CHAPTER FOUR

RESOLVE

JANUARY 1966–JUNE 1967

First Cavalry Division medic Thomas Cole, himself badly wounded, refuses to be taken off the battlefield so long as he can help others during Operation Masher/White Wing in early 1966.

COONSKINS ON THE WALL

South Vietnamese chief of state Nguyen Van Thieu, President Lyndon Johnson, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge dine by candlelight during the Honolulu Conference, February 7, 1966. After meeting Ky for the first time, Johnson told him, “You talk just like an American boy.”

EARLY IN THE MORNING on Monday, January 17, 1966, Lyndon Johnson placed a call to Robert McNamara. “What’s happening to our bombing pause?” he asked. It had been twenty-three days since he had stopped the bombing of North Vietnam and, although diplomats from several countries had suggested that the North Vietnamese were willing to talk, Hanoi had remained silent. Tet, the three-day lunar New Year celebration, was about to begin, and McNamara thought it best to wait until after that before deciding when to resume the air war. There were those at the State Department who wanted the president to hold off longer, he told Johnson, while General William Westmoreland and others within the Pentagon argued that every day that passed without bombing simply allowed the enemy to strengthen its hand. Now persuaded that the pause had been a mistake, Johnson felt trapped; he predicted that hawks would not forgive him for stopping the bombing and doves would blame him when he resumed it.

In the course of their conversation, McNamara told the pres-ident that he’d been visited recently by Professor P. J. Honey, an Irish-born scholar of Vietnamese politics, who had told him “that the balance of power in Hanoi [was now] in the hands of…hard-liners and particularly in the hands of the first secretary of the Communist Party, a man named Le Duan—L-E capital D-U-A-N.” Twelve years after the United States first intervened in Vietnam and ten months after the first American ground troops landed at Danang, the president of the United States was just learning the name of his most powerful antagonist.

Fourteen days later, on January 31, the president reluctantly announced that the United States was about to begin bombing again. “I am not happy about Vietnam,” he told his aides, “but we cannot run out.”

Johnson’s predictions about the public’s reaction proved ac-curate. House Armed Services Committee chairman Mendel Rivers of Mississippi warned that the policy of gradual escalation and limited targets was “getting very unpopular….The American people want this thing over yesterday.” Meanwhile, on February 4, Chairman J. William Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, angered by the president’s decision to resume bombing, opened his committee’s hearings into the conduct of the Vietnam War to television cameras. Once one of the president’s closest political allies, Fulbright had become one of his most committed critics, appalled by Johnson’s willingness to lie to Congress and the public in order to justify U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. Some 2,800 Americans had died in Vietnam; nearly 200,000 were now stationed there, and still more were on their way. Fulbright had become convinced that further escalation of the war was folly, that what was needed was a “way out” of Southeast Asia.

President Johnson was alarmed. Nearly 60 percent of the American people now saw Vietnam as America’s most urgent problem, and the television networks would be able to cover the hearings from gavel to gavel.

Johnson had hoped to forge an international coalition to defend South Vietnam—an army of “Free World Forces,” he called it, flying “Many Flags.” But in the end, it flew very few. Washington’s most important allies—Britain, France, Canada, and Italy—refused to take part at all and called instead for peace talks. Australia and New Zealand sent combat troops on their own. The Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea sent combat units too, but only after Washington agreed to foot the bill. Some 320,000 South Koreans would serve in Vietnam over the years, their salaries also all paid by American taxpayers.

To deflect attention from what some of Fulbright’s witnesses were likely to say, Johnson suddenly summoned the two military men who headed the junta that had seized power in South Vietnam in June of the previous year to meet with him in Honolulu. Neither had been elected. Neither had constitutional authority. From Washington’s point of view it hadn’t mattered much; they had forestalled further coups for more than six months. There would be time to legitimate their rule by drawing up a new constitution and holding a presidential election.

Nguyen Van Thieu was the chief of state and chairman of the band of generals who called themselves “the Directory.” He was forty-two and a southerner, a convert to Catholicism who had helped overthrow Diem and General Khanh, and was already rumored to be personally corrupt.

The thirty-five-year-old prime minister, Nguyen Cao Ky, spoke fluent English. He was a Buddhist and a northerner, the former head of the South Vietnamese air force, brash and incautious and wary of Thieu. According to one U.S. diplomat, he was “an unguided missile,” known for his flamboyant self-designed uniforms and purple scarves, his gaudy private life, and his public pronouncements—he once told a reporter that what Vietnam really needed was “four or five Hitlers.” Within weeks of taking office he had formally declared war on North Vietnam, proclaimed a permanent state of emergency, and expanded the draft to meet it. The qualities about Ky that appealed to some Americans displeased many of his fellow countrymen. He was young and a soldier when they venerated elder statesmen and yearned for civilian leadership, and he was especially close to the Americans when increasing numbers of South Vietnamese were alarmed at the number of American soldiers now pouring into their country.

President Johnson spent most of his time in Honolulu urging Ky and Thieu to undertake the kind of economic and political and social reforms Americans had been urging Saigon to pursue for more than a decade. “The struggle in your country,” he told them, “can finally be won only if you are able to bring about a social revolution for your people—while at the same time your soldiers and ours are beating back the aggressor.” Johnson wanted American voters and the rest of the world to believe that he was as devoted to “pacification”—earning the loyalty of the South Vietnamese people—as he was supportive of the combat already under way. “Every time I see a picture of a battle in the papers,” he told his chief information office in Saigon, “I want to see a picture of a hog.”

He wasn’t interested in “high-sounding words,” he told the Vietnamese; he wanted genuine achievements—what they called in Texas “coonskins on the wall.” “Nobody understood what ‘coonskins’ meant,” remembered Bui Diem, then a speechwriter for Ky. “So people in the Vietnamese delegation asked me, ‘You understand what it is?’ I didn’t and had to ask some Americans to explain it to me.”

Whatever they may have thought privately, Ky and Thieu saw no reason not to go along in public with everything the president suggested. Their final communiqué, Johnson said, would “be a kind of bible that we are going to follow.”

General Westmoreland was given pacification goals, as well. The communists were believed to control nearly three-quarters of South Vietnam. By the end of 1966, Westmoreland was expected to increase the number of people living in secure areas by 10 percent, increase the number of roads open for safe travel by 20 percent, and increase the destruction of NLF and North Vietnamese bases by 30 percent.

But before real pacification could take place, Westmoreland believed, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had to be hunted down and destroyed. His principal military mission was to “attrite, by year’s end, [enemy forces] at a rate as high as their capacity to put men into the field.” His target for the next two years—Phase One of his overall plan—would be reaching what he called “the crossover point,” the point at which U.S. and ARVN forces were killing the enemy faster than they could be replaced. If you could do that, one Marine remembered being told, “then you would have crossed over from going uphill in your battle to finally reaching a point where you were winning and it would be downhill and easier from there.”

AN ELEPHANT FRIGHTENED BY A MOUSE

A television cameraman zeroes in on George Kennan as he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions,” Kennan told the senators and the vast viewing audience, “than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

WHEN THE PRESIDENT got back from Hawaii, the Fulbright hearings were still in session and George Kennan, the well-known and widely respected author of the doctrine of containment that had for two decades formed the basis of American policy toward the Soviet Union, was about to testify. The president knew Kennan believed U.S. intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake and dreaded the impact of his testimony. He breathed a sigh of relief when, at the last moment, CBS replaced live coverage of the hearings with reruns of I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys, and The Andy Griffith Show. Fred Friendly, the head of the news division, resigned in protest.

But NBC kept the cameras running. The Honolulu conference had not distracted the public. Millions watched Kennan testify.

“The first point I would like to make is that if we were not already involved as we are today in Vietnam,” he told the committee, “I would know of no reason why we should wish to become so involved, and I could think of several reasons why we would wish not to.”

The domino theory no longer obtained in Southeast Asia, if it ever had, he continued. Ho Chi Minh was not Hitler. Nor was there any reason to think that if Ho won the war he would be Moscow’s or Beijing’s puppet. It was unseemly for the United States to “jump around” the world like “an elephant frightened by a mouse,” and impossible to defend freedom wherever it was imperiled. Rather, America should follow John Quincy Adams’s admonition to “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” It was better to abandon an “unsound position,” he said, than to stubbornly pursue “extravagant or unpromising objectives” like victory in Vietnam. “Any total rooting out of the Viet Cong…could be achieved,” he concluded, “if it could be achieved at all, only at the cost of a degree of damage to civilian life and of civilian suffering generally for which I would not like this country responsible.”

Summing up, Senator Fulbright asked if it was Kennan’s opinion that victory was simply not “a practicable objective,” that “we can’t achieve it even with the best of wills.”

“This is correct,” Kennan answered, “and I have fear that our thinking about this whole problem is still affected by some sort of illusions about invincibility on our part.”

Within a month of Kennan’s testimony, one poll showed, public approval for Johnson’s handling of the war had fallen from 63 percent to 49 percent.

WHAT KIND OF FUCKING WAR IS THIS?

EVEN BEFORE the Fulbright hearings began and Johnson met with Ky and Thieu in Honolulu, General Westmoreland had begun the first major offensive of the year.

Some 800,000 people lived in the central coastal province of Binh Dinh, most of them in hamlets surrounded by rice paddies and coconut groves on the narrow plain that set the Central Highlands apart from the sea. It was said that if a person living there did not belong to the Viet Cong, he or she was sure to be related to someone who did. Since World War II, the province had been a bastion, first of the Viet Minh and then of the National Liberation Front. Many of the regroupees who’d moved north in 1955 came from Binh Dinh. When more and more of them filtered back after the NLF was established in 1960, they drove out government officials sent from Saigon, collected their own taxes, drafted young men, fortified hamlets with bunkers and foxholes and communication trenches—and vowed that the sun would rise in the West before the South Vietnamese government was allowed to return.

In recent weeks, NLF forces in Binh Dinh had been augmented by two regiments of North Vietnamese regulars—some eight thousand men in all.

On January 28, Westmoreland sent some twenty thousand American, South Vietnamese, and South Korean troops storming across the region in search of the enemy. The First Cavalry led the way, flying northeastward from its headquarters at An Khe, with ARVN units providing backup. At the same time, Korean troops were to move north from their base at Qui Nhon in search of the enemy, while U.S. Marines came ashore at Duc Pho to annihilate any enemy forces that tried to escape northward; warships from the Seventh Fleet prowled offshore to provide additional fire support. Hal Moore, who had fought in the battle at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, led the initial assault on an enemy supply and recruiting base north of the district capital of Bong Son. He was now a full colonel, in command of the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry.

Three days into the mission, a young CBS reporter named John Laurence talked himself and his camera crew onto one of four medevac helicopters about to set out for a hamlet six miles north of Bong Son. A rifle company had come under heavy enemy fire there. Twenty-three men had been killed or wounded by enemy snipers.

“From the air,” Laurence would write, “the land looked wild and angry.”

Bright flames from burning houses glowed red beneath clusters of shade trees scattered across the coastal plain. Smoke rose in narrow plumes straight up through the windless heat and dissolved in the high haze. Clouds of dust swirled among circular batteries of U.S. Army field guns firing salvos of artillery shells into the air, the rounds visible as fleeting shadows leaving the tubes, puffs of white smoke spurting from their muzzles. Far away, geysers of earth erupted where the shells exploded, brraaaak! brraaaak! brraaaak! booming loud along the length of the sandy plain. Helicopters swarmed over the land buzzing with rockets and machineguns, swooping down into drop zones, disgorging soldiers, kicking out supplies, collecting the wounded and sick, mock assaulting, charging away again, swirling back and forth across the burning land in restless urgent profusion, like furious steel wasps. In the distance, airplanes circled in slow arcs, rolled over on their wingtips and dived at the ground, darting down through the gray air, letting loose shining metal canisters from under their wings that tumbled toward the ground and burst in bright flame-yellow clouds of burning napalm and dense black oil-smoke that stuck to whatever it touched and consumed it in fire….As far as the eye could see the land was under assault, the full expression of the Army’s war-fighting fury: all its resources deployed, all its violence unsheathed, as if waging war against the land itself.

Their helicopter came down in a sandy open space that turned out to be a village graveyard. As Laurence, his CBS crew, and the photographer Eddie Adams tumbled out, terrified wounded men were running toward them, risking being hit again to get to the safety of their chopper. Once the four medevac choppers had lifted off again with the wounded men aboard, the soldiers who had helped their buddies to safety took off running for the cover of a dry shallow irrigation ditch that ran along the edge of the hamlet from which hidden snipers were still sporadically firing. Laurence and his crew joined them.

Then, he remembered, there was “a rolling thunderclap of noise,” and the air a foot or two above their heads was suddenly filled with “hundreds of bullets breaking the sound barrier at the same time”—machine gun bullets, automatic rifle fire, M79 rounds fired from grenade launchers, all laced with orange tracers. Laurence and his companions lay prone, faces pressed against the sand, trying to make themselves as small as possible. Overhead, bullets tore through the palm trees. Clipped-off fronds drifted down on the huddled men.

Photographer Eddie Adams caught this group of wounded Americans racing across a graveyard under enemy fire, seeking the sanctuary of the medevac helicopter in which he’d just arrived on the battlefield near Bong Son.

There was no letup in the firing. “So this is how it ends,” Laurence thought. “The NVA [North Vietnamese Army] have got us outgunned and are going to overrun us.” They were moments away from being shot in the ditch “like helpless animals.” He raised his head just enough to see men in dark uniforms, still 150 yards away but moving toward them, muzzles flashing as they came. The deafening sound intensified. Behind the advancing troops was a squadron of armored personnel carriers, each firing five hundred .50-caliber machine gun rounds per minute, eight rounds a second. It was an ARVN unit, not the enemy, sent to relieve the embattled rifle company but unable so far to locate it. A grenade exploded at the edge of the ditch. Shrapnel hit Laurence, the company commander, and all but one of the four other men closest to the explosion. The CBS sound man was severely wounded in the abdomen.

