Reflections on Vietnam—50 years on
Paul A. Myers
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my return from Vietnam on February 9, 1971. The day before saw South Vietnamese troops cross the border at Khe Sanh and drive west into Laos to start the Laos Invasion. Laos became a tragically failed operation presaging South Vietnam’s eventual defeat.
What is the lasting impact of the Vietnam war? The war marked the bifurcation of post-World War II foreign policy into two tracks—one policy aimed at the advanced democratic world and the other for the developing world. It also marked the beginning of institutional lying about war by the Washington government to the American people.
President Lyndon Johnson lied to the American people about Vietnam in a way that President Harry Truman and his administration did not in the Korean War. Johnson wound up with the notorious “credibility gap,” the beginning of the erosion of trust in the government by the American people. Mistrust is now in full flood.
The two-track foreign policy. The policy for the advanced democracies has been exceptionally successful since its creation by the Truman administration in the wake of World War II. In contrast, the policy for the developing world evolving since the Vietnam War has had a high and repeated rate of failure with Afghanistan being only the most recent episode.
For Americans in the top third of the income distribution, the globalized advanced economic world has brought unprecedented income and lifestyle. Affluent Americans have been the beneficiaries of this successful foreign policy.
For the other two-thirds of America, the misallocation of expenditure in the decades since Vietnam has resulted in a hollowed out and enfeebled economy yielding low wages, zip benefits, and precarious economic security. The benefits of globalization have left two generations of Americans behind.
The lower, less unsuccessful track of American foreign policy took shape with Vietnam and has continued regardless of its lack of success ever since. Repeated failures reflect an enduring incapacity of the American foreign and national security establishments to develop constructive policies to engage with the broad range of forces of change that both evolve in and roil the developing world.
When developing world discontents coalesce into insurgent revolutionary uprisings in the developing world, the worst aspects of American policy take over. The common denominator across the developing world has been support for authoritarian regimes to suppress change, whether or not democratic or revolutionary.
The iron behind the policy comes with American military assistance missions supporting a regime’s military while other programs support repression by internal security forces. No democratic flowers bloom in this garden of repression.
Overall, the high rate of failure of America’s developing world policies is astonishing for what is otherwise a successful global power. It has left about half of America’s population deeply discontented with America’s current prospects. This division fuels the volatility behind the current division of partisan political power since it is in precarious balance, not a stable equilibrium.
The Vietnam war is enduringly relevant due to three basic lies originating in the war that have misshaped American policy ever since.
The first lie is that staying in the fight in a forever war will ultimately lead to an acceptable outcome. Just keep fighting. This is a core tenet of America’s military thinking and is now crystallized in the concept of multigeneration war as articulated by a four-star general at a recent Congressional hearing about “progress” in Afghanistan. All reports about “progress” of the Afghan government and its military forces have been lies for at least the past decade if not longer. This war, like the Vietnam war, was misconceived from the beginning.
In Vietnam, the war was not lost due to a failure to continue fighting in the1970s but because a successful strategy was not conceived and executed at the beginning of the war in the 1960s. By the 1970s, failure was inevitable because a massive American expeditionary force had been thwarted by revolutionary insurgency forces.
The second lie is that Pentagon-championed counterinsurgency war, what it terms COIN, can successfully counter and defeat the revolutionary insurgencies of the developing world. This capability was developed to met a Congressional demand for an intervention capability, not to develop an effective foreign policy tool. COIN never offered the prospect of improving stability across the developing world, rather just perpetuating the ruling status quo.
This misunderstanding of the developing world originated from American perceptions shaped by long exposure to and identification with local authoritarian elites. Congress wanted to protect the authoritarian status quo across the developing world; it does not trust change in this part of the world. That created the demand for COIN.
