Goodbye Vietnam

Goodbye Vietnam

by William Broyles

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480404335
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 359,614
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

William Broyles (b. 1944) was born in Houston, Texas. After studying as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, he served with the marines in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, an experience he would write about in Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace (now titled Goodbye Vietnam). After his tour of duty, Broyles became a journalist, contributing to many publications including the Atlantic, the Economist, and Esquire. His essay “Why Men Love War” was included in The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time. Broyles was the founding editor of Texas Monthly as well as editor in chief of Newsweek. He is also renowned as a screenwriter, having co-created the television series China Beach—which was inspired by Goodbye Vietnam—and written or co-written such films as Apollo 13, Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers, and Jarhead.  
 William Broyles (b. 1944) was born in Houston, Texas. After studying as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, he served with the marines in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, an experience he would write about in Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace (now titled Goodbye Vietnam). After his tour of duty, Broyles became a journalist, contributing to many publications including the Atlantic, the Economist, and Esquire. His essay “Why Men Love War” was included in The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time. Broyles was the founding editor of Texas Monthly as well as editor in chief of Newsweek. He is also renowned as a screenwriter, having co-created the television series China Beach—which was inspired by Goodbye Vietnam—and written or co-written such films as Apollo 13, Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers, and Jarhead.   

Read an Excerpt

Goodbye Vietnam

A Journey From War To Peace

By William Broyles


Copyright © 1986 William Broyles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0433-5



I fought in Vietnam, but I understood little of what going to war had meant for me and for the men I fought beside. About what it meant for the men and women we fought against—our enemies—I knew nothing.

For years I was content in my ignorance. My life was in the future, not the past. For me, the war was over, or so I thought. But no one who goes to war as a young man comes home in one piece. War marks the men and women who are caught up in it for life. It visits them in the hour before sleeping; it comes to them—bringing grief, pride, shame, and even laughter—in the casual moments of everyday life. It never goes away.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was dedicated in the autumn of 1982, I was absorbed in the now-forgotten crises of editing Newsweek. At the last minute, I decided to go to Washington for the dedication. I stood in front of the long black wall, gazing at names like Sai G. Lew, Glenn F. Cashdollar, Kenyu Shimabukuru, Famous L. Lane, Max Lieberman, Thomas L. Little Sun, Salvatore J. Piscitello, and Savas Escamillo Trevino: American names, drawn from every culture in the world—each name a father or a son, a husband or a friend who never came home. So many names—my emotions were overwhelmed.

I was surrounded by other men who stared at the names, reached out and touched them, washed them with their tears. Some of them were grandfathers now. They wore camouflage fatigues and bush hats, or nylon vests with their unit's name on the back. One man in a three-piece suit had a battered helmet on his head. Some of the men wore old uniforms wrinkled and dotted with moth holes, as if they had been pulled from the attic for this occasion. There were cowboys and union men and Hell's Angels and members of bowling teams; doctors and lawyers and diplomats and accountants; men who walked with canes and too many men in wheelchairs. Time and again I saw women point out a name to their children, then turn away, shoulders shaking, while the children carefully made a rubbing of the name.

Most of these veterans had volunteered as teenagers to fight in Vietnam. In their world, that was what patriotic Americans did. I was different. I was drafted at the age of twenty-four, and I had spent the previous three years doing my best to avoid military service. I believed it would be wrong for me to fight in Vietnam. The war would set me behind my peers, would place me in danger, and, oh yes, was immoral and all that. In 1968 I was a student at Oxford, and I watched the BBC as young Americans died in the streets of Hue during the Tet Offensive. Those boys were like the friends I had grown up with in a small town in Texas. They were fighting a war while my friends from college and I went on with our lives. I thought my country was wrong in Vietnam, but I began to suspect that I was using that conviction to excuse my selfishness and my fears.

