By Jim Smith
We never even learned the way the Vietnamese write the name of their country (Việt Nam), before we lost the war.
It was 40 years ago, April 30, that TV viewers witnessed our Vietnamese lackeys being kicked away from overloaded Hueys as the helicopters fled from the land our rulers thought they could easily invade and conquer.
It was 40 years ago, that shocked Americans saw on their TV sets those same helicopters being dumped into the sea because our offshore fleet didn’t have room to park them after they had disgorged their human cargo who had begged or bribed their way out of Viet Nam.
And, it was 40 years ago that a dedicated people, who wanted nothing more than freedom and independence, regained their country from the blue-eyed invaders.
We Americans are still struggling to regain our country from the bankers and generals who forced on us so many military adventures, then and now.
This “little” adventure in South East Asia cost us 58,303 dead and 303,644 wounded physically. We all know that many thousands more were wounded emotionally. PVS – Post Vietnam Syndrome – is a serious, and often lifelong, malady.
U.S. casualties were small in comparison with those of the Vietnamese who lost more than three million soldiers and civilians. The effects of Agent Orange continue to plague those unfortunate enough to have been in this beautiful land during the Sixties and Seventies. Land mines and defoliation persist through Viet Nam.
The arrival of hoards of racist U.S. soldiers on the heels of departing, and defeated, French soldiers meant that the constant warfare inflicted on the Vietnamese by the Japanese, French and Americans would now stretch 35 years.
After so many years of atrocities, the Vietnamese must be profoundly affected. After all, Vietnamese Lives Matter. Their only consolation is that they kicked out the most powerful country in the world.
On the other hand, nearly every one in America was affected, whether they went to Viet Nam, or not. U.S. draftees in particular, hated the government that sent them through hell in an effort to “stop communism.” They found solace in Vietnamese and Thai marijuana, which they promptly imported in duffle bags when they returned home.
Meanwhile, the formerly passive youth of America had a group epiphany that it was better to live a good life here, than be taken away to Viet Nam. Street demonstrations, riots, teach-ins, student strikes, pot, psychedelics, long hair, beards, denim and radical anarchist and Marxist groups can all be traced to the insane decision to send more than half a million conscripts, and the naive, half way around the world to fight a foe that had no designs on our country.
The student strike of May 1970 shut down more than 500 universities and was the largest strike in U.S. history. Perhaps more frightening to our ruling class was the growing unreliability of the army. When the military base, where I was “serving” in 1968, was put on alert to be sent to Washington DC to quell civil disorder, all the anger and frustration of the soldiers came to the surface. In small meetings throughout the base, it was decided by the “grunts,” that we would not go, nor would we be a tool of the generals and politicians any longer. Our deployment was quietly cancelled.
We also had some good things coming out of the Viet Nam War including music, films, consciousness raising, improved race relations, and the best new media ever (including the Free Venice Beachhead). For most of the young people in America, the culture flipped upside down, seemingly overnight.
The Beachhead was a dedicated advocate for ending the war, immediately. The April 1971 issue <http://bit.ly/1IKZpr9> was one of the best ever. It was a special issue dedicated to the war in Indochina. It even had a people-to-people Treaty of Peace reproduced in full.
By 1973, U.S. forces began to withdraw. No one was surprised when the end of the war came in 1975. After years of struggle and millions of lives, Vietnam was united. Long time Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was known for saying, “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence.” The motto still rings true for those of us who care about saving Venice from the assaults of developers, whose treatment of historic Venice dwellings make them look like they were hit by bombs.
After I was “released” from the army’s clutches, me and some of my friends tried to think of a place that was the complete opposite of military life. We settled on Venice. We all arrived in the summer of ’68. Life was good. We sat on the beach, smoked a doobie or two, explored the world of psychedelics, returned to the beach for 3 a.m. romances, and generally enjoying the life we had been deprived of for two long years.
Also seeking refuge in Venice in the summer of ’68 were my fellow soldiers and friends: Johnny Jones, who still lives in Venice; Larry Green, the poet, who moved to Maine a few years ago; Louie Avila, who had a career in concert promoting in the Sixties; and also Nicky Whittle, who came cross country from Orange County and met me at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. This auspicious meeting ultimately led to her becoming the mother of my child.
After a couple of years on the beach, I co-founded the Venice Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Our chapter was active in almost every event in Venice including the Canal Festivals and the 4th of July parades. We were often called on to work security for visiting anti-war dignitaries under the mistaken impression that we must be tough guys. Our chapter’s repute rose when Ron Kovic, of “Born on the 4th of July” fame, joined our Venice group. He lived down on Hurricane Street for a number of years.
So what happened to Viet Nam after we ravaged it and left? I went to Viet Nam in 2011 and was greeted by friendliness, not the hostility I was dreading. Due to the millions who died in the “American War” and the population explosion, Viet Nam is now a very youthful country. The war that still haunts the American psyche is called “grandfather’s war” by the kids there.
Viet Nam was not “bombed back into the Stone Age,” as General Curtis LeMay reportedly urged. The country and the people give an impression of prosperity. They are well dressed and it seems that everyone in the country owns a motorbike. In fact, Viet Nam is number one in the world in motorbike ownership. When they are in motion or making a turn, the hundreds of closely packed motorbikes give the appearance of a carefully coordinated drill team, all leaning into the curve at the same angle.
Viet Nam, a third-world country, has a lower percentage of people living in poverty than does the U.S., according to the CIA Fact Book. As a country officially building socialism, Viet Nam has a large safety net including health care, housing and pensions. All this has been done without the U.S. contributing a penny in war reparations.
Now, 40 years on from our collective nightmare, we can begin to look at the war from a historical perspective. Has it had a lasting impact on American society? I would say, emphatically yes. Take a look at the oh-so-bland 1950s. Then take a look at the Sixties. There were other major events, of course. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, a Native American movement, the assassinations, the beginnings of an LGBT movement, and many more. But all of them were inextricably linked to the Viet Nam war.
The pro-war faction among the 1 percenters never learned the lesson of Viet Nam. They have continued to trample upon people’s lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and are now poking a stick at the Russian Bear. The Victory-in-Vietnam group and Lyndon Johnson’s so-call “Wise Men” have become today’s neo-conservatives – now running the country no matter who is president. They, quite simply, believe America should rule the world. That pipe dream will end up just like the Viet Nam war did, but how many more must die?
Some of the anti-war veterans returned to hum-drum lives in the corporate machine, and have bought into the ideology of this dying empire. Others still heed the words of Free Speech leader, Mario Savio: “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
And make it stop, we will – someday.Above: Huey helicopters; Photo by: Henri Huet
Below: Vietnamese woman during the American war
Both photos at the War Remanents Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
Photo by: Jim Smith