What Did You Do in the Vietnam War?

February 12, 2004 | by | Topic: American History & PresidentsPrint Print

The statue of three soldiers positioned near the Vietnam War Memorial misrepresents the typical Vietnam veteran. While the statue depicts soldiers in a rifle platoon, only a minority, about 20-percent of all Vietnam War veterans, served in such a capacity. Most served in support units in rear areas; some as far away as Thailand or on Navy vessels on the South China Sea. A more representative statue of Vietnam veterans would depict a soldier, sailor or airmen driving a forklift or stuffing a folder into a filing cabinet. So, what did you do in the Vietnam War?

Most of my generation who were eligible to serve, avoided it in one way or another. To be up front, to avoid being drafted out of college, I enrolled in Air Force ROTC then spent a reasonably enjoyable year in Thailand from 1970 to 1971. I got shot at twice while on temporary assignment to “extreme northern Thailand.”

Given that Senator John Kerry is the probable Democratic Party nominee for President, the coming face-off will feature two Yale-educated veterans. Kerry, who served as an officer in the “brown water Navy,” conducted dangerous operations in the waterways of South Vietnam’s Viet Cong infested Mekong River Delta. President Bush flew F-102s in the Air National Guard; a form of service that, while not as perilous as Kerry’s, was both essential and honorable. Although both men served, Senator Kerry can legitimately claim to be a “Vietnam War veteran,” while President Bush qualifies as a “Vietnam era veteran.” Both served.

It is unjust to denigrate either man’s war record. After John Kerry returned from Vietnam he vigorously opposed the war. No one who was there came back unaffected. Almost all of us returned disgusted and disillusioned with what went on and what went wrong in Vietnam. Many veterans—but certainly not all—sympathize with the impulse that led Kerry to toss often meaningless medals, even if not his own, onto the White House lawn. For too many Vietnam vets, pride in doing our duty came later in life.

President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard has already come under fire. During the Vietnam War, Army and Air National Guardsmen had a 1.5-percent chance of serving in Vietnam. Certainly the Guard and Reserves could have been used more fully. President Lyndon B. Johnson, however, decided not to do so.

In August 1964, shortly following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, had President Johnson asked Congress for a declaration of war rather than the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he could have gotten it. A declaration of war would have enabled Johnson to call up the Guard and Reserves and revise the Selective Service Act to eliminate most of the exemptions. But Johnson, anxious to keep, “that bitch of a war” from threatening “that beautiful woman, the Great Society” opted to fight in Vietnam using a peacetime draft law. George Bush and millions of other baby boomers based their service decisions on legally available options offered by the Selective Service.

Criticizing Americans who served in the Guard and Reserve may backfire for three reasons. First, although George Bush didn’t fly combat in Vietnam, he served in a critical role. With much of the Air Force committed to Southeast Asia, responsibility for defending the continental US from Soviet bomber attack shifted to the Air National Guard. Second, President Bush spent fifty-three weeks in pilot training, just like every other officer who earned Air Force wings. Pilot training is both mentally and physically challenging and the Air National Guard didn’t put pilots in fighter interceptors based on family pedigree. Third, insulting millions of Americans who served in the Guard and Reserves during the Cold War and who today are fighting—and dying—in Iraq and Afghanistan could result in political suicide.

Some 26.8 million American males reached draft age from 1965 to 1972. Of those, 15.4 million obtained deferments ranging from I-D for a member of the Guard or Reserves to II-S for college students to IV-D for ministers, to the mother lode of deferments, the IV-F for men physically or mentally unfit for service. Of the ten million Americans who served in uniform from 1962 to 1973, approximately 2.5 million actually made it to Vietnam or Thailand. About twenty-percent of that number, men like John Kerry, served with combat units and perhaps another 20-percent served in units threatened by standoff attacks. Politically-skewed arguments, however, demean the sacrifice of each of the 58,000 whose only testimony to service is their name on the Wall.

“What did you do in the Vietnam War?” While there are many legitimate answers, the bottom line is, some served while many didn’t. But those who served did so in many different ways.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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