But centuries of western exploitation through imperialism and colonialism have left the developing world with a thirst for change. So American governing sentiment is at fundamental odds with the desire for political change across the developing world. The longer the status quo stays in place, the stronger the growth in the desire for revolutionary change. Accordingly, Americans orient towards the counterrevolutionary status quo and support local authoritarians who often arise from local militaries.
The overall result is that military assistance missions are garden hoses aimed at the forest fires of revolutionary change. In the 21st century, the United States has only seen the first Osama bin Laden, not the last. There will be more. It is going to be a long century. More ominously, future revolutionary movements like those in China and Iran will emerge and throw all the foreigners out as China did in 1949 and Iran in 1979. To say that these forces can be contained by COIN is delusional.
The third lie is that the war would have a quick end, or even an end at all. A basic tenet of American military thinking from the Civil War through World War II was that military operations should aim to end wars as quickly as possible. The stalemate on the Korean peninsula in 1953 was terminated by a truce because the adversaries perceived that a new American president, Dwight Eisenhower, would end the war one way or another even if nuclear weapons were required. But the era of forever war began in Vietnam. For the Johnson administration, the product was a series of lies about seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Forever wars are now a new and unwelcome development in American foreign policy. Lying to the American public about these wars is now routine.
Returning to the Laos invasion of 1971. The operation was conceived in Saigon and operationally planned at Camp Eagle, the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division outside of the old imperial capital of Hue. The provincial city is situated just south of what had been the border between North and South Vietnam and east of the Laotian panhandle. I was a clerk in the operations section, the office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations G-3 of the 101st Airborne at Camp Eagle.
In 1970, having been trained in infantry and electronic warfare, I was assigned as the clerk to the doctrine, organization, and training section of the operations staff. Initially, my proofreading and editing skills were valued in the world of the one-page decision memo, our section’s principal work product. The DOT section dealt with critical management issues affecting the twenty-two-thousand man airmobile division. It was also a balcony seat on the war in northern military region 1.
Good at statistics, preparation of the monthly division ammunition forecast soon came to my desk. Then the commanding general asked for a weekly set of index cards with key metrics for himself and the two assistant division commanders. “My clerk could prepare those,” said Major Herbert Koenigsbauer, our section chief. Fine came the response.
Accordingly, each week I prepared a set of cards showing the status of division’s 427 helicopters, the rifle strength in the 10 infantry battalions, the status of major weapons systems, and several other metrics.
Tracking the rifle strength in the infantry battalions was the heartbreaker. Each week a clerk from G-1, the personnel staff section, brought the data and our office simply stopped as we went through the week’s casualty statistics and the myriad ways people die in modern wars.
Later in the fall of 1970, the colonel, dissatisfied with the functioning of various administrative aspects of G-3, appointed me as acting chief operations sergeant, a sergeant major’s billet, for a reorganization and retraining effort. This appointment was over a dozen or so NCOs including a master sergeant who had three of his men reassigned for lack of efficiency. With this additional duty, I also shared with the admin officer responsibility for processing strike messages from the air force.
The strike messages were mostly B-52 Arclight strikes, which were occurring at the rate of one or two a day in northern military region 1. After receiving the messages, we delivered them to duty operations officers who would plot the coordinates on a large wall map and quickly ascertain that no friendly units were within the three-kilometer radius of the target coordinates. Then the messages were logged and put in a safe.
So I spent a fair amount of time staring at the large operations map on the wall covering the northern part of South Vietnam, much of North Vietnam and Laos, and the South China Sea. In particular, I watched the military operations underway in the northern military region north of Da Nang, south of the DMZ, and east of Laos where the 101st Airborne, the South Vietnamese 1st ARVN Division, and the American 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division operated.
My tour as chief operations sergeant was cut short when I was put fulltime on supporting Major Koenigsbauer on a comprehensive inspection of the defenses of the division’s ten fire support bases. (A a new sergeant major arrived and the colonel drolly said he would get along well with the senior NCOs—“They know the alternative.”) Major Koenigsbauer had been designated as the supervising general staff officer for the inspection by the commanding general. Several inspections per week were undertaken with about a half dozen Hueys led by the assistant division commander for operations taking off from Eagle Pad each morning on inspection. The cycle of inspection lasted a little over a month. The inspections were not just of defenses but also the health and sanitation, engineering and facilities arrangements, food and supplies—the full range of activities going on at the firebases.
