The John Wayne Syndrome Comes Home to Roost, Remembrances from a War Long Ago
By Gordon Duff, Senior Editor (from 2009 by popular demand)
Editor’s note: For some unknown reason, some place on earth, the story below has gone “viral.” Then I read it. I found it so enjoyable that I thought: “Gee, I wish I could write like that. Then I noticed, I did write it. Ouch.
Talking with Jim Dean, I think back to 2009, back during the heyday of the blogosphere when what we now know to be forgettable hacks began to flood out of the woodwork, conspiracy theories, rehashed trash from think tanks, websites run by names now forgotten, some dead, some no one cares, today lost and forgotten with Veterans Today as “last man standing.” As Jim Dean points out, we are who we are with a 27,000 article archive. This is one of the 27,000.
My good friend, author Tom Barnes, periodically submited articles here. Tom was a retired ‘Coastie’, former Jesuit and our most skilled contributor. His military experience covers an extensive period and includes years of drug interdiction work. He discounts his own experiences, having grown up on the exploits, real or imagined, of veterans of an earlier era. Tom and I have been going over our views of veterans and patriotism. I felt a need to put some things on paper.
Recently I was in the UK hunting with friends. Among those was a well known British general, former commander of the SAS and a number of other members of their elite services. The big surprise for me was how much the Vietnam War had influenced these people, people every American service looks on as “the best of the best.” Several top SAS folks told me that they entered their elite service based on admiration for Americans serving in Vietnam. I was flabbergasted.
I work with veterans, mostly Vietnam vets, retirees, Special Forces, Navy Seals, Marines and a smattering of others. These are the people I am most comfortable with, perhaps even the only people I can work with. It’s like a huge PTSD club. In turn, we all grew up in families with World War 2 vets or family members whose life experiences were defined by the war.
Like my British friends and Vietnam, I grew up influenced by war. Was the influence real or the “John Wayne” Hollywood version? As most of us know, Wayne was a draft dodger during WW2 and one of the most famous purveyors of ‘horse manure’ in history. Serving as a Marine with a Special Landing Team in Vietnam, to us, “John Wayne” was a term used to define anything phony or artificial. Learning that pretty much everything we were told, either in training or on TV was absurd and even insane was a rite of passage for Marines entering a combat environment. This may be the real basis of our military history.
Learning About “My War”
I spent years sharing experiences with other veterans. I learned there were endless things I didn’t know about a war I thought I knew so well. Vietnam, as with any war, was filled with experiences and environments I never saw or could even imagine. Some things all of us shared, some things I would never know. Listening to guys describe Brown Water Navy missions was, perhaps, the most dramatic. I had no idea what they were doing or what they went thru.
Aircraft mechanics that I thought lived life on “easy street” worked 20 hour days and faced constant rocket attacks. Marines suffered in Vietnam as they had in previous wars, Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC aka Uncle Sam’s Marijuana Club) , abused, forgotten and despised. Marines, in truth, would have it no other way.
The Aftermath of Vietnam
Decades after the war, the vast majority of combat vets any of us meet would prove to be phonies. Even those are dying off, it seems, as I note I meet ever fewer of those now. It could also be that claiming falsely to be a Vietnam veteran, whether Marine, Navy Seal, Special Forces, Ranger, former POW or whatever, no longer carries much weight. I suspect this is the case, rather than the population of delusional idiots somehow magically diminishing. A look at the world around me tells me fools and liars are everywhere.
I can only talk authoritatively about what I know and, of course, answer to those who served with me who make more than the occasional suggestion. When Tom and I talked, the first thing that struck me was his belief that veterans, many of whom now seem almost rabidly right wing and totally unquestioning about the government were always that way.
Some of my friends are that way but it didn’t start in Vietnam. I felt tremendous pressure at times to try to benefit from having served in a war seen by most Americans as a humiliating loss. I also served in a military which I thought to be the best force ever fielded by our country but which had been continually depicted in movies and on tv as sadistic, brutal and drug crazed.
