How Do We Tell the Story of Vietnam? Letters From a Soldier, Fifty Years On, Part 1

Last year the long awaited Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War was released to surprisingly mixed reviews. In the past, critics and the public alike have given anything the filmmaker creates a thumbs up.

Not so, however, for his newest venture and attempted explanation on how and why we lost countless American lives in a land far, far away. The ten-part, seventeen-hour program was panned by many as too simplistic, too long, too heavy on the blame game, and even not historically accurate.

Even before the reviews, it was a given I would see the series. I have been planning a book using the hundreds of letters written by my father from Vietnam during one of the critical turning point years of the war, 1967-68, including an account of the infamous TET Offensive in January of 1968. It will be fifty years this month, in April of 2018, that my father wrote his last letter from Vietnam.

The more I read, and the more trailers I saw, however, the more I couldn’t bring myself to see it, unable to process and reconcile the passionate opinions expressed in the trailers from surviving vets themselves. I realized that although I had initially read my father’s letters several years after his death, in 2002, there was still a great deal I had not come to terms with on how Vietnam had affected our family. Somewhere in me there was a ten-year-old watching her young, tremendously fun father get on a plane in 1967, and then the stranger who disembarked from another plane in 1968.

I downloaded the series onto my kindle, but it sat there for the “right time” which turned out to be months later.

It should have been right down my alley as a writer of history especially since my preferred method of writing is to use first-hand accounts, letters, diaries, and descriptions written by the very real people who lived through a given experience. I have no love for revisionist history with the benefit of hindsight, and consider it a false narrative. When I tell a story, I always tell it using as many authentic documents and interviews as I can find.

As the series aired, some were appalled by the number of “North Vietnamese” Burns interviewed. Having written about just about every war in our history except Vietnam and recently about World War I, I had long ago come to terms with the fact that all wars are multi-sided. The reasons they occur, especially those in the Middle East which are the wars of my recent lifetime, can go back sometimes thousands of years, deeply blurring the good guys and the bad guys.

I also understood that great documentary reporting looks to tell the whole story, but if the narrative is about war, most viewers and readers expect closure in the end, a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. After the American Revolution, we got a country. After the Civil War we emerged as a nation without slavery, and a determination that brother will never again fight brother. After seventeen-and-a-half hours of the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, some viewers felt that they were still left hanging without the usual lessons learned and hope for the future.

Researching to compile my father’s letters, I had some years ago discovered several accounts and books which did bring a kind of closure. In 1992, General Harold Moore, and famed war journalist, Joe Galloway, collaborated on the book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Later, in 2009, they published We Are Soldiers Still.

The 1992 book is their very graphic first-hand account of one of the first big engagements of the war at what is known as Landing Zone X-ray and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Both books explore the French occupation of Vietnam from the late 1800s until their defeat in 1954. The mistakes of the French, and how they were driven out, were required reading.

They then go on to also point out, as Burns does over and over again, that for some reason none of those lessons were taken seriously. Had they been, the heart and will of the North Vietnamese people and their leaders would not have been underestimated. It would also have led to a greater understanding of the Southern part of the country and its people as well.

Moore doesn’t focus long on the politics and politicians and how we ended up entangled in a conflict that was doomed from the start. It’s a straightforward account of a career solder whose great love was our country and was ordered to go into battle, just like my father.

In the second book Moore, and those of his comrades still living from X-ray, seek out their surviving counterparts from the North Vietnamese army and meet them in a return to Vietnam, allowing us the reader to get to know our former adversaries. We learn they are real people with beating hears and souls just like us.

Moore’s goal was to spend the night on X-ray one more time with his men. Even with the old North Vietnamese general’s support, he could not get official permission from Hanoi to go, except for a brief landing that would consist of several hours. A strange series of events resulted in Moore, Galloway, and the others being stranded for a night on the site of X-ray where the worst part of the fighting took place. Together they relived each moment and exercised the ghosts of war.

The sense of closure Moore was able to experience seems monumental, and one is grateful that some have achieved personal peace. He passed away in 2017.