Major Koenigsbauer had earlier been operations officer of the 2nd battalion, 506th infantry regiment at its pivotal battle at Firebase Ripcord in the spring-summer of 1970, the last major ground combat of the American army in Vietnam. Although the battalion had taken significant casualties, the battalion had not lost a man on the perimeter at Ripcord, a fact of which the major was quietly proud. The division-wide inspection was a successful operation and greatly improved the division’s defenses. A week or ten days after each inspection, the battalion executive officer would report back to our office on corrective measures undertaken. One could see in their faces and attitudes the sense of pride that all parties were working for the common safety, that they weren’t out on the tip of the spear all alone.
During this time, our only school-trained clerk rotated home. He had been a clerk at Headquarters, United States Army Vietnam in Saigon. A charmer, he had had an affair with an American secretary and was found out. A board of officers pronounced, “We’re not punishing you. We’re sending you to the 101st Airborne Division.” One of our clerks then added a kicker: “Why did the secretary want to sleep with a clerk rather than a USARV staff officer?” To which the chorus replied, “Because she wanted to sleep with a man, not a sycophant.”
The story got out to both officers and men at one of the barbecues held at G-3 every three or four weeks. At one of these gathering the colonel had one of his friends from Saigon visiting. He asked, “Tell us the story again.” The visiting colonel laughed, too. Everyone loved the story. Saigon was in a different place from our world.
I shifted to supervising the training NCO desk over the Christmas holidays and was pulled aside by Major Koenigsbauer and shown a one-page sheet of metrics comparing the 101st Airborne Division with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The 101st was obviously the superior performing division, but our utilization of out-of-division training was lower than the Cav’s. This deficiency was almost entirely centered on poor administration by the operations section at the 3rd Brigade. I said I understood the problem and would address it. I called up the brigade training NCO, a master sergeant, and gave clear instructions finishing with the provision that if he needed any help with any difficulty to call. I could arrange paperwork, helicopters, trucks—whatever it took.
During the next training cycle, the 3rd Brigade notoriously screwed up in a highly public way. The training NCO never called. Calm and professional, I stood up to walk over to Major Koenigsbauer and explain that this was above my pay grade. But this happy thought was intercepted by the training officer, a captain and former Special Forces NCO, who got right in my face: “What are you going to do about it?” Me?
“I’ll call the son of a bitch. At dinner time. Enlisted man to enlisted man,” I replied. So much for the brigade NCO being a master sergeant. I did and then I lost my temper and really lit in to him. The following day the brigade operations officer, a major, came barreling through the back door, “Where’s Spec 4 Myers?”
Major Koenigsbauer calmly stood up and said, “Go back to Camp Evans and fix the master sergeant or get another one.” The two majors went outside to talk. I never heard a word of reproach.
Two weeks later the 3rd Brigade operations section incorrectly put a G-3 overlay on their map establishing borders for a free fire zone. The result was a gunship attack on one of our own recon patrols, killing one and wounding several others. Our colonel, the G-3, was besides himself with anger. The deputy interjected and said that there had been other difficulties including my episode. (The colonel grumbled, “They tried to piss on the wrong Spec 4.”) With that idea, he called in the two plans clerks and the three of them practiced putting up the overlay on the colonel’s map and then he dispatched the two Spec 4s in his helicopter to Camp Evans. He called up the Brigade S-3 and said, “I’m sending two of my men with the overlay. Watch how they do it.” Other reprimands ensued; a friendly fire fatality typically brings a visit from a general officer. Later, explaining the flow of events, the deputy G-3 nodded in my direction and said, “They were warned.” We had dealt with our inefficiency; the 3rd Brigade had not.
