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Registered: Saturday, 16 September 2000
A Real hero : Jack Smith in the Ia Drang
A Real hero : Jack Smith in the Ia Drang
I served in Vietnam. And what follows is the story of my personal journey home from that war, a journey that has taken most of the last 37 years.
If Vietnam had been a nuclear bomb it could scarcely have had more impact on America. The war tore our country in two and left deep wounds that still have not entirely healed. For those who fought it, as I did, and for those who demonstrated against it, as many of my friends did, Vietnam remains the formative experience of a generation.
For right or wrong nearly 3 million Americans went off to serve in Vietnam. 58,000 of us were killed, another 153,000 were injured or crippled by bullets, shrapnel or disease. But there were no parades for those who came home. Instead, we were pushed under the rug along with the unpopular and divisive war we served in. Vietnam veterans became bitter, angry, truly the lost Americans.
I was wounded. But I was lucky. I was not crippled. I am well-employed. I have adjusted. However, for many years I shared the same bitterness as those veterans who were less fortunate than I towards the country that we all served so well, but which afterwards served us so poorly. It may sound silly, but war veterans need a parade...some sort of public acceptance so they can put the war behind them and get on with life. Vietnam veterans never got that, and that's why so many of them for so long walked around carrying the war on their shoulders. A lot of Vietnam veterans never really left Vietnam, they never really came home.
I fought in the bloodiest part of the bloodiest battle of the whole war, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. It was also the first encounter between North Vietnamese Regular Army troops and US soldiers, and it fixed the war-fighting tactics used by both sides for the remainder of the war. On the 17th of November, 1965, a day that is burned into my memory, my battalion (about 500 men) was walking away from a place called "Landing Zone X-Ray" in South Vietnam's Central Highlands, a few miles from the Cambodian border. Along with other units of the 1st Air Cav Division, we had just fought in a major 3-day battle there and had decisively defeated 2 regiments of the North Vietnamese army.
It's the battle that was depicted in the recent Mel Gibson Hollywood movie, "We Were Soldiers Once and Young." Don't look for me. I ended up on the cutting room floor. Anyway, the movie only depicts what happened in the first part of the fight. What happened afterwards was much worse. More men died in one more day of fighting than had in the previous 3 ... and fewer men were engaged.
As we slipped through the jungle into another clearing called L-Z Albany, we were jumped by a North Vietnamese formation. Like us, about 500-strong, and like us, made up mostly of boys 18 or 19 years old. But they had been in-country for a year, and so they were greatly more skilled at fighting and killing. Hearing us coming, they quietly tied themselves up into the trees, uncoiled bandoleers of ammunition and snuck close in the chest-high razor grass.
Minutes after the guns opened up, we 500 were overwhelmed and fighting for our lives. Men rolled in the grass and stabbed at each other, gouged and punched, or blazed away at enemy soldiers just a few feet from them. I was lying so close to a North Vietnamese machine-gunner that I simply reached out and stuck my rifle into his face, pulled the trigger and blew his head off.
At one point in that awful afternoon as my battalion was being cut to pieces, a small group of enemy came upon me, and thinking I had been killed (I was covered in other people's blood), proceeded to use me as a sandbag for their machine gun. I closed my eyes and pretended to be dead. I remember the gunner had bony knees that pressed against my sides. He didn't discover I was alive because he was trembling more than I was. He was, like me, just a teenager. The gunner began firing into the remnants of my company. My buddies began firing back with rifle grenades--M-79s, to those of you who know about them. I remember thinking, Oh, my God, if I stand up, the North Vietnamese will kill me, and if I stay lying down my buddies will get me.... Before I went completely mad, a volley of grenades exploded all around and on top of me, killing the enemy boy and injuring me.
It went on like this all day and much of the night. I was wounded twice and thought myself dead. My company suffered 93% casualties.
I watched all the friends I had in the world die. It is not the sort of thing you forget. The battlefield was covered with blood and littered with body parts, and it reeked of gunpowder and vomit. I discovered with a shock, as other soldiers have, that the only thing separating me from meat hanging in a butcher's shop was a thin piece of skin.
