Today is Monday, April 30th, and the 37th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. As we continue to cope with need of its veterans (some of whom came back from the war with mental and physical problems, and healthcare costs that will continue to expand), it’s important to keep talking about this war.
Arguably the most controversial war in American history, the Vietnam War began after botched elections meant to bring the country, temporarily divided after a struggle for independence from France, back together. When the unfairly-elected president was killed in a coup, a Communist party was formed in North Vietnam and began to use guerilla warfare against the South Vietnamese. Since the U.S.’s “domino theory” held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to Communism, more would follow, from our point of view intervention was necessary. To prevent this, the US began to assist the South Vietnamese, practically guaranteeing eventual conflict with the North. That conflict came on August 2nd and 4, 1964, when two U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were fired upon by the North Vietnamese. In response, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson the authority to escalate involvement, and the war had officially begun.
For the next nine years, American ground troops fought a hard battle against the well-supplied North Vietnamese army. The harsh jungle conditions and guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong made fighting difficult, and in many local towns and villages there was a strong Communist support base, making soldiers’ jobs even harder. The lack of a clear goal created low morale, and the limitations of the war (though there were arial bombings of the North, ground troops were confined to the South) made winning practically impossible.
Meanwhile, back at home, opposition to the war was only growing. Originally started by college students and hippies to protest the government’s handling of the war, they gradually became more widespread, especially as the cost, in lives and dollars, piled up against increasing evidence of U.S. war crimes. After the Tet Offensive of 1958, which changed little on the ground but solidified Americans’ distrust of the war, a gradual pullout of troops began, with the last leaving in 1973. (The war officially ended in 1975 with the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon.) For my family, it was far too late.
My uncle, a paratrooper, enlisted in 1965/6 and was killed in a firefight in 1967, within 6 weeks of his arrival in Vietnam. This apparently means that he was dropped into a fire and didn’t make it; I have never asked (nor do I particularly want to know) exactly how death comes in a situation like that. By the war’s end, he had been dead for 8 years; my mom, only 5 at the time, was about to turn 13, just a few years younger than I am today. While no family can ever “move on,” by the time the war ended, the emotions associated with my uncle’s death had been tamped down and pushed away.
That is not to say, of course, that Private First Class Timothy Egan, Company A 2, 173rd Brigade (airborne) has been forgotten. The picture of him in his uniform sits on my desk at home; I look at it often and like to imagine that he would be proud of me. One aunt has the flag from his coffin, along with a painting of him, in her living room; another recently discovered a letter of condolence signed by President Johnson. My cousin has his Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and name, and the family stories — my grandmother scrubbing her floors after they left for the train station, sure that she would never see him again; how she knew as soon the uniformed man climbed her steps what the news would be, even before his knock — have been passed down to me, the self-designated historian of the family, and I eagerly hoard pictures of him. A few years ago, my grandma sent me his letters home. Each one ends with love and hugs for everyone in the family, particularly the youngest (my mom and her sister, who was 2). In his last, he noted excitedly that he had only six months of deployment left.
Today, as we go about our busy, 21st century lives, we should take a moment to appreciate those who fought bravely halfway around the globe, and to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
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