It was with this background that I watched the colonel, the G-3, give a briefing in early February 1971 on the upcoming Laos operation. By that time, I had a good understanding of the war and terrain of northern military region 1.
The colonel finished his briefing and then turned and faced the large wall map with his back to the audience, arms akimbo, and said, “There it is.” That was the fatalistic phrase of the day among GI’s, usually spat out with a touch of scorn. An interesting choice of words from a man who had been First Captain at West Point and later chief of staff to the NATO supreme commander. He retired as a major general and commandant of cadets at West Point.
What to make of it? Not exactly like the G-3’s briefing to the staff for the Normandy invasion twenty-six years before, I thought.
For the next phase of the briefing, we gathered around another map and an intelligence officer from higher headquarters gave us the briefing. His map of the Laotian panhandle was covered with red boxes signifying enemy military units. This is the kind of map that is jokingly referred to “as having the measles.” The intelligence officer assured the group that these were all “thin skinned” supply and service units and that the South Vietnamese forces would easily cut through them and reach Tchepone in the middle of the panhandle. The goal was a massive disruption of the North Vietnamese supply routes, a “rock ‘em and sock ‘em” operation.
A G-3 captain asked, “Sir, do these supply and service units have rifles?”
Everyone loved the question. All the G-3 personnel turned and smiled at one another. The intelligence officer stammered out an answer that only deepened everyone’s skepticism. Outside after the briefing, a major with whom I had been discussing possibilities beforehand came up and said, “This is so stupid it had to have come from the White House.” Later accounts indicate both the American generals in Saigon and the White House were equally complicit and ignorant of the actual war in northern military region 1. Few Americans realize how detached the entire government in Washington is from these distant wars.
The following week I rotated back to the states but followed the Laos operation closely in the weeks and months to come. The question about whether or not the North Vietnamese supply and service troops had weapons stayed in my mind as the North Vietnamese administered an unprecedented horsewhipping of South Vietnamese forces, one soul-crushing defeat after another.
Later accounts indicated that the American generals in Saigon had gotten it backwards and attacked the North Vietnamese where they were strongest while overlooking numerous profitable opportunities to hit North Vietnamese units inside South Vietnam where they were weakest.
Of course, if you hit the North Vietnamese, they will hit back. About two months into the Laos operation, the North Vietnamese attacked a firebase in the Americal division area of operations south of the area of operations covered by the 101st Airborne. The North Vietnamese killed thirty-three American soldiers and wounded eighty-three. The battalion commander, assistant division commander, and division commander were among those relieved of duty for the fiasco. This episode powerfully drove home the life-and-death importance of the major effort put into the inspection of firebase defenses undertaken by the 101st five months before.
Returning to civilian life. I worked as an accountant at a large minicomputer company in Cupertino during the 1970s and early 80s. An interesting assignment was as vice chair of a corporate product strategy committee during a period of unprecedented technological change as microprocessor-based open source computing overthrew the established order of minicomputers and mainframes. A $2 billion-at-cost install base was rapidly going obsolescent. Other assignments included financial reporting supervision during two public offerings and a major financing plus international accounting assignments.
From computers, I moved on to chief financial officer at a medical equipment company in South San Francisco built around breakthrough developments in medical imaging physics by a top-notch group of scientists at the University of California San Francisco, a world-leading medical school. A $30 million dollar public offering launched commercial introduction of the highly advanced CAT scanner, but engineering difficulties retarding reliability dogged the marketing rollout. I eventually left over deep disagreements over whether or not to implement further reductions to conserve cash. I was also simply exhausted.
Interestingly enough, eighteen months later I was invited back when a large Japanese multinational invested $7.5 million in the struggling effort. I returned briefly on a limited engagement as a consultant and we “right sized” the company to maximize the duration of the research and development effort, the fruits of which were the Japanese firm’s principal interest. I transitioned to public accounting upon my return.