The company commander shouted into his radio, trying to contact the American adviser of the unit that was coming closer and closer to what was left of his company. “Stop-stop-stop—shooting!” he shouted again and again, “Stop, goddamn it!” Finally, contact was made and the gunfire ended.

Cameraman Carl Sorensen and CBS correspondent John Laurence wait for the helicopter that will take the badly wounded sound recordist Vallop Radboon to the evacuation hospital at Qui Nhon. Radboon, who survived, was from Thailand, and Laurence made sure everyone at the hospital understood that he was not Vietnamese for fear he might be ill-treated.

A First Cavalry soldier, an M60 machine gun over his shoulder, takes time out for a smoke. Behind him, the village of Lieu An burns. Americans had set it alight after mines hidden on its outskirts killed one GI and wounded two more.

An APC rumbled up to the edge of the ditch. An American adviser called down, laughing. “Guess we shook you up a little,” he said.

“Yeah, you sure as hell shook us up,” the wounded company commander said. “You killed three of my men.”

The adviser paled, horrified at what his men had done. “At that point,” Laurence recalled, “the company commander just about to be medevaced asked, ‘What kind of fucking war is this?’ ”

A chopper lifted Laurence and his wounded sound man out before nightfall. When he got back to Saigon, the Army claimed there had been no friendly-fire incident—since no military source had officially reported one. It was at that point, Laurence remembered, that he came to believe what veteran reporters had been telling him: in Vietnam, truth really was the first casualty.

The First Cavalry began moving again, leapfrogging from hamlet to hamlet. Americans had learned as early as the Battle of Ap Bac that infantry assaults across flooded rice paddies yielded heavy casualties. Instead, they dropped leaflets and broadcast from loudspeakers to warn villagers of the terrible fate that awaited anyone who fired on their helicopters, urged them to leave their homes, and promised safe passage to any guerrilla who wished to surrender. Then, rather than risk the lives of American ground troops, they called in airstrikes and artillery and blew the hamlets to bits. Fifteen were obliterated. Five-inch shells fired from U.S. warships splintered the palm trees that had surrounded them. Five-hundred-pound bombs left craters ten feet deep and twenty feet across.

Villages that were not razed were systematically searched for anything that might have been used to support the communists. Lieutenant Michael Heaney, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, a First Cavalry platoon leader, remembered working his methodical way through one village. “All the young men were gone, which was typical. All the houses were shuttered. I broke into one, knocked the door down, and it was dark inside. I was freaked out. Was anybody in there waiting for me? The only people inside turned out to be a young mother holding a very young baby. We stood there looking at each other for a while and at first she was very grim and seemed determined. She maintained that for a minute or so, and then she burst into tears and sat down on the bed. I can see her today. And I said to myself, ‘Holy shit. I can’t even tell her “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” ’ But I had no way of communicating to her. And even then it registered with me: we’re not winning any friends. We’re just scaring the hell out of these poor peasants, who want us to go away. They want the war to go away.”

Operation’s end: Men of the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, return safely to the First Cavalry base at An Khe at the finish of Operation Masher/White Wing.

Hundreds of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Thousands were driven from their homes and camped along Highway 1, South Vietnam’s chief north–south artery, swelling a river of internal refugees that had already reached more than half a million. There was a theory behind the forced movement of people. Mao Zedong had famously said, “The guerrilla must move among the people as the fish swims in the sea.” General Westmoreland argued that “in order to thwart the communists’ designs, it is necessary to eliminate the ‘fish’ from the ‘water,’ or to dry up the ‘water’ so that the ‘fish’ cannot survive.” “Eliminating” the fish—killing or driving them out—was costly and time-consuming. But relocating the people—the “water”—would quickly “strangle” the fish by denying them the support and sustenance they needed to survive.

“The Americans called it ‘generating refugees,’ ” Neil Sheehan remembered. “Driving people from their homes by bombing and shelling. I was out with Westmoreland one day and I asked him, ‘General, aren’t you disturbed by wounding all these civilians, the bombing and shelling of hamlets?’ He said, ‘Yes, Neil, it’s a problem. But it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?’ And I thought to myself, ‘You cold-blooded bastard. You know exactly what you’re doing.’ ”

The operation had originally been called Masher, but when President Johnson decided that sounded too bellicose it became Operation White Wing. It lasted forty-two days. When it was all over, the Americans had lost 228 killed and 834 wounded. But 1,342 enemy soldiers were reported killed by the First Cavalry, and the ARVN and South Korean troops were said to have accounted for another 808.

General Westmoreland was pleased. But commanders on the scene noticed that despite all the American firepower brought against them, most of the enemy had still managed to escape into the mountains. And afterward, Colonel Moore remembered, “when we handed over control to the South Vietnamese…they flooded into the region with long-absent landlords and tax collectors trailing behind them, trying to squeeze as much rent money and rice as possible out of the tenant farmers. Within a week of our departure, the South Vietnamese and their locust-like camp followers were gone, too, and the enemy had returned and was back in control.” A few months later, the First Cavalry would be called upon to sweep the same region all over again. By the end of the year, more than 125,000 civilians in the province had lost their homes, and similar seek-and-destroy and bombing campaigns would produce a total of more than 3 million homeless people all across the country—roughly one-fifth of South Vietnam’s population.

There would be eighteen large-scale U.S. offensive operations that year, with mostly all-American names—Davy Crockett, Crazy Horse, Lincoln, Longfellow, John Paul Jones, Paul Revere I and Paul Revere II. They were meant to be “spoiling attacks,” Westmoreland said, aimed at keeping the enemy off-balance and allowing the people of South Vietnam to declare their support for Saigon.

But since there was no front in Vietnam as there had been in most of America’s other wars, since no ground was ever permanently won or lost, and there was no coherent plan to win and retain the people’s loyalty, Washington would never be able to ascertain whether it was winning or losing. From the first, MACV amassed vast quantities of data meant to chart progress, but in the end it fell back, more and more, on a single grisly measure of supposed success: counting corpses—“body count.”

General Robert Gard, who served for a time as military assistant to the secretary of defense, remembered that “the genesis of the body count was that Secretary McNamara, when he looked at the estimates from U.S. commanders of the casualties they had inflicted on the enemy, said, ‘If these estimates were accurate we would have killed the North Vietnamese army twice. And therefore, I think, we should not claim how many we kill in a battle, unless we’ve seen the actual body.’ Now, if body count is the measure of success, then there’s the tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. And if your success is measured by body count, then there’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re trying to obtain. The practical result would be killing people who are not enemy combatants and thereby alienating the population.”

Colonel John B. Keeley, who commanded an infantry battalion in the Mekong Delta, recalled one whole day spent “beating the bush that flushed and killed four Viet Cong. Another battalion was doing the same thing and killed two VC. We sent the number four and the number two to Brigade for its body count report. There, the numbers were put side by side to make forty-two, instead of the six we actually killed.” “The duplicity became so automatic,” Major William Lowry recalled, “that lower headquarters began to believe the things they were forwarding to higher headquarters. It was on paper; therefore, no matter what might have actually occurred, the paper graphs and charts became the ultimate reality.”

Philip Caputo of the Third Marines remembered being given very specific instructions. “Your mission is to kill VC. Period. You’re not here to capture a hill. You’re not here to capture a town. You’re not here to move from Point A to Point B to Point C. You’re here to kill Viet Cong. As many of ’em as you can.” But then, he remembered, “there was also the question of how you distinguish a Viet Cong from a civilian—aside from the obvious fact that if a guy’s shooting at you, you can be pretty sure he’s a Viet Cong. There were, at times, very convoluted rules of engagement given to us. If we were out on an operation and we saw somebody running, that was somehow prima facie evidence that he, or even she, was the enemy. Presumably. I guess the idea was if they liked us they wouldn’t run, and I remember an officer saying, ‘The rule is if he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC.’ ”

Caputo had been one of the first American combat troops in Vietnam. He’d survived patrols around Danang, then endured weeks working with Graves Registration, making sure that the bodies of his fellow Marines were identified correctly before being sent home to their families. Once, he found himself responsible for the enemy’s dead as well. “A general from Saigon was visiting our battalion. Some high-ranking officer—the colonel or the lieutenant colonel—wanted to show the general that we were killing the enemy. So the general had to be shown the bodies. So I was given the unenviable task of fetching them—not personally, but making sure that they were brought back from the body dump to the headquarters unit and put on display. They were all torn up and the carrier that was towed by the jeep was awash in blood. There were entrails and bones—it was just a goddamn mess, you know. We had to hose this thing out and display the bodies for the general.” Dealing with the dead got to Caputo after a time, and he asked to return to combat.

EVEN DEATH BECOMES ROUTINE

FOR YEARS, there had been rumors that North Vietnamese vessels had been quietly smuggling arms to isolated spots along the central South Vietnamese coast, but no one was sure if it was true or where it might be taking place. Then, shortly before the first U.S. Marines landed in 1965, an American medevac helicopter pilot had spotted an unidentified trawler camouflaged with trees and bushes, anchored in a remote inlet on a rocky coast called Vung Ro Bay. South Vietnamese Skyraiders were sent in to sink the ship. One hundred tons of Chinese and Soviet arms were found freshly unloaded on the beach—rifles, grenades, explosives, mortar rounds, and a million rounds of small-arms ammunition.

Still more supplies were quietly being smuggled into the Mekong Delta—among them the weapons that had helped make the communist victory at Ap Bac possible. To deny the North Vietnamese further access to the South China Sea coast, the U.S. Seventh Fleet launched a massive naval patrolling campaign called Operation Market Time, while a second naval operation, Game Warden, employed patrol boats to close off the Saigon River and the multiple river mouths of the Mekong Delta.

Hanoi was forced to alter its plans for resupply. It developed a new seaport, safe from both American and South Vietnamese attack, at Sihanoukville, on the coast of Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s ruler, was officially neutral in the war, but after the Americans entered the conflict he cut off diplomatic relations with Washington and—though he publicly insisted he had not done so—secretly agreed to allow arms and supplies to be trucked through his country along what came to be called the Sihanouk Trail.

But most of the men needed for the struggle in the South had to travel overland, through Laos and Cambodia, sovereign nations that Hanoi considered part of the greater battlefield. Americans called it the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese called it Route 559, after the thousands of men and women of the 559th Transportation Group who first carved a braided web of footpaths through rugged mountains covered with triple-canopy jungle and nearly impenetrable rain forest, and then transformed it into twelve thousand tangled miles of jungle roadways, down which men and materiel streamed south.

When the Viet Minh fought the French, they had depended on tens of thousands of barefoot porters, then on legions of bicycles specially modified to bear heavy burdens. But now, to offset the growing American presence, the North Vietnamese had turned to more mechanized transport—relays of six-wheeled Russian- or Chinese-built trucks, traveling under cover of darkness.

Heading south, North Vietnamese troops clamber down a cliffside stairway, just above the DMZ, 1966. “The eastern part of the [Ho Chi Minh] trail was very tough,” the photographer who took this picture remembered. “Everyone had to carry at least [44 pounds] of equipment in addition to their personal gear.”

The trail they followed was a marvel of organization. Way-stations located a day’s march apart provided food, medical care, repairs, housing, and air defense for the tens of thousands of workers, many of them teenage volunteers, who labored around the clock to keep the roads open and the traffic moving.

Youth volunteers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: A young woman named La Thi Tam counts falling bombs so that those that do not detonate can be located and defused.

MACV reasoned that if the Ho Chi Minh Trail could somehow be sufficiently damaged, the enemy would be unable to sustain itself. B-52s battered it ceaselessly. Three million tons of explosives would be dropped on the Laos portion alone during the course of the war—three times as much as fell on North Vietnam. Some key choke-points were hit so many times the workers gave them names—“the Gate of Death,” “Fried Flesh Hill,” “the Gorge of Lost Souls.” One important junction was the target of 48,600 bombs within a single eight-month span. To expose enemy traffic, other aircraft dropped chemical defoliants, including Agent Orange, that destroyed thousands of acres of jungle and turned the earth into what one American pilot called “bony, lunar dust.”

Le Minh Khue, who had left her home in the North with a novel by Ernest Hemingway in her backpack in order to serve in the Anti-American Youth Shock Brigade for National Salvation, observed her seventeenth birthday on the trail. More than half of those who served in the Shock Brigade were women.

“We all had to endure,” Khue remembered. Thousands died—from starvation and accidents, fevers and snakebite and sheer exhaustion, as well as from the relentless bombing. Malaria felled them. Mites caused a form of typhus. Lice and leeches were everywhere, one woman remembered, “black and fat like beans.” In the humid forest, nothing dried; clothing rotted, hair fell out.

Rations often failed to reach the volunteers, and they had to subsist for days on thin rice soup, sometimes supplemented by jungle plants and bamboo shoots and gibbon or macaque meat. One veteran of the Shock Brigade remembered that she and her comrades had passed their leisure time working up a list of thirty-two ways to die, ranging from mushroom poisoning to trampling by an elephant.

And always there were the bombs. “We didn’t even have time to breathe,” Khue recalled. “One group counted and measured craters. Others filled them in. Sometimes, just after we filled the craters, American bombs fell on them again.” She and her comrades also had to detonate delayed-action bombs, sometimes five of them a day, sometimes more. The earth from beneath each bomb had to be dug carefully away. Then fused dynamite was packed into the hole and set off. Hundreds of volunteers were killed or maimed.

“Men bury the dead in peacetime,” Khue remembered. “During the war, women had to do it. In the morning, they would get up to prepare the white cloth to bury the day’s dead, make the coffins, and dig the burial trenches. Getting ready for what was to come. Sometimes, the burial trenches were bombed and they had to take the bodies out and rebury them. Some bodies were in pieces, some had exploded like bombs from the pressure. Sometimes as we walked, we would come upon a skeleton, someone at the rear of a column who had died alone, of malaria or some other disease.”

One night, she went to bathe in a stream. “It was dark, and something bumped into me. It was a dead body, floating there. What I feared the most was dying naked, while bathing, or having my clothes blown off by the bombing pressure. It happened to a lot of the girls.”

This volunteer, filling a rare idle moment on the trail with music, was blown to pieces by a bomb the day after this photograph was taken.