This sort of experience leaves scars. I had nightmares, and for years afterwards I was sour on life, by turns angry, cynical and alienated.
Then one day I woke up and saw the world as I believe it really is, a bright and warm place. I looked afresh at my scars and marveled, not at the frailty of human flesh, my flesh, but at the indomitable strength of the human spirit. In spite of bullets, in spite of hot metal fragments, the spirit lives on. This is the miracle of life. Like other Vietnam veterans, I began to put my personal hurt behind me and started to examine the war itself.
A footnote on the battle: As I mentioned when I began, it was a seminal event. The first encounter between the regular troops of both sides. It was how we developed the technique of search-and-destroy... essentially the same technique that George Custer used in the Great Plains... Have US forces troll for the bad guys, and when they attacked, kill them 10 to one with our superior fire power. And the North Vietnamese went along. Basically, both sides in the Vietnam War drew the identical conclusion from this first and terrible battle: that they could win by using attrition. What we didn't understand then was that they were willing to pay a far higher price in lives than we were. More about this in a moment.
When I went back to Vietnam a few years ago I met General Vo Nguyen Giap, the man who engineered the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and then commanded North Vietnamese forces in the war with South Vietnam -- and us. He conceded that because of the Ia Drang his plans to cut Vietnam in half and take the capital had been delayed ten years. But then, he chuckled, it didn't make a difference, did it?
We won every battle, but the North Vietnamese in the end took Saigon. What on earth had we been doing there? Was all that pain and suffering worth it, or was it just a terrible waste? This is why Vietnam veterans don't really let go, why many can't get on with their lives, what sets them apart from veterans of other wars.
Nothing is so precious to a nation as its youth. And so, to squander the lives of the young in a war that, depending on one's point of view, either should never have been fought, or we were never prepared to win, seems crazy. Yet, that's exactly what happened in Vietnam. However justified the war seemed in 1964 and 1965 -- and, remember, almost all Americans then thought it was -- it no longer seemed that way after 1968. And no matter what you may remember of the war, we never really fought it to win.
When I was wounded it caused a minor sensation at home. My father is Howard K Smith, the former anchorman and TV news commentator, who was then at the peak of his career. That the son of a famous person should get shot in Vietnam was, in 1965, news. When I returned to the US after my tour in Vietnam, President Johnson, who was a friend of my father's, invited me to a dinner party at the White House. I remember a tall, smiling man who thanked me for my service and sacrifice. I liked him then, I still do today. Yet, no one bears as much responsibility for the conduct of the war as he.
In the Gulf War we took 6 months to put half a million troops into the war zone. In Vietnam, more than 6 years. We were too timid to carry the fight to the enemy until the end, and we tried to keep the war contained to South Vietnam.
The result was that our enemy, a small country waging total war -- that is, using all its resources -- saw a super-power fighting a limited war, and concluded that if it could just sustain the 10-to-1 casualties we were inflicting for a while, then we would tire and leave, and it would win. After all, North Vietnam produced babies faster than we could kill its soldiers. Of course, Ho Chi Minh was right. After the Tet Offensive in 1968 we quit and began the longest and bloodiest retreat in US history. Dean Rusk, the then-Secretary of State, many years later ruefully told me, "They outlasted us." And with the Sino-Soviet split and Vietnam's success playing China and Russia against each other, the war also began to change its complexion and to look less and less like a Cold War proxy struggle. The fact is, democracies don't fight inconclusive wars for remote goals in distant places, for very long. Pham van Dong, Ho's successor, said that.
Lyndon Johnson harnessed his generals to a basically civilian policy -- fighting the war piecemeal in the vain hope no one in the US would notice! As for the enemy, he treated Ho Chi Minh like a member of the congressional opposition: show him the US was tougher, and he'd give up. But Ho saw the incrementalism that resulted as a sign of weakness and hung on. Tens of thousands of young Americans died needlessly.
