The Vietnam Generation

James Webb


The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the 
 Great Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a 
 send-off from the leading lights of the so-called 60s generation. 
 Tom Brokaw has published two oral histories of "The Greatest 
 Generation" that feature ordinary people doing their duty and 
 suggest that such conduct was historically unique.

 Chris Matthews of "Hardball" is fond of writing columns praising 
 the Navy service of his father while castigating his own baby 
 boomer generation for its alleged softness and lack of struggle. 
 William Bennett gave a startling condescending speech at the Naval 
 Academy a few years ago comparing the heroism of the "D-Day 
 Generation" to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the " Woodstock  
 Generation." And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film "Saving 
 Private Ryan," was careful to justify his portrayals of soldiers 
 in action based on the supposedly unique nature of World War II.

 An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II 
 generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a 
 conflict which today's most conspicuous voices by and large 
 opposed, and in which few of them served. The "best and brightest" 
 of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their 
 parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, 
 which has become the war they refuse to remember.

 Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the "generation 
 gap." Long, plaintive articles and even books were written 
 examining its manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed 
 precocious wisdom through the magical process of reading a few 
 controversial books, urged fellow baby boomers not to trust anyone 
 over 30. Their elders who had survived the Depression and fought 
 the largest war in history were looked down upon as shallow, 
 materialistic, and out of touch.

 Those of us who grew up, on the other side of the picket line from 
 that era's counter-culture can't help but feel a little leery of 
 this sudden gush of appreciation for our elders from the leading 
 lights of the old counter-culture. Then and now, the national 
 conversation has proceeded from the dubious assumption that those 
 who came of age during Vietnam are a unified generation in the 
 same sense as their parents were, and thus are capable of being 
 spoken for through these fickle elites.

 In truth, the " Vietnam generation" is a misnomer. Those who came 
 of age during that war are permanently divided by different 
 reactions to a whole range of counter-cultural agendas, and 
 nothing divides them more deeply than the personal ramifications 
 of the war itself. The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group 
 who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and 
 especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military 
 during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who 
 for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much 
 like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a 
 side show, college protesters were spoiled brats who would have 
 benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their 
 tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in 
 draft avoidance, or protest marches but a battlefield that was 
 just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and 

 Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. 
 The men who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. 
 They honored their father's service by emulating it, and largely 
 agreed with their father's wisdom in attempting to stop 
 Communism's reach in Southeast Asia .

 The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris,
 1980) showed that 91 percent were glad they'd served their 
 country, 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service, and 89 
 percent agreed with the statement that "our troops were asked to 
 fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not 
 let them win." And most importantly, the castigation they received 
 upon returning home was not from the World War II generation, but 
 from the very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for 

 Nine million men served in the military during Vietnam War, three 
 million of whom went to the Vietnam Theater. Contrary to popular 
 mythology, two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of 
 those who died were volunteers. While some attention has been paid 
 recently to the plight of our prisoners of war, most of whom were 
 pilots; there has been little recognition of how brutal the war 
 was for those who fought it on the ground.

 Dropped onto the enemy's terrain 12,000 miles away from home, 
 America 's citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality 
 that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was 
 fought incompletely on a tactical level should consider Hanoi 's 
 recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the 
 battlefield, compared to
 58,000 total U.S. dead.

 Those who believe that it was a "dirty little war" where the bombs 
 did all the work might contemplate that is was the most costly war 
 the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought-five times as many dead as 
 World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total 
 killed and wounded than in all of World War II.

 Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the 
 United States was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam . The 
 baby-boom generation had cracked apart along class lines as 
 America 's young men were making difficult, life-or-death choices 
 about serving. The better academic institutions became focal 
 points for vitriolic protest against the war, with few of their 
 graduates going into the military. Harvard College, which had lost 
 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in Vietnam from 
 the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at 
 Princeton lost six, at MIT two. The media turned ever more 
 hostile. And frequently the reward for a young man's having gone 
 through the trauma of combat was to be greeted by his peers with 
 studied indifference of outright hostility.

 What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues 
 of war and possible death, and then weighed those concerns against 
 obligations to their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted 
 their personal and professional lives at their most formative 
 stage, in the timeless phrase of the Confederate Memorial in 
 Arlington National Cemetery , "not for fame of reward, not for 
 place of for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they 
 understood it." Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with 
 an often-contagious elan. And who deserve a far better place in 
 history than that now offered them by the so-called spokesman of 
 our so-called generation.

 Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my 
 1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam . Second only to 1968 in 
 terms of American casualties, it was the year made famous by 
 Hamburger Hill, as well as the gut-wrenching Life cover story 
 showing pictures of 242 Americans who had been killed in one 
 average week of fighting. Back home, it was the year of Woodstock , 
 and of numerous anti-war rallies that culminated in the Moratorium 
 march on Washington . The My Lai massacre hit the papers and was 
 seized upon the anti-war movement as the emblematic moment of the 
 war. Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation.

