With the twentieth century now behind us, it seems natural to look back and reflect on those one hundred years and the events that unfolded before us. Significant among those is the controversial Vietnam War. It is an open wound on the American conscience, involving many still unresolved questions that have left historians, average Americans, as well as Vietnam veterans themselves, grappling for answers three decades later.
It does not take long even for school children in a history class to inevitably arrive at the same simple but perplexing question. Why did we get involved in a war on the other side of the world that resulted in the loss of American 58,000 lives?
Our involvement in Vietnam can be explained at least in part as a Third World battleground in the Cold War, a global conflict between the United States and the free world on one side and the Soviet Union and its Communist Bloc allies on the other. Given that both sides desired to avoid the inevitability of annihilation from an all-out nuclear confrontation (hence the contradiction in the two words "cold" and "war" often describing the period), the point of conflict became the nonaligned or "Third World" countries. The height of confrontation became "limited war," in which the American objective was one of "containment" — stopping the spread of Communism around the world. If unchecked in Korea or Vietnam, communism might be on our doorstep next. Though the threat of Communist world domination should not be diminished, some believe that this global perspective failed to take into account the individual cultures and nationalistic trends of the countries involved. That was particularly true in Vietnam, where the United States government did not understand that Ho Chi Minh, the charismatic Communist leader of North Vietnam, was more interested in the nationalistic goal of uniting his country than being what the U.S. perceived as the puppet of Sino-Soviet interests.
In contrast, the South Vietnamese government the U.S. chose to support had no corresponding national figure to match Ho, little support from the populace, and, probably most devastating to our objectives, less desire to fight for themselves, leaving the bulk of the fighting to United States troops. These political realities probably made victory for the United States a near impossibility from day one, regardless of what happened on the battlefield. The political situation was not the only obstacle the Americans faced. By nature and cultural tradition the Vietnamese people saw little of importance beyond their own village. Ideological concepts like democracy or communism meant little to most of them. Traditionally, however, throughout their two thousand years of history, one thing did galvanize them to collective resistance—foreign intrusion, whether one thousand years of Chinese domination or two hundred years of French colonialism. Given their history, it is not hard to understand the fanatical dedication of our enemy to reunification even if it meant confronting a superpower like the United States.
Ho and his followers made it clear that they were prepared to fight ten, fifteen, or twenty years, and that casualties were not important in order to succeed in their objectives. In contrast, the loss of troops and the length of the war was important to the American people. They had shown a willingness to make sacrifices in previous world wars as long as progress towards victory could be seen. During the Vietnam era the Lyndon Johnson administration made promises of a "light at the end of the tunnel" when it really was not there. This projection of false optimism would ultimately turn many Americans against the war effort.
Despite all those factors, America still made the fateful and perplexing decision to intervene. This was, no doubt, because we were in a period that culminated in the early 1960s of what sociologist Daniel Bell named "American exceptionalism," a belief that there was nothing the United States, the greatest country on Earth, could not accomplish. The Vietnam War, the first conflict in our history where we clearly failed in our objectives, was a turning point in our history. It brought an end to the idealism, "can-doism," and complete trust in our leadership that characterized much of the of the twentieth century.
The Vietnam veteran, whether a well-trained professional or an eighteen-year-old draftee, was confronted with the hardships and
brutality of war. Yet there was also a unique set of circumstances that made their experience different from other wars:
1) They found themselves involved in a limited guerrilla war that lacked clear-cut territorial objectives against an oftentimes unidentifiable and battle-hardened enemy.
2) It was a protracted conflict, ultimately making it the most unpopular and divisive conflict in American history.
3) The negative treatment some veterans experienced upon return home. A few were called "baby killers" or had eggs thrown at them. All had to deal with the apathy brought by the nation's desire to forget an unpopular war that they themselves could not.
Illinois Vietnam veterans, like those around the country, served, fought, and sometimes died. Though it would be a mistake to stereotype them, they shared the common experience of war, an experience that in some way changes everyone that goes through it.
In 1998 OIney Central College with funding from the Illinois Humanities Council, completed an oral history project called "The Vietnam War 25 Years Later," which involved interviewing Vietnam veterans from around Illinois. Each of the stories and recollections of three of those veterans accurately and poignantly reflects perspectives shared throughout the United States.
