Vietnam remembered: A Stillness on April 30th
April 30th marks the 46th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. For some who fought in Vietnam, the war was like the opening sentence in Dickensís A Tale of Two Cities, it was "the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Fighting far from home and family in sweltering heat and humidity while fending off mosquitoes, snakes, and leeches had little to commend it. That was "the worst of times." But for those sworn to defend America in a Cold War that could, at any time, turn existential, it sometimes seemed like "the best of times."
Still, like the nine blind men feeling the elephant, oneís perceptions depended on where your unit was located and how well it was led. The best place to be -- assuming there was a best place -- was up in the Central Highlands. It was cooler, even cold at night. The streams ran clear and, for the most part, unpolluted. And based on which division came out of the war the most highly-decorated, the 1st Air Cavalry Division was without peer.
Virtually all of the officers and senior NCOs who created the 11th Air Assault Division (Experimental) -- which would later be renamed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) -- were paratroopers. Airborne tradition, in anticipation of drop-zone casualties, is to brief the entire operations plan down to the last PFC in the last rank. That way, PFCs could step up to replace fallen squad leaders and squad leaders could step up to replace fallen platoon sergeants or even platoon leaders.
Most of the Skytroopers were draftees. They were young, tough, and used to working with their hands. The Divisionís professional officers -- the Lifers -- would sometimes wonder, "Where does American get such fine young men?" Caring for them was an awesome responsibility.
But the hard part was following the edicts that came down from the LBJ White House and the McNamara Pentagon from which strategy and even tactics were dictated in support of the reelection of President Johnson. Every mistake made by the French in their Indo-China War was repeated as if the eggheads in Washington had never read anything about the French experience in Southeast Asia.
At the bitter end, the Division came home to a nation divided and seemingly unmindful of, and ungrateful for, the 58,200 men and women who had given their lives for their country. And yet, cold comfort can be taken that those 58,200 are not alive today to see their nation almost divided as it was on the eve of the American Civil War in which 360,222 Union soldiers gave their lives to keep the nation intact and to free the slaves -- 360,222 lives lost, the ultimate reparations for the evil of slavery.
Looking at the political and cancel-cultural shambles America is in today, one is reminded of what British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey lamented on the eve of World War I, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."
The aging veterans of Vietnam donít have much life-time left. Whether they will live to see America lit again remains in doubt.
Suggested reading: "The Decline and Fall of the U .S. Joint Chiefs of Staff," U.S. Naval War College Review, April 1972. Dereliction of Duty, H.R. McMaster, (1998). Formula for Failure in Vietnam, William Hamilton, Ph.D. (2019).
©2021. William Hamilton.