 Richard Nixon entered the scene, destined for an even worse fate. 
 In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment 
 was in its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is 
 an unpredictable and inexact environment, but we were well led. As 
 a rifle platoon and company commander, I served under a succession 
 of three regimental commanders who had cut their teeth in World 
 War II, and four different battalion commanders, three of whom had 
 seen combat in Korea . The company commanders were typically 
 captains on their second combat tour in Vietnam , or young first 
 lieutenants like myself who were given companies after many months 
 of "bush time" as platoon commanders in he Basin's tough and 
 unforgiving environs.

 The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam , 
 its torn, cratered earth offering every sort of wartime 
 possibility. In the mountains just to the west, not far from the 
 Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army operated an infantry 
 division from an area called Base Area 112. In the valleys of the 
 Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were 80 percent 
 North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every 
 day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridgelines and 
 paddy dikes were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every 
 size, from a hand grenade to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in 
 the rice paddies and tree lines like individual fortresses, 
 crisscrossed with the trenches and spider holes, their homes 
 sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from large-
 caliber artillery shells. The Viet Cong infrastructure was 
 intricate and permeating. Except for the old and the very young, 
 villagers who did not side with the Communists had either been 
 killed or driven out to the government controlled enclaves near 

 In the rifle companies, we spent the endless months patrolling 
 ridgelines and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of 
 tents, barbed wire, hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were 
 limited to what would fit inside one's pack, which after a few 
 "humps" usually boiled down to letter-writing material, towel, 
 soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio.
 We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and 
 gear, causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body 
 weight while in the bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep 
 fighting holes and slit trenches for toilets. We slept on the 
 ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and when it rained we 
 usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos shined under 
 illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was 
 fitful, never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at 
 a time as we mixed daytime patrolling with night-time ambushes, 
 listening posts, foxhole duty, and radio watches. Ringworm, 
 hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were common, as was trench foot 
 when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating back to the mud-
 filled regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five days, 
 where rocket and mortar attacks were frequent and our troops 
 manned defensive bunkers at night. Which makes it kind of hard to 
 get excited about tales of Woodstock , or camping at the Vineyard 
 during summer break.

 We had been told while training that Marine officers in the rifle 
 companies had an 85 percent probability of being killed or 
 wounded, and the experience of "Dying Delta," as our company was 
 known, bore that out. Of the officers in the bush when I arrived, 
 our company commander was wounded, the weapons platoon commander 
 wounded, the first platoon commander was killed, the second 
 platoon commander was wounded twice, and I, commanding the third 
 platoons fared no better. Two of my original three-squad leaders 
 were killed, and the third shot in the stomach. My platoon 
 sergeant was severely wounded, as was my right guide. By the time 
 I left, my platoon I had gone through six radio operators, five of 
 them casualties.

 These figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many 
 other units; for instance, those who fought the hill battles 
 around Khe Sanh, or were with the famed Walking Dead of the Ninth 
 Marine Regiment, or were in the battle of Hue City or at Dai Do, 
 had it far worse.
 When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them 
 with me, I am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent 
 civilians barley out of high school, called up from the cities and 
 the farms to do their year in hell and he return. Visions haunt me 
 every day, not of the nightmares of war but of the steady 
 consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities, 
 and of how uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant 
 danger. The salty, battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green 19-
 year-olds the intricate lessons of the hostile battlefield. The 
 unerring skill of the young squad leaders as we moved through 
 unfamiliar villages and weed-choked trails in the black of night. 
 The quick certainty when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed 
 help. Their willingness to risk their lives to save other Marines 
 in peril. To this day it stuns me that their own countrymen have 
 so completely missed the story of their service, lost in the 
 bitter confusion of the war itself.

 Like every military unit throughout history we had occasional 
 laggards, cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate, these 
 Marines were the finest people I have ever been around. It has 
 been my privilege to keep up with many of them over the years 
 since we all came home. One finds in them very little bitterness 
 about the war in which they fought. The most common regret, almost 
 to a man, is that they were not able to do more for each other and 
 for the people they came to help.

 It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these 
 men. Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. 
 I am alive today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such 
 valor epitomizes the conduct of Americans at war from the first 
 days of our existence. That the boomer elites can canonize this 
 sort of conduct in our fathers' generation while ignoring it in 
 our own is more than simple oversight. It is a conscious, 
 continuing travesty.
 *********** Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb was awarded 
 the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star medals for heroism as 
 a Marine in Vietnam . His novels include The Emperor's General and 
 Fields of Fire.