By John Ketwig
VVAW receives many requests from students for help with their papers. Here is one recent exchange — Ed.
I am an 18 year old student and I am currently writing an essay on the Vietnam War. This essay focuses on why the US lost and why the North Vietnamese were able to win. I would be very grateful if I could get an opinion from you on this as it is very important that I do primary research for my essay and your opinion would be incredibly helpful.
Thank you for reading
I am a VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) life member, and also the author of a Vietnam memoir, "...and a hard rain fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam," originally published by Macmillan in 1985, and currently published by Sourcebooks. Yes, it has stayed on bookstore shelves for over 27 years, so I am very proud of it. You can probably Google the book and learn more.
I do college lectures about the times that influenced the Vietnam generation, and try to convey what it all felt like to an average kid who became caught up in it. I think it is very important to note that we were the first generation of American soldiers to have portable radios, and to be influenced by socially-relevant music. The songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary were constant as we were growing up, along with songs like "Blowing in the Wind," "Eve of Destruction," and many others. Have you heard "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie? Or the "Vietnam Rag" also known as the "Feel Like I'm Fixin To Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish? The anthem of our generation was Dylan's "The Times They Are A'changing." You must hear those songs to understand the music of the times! The Beatles had a huge influence on us. We thought our generation was going to overthrow "the establishment" and make peace and brotherhood a new way of life. Sadly, that movement failed over the long term, but it was very, very strong during the war era. I am concerned that books about the Beatles barely mention Vietnam, and books about Vietnam barely mention the Beatles or the music of the times, and we were totally inundated in both. We were, by the way, also the first generation of American soldiers to leave our personal cars home in the driveway when we went to war. We were the first to have TV, to see space ships launched, and to see the brutality against blacks trying to exercise their basic rights as American citizens, and TV brought it right into our homes.
You will read that the war in Vietnam failed because the American military failed to understand the Vietnamese culture, and that is partially true, but I contend that a far greater contributor to our failure was the failure of the (post WWII and Korean War) American military to recognize the enormous cultural changes in the recruits arriving throughout the Vietnam era. We were into drag racing, rock 'n roll, and surfing. The sexual revolution was happening, Playboy was available wherever magazines were sold, and everything sacred was in question. We arrived in boot camp and the instructors tried to bully us, but we had grown up in an environment of unprecedented freedom and questioning, and so G.I. rebellion (and yes, even subtle sabotage!) played a very key part in ending the war. By 1972, over 25% of all Americans in uniform worldwide were either deserted, AWOL, or openly mutinous! The army could no longer function, and so had to wind down the war. Years later when I was examining what the war experience had done to me, I realized that I feared the enemy, but I never hated them. I did, however, intensely hate my military superiors, the officers and Sergeants who treated us so badly, who planned the whole tragic war, and who profited so much from the human misery they were inflicting upon the poor peasants of Vietnam. Sadly, they earned their promotions, and they tried out all the latest weapons, but the damage they did was unconscionable. I will hate them, and fear them, until the day I die.
I will only speak about the Vietnamese to say that they wanted their independence, and so they knew what they were fighting for while we Americans never did. We weren't "in country" more than a few days and we could plainly see that everything we had been told about the situation in Vietnam had been untrue and misleading. We were the bad guys, and the US was devastating the poor, agricultural country of Vietnam. The cruelty of the weapons and the strategies were contrary to everything we had been taught about right and wrong, and we were very troubled to be a part of it. Our goal was simply to survive for 365 days and get on a plane and go home. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, were trying to build a nation and create something better for their children.
Soon after my book came out, I was invited to speak at a conference at Gettysburg College, when I first met W.D. Ehrhart and some other prominent Vietnam authors. We all did our presentations in the morning, and the audience and presenters consisted of a large number of professional soldiers from the nearby Army War College at Carlisle, PA. In the afternoon a nasty old Sergeant Major spoke, and he pointed to us and very specifically stated, "These whining, complaining Vietnam veterans will die off. I want to assure you, we have written the history of the Vietnam war your grandchildren will read." I have labored long and hard over the years to keep my book on the shelves and available to today's curious youngsters. Thank you so much for investigating and thinking, Laura. War is a horrible thing, and should not be glamorized. I have huge respect for veterans and all who have been impacted by wars, and I hope that someday war can be eliminated from our world. I have seen the enormous forces at work selling war as inevitable and even desirable, and I live my life in defiance of those forces. I know what I have seen, and I sincerely hope you and all your peers will never have to witness something so awful. Sorry if this is too long, but you stirred up a bunch of emotions with your questions. I hope this will be helpful. If you have additional questions, or need anything additional, don't hesitate to contact me. Good luck. I hope you get a top grade on your paper. And Happy Holidays!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of "...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam." First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.