In my lifetime, we’ve gone to war, and won or lost, in a disturbingly recurring pattern: The politicians, responding to world events feel the pressure from former military and patriotic citizens, to do something. A “limited” war seems like a good idea. The military has never seen a war it didn’t like, at least in the beginning; everybody moves up a couple of ranks and the retirement piggy bank grows. The generals always promise a nice clean and short victory. Of course they know better, but are very optimistic. War, no matter how valid, moral, worthwhile, is never as clean and nice as it seems when plotted on maps, satellite images, and stoked by videos from fighter jets and tank turrets.
The limited war drags on for years, as the enemy adapts to predictable strategies. The cost in both American lives and the economy becomes burdensome to the public and they turn against the war. The politicians, quietly, order the military to scale back the war. Reducing the casualties and saving money are now the main goal, not winning the war. This is about the time the generals figure out that it is not about territory taken or body count, but winning the hearts of the civilians caught in the middle of the war. This is a war that can be won. Of course it’s too late, the play winds painfully down, and the curtain closes on yet another unfortunate outcome for the most powerful military, most powerful country in the world.
Because of our most recent travels in Asia on our tandem bicycle, I have developed a new interest in the Vietnam War, really the Indochina War of my youth. My draft board called me in 1964. I presented myself, got on a bus and taken for a physical and mental evaluation. I was just out of hospital for a bleeding ulcer. They didn’t know how to cure ulcers in those days, and they knew military food would kill me: 4F. I have always had some survivor’s guilt, partly because I have seen the toll that particular war took on many of the surviving draftees. The vets I have shared this feeling with have said I didn’t miss anything, and to let it go. I think I have. Maybe traveling there, seeing the land and the people involved has had something to do with my coming to terms with those feelings. My appreciation for anyone who fought there is deep. It was one helluva place to have to fight a war.
As Claire and I pedaled, and pushed, our tandem on one of the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, lost in the jungle with the unexploded ordnance from our massive bombing of the trail. We pushed through mud in roads cut deep by thousands of trucks bringing supplies from North Vietnam to the various fronts in South Vietnam and Cambodia. Huge bomb craters are now softened by new growth jungle, but still there, mute reminders to anyone crazy enough to go there.
Fellow traveler on a branch of the Hoh Chi MinhTrail
Wondering if you might step on a 40-year-old anti-personal bombie, still live, tends to sharpen the senses of even the most exhausted sojourner. The jungle trembled with light and dark, produced unseen, unknowable, sounds, imaginings of one of the large cats that survive still. Mostly it was a quiet jungle, far different from how it must have been during the round-the-clock bombing sorties of that time. I wondered at the men who had driven the trucks down this awful track and died there. And I wondered about the men in the B-52s overhead, wondering about the men they were killing below. We dropped as much munitions on little Laos, as in all of WWII. What most Americans don’t know is how many unexploded bombies lie still in the jungle, waiting for a rice farmer’s daughter to turn it accidentally with her foot… They severely limit the use Laotians can get from the land that lay along the Ho Chi Minh trail. At least it’s good for the wildlife.
I recently ran across a book that examines the final years of that war: “A Better War, The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam”, by Lewis Sorley. It gives a reasoned, analytical, if at times biased, view of the final years when General Creighton Abrams had command.
After we finally found our way out of the jungle to the main road between populated Laos and Vietnam, we spent our final night in Laos in the town of Tchepone. I wish I had known what strategic importance that it had held, how the overgrown Ho Chi Minh Trail we had traversed, had been the center of the most intensive anti-personnel bombing of the war, and the largest incursion by the South Vietnamese Army, with support of American air power. The only reminder of the war are fence posts made from bombs that didn’t explode, or supplemental fuel tanks dropped for the return to base. We did have a bit of trouble finding food, but our first bed in some days made up for that. As with all Laotians, the people were friendly.
We had some concerns about the border crossing into Vietnam. Claire’s passport lists her place of birth as Saigon, Vietnam. Her father was in the foreign service: security. Her birthplace drew a shocked look from one border guard, and a knowing acknowledgement by a second, no doubt noting the year, 1964, the early stages of America’s ramping up of involvement. Claire and I could have been there at the same time, she as a baby, me as a grunt or maybe a combat photographer if I’d been lucky.
As we pedaled into Vietnam on the infamous Route 9 toward Khe Sanh, the lush undergrowth and steep mountains of the highlands held a beauty that belied the violence it had seen. The jungle heals the wounds of war quickly. I still can’t imagine how we could have conceived that a war in such a place would not drag us in and strangle us. That we did as well as we did is a tribute to the grunts who did their best in impossible conditions. Abrams deserves credit for finally understanding how such a war might be won, or at least brought into stasis as in Korea. Unfortunately our military seems to find a way to hold the good guys in reserve until it’s too late. I see an amazing parallel between Gen. Abrams and Gen. David Petraeus’ view of their own wars.