Reflections In Their Own Words

If you really want to read something that expresses how I feel about my

generation, read this. I haven't found the ability yet to articulate my

full sentiments on the Boomer population that went to war, versus those who

avoided it at all costs. Fortunately, James Webb has...

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American Enterprise Magazine

August 2000

Heroes of the Vietnam Generation

by James Webb

The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great

Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from

the leading lights of the so-called ’60s generation. Tom Brokaw has

published two oral histories of "The Greatest Generation" that feature

ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct was

historically unique.

Chris Matthews of "Hardball" is fond of writing columns praising the Navy

service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for

its alleged softness and lack of struggle. William Bennett gave a

startlingly condescending speech at the Naval Academy a few years ago

comparing the heroism of the "D-Day Generation" to the drugs-and-sex

nihilism of the "Woodstock Generation." And Steven Spielberg, in promoting

his film Saving Private Ryan, was careful to justify his portrayals of

soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.

An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now

being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today’s

most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them

served. The "best and brightest" of the Vietnam age group once made

headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which

they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse to remember.

Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the "generation gap."

Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its

manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through the

magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow baby

boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the

Depression and fought the largest war in history were looked down upon as

shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.

Those of us who grew up on the other side of the picket line from that

era’s counter-culture can’t help but feel a little leery of this sudden

gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of the old

counter-culture. Then and now, the national conversation has proceeded from

the dubious assumption that those who came of age during Vietnam are a

unified generation in the same sense as their parents were, and thus are

capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.

In truth, the "Vietnam generation" is a misnomer. Those who came of age

during that war are permanently divided by different reactions to a whole

range of counter-cultural agendas, and nothing divides them more deeply

than the personal ramifications of the war itself. The sizable portion of

the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda,

and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during

the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have

claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II

generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors

were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs

in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual

exercise in draft avoidance or protest marches but a battlefield that was

just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.

Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. The men

who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. They honored

their fathers’ service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their

fathers’ wisdom in attempting to stop Communism’s reach in Southeast Asia.

The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91

percent were glad they’d served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their

time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that "our

troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in

Washington would not let them win." And most importantly, the castigation

they received upon returning home was not from the World War II generation,

but from the very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.

Nine million men served in the military during the Vietnam war, three

million of whom went to the Vietnam theater. Contrary to popular mythology,

two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were

volunteers. While some attention has been paid recently to the plight of

our prisoners of war, most of whom were pilots, there has been little

recognition of how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the

ground. Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home,

America’s citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may

never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought

incompetently on a tactical level should consider Hanoi’s recent admission

that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to

58,000 total U.S. dead. Those who believe that it was a "dirty little war"

where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most

costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought—five times as many dead as

World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed

and wounded than in all of World War II.

Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States

was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam. The baby-boom generation had

cracked apart along class lines as America’s young men were making

difficult, life-or-death choices about serving. The better academic

institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest against the war,

with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which

had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from

the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at Princeton lost

six, at MIT two. The media turned ever-more hostile. And frequently the

reward for a young man’s having gone through the trauma of combat was to be

greeted by his peers with studied indifference or outright hostility.

What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war and

possible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to

their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and

professional lives at their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of

the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, "not for fame or

reward, not for place or for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they

understood it." Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with an often

contagious land. And who deserve a far better place in history than that

now offered them by the so-called spokesmen of our so-called generation.

Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines.



1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of

American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill, as well

as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showing the pictures of 242 Americans

who had been killed in one average week of fighting. Back home, it was the

year of Woodstock, and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the

Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was

seized upon by the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the war.

Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation. Richard Nixon entered

the scene, destined for an even worse fate.

In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment was in

its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is an unpredictable

and inexact environment, but we were well-led. As a rifle platoon and

company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental

commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different

battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The company

commanders were typically captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam,

or young first lieutenants like myself who were given companies after many

months of "bush time" as platoon commanders in the Basin’s tough and

unforgiving environs.

The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn,

cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the mountains

just to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese

Army operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In

the valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were

80 percent North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every

day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridge lines and paddy dikes

were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from a hand

grenade to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in the rice paddies and tree

lines like individual fortresses, criss-crossed with trenches and spider

holes, their homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from

large-caliber artillery shells. The Viet Cong infrastructure was intricate

and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, villagers who did

not side with the Communists had either been killed or driven out to the

government-controlled enclaves near Danang.

In the rifle companies we spent the endless months patrolling ridge lines

and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire,

hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside

one’s pack, which after a few "humps" usually boiled down to letter-writing

material, towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor


We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear,

causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the

bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches

for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and

when it rained we usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos shined

under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful,

never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we

mixed daytime patrolling with night-time ambushes, listening posts, foxhole

duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were

common, as was trench foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating

back to the mud-filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five

days, where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned

defensive bunkers at night.

Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock, or

camping at the Vineyard during summer break.

We had been told while in training that Marine officers in the rifle

companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or wounded, and the

experience of "Dying Delta," as our company was known, bore that out. Of

the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was wounded,

the weapons platoon commander was wounded, the first platoon commander was

killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding

the third platoon, was wounded twice. The enlisted troops in the rifle

platoons fared no better. Two of my original three squad leaders were

killed, the third shot in the stomach. My platoon sergeant was severely

wounded, as was my right guide. By the time I left my platoon I had gone

through six radio operators, five of them casualties.

These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many other

units—for instance, those who fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or

were with the famed Walking Dead of the Ninth Marine Regiment, or were in

the battle for Hue City or at Dai Do—had it far worse.

When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with me, I

am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out of

high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in

Hell and then return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of

war but of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their

responsibilities, and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of

constant danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green

19-year-olds the intricate lessons of that hostile battlefield. The

unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar

villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. The quick certainty

with which they moved when coming under enemy fire. Their sudden tenderness

when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed help. Their willingness to risk

their lives to save other Marines in peril. To this day it stuns me that

their own countrymen have so completely missed the story of their service,

lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.

Like every military unit throughout history we had occasional laggards,

cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate these Marines were the

finest people I have ever been around. It has been my privilege to keep up

with many of them over the years since we all came home. One finds in them

very little bitterness about the war in which they fought. The most common

regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able to do more—for each

other and for the people they came to help.

It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men.

Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive

today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valor epitomizes the

conduct of Americans at war from the first days of our existence. That the

boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in our fathers’ generation

while ignoring it in our own is more than simple oversight. It is a

conscious, continuing travesty.

[Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver

Star, and Bronze Star medals for heroism as a Marine in Vietnam. His novels

include The Emperor's General and Fields of Fire.]

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Let's hope that our Vietnam Veterans get their due recognition before it is

too late. And always remember this -- Vietnam Veterans didn't get anything

but a slap in the face or a turn of the back from their peers when they

returned home. It is these same scoffing peers of Vietnam Vets who are

living the good life today -- a life of prosperity, freedom, and

self-indulgance second to none. A life paid, in great measure, with the

blood of our Vietnam Vets...