Vietnam and Waiting for Westmoreland–two anniversaries

Most people, I suspect, celebrate anniversaries as special occasions. They exchange cards or gifts and perhaps go out to dinner. These anniversaries aren’t like that. They are reference points in the tapestry of life. They’re signposts of events that have significantly affected the trajectory of my existence or describe it.

My arrival in South Vietnam came fifty years ago, in September 1967. Ten years ago in September, I published the memoir, Waiting for Westmoreland (often referred to among friends as WFW and shorthanded here for reading ease).

This special feature in the Quarterly is more of an observance of those two anniversaries than a celebration of them. It’s also an announcement of a special tenth anniversary edition of WFW coming later this fall. It will feature a new cover, a foreword by an accomplished friend who’s known me for forty years, a brief preface and an expanded epilogue. Those ending words will include a few paragraphs from an update to WFW. My human revolution (a profound change in one’s character—a fundamental benefit of practicing Buddhism) continues so I must share it. The current plan calls for that book to be out two years from now but perhaps it will come sooner. I have a sci-fi novel to get out next year and another novel in 2020. This is my Third Age and I cannot relax too much.

The memories of Vietnam are as vivid as though it were last year—or even last month. Memories of sweating in the shade of tropical heat. Taking turns awake on the berm surrounding the base camp at Bear Cat, sleeping atop rock hard sandbags. Listening to the brothers talking about the two Mister Charlies they were fighting—the Viet Cong and Whitey. Watching how the drinkers and the dopers responded to nighttime alerts—the former in a daze, slowly, and the latter with no impediment. So a few months in, I joined the smokers—buying the shredded salad sized bags of marijuana that went for five dollars. Eventually I gave into the illicit sex too, in shacks with walls made of ammo crates from American munitions.

In WFW, I recounted my loss of innocence and the shattering of illusions about America’s virtue. We weren’t really there to fight for and protect those people. We were there fighting the Cold War by proxy. Fearing that the “domino effect” could mean the loss of all of Southeast Asia to Communism. Many soldiers and their superiors called the Vietnamese by racist epithets such as Gooks or slope-heads. Five American Presidents, I later learned, could have avoided the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans. But at every decision point, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon took the wrong turn. Then they lied incessantly about what was happening and why were there.

For many, that war is a tragic event—when loved ones were lost. For others, it’s the place and time when physical or psychological wounds changed their lives for years to come, if not for the rest of their lives. It changed me greatly as well, but in the end, it became a great motivating force that led me to Buddhism. It also provided a hidden cause that remained unknown to me until I began writing WFW. Why had the father of my fiancée threatened to kill the both of us if we married—or he simply found the two of us together? It came from my own thoughts during that year in Vietnam. That death threat and my response to it solidified my faith in Buddhism forever. It changed the trajectory of my life. The book I wrote ten years ago describes it all—the good, the bad and the consequences of choices we make.

 

author in Hawaii, 1968
On R & R from Vietnam, 1968

I seldom faced death directly in Vietnam. I shot at no one. But I lost the naiveté of a 20-year-old Candide. That’s what Candide means—naïve. Drafted when I was 19, just months short of entering my first quarter of college, I had no means of avoiding service. I had no bone spur in a heel to keep me from the draft. To avoid the prospect of being an infantry soldier, I took an extra year of service for training in repairing radios. I did no repair of radios in Vietnam, however, which I won’t explain in detail here, but I’ll offer an excerpt in Johns Writing about that. I have no pictures of myself in Vietnam, but there’s this one in Hawaii from April 1968. Soldiers had the opportunity to go on R&R at government expense during their tour. Upon my return, things were much more contentious among Blacks and Whites–following Martin Luther King’s assassination. 

I spent that third and final year of my military service at Fort Knox, where my sentiments about the Vietnam War were coalescing. Without a television at home, I still had discussions among fellow soldiers who did. The car radio and occasional newspapers supplied more news of Vietnam. I recalled the generals living in Quonset huts in Long Binh, with manicured lawns and drivers who ferried them about in jeeps that shined. They weren’t dying in combat like the soldiers they commanded. I remembered weapons kept locked in bunkers in base camp to protect us from one another when drugs, alcohol or racial rage might cause an incident. I thought of how we treated the locals and what the news reports said about the conduct of the war. The politicians and the military curtailed freely available TV reports in subsequent conflicts after what Americans saw happening in Vietnam.

John on the left and Pete Foley on the right in front of Minnesota Capitol
Myself and Pete Foley, who lost a leg in Vietnam, in front of the Minnesota Capitol

Five days after my discharge on October 10, 1969, I marched in my first antiwar protest. The nationwide Vietnam Moratorium Day brought out as many as five million people in cities large and small. I participated in Minneapolis. A member of the Minnesota legislature introduced a bill to prohibit sending a Minnesota resident to an undeclared war. Not likely to survive judicial scrutiny if adopted, but I and another member of VVAW lent our support.  Eventually I became a local leader in the Minnesota chapter of Vietnam Vets Against the War (VVAW). I traveled to Washington, DC in 1972 with other VVAW members from around the country to demand the war come to an end. Then President Nixon remained unmoved. Former Lieutenant John Kerry testified at Senator Fulbright’s invitation to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry, of course, went on to serve in the US Senate from Massachusetts and later as Secretary of State. 