When I came back to America from Oxford, I took my preinduction physical in Newark. There were a hundred and fifty of us—four whites, the rest blacks. The white men carried X rays and other evidence of medical "problems" and were gone in half an hour. For the young black men, on the other hand, the Army was their escape from the Newark ghetto. They wanted in, not out. When I left Newark that day I realized I could no longer act as if my education and social class had given me special privileges. I set out to find some solution that would allow me to live—and to live with myself.

A few months later I was in the Marine Corps, preparing to study Chinese in Monterey, California, and then to serve out my three years translating documents in Washington, D.C. Instead—to my considerable surprise—when the orders were issued I was sent to Vietnam to command an infantry platoon in the foothills west of Da Nang. Throughout my year in Vietnam I kept wanting to tell my superiors—anyone—that I wasn't supposed to be there, that people like me didn't fight this kind of war. But I quickly learned just how adaptable I could be, particularly when other men wanted to kill me. The war became what I did. Instead of getting up in the morning, picking up my briefcase, and going to the law firm, I got up in the morning, picked up my rifle, and went to war. A year later, I came home.

For a while after I returned I resented my peers who had avoided the war and got on with their careers. I felt more in common with the antiwar activists who had become conscientious objectors or gone to prison. Vietnam changed them as it changed the men who fought it. But political protest simply isn't as intense as war; the stakes aren't as high. And the protesters didn't seem to suffer the great extremes of pain, belligerence, and nostalgia I kept seeing in veterans. The veterans had loved their country, and it had not loved them back.

I also didn't feel that much in common with the veterans who couldn't seem to put the war behind them. Perhaps that was because I was older than most of the men who fought the war, or because I saw less combat, or because I had done reasonably well after I came home. I didn't know the reason. I only knew that I had lost touch with the men I had fought beside and that for me the war had become a memory—some old medals and a faded bush hat I could show my son on a quiet day.

But in the presence of those names on the wall, I saw Vietnam as if I'd left it only yesterday. I remembered the first time I was under fire, the first dead man I saw, the bloody floors of medevac helicopters, the heat, the mud, the leeches, and the fear. I remembered the way we gambled for C rations, read each other's mail, sang rock-and-roll at twilight before the patrols went out. I remembered how we laughed when March went to sleep on ambush and fell into the river, and when Broman hid in a rolled-up rug while the MPs raided a house of some disrepute. I remembered how beautiful the country was, how it smelled, and how its people looked, the children with clear skin and innocent brown eyes, the old men squatting on the paddy dikes, the young women in billowing ao dais, graceful as deer.

I remembered slogging through the paddies in flak jackets, boots, and helmets, our bodies shot full of immunizations, our water purified. We pushed our way into mysterious villages hidden behind walls of bamboo as thick as time. At night in the mountains, I would watch the track of satellites making their way around the earth. Other Americans were on the moon, sent there by the same American can-do spirit that had sent us to Vietnam, and using the same technology that was so useless there. Those astronauts were the first men to leave the earth for another celestial body, but they knew more about the moon than we knew about Vietnam. We were strangers on our own planet, alone and afraid. We were blown about like rice husks on the wind.

All we had was each other, and the strange culture we had created. Vietnam was the first rock-and-roll war, a weird mix of sex, drugs, music, violence, and idealism that was the dark mirror of the sixties. For the men who fought there, it was also an intense sharing of comradeship and trust, a Woodstock with weapons. In spite of all the moral and political confusion, in spite of the horror and shame of war, we knew that by our own lights we had done something good, and we clung to that belief even when the war and its warriors were out of fashion.

Vietnam was a different sort of war, but not as different from other wars as many of its veterans think. The Confederate soldier also fought well in a dubious cause and lost; the British Tommy in World War I lived and died in a war where courage and death changed nothing and only the war won. But in most wars the soldier knows where the battlefield is. In Vietnam the war was everywhere. In most wars the soldier knows who his enemy is. In Vietnam it was difficult to tell which Vietnamese were our friends and which our foes, and too easy to give up trying.

