There Aren't Enough Pages in a Book – Mitch's Story
March 20, 2015
Leslie's father Mitch was in the U.S. Marines and served his Vietnam tour in 1966/67.
When I began Uprooted it was my intention to incorporate his story into that of Tung's, as it would provide an American counter-point to the Vietnamese perspective. He agreed to let me interview him, but said from the outset that Tung should be the focus of the book.
He passed away in the summer of 2009. Despite having done only two interviews, I was determined to make his story a significant part of Uprooted. I wanted to show that the soldiers were also victims of this inevitable conflict.
Sometimes there aren't enough pages in a book.
In the case of Uprooted, it became clear – after interviews with other Marines in Mitch's division – that his story would interrupt the main narrative, and that I wouldn't be adding anything that wasn't already part of the common record of the war.
So Mitch got his way. His infectious humility won out over my determination to push his name into print. But zeroes and ones of the internet are a different matter. Here there is space for embellishment and digression.
So, please indulge me this extra long post.
The decision to sign up can be both simple and complex. It could an economic choice, one of convenience or of obligation. But somewhere in every soldiers' motivation – until the draft at least – was a belief in the ideal of something. Something that would protect their family and make the world a better place. I believe this applies to the American soldiers, and Vietnamese of both sides.
The following are excerpts from an earlier draft that tell the first part of Mitch's story.
While the rural Vietnamese were being exposed to assassinations by the VC, arrest and torture by the ARVN, upheaval and bombing, Vietnam had not grazed the consciousness of the young Americans who would eventually find themselves under the same pristine blue sky, deep in the same murky paddy fields.
Mitch grew up in a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. His family lived in a small two-bedroom house on a large lot with a rusting shed and trees hung with moss. Across the road behind a mattress warehouse was a hill where he and his sister would play until it got dark.
Back home they would huddle around Captain Kangaroo and Roy Rogers. The TV's tube was so old they had to huddle under a blanket in order to see the faded screen.
When Mitch was close to graduating, he had a choice. Allow his father and sister to pull everything together to send him to go to college, or join the Marines. He went to Parris Island for his training. “It was terrible for him to chose to go to the army,” his sister recalled.
Mitch's decision was characteristic of boy the who'd jump off the shed playing Superman with a towel over his back, in pursuit of “truth, justice and the American way”. Inspired by Kennedy's exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you”, his decision was a sincere commitment to do good for his country.
“I was young and idealistic. I'd seen movies and things on TV and thought, yeah, I'd like to do that.”
There was a glamor and a romance to being a Marine, the best of the best. He was to discover that "wanting to do it and actually doing it are two different things."
The reality hit him, hard, between the eyes the day he arrived for basic training.
“So far boot camp is the worst thing I have ever been through in my life,” he wrote.
Mitch had entered another world. A world which was focused on “taking the civilian out of you and putting the Marine in”, according to fellow soldier Scott Camil.
From very first morning, woken before dawn for extreme physical training, the trainees were put in situations they could not win. Only half of Mitch's class graduated.
Every successful cadet mastered his own way of coping with the dehumanizing process. Camil treated it like a game. Once you understood the rules, you could take on the part in order to win. In his letters home, Mitch seemed to have maintained this dual perspective in another way.
“My drill instructor seems like the wildest man alive, but actually he is only doing his job.”
The training was more than simply physical tests. Boys who had grown up learning "thou shall not kill" in Sunday School, were taught that killing was not only necessary, but legitimate and legal. What political training they received was limited to dehumanizing the enemy.
“Communists were just like rats or cockroaches. Our duty was to kill them before they came to our country,” Camil was taught.
Nothing was more sacred to a marine than the life of his buddy. No one else understood you or would watch your back as you watched his. Camaraderie became the strongest motivating factor that kept the men fighting once they were out in the field.
The world of the Marines and the world of home might as well have been on different sides of the globe already. One was buried then exhumed, in order to survive the other.
In January 1965 he graduated to advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune. As General Westmoreland stepped up the Marine's role in Vietnam from base defense to search and destroy, Mitch knew he would eventually be sent, and volunteered to go.
Instead he was posted to Philadelphia where his duties included taking part in funeral detachments, as fallen soldiers began to return. This experience made him more determined to go. Finally in the early summer of 1966 he received his orders.
At Camp Pendleton there was further infantry training, including a guerrilla warfare school with mocked-up villages and fake booby-traps. This was the fruit of former-President Kennedy's focus on anti-insurgency training.
Then there was "Old Sheep-Shit". Every marine at Pendleton came to know and hate Old Sheep-Shit - an artificial mountain they had to climb every day, some days with 80lb packs, other days - as punishment for some minor infraction - carrying a fully loaded metal locker. Sheep Shit was so steep it was easier to slide than to march down.
Finally Mitch was flown to Okinawa to face more mountains, more escape and evasion, and more physical depravations, in anticipation of what they'd face in "the shit". The young marines were stoked up. Their months and years of training was finally going to be put to good use. They were going to “get some”.
Proud, determined and green. They were still in rehearsals. War-games. Years later Mitch would say, “Wanting to do it and actually doing it are two different things.”
While in Okinawa Mitch saw some marines rotating back to the United States. There was no conversation between the two groups of soldiers as they observed each other on the airfield tarmac, but the effect was sobering.
“There was a difference in the way they looked. They looked like their eyes are blank, like they don't have any soul in their eyes.”
Whatever good intentions the soldiers of both sides arrived with, they with were quickly subsumed into the more pressing need to follow orders, to survive and to protect their comrades and buddies. I will continue Mitch's story in a couple of weeks.
While the American soldiers in 1965, '66 and '67 expected to bring the war to a swift conclusion, they would be joining a South Vietnamese Army who had been in the struggle for almost a decade already.
The South Vietnamese Army's failure, and regularly documented cowardice, is the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding, misinformation and cultural bias. Why the South Vietnamese soldiers seemed to fight so poorly, while the VC fought so well, is one of the least understood paradoxes of the war.
Next week I will throw some more mud into those already murky waters.