She continued, “But even death becomes routine, and we had to live—so even during airstrikes we chitchatted.” In the interest of the revolution, Khue recalled, young volunteers were exhorted to observe the “Three Delays: Don’t fall in love. Don’t marry. Don’t have children.” “But in fact,” she said, “no one waited. Even in such chaotic times we enjoyed moments of peace and beauty. You know, the jungle was so beautiful. There were about one hundred boys in my unit and fifty girls. We were like classmates….I was too young for love, but when there was no bombing we enjoyed some very romantic moments….It was natural that we girls would have feelings for the soldiers. We saw regular troops all the time. They were young, healthy, muscular, and they looked cute in their uniforms. But they never came back….Relations in wartime were always temporary. Soldiers passed through your life and sometimes sent back letters. I received quite a few and they were a great pleasure to read. The letters remain, but the senders are gone forever.”

Despite the relentless air attacks, the rate of infiltration steadily grew, from an average of some fifteen hundred soldiers every month in 1965 to six thousand a month two years later.

ON THAT DAY I BECAME A MARINE

The U.S. Marines had been the first American combat troops to fight in Vietnam, and they were expected to fight longer than their Army counterparts—thirteen months, instead of twelve. They came from everywhere.

ROGER HARRIS was born in the Roxbury section of Boston and brought up by his mother and his grandmother. “There were a lot of gangs at the time,” he recalled, “and there were those who would recruit you and try to entice you to do things that…weren’t in the best interests of society. Let’s put it like that. One of the fathers on our street had five or six children, and he didn’t want to see us drift into negative behavior, so he organized us into a basketball team and a football team. He would take us to games in other neighborhoods, including white neighborhoods. And we’d always want to be in the last car arriving and the first one leaving because we’d get bombarded with stones and sticks and name calling.”

Harris dreamed of going to college on a football scholarship but was not big enough to play for his team in high school. The draft was waiting. “I didn’t want to risk being drafted by the Navy, or the Air Force, or the Army. I wanted to go with the gladiators, with the tough guys. So I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I felt it was a win-win because, if I died, then my mother would be able to receive the ten-thousand-dollar insurance policy. I thought that was a lot of money, that my mother would be rich if I died. And if I lived then I’d be a hero, you know, and I could come back and get a job. And so I thought it was a viable employment option and opportunity for me. Naive. Dumb.

High school portrait of Roger Harris

“You know, the Marine Corps trains you to fight, to kill. I joined the Marines and volunteered to go to Vietnam to do that. They used to say that if you’re a Marine you can’t die until you kill three Vietnamese. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m from Roxbury. If the expectation is three, I’ll do ten.’ You know—craziness.”

JOHN MUSGRAVE was from the Fairmont neighborhood of Independence, Missouri. He joined the Marines in part because his father and most of the men he’d known and admired had served in World War II or Korea. “I’d always dreamed of being a Marine,” he explained, “and my country was at war. When my dad was eighteen and his country was at war he signed. I was seventeen in 1966, so my best friend and I went down and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I knew I wasn’t going to be a man right away, but I was going to be a Marine and that was enough. And I’d be serving my country. I’d be doing something mature. And I’d be doing something that was important. There was a war on. And I wanted a piece of it.”

John Musgrave (on the right) and a friend mug for a photo booth camera.

Training was a revelation to him. “I grew up in segregated neighborhoods all my life. I’d never met a black person till I arrived at boot camp. Never stood next to a black person or a Hispanic or anyone who was Jewish. They just didn’t mix where I grew up. So that was just eye-opening. When I got to talking to everybody, we were all the same. We were all working class and poor. And we all wanted to be Marines real bad.”

BILL EHRHART was raised in an overwhelmingly Republican neighborhood in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. He was fifteen in 1964 and remembered riding around town in a flatbed truck with classmates singing Barry Goldwater campaign songs “because Lyndon Johnson was not tough enough on those communists.”

He signed up with the Marines in part because his father, a pastor, had not served. “He went through his entire life feeling like he wasn’t a real man because everybody around him, they’d all been there. All those guys in Perkasie dressed up in their American Legion uniforms, marching around on Memorial Day—my dad didn’t get to do that. He was constantly being reminded, ‘You’re not a member of the club.’ ”

Bill Ehrhart and his high school sweetheart, photographed just after he got his orders for Vietnam

Ehrhart was a gifted student, and in his senior year in high school he was accepted by four colleges. Had he attended any of them he would have been exempt from the draft. But he did not attend: “In the fall was that huge battle in the Ia Drang Valley, which was the first time it was actually confirmed that North Vietnamese regular soldiers were fighting the Americans. Of course, my way of interpreting that was, ‘There it is. That’s the proof. The North Vietnamese are the aggressors here. Here they are in South Vietnam.’ That’s when I began thinking that maybe I don’t want to go to college right away. Maybe I’ll join the Marines. And it was always the Marines. There was no question. The Marine Corps is full of little guys like me with chips on our shoulder. And it all came down to this notion that I was going to be a hero and have that gorgeous Marine Corps uniform. And the girls would just be draped around my neck and nobody would beat me up again and at the same time I would really be serving my country. It was my chance to be—one doesn’t want to trivialize it—but it was my chance to be the star of my own John Wayne movie. It was my chance to do what that WWII generation had done and seemed to be so proud of. Now I had my turn.”

But, he recalled, “for about the first five weeks at Parris Island I was convinced that I was going to die. The drill instructors said they were going to kill me. And they certainly sounded serious. But by the time I graduated I felt like I was king of the world. I was God. I could do anything. It was actually a wonderful feeling. On that day I became a Marine.”

A NEW THEORY

BACK IN JANUARY, Mogie Crocker had received his first taste of the combat he had always hoped for. His headquarters company accompanied fighting men into the field, and he came under enemy fire just long enough to be entitled to a Combat Infantry Badge. But he had soon returned to base—and to the humdrum duties he hated. “My mood is a trifle despondent as I was looking forward to going into action again,” he told his parents, “and am now faced with about thirty boring days in the rear area….There is little sense in being over here unless one faces the main objective, the destruction of the VC. Certainly one feels no sense of accomplishment when one’s friends are facing all the dangers….I would never even have joined the Army if I had thought they would give me the job of a bloody clerk.”

Mogie’s parents did not share his disappointment—or his hopes for combat—and struggled to keep up with where he was. His outfit moved so often they called themselves “the Gypsies” and “the Nomads of Vietnam”—Cam Ranh Bay, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa. “I had a map on the back of the living room door,” his mother remembered. “And I put pins in it every time Denton Junior moved. And he moved a lot. I knew those names at one time as well as any other history in the area of our own world.”

Finally, after applying for combat duty again and again, Mogie had deliberately fouled up his work at battalion headquarters so badly that he was reassigned to a fighting outfit, Alpha Company. “It’s unfair that things went like they did,” he wrote home, “but if I had been conventional I never would have gotten to the line….My squad is good and my platoon excellent. The operations we now conduct are based on a new theory [our] Colonel Emerson developed. It is called the ‘checkerboard.’ ”

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Emerson wearing the six-gun that gave him his nickname, “the Gunfighter”

Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Hank” Emerson, Mogie’s battalion commander, was tough, implacable, and relentless: he once offered a case of whiskey to the first man in his unit to bring him the hacked-off head of an enemy soldier. (When he made good on that promise the photographer Horst Faas immortalized the winner and his grisly trophy.) But Emerson was also an innovative combat officer, the champion of both “checkerboard tactics” and “jitterbug strikes.”

Before launching an assault, Emerson divided the terrain into sets of squares and assigned his men to work one after another while in constant radio contact with him, methodically destroying everything they came across—hidden supplies of rice and weapons, whole hamlets, any enemy soldier unwise enough to cross their path or try to run. Meanwhile, as his men shot and slashed their way across the landscape, he sent helicopter gunships—“jitterbugs”—clattering overhead to provide cover for flights of other choppers, ready to shoot up thickets or drop in infantry, wherever and whenever they were needed to clear the terrain below.

Mogie Crocker had spent most of his boyhood reading about war—the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, in which his own father had played a part. And he had hoped for a chance to show what he could do in defense of his country. But nothing had prepared him for what he would experience over the next two weeks in remote, mountainous Quang Duc Province on the Cambodian border.

For eleven days, moving mostly under cover of darkness, he and his outfit battled nothing but the terrain—a labyrinth of elephant grass and thorn bushes, bamboo taller than three men, and triple-canopied jungle so thick it sometimes took an hour to move one hundred feet. The monsoon had begun. Sunlight rarely reached the slick, muddy forest floor. Finger-long black leeches caused leg wounds that quickly became infected.

But then a wounded prisoner told Colonel Emerson that four companies of North Vietnamese soldiers were preparing to ambush his men near an abandoned Special Forces camp called Bu Gia Mop. Emerson determined to ambush the ambushers. “My effort,” he said, “is to try to beat the damned guerrilla at his own game.” He radioed scattered units to help his men encircle the enemy, and on May 11 launched an attack, backed by massive air and artillery strikes.

In the midst of the fighting, Mogie’s squad was moving along a narrow path between walls of bamboo when two enemy machine guns opened up on them. Mogie’s closest friend, the platoon leader, was hit. Mogie crouched in front of him, radioed for suppressive fire, and then, as both machine guns continued shooting, lifted the fatally wounded man and carried him to safety. For his courage, he would be awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism.

Before the fighting ended, some two thousand artillery shells had slammed into the enemy positions. Blood was everywhere, pooled on the ground, smeared on leaves and grass and bamboo, all of it left by the enemy dead and wounded dragged away by their comrades. There were scores of corpses, too, torn to pieces or driven into the earth, hidden in thickets, half buried in scooped-out graves. The earth-shaking concussions had blown the eyeballs of some of them from their heads. Of the 450 would-be ambushers, only 50 were said to have survived to flee across the border into Cambodia.

Mogie Crocker told his family back home nothing of what he’d done or what he’d seen.

A TARNISHING OF THE NATIONAL SPIRIT

MORE THAN 8,615,000 draft-age men would serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. Most were volunteers like Mogie Crocker or draft-inspired “volunteers” who preferred the Marines or the safer services—the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force—to the Army. A little less than a quarter of them—2,215,000—were draftees. Every male citizen had to register at eighteen, and remained in the primary draft pool till he was twenty-six.

Until 1965, when the first Marines landed at Danang and the American buildup began steadily to accelerate, the monthly call-up had been small and uncontroversial. But afterward, the demand for men rose rapidly, from 10,000 to more than 30,000 per month. Of the nearly 27 million American men who came of draft age during the Vietnam War, more than half avoided military service through exemptions and deferments.

A million young men would find a safe haven in the Reserves and National Guard, signing on with the expectation that they would never be sent into combat. Reservists and guardsmen were overwhelmingly white, generally better educated, better connected, and better off than draftees. President Johnson thought it best not to interrupt their lives—which would have required him to obtain a congressional resolution or declare a national emergency—for fear of increasing opposition to the ongoing conflict. So far as possible, as David Halberstam wrote, Johnson wanted a “silent, politically invisible war.”

Everyone else was subject to the whims of some 4,080 local draft boards.

Between 1963 and 1966, married men were exempt. (During those years, the marriage rate rose 10 percent among men between the ages of twenty and twenty-one; the director of Selective Service for Georgia remembered that within one week forty-six men who’d been ordered to report for induction got married.) Then the law was changed so that married men had to have a child to be bypassed; afterward, one-third of the young fathers responding to a national survey admitted that the threat of being drafted had influenced their decision to have a child.

Roughly eight out of ten of those who were drafted came from working-class or poor backgrounds. “Any kid with money can absolutely stay out of the Army,” a prominent Los Angeles draft attorney said, “with 100 percent certainty.” Educational deferments became synonymous with class privilege. At first, simply being enrolled full time in a four-year college program or graduate school exempted young men. (Students who couldn’t afford to attend classes full time were out of luck.) “There are certain people who can do more good in a lifetime in politics or academics or medicine,” said a corporate lawyer who had been a Rhodes scholar, “than by getting killed in a trench.” Of the twelve hundred members of the 1970 Harvard graduating class only fifty-six would serve in the military, and only two went to Vietnam.

“Many of us,” recalled Professor Sam Hynes, who had been a decorated pilot during World War II and was teaching English at a small Quaker college in Pennsylvania during the early years of the Vietnam War, “thought that what the exemption for college students did was to bribe the middle and upper classes to be indifferent to the war by guaranteeing that their sons wouldn’t have to go fight in it. It made it an undemocratic war. Those of us who remembered the Second World War were troubled by that.”

Nearly 500,000 Americans applied for conscientious objector status on religious or moral grounds, six times as many as in World War II. In all, 170,000 were allowed to perform alternative service in hospitals, homeless shelters, and schools. Some were trained as medics and sent to Vietnam. At least two of these were killed; both received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Educators, too, sometimes faced tough choices about the war. “I remember one of my students coming to me,” Sam Hynes recalled, “and asking me to go as a witness to his draft board, and testify that he was a pacifist and that would keep him out of the Army. And I did it. And I talked to the draft board. But I was uncomfortable driving home, that somebody else was going to go in his place, someone who wasn’t in college. Did I really know that this student was a pacifist? Not really. Was I even sure that he was a Quaker? Not really. So I had done something that probably in the moral sense I shouldn’t have done. Because he was my student. That’s why I did it. A redheaded lead singer in a rock band on the campus. I knew him. And I must say I didn’t think he’d make a very good soldier. But that’s not a reason. No. If you’re a teacher you have a certain parental feeling about at least some of your students.”

According to one national study, roughly a million potential draftees compromised their health in order to elude the draft. A college football star ate three large pizzas a day so that he could put on 125 pounds and be rejected as obese. One potential draftee fired a .45 pistol next to his ear nearly one hundred times in order to damage his hearing. Another shot a bald eagle so that he could claim to have committed a federal crime.

The folk singer and antiwar activist Joan Baez, left, and her sisters Pauline and Mimi Farina do their part for draft resistance.

