Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Never Fought in Indochina

Most often asked questions of me by people in Southeast Asia are: How are you? What is your name? What country are you from? How long have you lived in Thailand? Where are you going? Where do you live?

A question that was often asked in relaxed, sitting down, social moments – most often by older Thai men – is: Was I a GI? That is, did I fight in the Second Indochina War (aka Vietnam War). Nowadays, I’m not asked that question much, but back when I first moved to the Isaan, it often came up.

“Baw,” I answer No. Very rarely am I pressed for more detail, but occasionally I have and I further respond that I didn’t agree with it. Here’s my story and it’s different from most others you may know of or have heard about others who did not fight in that war but were of age to be able to do so. This is a long story, so settle in:

When I was in junior high school, about age 15, I read all the Ian Fleming James Bond novels and I got into spies and spying. The James Bond movies had started to come out and even while they entertained me, they were nothing like the novels and I think should be considered separate entities entirely.

Anyway, I went so far as to write the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency – then the main spy agency of the U.S. government), about how one becomes a spy in this day and age. Of course, later I found out that there are many ways to go about it and none of them as straight-forward as my question implied. I received a letter back from the CIA! One of the people charged with writing back to such inquiries advised me to go for the Green Berets, which was a new division within the Army that President Kennedy had initially been instrumental in its formation. They were supposed to be our country’s answer to guerilla warfare; our counter-insurgency force. Many of the skills taught to Green Berets were closely linked to Intelligence work; the gathering of intelligence about opposing forces. They were active in the Vietnam War, which the Americans had taken over from the French, in the 1950s. The massive opposition to this war, by the American people, had not kicked-in at this point (1963-64).

So, I went down to an Army recruiter to find out how to enlist in the Green Berets. The recruiter explained that once I enlisted in the Army, I should indicate my preference for the Green Berets and test myself into it. He underscored that the Green Berets were the best of the best of the Army, so it wouldn’t be easy, but that I could do it if I was determined and fit the kind of profile they were looking for. I was now just getting into high school and felt I should at least complete that before moving on to the military; certainly, that’s what my foster parents advised.

As time went on, I read about counter-insurgency warfare and the Vietnam War. I mean, I really got into it. I read stuff nobody my age would bother with. The subtleties of insurgent and counter-insurgent warfare intrigued me. The more I read, the more I knew I wanted to pursue this further, in real life.

The problem, though, was that in the course of reading up about the Green Berets and counter-insurgent warfare, I read a lot of stuff on the Vietnam War because it was the proving ground for much of the theories developed by the British, French and Americans up to that point. The more I read, the more I came to realize a shocking fact that few authors of the books I read meant for me to realize – except for one writer by the name of Wilfred Burchett. He came right out with it and used the plain ole simple facts to back his perspective up. That was, that America – the United States – was actually backing the wrong side in what we call the Vietnam War, but which many Asians refer to as the Second Indochina War (Americans vs. Viet Cong; the French vs. Viet Minh being the first). It didn’t help, either, that I read Graham Greene’s A Quiet American.

My realization came more or less at the time that opposition to the Vietnam War was beginning to be enunciated by singers like Bob Dylan. By 1966, marches against the war started to attract larger and larger amounts of predominantly young people – the same people who were expected to fight in the war.

On top of all this, I found out from more than one source that enlistment in the Army would not guarantee me matriculation to the Green Berets. The government could put me wherever the hell they wanted. I was turned-off to this scenario and lacked the confidence to just forge ahead and make my way. So, I never pursued a military career, though at times I was tempted and have always felt I had the mindset for it.

Of course, there were also technical details that kept me out. As long as I stayed in college, I couldn't be drafted. Then, when the government went to a lottery system, I was fortunate to get a very high number, which put me at the bottom of the list of who could be drafted.

A little known fact about me is that even as late as 1976, I tried enlisting in the Navy Seals – the Navy’s answer to the Green Berets. With the Vietnam War over and my sons just born, I felt the military had become a real option for me.  I would be a better fit for the Navy Seals than the Green Berets, due to my comfort and abilities in the aquatic environment. The only thing that kept me from being accepted was that I was so na├»ve as to believe that I could be honest about my past drug use. That honesty washed me out of my would-be enlistment in no time.

Getting back to the Vietnam War: I was never against it for pacifist reasons. While I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of getting killed, it wasn’t fear of my own mortality that kept me from it. I was against it because I had done the reading on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I came to realize that if America was going to be in Vietnam at all, it should be in support of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists; same way with the Communist Pathet Lao in Laos, although I didn’t find out about The Secret War there until much later.

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