This particular account of Vietnam and its aftermath is viewed through
the personal experience of four young men who grew up together on the
Eastern Shore of Maryland in the fifties. Ten years or so later, in the
mid-1960s, they found themselves thrust into a foreign battle on an
Asian continent nine thousand miles away.
Their firsthand point of view may be enlightening to curious younger
generations, not even born then, who are interested in military and
political history, particularly Vietnam. The main characters’
impressions may possibly appeal to those who’ve heard or read
conflicting stories about Vietnam—some accurate, some not, and some
simply war stories embellished or modified to fit a certain personal or
Academic scholars may dismiss this account as just another war story.
Well, it may be to some, but probably not to others who served tours of
duty in Vietnam. The story should resonate with most veterans. They may
identify with this version. In fact, this story could easily be a
variation of their stories or one of their comrades’.
Vietnam is a kaleidoscope of tales, some grim and a few humorous, but
most share the frustration of that nebulous war effort. In any case,
this account should provoke thought, that’s the prime intention of
relating it so many years after the fact, not so much as a diatribe, but
as a word of warning.
The basic message: we need to learn the lessons of Vietnam. Its history
offers a valuable central theme with political, social, and moral
The narrative lends a different perspective to this stormy period in
American history. As the author, my intention is not to be
authoritative, but simply to recount the characters’ personal
journeys—how four young men experienced Vietnam and observed its
impact on American society in the following decade.
The reader is free to make the call to agree or disagree with the
viewpoints expressed. That reaction is only natural to expect with all
the existing controversy regarding Vietnam.
I have no axe to grind other than those opinions, observations, and
reservations expressed in the prologue, introduction, and epilogue. The
main characters, however, relate some strong viewpoints for the reader
to consider. They make assertive statements that might stir you up,
offer perspectives to challenge your preconceived notions, or just jar
your memory to recall the unending news reports pounding the nation’s
daily consciousness at that time.
As a country, we really need an honest self-assessment of why and how we
engage in war. We should critically evaluate how we elect and judge our
leaders’ moral compass to engage in, lead, and conduct a war. We
should also look closely at how to end a war, defining victory on terms
that anyone can easily understand, rather than relying on “nuanced”
Morality is not relative, as some would have you believe. The president
has constitutional war powers. Give some serious thought as to how much
we should entrust that person with that enormous power. Vietnam has some
important lessons about the integrity of the nation’s highest office
and its inner circle. Right and wrong should be moral absolutes without
shades of gray, especially when committing to war.
* * * * *
For the historical record, well over nine million people served tours
for our country in Vietnam over that extended fourteen-year period,
starting with the introduction of military advisors in 1961 and ending
with our complete 1975 withdrawal. That represents 9.7 percent of their
generation, in contrast to the one percent serving in the military in
2016. Two-thirds were volunteers and one-third drafted... quite a
disparity from today’s professional military. Out of that large
number, I’m sure a lot of opinions were formed based on their personal
experiences, but no one had a forum to express them.
There’s room for disagreement about Vietnam, especially when factually
based. The officially documented facts in the declassified CIA records I
referenced illustrate the discord and disagreements of that era. I
reviewed them, not without some remorse at the lessons missed or ignored
during the war. The French, fighting in inhospitable terrain, suffered
70,000 losses in Vietnam before we became involved. How could that
morbid lesson escape recognition? Why did we expect a better outcome?
Why should it have been different for us in an asymmetrical war? I came
away with the impression Vietnam did not have to turn out the way it
did, with two countries torn apart—theirs and ours.
I thought about Vietnam periodically for almost fifty years before
deciding to write my characters’ story. I wanted to try to figure it
all out while I had time to conduct some basic research, and still
recall most of the details. I served over there as a flight surgeon, but
experienced only a fraction of what the real fighters did. I could
“see the tree, but not the rainforest.” I served, they fought.
This story is about them, not me. I never had to wade through the rice
paddies, tangled vines, or elephant grass to fight in thick rainforests.
I never encountered giant anthills taller than a man in the triple
canopy jungles they fought in, or slept out in the monsoons, like most
of our troops and my protagonists. I never got shot down, never went out
on platoon missions, or experienced close-quarter combat, ambushes, or
surprise artillery attacks. My USAF experience was limited mostly to air
evacuations, not the down-and-dirty stuff they encountered. I flew in
and out of the battleground above the fray. Therefore, I rely on their
experience and my research to fill in the big picture, and to find a
message in it all somewhere.
Later, in the following decades upon my return, I witnessed the war’s
detrimental sociologic fallout in San Francisco, up close and
personally. The protagonists’ story is well worth telling, and I chose
to relate it in a fictional narrative for personal reasons to protect
privacy rights. It’s a legal thing, let’s be realistic.
As the Mark Twain quotation goes, “truth is stranger than fiction, but
it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth
isn’t.” I couldn’t make all this up... that would require too vast
an imagination. I left graphic parts out. War is nasty and, believe me,
there is no need to go there. I’ll leave it for you decide what is
fiction and what is fact. I won’t go there either. That’s my
disclaimer, let the chips fall where they may. Believe what you will.
