By William Broyles Jr., July 10, 2019
Fifty years ago, American troops began withdrawing, but tens of thousands were yet to die.
In the summer of 1969, the first American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Their war was over, but mine was just beginning. The previous November, Richard M. Nixon had been elected president with a “secret plan” to end the war. Surely peace was near. That same month I received my draft notice. About 24,000 of the more than 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam were yet to die. I didn’t want to be one of them. No one did.
I had demonstrated against the war from the safety of my college deferment, so I thought of going to Canada. I also thought of getting a friendly doctor to say I had bone spurs or anxiety, but those choices would mean someone else from my refinery-town high school would have to go in my place.
By the time I arrived in Vietnam a year later, the rate of troop withdrawals had increased. But in Paris the peace talks were proceeding at a glacial speed. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese had died while the diplomats argued about the shape of the table. I was flown out to a platoon in the foothills of the Truong Son mountains, near where the Ho Chi Minh Trail fed North Vietnamese troops and supplies into the northern provinces of South Vietnam. We circled a blasted hilltop still smoldering from enemy mortars. Gaunt, tanned Marines in ragged fatigues moved slowly as they went about their morning rituals, heating C-ration meals and welcoming security teams back from their night positions.
Incoming troops at the Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. June 1969 Credit Jim Sterba/The New York Times
This was the Marines. These kids weren’t afraid of a fight. They would have stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima. They would have given their buddies the last drop of water and their last C-ration. They would go out under fire to bring a buddy back to safety. They would give their lives for one another. No hesitation. But would they give their lives for the diplomatic benefit of Nixon and Henry Kissinger? At the order of some hard-charging major safely back at base, who was making the most of a six-month combat posting to feather his résumé? We would die for one another, but we didn’t want to die for nothing.
President Richard M. Nixon and President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam reviewing the honor guard on Midway Island, where they announced American troop drawdowns. June 8, 1969. Credit Associated Press
More than 1,000 troops of the Third Marine Division stood in the rain waiting their turn to board the U.S.S. Iwo Jima to return to the United States. Oct. 6, 1969. Credit Bettmann/Getty Images
Looking for photos of their friends, Marines flipping through an issue of Life Magazine, which featured photos of those who had died in Vietnam. July 8, 1969.Credit Jim Sterba/The New York Times
I wished only that my own sons would not have to kill and die in such a senseless way. But after Sept. 11, my oldest son became a pararescueman, a Special Ops paramedic in the war we have been fighting for 18 years, as long as all of our 20-century wars combined. He was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. I alternated between great pride and helpless fury. I had cold sweats from thinking the car coming up the driveway was the casualty detail telling me that he had been killed. It was only then that I realized my own parents must have gone through the same thing.
We learn nothing.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times. Here’s the link: https://nyti.ms/2K4xU3L
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