A soldier's best weapon is not his rifle but his ability to see his enemy as an abstraction and not as another human being. The very word "enemy" conveys a mental and moral power that makes war possible, even necessary. I had never known my enemy, and I wanted to. Americans died in Vietnam for more than fifteen years, longer than in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II put together. But the people on whose behalf we were fighting, and the enemies who were so much like them, remained a mystery to the end, as elusive as that presence I had encountered in a tunnel so many years ago.

I remember one night when Da Nang was attacked by rockets. For once, we had seen a flash and knew where the enemy was. For the next two hours we witnessed the terrible miracle of American firepower. The enemy was bombed by F-4s, pounded with artillery, strafed by helicopter gunships. They were surrounded by rings of napalm, dark red fire, smoke black against the moonlight. Everyone opened up on them. The earth shook, the sky was ablaze.

When the shelling stopped, there was an eerie silence. I shivered, involuntarily. I could not imagine how anyone could have survived. And then, from the center of this scorched and mutilated piece of earth, we saw another flash. They were still there, and still fighting.

Who were they? How did they keep coming back, and why? Who were those men who stormed the American embassy in Saigon, who holed up inside the Citadel in Hue, who crept forward under B-52 strikes at Khe Sanh, who crawled through our wire and into our bases, naked and covered with mud, throwing bombs into our bunkers?

They took stunning losses; hundreds of thousands—perhaps two million—of them were killed. When wounded they had the most rudimentary medical care. For rations they carried a few balls of rice. They lived in the jungle and in tunnels, and were separated from their families for ten and even twenty years. They were my enemy, we were locked in the most intimate combat, and I knew nothing about them.

As I stood mesmerized by all those names at the wall, I saw something else. I saw my own reflection. It fell across the names like a ghost.

"Why me?"

That was the question we asked ourselves each morning as we went out on patrol in Vietnam, and each evening as the night settled around our foxholes. It is the soldier's first question. What has brought me—out of all the rich possibilities of life—here, now, to this? Is this why my mother bore me, why my parents raised me, why my girlfriend grappled with me in the back seats of borrowed Chevies? Is all my youth—throwing papers after school, doing my homework, enduring two-a-day football workouts in August—is it all come to this sorry end, to die so far away in a piece of mud?

But should the young man survive, yet witness other young men shot through with bullets, blown to pieces by shrapnel, ripped up by booby traps, should he be a witness and not a victim, then he moves on to the second question:

"Why them?"

That is the survivor's question, and I asked it at the Memorial on that cloudy November morning. I was filled with a terrible sadness at all the lives lost. But beneath that sadness I felt a deep relief, tinged with guilt: my name isn't on the wall.

And then I realized that other names weren't there—the names of the men and women we fought, our enemies. They died by the hundreds of thousands, but they remain abstractions. Who knows their names?

It takes two sides to make a war, and I still knew no more about the men we fought, that other "them," than I knew about that presence I had encountered in a tunnel. Another human being had come to be there, through some sequence of events, just as I had. Was it fate? Chance? I kept wondering about the why of it. Soldiers do that. We keep wondering why we walked over the mine that the man behind us detonated, why we moved just before the bullet hit the paddy dike where our head had been, why we went to war and others didn't, why we made it home and others did not.

I realized that even though I had been a reluctant warrior the war was still in me, like a buried piece of shrapnel working its way to the surface. I had to try to understand what it meant to go to war. I had to confront what it meant to me and to my men, but that would not be enough.

I had to reach farther. I had to reach out in that tunnel and try to touch that other man. To know myself I had to know my enemy.

I had to go back.

And so in the autumn of 1983 I went to the United Nations and met with the Foreign Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Co Thach. I explained that I wanted to do what no American veteran had ever done: return to Vietnam and write about the people we had fought against. For me the war had never really ended. If I could meet my enemy in peace, perhaps it would finally be over.

He listened politely, and said that it was an intriguing idea and he would do what he could.

For months my request was considered, appeared on the verge of approval, then was shelved again. I made many visits to the offices of the Vietnamese Mission to the United Nations, which are located in a modern apartment complex built over the East River. I had pleasant discussions about American politics and about Vietnam with Tran Trong Khanh, the press officer, while a portrait of Ho Chi Minh looked down on the rented furniture, but I never seemed to come any closer to getting my visa. Finally, I put it out of my mind and went on with other projects. And then, in September 1984, the call came.

