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Vietnam War Essay Research Paper The Vietnam

Vietnam War Essay, Research Paper

The Vietnam War The Vietnam War is truly one of the most unique wars ever fought by the

Unites States of by any country. It was never officially declared a war (Knowll, 3). It had no

official beginning nor an official end. It was fought over 10,000 miles away in a virtually unknown

country. The enemy and the allies looked exactly the alike, and may by day be a friend but by

night become an enemy (Aaseng 113). It matched the tried and true tactics of World War Two

against a hide, run, and shoot technique known as “Guerrilla Warfare.” It matched some of the

best trained soldiers in the world against largely an untrained militia of untrained farmers. The

United States’ soldiers had at least a meal to look forward to unlike the Communist Vietnamese

soldiers who considered a fine cuisine to be cold rice and, if lucky, rat meat. The Vietnam War

matched the most technically advanced country with one of the least advanced, and the lesser

advanced not only beat but humiliated the strongest military in the world (Aaseng, 111). When the

war was finally showing signs of end, the Vietnamese returned to a newly unified communist

country while the United Stated soldiers returned to be called “baby killers”, and were often spat

upon. With the complexities of war already long overdrawn because of the length of the war it is

no wonder the returning solders often left home confused and returned home insane. Through an

examination of the Vietnam War, in particular an event know as the My Lai Massacre, and the

people involved with both, it can be proven that when the threshold for violence of a person is

met or exceeded, the resulting psychological scarring becomes the most prominent reason for war

being hell. Although officially, the Vietnam Conflict had neither a beginning nor an end, for the

purpose of this paper it can be best examined through the decade the United States was involved:

February 6, 1965 – August 30, 1975. During World War Two the French had been a major ally to

the United States in the defeat of Adolph Hitler and the Axis Powers. France occupied and

claimed the small coastline country of Vietnam in Indochina. In this region there had been recent

Communist uprisings funded by the USSR The Vietnamese were willing to accept Communism in

return for what they had been fighting for over 2000 years: self rule. In 1950 the United States,

owing a debt of gratitude towards France, sent several advisors to aid French control in Vietnam.

Over the next decade and a half, the United States would send an entire Army and Navy to aid the

French in maintaining control in South Vietnam, which had separated from the Communist North

Vietnam by treaty in 1954. In early August of 1964 a small Vietcong (term used to identify South

Vietnamese in favor of communism and unification) patrol boat had an encounter with a United

States war ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Gunfire was exchanged, and, in the end, President Johnson

agreed to allow aggressive retaliation. On February 6, 1965, the United States began the bombing

of North Vietnamese cities, marking the unofficial start of the Vietnam War (Winthrop, 853-861).

In the years of the war to follow, the media began to play a role. Photo-journalists would

accompany platoons on missions and, through the aid of cameras and video equipment, relate the

stories to the American at home. Every night for the length of the war news programs were

saturated with reports of the happenings in Vietnam and death tolls for the day. Grossly eggzrated

enemy casualty numbers were reported, giving the public a false view of happenings of the war.

Suddenly on January 30, 1968 a Vietcong uprising, now commonly known as the Tet Offensive,

took place. Tet is the Vietnamese new year and is commonly accepted as a cease-fire. With a

cease-fire in effect, most major cities’ defensives were less tight. As if all at once, more than one

hundred South Vietnamese cities were being shelled with Vietcong gunfire. Included in the cities

were Saigon, capital of South Vietnam and home to the United States Embassy. At first the Tet

Offensive appeared a failure for North Vietnam. A large portion of Vietcong troops were killed,

and major Vietcong outposts were discovered. Most of the overtaken cities, including Saigon, had

been regained. Unfortunately for the United States the timing of the Tet Offensive couldn’t have

been worse. For the past three years the Americans at home had been promised a swift defeat of

the (so called) nearly destroyed Communists, which, after the retreating of the French, had

become the main goal of the United States. Worst of all, election year was approaching, and the

incumbent Richard Nixon was promising a swift plan of “Vietmenization” in which the war was

supposed to be placed in the hands of the South Vietnamese and allow for the retreat of American

soldiers. Johnson was so unconfident he didn’t run for reelection. Finally, in 1972 the last United

States foot soldiers were removed from Vietnam, and in 1975 the North Vietnamese over took

Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Mien City after their brilliant military leader. At this time the United

States Embassy was surrendered, marking the end of the war (Winthrop, 861-865). As the

soldiers returned home they had to adapt from a war in which over one million people were killed.

