Mike Murry, a veteran contributor to Bewildering Stories and Navy veteran, explains his feelings about the war in Vietnam, which are often reflected in his poetry. Mike’s letter comes on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive of 1968, perhaps the major turning point in the war.
Getting the Point and Getting the Girl
by Michael Murry
Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce defined two key concepts in his Devil’s Dictionary (1911):
Patriot. n. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
Patriotism. n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name.
I can relate to those bitter sentiments.
As you know from long acquaintance with me and my jaundiced views, I had the meaning of “patriotism” taught to me by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger. Toward the end of his book, The Best and the Brightest (1969), David Halberstam writes of Dr. Kissinger telling a group of visiting Asians:
“We will not repeat their mistakes. We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the moment. One thing though -- Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the same mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For, step by step, they repeated the mistakes of the past.
Although Halberstam’s book was published in 1969, I did not read it until I had come back from Vietnam, gotten out of the Navy, and resumed my college education in February of 1972. Free at last from nearly six years of indentured military servitude — the last eighteen months of it spent languishing in the southernmost regions of the Mekong Delta — I was loading up on courses in Japanese and Chinese in preparation for heading back to Taiwan as a highly motivated foreign exchange student hot on the trail of a Chinese girl I had met on my last R&R from Vietnam in the final week of December 1971.
My curriculum in the Fall of 1972 included a course in Sino-American Relations, and my professor — knowing of my status as a recently discharged Vietnam veteran — assigned me a paper to write comparing the failed U.S. military intervention in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) with the failed-and-still-failing U.S. military intervention in the two Vietnamese wars of national liberation: the first, against the French (1945-1954); and the second, against the Americans (1954-1972). The second war was still ongoing at that time.
For my principal sources I chose:
The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam;
Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, by Frances FitzGerald;
and Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman.
When asked by my professor to give a succinct summary of my paper, I said something like: “Change the Chinese names to Vietnamese names and the story reads the same. And nothing about the American names changes anything.”
I didn’t have access to one particular book that I might have also used as a source. Three years earlier, in 1969, I had read Bernard Fall’s book Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina (1964) as part of my study material at Counter-Insurgency School at Coronado Island, San Diego, a year before deploying to South Vietnam as a military adviser.
One of Bernard Fall’s conclusions has always stuck in my mind:
The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon.
The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-economic aspects were.
I remember my shock at reading that in a U.S. Navy classroom back in the late summer of 1969. As an enlisted man, I could not express my mutinous thoughts out loud, but I had to ask myself:
“Do you officers mean to tell me that after four years of secondary school, one year of college, and three years in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club, that I have to spend the next two years — at least — fighting a war that we had already lost back during my freshman year of high school?”
And so I would watch the pathetic conclusion of this desultory debacle from afar: first from Taipei, Taiwan through 1972-73, and then back in the U.S. through 1974-75, when the U,S. Congress simply cut off military funding for any further presidential misadventuring in Southeast Asia, something Congress could have done during my freshman year of high school, fourteen years earlier.
Oh, well. At least I got the girl.
© Copyright 2018 by Michael Murry