The American Enterprise
The rapidly disappearing cohort of Americans that endured the Great
Depression and then fought World War II is receiving quite a send-off from
the leading lights of the so-called '60s generation.
Tom Brokaw has published two oral histories of "The Greatest Generation"
that feature ordinary people doing their duty and suggest that such conduct
was historically unique.
Chris Matthews of "Hardball" is fond of writing columns praising the Navy
service of his father while castigating his own baby boomer generation for its
alleged softness and lack of struggle.
William Bennett gave a startlingly condescending speech at the Naval
Academy a few years ago comparing the heroism of the "D-Day Generation"
to the drugs-and-sex nihilism of the "Woodstock
And Steven Spielberg, in promoting his film Saving Private Ryan, was careful
to justify his portrayals of soldiers in action based on the supposedly unique
nature of World War II.
An irony is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now
being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today's most
conspicuous voices by and large opposed,
and in which few of them served. The "best and brightest" of the Vietnam age
group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about
the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refuse
Pundits back then invented a term for this animus: the "generation gap."
Long, plaintive articles and even books were written examining its
manifestations. Campus leaders, who claimed precocious wisdom through
the magical process of reading a few controversial books, urged fellow
baby boomers not to trust anyone over 30. Their elders who had survived the
Depression and fought the largest war in history were looked down upon as
shallow, materialistic, and out of touch.
Those of us who grew up on the other side of the picket line from that era's
counterculture can't help but feel a little leery of this sudden gush of
appreciation for our elders from the leading lights of
the old counterculture. Then and now, the national conversation has
proceeded from the dubious assumption that those who came of age during
Vietnam are a unified generation in the same sense as their parents were,
and thus are capable of being spoken for through these fickle elites.
In truth, the "Vietnam generation" is a misnomer. Those who came of age
during that war are permanently divided by different reactions to a whole
range of counter-cultural agendas, and nothing divides them more deeply
than the personal ramifications of the war itself.
The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the
counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to
serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their
peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them.
In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them,
Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiled brats who would
have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition,
and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance or
protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers
faced in World War II and Korea.
Few who served during Vietnam ever complained of a generation gap. The
men who fought World War II were their heroes and role models. They
honored their fathers' service by emulating it, and largely agreed with their
fathers' wisdom in attempting to stop Communism's reach in Southeast
Asia. The most accurate poll of their attitudes (Harris, 1980) showed that 91
percent were glad they'd served their country, 74 percent enjoyed their time
in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that "our troops
were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington
would not let them win." And most importantly, the castigation they received
upon returning home was not from the World War II generation, but from the
very elites in their age group who supposedly spoke for them.
Nine million men served in the military during the Vietnam war, three million
of whom went to the Vietnam theater. Contrary to popular mythology,
two-thirds of these were volunteers, and 73 percent of those who died were
volunteers. While some attention has been paid recently to the plight of our
prisoners of war, most of whom were pilots, there has been little recognition of
how brutal the war was for those who fought it on the ground.
Dropped onto the enemy's terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America's
citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly
understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompetently on a
tactical level should consider Hanoi's recent admission that 1.4 million of its
soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to 58,000 total U.S. dead.
Those who believe that it was a "dirty little war" where the bombs did all the
work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps
has ever fought -- five times as many dead as World War I, three times as
many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all of
World War II.
Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States
was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam. The baby-boom generation
had cracked apart along class lines as America's young men were making
difficult, life-or-death choices about serving.
The better academic institutions became focal points for vitriolic protest
against the war, with few of their graduates going into the military. Harvard
College, which had lost 691 alumni in World War II, lost a total of 12 men in
Vietnam from the classes of 1962 through 1972 combined. Those classes at
Princeton lost six, at MIT two. The media turned ever-more hostile. And
frequently the reward for a young man's having gone through the trauma of
combat was to be greeted by his peers with studied indifference or outright
What is a hero? My heroes are the young men who faced the issues of war
and possible death, and then weighed those concerns against obligations to
their country. Citizen-soldiers who interrupted their personal and professional
lives at their most formative stage, in the timeless phrase of the Confederate
Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, "not for fame or reward, not for
place or for rank, but in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it."
Who suffered loneliness, disease, and wounds with an often contagious
illnesses. And who deserve a far better place in history than that now offered
them by the so-called spokesmen of our so-called generation.
Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Matthews, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Spielberg, meet my Marines.
1969 was an odd year to be in Vietnam. Second only to 1968 in terms of
American casualties, it was the year made famous by Hamburger Hill, as well
as the gut-wrenching Life cover story showing the pictures of 242 Americans
who had been killed in one average week of fighting.
Back home, it was the year of Woodstock, and of numerous antiwar rallies
that culminated in the Moratorium march on Washington. The My Lai
massacre hit the papers and was seized upon by the antiwar movement as
the emblematic moment of the war.
Lyndon Johnson left Washington in utter humiliation. Richard Nixon entered
the scene, destined for an even worse fate.