Vietnam was a conflict, however, where I believe even when those who lived it are long dead there will continue to be a lack of collective closure or a lesson devoid of monumental pain. Almost anything we say at the end of the story will have a vapid ring.

For men like my father who volunteered to go to Vietnam and wore their patriotism on their sleeve, to the boys, average age 19, who were drafted and who should have been at home dating girls in the moonlight of a small town drive in …

… their sacrifice should mean something.

For families, wives, mothers, sisters, brothers at home whose loved ones died in the Vietnam War, or who witnessed the disintegration of survivors to debilitating physical wounds, or a little understood phenomena called Post Traumatic Stress …

… their sacrifice should mean something.

Their lives and future should have meant more than the political hot mess and expediency that consumed the war almost from the beginning. Our country, so beloved for her ideals that so many good men and women were willing to fight for her, should have been better than that.

No matter how it’s presented, in bits and pieces over the years with the declassification of documents and records of conversations coming to light from the highest of offices, to the Ken Burn documentary, it will never be easy to hear.

So I wondered … is there any good way to tell the story of Vietnam?

Next … “Arrival in Saigon.”

Pictured in the middle above is my father, Captain Thomas J. Medley Sr. (Code name Charlie Echo), Special Security Officer and Commander of the SSG Detachment (Special Security Group) assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and his “Professionals” taken somewhere near their base camp known as Camp Eagle, Republic of Vietnam. On his left Sgt. Tom Rahn and on the right Sp4 John Berry. SSG duties included mapping enemy communications and positions all over Vietnam, CODEWORD back-channel communications and courier services. Bien Hoa Air Base.

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  • old_redneck

    Thanks for posting this.

    I’m an (old) Vietnam vet.

    Looks as though that photo is from the early days — those rifles are old M-1 carbines, later replaced with the M16.

    I hope your father made it home in good health.

    During my 9 months as an infantry platoon leader, eleven of my men were killed. I promised myself that, after I returned home, I would visit every one of their families. Our battalion personnel office gave me names and addresses of next of kin. Took me three years; I used up all my leave each year visiting families; my parents helped pay my travel expenses; I made it — visited all eleven families. I remained on active duty — retired in 1995.

    Over the winter of 2010 I decided to go through my photos from Vietnam and from the visits to the eleven families. I made it through a few photos — then, I couldn’t finish. Too damn many ghosts.

    • Susan Sili

      Excellent catch on the rifles. This was taken in late October or early
      November of 67. When the detachment headed north in a month or so those were replaced by M16s. My dad did make it home in good health but was very much changed in outlook. He suffered symptoms of PTSD in particular horrible nightmares for years. We moved on though as a family and as my brother so aptly put it when describing his life post
      Vietnam, “our lives in the present became more important to him than
      dwelling on Vietnam”. Since my father almost never talked about Vietnam, finding the letters filled with his detailed descriptions and his feelings which changed toward the last months as he witnessed more and more death has been painful. I wish we had realized and could have done more to help with those “ghosts.”Several years ago, I was contacted by the men who served with Dad, three of the seven are still with us, with one that has not been located. They communicate and meet up and are planning a reunion this year. They help me fill in the gaps with information and are actually part of the inspiration for going ahead now and publishing the letters.

  • M. D. Russ

    Susan,

    Thank you and I cannot wait to read the rest of your series.

    I entered the Army in the summer of 1973 at the end of the Viet Nam War. For the next 25 years of my career, I watched and then helped plan the Army’s transition from a draftee Army to, first, the VOLAR (Volunteer Army, which was an unmitigated disaster) and then to the All-Volunteer Professional Army which we have today. I served in Europe for three tours as the Army transitioned from a counter-insurgency mentality to a main-line heavy force that could effectively combat the Soviet Army with modernized armored vehicles and attack aircraft. I stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Christmas Eve, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened. I was a battalion commander in northern Germany during German reunification.

    But the scars of Viet Nam were deep in our Army and it took decades to heal them. We had to rebuild the authority and leadership of our non-commissioned and junior officers. We had to restore the confidence in the integrity of our senior officers. And we had to take uncompromised measures to remove indiscipline, substance abuse, and racial bigotry in the ranks that lingered from the draft era. It was a long haul and an often difficult task, but by the time we deployed to fight the First Gulf War, we knew that we had made it and the bad old days of the Viet Nam draftee Army were gone forever.

