Book review
Our War--What We Did in Vietnam and What it Did to Us, by David Harris
Scott Camil
April 1997

I found David Harris's book, Our War -- What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us, (Times Books, 1996) to be relevant, easy to read and right on the money. David's descriptive style has a unique ability to capture the moment and bring the times to life.

I served twenty months in Vietnam as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps from March of '66 through November of '67. I was a forward observer and was wounded twice. I enlisted in the Corps and volunteered for Nam. During this period of time, I knew very little of the motivations of the anti-war movement. I considered the participants to be communist sympathizers and unpatriotic cowards not willing to serve our country. I hated them.

After returning from Vietnam, I still had almost 2 years left in the Marine Corps. I found myself training Marines, some of whom had been drafted. Many of them thought the war was wrong. This was my first contact with anyone who opposed the war. I also became aware that the government through the media was lying to the public about the war.

I didn't understand, if what we were doing was right, why we were lying about it.

The Marine Corps sent me to the University of Western Carolina to lecture on the merits of the war. I was there for four days and then removed. I had been telling the students about free-fire zones and body count. The students didn't understand or like what they were hearing.

What finally turned me around was hearing Jane Fonda speak at the University of Florida. She said that in order for democracy to work, people must know the truth and that the government was not telling the truth. She said it was up to the vets to do it.

I testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation sponsored by Jane Fonda and Mark Lane in Detroit and met Vietnamese people who also testified. I really liked them. I had never gotten to know them in Nam; I just hated them all.

I thought I could be friends with these people, and wondered why I was in their country killing them. It dawned on me that I was just killing them because of their location.

After that, I, like David, put all of my energy into trying to end the war. I wanted to bring all my buddies home. It became obvious to me that our leaders were lying to the public about what we were doing, that we were the ones who were the aggressors and that we were committing unconscionable crimes against the people of Indochina.

The only flaw I found with Our War is that David doesn't give the anti-war movement enough credit. He says that we didn't end the war, that the Viet Cong beat us. That may be true, but it was the anti-war movement that made the political price of continuing the war unpalatable. It meant that our efforts counted. Our efforts hastened the end of the fighting.

What has happened since the war in Vietnam has been very disappointing. I went back to Vietnam in 1993 and found that the North Vietnamese do not share power with the Viet Cong. It saddened me to see that some of those who fought so hard for their independence didn't really achieve it and that there never was a reconciliation between the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese.

There is no doubt that to our nation the war is like a festering sore that has never healed, and there are plenty of examples. The war has been over for 21 years, yet President Clinton is still condemned by his political adversaries for not serving in Vietnam and for holding anti-war views. Does it bother me that our President didn't go to Vietnam? No. Our constitution is very specific about civilian control of the military. I think Clinton qualifies. A good friend of mine in Atlanta was up for an appointment under President Clinton. He was denied the position on the grounds that when he came back from Vietnam, he was a member of VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) and therefore unpatriotic and untrustworthy. In the eyes of many, the Vietnam veteran is stereotyped as a drug abuser, a violent person, and a loser. None of these attitudes show that we have moved on.

I think that those who don't realize that they were affected by the war may have been able to put the war behind them, but for those of us in whom memories of the war still burn, we can never totally move on or heal. I have received much counseling for my PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but I can't get past Vietnam because my memories remain intact and intrude into my daily life at random.

For a society's people to be strong, they must have a good foundation of values, morals, and trust and faith in the institutions of the family, the school, the church, and our leaders. When I went to Vietnam, I had that trust and that faith; when I returned, I had lost it all. I found that I was lied to by my parents, my teachers, my religious leaders, and my government. This left me nowhere to turn for support or leadership. I could only trust my own judgment

As a society, to really heal, we must take full responsibility for what we as a nation have allowed our government to do with our money, our military, and in our name. The purpose of dealing with this responsibility is to learn from our actions and learn how to prevent them from recurring. We have not taken responsibility and we have learned the wrong lessons. Our government has learned to keep the press out of the combat zone so it can't see what we are really doing. In Central America, we have learned to use someone else's children to do the killing and dying for us, through what is called low-intensity conflict. In the Persian Gulf, we have learned that bribing our allies into going along with us gives an air of credibility to our aggressions. It seems to me that all that has been learned is how to neutralize American public opinion.

I looked up the word politician in the dictionary. The definition was "an elected official who lies". Everyone admits that our leaders are just politicians. They lie to us to get elected, they give themselves pay raises in the middle of the night while mismanaging the country, they make laws with loopholes big enough for the special interests to sail through. What they don't do is set a living example of morality or any value besides the value of money. The only value we have these days on a national level is the right of a few to accumulate as much wealth as possible at the expense of the people, the environment, and our integrity.

You can't learn from your "mistakes" if you don't admit them. I agree with David that the word mistake lacks the connotation of the evil for which we as a nation are responsible in Indochina. What would it take to reconcile this problem? Make it a crime for government officials to lie to the public. Get the press to refuse to print information put out by the government without naming sources (if those sources have to be held accountable for what they say, it will make it harder for the government to use the press to feed us propaganda). Make it harder for the government to send its citizens into combat. Make it harder for the government to classify information, so that the public can have a truer picture of how its employees are managing the country. Abolish the National Security Act of 1947, which puts so-called national security concerns above the constitution, and finally, live by and practice the morals and values on a national level that we want our children to live by.

I will always be bitter about the war. David uses the word "wasted" a lot. In Nam when we killed people, we would say we wasted them. When we would talk about our buddies who were killed, we would say the gooks wasted them. All that time, I never thought about the meaning of what we were saying. In reality, the hopes and dreams of my generation were wasted in the rice paddies of Vietnam. David and I each gave twenty months of hard time for our beliefs. Would it have made any difference if David's name was on the Vietnam Memorial Wall? Obviously not. I'd rather that everyone whose name is on the Wall would have spent their twenty months with David and that there would have been no need for the Wall. I salute him, and all those who refused to go, and all those who tried to stop the war.

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