It has been said that in this modern age it is hard to find real-life heroes. Anybody meeting Sammy Davis, however, would think otherwise. Sammy, who lived in the tiny southeastern Illinois community of West Salem, through his sixth grade year before spending time in Texas and Indiana, would receive the Medal of Honor while serving in the 9th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army as an artillery man. Today Davis travels the country speaking about the war and representing the interests of Vietnam veterans. His popularity as a speaker has been enhanced because the producers of the movie "Forrest Gump" roughly based their Vietnam scene that leads to their character receiving the Medal of Honor on Sammy's actions. Despite being in demand around the country, Sammy takes time to speak to students at high schools and colleges whenever possible, including my classes at Olney Central College. Those students who have seen his presentation seemed awestruck almost immediately, not so much by what he says, as much as the old-fashioned right and wrong, "yes sir"-"no sir" persona he represents. Though he appears in full dress uniform with the Medal of honor around his neck, he is always reluctant to talk about his individual actions that led to this award. The official description however, leaves no doubt about Davis's gallantry above and beyond the call of duty:
November 18,1967, Davis's artillery fire base near Cai Lay, South Vietnam was threatened with overrunning by a "reinforced VietCong battalion," with only a river standing in their way. Davis began the action by seizing a machine gun to provide cover fire for his gun crew, which took a direct hit that scattered them and left the howitzer burning. "Disregarding a withering hail of enemy fire," he returned to the gun to fire on the enemy several times even though the recoil knocked him down with each shot. Neither did a painful mortar wound prevent him from continuing to return fire at the enemy. Ignoring his wounds and that he could not swim, he crossed the river on a raft to rescue three wounded comrades stranded on the enemy-held side. He refused medical attention, joining another howitzer crew until the Viet Cong had fled. Sammy had displayed "extraordinary heroism" to the very end.
Did Davis receive a hero's welcome and parade upon his return home? No. He was spat upon and called "baby killer" upon his arrival at the airport in San Francisco. Davis's response was: "In one aspect it had made me very proud that I had been one of the people that had helped earn their right and their freedom to be able to do that. But on the other aspect, it really did break your heart that they were so misinformed that they were doing that against me. His Medal of Honor has opened doors for Davis to meet celebrities and politicians from presidents on down. He has been disappointed by some politicians who he perceives as being simply "not good people," but he remains nothing if not intensely patriotic.
Beyond the fame of being a hero, Davis continues to help his comrades and buddies who are in trouble. One of his former comrades, James Huff, a man who has suffered through the nightmares, mood swings, and violence associated with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), told us in an interview that, "I'd like to mention that Sammy Davis, I mean that he saved me. I can honestly say that I was down in the dumps when he contacted me.... If you ever do use my (story)... I would always like it to be in there to say 'thank you' to Sammy Lee."
The war tended to change everyone who was involved. For some it meant dealing with physical and/or emotional scars that do not seem to heal. For others, like Stanley Campbell, it meant a dramatic change in perspective. A native of Rockford, Illinois, he
joined the army in 1969. After spending time in Germany, he volunteered for a stint in Vietnam beginning in October 1970. He arrived a strong supporter of the war, saying, "If I hadn't gone to Vietnam; I would be so conservative... I would probably be raising money for [Colonel] Oliver North right now." (Colonel North became the champion of many patriotic conservatives for the way he defended his controversial activities in the Iran-Contra affair during the 1980s, portraying them as merely doing his duty.) The things Stanley saw during his tour of duty changed his perspective. Assigned, however, to the 67th Medical Group he saw young wounded soldiers and their grieving buddies. He visited Vietnamese hospitals where the majority of patients were bandaged women and children. He experienced the post-Tet era, when America was no longer looking for a way to win the war, just a way to get out, with many in the predominately draftee army serving in Vietnam feeling the same way. Stanley saw guys who arrived in Vietnam as clean-cut and the best America could offer return after a few months in the field with long hair, beads, and peace medals. He felt like some of these same American soldiers were out doing pretty much what they pleased whenever they wanted, destroying what was sacred and precious to the Vietnamese. " We were stealing their country," he would say later.
His disenchantment led him to involvement in another war upon return home in 1971, this time on the streets of America as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Stanley marched in demonstrations in Chicago and then at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972. At one point he found himself marching on Richard Nixon's hotel with Ron Kovic, the individual portrayed in Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July." A poignant moment for him was a return with a group of veterans to Vietnam in 1988. One of his friends wanted to visit a mountain he had fought on as part of the 44th Infantry. While touring the mountain, the group was treated coldly by a Vietnamese general who had lost many men to that unit. Stanley got the idea to light incense sticks, a Buddhist tradition to honor the dead, at a memorial at the base of the mountain. When the general saw them do this, he started crying. He then took the Americans out to lunch and were the best of friends with them, saying afterwards that, "for him, the war was over."
