|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Myra MacPherson was a longtime political writer for the Washington Post and was recently cited for her work in a New Yorker profile of the newspaper. She continues to write for national magazines and the Internet.
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Long Time Passing
Vietnam and the Haunted Generation
By Myra MacPherson
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2001 Myra MacPherson
All rights reserved.
The patrol picked its way through jungle so thick that by noon it was dark. A dead, midnight kind of darkness. Fifty men threaded their way. The first ten began to cross a river. The soldier walking point touched something with his boot. It was not a twig, not a root, not a rock. It was a trip wire to oblivion. In an instant the wire triggered a huge, fifty-pound Chinese mine. There was an enormous roar, like the afterburner of a jet, as it exploded, instantly ripping the point man apart. Shrapnel flew for yards.
Tom, six feet tall and slim, at nineteen already developing a characteristic slouch, froze, hunched his shoulders, and, in a flash, caught the scene forever in his mind: the face of one buddy disintegrating from the explosion; others walking their last steps and falling, bones sticking white out of flesh sheared off at the hips. Some bled to death, coating the ground and mud and leaves with their last moments of blood, before the medevac choppers could come. Some were caught in the river. Tom always remembers the river, running red "like Campbell's tomato soup." Those that weren't hit screamed in panic. Those that were screamed in pain.
Tom's first thought, as always, was of Chuck. He whipped around and saw Chuck lying immobile, staring, with the most startled look Tom had ever seen on his face.
Tom wasn't sure what was causing it — Chuck's breathing or his heartbeat — but something was causing it. Every few seconds, a fountain of blood gushed from a wound in Chuck's chest. Tom knelt and, with trembling fingers, grabbed a compression bandage, a thick cotton square with the bandage tied to it like a scarf. He wrapped one, two, three around Chuck's chest, pulling tight. The pressure held back the gush, even though blood seeped out around the borders — a brilliant red Pop Art pattern — but the bandages held.
Only then did Tom feel something sticky on his left arm. He felt down around his elbow. His hand came back bloody. A chunk of shrapnel was lodged there. Someone quickly bandaged his arm.
There was no time for anything but frantic, adrenaline-charged action. The jungle growth was so thick that they had to hack fiercely at the bamboo, its sharp ridges ripping their skin, before the medevac helicopters could come in. The choppers took the seriously wounded — the ones with no legs, the ones with gaping chests. And the dead. More than fifteen of the men were dead or seriously wounded.
The rest would simply have to walk out of there.
Only later would Tom and Chuck have time to think that magic was with them once again. They almost always walked point — one checking for snipers and grenades and booby traps, the other following right behind with compass and map.
They had been walking point all morning. Just five minutes before the explosion, the captain had decided to rotate his troops Had they been walking point, they would have been dead.
For those left in the jungle, the terror of the next hours would rival the horror of the mine going off. They were in the kind of war America's youth fought without end in Vietnam — an unceasing guerrilla war with an enemy seldom seen. A kind of war perfected by the VC ... a kind of war that to this day brings shaking nightmares to many veterans ...
"We had to move off the trail and chop our way out — every step of the way," remembers Tom. "The reason we got blown up, to begin with, is that we walked on the trail."
The jungle was steaming — as if the sky was not the sky at all but a giant bell jar encasing some monstrous greenhouse. The men gulped for air, but suffocated in the humidity. Sweat and blood stuck fatigues to backs, arms, legs. No one knew if the mine was a prelude to an ambush. There was always the certain knowledge that the Vietnamese knew that jungle like the back of their hands, that they could walk it blindfolded at night.
Something as ominous as a lurking enemy was at hand: hundreds of grenades, lightly attached by thin, invisible wires, festooned the jungle growth like deadly hidden ornaments on a tree. The least snag of a foot would trip a wire, pull the pin, and the spoon would fly off. Just brushing against a tree could set the grenades off. After what they had seen, there was enormous fear. With each step, they waited for the sound of an explosion, a scream of pain. It took four hours to go 500 yards. "Every twenty feet you would run into another booby trap," recalls Chuck. "The options were either to go around a grenade, once you spotted it, or try to disarm it, stick the pin back in if you could. There were some guys that shouldn't have messed with them and did. They got their arms blown off."