Thus, service in Vietnam became something that had to be “lived down” rather than something for us to be proud of. Hundreds of major employers shunned Vietnam vets and society, for decades, treated us as lepers. With PTSD and Agent Orange related disorders undiagnosed for many years and standards of care for the endless thousands of head injuries and amputations predictably abysmal, Veterans became outcasts, underemployed, unemployed, homeless or filling prisons. Not all vets suffered the same. Some of us had expensive educations, supportive communities and good luck. However, too many had none of the above.
The biggest challenge was acceptance. Nobody wanted to know what things were really like or how we really felt. People wanted us to be “non-threatening” and “safe.” Though we may have suffered record casualties in the most brutal war in our nations history, people expected us to be “movie vets” from “imaginary World War 2″, not the tens of thousands of shell shocked, violent, drunk and unemployable combat vets that flooded the VA system for decades after WW2 and Korea. Nobody wanted to see them either. However, there were 12 million of them, coming home, mostly, all at once.
There were 2 million of us, trickling home over ten years.
I believe the vets that Tom talks about, the vets who talk about fighting communism in Vietnam, about Bob Hope and “praying in foxholes” are people who simply broke, who couldn’t take it anymore. People have to find their own way to cope. The difference between joining the crowd and “selling out” is one too personal for anyone to judge.
I will take a moment to list some realities of war that will challenge some but be more than a bit familiar to the “been there, done that” crowd.
There were only 2 missions in Vietnam:
1. Coming home in good enough condition to have sex or at least without paying for it.
2. Coming home.
Religious Services and prayer in Vietnam:
1. I never saw nor heard of a chaplain ever coming near a combat unit in the field.
2. I never saw anyone pray, even when things seemed hopeless.
3. Nobody carried a bible, even those with the metal plates in them.
4. Only one person ever talked about religion. He died in An Hoa.
Medical Care in Vietnam
1. Sometimes you could get medivaced. Army pilots were a crazy bunch and would land a helicopter in hell if they had to.
2. Half our Navy Corpsmen looked more like Rambo than Ben Casey.
3. Getting shot or ending up with malaria didn’t always mean you went to a hospital. I have some personal experience in these areas.
4. If the military knew you were dying, they would fly you out so you wouldn’t be counted as a casualty. This is a fact.
5. You stood about as much chance of seeing a doctor or nurse as being impaled by a unicorn.
1. No Marine serving with a combat unit would accept an award for ‘heroism’ as 99% of medals were given out to real echelon non-combatants. Medals were considered “bad taste.”
2. Any Marine talking about winning a medal was sent to the rear as soon as possible. They were considered a danger to themselves and others.
3. Combat vets came to feel extreme resentment to people who won medals when entire units serving in intense combat would never have a single medal awarded other than Purple Hearts. The “further back” someone served, the more medals they got. I have some experience with this also.
1. Every Marine in combat knew their biggest enemy was the Marine Corps and the leaders who lacked combat experience and common sense who, more and more as the war progressed, became “the norm.”
2. Our South Vietnamese allies were seen, and not without reason, as extremely unmotivated and likely to shoot you in the back if you let them.
3. The Viet Cong and NVA could be troublesome but nothing we couldn’t handle.
Support from the Home Front
1. “Dear John” letters were so common they became a joke. People began to look forward to them. Many Marines, being the dogs they are, receive more than a few “Dear John” letters.
2. Letters we got encouraging us to win the war and fight communism were useful for starting fires.
3. Eventually, mail simply stopped for most. Some people had great families but too many seemed to disappear from the face of the Earth when they got to Vietnam.
Chow (Military slang for “food” such as it was)
1. Food on troop ships was very poor, the wait for meals was hours.
2. 90% of meals were C-Rations, about half of these were leftovers from WW2. Sometimes we got one meal a day, sometimes 2. Sometimes we got none. While on operations, our average weight was 130, which, considering many of us had been high school and college athletes, this indicated a problem with “supply.”
3. Supplies were typically sold on the black market before being delivered to forward bases. Only items seen as having no value ever reached even many of the “rear echelon” troops. Think milk, liver sausage, stale bread twice a day. This was the “don’t ask/don’t tell” story of Vietnam. If you wonder why a lot of Pentagon bigwigs could afford big homes or country club memberships, you might find the answer here.