In both companies I worked with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known. One common observation is that very bright people can be quite wrong about important things much of the time because there are so many conflicting ideas of merit and strongly held opinions in the mix. Debate and controversy characterize these firms. I was often right in the middle of these melees dealing with the dollars and cents dimensions of these bet-the-firm issues. This is the world of the creative gales of destruction that toss and turn the world of capitalism. When you’re in it, it feels like being inside a washing machine.
In the Silicon Valley, group think is regularly overthrown by new think. One sees the power of insurgent technologies. By contrast, in the foreign policy and national security establishments of Washington D.C., group think endures decade after decade. Stability is prized, probably beyond reason. Paradigm shifts regularly overthrow the Washington establishment; it doesn’t process discontinuous change well. The environment has been described as impermeable group think. In that respect, Saigon in the early 1970s was a fortress city.
The collapse of Soviet communism caught the establishment unawares and it proved maladapt at reconfiguring its Cold War institutions and doctrine to a post-Cold War world of uncertain shape. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the 1990s and early 2000s which was accompanied by a powerful insurgent capability surprised the establishment. Osama bin Laden had pretty publicly told the world what he was doing and why. The wooden heads didn’t get it. In retrospect, the top officials of the Bush administration literally did not understand the words in the daily intelligence briefings provided them in the months and weeks leading up to 9/11. They were “newbies” and didn’t know how to read the maps. The intelligence was there; the perception was not. Fundamentalist insurgency and the intractability of these conflicts challenge the establishment to this day.
The old model of military assistance to autocratic regimes has rapidly become less effective, not more, as the diminishing returns of these efforts reveal the feebleness of the underlying thinking.
The question of Vietnam. Were there any alternatives in Vietnam? In the early 1960s, was maintaining an independent South Vietnam an achievable goal? If so, then why was the most effective strategy not pursued?
If South Vietnam could have been maintained as a free country, then most likely it would have become an Asian Tiger like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. That would have been a strategic success comparable to the rise of South Korea.
South Korea is the parallel case to South Vietnam. Why was one a success and the other a failure? During the 1950s, the Americans ground out a costly war in Korea and achieved a strategic win. South Korea went on to be a democratic success story as both an Asian Tiger and as a democracy, a vibrant member of the global community.
In Korea, the Truman administration kept a tight rein on its geopolitical objectives not wanting to risk wider war with either China or the Soviet Union. However, it kept a close and disciplined focus on the immediate objective of keeping South Korea territorially secure from North Korean aggression. Achieving its limited objectives—playing for a tie—American management of the Korean War allowed South Korea to go on to be one of the largest strategic victories of the Cold War.
In Vietnam, the chaotic thinking of the American national security establishment did not have its focus on securing the territorial independence of South Vietnam. The Johnson administration didn’t understand what the Americans had achieved in Korea the decade before. For a strategy to succeed, North Vietnam had to be cordoned off from South Vietnam north of the demilitarized zone (the DMZ) and in Laos. You did not achieve decisive results by pouring troops into the territory south of the DMZ, but rather by putting troops in north of the DMZ and threatening the North Vietnamese regime with collapse. The Americans defined the conflict as an insurgency situation in the south that they could never win rather than a conventional military operation in the north that they could. The existential risk was either Soviet or Chinese intervention. But if that was the risk that checkmated American initiative, then the US should have never escalated in the south in the first place. Some other strategy would have had to be pursued.
Could an outcome similar to South Korea been achieved in South Vietnam in the 1960s? It is of course a counterfactual case whose contours can only be guessed at. The central question of the counterfactual is: what was required to keep South Vietnam independent?
Probably the same conditions that kept South Korea independent would have worked in South Vietnam. What worked in Korea was the physical sequestration of South Korea away from infiltration, subversion, and attack by North Korea. Could the United States have interposed sufficient force between North Vietnam and South Vietnam to ensure the South’s continued independence in a similar manner?
