The news coming out Middle-East is painful to watch. As I watched the C.B.S. Evening News last night, I was stunned by what I saw. And Islamic terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. The swiftness of their success was mind-numbing, but even more mind-numbing was the complete collapse of the Iraqi army. As of this writing, ISIS, armed with captured military hardware and hundreds of millions of dollars looted from banks, has vowed to march to Baghdad.
It brought back bitter memories of April, 1975 and another catastrophe.
When I arrived in Vietnam during the fall of 1965, there were less than 100,000 U.S. troops in country. When I left in 1966 there were over 200,000. By the end of the war, there were over a half a million.
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pledged “we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” When he signed the Paris Peace Accord on January 23, 1973, he declared that America had won “peace with honor.”
As I watched the reports of North Vietnamese tanks advancing south toward Saigon, with the remnants of South Vietnam’s rag-tag army fleeing ahead of them, my heart sank. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. “How could this be?” “How could it all come to this?” “How could this be considered peace with honor?”
Within days, North Vietnamese tanks were rumbling through Saigon’s wide boulevards. South Vietnamese loyalists were desperately climbing the U.S. embassy walls, hoping to escape the Communist onslaught. Then, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter and the last Americans left Vietnam. The war was over.
For months after the fall of Saigon, thousands of desperate South Vietnamese civilians boarded flimsy junks and cast themselves out into the South China Sea. Some were rescued. Many died at sea.
My memories of the fall of Saigon go back even further, to 1965 and 1966. The human memory can retain powerful sights and sounds. I can still feel Vietnam’s oppressive humidity and smell the stench of death that hovered over my body like grave clothes. Once in a while I can hear Charley Bock, our squadron court jester, plunking away on an old beat up guitar and howling, ‘The money makers are makin’ more money all the time,” while the rest of us hooted and applauded in response. “Give ‘em hell, Charlie…give ‘em hell, buddy!” I can still see images of the 5 ton army cargo trucks carrying stacks of metal caskets and the boots of fallen Americans to a warehouse at Tan Son Nhut. As was our custom, we’d salute in homage to our fallen brothers in arms as the trucks rolled by. My daily duties would take me past the base mortuary. I remember once seeing one of the morticians standing next to the mortuary door, vomiting profusely. I remember the strange, beautiful orange glow of the napalm and the magnesium flares that lit up the night sky. I sometimes dream of listening to the kettle drum-like thumps of bombs from B-52’s raining down on Viet Cong positions to our north.
One night years after the fall of Saigon I penned a crude sonnet to commemorate the pain of loss so many of us who served in Vietnam felt. The last three lines, a few lines past the turn, went like this:
“Oh Saigon, bitter Saigon, please restore my youth unseen
For I’ve cast my life as pearls before the swine
Whose the dying now, oh Saigon, yours or mine?”
There are 58,286 names inscribed on a black granite wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve occasionally wondered how they would have felt about “peace with honor,” had they lived to see North Vietnamese tanks rumbling through the streets of Saigon.
Vietnam had its signature slogan. Iraq has also had its share – the “mission accomplished” banner, Joe Biden’s 2009 pronouncement that Iraq could be “one of the great achievements” of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the President’s declaration that we were leaving a democratic, stable Iraq.
One of the profound tragedies that came out of Vietnam and Iraq is that the sacrifice so many made in the cause of freedom was undone by the incompetence and the empty political slogans of our leaders.
I wonder how the brave men who fought house to house in order to liberate Fallujah or those who fought at Basra, Najaf, Mosul, and the Karbala Gap must now feel as they watch ISIS marching toward Baghdad in captured American tanks and Humvees. Do they see it as one of the administration’s “great achievements?” Are their hearts weighed down by grief? How deep is the pain of loss they must feel?
My painful memories of the fall of Saigon still linger as I watch the tragedy of Iraq unfolding and I ask myself. “Are there new sonnets on the horizon for the veterans of Iraq?”