Whether the war was right or whether it was wrong, it was fought in such a way it could never have been brought to a conclusion. That now seems clear with time. What a waste. It's why so many veterans of Vietnam feel bitter.
Well, we finally did get our parades and we finally did build our memorial on the Mall in Washington. These helped. But so many veterans were still haunted by the war, and I was, too.
13 Years ago, I watched the Berlin Wall come down and, as an ABC News correspondent, I witnessed firsthand on a number of trips the collapse of communism. The policy of containment worked! We won the Cold War. And however meaningless Vietnam seemed at the time, it contributed to the fall of communism. That was something to hold onto. Pretty thin and not wholly satisfying as a justification for what I and many of my friends went through in Vietnam. But at least it was something.
Then 9 years ago, came an event that changed me. An opportunity to go back to Vietnam for ABC. With ten other Ia Drang veterans, I traveled back to the jungle in the Central Highlands and walked the Ia Drang battlefield for several days in the company of some of the same North Vietnamese we had fought against nearly 30 years earlier. Did I find the answer to my question about the futility of the war? No, I don't know if what I and the rest of us did in the war ultimately was worth it...We can talk about that afterwards... But what I did find surprised me.
North Vietnam may have conquered the South, but it is losing the peace. A country that two decades ago had the 4th strongest army in the world, has squandered its wealth on quarreling with, and fighting wars against, most of its neighbors and is poor and bankrupt as a result. In Vietnam today, communism is dying. Unfortunately very slowly. But it is dying. You look at Vietnam today with its eager entrepreneurs and its frightened party bosses, and you wonder why they fought the war. Many North Vietnamese wonder the same thing.
More importantly, Vietnam is a country profoundly at peace. Because the North Vietnamese feel they won, they are not haunted by the same ghosts as we. The memorials and cemeteries that dot the Vietnamese countryside, to most people we met, were just artifacts from another time. And people could not understand what our little group of gray-haired, middle-aged Americans was doing there, what demons were trying to exorcise, because they did not have those demons.
What struck me was the overwhelming peacefulness of the place, even in the clearing where I had fought. I broke down several times. I wanted to bring back some shrapnel, or shell casings, some physical manifestation of the battle to lay at the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington...under the black granite of panel number three, where all my army buddies' names are carved, more than 200 of them. But, do you know, search as I did, I could not find any battle debris. The forces of nature had simply erased it. And where once the grass had been slippery with blood, there were flowers blooming in that place of death. It was beautiful and still, and so I pressed some flowers and brought them back to lay at the foot of panel three. That is all that I could find in that jungle clearing that once held terror, and now held beauty.
What I discovered with time may seem obvious, but it had really escaped me all those years on my journey home from Vietnam: the war is over. It's certain for Vietnam and the Vietnamese. As I said on a Nightline broadcast when I came back, "This land is at peace, and so should we be, so should we." For me, Vietnam has become a place again, not a war, and I have begun letting go.
I have discovered that wounds heal. That the friendship of old comrades breathes meaning into life... We meet every year in Washington to read the names of the dead at the Vietnam Memorial... And that even the most disjointed events can begin to make sense with the passage of time. This has allowed me, on days like this, to step forward and take pride in the service I gave my country. But never to forget what was, and will always be, the worst day of my life. The day I escaped death in the tall grass of the Ia Drang Valley. Thank you.
About the Author
Jack Smith is a veteran ABC News correspondent, and currently serves as a media consultant. During his 26 years with ABC, he won two national Emmys, a Peabody and numerous other awards. He was the host for TLC's award-winning series on the Vietnam War, The Soldiers' Story. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran (Bronze Star and Purple Heart), Smith has done extensive reporting and speaking on the war and its aftermath, and has received wide recognition from the veterans' community.
[Editor's note: The text of this essay is taken from a speech given by Jack Smith at the Marin Breakfast Club on October 17, 2002.]
posted Friday, 01 November 2002 14:21