Tom's voice shakes. "We just prayed we'd get the hell out of there." Some men would get very, very quiet. Some would cry. Everyone could feel the gut panic. "All you could do was hold to the back strap of the one in front when it gets that dark. You couldn't keep spirits up, couldn't talk loud for fear the VC were around."
Tom's eyes grow distant. "It was one of the most terrible times."
Chuck is thirty-seven now, Tom thirty-five. In 1980 they came together for a singularly compelling reunion. There were disagreements and raised voices as they sifted through the endless maze that was Vietnam, but through it all there was a palpable, protective, and unshakable love. For Chuck and Tom have known each other a long time.
Tom's earliest memory of Chuck: the two of them sitting on a dusty curb in their jockey shorts in a small Nebraska town. Two little boys talking with some friends as early morning summer sun washes the Nebraska sandhills. A woman comes out and tells them, "For land's sake! Go in and put some clothes on." Tom, age three, toddles in after Chuck, age five.
Tom and Chuck are brothers.
Chuck leans back in his leather chair near the spitting and hissing fire on a cold Washington evening in the early eighties. His artful wood- and brick-renovated Capitol Hill townhouse is one of ordered comfort: books as straight as sentinels on their shelves, firewood in neat stacks, a gleaming wax floor, a single rose in a bud vase. Teddy Roosevelt, Chuck's favorite President, stares pugnaciously from an old-fashioned oval frame on one uncluttered wall. President Reagan and Vice-President Bush adorn a painted plate on the mantel.
Chuck pops beers to ease the stories along. Sentences begin with "I don't know if I ever told you this, Tom ..." and "Chuck, remember that Navajo Indian? 'Chief' we called him ..."
Thomas L. and Charles E. Hagel, sons of Nebraska, volunteered to go to Vietnam and requested to serve with each other. The closest they ever hoped for was to be in the same division of about 35,000 men. For reasons still unclear to them, they were placed together in the same twelve-man squad. For ten months they ate and drank and slept and watched friends die together. They saved each other twice and sent five Purple Hearts and two valorous unit citations home to their mother.
Chuck and Tom were eagerly sought after for Officer Candidate School because of their basic intelligence and Army test scores. The thought intrigued them — until they found out that the extra time in training would not count against their time in the service. In Vietnam, as casualties grew daily, they both made sergeant anyway. "Attrition," says Tom caustically.
Chuck was in country sixty-five days before Tom, stationed with the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division, at a base called Bearcat. When Tom arrived, the weekend of the pivotal 1968 Tet Offensive, he was sent farther north.
Chuck's letters home were filled with concern about where Tom was sent.
"Dear Chuckles," Tom scrawled eventually. "Well, by now I suppose you're wondering what in the hell happened to me. I am in what amounts to a recon squad and securing force. When we move to the DMZ, I'll really be busy. I'd just as soon be with the 2/47 [Chuck's outfit: 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry] as here. The CO is really a prick. Well, take it easy and I don't know when I'll be seeing you next ..."
A month later Tom wrote home to a younger brother, Mike, that his request for reassignment to Chuck's unit had been accepted. "Sweet Mother should feel a little better ..."
In the back of his mind, Tom always thought that if he went to Vietnam, the Army would send Chuck home. It was a promise, he claims, that the Army made to him. "Chuck was the hope of our family," says Tom, looking at his brother. "Also, I knew Chuck. He's gung ho stuff, the type of guy who would screw around — Mr. All-American Kid — and get himself killed."
Chuck smiles softly at his younger brother. "You should have known I would never have gone home no matter what they said." Tom agrees. "I realize now neither one of us would do it. The one who got out would end up with an ungodly feeling of guilt if something happened to the other."
