Saturday, April 4, 2009

The DMZ forty years later

After Hue it was time to go to Dong Ha and try to set up a personalized tour of the DMZ area. We rode on the DMZ tour bus to Dong Ha (site of the major American base in that area) but didn’t take the tour, just got off at the bus station. From the internet I knew I was to find a place called DMZ Café where I could arrange a tour w/ a former South Vietnamese soldier as a guide. At the bus station I asked for directions to the DMZ Café and was told, “There are 3 DMZ Cafes, Which one do you want?” Sheesh! I didn’t know, so I was rifling through my paperwork when this guy saunters in and says, “You looking for DMZ Café? I work there. You want a tour?” (The Vietnamese cell phone grapevine works like magic)
We agreed on a price of $90 for a van, driver, and guide for the day. I had w/ me old photos of my visit here 40 years ago. The guide and his cronies were fascinated w/ the pictures, passing them around and commenting on this and that, confirming among themselves where some of these places were. So we set off. The driver and me in the front and Mike in the back w/ the guide and another guy who apparently was just along for the ride .( More about him later)
Of course there was nothing to see in Dong Ha of the old American military base. In fact there was nothing to see in Dong Ha of ANYTHING that was there in 1968 because Dong Ha was leveled to the ground when the North Vietnamese invaded the South in earnest.
A little history is in order at this point. The DMZ was the dividing line between N and S Vietnam. The Geneva Accord agreed to in 1954 partitioned the country into the Communist north led by Ho Chi Minh and the non-Communist south led by Diem. Uncle Ho never gave up on having a unified Vietnam so he tried to overtake the south w/ North Vietnamese regular troops and Viet Cong guerrilla fighters in the south. The West was afraid that since Uncle Ho was a Commie allied w/ the Chinese, that it would be a horror story to have the South fall under Communist authority and then have the rest of Southeast Asia fall like dominoes and then threaten the whole of the South Pacific with countries being taken over the same way the USSR took over Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc. This is the theory that led to yours truly being posted just south of the DMZ in 1968. It was my job to hold back the commie hoards that were threatening Mom, Apple Pie and the American Flag. I was one of the elements that was to keep the “domino theory” from becoming the “domino fact.”
At the tender age of 20, as a Second Lieutenant, I embarked on one of my great adventures. I wasn’t real gung ho about the war (I knew at the time that it was quite controversial but since I was going no matter what, I purposely didn’t examine the whole thing too closely. I really didn’t want to know.) I could have sat out the war training basic trainees at Ft Lewis, WA, but at that age I was full of piss and vinegar (at age 18 I hitch-hiked from Cairo to Capetown among other things) and I remember thinking, “War is a classic human endeavor. You can get killed doing it, but now is my chance to test myself in a way I never have before and never will again. Can I cut it? How will I handle myself in combat? How brave am I?”
I volunteered for the Green Berets, Airborne, Ranger school, jungle warfare school etc. I was on the phone to the pentagon and the various schools and kept getting the green light from them, but could not get my battalion commanding officer to sign the paperwork to release me. His reasoning was that he did not have enough drill sergeants and was indeed using us officers as “drill lieutenants.” I thought he was kind of a jerk but in retrospect I think that an experienced, combat veteran, who knew what it was all about, was trying to save the life of a young fool.
Being closed out from everything I was trying to do, I jumped on the only thing that my battalion commander couldn’t quash. I’ll never forget it. I was in an office with Second Lieutenant Jack O’Brien when I called a Major Love (the name sticks with me) at the Pentagon and told him I had had enough of training basic trainees and that I wanted to volunteer to go to Vietnam. He asked, “When do you want to go?”
I replied, “Yesterday would be nice.”
Lt O’Brien was silently giving me excited hand signals and making faces in the background. For days after that when Jack wanted to be a smart alec, he would out of the blue bellow, "Oh, yesterday would be nice!" He was an Infantry officer who already had his orders for Vietnam. We left for Vietnam in the same week. Two weeks later he had a Silver Star and was dead. Two and a half years later I married his sister, Kathy.
Like everybody else in my unit I found that I was brave enough. Yes, I could cut it. When the fur is flying you do what you have to do. About 6 months into the thing I wrote to my brother whose birthday was number one in the draft pick lottery and advised him to bail out to Canada, as I saw no shame in not supporting something as ridiculous as what I was involved in there on the DMZ. The details of the foolishness of our involvement are well documented elsewhere so I won’t go into it here. As I got older I just had to shake my head and think that no matter how brave I was in combat, I would have been really brave and grown up if I had just told our leadership to “Go Screw Yourself.” I was young at the time so I forgive myself for not doing so.
I find today that too many grown adults find it easier (like I did as a kid) to “Go along to get along” rather than to responsibly question the “leadership” that they are associated with. Just because somebody is a president, CEO, senator, shop foreman, charge nurse, cop, or whatever doesn’t make ‘em right all the time. We have a responsibility to “call bullshit a four letter word” when we need to. When you reach a level of experience and maturity to truly in your gut discern right from wrong it is not ethical to stand on the sidelines wringing your hands or pretending things are just hunky-dory.
Two of my favorite quotes are from Martin Luther King:

"Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

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