There were no banners or celebrations, and as the news of events such as the My Lai Massacre

spread, they were seen as ruthless killers. When these soldiers risked their lives every minute for a

reason they were not told and seemingly was purposeless, and then returned to a country that

despised them for what they did negative effects are emanate(Winthrop, 861-865). During the war

many soldiers realized their maximum threshold for violence. When, as was the case for many

soldiers, this limit was reached and even exceeded, psychological scarring is going to take place.

This, combined with the return to a country that hated you for doing what you were told to do,

leads to a very defective psychological behavior. March 16, 1968 is truly a date remembered for

one of the most horrendous acts ever committed by the United States. On this day, Charlie

Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, under the leadership of twenty-four year old 2nd Lt.

William L. Calley Jr. became responsible for the execution of over 300 Vietnamese civilians,

mostly old men, women, and children. This atrocity, now known as the My Lai Massacre, opened

the eyes of many to the realities of war. The infantry men of this battalion were ordered to

systematically murder every inhabitant in this small South Vietnamese hamlet for suspicion of the

harboring of Vietcong Soldiers. In this village no signs of Vietcong inhabitants were found.

Neither a single uniform nor a gun was found anywhere (Hersh, 11-44) . This leads one to wonder

about the motives involved. Was the massacre necessarily, or was it simply an outlet for built up

anger and frustration towards the very idea of the Vietnamese (Knowll, 104-110)? It is well

known that the majority of United States troops didn’t want to be in Vietnam. A lesser known

fact is that the majority of South Vietnamese didn’t want United States troops there either.

Infantry men in the army were usually at the lesser end of intelligence scale because more

intelligent soldiers were used more as medics or as officers. In fact, thirteen of the 130 men in

Charlie Company had failed the army’s basic intelligence test, which should have stopped them

from even being in Vietnam (Knowll, 18). This intelligence limit means the soldiers had less

comprehension skill and probably had a lower threshold for violence. Also, by this time soldiers in

Vietnam had became aware of the treatment they would receive when they returned home.

“Doves” (a generic term for anti-war demonstrators) were well known for acts such as waiting for

a solider to return home so they could harass him with questions like “How many babies did you

kill today?” (Winthrop, 861-865). As if the war itself wasn’t traumatic enough, these extra

influences make the event of mental damage very possible. These issues raise the question as to

whether they are simply excuses for the terrible actions such as the one at My Lai, or were the

happenings such of My Lai the result of these influences. Or is it possible that the My Lai

Massacre occurred for a totally different, perhaps from the anger and frustration of one man given

too much power? William L. Calley Jr., born 1944, grew up in Miami Florida. He attended

grammar and high school there, and in 1963 flunked out of college after earning four F’s. He

became very uptight, and began smoking up to four packs of cigarettes a day. After leaving

college, Calley became a switchman for the East Coast Railway. In 1964 he made local headlines

when he was arrested for allowing a forty-seven car freight train to block rush-hour traffic for

thirty minutes.. In 1965, Calley left Florida and eventually enlisted in the Army in 1966. In spite of

poor academic performance, Calley joined Officers’ Training School at Ft. Benning, GA and

graduated without even learning to read a map. In 1967 Calley became the platoon leader for

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Captain Ernest Medina, the company’s

commanding officer, was a large, powerfully built man who was certainly respected, respect that

he earned rather than demanded. Lt. Calley was described as being boyish-looking. He was a mere

five feet-three inches tall, and seemed jealous of the respect the soldiers had for Medina (Hersh,

19). Troops under Calley said “he was always trying to be the big man; always would be the one

to beat them [Vietnamese] up. He didn’t know what was going on half the time.”(Hersh, 20)

Calley, unlike Medina, placed high emphasis on respect towards himself; respect he simply

demanded and wasn’t willing to earn. Then, on March 16, Lt. Calley became fed up with not

receiving the respect the thought the deserved. On a routine investigation of the small village of

My Lai, Calley discovered an outlet for his rage (Hersh, Chpt. 2). Calley ordered for the 300 plus

Vietnamese civilians to be lined up and be systematically excited, one by one while the others

watched. Every civilian found was killed. The following is a portion of a letter from a GI

concerning the incident: …Some of the guys are so careless! Today a buddy of mine called “La