The thought of something ungodly happening was beyond their understanding. Nothing is as invincible as youth. That is how, from time immemorial, countries have gotten youths to do the fighting. "We were the 'Fighting Hagel Brothers.' No harm could come to us."
In one month with the 5th Cavalry, in some of the bloodiest days of Vietnam, Tom had already seen heavy fighting. "There were hard-core NVA up there. Everybody was just getting blown away constantly."
Chuck looks over at Tom, a silent message passing between them. "I went to the general and asked if I could get Tom down with me and Tom did the same thing up there. So we're both doing our thing at the north and south ends of Vietnam. In the meantime — I don't know if I ever told you this, Tom — but I got orders to be sent to the 25th Division!"
Now, thirteen years later, Tom is hearing for the first time of their near-miss.
"I've never understood this," says Chuck. "I was on the truck leaving Bearcat, not knowing how in the hell I was going to tell Tom where I was — and you can imagine the sinking feeling in my stomach. All I knew was that they said, 'Pack your bag. Grab your rifle. Get your ass on that fucking truck.' The truck got out to the gate and was stopped by an MP. The MP walks around with a list on his clipboard and he says, 'Is there a Private Charles Hagel on the truck?' I said, 'Yeah.' The first thing I thought was that something had happened to Tom. 'Get down here, Private Hagel. The captain wants to see you. Bring your bags.' The truck leaves. What in the hell's going on? I think. So I go in and report to the captain. He says, 'You're staying here.' I've never to this day known how that happened. And the next week Tom shows up."
Vietnam — America's most unpopular, most divisive, and longest war — created its own San Andreas Fault in the hearts and minds of Americans. The cracks and fissures continue to spread and divide. The only war America has ever lost That phrase has been a drumbeat to rev up the bellicose and a cautionary counsel to those who felt we should have never moved into that unknown land. Vietnam is still debated in bars and boardrooms, in homes on Main Street, in Georgetown drawing rooms, and in the Pentagon's war colleges. Passion and acrimony lie not too far beneath the surface; with a lost war, speculation over "what went wrong" never dies. Revisionists worry away at the facts and conjectures of the past as a cat worries a half-dead mouse. Divisions are so deep that some are still unclear. A class war that deeply divided a generation also divided the veterans.
Yes, it was the first war we lost and no nation can easily absorb such a defeat whole. Bill Mahedy, a former chaplain who has worked with troubled veterans, calls Vietnam an "undigested lump of life. It simply won't go down." It was like a great family neurosis and, as happens in such situations, someone has to be blamed. The cruel irony is that we chose to make the soldiers who fought that war the scapegoats.
And they, too, came home torn and confused and divided over what they felt. Ideological and intellectual mind skirmishes of historians, scholars, and critics of Vietnam do not begin to touch the depth of searching for right answers these young men went through. How they viewed that war, its aftermath, what they were doing there, why we didn't win: these are deeply significant barometers as to how they have coped, both with their experiences and the reactions of an America that didn't want to be reminded. An America that didn't want to look closely at what happened in Southeast Asia or in our raging streets and campuses in the sixties.
There is no way to capsulize Vietnam. There were as many Vietnams as there are veterans. A war of many confused policies that spanned several administrations has no monolithic character. And so, the Hagel brothers take on a certain fascinating significance. After all, they were there together, at the same time and in the same place during the bloodiest year of all. They breathed Vietnam together. And how do they see it? Chuck thought it a noble cause. Tom thought it a rotten waste. Chuck returned a conservative Republican, comfortable with a top Veterans Administration job in Reagan's administration until he quit in dissent over VA Administrator Robert Nimmo, who later resigned under pressure. Tom calls himself a socialist, teaches law at a university, and is deeply cynical about politicians. Chuck believes you have to put the emotional troubles of Vietnam behind you. Tom does too, but finds it a great deal harder to do so. Chuck believes we were saving peasants from communism and has no guilt. Tom believes we slaughtered and maimed for nothing and the guilts are many. Vietnam, of course, did not shape them entirely; there were other forces, other family dynamics. But Vietnam solidified their beliefs. They were brought closer together by Vietnam — and yet remain ever-distanced by it.