There’s room for other interpretations of the Vietnam experience. This
is theirs and mine.
Why bother to write about a war that brings up negative connotations
fifty years later? Because there are so many misconceptions, so many
lessons unlearned from the Vietnam experience. Hopefully, the younger
generations can learn from my generation’s mistakes, rather than
repeat them. That’s the take-home message and my purpose in relating
my characters’ saga.
As a final sad reflection, many of those who served over there forty to
fifty years ago still consider Vietnam a military victory, but
acknowledge it as a political loss, a defining foreign-policy failure.
At the height of the war, North Vietnam regulars (NVR), and the Viet
Cong (VC), launched one of the largest military campaigns of the war.
Named after “Tet”—the Vietnamese New Year—the 1968 Tet Offensive
resulted in the loss of almost 4,000 Americans, but more than 58,000 of
the enemy. Think about that statistic a moment. The enemy suffered as
many killed in one year of warfare than the U.S. did in ten years.
Furthermore, no major cities were lost in South Vietnam during Tet.
Sound like a successful campaign?
Most would define these impressive statistics as a victory.
Nevertheless, regardless of the overwhelming superiority of the numbers
in our military’s favor, the ’68 Tet Offensive was the pivotal
political and social turning point against America’s involvement in
Vietnam. Our body-bag tally and the public’s negative perception of
the war became more important than the staggering sixteen-times-greater,
enemy body-counts in the ultimate test of conflict resolution—war.
In retrospect, American public opinion actually was the first domino to
fall in 1968, not Vietnam.
Things got real ugly at home, fanned by the media after Tet. Our
troops’ superior “kill numbers” became meaningless as an anti-war
herd mentality emerged, gained momentum, and dominated the discussion of
Vietnam over the next decade. The topic became the cause célèbre for
the disenchanted anti-establishment crowd and the anti-war protesters in
Returning home, vets would not discuss the subject with anyone other
than family, close friends, and comrades for many years. They felt
maligned by much of secular society, not respected. Some harbored
resentment. Others felt unappreciated, lost. Rightly so, they received
shabby treatment, disrespect, even the humility of being spit on in
History repeated itself. French troops had received similar disrespect
and humiliation returning home to France from Vietnam decades earlier,
after their 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which forced them to withdraw
Our vets were scorned, even slandered in some political quarters,
including Congressional hearings by a shameless officer, who wrote his
own after-action reports. He sustained three minor injuries, one from
fragging himself, and managed to obtain three Purple Hearts, which
granted him leave from the theater after a short four-month tour of
duty. Recall that sorry episode? You may know to whom I’m referring.
If you don’t, look it up.
Meanwhile, the liberal media at home pounded a drumbeat of negativity.
Few vets received the hero treatment most deserved for their service.
They laid it on the line for our country and received little or no
gratitude in return.
Their contentious homecoming reception stands in stark contrast to the
warm welcome and empathy for those returning from the Middle East wars
recently, the wounded warriors. Has there been an epiphany resulting in
a serious change of heart, an awakening of America’s human spirit?
Perhaps America has experienced a renaissance of values, I hope so. Most
would agree Vietnam was a muddled mess, no matter what side of the
difference of opinion they are on. But, in the final analysis, it never
was the fighting man’s fault. Never. Certainly, with no reason or
justification to denigrate him, he deserved our respect, not scorn.
After all, there are no noble wars, just noble warriors.
It remains argumentative and difficult to figure out what went wrong,
starting from the decision to commit to that war, and moving through
three administrations’ nebulous strategies—two Democratic, one
Republican—to conduct it: JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. And lastly, the
humbling terms of our withdrawal from the theater in helicopters from
Saigon rooftops left many wondering if it was really worth it in
retrospect. Does this episode accurately represent our America, the home
of the free and the brave? Did Vietnam trigger the beginning of decades
of cynicism? Distrust of our government? Did it exacerbate the
polarization of the political spectrum? Pithy considerations to ponder.
Think about it and draw your own conclusions.
* * * * *
So, how did four young men—who played on the same high school
championship football team on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the
mid-fifties—wind up nine thousand miles away in the war-torn cities
and jungles of Vietnam? How did they find themselves emerged in a
virtual alternate universe, and forced to cope? Now, that’s a long
story involving improbable odds. Is it attributable to mere coincidence,
or dramatic irony?
Biff Roberts and his three teammates’ homespun back-stories and
subsequent Vietnam experience will give you a different perspective of
that difficult and confusing period in American history.
Three other characters play a significant role in this convoluted saga
with their personal involvement influencing the main characters’ life
paths. Their uncanny interplay compels one to consider the validity of
the six degrees of separation theory. Their opportune interaction and
coincidental connectivity to the main characters’ adventures are the
reason I also present their interesting backgrounds. They later sway
critical outcomes as the odyssey unfolds.
Let me share with you the long story of these characters. How I recall
it, a fictional historical narrative chronicling the ups and downs of
their personal journey through a turbulent time: Vietnam and its
Excerpted from "Recall" by R. Lawson. Copyright © 2017 by R. Lawson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.