Sunday, October 27, 2013

No Welcome Home: Post War Prodigals (Black Soldiers and the Vietnam War)

Recently I was reminded of the death of a colleague of mine (Harold "Light Bulb" Bryant) when  I encountered a harsh critique from an African-American soldier who had fought in Vietnam. His anger and resentment echoed in the stories I heard from Harold and from some of those recalled in the Wallace Terry book, Blood: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984).   What people so often forget is what these battle-weary men faced upon their return home. What these courageous men who fought in Vietnam expected to hear when they returned home to the United States was applause, approval and smiling faces. Instead of a heroes welcome, they were met with protesters and antagonistic liberals; who spat on them and called them baby killers. Tenacious coverage of the war by the media only served to reinforce pictures of horror and dread, and probably led to this behavior. In any event, for the men willing to sacrifice their lives and forced by a war to watch their friends and fellow soldiers die, this treatment just seemed inconceivable. Even worse, for the young African-American soldier, the Civil-Rights struggle that he left back home had yet to yield its proverbial fruits. So returning home for them was even more bitter-sweet than for their Caucasian compatriots. Add to this the noncommittal attitude that the government demonstrated towards the war effort and one can begin to appreciate the magnitude of disenchantment that these men must have experienced.
Unlike the WW2 veterans who went before them and were offered opportunities at every corner, the stereotypical response that numerous Americans had of these Vietnam War veterans was an image of defeat, drug abuse, and shame. In truth, these men had been sent to a foreign land to fight a war that the American government never resolved itself to win. The ambiguous decisions of the policymakers and their failure to fully commit to the war left thousands of families in mourning, and many more thousands of vets wondering aimlessly. In particular, black soldiers left Vietnam wondering about the struggle for equality going on in a nation that seemed somehow to neglect and marginalize them. Black soldiers were unwanted when they left, and unwanted again when they returned home, despite their gallantry in a far-away land. Nonetheless, black or white, these men faced similar difficulties, and the resultant despondency that many of them shared due to the war was widespread.
Notwithstanding the fact that America was already engrossed in political and ideological turmoil caused by the Civil-Rights movement, the entrance of the United States into Vietnam merely added another stressor upon an already strained homeland. The Civil-Rights conflict was carried over the Pacific to Vietnam. To blacks, being forced through conscription to fight a conflict against another race of people was a source of inner conflict. Muhammad Ali, who was barred from boxing due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam, summed this up well when he quipped, "no Vietcong ever called me nigger." This struggle was on the minds of these young African-American soldiers and Ali likely summed up the way many of them felt.

Further inconceivable was the disparity between the races visible in the nature of military assignments or worse, in the deliberate segregation among personnel in military units. This disparity is well expressed by the following remark in the Wallace Terry book, “We had already fought for the white man in Vietnam. It was clearly his war. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have seen as many Confederate flags as you saw. And the Confederate flag was an insult to any person that’s of color on this planet.”[1] Another soldier in Terry’s book described the agony of having witnessed white celebrations in lieu of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Such damage of the human spirit lasts for more than mere moments, as these ugly remembrances drive a nearly insurmountable wedge. Our soldiers actually brought the ugly side of the Civil Rights struggle to a foreign country.  It is inconceivable that men can be so obtuse, and yet as the stories unfold, the harsh realities stand before us, and we are again forced to face the ugly painting that is the American watercolor.
Not surprisingly, as with all wars, there are recollections of bravery, tragic loss, cruelty, humanity, and in the case of Americans in Vietnam, even racism. Conversely, despite racial tensions, there were common experiences. The most consistent themes among veterans of both races are the following: no sense of a clear objective, and the common difficulties in finding the former semblance of normalcy. The notion about the lack of a clear objective was penned several years earlier and was widely expressed among military experts. In fact, top echelon military strategists wrote that,

"Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token US armed forces in Indochina would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities."-- Joint Chiefs of Staff, 26 May 1954

