Michael Palmer lives in Colorado.
February 2, 1969: I step off the back of a CH-34, a helicopter that looks like a flying apartment building complete with side-mounted machine guns. It is so muggy you can’t catch your breath.
I’m at Camp Eagle, just north of Hue, South Vietnam. It’s the year after the Tet offensive of 1968. Eagle had been a holding of the 1st Cav. until the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular army overran it. Over 3,800 Americans were killed during the 12-week offensive.
Camp Eagle looks as though it’s been through a war. Nothing of value is left. The ground is strewn with trash; barbed wire is everywhere littered with blown paper, rags, and plastic sheeting. The place smells dirty, dusty, and rotten. Half-crouching, not knowing what to expect but knowing this is a place where no one likes you and everyone wants to hurt you, you make for some kind of cover. The remains of a set of hooches (wooden, screen-sided, tin-roofed sheds) will suffice. Little do we know they will be our home for the next year.
Once we get inside, the choppers take off, leaving us in a frightening silence. This is a real “what have I gotten myself into?” predicament. The realization is that whatever happens from here on out, all you will have you have now.
As we pull together to organize a cleanup and planning session, the bleakness of the situation hits. This is really it. We have nothing: no toilet paper, no pop, no sheets, no light, no power. What we do have is mud, wet, mildew, nightly sapper raids (Vietcong running through our hooches throwing bags of explosives). We eventually have “122 mm” rocket attacks, where the ‘Cong makes a bamboo fork large enough to hold a six-foot-long bottle rocket and tries to hit you with it. From a couple of miles away they are surprisingly accurate—though accuracy doesn’t matter. The fear they generate is the real intent.
Being in an assault helicopter unit with the 101st Airborne has its rewards. There is a certain military prestige to such an assignment. Reality is less glamorous. Our assignment is the Ashau Valley. We are to support the various firebases and LZs (landing zones) strung out up and down the valley. The Vietcong uses the valley as a highway to supply the south from the north and China. The firebases are small artillery outposts positioned with fire zones to control any traffic.
The living conditions at these firebases are the most primitive any of us have ever seen. Imagine a mountaintop blasted bare of any vegetation, a rough circle of mud ringed with concertina wire and sandbagged bunkers. In the center of this circle is a large sandbagged depression. Artillery of any variety will be found there: eight-inch track-mounted guns, old twin-barreled anti-aircraft guns. Whatever. Everything that goes on here is to protect those guns.
You live in a hole in the ground—mud walls, insects, snakes, and rats. When it is wet it is mud, when dry, red dust. You seldom get to eat hot food, and never get to take a shower. You sleep in a wet sleeping bag night after night, week after week. Everything you own is wet, muddy, and moldy: clothes, food, and equipment.
When you can, you toast your bread. That way you don’t notice the weevils. You try to think of it as whole wheat. Your water is always Kool-Aid so you don’t see how brown it is. If something doesn’t come out of a sealed can you don’t trust it.
And you live like this until somebody decides you need to move. Doesn’t matter—the terrain will be different but the situation the same.
Thirty years later, are we doing this again? For what? We lost 58,000 of my generation. For what? I lost friends; you lost sons, brothers, husbands.
We went where our government sent us. And we learned; learned not to trust, learned that politicians, out of ignorance and vainglory, can get us into situations they will not allow us to leave for fear of losing face. Who has to clean it up? Our kids, our military, who cannot question their orders.
I have three sons. The oldest is 26 and in the army. The next is 20, and the youngest is 16. My grandfather was in WWI, my dad in WWII; I was in Vietnam. Will my sons end up in the Balkans—even if “only” in a peacekeeping force? Americans will undoubtedly be in Kosovo for a long time.
The politicians wax eloquent about the humanitarian war against Serbia. Where’s the humanitarianism in sending Americans to the backwater of Europe while taking sides in a bloody conflict over land? Have they nothing better to do with their lives than become fodder for a president’s legacy or an obsolete alliance’s credibility?
George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, said that “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation.” He wondered: “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”
As a father, as a citizen, I ask, why indeed?