The return trip helped Stanley put the war behind him too. But he has not forgotten how the war changed him. Today, he works "with those in poverty" (as part of the Methodist Urban Ministries) instead of "helping the rich stay rich." He summed up his feelings by saying " I'm glad I went, I am so happy I went."
Many families of POW/MIAs (prisoners of war and others listed as missing in action who remain unaccounted for after the 1973 peace agreement with the Communists) have found it impossible to bring closure to the war, still wondering if their loved ones had, in fact, been left behind. The mainstream media and the United States government have generally dismissed any notion that this may have happened, though they have spent a considerable amount of money searching for remains of MIAs in order to get a full accounting. Some families, however, point to the disturbing evidence that has come to light on some individual cases.
One such case is that of Dan Borah, Jr., a native of Olney, Illinois. Borah arrived in Vietnam in June 1972 as a Navy A-7 bomber pilot stationed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Oriskany. Three months later Borah was shot down over Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam. Initially the government declared him MIA, but within a month he was reclassified as a POW without explaining to his family why. They fully expected him to be released with the other prisoners in 1973, but he was not among them. After several years, Dan Borah, Sr., requested that the government declare his son dead, believing it was wrong to continue to collect twenty-four-hour-a-day hazardous pay. The elder Borah had always been a strong, patriotic conservative who never questioned the truthfulness of his government, but that would soon change.
In 1990 a judge from Tennessee gained possession of photographs from Laotian freedom fighters that he believed pictured Dan Borah, still alive. When the Borah family was shown the photographs they saw a man in his late forties (corresponding in age with what Dan would be if he was alive) that exactly resembled his grandfather. They presented the photographs to a forensic expert in Colorado who told them that the pictures were indeed of Dan Borah, Jr., and was prepared to make a statement to that effect in July 1991. With the story gaining national attention, Dan Sr. and his wife were invited to appear on the "Today Show" to tell their story. But things began to happen that made the Borah family doubt the veracity of the government. An hour before he was to hold a press conference in Washington, the Colorado forensic expert departed, saying he had changed his mind. The government then produced pictures of a Laotian villager who they said was the individual in the Nashville judge's photographs. The man appeared to have facial similarities similar to those in the first photographs, but he looked to be in his seventies, not late forties.
Two of Dan's brothers traveled to Laos in
fall 1991 to meet this man. A Department of Defense official accompanied them, and they were under heavy Laotian military guard the entire time they were there. "My brothers had a photograph of him (the villager) and asked him if he knew who the man in the picture was and he said 'No'", according to their sister Julie. He obviously had never seen a picture of himself, but he immediately identified himself in the pictures. Although it cannot be substantiated, the family believes he was instructed to do so. The brothers left Laos believing that the man was not the one pictured. However, the United States government released a statement saying the brothers were satisfied with the government's conclusion.
Shortly after, Dan's father was allowed to see classified documents that indicated Dan had made voice contact ("Gomer all around") on the ground after being shot down. When they tried to obtain Dan's fingerprints they mysteriously turned up missing, even the ones taken by the Champaign, Illinois, police after Dan was involved in a fraternity skirmish while attending the University of Illinois. The government would produce bones and teeth in the late 1990s that they stated were Dan's, but family found this evidence to be dubious. The remains were found with a two-piece flight suit; Dan was in a one-piece suit. In addition, the government refused to do DNA testing that would confirm the identity of the remains.
From the time he first he saw the photographs until his death in 1996, Dan Borah, Sr., kept a tragic vigil, prepared to do anything possible to further the cause that his son might still be alive. In recent years the Borah family has continued to receive occasional unconfirmed reports from the same Laotians about a man they refer to as "Barrr."
For those who believe it would be inexplicable for the government to write off some of our POWs, Julie Bunn believes she can explain why: "I think the government needed closure on the war. Nixon said all the POWs were home even though they knew they were not."
In the end the Borah story is just one more example that makes the war in Vietnam a clearly unsettled event to those who were directly connected to it in some way or to the rest of us who simply want to understand it better. The foregoing three narratives variously reflect the stalwart conservative view that supported the nation's military actions in Vietnam, the former conservative whose thinking on the war changed, and the puzzled and saddened who lost a family member without explanation.