The last time I saw my Uncle William in person, we discussed a range a topics, one of which was his discharge from the military in the 1960s. During a routine physical, it was discovered that he had suffered damage to hearing in one of his ears due to being too close to the 50 caliber machine gun while on patrol in Vietnam. As a result, his balance and coordination began to suffer and he was declared not fit for active duty. He accepted the discharge and found work with the postal service before moving on to the private sector. Over the years he has only talked about Vietnam on a handful of occasions and the stories were typically very brief. He never went into too much detail but there are couple of stories that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His experiences are similar to those other other black veterans of the Vietnam War whose struggles have not received the full attention that they undoubtedly deserve. Wallace Terry (1938-2003) was a journalist and oral historian who conducted interviews with dozens of veterans and chose twenty of them which are the focus of this book. It is a detailed look at the life of black soldiers in a war that remains a dark memory in American history.
Today when we look back at Vietnam, we can clearly see how and why multiple administrations made miscalculations in their approaches to Indochina. Washington never seemed to have clear objective and the threat of communist expansion never materialized into the global threat that the west had long feared. In fact, the story of Vietnam is an example of paranoia and ego, both of which led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and over one million Vietnamese deaths. Had Vietnam been a “conventional” war, the attack would have been focused directly on Hanoi with swift and brutal assault. But American military forces found themselves constricted in what was permitted as the People’s Army of Vietnam (“NVA”) and National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam or FNL (“Viet Cong”) stepped up attacks on American forces. Washington wanted to end a war that was not supposed to be a war. And as one vet in the book puts it:
“I come to realize really that the purpose of the war was something more than any of the men who were fighting realized at the time. It was like a power play. And the people in charge kept getting overcommitted, overextended, and just didn’t know how to pull out. No matter how patriotic we was fighting it, we was like cannon fodder. And I will always be thinkin’ that way until the government shows me how we benefited from it.”
Specialist 4 Haywood T. “The Kid” Kirkland (Ari Sesu Merretazon) Washington, D.C. Recoilless Rifleman 25th Infantry Division 4th Infantry Division U.S. Army Duc Pho May 1967–April 1968
The veterans are frank in their assessment of the war. And Terry does not intervene in the book but gave the veterans a platform to speak their minds. Some of the stories are nothing short of horrific and I warn readers sensitive to descriptions of violence to use discretion. Most of the veterans came home still physically intact but some were not so lucky. They suffered devastating or life long injuries that constantly reminded them of Vietnam. While reading the book I thought of the late Ronald Stinson of Brooklyn, New York, who was a family friend for many years and a Vietnam veteran. Ron, as we called him, had suffered a shrapnel wound to the face and always kept tissues on hand because his left eye constantly teared up many years after serving. He had a personality that we all loved and even many years later, his death still hurts. All of the veterans in the book paid a heavy price either physically or mentally and in some cases, both. I found this quote to be a direct and accruate summation of the black experience in Vietnam:
Readers will be searching the elephant in the room and the soldiers do discuss race and how it played a part of their experience. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in high gear and the reality of the war began to hit home, it was inevitable that the soldiers would have to contend with it as they tried to stay alive in a war that none of them wanted. And even when they left Vietnam, they face another war at home just to be accepted as human beings and not to be judged on account of their dark skin. Their experiences is a double tragedy of the Vietnam War.
As I read through the account of Haywood Kirkland, I jumped in my seat. Readers who have seen the Hughes Brothers’ film Dead Presidents will instantly recognize where the filmmakers got their inspiration. In fact, the movie is based on the book itself but Kirkland’s account is clearly the basis for the fictional “Anthony Curtis” played by actor Lorenz Tate. The film is done well although it the levels of profanity and violence are high. However, it does capture the frustration of many black veterans returning home to America after the war. However, while in country, the stakes were high and blacks knew they had to have each other’s backs as the ugliness of American society made its away more than thirteen thousand miles away as the Confederate Flag and outright hostility served to undercut the morale needed for a successful claim and the military’s claims of being ‘integrated”. As Terry explains:
“They spoke loudest against the discrimination they encountered on the battlefield in decorations, promotion and duty assignments. They chose not to overlook the racial insults, cross-burnings and Confederate flags of their white comrades. They called for unity among black brothers on the battlefield to protest these indignities and provide mutual support. And they called themselves “Bloods.”
In spite of the racial tensions back at base, there are positive moments in the book through life long friendships formed between veterans of all backgrounds, some of whom had never seen a black of hispanic person before being drafted into the military. And many veterans are clear to point out that whatever issues they had back at base fell to the side once out nn patrol as they had to be a cohesive unit to survive each day. And over time, many came to respect each other through their performances on the battlefield and close living proximity.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking and it is clear those veterans were never the same again. But the question that comes to mind is anyone who serves in combat ever the “same” again? From all of the Vietnam War veterans I have met throughout my life, i have learned that the war stays with them. The twenty black veterans who speak in this book, allow us a special inside look into the war from an often neglected perspective. Their eyes saw combat but their vision was impacted by the issue of race while facing death in the jungles of Vietnam and back in Ameerica, the country they called home. Their experiences include not just violence and death, but children out of wedlock, permanent physica and mental scars, and even criminal activity. Through them, we can see the very dark side of war. As I read through the book, I came across the following quote that perfectly explains what the vast majority of black soldiers experienced in Vietnam:
“I don’t think you can call Vietnam a success story for the young blacks who served there. A few stayed in service and did very well. But those who experienced the racism in a war we lost wear a scar. Vietnam left a scar on them that won’t go away. The black soldier paid a special price.”
Lieutenant Commander William S. Norman Norfolk, Virginia Airborne Controller U.S.S. Ranger November 1963–May 1964 Airborne Controller U.S.S. Coral Sea January 1965–July 1965 Combat Warfare Officer Commander, Carrier Division 3 September 1969–June 1970 U.S. Navy Yankee Station South China Sea
There are dozens of books written about Vietnam and many films that showed the war from various perspectives. However, none come close to capturing the black experience as well as this book does. If you want to hear directly from black veterans of the Vietnam War and do not personally know anyone who served, this is the book for you. And even if you do know a black veteran who did serve in Vietnam, this book is a good source of information that will help you understand what that former soldier heard and saw during a conflict that haunts America to this day. Excellent read and highly recommended.
ASIN : B00ATLA8JS