 

Writing the Book

I had always wanted to be a writer, since my first rejection slip in second grade. My teacher sent a short story of mine to Scholastic; they chose not to print it. Before Vietnam, my college courses were going to provide the knowledge and skills to both write books and land a day job to support me if fiction didn’t. That year in Vietnam put me on a quest. I had to find a means to reclaim my idealism. I had to learn how to make the world a better place and to restore some of America’s virtue.

Years of courses in philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology and English as well didn’t supply any answers. The larger the diameter of my knowledge grew, the more the circumference of my ignorance grew. In a Humanities class, we read and studied Voltaire’s famous Candide. Well, that certainly summed up my experience. Minnesota Senator and failed presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey played the role of Voltaire’s Pangloss, referring to Vietnam as “America’s great adventure.” Well no, not exactly.

Me at a rally, pointing to where people should march

College classes were subject to disruption at any moment in response to events in Vietnam, the actions of then-President Richard Nixon or his amoral Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. In 1970, Ohio national guardsmen killed four unarmed students at Kent State University. Neil Young of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young memorialized the event the group’s song “Ohio.” The 1972 Cambodian incursion, when American troops crossed into the neighboring country to disrupt the “Ho Chi Minh Trail, led to major protests.  In Mankato, where I had transferred to students had blocked a highway. I thought it more politically sensible to march peacefully than anger local townspeople. An anarchistic professor motivated many students to continue in that vein; I argued the other way. I regarded the disruptions as a theft of my education by politicians who perpetuated the corrupt and losing war. Nonetheless, I graduated from college summa cum laude, with a GPA near 4.0.

I concluded, with no high degree of confidence that I should go to law school. At least that offered the means to change America by legal means. Potentially it offered the ability to be a writer as well. It works for some, but few people can be part time lawyers and part time writers I later learned. As I entered the third year of studies at Georgetown University Law Center, I remained uncertain of my future. After a visiting her family back in Minnesota, my second wife called to tell me she wouldn’t be returning in the fall of 1976. She had lost patience in my ever defining a future career.

I clerked at a law firm the summer after my second year at Georgetown. A secretary at the firm invited me to a party at her apartment. There, another woman who carpooled with her into DC told me about Buddhism. She clearly had something others at the party didn’t–some dynamic energy and assurance. She gave me books to read and took me to Buddhist discussion meetings. AHA! The key to changing the world for the better begins with changing oneself. What a radical concept. True, too. So when it came time to write that antiwar book, it had become a book about my quest. More importantly, the answer that Buddhism supplied–seeing things as they really are and the wisdom to know what to do with that knowledge.

So why did it take thirty more years to write WFW after I found Buddhism? I hadn’t the courage to be a starving writer. As a child, I hadn’t realized the poverty my widowed mother and I lived with. Crippling rheumatoid arthritis left her unable to work and Social Security was far from secure. So I needed that day job. Then came a family and other activities. As a procrastinator, I put it off. But by the time I retired at 55 from a local government job, I was ready to get started. I even told my former coworkers the title and it’s meaning a couple years before I left. I promised I’d write it and I did.

It took a few years to finish WFW—five years after retiring. Writing classes helped rid me of lingering legal speak (more on that later) and government speak. Essential research confirmed my conclusions about the war. I struggled with organizing the narrative. Critique groups with fellow memoir writers helped immensely. Finally, a good editor helped polish the story. I wanted to write fiction, but I simply had to get this memoir out before I moved onto anything else. Why? A novel has a story arc. So too does life. Then there’s the whole point of it. Everyone is familiar with lemons into lemonade. In Buddhism, it’s poison into medicine. You don’t have to practice the Buddhism I do in order to be happy or successful. But you will understand why I wrote this book once you read it.

Rather than reveal more of WFW in this article, I will include a variety of snippets from time to time until the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Waiting for Westmoreland appears this fall. Can’t wait? You can order the book right now in paper or eBook. Click on this link to find out where. Want to keep reading excerpts? Click on this link to John Maberry’s Writing. That’s where I’ll be featuring them. Better yet, subscribe to both the Eagle Peak Quarterly and John Maberry’s Writing so you won’t have to keep check back—we’ll send announcement links. The latter also includes short pieces of other works in progress—mostly fantasy or sci-fi but also mysteries and more.

Background on the Vietnam War

If you are over sixty you already know much about this war from living through it. If you’re under forty you may know much from classes, books or movies. Perhaps you watched the recently aired series on PBS about the war. It’s an amazing production, described in more length in the Worth Noting article in this edition of the Quarterly. Today, most people consider Vietnam the first war America ever lost. Some say if only the hands of the generals hadn’t been tied, we could have won. They’re wrong.  Don’t take my word for it. Watch the PBS series if you haven’t. Or Just read this transcript of an interview with the late David Hackworth, one of the most highly decorated officers from the Vietnam War. He explains everything an ordinary enlisted man like myself could see—all the things wrong with the American approach to the war and why it couldn’t be won.

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Acknowledgements: See photo attributions and links

3 thoughts on “Vietnam and Waiting for Westmoreland–two anniversaries

  1. Phenominal article John. I was glued! 🙂

  2. My bad, phenomenal! 🙂

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