In the An Hoa Basin southwest of Danang, the Fifth Marine Regiment was in
its third year of continuous combat operations. Combat is an unpredictable
and inexact environment, but we were well-led. As a rifle platoon and
company commander, I served under a succession of three regimental
commanders who had cut their teeth in World War II, and four different
battalion commanders, three of whom had seen combat in Korea. The
company commanders were typically captains on their
second combat tour in Vietnam, or young first lieutenants like myself who
were given companies after
many months of "bush time" as platoon commanders in the Basin's tough and
The Basin was one of the most heavily contested areas in Vietnam, its torn,
cratered earth offering every sort of wartime possibility. In the mountains just
to the west, not far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army
operated an infantry division from an area called Base Area 112. In the
valleys of the Basin, main-force Viet Cong battalions whose ranks were 80
percent North Vietnamese Army regulars moved against the Americans every
day. Local Viet Cong units sniped and harassed. Ridge lines and paddy dikes
were laced with sophisticated booby traps of every size, from a hand grenade
to a 250-pound bomb. The villages sat in the rice paddies and tree lines like
individual fortresses, crisscrossed with trenches and spider holes, their
homes sporting bunkers capable of surviving direct hits from large-caliber
The Viet Cong infrastructure was intricate and permeating. Except for the
old and the very young,
villagers who did not side with the Communists had either been killed or
driven out to the government-controlled enclaves near Danang.
In the rifle companies we spent the endless months patrolling ridge lines
and villages and mountains, far away from any notion of tents, barbed wire,
hot food, or electricity. Luxuries were limited to what would fit inside one 's
pack, which after a few "humps" usually boiled down to letter-writing material,
towel, soap, toothbrush, poncho liner, and a small transistor radio.
We moved through the boiling heat with 60 pounds of weapons and gear,
causing a typical Marine to drop 20 percent of his body weight while in the
bush. When we stopped we dug chest-deep fighting holes and slit trenches
for toilets. We slept on the ground under makeshift poncho hootches, and
when it rained we usually took our hootches down because wet ponchos
shined under illumination flares, making great targets. Sleep itself was fitful,
never more than an hour or two at a stretch for months at a time as we mixed
daytime patrolling with nighttime ambushes, listening posts, foxhole duty, and
Ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and dysentery were common, as was trench
foot when the monsoons came. Respite was rotating back to the mud-filled
regimental combat base at An Hoa for four or five days, where rocket and
mortar attacks were frequent and our troops manned defensive bunkers at
night. Which makes it kind of hard to get excited about tales of Woodstock,
or camping at the Vineyard during summer break. We had been told while in
training that Marine officers in the rifle companies had an 85 percent
probability of being killed or wounded, and the experience of "Dying Delta,"
as our company was known, bore that out.
Of the officers in the bush when I arrived, our company commander was
wounded, the weapons platoon commander was wounded, the first platoon
commander was killed, the second platoon commander was wounded twice,
and I, commanding the third platoon, was wounded twice.
The enlisted troops in the rifle platoons fared no better. Two of my original
three squad leaders were killed, the third shot in the stomach. My platoon
sergeant was severely wounded, as was my right guide. By the time I left my
platoon I had gone through six radio operators, five of them casualties. These
figures were hardly unique; in fact, they were typical. Many other units -- for
instance, those who fought the hill battles around Khe Sanh, or were with the
famed Walking Dead of the Ninth Marine Regiment, or were in the battle for
Hue City or at Dai Do -- had it far worse.
When I remember those days and the very young men who spent them with
me, I am continually amazed, for these were mostly recent civilians barely out
of high school, called up from the cities and the farms to do their year in Hell
and then return. Visions haunt me every day, not of the nightmares of war but
of the steady consistency with which my Marines faced their responsibilities,
and of how
uncomplaining most of them were in the face of constant danger. The salty,
battle-hardened 20-year-olds teaching green 19-year-olds the intricate
lessons of that hostile battlefield. The unerring skill of
the young squad leaders as we moved through unfamiliar villages and
weed-choked trails in the black of night.
The quick certainty with which they moved when coming under enemy fire.
Their sudden tenderness when a fellow Marine was wounded and needed
help. Their willingness to risk their lives to save other Marines in peril. To this
day it stuns me that their own countrymen have so completely missed the
story of their service, lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.
Like every military unit throughout history we had occasional laggards,
cowards, and complainers. But in the aggregate these Marines were the
finest people I have ever been around. It has been my privilege to keep up
with many of them over the years since we all came home. One finds in them
very little bitterness about the war in which they fought.
The most common regret, almost to a man, is that they were not able to do
more -- for each other and for the people they came to help. It would be
redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men. Because I already
have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive today because of their
quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valor epitomizes the conduct of Americans at
war from the first days of our existence. That the boomer elites can canonize
this sort of conduct in our fathers' generation while ignoring it in our own is
more than simple oversight. It is a conscious, continuing travesty.
James Webb, Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy
The American Enterprise