Upper- and middle-class youth could often afford to hire lawyers to file appeals against local draft boards, or were able to find physicians willing to say they deserved exemption on medical or psychological grounds. Some orthodontists did a brisk business providing well-to-do potential inductees with unneeded braces. The writer James Fallows remembered that in college “sympathetic medical students helped us search for disqualifying conditions we…might have overlooked.”

Marine recruits being processed at Parris Island, South Carolina. As the war wore on, even the Marines, which had historically relied on volunteers, had to fall back on conscription.

Poorly educated working-class youth, especially those who were black or brown, had far fewer options. The result was an American military heavily skewed toward minorities and the underprivileged. Racism had a lot to do with it—those who served on America’s draft boards were overwhelmingly white—but so did economics. African Americans joined the military in large numbers in part because they saw the service as a source of steady income and a way to move up, and many then volunteered for elite units that provided $55 more a month as combat pay but frequently placed them in danger.

Two potential celebrity draftees made different sorts of headlines. George Hamilton, a second-string Hollywood leading man who earned $200,000 a movie and shared a thirty-nine-room Beverly Hills mansion with his mother, wangled a “hardship” deferment because, his attorneys successfully argued, he was her sole source of support. Meanwhile, the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who told the press, “I ain’t got no personal quarrel with them Viet Cong,” was denied a deferment despite his assertion that he was studying to become a cleric in the Nation of Islam. Instead, he was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his championship. (In 1971, the Supreme Court would overturn his conviction on a legal technicality.)

In the autumn of 1966, Robert McNamara launched “Project 100,000,” lowering the physical and mental standards for potential inductees. He had twin goals, he said: to deepen the pool of potential draftees, and to allow more of the poor and poorly educated to benefit from military opportunity and training. The secretary promised that it would “salvage the poverty-scarred youth of our society at the rate of 100,000 men each year—first for two years of military service and then for a lifetime of productive activity in civilian society.”

A military funeral in a small South Carolina town, 1966. Between 1961 and 1966, African American soldiers, a high percentage of whom had voluntarily enlisted, accounted for almost 20 percent of all combat-related deaths. Afterward, commanders worked to lessen black casualty rates, and they were brought down to approximately 12 percent, much closer to their proportion of the U.S. population.

Forty-one percent of the 240,000 draftees inducted between 1966 and 1968 under the new dispensation were African American. Impatient old hands in the military dismissed the newcomers, white as well as black and brown, as “McNamara’s Morons.” “We had kids in our platoon that should have been in special ed,” one infantrymen remembered, “lots of kids who couldn’t read. One kid we had to write ‘L’ and ‘R’ on his boots so he’d know which way to go.” A disproportionate number of these draftees were assigned to combat. The death rate among them would prove twice the overall rate, and a postwar study of those who survived showed that the training they were supposed to have received actually did little to prepare them for civilian life.

At the same time, the draft law was altered again so that enrollment in college alone was no longer enough to keep students out of the military. “They started drafting people out of college,” Bill Zimmerman remembered; a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he’d been an antiwar activist ever since 1963, when he’d seen Malcolm Browne’s photographs of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire. “And that’s when the antiwar movement shifted from a moral movement to a self-interest movement, driven by people who didn’t want to go to war and their loved ones who didn’t want them to go to war. If your rank fell below a certain threshold, the best that could happen to you was that you would lose your chance for a college education and the worst that could happen was that you would be killed in Vietnam. So we protested that the University of Chicago, by agreeing to supply those rankings to the draft boards, was complicit in the war. We took over the administration building. This was the first time that students had seized a building on a college campus. We removed everybody, wouldn’t let anybody in who wasn’t with us, and held that building for three days. And we became a national news story. Some of us were asked to speak, and our voices were being projected to the entire nation. That was quite a high. We thought for the first time that we were really having an impact.”

Within weeks, students would seize buildings and make similar demands at the University of Wisconsin and the City University of New York. When the deferment for graduate school was eliminated in 1967, the percentage of college graduates serving in Vietnam rose from 6 percent to 10 percent.

The way conscription worked during the Vietnam War, wrote Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, “was a cynical avoidance of service, a corruption of the aims of education, a tarnishing of the national spirit,…and a cops and robbers view of national obligation.”

WHO ARE THE VIET CONG?

DUONG VAN MAI and most of her family had been part of the flood of refugees who fled North Vietnam for the South back in 1954. They settled in Saigon, where her father, who had been an important official in the French colonial regime, became a minor one in the Finance Ministry. Mai did well in school, won a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., spent three years there, and returned to Vietnam with an American fiancé, Army Sergeant David Elliott.

In 1964, Robert McNamara—genuinely puzzled by the stubbornness of the communists in the face of American power—had commissioned the RAND Corporation to do a study of defectors and enemy prisoners, seeking to know “Who are the Viet Cong? And what makes them tick?”

The Elliotts signed on with RAND, and Mai began interviewing subjects. She remembered that she’d been “brought up to believe that the communists were people who destroyed the family, destroyed religion, had no allegiance to our country but only to international communism.”

“My mother would describe them as đầu trâu mặt ngựa” she recalled. “Brutal subhumans with the head of a water buffalo and the face of a horse. But I knew that they also included people like my sister, Thang, and a lot of my cousins. I couldn’t quite reconcile the two images, but of the two, my mother’s image was stronger because I was so scared of them. That was the frame of mind I had when I started doing research into the communist movement. I remember my first interview. I was by myself. I was very young. I was going to this grim prison to interview this high-ranking cadre who had been captured. I went in thinking, ‘I’m going to meet this beast—this guy with a head of a water buffalo and the face of a horse’—but when I walked in he did not look like a brute.”

Duong Van Mai Elliott at the Can Tho Airport, on her way home after interviewing enemy prisoners and defectors, 1965

Instead, he was a dignified middle-aged man, she remembered, “with the authoritative demeanor of someone used to leading others.” She offered him an American cigarette, but he refused it—“he did not want to touch anything so American.” He answered her questions fully and patiently, and “had more integrity than anyone I had met in Saigon in a long time.

Five proud soldiers belonging to an NLF artillery company that had recently been awarded the title of “Hero Unit”

“He believed that the [Viet Cong] would free his country from foreign domination and reunify it under a regime that would bring social justice and equality to the poor,” she recalled. “He looked at himself as poor: a poor peasant who had been elevated to a position of leadership. Of course, one interview could not change my views right away. But it did raise troubling questions in my mind. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? I thought I knew. Now, the situation no longer seemed so black and white.”

When the first RAND report was presented to McNamara’s top deputies at the Pentagon, describing the Viet Cong as a dedicated enemy that “could only be defeated at enormous costs,” one of them said, “If what you say is true, we’re fighting on the wrong side, the side that’s going to lose this war.”

In the summer of 1966, Mai Elliott was asked to act as translator for the veteran American journalist Martha Gellhorn on a visit to an American hospital in South Vietnam. “I saw for the first time what the weapons were doing to real human beings,” she recalled. “I saw children and adults who had lost limbs. I saw eyes staring out of heads swathed in bloody bandages. I saw a woman who had been burned by a phosphorus bomb, with peeling skin showing pink and raw flesh underneath. I knew this was only a fraction of the toll in human misery. I left shaken and more convinced than before that it was unfair to make the peasants bear the brunt of the suffering to save my family and other middle-class families from a communist system they felt they could not live under.”

Still, Mai couldn’t bring herself to wish for an American withdrawal. “I hated the war and I wanted peace, but a peace that would keep the communists from winning. I feared that once the shield of American power was removed, the communists would sweep the hapless Saigon regime aside and my family would suffer with nowhere else to run and hide. I began to wish that the group of people dubbed ‘the Third Force,’ who were neither pro-America nor pro-communist, would succeed in rallying the people.”

CONTACT IS A MOTHER

“IWAS WITH A REALLY GOOD UNIT,” First Cavalry Division platoon leader Michael Heaney recalled. “They believed in Army traditions, they believed in honor, they believed even in treating your enemy humanely once he was a POW.” Heaney had arrived late in 1965 and was assigned to a densely populated section of Central Vietnam, where he found himself surrounded by NLF fighters, North Vietnamese infiltrators, and villagers whose loyalties were unclear.

“We never really figured out how to determine who the enemy was,” he remembered. “Being normal, decent American boys, you don’t just put your rifle up and take a shot at a guy and try to kill him unless you’re pretty sure this is an enemy. And if he wasn’t armed, or wasn’t menacing you in any way, we wouldn’t shoot him. We’d go through a village in which there would be no people we could identify as enemy soldiers, and we’d find a big cache of rice. So the standing instructions were ‘Blow that up, burn it, destroy it, poison it,’ whatever. We really didn’t want to do that, because you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to look around and say these people are depending on this. This is their food. We were told sometimes to burn thatched dwellings. And guys would unenthusiastically try to light a roof. And as soon as the flame burned out they weren’t going to try again. Our hearts really weren’t in trying to destroy civilian food, civilian homes. It gave us an uneasy feeling about what this war was about.”

Large-scale operations like Masher/White Wing and its successors made the most news back home. But most of the fighting in Vietnam was the kind Heaney and his men were about to experience—relatively small scale and closeup, and initiated by the elusive enemy. The military called it “contact.” “War is hell,” grunts liked to say, “but contact is a mother.”

American infantrymen found themselves being used as “bait”—though military spokesmen were expressly forbidden to use that word when speaking with the press. The hope was that if U.S. patrols were unable to locate the enemy, the enemy could locate them—and then be annihilated by the massive firepower the Americans were able to call in. “We were acting as bait,” Heaney recalled. “At some level we knew that. Go walk in the woods and draw fire. And then, when you draw fire, return fire.”

Six months into his tour, Heaney undertook what he and his men thought would be a relatively easy assignment: climb a slope not far from their base at An Khe and drive an enemy mortar unit off a ridgeline. “As soon as we started out we started to get some bad vibes,” he remembered. “We found some boot prints in the mud at the edge of this landing zone. And a nice trail, a well-used trail going up the ridge. And then we found some communication wire—‘commo’ wire, we called it—black wire, that came on a reel. We didn’t use that stuff. But they did. I remember talking to one of my squad leaders about this. And we were both sitting there, ‘Well, shit. This sucks.’ But, you know, we got the mission and we’ll go up and maybe nothing’ll happen. My platoon pulled the point position.

“I had about twenty-six guys that day out of forty-five. And all of a sudden the point man, the first guy in the column, Sergeant Mays, good soldier, without saying anything, just put his M16 up to his shoulder and fired off a round. Then he turned around and said, ‘VC on the trail. VC on the trail.’ And before I had a chance to digest this he went down, shot right through the chest. Boom! And all of a sudden what was a very well-laid ambush erupted. And we started taking a very heavy volume of fire, heavier than I’d ever experienced. And it was so loud and so unexpected I was stunned for a little bit, you know. ‘What the fuck is going on?’ ”

Terry Carpenter, Heaney’s radio operator, got the company commander on the line. “We’ve run into something bad,” Heaney shouted into it. A bullet hit Carpenter in the head.

“I knew Terry was down,” Heaney recalled. “I knew Sergeant Mays was down. I had asked the first machine gun crew to come up and start laying down machine gun fire. They got blown away pretty quickly. They never really had a chance to lay down much fire.

Michael Heaney, recovering from his wounds, plays chess with an American nurse. “I was almost glad I’d been wounded,” he remembered, “because it proved to me, ‘Okay, you don’t need to have survivor guilt. You got wounded too.’ I still feel I’m lucky. I came home. I can still walk around. I can still play sports. The guys I was with got killed. I keep their memory alive on purpose. I try not to be morbid about it or obsessed with it. But it’s important to me. I’m living my life in a sense for them, because they didn’t have that chance.”

“Right after the ambush happened and I knew I’d lost a bunch of guys, I said a prayer to God, saying basically, ‘If you need any more guys from my platoon, take me. Don’t take any more of my men.’ As soon as I said it I freaked myself out and said, ‘Holy shit. Can I take that prayer back?’ But it was too late. I’d said it. And as it turns out, not one more man in my platoon died after that prayer.”

Heaney continued: “Now, we saw numbers of North Vietnamese regular soldiers—PAVNs, we called them, People’s Army of Vietnam—running along back toward where our column was and trying to surround us. And they did surround us finally and placed us under siege.”

Heaney’s men set up a perimeter and called for support. Low-hanging clouds prevented Skyraider pilots from seeing the struggle clearly enough to strafe or rocket the enemy. Helicopter gunships did what they could. They tried to call in artillery, but the North Vietnamese remembered the lesson they’d learned in the Ia Drang Valley: Grab on to the Americans’ belt and hold on, and get close enough so they can’t call it in.

Night fell. Heaney’s company braced for the assault they assumed would come at dawn. “I was lying there on the perimeter,” he remembered. “I was right next to a dead enemy soldier. It was kind of my face and his feet and I kept looking back at him, because I couldn’t see any wounds on him. And you know, the strange things you think—‘This guy’s going to kill me. He’s faking it. He’s waiting until the assault and then he’s going to jump up on me and kill me.’ And I almost shot him again, just to make sure he was dead. And I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty stupid, shooting a dead guy.’ I remember his face. He was young.”

Then the enemy began to hurl mortar shells among the men.

“As I was lying there, there was a boom, a detonation in the tree canopy,” he recalled. “And I felt like somebody had taken a bat and hit me on my right calf as hard as he could. A piece of mortar shell about the size of a quarter went clean through my calf, severed the small calf bone, missed the shin bone fortunately or it would have taken my leg off. And I just drew in a deep breath and I started to claw at the mud in terrible pain. I couldn’t speak.”

Heaney was bleeding badly. He crawled to the center of the perimeter and found a medic who still had a few bandages. “Nobody had any morphine left by this point. I said, ‘Take my pant leg off and bandage that wound. Got to stop the bleeding.’ He did. And I started to go into shock.”

