The Vietnamization of America

The following is adapted from the R. Patricia Trickey Lecture in American Studies delivered at the Agnes Irwin School, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, in October 1994.

All in all, a good year for war buffs, said humorist Tom Lehrer of 1964-65, noting, respectively, the hundredth, twentieth, and fiftieth anniversaries of the end of the Civil War and World War II, and the beginning of World War I. In 1994-95, we have been binging on the fiftieth anniversaries of World War II victories, from D-Day to V-J Day; the twenty-fifth anniversaries of the first moon landing and Woodstock Festival; and the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Twenty-five years ago this month, I was standing knee-deep in muddy water at a particularly nasty jungle base in South Vietnam. When the waters continued to rise, we were ordered to empty all our sandbags, slog all our gear to the helicopter pad, and wait to be evacuated. Only, the choppers didn’t come-and didn’t come. The sun was going down. We were drenched and covered with filth. We had dismantled our defenses and packed up our weapons. We were naked if the enemy chose to attack. Few twenty-two-year-o& ever know despair, but we were all very near it when the choppers finally roared through the rain to rescue us, just as darkness fell.

Darkness, Never have I experienced such utter blackness, and utter silence, as in the jungle on a moonless night. It made going to the latrine an adventure, especially since, as often was the case on dark nights, the enemy was up and about, somewhere, out there.

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