A Memoir of Vietnam and Its Aftermath
Buy now at Barnes and Noble
Chuck Newhall on BYU Radio - Top of Mind with Host Julie Rose here
Reflections On Vietnam 45 Years Later

It was 45 years ago that I left Vietnam.  Today one third of all Vietnam veterans are dead.   I want to leave behind a record of how my platoon and my company fought and died and the importance of their sacrifice.  I want you to understand the relevance of what they did.   Maybe I should have written a book in 1977 that was current and filled with raw impressions. No, for me Vietnam was confusing – filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions; and I was busy starting my business career.  My life was hectic and it has taken me 45 years to put Vietnam in perspective.

I am sure many will disagree with my views. They will make some people angry. But what follows are my honest opinions.

When we came home from Vietnam we were told we were war criminals.  We were cripples, dehumanized by combat.  We were not seen as patriotic models of self-control, honorable, or courageous.  We were treated like patients in a mental asylum.  Unlike WWII veterans who followed the history of their war, we did not follow the history of our war.  Consequently, we do not remember the names of the battles, I Drang, Pleiku, Tet, Hamburger Hill, and a host of others.  Because of our welcome home and constant denigration by the media, there is something in the back of our minds telling us we are bad, we fought a war that had no moral purpose.   Unfortunately, we believe it.  We do not remember our war so no one else does.  

There is a book, "The Forgotten Soldier." It tells the story of a French-German boy conscripted into Hitler’s war.   He is sent to drive a truck in Stalingrad.   Because there are so many casualties he is drafted into one of the elite Nazi fighting units.   He walks through the valley of the shadow of death as 99 percent of the German forces are killed during their retreat from Russia.  He was exposed to horrors; some of the Russians ate the German dead.   He was a hero fighting with honor in a war on the side that was evil.  He did not know that.  All he did was do his job as a soldier.

When he returned to Paris after the war he was shunned by all he met because he fought for Hitler.   All he tried to do was do his duty as a soldier.   He was the forgotten soldier.  I believe that he should be forgotten.  If a war has no moral purpose then the soldiers who fought it are hired killers.   That is how Vietnam veterans felt when we came back.   We should be forgotten and we tried to forget ourselves.   Only a tiny percent of us go to reunions.

In my opinion, Vietnam had a moral purpose.   There are four principal reasons Vietnam was a moral war:

  1. We were fighting barbarians who slaughtered one to two million people after the war and raped a country of its wealth.   The state department reports say that two million South Vietnamese were killed by the North after the war, one million in tiger cages, and one million boat people.   I saw what they did when I was in Vietnam, trenches of dead women and children. I do know the American press misrepresented the war.   It was not a civil war.   Vietnam was not a country.  For 1,000 years it was a Chinese province with a large number of different races and always changing its boundaries.   At times there were three independent provinces in the so called Vietnam: Cochin, Annam and Tonkin.   Vietnam was a war of conquest.  The unscrupulous thugs of the North wanted to conquer the wealth of the South because they could use that wealth to deliver the promises of their failed socialist order.  The North devalued the South’s currency, raped the South’s natural resources, and located 10 of 14 NVA military bases in the South to subdue its population.
  2. We won the war.   The South today economically dominates the North with its capitalist practices.  In thirty years, Vietnam well might be a democratic capitalistic country.
  3. The domino theory was real.  (If Vietnam fell so would Southeast Asia.) NVA troops entered Cambodia and fought Pot Pol for the control of the country. At one time they controlled half of it.  They also entered Laos and probably Thailand.  We distracted North Vietnam for 20 years.  If we had not, the North may have conquered the countries to the south and the Singapores of the world may have never existed.  Southeast Asia is well on its way to becoming a major world economic power, perhaps saved by the blood of American soldiers.
  4. Vietnam was a battle in a war that lasted from 1945 until 1989, 44 years.   We won the war! It was a war against the totalitarian regime called communism.   The war started in Greece.  It was fought in Korea, Africa, South America, Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.  George Washington won only three of 38 battles yet he won the Revolutionary War.   Were all those battles necessary to accomplish the mission? Who knows? But I do believe it was continued persistence to fight communism around the world that tore down the Berlin Wall.

I was born with a saber in my crib.  My family expected me to fight for my country.  It was as if that sacrifice was necessary to justify my citizenship in our hard won democracy.  I believe that members of our extended family have fought in every war or police action that the colonies or America fought before Desert Storm.  In my home office in Baltimore, I have the weapons (actual weapons used or period substitutes) and the portraits of ancestors who fought in the French and Indian War, and all the other wars.

When it came to our boys, I let them make up their own minds.  They were told about our family’s military history but that was all.  They saw the effects on our family as I suffered from PTSD.   They both chose not to serve although I believe both of them regret the decision.  

For me the decision was simple since they would have been warriors – odds are one of them would have been killed in combat.  With the death of their mother, that would have been more than I could have sustained.  

Vietnam veterans, your war was moral.   Someday some historian may discover "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion; that we highly resolve that these dead have not died in vain." It is then that we will not be the forgotten soldiers.

So why is Vietnam important? After all, it is ancient history, forgotten by those who fought in it and by the rest of the world.  The Vietnam War’s similarity to the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan are remarkable.   The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are the next forgotten soldiers.  Korea and Vietnam are important to understand because they hold the keys to understanding the limited wars of the future.  Iraq and Afghanistan were the first battles in a war against jihadism, which may last 50 to 100 years or more.  It will be a war, like most wars, which pits the forces of civilization against the forces of barbarism.

We should never refer to radical Islam as Muslims.   We should drop the word from our discourse on the war on terror.  Because we have neo-Nazis in America, we do not claim America is a Nazi state.   Radical Islam transforms the Muslim religion into an excuse for jihad that is intent on destroying the United States and perhaps Western civilization.   We have always created “isms” to denote evil.   I suggest that we call it jihadism and its practitioners jihadists, much like we used to refer to communism and communists of the Soviet Empire, not the Russian people.   The word Muslim should refer to the practitioners of a great religion.

Although the jihadists only represent a small percent of Islam, a small percent of Islam is a large number of people.  Do we really need to fear them? Who would have thought we needed to fear those two rough beasts, Lenin and Trotsky, in tattered woolen overcoats, slouching towards Moscow where communism was born? Who would have thought they could turn the world upside down and destroy millions of people?

Who would have thought that a failed painter and a so-called corporal could lead the German people into a nightmare of criminal destruction and an attempt to conquer the world? He led 60 million people in many countries to their deaths.  Passionately inspired fanatics can destroy rational thinking in a country or many countries.   Revolutions start in basements or garages not in the Pentagon.  Revolutions are something to be feared.  I fear jihadism and I wish I were young enough to fight it.

Please visit The Wall and pay your respects and pray for those who died for their country.

Black granite stretches its harsh, tapering wings up to pedestrian-level grass but sucks me down, here, at the intersection of names. I forgive, I must, though I wish something could heal this wound in the earth.

--Craig Erick Chaffin, "At the Vietnam War Memorial"