American artillery finally managed to zero in on the enemy mortar section. The survivors of Heaney’s company stumbled down the hill to safety. He was carried to a hospital. His war was over. “The wound hurt a lot because the nerve had been severed,” he remembered. “I was lying on my bed sobbing as quietly as I could, just from the pain. A brand-new nurse came over. I found out later she’d only been there a couple of days. She bent over and she said, ‘Lieutenant, your men are all over the place. You’ve got to stop crying.’ And at that point my platoon sergeant—a huge black guy from Detroit whom I loved dearly, Sergeant Sam Hunt, he came over and sat down next to me and he took my hand and he said to this nurse, ‘Ma’am, this here lieutenant don’t have to stop doing anything.’ And he said, ‘Sir, you’re going to be just fine.’ ”

WORSE THAN FOLLY

ON MAY 15, 1966, the day after Mogie Crocker and his exhausted unit were helicoptered back to their base, the government of South Vietnam, the country for which they had risked their lives, once again seemed on the brink of collapse.

The trouble had begun with the ascendancy of Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky to the prime ministership and the Catholic Nguyen Van Thieu to the office of chief of state the previous June. For the activist Buddhists who had helped topple the Diem regime and continued to hope for a civilian, democratically chosen government in which they could play a major role, this had seemed a disastrous development.

Thich Tri Quang, a charismatic monk who had emerged as one of the chief spokesmen for the Buddhist uprising during the months leading up to Diem’s fall in 1963, sent his followers into the streets again and again, demanding the resignations of Ky and Thieu, calling for an end to the war through a transition to popular democracy and representative government. Ky’s government met the protestors just as Diem’s had, with tear gas grenades and helmeted police with clubs and wicker shields.

Thich Tri Quang, who became a central figure in the Buddhist “Struggle Movement” of 1966. Opaque and changeable, he opposed both communism and the military government in Saigon, believing that “only religions count in Vietnam.”

Despite his apparent cockiness, Ky knew his grip on power depended on support from the generals who commanded South Vietnam’s four military regions, or corps. Each wielded political as well as military power within his area. Saigon could do little without their cooperation. Three of them were reliable, if pragmatic, Ky allies: since Washington was backing him, aligning themselves with him assured them of an uninterrupted stream of American military assistance.

But Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the commander of I Corps, made up of the five provinces farthest from Saigon, was different. Flamboyant, tough talking, and independent minded, he was an aggressive field commander, beloved by the men of the ARVN’s crack First Division and the local militias that he led. General Lewis Walt, the commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Force, headquartered at Danang, thought his leadership “exceptional.”

Thi got along well personally with Walt, but he was deeply suspicious of Washington. Not long after Joe Galloway arrived in Vietnam, he was taken to meet the general and got an earful. How serious were the Americans? Thi asked, wagging his finger. They seemed to be in a great hurry. Were they in this for the long run? If things didn’t go the way they thought it ought to, would they simply leave? “If you come here and draw us into a much more violent and destructive war and then decide to get on your helicopters and fly away,” he warned, “you’re going to be under fire. And it won’t be the Viet Cong shooting at you, it’ll be me and my troops.”

Backed by tanks, ARVN troops loyal to the Saigon government move into Danang to crush the Buddhist uprising, May 15, 1966. It would take them more than a week to subdue the city.

Thi was also a devout Buddhist, careful to cultivate good relations with activist Buddhist leaders, some of whose goals he shared. Thich Tri Quang and others had hoped that he, not the Catholic Thieu, would become chief of state. “We cannot be so dependent upon the Americans,” he told Ky. “We cannot be puppets. We must do something to have freedom and democracy.” In part because Thi believed Ky was too willing to do the bidding of the Americans, he was openly contemptuous of him; once, when Ky called upon him at his headquarters, Thi asked his subordinates in a loud voice, “What is this little man doing here, anyway?”

Humiliated and furious, Ky saw Thi as a potential rival and wanted him removed. Henry Cabot Lodge, now back in Saigon as ambassador, agreed, fearing that Thi might lead a secession movement in the northern provinces, but he urged Ky to move against him only when he thought the time was right. Ky assured him there would be no public outcry.

In early March, Ky convinced the generals who made up the ruling Directory to dismiss Thi, then provided the press with a cover story: the corps commander had requested a “vacation,” he claimed, so that he could go abroad and have his sinuses treated. No one was fooled. “The only sinus condition I have,” Thi said, “is from the stink of corruption.” Ky placed him under house arrest.

Ky had badly miscalculated. Thousands of Buddhists poured into the streets of Danang and Hue to protest Thi’s dismissal. They formed an organization that came to be known as the “Struggle Movement.” Students took over the Danang radio station and began broadcasting antigovernment messages. ARVN units loyal to their dismissed commander abandoned the struggle against the enemy and headed for Danang to lend their support to the dissidents. So did thousands of local militiamen.

Thich Tri Quang was again the best-known spokesman of the Buddhist movement. “If the Americans do leave” thanks to peaceful demonstrations, he said, “I will have achieved passively what the Viet Cong have been unable to do by killing people.”

When rebel ARVN troops threatened to blow up this bridge across the Danang River in order to deny it to troops loyal to the Saigon regime at the other end, the U.S. Marines intervened, for fear U.S. installations on Danang’s outskirts would be cut off from the city itself.

Hoping to defuse the crisis, Thieu, as head of state, convened a National Political Congress of all factions, and on April 12 signed the document that emerged from it, promising elections for a constituent assembly within three to six months. Once that vote had been taken, he pledged, he and Ky would hand over power to a new civilian government.

Things calmed down. Thich Tri Quang toured the northern provinces urging his followers to return to their homes and begin preparing for the coming vote. Then, a month later, Ky casually told a roomful of reporters that whatever happened, he planned to stay in power for at least another year.

Ky’s change of heart was “an act of treachery,” one Buddhist leader said; surely “it will lead to civil war.” Angry Buddhists returned to the streets of Danang—3,500 of them, joined by 1,000 ARVN troops loyal to Thi. They declared a general strike that paralyzed the city and closed down the wharves where U.S. war materiel was unloaded. Nonessential U.S. personnel were evacuated. General Walt stepped up security around the important Marine base just outside the city.

Ky now declared that communists, not Buddhists, had captured Danang. The demonstrations spread to Hue and Saigon, where marchers chanted, “Down with Americans!” as they passed the U.S. embassy. Lodge insisted that the protestors were being manipulated by “a VC Fifth Column…utilizing signs of communist techniques”—the evidence, he said, was “everywhere.” (The CIA could find no such evidence; there were surely communist agents among the Buddhists—just as there were within the Saigon government, for that matter—but they were not in charge.)

Once again, the whole American effort in Vietnam seemed in peril. Just fourteen months after ordering the first American troops into Vietnam, President Johnson was afraid he might have to pull them out again. The United States should do everything it possibly could to keep Ky in power, he told his aides, but should also “be ready to make terrible choices….If necessary, the U.S. should be prepared to get out of…Vietnam.”

Some advisers urged him to do just that. John Kenneth Galbraith, the former ambassador to India, saw in Ky’s potential fall “an opportunity only the God-fearing deserve and only the extremely lucky get”—to stage “an orderly withdrawal.” Jack Valenti, the president’s closest aide, agreed; he saw “no reasonable hope” in Vietnam, and told Johnson he needed to find “some way out” for fear the war would overshadow all the things he’d done for the country.

But most of the president’s men urged him to hold on, and in the end he resolved to “continue roughly along the same lines” he’d been following, though he did demand “more planning on how to pick a man before he takes over so we won’t have to get out when the wrong man gets in….The way I see it, Ky is gone….Let’s get a government we can appoint and support.” It was clear that for all of Washington’s talk of defending freedom and democracy around the globe, when it came to South Vietnam, the need for order took precedence over self-determination.

In the end, Ky would survive, but not without more chaos. Before dawn on May 15, he sent four battalions of South Vietnamese Marines and paratroopers storming into Danang to crush the rebellion. Their commander was the head of the national police force, Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a veteran paratrooper with no sympathy for dissidents of any kind.

The city exploded in gunfire as ARVN troops loyal to Ky faced their fellow soldiers wearing orange armbands as a sign of their fidelity to the Buddhist cause. Neil Sheehan covered the fighting for The New York Times. At first, he wrote, “soldiers on each side appeared reluctant to kill each other and fired into the air or into trees and buildings.” But as the day wore on things got more serious—and more surreal. The heaviest fighting took place early in the evening when an observation plane flew over the central market and was fired upon by rebel soldiers. Within minutes, two fighter bombers swooped in and strafed the marketplace. A column of pro-government troops led by two tanks moved into the square and a pitched battle began that went on for almost two hours. “While this battle was in progress,” Sheehan reported, “150 Buddhist youth and priests and girl and boy scouts sat praying on the pavement in front of a major pagoda 800 yards up an adjacent street. Some of the girls wept as a priest harangued them over a loudspeaker and bullets cracked through the treetops and splattered into the walls and roofs of the pagoda.” Inside the shrine, rebel soldiers set up mortars and prepared for a siege.

That same evening, Lieutenant Philip Caputo, at the U.S. Marine command post on a hilltop outside the city, watched in disbelief as two battles unfolded simultaneously: “Looking to the west we could see Marines fighting the VC; to the east, the South Vietnamese army fighting itself….I saw tracers flying over the city, heard the sound of machine gun fire, and then, in utter disbelief, watched an ARVN fighter plane strafing an ARVN truck convoy. It was incredible, a tableau of the madness of the war. One of the plane’s rockets fell wide of the mark, exploding near an American position and wounding two Marines. The prop-driven Skyraider roared down again, firing its rockets and cannons once more into the convoy, packed with South Vietnamese soldiers. And I knew then that with a government and an army like that in South Vietnam, we could never hope to win the war. To go on with the war would be folly—worse than folly: it would be a crime, murder on a mass scale.”

Thich Tri Quang cabled President Johnson, asking him to intervene. Johnson did not reply. Dean Rusk did instead, blandly urging all South Vietnamese to unite against the communists. The monk, who had seen the Americans as allies during the struggle to overthrow Diem, felt abandoned. General Walt cabled his own alarm: “Certain factions in Saigon have carefully planned this attack in order to wipe out the Buddhist resistance and opposition. As a result, there is going to be bloodshed and a lot of bitterness among the population in I Corps area.”

The fighting went on. In Danang itself, the ARVN dissidents, outnumbered and outgunned, took refuge in pagodas, surrounded by civilians. When the Vietnamese air force commander ordered his warplanes to bomb and strafe these last pockets of resistance, General Walt vehemently objected, fearing that more stray bullets and errant bombs or rockets might damage his airfield or injure more of his men. When Vietnamese planes took off anyway, Walt ordered two American jets to fly above them, prepared to shoot them out of the air “if they fired one rocket, dropped one bomb, or shot one single round into the city.” In that case, the Vietnamese commander said, he’d send four of his planes still higher, Walt recalled, so that “if my jets fired on his planes beneath them, his planes above would shoot them down.” Walt immediately sent up two more jets with orders to fly still higher. “For two hours, this four-layer aircraft sandwich circled Danang…[until] the Vietnamese tired of this waiting game and returned to base.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, Ky’s men encircled the pagodas and took them, one by one.

After the shooting stopped, Neil Sheehan visited one of the pagodas. “It was deserted,” he wrote, “except for two monks wearing white mourning bands around their heads who chanted prayers and beat hollow wooden blocks before the gilt statue of Buddha….Pools of congealed blood still lay on the tile floors. The front of the shrine was heavily pock-marked by bullets. The yard outside was littered with Buddhist Boy Scout hats.”

It took a little over a week to crush resistance in Danang. Some 150 ARVN troops on both sides had been killed. At least 100 civilians died in the crossfire. A total of 700 South Vietnamese soldiers were wounded, along with 23 American Marines.

Ky next turned his attention to Hue, where he hoped by cutting off access to food and water he could force the dissidents to surrender without further bloodshed. Americans were now targets of Buddhist wrath in that city because, as one monk told Sheehan, “the government used all the American aid and American weapons to attack the people.” Six thousand marchers roamed the city with banners reading “End the Foreign Domination of Our Country, Down with the American Protectors of the Ky Clique, End the Oppression of the Yellow Race.” Crowds burned the United States Information Service Library and sacked the U.S. consulate. One hundred and twenty-five monks and nuns began a fast. Ten Buddhists—two nuns and eight monks—burned themselves alive. But the dissident ARVN in the city eventually realized that the odds against them were now hopeless, and when Ky sent four hundred policemen into the city on June 8, they met little resistance. Thich Tri Quang was placed under permanent house arrest.

Premier Ky arrives in Hue in triumph after the last Buddhist rebels surrendered to his forces. “From that day,” he exulted, “Vietnam’s Buddhists…displayed no further political passion.”

The last hope for a civilian government of South Vietnam seemed to have died.

Jean Marie Crocker, Mogie’s mother, remembered reading about the anti-American demonstrations that spring and thinking, “Vietnam is in total chaos. Why, why, why are we there?” She spoke for a good many Americans. General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to General Westmoreland, “Even if we get some semblance of solidarity and common purpose among the contending factions, we have lost irretrievably and for all time some of the support which until now we have received from the American people….[R]egardless of what happens of a favorable nature, many people will never again believe that the effort and the sacrifices are worthwhile.”

WE’LL LOVE EACH OTHER AND WE’LL BE ALRIGHT

NOT HEARING [FROM MOGIE] in those days was so difficult,” his mother remembered. “It wasn’t quite as bad as during World War Two when my husband was overseas. But there’d be at least eight to ten days between letters. So knowing he was in action I just didn’t know what might be going on. And one day when I was at the post office mailing something I asked the clerk, ‘How do they let you know if your son is wounded?’ It was very hard for me to form those words. But I just felt, I’ve got to know. I just felt so suspended in space and anxiety. And the man said, ‘Now, don’t ask that. Don’t think about that.’ I said, ‘Well, I have to know.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.’ ”

On May 16, Mogie Crocker wrote to his parents. He gave no details about the fighting he’d just been through, said nothing about the bravery he’d shown under fire. But this letter was different from all the others: bitter, cryptic, worrying. He had had his fill of patrols, he said, and worried that more and more of them were being “thrown at us.” He might take a fifteen-day leave in Japan soon, he wrote, “to keep from cracking up.”

The letter filled his mother with apprehension. She remembered thinking, “Mogie had been through something very terrible, and, exhausted and lonely, he might have been sent out again since he had written.” “That letter showed a kind of despair,” his sister Carol said. “It echoed back to the day he said to me, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ It was very hard to realize that he had gone back and it was getting painful for him, too.”