    I am a big fan of Hal Moore’s book. BTW, he retired as a three-star Lieutenant General.

    • Susan Sili

      Just after Vietnam, we headed first to Heidelberg and then Stuttgart Germany but Dad’s work (he was Major Medley by then)in military intelligence took him right to the Brandenburg Gate, more than once overnight.We always worried when he was that close to East Berlin. I don’t think he ever imagined it would come down in his lifetime but I remember us all watching it on television. Incredible to have actually been there. In 1976, he retired when he was passed over for Lt Colonel during those transition years you spoke about as so many other deserving veterans were, but would not have fared well in the VOLAR for sure. That was a great recap on the army of the years between Vietnam and the First Gulf War. What a great post for BD with tie in to whats happening today, especially since a sizeable number of our population polled have no idea the role our military plays in the world or that we were even in a “Gulf War”. 20 per cent have no idea who the leader of Iraq was or who captured him. 30 per cent have no idea who Muammar Gaddafi was or what country he ruled. 40 per cent of the population don’t know what the Holocaust was and our military’s role in liberating the camps in WWII.

      • M. D. Russ

        I’m sorry that your father was passed over for LTC. The Army trashed a lot of fine officers after the Viet Nam era. My second company commander when I was a lieutenant was involuntarily released from active duty in the 1975 RIF (Reduction In Force). He entered a Reserve unit and later retired as a two-star Major General commanding all Army Reserve units in California. That was the quality of officers the Army released in the post-VN drawdown. And then the Army did it again in the “peace dividend” of the early 1990’s. I was a battalion commander by then and had to counsel the four majors and a dozen captains in my command whether to take a voluntary severance offer or wait for the next promotion board. I hated it. Then I was selected to attend the Army War College. That winter the promotion list for Colonel came out and nine of my classmates were passed over, two of them personal friends of mine. There was no celebration at the Officers’ Club that night–we just went home after classes were over.

  • mezurak

    The country didn’t learn anything from Vietnam. Just look at the world today.

    • M. D. Russ

      What a succinct and simplistic statement, totally devoid of any collaborative argument or evidence. Life must be simple when you don’t have to think or reason. Just go with your gut instincts and prejudices. People like you elected Donald Trump.

      • Susan Sili

        indeed typical mesurak and his sad and gutless outlook on everything.

        • mezurak

          So it’s ok to make a career.out of a one year problem? It took a hundred hours to take care of Iraq in 1991. Shock and awe and all that BS. But the politicians said stop. So we had to take on the problem again in a 20 year war that our kids are still screwing with.

          911, a just war we turned into more BS. Now here we are with burned out troops and equipment while our Russian and Chinese friends are joining Force’s to take our ass out using our own money. If we had listened to the history of Vietnam, we wouldn’t have allowed politicians to put us in this situation. But I’m gutless for saying anything.

          • M. D. Russ

            So we should have ignored the 9-11 attacks and let OBL skate free? That is gutless. We are in a war of millennial consequential outcomes, one that will determine if western civilization will survive or if a new Muslim caliphate will achieve world domination. That is a war worth fighting, no matter how long it takes. The conflict with the Russians and the Chinese was inevitable. Better now than later.

          • mezurak

            We took obl out. Why are we still playing games with the Taliban when in the end we walk away? Another 20year war for nothing except making us weaker.

            And in case you’ve forgotten, the whole idea of globalism was to bring world Peace. The Russian and Chinese politicians apparently have a different view of globalism than ours do.

            I wonder, do the Chinese troops have a rousing night of playing mahjong with our troops in Djibouti? After all, their base is right next door. And will they share their catch of the day with our folks on Diego Garcia when they visit from their new base in the Seychelles?

            Or maybe we should instead face the reality that the fish hanging on the hook, is us.

          • M. D. Russ

            Look out! There are some Chinese right behind you in the bushes!

          • mezurak

            Oh you are such a comic. Did they teach you that in O6 kindergarten or does it come naturally?

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