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THE SECOND MONTH I was in Vietnam I took a transport plane from Bien Hoa up to Cam Ranh Bay to conduct some business for my company. I eventually had to go to Nha Trang and Cam Ranh was the staging point for traffic flying north.
Looking down as we made our approach I saw a huge sprawl of buildings--arranged by some methodical mind that must have paid meticulous attention to right angles. Some 40,000 men were stationed at Cam Ranh in 1968 and the base had every sort of facility: stores, clubs, hospitals, restaurants, steambaths, bars, barracks, airfields, laundries and row upon row of little air-conditioned hootches for Air Force pilots.
Planes landed at Cam Ranh every six minutes; ships unloaded millions of tons of supplies there monthly; hundreds of thousands of soldiers flew into the base to be reassigned to the northern parts of South Vietnam. It was incredible to me then that three years before there had been nothing there but white sand and the startling blue water of the South China Sea.
Last month I talked with a reporter who was in Cam Ranh about six months ago. Sand drifts are covering the roads now, packs of wild dogs roam around the post and the 5000 beds of the 12th Evac Hospital are all empty. The street lights still turn on automatically every evening.
It is difficult for me to imagine Cam Ranh Bay deserted and even more difficult to imagine Vietnam without Americans. The war and the country became real to me the moment I arrived and saw Americans everywhere.
Vietnam stopped when I left in 1970. A week later I was skiing at Lake Tahoe, tan in the middle of February, and already my mind could not embrace the idea that the war still went on.
VIETNAM FOR ME had not been an historical lesson, or an example of American imperialism, or even a catastrophic event. It had been an intensely personal and overwhelmingly subjective experience which intruded on me and was suddenly over--with no apparent meaning or logic to it.
I did not know what to make of those one and a half years and so I froze the images I had stored up and shoved them to the back of my mind. They meant nothing to anyone and were irrelevant entering Harvard.
But my mind would not allow me to play that kind of game for long, and neither would the people around me. I was forced, by myself and others, to try to arrive at the meaning of the experience.
I immediately had to face the question of guilt. I might have said that I was a victim--that Vietnam happened to me rather than the opposite--but then the question became, "Did you never perform an affirmative act that contributed to the suffering of the Vietnamese?" And I, and all the others who did not go to Canada, must answer yes.
So for me there is a studied ambivalence in all my attempts to come to grips with the war. And in that respect I feel kinship with Frances FitzGerald and admiration for her attempt to bridge the gap between personal experience and historical resolution in Fire in the Lake.
FitzGerald went to Vietnam as something I was not. She was a trained journalist, to whom history was important and she saw more than I or most Americans the abyss between what was told and what was happening. She felt early a responsibility to describe the illegitimacy of the American intervention.
After a time she felt that to merely report about the war did not resolve the dilemma of Vietnam and she, unlike most of us there, could not shove those questions aside.
FitzGerald became dissatisfied with the role prescribed for her. She was like all of us in one way: confined by her white skin and "round eyes" to certain areas at certain times of day. All Americans found out quickly that going after the truth about Vietnam was the hardest thing of all.
How could we seriously attempt to analyze a country that, for all intents and purposes, changed hands every 12 hours? By day Americans could, for the most part, go where they wished; by night we huddled inside thousands of perimeters all over the country, straining to see the enemy out there who could suddenly do us great damage and, just as suddenly, disappear.
I spent a good deal of my tour in Long Binh, just outside of Bien Hoa. It was a huge logistical installation where nearly 50,000 men lived and worked. It was a complete American community that only lacked American women.
Every afternoon a hundred Vietnamese pimps would drive through the post with heavily made-up whores perched on the backs of their motor bikes. They would drive back and forth, reminding me of cruising the beach in high school, until they were hailed by some G.I. We were unable to reconcile the existence of those prostitutes with the majority of Vietnamese women who wouldn't even deign to notice an American soldier, much less end up in his bed.
We sat in our enclaves and carried out the business of war. When we went out we went armed and afraid into the midst of a people we did not know or understand. We were the inhabitants of so many American islands in the sea of Vietnam.
The country was chaotic. Frances FitzGerald was in Saigon the same time that I was. The city was all confusion. Americans were everywhere and stuck together, meeting only other Americans and those Vietnamese who, for one reason or another, were compelled to deal with our self-sufficient and insulated enclaves.
Saigon's population tripled in ten years. Refugees poured into the city, pushing its edges outward every year and straining the capacities of a pre-industrial urban center to the breaking point. The city had a huge, white presidential palace at its center and rows of homes made entirely of flattened Budweiser beer cans on its outskirts.
STREET HIERARCHIES formed and a class of wild, homeless kids called Cao Bois grew up who beat and rolled American soldiers. Thu Do street had the largest collection of bars and bordellos in Vietnam--less than a half mile from Nguyen Van Thieu's home. Monks burned themselves in the streets; soldiers bought bar girls Saigon Tea for two bucks a shot and got blown up by bicycles laden with explosives; NLF agents lived next door to petty government officials. Hundreds of crippled war veterans angrily confronted the state with demands for housing and health care, descending on the presidential palace, in wheelchairs and on crutches, like some surreal army. It was all to much for Americans to think about.
We drove through Cholon and saw block after block of devastated buildings. Cholon and Gia Dinh had been the operations bases for the NLF battalions attacking Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive. U.S. fire had leveled both districts in the counter-attacks. We had burned out villages and shot women and children and then built orphanages for the orphans we had made. Only whorehouses sprang up as fast as orphanages during the war.
All of us kept sheets with days-to-go numbered on them; everybody knew how long he had before returning to "the world." We used to call the silver passenger jets that took off for the States from Bien Hoa "freedom birds."
The jets carried soldiers out of the misery and chaos of the war. They were a route to freedom from the guilt, anxiety, and loneliness of Vietnam and a return ticket to the sanity of the real world. All of us knew something was dreadfully wrong and longed, beyond simple homesickness and fatigue, to leave. We all thought, incorrectly, that departure meant release. We felt no certainty and conviction that the war was just. Most Americans feel defensive and guilty about Vietnam now, but it is a myth that those who fought are in a better position to judge the war. Our isolation within the country precluded any meaningful judgments.
War is, for soldiers anyway, a process of going temporarily insane, of learning to accept the grotesque and the illogical as commonplace. So we learned to feel about the deaths of ourselves and the Vietnamese like people do about car accidents. It was horrible but it happened. Our main concerns were staying alive, out of jail, and getting home.
We had no compulsion to think about Vietnam in FitzGerald's terms. We were not required to analyze and objectify about Vietnam; we had no reason to justify or condemn the U.S. involvement. On the contrary, we were supposed to be fiercely subjective and we were. Nevertheless, the questions troubled us and if you had asked--as we fought and worked the way we were supposed to--we would have said, "It's rotten; somebody's getting screwed."
Fire in the Lake failed to dent the barriers in my mind that prohibit objective thinking about the war. The book was too mystical and detached to have anything to do with the country I remember.
Vietnam is still frozen in my mind. Five hundred thousand American soldiers still systematically ravage the countryside. We have come home now and the war only bothers us now and then, in our sleep or when curious people want to know what really happened. And all most of us can say is that somebody got screwed.
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