When a second letter arrived from Mogie a few days later, saying he was now in a Saigon hospital recovering from a minor leg infection, his parents felt they could relax a little. For the moment at least, he was out of danger. “I was beginning to feel that, oh, it’s not so long now,” his mother recalled. “Maybe three months and he’ll be home again, so I mustn’t let myself be too anxious.”

To Duff Thomas, an old high school friend, Mogie was more forthcoming. His nerves were shot, he wrote. “A number of exciting but terribly unpleasant events have occurred, the worst of which was being pinned down by two Chinese light machine guns firing 900 rounds a minute…and having my best friend killed more or less beside me….Someday I may tell you the whole story if my nerves aren’t completely shot by then. Actually, the latter is just wishful thinking in false hope they will take me off the line. I was fantastically religious for a while, sending up various and sundry prayers mainly concerned with trying to stay alive, but back in the hospital I am once again an atheist until the shooting starts again—or maybe I’ll hold out longer next time.”

June 3, 1966, was Mogie Crocker’s nineteenth birthday but he’d had no chance to celebrate. He’d been released from the hospital just in time to rejoin Company A and take part in Operation Hawthorne, yet another campaign aimed at finding and killing North Vietnamese troops filtering into the Central Highlands from Laos. Its first objective was a besieged ARVN outpost at a place called Tou Morong. As night fell on June 4, Mogie and his squad were ordered to move up toward the crest of a hill overlooking the outpost so that artillery could be brought up and positioned to shell the enemy in the morning.

The Saratogian reports the death of Mogie Crocker, June 6, 1966.

They moved slowly, warily, up the slope in the dark. Mogie was the point man. A machine gun opened up. Mogie never made it to the top of the hill.

In his hometown of Saratoga Springs “June 4 was just a lovely day to be out in our garden,” his mother remembered. “And Candy, our little girl, had gone to a birthday party. The other children were just around the house. But shortly after lunchtime I stepped out onto the porch, looking for my husband to come home from doing some errands.”

Instead, she saw two men in uniform coming across the street, accompanied by the family’s Episcopal priest, Father Ben Holmes.

“I just knew that they must have bad news. I ran down the steps, and I just grabbed hold of one of them and said, ‘Don’t tell me. Don’t say it. Not my beautiful boy.’ And he just said, ‘Yes.’ And then I said, ‘But he was in the hospital.’ And he said, ‘He was killed by small-arms fire.’ ”

Mogie’s sister Carol was sitting on the living room couch. “I suddenly heard my mother screaming for my father. And she said, ‘It’s Father Holmes.’ I knew what she meant. Like in a movie, here came a priest up the stairs with a soldier and she’s going, ‘Oh no.’ And she’s calling my dad. My reaction was to leap up off the couch and grab my little brother’s hand. ‘You have to come with me,’ I said. ‘I have something to show you.’ We raced out the back door and I just started walking. I have no idea why. I just said to myself, ‘No. This isn’t going to happen.’ And somehow I felt I had to protect my little brother from it. And then I heard my father bellowing my name from the backyard and just screaming, ‘Carol! Carol!’ And something made me turn around and I walked up to the back of the house. And my dad was standing there. And I fell into his arms and I said, ‘Don’t let it be true. Dad, is it true?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I was still clinging to my little brother’s hand. And we went in the house. My mother was collapsed on the stairs. I’d never seen that kind of sadness in grownups before. She just grabbed me and hugged me. I somehow knew that things had changed forever. That my mom as my mom and my dad as my dad were never going to be quite the same again. And I’d never be quite the same again.”

“I remember sitting on the couch,” her mother recalled, “and I put my arms around them and I said, ‘We’ll love each other and we’ll be alright.’ But I don’t know how far it carried. We all tried. I just felt so thankful for the gift of Denton Junior’s life. I know Carol asked me, probably that very day or the next day, ‘How can you believe in God?’ And I said, ‘Because we had Mogie.’ A friend wrote to me that our children are really only on loan to us. Which I guess is true. But, of course, we were blessed that we had three [other] lovely children. I can’t imagine somebody losing an only child. I just can’t picture how that would be survivable.”

Neighbors came to commiserate, bringing casseroles and cakes.

“One evening,” Carol said, “I remember my mother letting out a scream in the kitchen, so angry that somebody had brought another chocolate cake. That cake at that moment symbolized the absurdity of all this food in any way nourishing the emptiness that she was feeling. It’s a scary thing to see your parents feel so fragile.”

Mogie Crocker’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery. “We have always sent a wreath to his grave,” his mother said, “partly in remembrance of him but also thinking of other grieving people or just people that are visiting to pay their respects. It’s good for them to know that the soldiers are remembered.”

Ten days later, an Army captain escorted Mogie’s body to a funeral home in Saratoga Springs, operated by a family friend named Dick Stone.

“When my mother asked me if I wanted to see my brother’s body,” Carol recalled, “one of the things she said to me was, ‘He looks just like himself and very peaceful. It’s hard to tell that he was injured so badly.’ I felt if I didn’t go I was bad; I felt to go would be the undoing of me. I ended up not going. I’m grateful my mother told me he looked peaceful. The funeral is very vivid to me still. The casket was draped with a flag. The church was packed. And, being who I am and who my family is, I felt it was important for me to hold my head up high, and be strong and be brave. That was the best way that we could honor my brother at that moment.”

The family priest had suggested that Mogie be buried in Saratoga Springs so that his parents could easily visit his grave. But they chose Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington, because, his mother recalled, “a corner of my heart knew that if he were buried near us, I would want to claw the ground to retrieve the warmth of him.”

THE HEIGHT OF MY AMBITION

ON JUNE 8, 1966, four days after Mogie Crocker’s death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke to the graduating class at West Point. He had long since swallowed his private doubts about the course President Johnson had chosen to follow in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, he now said, “we are tested as never before. We face a situation of external aggression and subversion against a postcolonial nation that has never had the breathing space to develop its politics or its economy. In South Vietnam, both defense and development—the war against the aggressor and the war against despair—are fused as never before. Vietnam challenges our military courage, our political ingenuity, and our ability to persevere. If we can succeed there—if we can help sustain an independent South Vietnam, free to determine its own future, then the prospects for free men throughout Asia will be bright indeed. We know this. Our friends and allies know it. And our adversaries know it. That is why one small country looms so large today on everyone’s map of Asia.”

No parent in the listening crowd that day was prouder of his graduating son than Colonel Matthew Clarence Harrison. He had always believed that Matt Jr., the oldest of his three boys, would one day become an officer, too. Matt’s nickname within the family was “Chips” because he seemed such a chip off the old block. “I was born at West Point when my dad was on the faculty there,” he remembered. “From my earliest recollection, West Point was what I wanted to do. It was kind of the height of my ambition.”

The Harrisons and their five children had moved from base to base—West Point, Fort Leavenworth, the Canal Zone—and the military was always at the center of things. “My dad was an Army officer and all that came with that,” Matt’s sister Anne recalled. “You addressed your parents as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ and you said ‘yes’ and not ‘yeah.’ And you answered the phone, ‘Colonel Harrison’s quarters.’ We got up every Saturday morning and dusted the house. My dad would put on a record by the West Point Marching Band and my sister and I would dust around the living room.”

It seemed to Matt’s parents—and his siblings—that he could do no wrong. “He was the adored golden son,” Anne said, “the captain of his football team, the president of his high school class. It was clear that he was special. Everything he did seemed wonderful to me.” Their sister Victoria agreed. “He was the oldest. He was named after my father. He was following in my father’s footsteps. He was doing all of the right things, setting the bar. I think every one of us just thought, you know, ‘I want to be able to do that,’ or ‘I want to make Mom and Dad proud. I want to do good.’ Now, of course, we were also kids. And there were times when we would sit there and go, ‘Whew, why does he have to be such a goody-two-shoes?’ You know, ‘Great. Thanks. None of us can live up to him.’ ”

He joined the infantry after West Point and volunteered for Vietnam. “I would have been surprised if he didn’t go,” Victoria remembered, “and I certainly understood his desire to go. It made perfect sense to me, because I believed that if you were going to serve your country and you were going to be in the military, then that means you are going to go forth and follow orders and serve your country.”

Harrison and his fellow graduates all seemed to feel that way. “The strongest impression I have of my classmates was that they just were idealists,” he recalled. “You needed to serve your country and you needed to be a patriot. It was a time before anyone questioned American exceptionalism. We didn’t question it. We believed in what this country stood for, and we believed that people who had the ability to lead soldiers should do that. I remember discussing with my classmates how horrible it would be to serve in the Army if everybody just a year ahead of us had served in combat and we didn’t have the opportunity. It’s as though you had trained to be a surgeon and all of a sudden all diseases were conquered, and you never had the chance to treat them. You don’t hope to have people get cancer but, on the other hand, if that’s what you spent your life training to do you’d be disappointed if you didn’t have that opportunity. I was afraid we were going to win the war too quickly and I wouldn’t have a chance to experience it.”

Before Harrison shipped out he was to serve four months with a stateside outfit. He endured nine weeks of the most rigorous officer training the Army had to offer—as a ranger. The man in charge was Major Charlie A. Beckwith—“Chargin’ Charlie”—the cigar-chewing hero of the siege of Plei Mei the year before. He had survived a machine gun bullet through his stomach during Operation Masher/White Wing and been brought home to toughen up Ranger training before returning to combat. “If a man is bloody stupid,” he told each group of newcomers, “his mother will receive a telegram and it will say, ‘Your son is dead because he’s stupid.’ Let’s hope your telegram only reads, ‘Your son is dead.’ With the training we’re going to give you here maybe your mother won’t receive any telegram at all. So pay attention.”

They had no choice. To make it through they had to survive days without sleep; were deprived of food and water, forced to march up mountains until their feet bled, and patrol through swamps that harbored copperheads and cottonmouths; had to learn how to detect booby traps and outmaneuver battle-hardened veterans masquerading as Viet Cong. “Expect the unexpected,” Beckwith told his trainees again and again. “Life is unfair.”

West Point classmates (left to right) Matthew Harrison Jr., Richard Hood, and Donald Judd. Only Harrison would survive the war.

Of the 212 men who began training alongside Matt Harrison, only he and 161 others received the coveted gold-and-black Ranger uniform patch that symbolized their toughness. Harrison was eager now to get to Vietnam and put into action the survival and leadership skills he’d been absorbing for five years.

I LOVE A PARADE!

BY THE END OF JUNE 1966, MACV claimed to have killed fifty-seven thousand NLF and North Vietnamese troops since the beginning of the year. But the secured civilian population had grown by just one-tenth of 1 percent, and the enemy’s numbers were still steadily increasing; men and supplies continued to stream south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There was no sign that either the large-scale American ground operations or the small-scale firefights or the more than twenty thousand air sorties against North Vietnam had shaken Hanoi’s will.

General Westmoreland’s “crossover point” seemed no nearer. From the first, the Joint Chiefs had urged the president to be more aggressive—to permit ARVN troops and their American advisers to pursue the enemy into Laos and Cambodia and to expand the target list for bombing in North Vietnam. Johnson still would not allow borders to be officially crossed by ground troops for fear of bringing China into the war (though reconnaissance patrols were secretly operating against the Ho Chi Minh Trail). And he was wary of heavier bombing. “I seem to be the only one,” he said, “that’s afraid that they’ll hit a hospital…or a school or something.” But he did now agree to “systematic and sustained bombing of facilities that refined petroleum, oil, and lubricants” concentrated around the cities of Haiphong and Hanoi. The Joint Chiefs assured him this would be a mortal blow to the enemy.

Johnson gave the go-ahead but continued to worry. Only the most experienced pilots were to take part in the attacks. The weather had to be clear. And, above all, no pilot was to fire on any vessel for fear of inadvertently hitting a Soviet tanker and triggering a nuclear confrontation.

On June 28, orders were flashed to the Air Force and Navy commands in Southeast Asia to launch their strikes the following day. Johnson called Secretary McNamara, seeking some reassurance about the way things were shaping up “Things are going reasonably well in the South, aren’t they?” he asked.

McNamara’s answer was disappointingly qualified. “We think we’re taking a heavy toll of them, but it just scares me to see what we’re doing there…with God knows how many airplanes and helicopters and firepower…going after a bunch of half-starved beggars….And this is what’s going on in the South. And the great danger…is that they can keep that up almost indefinitely. The only thing that’ll prevent it, Mr. President, is their morale breaking….There’s no question but what the troops in the South, the VC and North Vietnamese,…they know that we’re bombing in the North….And we just have a free rein….And when they see they’re getting killed in such high rates in the South, and they see that the supplies are less likely to come down from the North, I think it will just hurt their morale a little bit more. And to me that’s the only way to win, because we’re not killing enough of them to make it impossible for the North to continue to fight. But we are killing enough to destroy the morale of those people down there if they think this is going to have to go on forever.”

“All right,” Johnson answered. “Go ahead, Bob.”

The president was still worried over what was to come. That evening, his daughter Lucy came upon him sitting alone in the family quarters. She asked him what was wrong. He was still fearful that an errant bomb might hit a Soviet ship, he said. “Your daddy may go down in history as having started World War Three. You may not wake up tomorrow.”

The next day, June 29, 1966, 116 U.S. military aircraft from Air Force bases in Thailand and Navy carriers in the South China Sea roared into the airspace above North Vietnam’s capital and its biggest port for the first time and dropped one hundred tons of bombs and rockets. “The whole place was going up,” one of the mission’s Air Force commanders reported when he returned to base. “Every bomb that went in set off a secondary explosion.” No Soviet vessel was hit. North Vietnam’s oil-storage facilities in and around the two cities were virtually obliterated.

