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How the Tet Offensive Broke America

Published on: March 4, 2018

Filed Under: Featured

Views: 390

Photo: An American soldier during a mortar attack in South Vietnam in 1971. Credit: Associated Press.

This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.

By Donald Kirk.

For the soldiers and marines in “the field” in South Vietnam — that is, anywhere outside towns and major bases — there were “our gooks” and “their gooks.”

The word “gook,” a hangover from the Korean War, no doubt had a racist, contemptuous tone, but in the Vietnam context, it also connoted a certain futility, a sense of resignation. As the war dragged on, to many men on the ground, it didn’t really matter which side won, good guys or bad guys. They wanted to survive their one-year tour and go home.

The distinction between friend and foe blurred after the Tet 1968 offensive. Until then, chatting with G.I.s in the field and back in Saigon and other urban centers, I had an impression of support, if not exactly enthusiasm, for whatever they were doing. They tended to believe what they were told, that the war was just and, yes, that our side was winning. Young draftees derided antiwar demonstrators as “draft dodgers,” notably those who escaped the draft using college deferments. They might not have liked serving in Vietnam, but they accepted it.

By 1971, soldiers openly expressed their opinions about the war. Credit Associated Press

Attitudes began to change markedly as President Lyndon Johnson, after Tet, halted the bombing of North Vietnam and opened negotiations with the enemy, both the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong insurgents. It wasn’t as though soldiers suddenly saw Johnson turning his back on them. Rather, it became clear, as the war ebbed back and forth, that American forces were not going to “fight to win.”

I wrote about the shift in attitudes in a story that ran in The Washington Star in November 1969, reporting, “The worn-out cliché of generals and master sergeants that ‘morale over here is great’ no longer seems to apply to men in the field.” Rather, “Unlike the veterans of previous tours in Vietnam, many of those here now say the United States should get out — as quickly as possible.” More than 20 years later, Winant Sidle, the general in charge of public affairs for the military in Vietnam at the time, told William Hammond, author of “Reporting Vietnam: Media & Military at War,” that my reporting was “so negative and inaccurate” as to have “caused continual problems for the Military Assistance Command.”

I am not sure whether to be proud, puzzled or disappointed to have so distressed General Sidle. I rather liked the man, with whom I had many conversations, but I never convinced him of what I had seen and heard since Tet, and how much that compared with what I’d seen before the offensive.

In those early years of Vietnam, there was still a feeling that eventually it would be over and won. Not that I didn’t see some brutal, stomach-churning stuff. On an operation south of Danang in November 1967, I watched marines attack a village from which they had been ambushed the day before. One marine officer, responsible for calling in airstrikes on much of the village and then for providing food and aid for survivors, grinned when he gave me a memorable line, “First I annihilate them, then I rehabilitate them.”

It seems almost beside the point to say that the men I encountered in these sorts of operations were in relatively good spirits. They believed in what they were doing — or, at least, believed what they were doing would win the war. After Tet, the violence and brutality continued, but it came from a different place — frustration, anger, resignation, nihilism. After all that destruction, for the enemy to mount such a widespread, if strategically futile, campaign spoke to the great distance between the generals’ grand pronouncements about “light at the end of the tunnel” and the reality on the ground.

The Tet attacks also coincided with the arrival of a new type of G.I., men who had witnessed or heard about antiwar activism and rising drug use back home, experiences they brought with them to Vietnam. Drug use, in particular, reached epidemic proportions in the years after Tet. The decline in morale intersected with a growing trade in heroin, sold in vials of white powder purveyed by roadside hucksters outside bases.

Violence, threatened or actual, against officers became common too. Not infrequently, officers found grenade pins on their bunks — a warning of the “fragging,” or detonation of a fragmentation grenade, that might befall them for hassling their men, especially about drugs — i.e., for acting like officers.

In the summer of 1971, working on an article for The New York Times Magazine, I visited American bases and walked with troops on jungle patrols along with a photographer, David Terry. My angle was also the eventual title of the piece: “Who Wants to Be the Last American Killed in Vietnam.” Tensions among the troops was like nothing I had ever seen before Tet. Men in the field derided support personnel as “remfs,” or rear-echelon — well, you can guess the rest of the acronym. The letters “F.T.A.,” a similarly crude term aimed at the entire Army, were painted on rocks, etched in barrack walls, scrawled in latrines. Black G.I.s shook fists in black power salutes. Antiwar protest crossed racial lines. G.I.s in a simmering state of resentment flashed the “V” sign — not for “Victory,” but for “Peace.”

Col. Rutland Beard, commander of a brigade of army troops with headquarters on “Freedom Hill,” a promontory near Danang, understood his men. “We should have been out of here two years ago,” he told me in 1969. “Let some other people police up the world.” Those were words you never heard pre-Tet.

 

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