The key would have been sequestering South Vietnam from North Vietnam by installing an occupying military force north of the DMZ. US military power could have threatened the Hanoi regime with extinction while sealing off South Vietnam from further interference. The North Vietnamese panhandle could have been occupied and the entire track of the war strategically recast. American military forces could have moved up the Laotian and North Vietnamese panhandles incrementally, testing overall Communist cohesion and stressing the Soviet-China-North Vietnamese relationship. The negotiations would be on the North Vietnamese side of the negotiating table; what was theirs would have been what was at risk.
The US had significant naval, air, and ground military power deployable to the Far East that could have supported a joint military-diplomatic initiative to thwart North Vietnamese aggression. There was a startling lack of strategic imagination in Washington by the “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. The tools were there to achieve the desired strategic end. But there was an impenetrable group think around formulating a militarized foreign policy strategy around counterinsurgency, a groupthink that persists to this day.
If the US was not going to seriously coerce the North Vietnamese on their home ground, then some entirely different approach should have been taken. But that would have taken fresh and original thinking, qualities lacking in 1960s Washington.
In short, in South Vietnam the conception for deployment of force was wrong from the beginning. This failed approach continues to be the military assistance model pursued by the Pentagon today—go in and prop up weak and corrupt regimes with military assistance.
Inevitably, these Pentagon efforts fail when the supported regime is tested by a strong insurgency. These regimes typically lack public support due to pervasive corruption at the top. The civilian leadership at the Pentagon sleepwalks from an ill-thought-out humanitarian mission in Somalia to a misconceived intervention in Afghanistan to a destabilizing invasion of Iraq.
In the both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, strategically inept civilian leadership in both the White House and Pentagon divided a small land army between two land wars on the Eurasian landmass in a public display of strategic thinking at its worst.
It should be no surprise that the Pentagon is warlike. What is surprising is the inability of high civilian leadership to assess the unique characteristics of different situations independently of interventionist-oriented military thinking. In fact, independent foreign policy thinking separate from a militarized perspective is rare in Washington. The National Security Council inside the White House is designed to insure military thinking is integrated into all policy formulation, not separated out and kept distinct as a last-resort option.
Vietnam legacy—a two-track foreign policy. What are the consequences today of the loss of the Vietnam War? What evolved out of the Vietnam war was a two-track foreign policy resulting in two Americas with two different economies—one cosmopolitan and affluent and the other insular, noncompetitive, and left behind.
The cosmopolitan and affluent policy is that of international security alliances and deep trade and international economic relationships with the other advanced democratic economies. This policy has been exceptionally successful. The top one-third of the US income distribution has benefited enormously and continues to prosper.
The affluent-centered policy was subsequently captured by powerful wealth-concentrating interests starting in the Reagan years through the use of political contributions. The political contribution game is now dominated by about one hundred families exercising iron-grip control over the US Senate and its subordinate body, the Supreme Court.
Today, the concentration of political power in Washington is even more extreme than the concentrations in the income and wealth in the country at large. Money dominates elections; voters don’t control financial interests in the least. Overall, the affluent top third of American society have been beneficiaries of the globalization fostered by the advanced globalized economy world of the OECD countries. But in America, unlike in other OECD countries, the benefits have not been widely shared across society. The American lesson is that highly concentrated political power highly concentrates the economic benefits of public policy.
The second track of American foreign policy is a highly militarized interventionist policy towards the developing world based on military power projection. The projection of power maintains an “empire” of corrupt and authoritarian regimes across the developing world. In particular, the interventionist policy has focused on insurgent hotspots across the entire Muslim world. The US may be leaving Afghanistan, but it continues to be highly engaged across the Muslim world.
The interventionist foreign policy across the developing world has resulted in trillions of dollars of misallocation of expenditure away from the US domestic economy. This has occurred at the same time as domestic fiscal policy through massive tax cuts and borrowing was shifting wealth to the top one percent. The opportunity costs are enormous.