For months, the North Vietnamese had threatened to try as war criminals the American airmen they’d shot from the sky. (There were now more than one hundred of them, locked away in three prisons; over the course of the war, the North Vietnamese would hold some eight hundred Americans in fifteen prisons and prison camps.) Hanoi had published U.S. War Crimes in North Vietnam, a seventy-seven-page pamphlet chronicling in grisly detail the deadly impact of American weaponry gone astray—dead children, destroyed hospitals, wrecked homes. From London, the British mathematician, philosopher, and political activist Bertrand Russell was planning an international war crimes tribunal, hoping to put American leaders as well as American pilots in the dock. The intensification of American bombing only intensified Hanoi’s denunciation of it. Radio Hanoi charged that the United States was carpet-bombing the North, just as Nazi pilots had carpet-bombed Europe during World War II. Angry crowds were roaming the streets of Hanoi, it said, chanting, “Death to the U.S. imperialists!”

Among those who heard the broadcasts was Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, the first U.S. pilot to have been shot down over North Vietnam. He was then locked up with fifty-two other Americans in a prison they called “the Briarpatch,” thirty-five miles west of Hanoi. News of the stepped-up bombing caused the prisoners to tap encouraging coded messages to one another, he remembered: “Should be over pretty quick!” “We’ll be out of here pretty soon if they keep this up!”

Their eagerness was understandable. Alvarez had been a prisoner now for twenty-three months. At first, he and the other pilots captured early on had been treated relatively well. The men were kept in strict isolation, food was meager, and there were rats everywhere, but at least they had been permitted to write and receive letters from home and to get packages from the International Red Cross in Geneva, filled with toothpaste and Nescafé, Swiss chocolate and Sunbeam soap. But as their numbers grew, along with the damage American bombs were doing in the North, conditions for the prisoners grew increasingly grim. Their captors withheld Red Cross packages, withdrew mail privileges, and told the men that their country had forgotten them. They were forced to bow to their jailers, and were subjected to day after day of relentless interrogation, frequent beatings, and pitiless torture—all aimed at forcing them to admit their guilt and record statements denouncing the war. “When that cell door would open,” Alvarez recalled, “and they would say, ‘Your turn,’ the bottom just fell out of you, and you knew that you might not come back. The manacles, the ropes, the beatings, they broke bones. They did everything. My arms turned black from the cuffs that cut off all circulation. And they didn’t let me die. They just kept the pain going. That’s when I realized that I was not superhuman. The first time I broke and gave them something I felt so low, I felt so little.”

And so, when he and fifteen of his fellow prisoners were taken out of their cells on July 6, blindfolded, handcuffed together two by two, and loaded onto two trucks, some dared hope that thanks to the intensified bombing, the war was actually coming to an end, that they were being taken to Hanoi to be released.

But as they approached the city, air raid sirens split the air. Clearly, the war was not over. After dark they were driven to a park in the heart of the city, where they found thirty-six more shackled Americans who had been ferried in from another prison, called “the Zoo.”

The men were ordered to fall in line at the end of a narrow street that led toward a stadium two miles away. Tens of thousands of North Vietnamese already lined the street, chanting anti-American slogans. In the middle of the street was a flatbed truck fitted out with spotlights and filled with Eastern Bloc cameramen ready to film the spectacle.

One prisoner shouted, “Oh boy, I love a parade!”

A big-eared guard whom the men from the Briarpatch called “Rabbit” ordered the men to move out. They must lower their heads as they marched as a sign of contrition, he said. The senior-most prisoner on hand, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton Jr., ordered them to stand tall instead.

They did their best. Within a few yards, the crowd began to press in around them, spitting, shouting, trying to get at the stumbling, shackled men, half blinded by the spotlights. “As I passed this one fellow with a megaphone,” Everett Alvarez recalled, “he yelled to the crowd, ‘Alvarez! Alvarez! Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!’ The people started pressing in, throwing things—bottles, shoes. By this time, the guards were having a hard time keeping the people away. I started to pray. That took my attention away from what was happening to me physically. And I just remember plodding through and plodding through.”

The men were kicked, pummeled. Handcuffs made fighting back almost impossible. Several lost teeth or had their noses broken. By the time the last two men made it through the stadium door the ordeal had gone on for an hour.

From the relative safety of his personal concrete-pipe air raid shelter, a Hanoi resident scans the sky for American bombers, in June 1967. By then, similar shelters were everywhere in North Vietnam’s cities and towns, one survivor remembered, and “every house had a supply of bandages, alcohol, and cotton for first aid.”

Protected by a specially equipped B-66 Destroyer aircraft that jams North Vietnamese radar systems, Air Force F-105 Thunderchief bombers hit military targets just north of the DMZ, 1966.

As angry Hanoi citizens chant their hatred of the Americans they blame for bombing their country, Navy Lieutenant Everett Alvarez (left), handcuffed to Air Force Colonel Robert Risner, waits for the order to begin the POW parade in Hanoi, July 6, 1966.

As the men sprawled on the stadium grass, trying to stanch their wounds and catch their breath, one Navy officer, captured just two weeks earlier and bleeding over both eyes, managed to joke, “Do they do this often?”

“You have just seen the wrath of the Vietnamese people,” a voice over the public address system shouted overhead. “Those of you who have seen the light and want to apologize for your crimes and join the Vietnamese people will receive lenient and humane treatment. If you are true Americans, you will follow the way of Fulbright, the way of Morse, the way of Mansfield.”

The crowd began by shouting slogans but quickly turned to violence against the prisoners as they marched. “We inched ourselves forward with no apparent goal other than to escape the mob,” Alvarez remembered. “It seemed interminable.”

None took the bait—and when they were trucked back to their cells later that night several were beaten.

Hanoi had somehow hoped this staged parade would draw attention to the damage American pilots were doing to North Vietnam. Instead, people everywhere—even many of those who opposed the war—sympathized with the helpless beleaguered men. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pledged to make North Vietnam “a desert” if Hanoi dared put American pilots on trial, while eighteen senators who opposed further escalation of the war, including William Fulbright, George McGovern, and Eugene McCarthy, sent a letter to Hanoi warning that further violence toward its captives would only ensure “swift and sure” American retaliation.

Hanoi quickly thought better of its plans for the prisoners. Ho Chi Minh declared that North Vietnam’s policy “with regard to the enemies captured in war is a humanitarian policy.” There would be no public trials.

HERO PILOT

“Fighting the Americans was difficult because they always had more planes than we did,” North Vietnamese fighter pilot Nguyen Van Bay remembered. “But I liked those odds.” Bay defied them—and downed seven American jets in air-to-air combat, to become one of North Vietnam’s sixteen wartime aces.

The seventh of eleven children, Bay was born to a landowning farmer and his wife in the Mekong Delta. He left school at nine; there seemed no point in further study, since he planned to farm just as his father had. But when his father insisted he marry at seventeen, he ran away from home and joined the Viet Minh. “It seemed exciting and adventurous—like a game,” he said. “I was never ‘enlightened.’ It wasn’t political for me.”

In 1955, he withdrew to the North, where a selection team eventually picked him to undergo pilot training in China.

Learning to fly wasn’t easy. “I just had studied through the third grade,” he remembered. “I could do some basic addition and subtraction but nothing else. I could not read a newspaper. I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle.” Worse than that, he was chronically airsick. “As soon as the plane took off I would start to throw up. And so I took a soccer ball and cut it in half, put a string around my neck, and hung it under my mouth. I would tell the pilot instructor to take over and then puke into the ball.”

A visit by Ho Chi Minh to the Chinese camp inspired Bay to stick with it—and to master the MiG-17 fighters provided by the Soviets. When Ho asked if there were any southerners among the students, Bay and several others raised their hands. Ho urged them to persevere so that on the day of victory one of them might fly the plane that carried him south.

Seated on what’s left of a downed American warplane, Colonel Nguyen Van Bay uses model planes to show three would-be pilots how he shot down a U.S. Phantom.

On October 7, 1965, Bay faced combat for the first time. It was almost his last. His plane and three others were patrolling the skies over northeastern North Vietnam when an American fighter on his tail fired a missile. Bay took evasive action, but it detonated off his left wing and the force of the explosion flipped his fighter upside down. Shrapnel ripped through the cockpit canopy. “There was a huge hole in my right wing. Right in front of me there was a hole, as well. I told the air controller that my plane was damaged and had to return to base.” Somehow, he made it back safely. When he examined the plane he realized how close he’d come to disaster. The wings were shredded. The fuselage was riddled with eighty-two bulletholes.

Within two years, he was a full colonel and had shot down seven U.S. planes—two of them over Haiphong on the same day. “Our MiG-17s were fairly slow,” he recalled. “The American F-4s were very, very fast. But in order to fight us they had to slow down to our speed. I was happy when I could get into an enemy formation and fire at the enemy.”

Ho Chi Minh himself designated Bay as a “Hero Pilot” and grounded him because he feared the death of such a celebrated flyer would be bad for morale. But before he could receive his award, Bay remembered, he had to provide a short autobiography. He wasn’t a good writer, he recalled—“my syntax and grammar wasn’t good. So I had to have a cadre who was a better writer tell my story. And I was forced to say that the reason I wasn’t well educated was because my family had been exploited by the imperialists and the feudalists. It wasn’t true, but I didn’t argue. After all, that’s what the party wanted. But at the end of the day, the real reason I didn’t read well was because I was lazy.”

CHRISTMAS IN NAM DINH

A lone cyclist spins past what is left of a Hanoi neighborhood devastated by American bombs, 1966.

THE BOMBING CONTINUED, regardless. Tens of thousands of sorties were flown. One hundred and twenty-eight thousand tons of bombs would be dropped by the end of the year. But by August, the North Vietnamese had shifted most of their oil to underground tanks that could not easily be targeted from the air and hundreds of thousands of fifty-five-gallon barrels that were strung out along the roads. And more oil was arriving every day from China and the Soviet Union by rail and tanker.

The bombing steadily expanded to include most of North Vietnam’s limited industrial plant and transportation infrastructure—match factories and sugar refineries, power plants and railroad yards, roads and ports and bridges. But the North Vietnamese had never made their own weapons, they imported them, and the bombing did little to interfere with that traffic.

Three hundred and eighteen American planes were lost in 1966 getting it all done, most of them shot down in thickets of antiaircraft gun fire and surface-to-air missiles, all supplied by Moscow and Beijing. And very little of the bomb damage proved permanent. Factories were broken down and reassembled far beyond the cities. Workers switched from electricity to manual labor, and small diesel generators.

“The people in North Vietnam hated the bombing,” Master Sergeant Nguyen Van Mo remembered. “They were enraged about the air raids. In the beginning the Americans carried out their attacks very carefully….We used to watch them, to see how accurate the bombers were and to judge how good the pilots were at avoiding antiaircraft fire and rockets. We had to admit that during the early attacks they hit proper military targets and that their flying techniques were pretty good. If they hadn’t been, our ground fire would have shot down a great number of them. But later…the Americans dropped them all over the place….[In Hanoi] large groups [of people] would gather to watch the attacks. At one point the pilots dropped a couple of beehive bombs…[that] contained hundreds of little steel balls. A large number of civilians were unexpectedly killed. After that, people began to hate the Americans. If the local authorities hadn’t intervened, they would have beaten shot-down American pilots to death.”

Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times at work in the North Vietnamese capital. He asked a local official why he thought the Americans had done so much unexpected damage to his town. “Americans think they can touch our hearts,” the man answered.

Mo continued, “In my opinion, in the early days the Americans didn’t have any intention of bombing populated areas. Later, because the antiaircraft fire had gotten so heavy, the pilots had to escape themselves, and they dropped their bombs carelessly without paying any attention to the lives of the people. They were afraid of dying, and they didn’t think about the adverse political effect.”

Half of Hanoi’s million citizens scattered into the countryside. “Our lives were turned upside down by the bombing,” the future novelist Bao Ninh remembered. “People were killed, their houses were destroyed. I couldn’t go to school in Hanoi; I had to evacuate to the rural areas. All of it aroused indignation. I was fourteen in 1965. I wasn’t scared; I was agitated.”

Throughout North Vietnam, enough crude air raid shelters were fashioned from concrete pipe buried five feet beneath the ground to accommodate some eighteen million people. Thousands living near the DMZ spent most of their daylight hours underground, emerging only at dawn and dusk to tend their fields and do their marketing. Children attended school underground and ate communally cooked meals.

Meanwhile, over a million people were said to be working around the clock to fix the damage American bombs had done to the transportation system. When key bridges were destroyed, they fashioned pontoon bridges overnight to keep vital traffic moving. Road crews waited along the roads with heaps of gravel and stone and stacks of wood to fill bomb craters. They worked under a simple slogan: “The enemy destroys, we repair. The enemy destroys, we repair again.”

Samuel Wilson, then back home from Vietnam and in command of a Special Forces group at Fort Bragg, remembered that “Secretary McNamara was too intelligent an individual not to learn as the war progressed and not to see that things were going wrong that he had been told were going right. I recall one instance when I went by to see him and he asked me how I thought our strategic bombing program was affecting the course of the war.

“I said, ‘It’s not gaining us anything. Indeed, it’s counter-productive.’

“ ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

“I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, these people know that at some point we’re going to get tired of killing them. And they think they can outlast us. And they also are very much aware of the fact that we have to keep the public behind us in order to continue to prosecute the war. The sledgehammer approach is not working.’

“ ‘Why don’t people tell me these things?’

“ ‘Mr. Secretary, you don’t ask.’ ”

But when McNamara did ask about the bombing, the answers he got disturbed him.

Reports of the damage it was inadvertently doing to civilians had been filtering out of North Vietnam for months. Many Americans dismissed them as propaganda. But when Harrison Salisbury, the deputy managing editor of The New York Times, traveled to North Vietnam and reported what he had seen—bombs meant to destroy roads and railroad lines had obliterated the villages that stood alongside them; an attack on a supposed “truck park” destroyed a school three-quarters of a mile away—public doubts about Operation Rolling Thunder and the war itself continued to grow. Salisbury wrote,

Christmas wasn’t a joyous occasion for Nam Dinh, although strings of small red pennants decorated the old, gray stucco Catholic Church and a white Star of Bethlehem had been mounted on the pinnacle of the tower.

Few Americans have heard of Nam Dinh, although until recently it was the third largest North Vietnamese city…essentially a cotton-and-silk textile town, containing nothing of military significance.