This alone could serve as evidence to judge American leadership culpable for the pointless deaths of so many. Couple that with the experiences and opinions of the young men who fought in Vietnam, and we have a chilling foreshadow of the strategy that the United States was to employ there. It is frightening to imagine that long before the conscription of eighteen year old boys to fight a war in the Indochina region of Vietnam, our military brass already knew the outcome. Nonetheless, they sent men into a conflict which they knew was futile. One veteran describes his anger after hearing Westmoreland at the Vietnam War Memorial many years later, he says “And it really hurt me to see Westmoreland at the memorial, ‘cause he said that we had no intention of winning the war. What the hell was we over there for then?”[2] Herein, the expression of so many veterans could be echoed. Another significant commonality shared by these veterans, was that of not being able to adjust to civilian life. War experiences had psychologically damaged the bulk of them.
            In fact, this particular aspect of war made Vietnam somewhat unique. The clarity between who was the enemy and what was the ultimate objective became veiled in a haze. An environment of confusion and indecisiveness combined with the cruelties and the madness of war left a resounding scar on many veterans mind. Trying their best to cope and return to homeostasis did not come easy and even the simplest nuances could drive them over the edge. Veteran Harold Bryant describes his reaction to a watch that his wife had purchased being left on the dresser. He states,

“I could hear it ticking, so she would put it in the drawer. I could still hear it ticking, and I dream of helicopters coming over my house, comin’ to pick me up and take me to a fire fight. And when we get to the fire fight, they were dropping napalm on our own men. And I have to shoot our own soldiers to put them out of their misery.”[3]

Other veterans expressed the drug use to cope with the war, some of it “in country”, and more of it once back in the states. Many of them turned to alcohol as their only sense of solace. Their country had forgotten them. And as veteran Gary Canant describes of himself, “Throughout the years after Viet Nam, I paid a big price for being there. I had gotten very good at drinking to forget in Nam, and it took me eighteen years to break that habit.”[4] Obviously, the bequest the Vietnam experience afforded many of these soldiers was that of disillusionment. All of the anti-communist rhetoric had served to promote an unjustifiable and perfunctory war effort, permanently wounding many vets.
Ignoring the precepts of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu that are taught at the various military schools, the US government set out a half-hearted attempt to subdue the spread of communism. Indifferent to the effects this weak approach would have upon the young men of America, the United States sent the children of WW2 veterans into a no-win situation. Despite that Vietnam was a nation which had long since proved its resilience against the French, the U.S. decision makers still thought that they could “police-up” the communist factions within its borders. In doing so, the U.S. joined the legacy of a militaristic failure that the French had already experienced. 
Unfortunately, for the youth of the 60’s era in America, they were the disposable police force that would be asked to suffer through a pseudo-attempt to contain the spread of communism. Unfortunately, for both white and black soldiers, the failure of their government to exercise military resolution would wreak havoc on their personal and professional lives to come. Especially painful for the soldier of color was that no matter how much determination he personally endeavored to express for his homeland, it was not to be reciprocated. Theirs was a lost youth, lost on killing, lost on tears and tragedy, lost on the struggle for equality; and ultimately for these prodigals, there was no welcome wagon waiting for them, only the fight to reintegrate into a society that rejected them both for their color and their service.    

[1] Private First Class Reginald Edwards in Bloods, ed. Wallace Terry (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), pg. 12.

[2] Specialist 4 Richard J. Ford III in Bloods, ed. Wallace Terry (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), pg. 52.

[3] Specialist 5 Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant in Bloods, ed. Wallace Terry (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), pg. 27.

[4] Gary Canant  in “Dear Maxie” Web-essay, 1992. URL: < >. Accessed 22 April 2005.


Boost Metabolism said...

What a wonderful article ! A lot of great insight. Our Vietnam vets did indeed fight for no clear purpose and were treated very poorly upon their return. All of them, black, white or whatever other color, deserve much respect.

Matthew Obenritter said...

Greetings Boost Metabolism. Thanks for the feedback - my sincere apologies for the delay in responding but I have been otherwise occupied. You are quite right to mention our Vietnam veterans who so honorably risked life and limb for our nation. Recently I met a Marine who fought at Huế City (ế ). His description of events there was gut-wrenching.