"Mr. William?" It was Khanh. They are no better with our names than we are with theirs.

"Yes, Khanh."

"Your visa—approved."

"Great," I said, thinking that sometime around Christmas would be ideal.

"Your visa is approved if you arrive before the end of September."

"Khanh, it's September twenty-first now."

"That is correct. There is a plane from Bangkok that flies to Hanoi on Fridays. The last Friday, I believe, is the twenty-eighth."

"I'll be on it," I said.



I arrived in Bangkok early the next week, and went directly to the Vietnamese embassy, a small villa up Wireless Road from the palatial compound of the American embassy. On my first visit a bland official insisted not only that they did not have my visa but that they had never heard of me.

The next day I was able to meet with Tran Ngoc Thach, known as "Little Thach," in deference to his boss, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. Little Thach's eyeglasses were as thick as an old Coke bottle, and made his eyes seem as big as golf balls. We spread out the documents Khanh had given me in New York. He looked through them all, nodded his head, then asked for my passport.

While he was gone I leafed through a thick book of war photographs published in Hanoi. Page after page was filled with atrocities: Americans displaying the severed ears of dead Viet Cong, Americans dragging prisoners with ropes behind halftracks, Americans proudly standing over bodies piled high as cordwood. The Communists[1] had got most of them from the bodies of American soldiers who had carried the bizarre battlefield photographs in their packs as souvenirs.

I couldn't read the words that went with the photographs, but the images clearly showed what our former enemies thought of us. I began to wonder whether this trip was a good idea.

Little Thach returned, without my passport.

"We must cable Hanoi," he said. "If everything is in order, you can pick up your visa tomorrow."

"But the plane leaves tomorrow."

"Yes," he said. "Good day."

I returned the next morning. No passport. No visa. No Little Thach. I was told to go to the airport.

I picked up my bags and headed for the airport. To my considerable relief, my visa and my passport were waiting for me. I had no trouble finding my fellow passengers. A small group of Vietnamese men and women, all dressed in simple dark shirts, trousers, and sandals, waited in a corner of the large waiting room while the brightly dressed tourists and passengers bound for other airlines swirled through the airport.

I was one of the last passengers to board the Air Vietnam twin-engine Russian turboprop. Two seats were vacant. One was next to an old woman who was picking her teeth with a knife; they were black from betel juice. The other was beside a middle-aged man reading Paris Match. I sat next to him. He was a physicist on his way back to Hanoi from a scientific conference. He had left the South to attend university in Hanoi in 1953, and when the Geneva conference divided Vietnam he remained in the North. For twenty-one years, he did not see his mother and father. One of his brothers was with the Viet Cong, and a sister worked for the South Vietnamese government.


Excerpted from Goodbye Vietnam by William Broyles. Copyright © 1986 William Broyles. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface to the 1996 Edition,
Introduction to the 2013 Edition,
Prologue: 1969,
1. Why Go Back?,
2. Morning in Hanoi,
3. "I Am Not a Russian",
4. MIAs and the Swedish Disco,
5. Dragons from the Sky,
6. The Targets of Nam Dinh,
7. Phat Diem: "Everyone Did It",
8. Marching Off to War,
9. Talking with Generals,
10. Tan Trao—Where It All Began,
11. Diplomatic Misunderstandings,
12. Ghosts in the Zoo,
13. American Boys,
14. All Quiet at the DMZ,
15. An Argument in Hue,
16. The Girl at Marble Mountain,
17. "Number One!",
18. The Best Weapon,
19. My Enemy, My Self,
20. The Road to Hill 10,
21. The Same Saigon,
22. Boats Along the Mekong,
23. Dancing in the Dark,
24. A My Lai Survivor and the White Viet Cong,
25. At the End of the Tunnel,
Essay on Sources,

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