Dai” (come here) into a hut. An old man came out of the shelter. My buddy told the man to get

away from the hut, and since we have to move quickly on a sweep, just threw a hand grenade into

the shelter. As he pulled the pin the old man got excited and started jabbering and running toward

my buddy and the hut. A GI, not understanding, stopped the old man with a football tackle just as

my buddy threw the grenade… After he threw it, and was running for cover, we all heard a baby

crying from inside the shelter. There was nothing we could do…. After the explosion we found the

mother, two children (ages about six and twelve, boy and girl), and an almost newborn baby. That

is what the old man was trying to tell us!… (Hersh, 12-13) November 17, 1970 Lt. Calley was

tried for, and eventually convicted for, his part in the premeditated murder of 109 “Oriental

human beings”. In a court-martial, murder is punishable by death by hanging. After a long

deliberation, the jury returned a sentence of life imprisonment, of which William Calley served

three years. Calley is now a successful jeweler in Columbus, Georgia (Knappmar, 598-601).

Whether or not Lt. Calley was acting on order, as he claimed, or out of pure rage may never be

known. It is known, however, that without the psychological stresses caused by Vietnam, the My

Lai Massacre may have never happened. The remainder of this paper is an investigation of the

causes and effects of those stresses in attempt to answer “why”, and, ideally, prevent another

atrocity like the My Lai Massacre. In any war, psychological stresses are inevitable. The memory

of risking one’s life will not fade quickly and is reason alone enough to drive one insane. As stated

previously, however, the war in Vietnam provided additional stresses. A major stress was the fact

that neither the citizens of the United States nor of South Vietnam accepted American

interference. A solider was usually uninformed of the intentions of their government. Soldiers are

taught to carry out orders without asking questions. This could lead to a solider developing a

belief that all fighting was being done in vain. Eventually, a solider would lose care in what he was

doing. His self worth would lower, thus lowering his view of worth of others. When he sees all

the death and destruction in what has became his world and realizes he is partly responsible, he

begins to regard himself as a killer, who himself deserves death. It is highly probable that even

with the end of a tour soldiers go home with this “responsible killer” attitude, and is forced back

into an unaccepting society still believing he doesn’t deserve to live, and often questioning why he

still is. Over the years, these repressed feelings grow until they eventually become uncontrollable,

and take control of the person, physically and mentally. There are two major viewpoints on the

psychological effects of events such as My Lai. One of these views is from the commanded

solider. If the happenings of everyday life in Vietnam are enough to drive one insane, the effects

of watching and participating a massacre of over 300 innocent people are truly destructive.

Months after such happenings, the soldiers are expected to return to normal, everyday civilian life.

This in its self is a form of denial. The same pressures on every solider are on those witnesses to

the outrages, only the witness must find a way to deal with both. Common sense leads one to

deduce that if causes are extreme the results should be expected, too, to be extreme. Another

viewpoint is that from the commanding officers. If Lt. Calley really was responsible for the My

Lai happenings, one must wonder why he wanted it to happen. Perhaps the officer was simply fed

up with the war situation. He may have been tires of having responsibility for not only himself, but

for all the soldiers he commanded. Not knowing the enemy from the ally could cause a situation

like the “fish in water” tactic. This method, which was used highly as a rationalization, stated that

one way to be sure to catch a fish would be to eliminate the water, just as a method killing

“Charlie” would be to kill all Vietnamese. It can also be said, however, that the commanding

officer isn’t to blame, but his commanders are. Not being in the war could lead to a sense of

“dehumanization” towards the Vietnamese, so it becomes easier to order a massacre from

Washington than to become part of one in Vietnam. One must also remember, however, that the

highest rank in the army is the President, and the citizens are directly responsible for whom this

may be. Through this research, it has been proven that because of events such the My Lai

massacre in Vietnam there were certainly psychological changes in those involved. Today’s

writers too often get caught up in what the media wants the people to believe. The only way to

aquire pure, unedited information is to speak personally to someone who has experienced events

such as the one mentioned. No matter what their view of the war is, when asked if war will

change a person the most common response will be “Nobody ever returns the same” (Knowll,

127) (Mahan Interview). With the certainty of scarring evident, one must begin to question why

this scarring happens and why people have a threshold for violence. The most obvious and most

correct response is that war wasn’t meant to be. If people were designed with a threshold, it

wasn’t meant to be exceeded. This leads one to deduce that although sometimes seemingly

necessary, war is hell and it is wrong.