomies. Once, I was standing on a hill looking
out over the countryside. It was so beautiful, so incredibly green that the
brilliance hurt my eyes. I turned and saw an area of the same countryside
that had been bombed and chemically defoliated -- it was black, with a couple
of burned tree stumps. I couldn't believe it was the same country.

Mike McCain
Corporal, Marine Corps
South Vietnam, 1968

This was something that happened in July '72 -- the first time I went to
North Vietnam. I had been invited to see a play one afternoon which was being
performed at a 16th century university called the Temple of Literature.
Air-raid sirens could be heard going on in the distance while I watched a
Vietnamese troupe perform Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." It's a play that
shows how money and power have disturbed people's values in America. But it
also shows that there are American people who are still idealistic and
honest. I was amazed at the intensity on the faces of people who gathered
around me to watch the performance -- children, old people, soldiers --
cheering and applauding at many points during the play. A lawyer in the play
had on white tie and tails. The factory owner wore saddle shoes and a funky
bow tie. The director was sitting next to me and at one point he took my hand
and asked, "That's not the way people look in your country, is it?" When I
told him so, he seemed very sad and said, "We will never properly perform
your plays until the war is over and we learn how you live and look." I asked
him why they had chosen to perform this American play and he explained to me
that this troupe of actors chose to tour the countryside, performing for
people whose homes had been bombed -- in effect, to help them understand more
about America -- that there are all kinds of people in this country -- and
that Americans do not have to be their enemies. This taught me that the war
was really an American tragedy.

Jane Fonda
Antiwar Activist
North Vietnam, 1972, 1974

Da Nang, 1965. We visited a civilian hospital. That afternoon I walked into
the crowded hospital where scores of painfully crippled and wounded
Vietnamese lay two or three to a bed, many with missing legs, arms or faces.
They were the scarred victims of American bombs and artillery. As I walked
among them, there was total silence, and their brown eyes followed me with
the same frightened expression I remember seeing once in the eyes of an
injured deer. The awful cruelty and folly of the war struck me that afternoon
with greater force than any other single experience.

George McGovern
U.S. Senator
South Vietnam, 1965

We were on a patrol deep in enemy territory. There were four or five
indigenous Vietnamese with me. We were climbing up this mountain, a very
rocky mountain, and the Vietnamese kept making noise, coughing and banging
their canteens and I kept telling them to quiet down. About halfway up the
mountain we stopped for the night and went to sleep. In the middle of the
night, I woke up and found a snake crawled up in my sleeping bag with me. I
screamed so loud they probably could have heard me in the Philippines. Then
I climbed the nearest tree and hung there sloth style, screaming and vomiting
at the top of my lungs for the rest of the night. The Vietnamese just sat at
the bottom of the tree and giggled.

Mike Eiland
Captain, 5th Special Forces, U.S. Army
South Vietnam, 1966-1972

The thing that sticks out was the time I discovered that the Vietnamese navy
was running armed escorts for boats carrying rice to the Viet Cong. For
money. They were doing it for money. I heard about it from one of our CIA
spooks, who'd been over there for years and was watching a lifetime of work
break up before his eyes. I didn't get any reaction from the Vietnamese after
I reported this story, but the American government people in Vietnam tried to
put some screws on me to find out who my source had been.

Morley Safer
CBS News Correspondent
South Vietnam, 1965, 1969

I went to Vietnam when I was 19 because I thought that it was the manly,
adventurous thing to do. Originally I was trained as a technical observer for
reconnaissance aircraft but I ended up as a door gunner in a helicopter. A
siren would go off and in three minutes we would have to be in the air.
Usually nothing would happen. We would fire thousands of rounds of
ammunition but we hardly ever saw any Vietnamese. Then, on the day of the
Tet offensive, we were shot down and the war became real to me. I was wounded
and I saw thousands of dead bodies. I also saw our new Cobra attack
helicopters being downed. It was then that I became aware that the U.S. might
be losing the war -- we all felt paralyzed.

Bob Traller
Sp4, 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army
South Vietnam, 1967-1968

I remember it was in 1967 that Humphrey was sent to Vietnam as our official
representative to the inauguration of Thieu and Ky. When we got to Vietnam,
Humphrey paid courtesy calls on them. And I remember he told Thieu that he
was surprised and appalled by the degree to which the war had been
"Americanized," that he didn't think American public opinion would allow us
to stay indefinitely and that Thieu should get used to the idea that there
would be troop withdrawals in the years ahead. Well, Thieu just tapped the
ash of his cigarette like a police investigator and calmly said that he
thought more American troops would be needed. Humphrey repeated the speech
about public opinion and not being able to depend on the U.S. indefinitely,
and Thieu just sat there impassively, as if he hadn't heard.

Ted Van Dyk
Aide to V.P. Hubert Humphrey
South Vietnam, 1967

I lost the closest thing I have to a brother in Vietnam -- he was my brother-
in-law, a lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry battalion in the Delta.
He was killed the day I was sworn in as chief of staff. It about tore my wife
apart and it was a very traumatic experience for me -- but no field commander
takes casualties lightly. Was it worth it? It's not for a soldier to make
such a decision.

William Westmoreland
Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam
South Vietnam, 1966-1968

When I first went to Vietnam in 1967 I thought the Vietnamese were good for
shining shoes and balling -- that they were more like animals than people.
But I remember two experiences:

One day I was standing around where this old Vietnamese man was burning shit.
A group of GIs was gathered around him -- jiving, teasing and making fun. My
sergeant told me that the old guy spoke four languages and was a well-known

Another time I was watching a shoeshine boy shining a GI's shoes in a
whorehouse. The kid said something I didn't hear and the soldier slapped him
across the head. The kid picked up his box and looked at the soldier and
said: "Someday when we're free I'm gonna get back at you."

John ("Bookoo") Erp
Paratrooper, 173rd Airborne Division, U.S. Army
South Vietnam, 1967-1970

- Rolling Stone, 6/19/75.


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