I entered the Army as a second lieutenant in October 1968, the year that America’s involvement in the Vietnam War reached almost a half-million troops. I rejoiced when I was assigned to train on Nike Hercules missiles, even then an obsolete air defense system. There were no Nikes in Vietnam. I would be safe from war.
I was assigned to a Nike unit outside Travis AFB. Planes left Travis day and night carrying troops bound for the fighting, but my life was practically civilian-like. I had evenings off. I had my own apartment. I dated the woman who would become my wife.
Lieutenants are given a laundry list of extra assignments. One of mine was “notification officer.” If a soldier from the Fairfield area was killed in Vietnam, I would have to notify the next of kin.
Me, a wet-behind-the-ears, just-graduated college kid.
My first call came at breakfast. I was given the address of woman who didn’t yet know she was a widow.
I felt queasy knocking on her door. I had a flimsy script to recite. It didn’t begin to do the job.
All I remember is the wailing as I opened my mouth and the woman’s living room melted in agony.
My second call was a mom whose son was no more. As soon as she opened the door and saw my uniform, she began trembling.
She admitted me, then ran from the living room, convulsing with tears.
I sat there on her couch, feeling as empty as a person can be.
Watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary, “The Vietnam War,” brought all that back.
Many people I know want no part of this documentary. It was such a miserable war. More than 58,000 American dead ... and for what? To keep Vietnam from becoming Communist? It did become Communist.
When the 10-part, 18-hour series debuted on PBS last fall, I stayed away too. Having come of age in the ‘60s as the war reached its crescendo, I feared how history might judge me.
That war was the backdrop for my college years. While most of the people I was closest to were vehemently anti-war, I was joining ROTC. My ROTC participation guaranteed that I would be in uniform as the war raged.
From today’s perspective, in today’s vernacular, I was not woke.
My dad, who served in the Army in WWII, had suggested ROTC when I went off to Rutgers in 1964. If you have to serve, do so as an officer, he advised.
Even after I began to question the war’s validity, I stayed the course. I would do my two years on active duty and hope for the best. I would do my dad proud.
Watching “The Vietnam War,” I wondered why I had been so compliant, so oblivious to the war’s misguided underpinnings.
Lyndon Johnson lied to the American people. So did Richard Nixon. Both had been told the war was not winnable, yet they persevered, escalating the deployment of troops and bombers.
Neither president had the political courage to cut our losses. Each had hoped to win the next election and not be blamed for America’s first major military defeat.
Most Americans bought those lies. They considered themselves patriots. They believed the best of their country.
American kids can be persuaded to fight any enemy, any time, one former soldier says. Where were the trusted leaders who made sure this war was worth it?
“The Vietnam War” is about the saddest thing I’ve ever watched. Soldiers full of idealism arrived for their 12- and 13-month tours in Southeast Asia only to slowly realize that the enterprise was insane.
These moments of disillusionment are tearjerkers. Repeatedly, aging warriors choke up as they tell their stories. And I, in my Napa living room, cried with them.