Chuck, the adored, eldest son of a World War II patriot, went over a believer. He remains one to this day. For seven months he was deputy director at the VA — the very target of disillusioned and angry Vietnam veterans. "Though I have great difficulty with how the war was conducted and, even, whether we should have been there, I still truly believe this to this day: we were trying to do what was best for the people of South Vietnam." Tom also went a believer. Six months after he was in Vietnam, his disillusionment became — and remains — rock-bottom deep. The second of four sons, he was inherently more ripe for dissent than Chuck. He felt deeply rejected by his father — who was consumed by his devotion to firstborn Chuck. His older brother was the star football player Tom watched from the sidelines. Tom remembers the fights with his father, the vain attempts to get him to notice him.
Theirs was a hard-scrabble childhood. Their father worked as a troubleshooter for lumber companies — helping to salvage flagging businesses, then moving on. Chuck and Tom were children of the Nebraska sandhills, rolling grassland too arid for farming which was used for ranching. For years they knew only the life of small towns, a thousand people or less. Ainsworth, Rushville ... They rode horses in the wilderness. They would fall asleep listening to the bawling of cattle in the pens by the railroad tracks a block away; the windows would rattle when trains went by. There was no central heating and when winter came, with its freezing and whipping winds, everyone would huddle by the kitchen coal stove.
The second floor was large, dormerlike, and the family raised chickens next to the boys' bedrooms. Tom remembers the warm hatchery lights, the round fuzzy yellow balls cheeping as dawn came.
Tom smiles a satisfied smile of memories. "The sandhills had a very bleak beauty. Some of my strongest memories are of its bigness and freedom." In minutes he could walk out of town, down trails freed of houses and cars, walking for miles, searching for water snakes and turtles. His childhood gave him something that Eastern city youths never had and he can't help a touch of smugness. "You can always get the education, absorb the sophistication — but they can never go back and get what we've got. It gave me a good balance for the realities of life."
The Hagels were like many of the men who went to Vietnam from Middle America. While they were not among those who automatically assumed they would go to college, they also grew up in a land of superpatriots. Dodging the draft was unthinkable. Tom speaks of the dodge used by many upper-class youths — getting a psychiatrist to write an exempting letter. "That kind of maneuver illustrates the class difference. In my environment that would have never crossed anyone's mind. In my town we didn't even have a psychiatrist."
Their father took enormous pride in his own military service. From their earliest days the boys remember the meetings in their home of the backslapping VFW and American Legionnaires and their old men's service caps, with patches and medallions commemorating past units and campaigns, hanging on the hallway rack.
Excerpted from Long Time Passing by Myra MacPherson. Copyright © 2001 Myra MacPherson. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I. Long Time Passing
1. Two Soldiers
2. The Generation
3. A Different War
4. Southie and the Rebels
Part II. Draft and Protest
1. Draft Board Blues
2. The Chosen
3. The Maimed
4. Hawks and Doves
5. The Scams
6. The Reserves and National Guard
7. Game of Chance
Part III. Still in Saigon
1. Post-Traumatic Stress
2. The Afflicted
3. The Criminals
4. The Vet Centers
5. The Disordered
6. The Significant Others
Part IV. Making It
1. Successful Veterans
2. From Losers to Winners
3. The Wounded
Part V. Resistance
1. The Deserters
2. The Exiles
3. The Imprisoned
Part VI. Women and the War
1. Mothers and Fathers
2. The Supp-Hose Five
3. The Warriors
4. Women at the Barricades
Part VII. Vietnam Kaleidoscope
2. The Reluctant Warriors
3. The Warriors
4. The Blacks
5. Drugs, Bad Paper, Prison
6. Agent Orange
Appendix: Postscript, 1993
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this book when it first came out and I thought it was incredibly good then. I will read it again as soon as it comes out as a nook book since I can't read printed material any longer. I strongly recommend it to everyone. Our military should not be used in a reckless fashion and our veterans need to be treated better.