The American working and middle class have paid the opportunity costs for this gigantic misallocation through stagnating living standards and erosion of personal financial and social security. For the lower two-thirds of the income distribution, income has not been earned, wealth not accumulated, houses not built, better communities not created, children not educated. There has been massive underinvestment at home and elite profligacy abroad.
Law of democratic governance. In a representative democracy, concentration of wealth concentrates failure because the narrow interests of the super-rich contradict the needs of the many for broad-based growth. The US cannot continue its multi-decade-long, hydra-headed policy of wealth concentration at home and trillion-dollar empire abroad and not expect a reckoning with its voters. Dissatisfactions arising from the current politics are going to break up the old politics. The half-century long era of a bifurcated foreign policy is coming to an end. The era of public tolerance for forever wars is coming to an end. The new will emerge from the wreckage of what has gone on before.
Today, a large part of the politics at home is one of angry populism centered around rejectionist politics aimed at subverting much of what the government does. For now, the Washington establishment is able to perpetuate the trillion-dollar national security budgets, but for how long? It is a frightened and insecure nation that moves forward in the decade of the 2020s to meet the challenges of pervasive adverse climate change. The new challenges may result in a more insular attitude towards interventionist policies abroad. Major shifts in budget priorities will lead the United States to start shrinking its capacity for power projection abroad and the Pentagon empire that enables it.
A turning point is coming because the costs of adapting the sprawling US economy to the shocks of adverse climate change promise to be large. Trillion-dollar expenditures are anticipated and soon the cost projections for adaptation will be even larger than those for mitigation. Adaptation will have a greater sense of public urgency since bad things will be happening right in people’s backyards. One might expect new coalitions to form and a new consensus to evolve around the shifting politics of a shifting physical world.
This era of change is likely to be a political bucking bronco, a wild horse to ride. It is a rare renewal that is not born out of crisis.
Postscript. February 9, 1971. Return from Vietnam
After a scratchy flight down from Phu Bai on a C 130 transport plane, our detachment of about fifty infantrymen, helicopter mechanics, crew chiefs, engineers, artillerymen, and clerks were herded into a reception shed. The permanent party personnel informed us we were going to be held over and put on detail. This brought forth insurrection and the threat of serious violence. (“We’ll only have to kill one of the REMFs for the other guys to get the message!” A REMF being a rear echelon mother friendly guy. Other soldiers started working on dislocating the timbers holding up the tin roof, giving it the same professional attention as if they were blowing an LZ out in the jungle.)
MPs were called and we were rounded up and put in formation outside under guard. The permanent party found a 101st infantry officer in the officers’ lounge and he proceeded to give us a ritualistic chewing out notable for puns and black humor. He finished with the assurance that the permanent party said that if we peacefully processed through the shed behind us that we would be on an airliner heading back to the States in an hour. With hoots and hollers we fell out and began processing.
A little over an hour later we were sitting in the back of a five-ton tractor trailer, what the military calls a cattle car, out in the far reaches of Cam Ranh Bay airbase flanked by MP gun jeeps front and back. Soon a big Continental airliner landed and pulled up to a stop. The truck swerved over and came to a stop in front of a boarding ladder which was rapidly wheeled up to the rear cabin door, which simultaneously swung open.
A platinum blonde stewardess stepped out onto the boarding ladder, squinted, and took in the MP gun jeeps, then the ubiquitous 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagle shoulder patches (we were the only division in Vietnam that didn’t wear the subdued shoulder patches), and turned and called out over her shoulder to the stewardesses crowded behind her, “Oh no, not these guys—again!”
We scampered up the ladder and took our seats. Buses came out and disgorged more returnees until the plane was full. The plane then whoosed off into the sky. Most of us slept all the way to McChord air force base in Washington. It had been a long and anxious year.
All rights reserved by Paul A. Myers 2021.