4. Water came from wells in areas where the ground water was permeated with Dioxin. Very seldom was water supplied and most of us carried 3 to 5 canteens. There was no water purification equipment nor were there any “pills” for treating water. During rainfall, water to refill canteens was collected by spreading ‘ponchos.’ Often the only water available was from very unsafe sources. I have some experience with this. Nuff sed.
1. Nothing was issued in Vietnam. All 782 gear (web gear, etc.) was handed down, stolen or borrowed. Clothing came from a scrap heap. The lesson, find a shirt from people who died of leg wounds and pants from people who didn’t have their legs blown off.
2. Dry socks were not an issue. Most of us didn’t wear socks.
3. Same for underwear.
4. Helmets and packs were WW2 issue and utterly unsuitable for use in Vietnam. Helmets were typically discarded quickly.
5. The M-16 would often fail to work, but only when you attempted to fire it.
1. Marines had little or no fire support, no helicopter gunships, no air support and calling in artillery could be suicidal.
2. Read 1. again.
Officers and Staff NCOs
1. These people would be seen from time to time with months passing without ever seeing anyone above the rank of E4.
2. My experience would indicate that under 5% of patrols had an officer or staff NCO present.
1 Typical unit was the rifle squad, averaging 6 members.
2. Daily activities involved participation in long range patrols, shorter patrols, road sweeps and night ambushes. 7 out of 7 nights per week were spent “on ambush.” I never heard of a combat unit having “a day off.”
1. Our beds consisted of a folded poncho with some having liners. Later our liners were taken away as we were told that sleeping in warm and comfortable conditions, even on wet ground, limited our combat efficiency.
2. We never slept on a bed, cot or inside a tent, building or inside a wire enclosure. Technically, we spent every night, month in, month out, behind enemy lines.
3. It was not unusual to sleep in water while also being rained on.
1. We would take long walks in the countryside with our close friends. Sometimes we would interact with locals with unreliable results.
2. Enhanced exercise gotten from climbing steep grades in extreme weather while carrying days of food and water, weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, hand grenades, mortar rounds, rockets and sundry other items led to high levels of fitness and a lifetime of extreme arthritis and joint deterioration.
3. Brushing flies away from open wounds can be both challenging and rewarding.
1. Wearing clothing until it rotted off you cut down wasted time doing laundry or the expense of dry cleaning.
2. Cold showers once a month augmented by seasonal continual rainfall aided considerably in personal cleanliness. Eventually you would be unable to detect any odor short of stepping on a rotting corpse.
3. Chronic malnutrition and lack of dental care led to problems easily corrected in later life thru the wearing of dentures.
Any discussions of the meaning of patriotism I am subjected to are filtered by these personal experiences. What I have learned to admire is that people subjected to criminal abuse while in the military and social ostracism after leaving have maintained an admirable and almost unlimited capacity for both forgiveness and loyalty.
Knowing that I was a member of an armed force famed as being a collection of useless malcontents and traitors has, for some unknown reason, been a source of great pride for me.
That we could do this without continual photos with White House hacks, or endless parades, packages in the mail or ‘attaboys’ for keeping America safe speaks well of us. I am ever thankful I was a “Marine” and not a “war fighter.”
The ability to fight the most tenacious and resourceful enemy in world history to a stand still with broken rifles and clothed only in torn pants, worn boots, a green t-shirt and cloth cap is something the public seems to have forgotten, especially when they work so hard to cut benefits for Vietnam veterans.
At times I wonder if the ‘super duper’ weapons of today aren’t maybe window dressing for an underground economy based on waste, corruption and payoffs.
When I think about Vietnam, I remember a talk with one of the guys(Pierre Rinfret, former presidential economic advisor) who was in the first wave hitting Omaha beach on D-Day in 1944. He was wearing street shoes and carrying a Springfield bolt action rifle from WWI. 5000 of his friends died there that day.
And so it goes.