Nam Dinh has been systematically attacked by American planes since June 28, 1965. The cathedral tower looks out on block after block of utter desolation; the city’s population has been reduced to less than 20,000 because of evacuation; 13 percent of the city’s housing, including the homes of 12,464 people, have been destroyed, 89 people have been killed and 405 wounded.

No American communiqué has asserted that Nam Dinh contains some facility that the United States regards as a military objective. It is apparent, on personal inspection, that block after block of ordinary housing, particularly surrounding a textile plant, has been smashed to rubble by repeated attacks by Seventh Fleet planes…

Whatever else there may or may not have been in Nam Dinh, it is the civilians who have taken the punishment….President Johnson’s announced policy that American targets in North Vietnam are steel and concrete rather than human lives seems to have little connection with the reality of attacks carried out by United States planes.

The brutal facts outlined in Salisbury’s report were seen by some in the Pentagon as a “national disaster”; the Defense Department’s press secretary dismissed Salisbury as gullible and denounced his paper as “The New Hanoi Times.” But The Economist said the administration was “making an ass of itself by not admitting much earlier what it knew perfectly well, that some of the bombs were missing their targets. It is not what [Johnson] does, it’s the way he does it.” The credibility gap widened.

SPOOFED

EARLY IN 1967, General Westmoreland mounted two more major operations, aimed at tracking down and eliminating the enemy within its sanctuaries.

The first, Cedar Falls, involved sixteen thousand U.S. troops and an equal number of ARVN soldiers. Its target was a cluster of enemy installations within the Iron Triangle, forty-six square miles of jungle just eighteen miles from Saigon that had provided a safe haven and staging area for guerrillas since the time of the French. MACV was concerned that troops gathering there might be planning an imminent assault on Saigon.

To minimize civilian casualties and separate out the Viet Cong they resolved to clear the entire population of the area—and to empty and destroy the town of Ben Suc on the jungle’s western edge whose people had supported the NLF since the settlement had been seized from the ARVN three years earlier. Once the area had been emptied it was to be declared by the province chief a “free-fire zone” in which any adult civilian found there would be considered an enemy combatant or supporter.

Residents of Ben Suc gather what belongings they can before being forced from their homes during Operation Cedar Falls. An American reporter asked an elderly refugee what she thought of the refugee camp to which she’d been taken. “We were forced to come here,” she said. “The enemy came to our old village four times. Twice it was the men from the jungle and twice it was you foreigners. Each time we suffered. You came last and brought us here. You ask me what I want. I want to be left alone. I want to grow rice.”

Four days of intense bombing by B-52s preceded the ground assault. Then, specially built plows tore fifty-foot swaths through the vegetation, clearing some 2,700 acres of jungle to deny the enemy further sanctuary. Villages were razed. MACV reported that U.S. troops had killed 750 enemy soldiers, destroyed 1,100 bunkers and 400 tunnels and captured 3,700 tons of rice and almost 500,000 pages of enemy documents. Meanwhile, 60 helicopters and 500 troops descended on Ben Suc. Bulldozers crushed every building. Almost 6,000 civilians—mostly women, children, and old people—were herded onto trucks and taken to a place called Phu Loi, where there was supposed to be a refugee camp. But the province chief in charge had not been told the civilians were coming, for fear the plan would be betrayed to the enemy. When the camp was finally completed, a sign was hung on the barbed wire. “Welcome,” it said, “to the Reception Center for Refugees Fleeing Communism.”

Major General William DePuy, commander of the U.S. First Division, claimed that his men had dealt “a blow from which the VC in this area may never recover.” But within two weeks, an American commander admitted that the Iron Triangle was once again “literally crawling with…Viet Cong.”

Junction City, the second big operation of the new year, was the largest in the war so far—an eighty-day sweep north of Saigon by more than thirty-five thousand U.S. and ARVN troops, intended to annihilate the Ninth NLF Division and to locate and eliminate COSVN, the communist headquarters from which insurgent activities were directed. Some of the fighting was fierce—MACV claimed to have killed nearly 3,000 communists with a loss of 282 Americans killed in action. But COSVN was not where American planners had thought it was. “There is a possibility that we have been spoofed by the enemy,” Westmoreland admitted. The headquarters—really just a small stall and an easily movable collection of maps, files, and radio equipment—along with most of the Ninth Division, slipped across the border into Cambodia, where Westmoreland’s troops were forbidden to go.

Weary GIs from the 173rd Airborne Brigade with a communist flag they had seized from an underground enemy bunker within the Iron Triangle

“One of the discouraging features of both Cedar Falls and Junction City was the fact that we had insufficient forces…to prevent the Viet Cong from returning,” a U.S. commander concluded. “In neither instance were we able to stay around, and it was not long before there was evidence of the enemy’s return.”

I’M HERE TO LIBERATE YOU

MARINE PRIVATES John Musgrave from Independence, Missouri, Roger Harris from Boston’s Roxbury, and Bill Ehrhart from Perkasie, Pennsylvania, all arrived separately at Danang in early 1967. Each had high hopes, for himself and for the cause for which he expected to fight.

“There were kids selling sex books and cokes,” John Musgrave recalled of his first glimpses of Vietnam. “And there were girls giving out flowers. The units had trucks with big signs. I found the truck from my unit and climbed aboard. We drove through Danang, which is a big city. The first thing that assaulted me was the foreign smells, and then watching people relieve themselves by the side of the road and seeing animals I’d never seen before—the big water buffaloes. It was like being on Mars because it was totally foreign to me. But honestly, in my dumb Missouri kid kind of way, I thought, ‘Look at all those foreigners.’ And it didn’t dawn on me for a little while that the only foreigner in that area was me.”

“Certainly when I got there,” Ehrhart recalled, “I’m thinking I’m involved in a winning enterprise. America doesn’t lose. We never lose. I had sort of not really known much about the War of 1812, which was pretty much of a draw, or the Civil War, in which half of America lost, and the Korean War, where we won the first half and lost the second half. But I’d been taught America never loses. So it never occurred to me that we would not ultimately achieve the goals we set out to achieve.”

“The feeling was that we were going over to rescue folks,” Harris remembered. “The communists were taking over this country and the South Vietnamese needed help, but then when we got there we realized it wasn’t exactly like that. Many of the Vietnamese would spit at our trucks and tell us to go back to America. And so we began questioning ourselves. These people don’t want us here. Why are we here?”

John Musgrave was initially stationed with B Company, First Military Police Battalion, with the First Marine Division at the Danang Air Base. Roger Harris was assigned to G Company, Second Battalion, Ninth Regiment of the Third Marine Division at Phu Bai, north of Danang. And Bill Ehrhart joined the First Battalion of the same division near the coastal city of Hoi An. “I had visions of American troops rolling through France in 1944 and young women giving them bottles of wine and flowers and kisses,” he said. “And I remember driving down this dirt road to our battalion command post on the day after I got to Vietnam, and I’m sitting there in the jeep waving like Douglas MacArthur, and nobody’s paying any attention to me. And I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’m here to liberate you.’ It was puzzling to me. And that was only the beginning.”

Private Ehrhart was given a desk job, collating snippets of information for the daily intelligence summary. But from the first, combat seemed close. Sleep was elusive. Three artillery batteries fired salvo after salvo into the darkness all night long, every night of the week, part of the countrywide campaign of “Harassment and Interdiction” fire ordered by General Westmoreland. Its object was to keep the enemy off guard, but the random shelling of the countryside also took countless civilian lives—and sometimes American lives as well. In 1966, only 15 percent of all the artillery shells expended by the U.S. Army were fired in support of troops; all the rest fell on targeted areas where the enemy might or might not have been.

Marine Corporal Bill Ehrhart and detainees on Barrier Island, twenty miles south of Danang, August 1967. The island was repeatedly swept by the U.S. Marines. The fishermen and their families who made up its population were twice forcibly removed, but they slipped back again, rebuilt their homes, and maintained their loyalty to the NLF throughout the war.

Three days after Ehrhart arrived in Hoi An, he got word that a group of civilian detainees was being brought into the compound. He was expected to take charge of them when they got there. “Now, a prisoner is defined as an armed combatant caught with weapons,” he recalled. “A detainee is a civilian who is detained for questioning. There was one set of rules for how you treat prisoners and another for detainees.” Ehrhart hurried to the place where amphibious tractors—“amtracks”—parked. He was just in time to see two of them rumble through the gate. “These vehicles, eight or nine feet tall, are flat-topped. There’s a bunch of people bound hand and foot on top. The Marines start pushing them off. Their hands are tied. Their feet are tied. They have no way to break their fall. People are screaming. You can hear bones snapping, shoulders dislocate.”

Ehrhart grabbed the corporal in charge. “ ‘What are they doing? What are they doing? These are detainees!’ ” This guy looks at me and he looks down at my hands grabbing his upper arm. And he looks back at me again and he says in the flattest, hollowest voice I had ever heard, ‘Ehrhart, you better keep your mouth shut and your eyes open till you understand what’s going on around here.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And then he says, ‘Untie their feet.’ So we marched this band, there must have been about twenty to thirty people, old men, women, children, no young men. As we’re marching them up to the prisoner compound, he says to me, ‘Listen, pal, those trackers, the guys who operate the amtracks, are hitting mines out there on the sand flats every week. Fifty-pound box mines, seventy-five-pound box mines. They’re getting killed; they’re getting maimed. And these people know where those mines are. You treat these people nice in front of the trackers and those trackers will rearrange your head and ass for you and walk away laughing.’ Well, at that point, three days into Vietnam, I’m thinking, ‘Whoa. What the hell is going on here? This ain’t what my high school teacher told me was going to be going on.’ And it just went on from there.”

NO OTHER CHOICE

ON SATURDAY, January 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his closest aide and traveling companion, Bernard Lee, arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to catch a flight to Jamaica. King was exhausted and deeply conflicted. For a dozen turbulent years he’d been the most prominent civil rights spokesman in the country. He’d been jailed, mobbed, stabbed, hounded by the FBI, and denounced by white supremacists and black separatists alike, and he looked forward to four weeks in the sun, the first vacation he’d allowed himself since the Montgomery bus boycott that had turned him into a national figure.

At an airport newsstand, King picked up a handful of magazines for the flight. Then he and Lee found a restaurant and ordered breakfast. King began leafing through a copy of the leftist magazine Ramparts. The lead article was a photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam” by a human rights activist named William Pepper. King’s friend Dr. Benjamin Spock, the best-loved pediatrician of his time and an early and unremitting opponent of the war, had written a preface.

For two years, the war in Vietnam had filled King with what he called “anxiety and agony and anguish.” Nonviolence was a matter of principle, not politics, with him: segregation was wrong and so, he believed, was the war. But when his conscience told him to speak out against it, black and white allies alike had urged him to keep his own counsel about the war. They argued that it was folly to risk alienating the president who, by winning passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had done more for black people than any president since Abraham Lincoln. “Johnson needs a consensus,” Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, said. “If we are not with him on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights.”

King’s food came, but he ignored it, continuing to flip through the article, twenty-four pages of harrowing color photographs of the youngest victims of the war, orphaned, maimed, hideously disfigured by napalm. “Martin pushed the plate of food away,” Lee remembered. “I looked up and said, ‘Doesn’t it taste any good?’ and he answered, ‘Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.’ ”

While in Jamaica, King would recall, “I spent a lot of time…in prayerful meditation. I came to the conclusion that I could no longer remain silent about an issue that was destroying the soul of our nation.”

On his return he became a full-throated critic of the war. On April 4, at the fashionable Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he spoke of what he thought the war was doing to Vietnam—and to the United States. “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” he said, his resonant voice echoing through the vast vaulted space. He could never again speak “against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes,” he continued, without first having spoken clearly to “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my government.”

It had been wrong not to recognize Vietnamese independence in 1945, he said, wrong to back the French in their colonial war, wrong to send young Americans to bolster a corrupt and autocratic regime in Saigon. The war was corroding the national character—“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’ ”—and it made a mockery of the ideals the United States professed to be defending.

“All the while the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps….They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs….

A Vietnamese infant wrapped in newspapers and orphaned by the war, from Ramparts magazine

“I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called our ‘enemy,’ I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short time there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among the Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

“Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and Brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our nation: the great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

King called upon Washington to end the bombing, declare a ceasefire, include the National Liberation Front in negotiations between North and South, cease clandestine activities in Laos, and set a date for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. “If we do not act,” he said, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

The public reaction to King’s address was mostly hostile. Life compared it to “a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post charged that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.” The black Pittsburgh Courier criticized him for “tragically misleading” African Americans. The NAACP declared any effort to merge the civil rights and peace movements “a serious tactical mistake.” Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson publicly agreed. And J. Edgar Hoover told the president that King’s speech was proof that “he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.”

King felt liberated, nonetheless. He may have been “politically unwise,” he told an aide, but he had been “morally wise.” Eleven days later, he joined Dr. Spock and some 400,000 other protestors at a massive Manhattan demonstration organized by a new umbrella organization, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam—“the Mobe.” It was an ideologically diverse throng. Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led a phalanx of marchers carrying NLF flags. Protestors burned two hundred draft cards. Uniformed antiwar World War II and Korean War veterans carried placards: “Vets Demand Support for G.I.’s! Bring Them Home Now!” But there were also thousands of everyday citizens marching that day, impelled for the first time to express their opposition to the war.

In front of the United Nations secretariat in Manhattan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the largest gathering of war protestors yet assembled, April 15, 1967. “I think,” he told the crowd, “this is just the beginning of a massive outpouring of dissent.”

“That was the biggest crowd any of us had ever been in in our lives,” Bill Zimmerman recalled. “It started in Central Park and we marched twenty blocks to the United Nations. We took up the whole avenue, and when the front of the march got to the UN, the back of the march had not yet left Central Park. That’s how many people we were. It gave us a sense of empowerment. Because not all of the people on that march were students. And as a result we all felt we have a chance now, you know. There was a path that we could see to ending the war.”

The antiwar movement was growing, in numbers and in militancy. A draft resistance organizer, inspired by the New York demonstration, said, “We [now] speak of squads, escalation, campaigns. The terminology is no accident—it fits our attitude. We are no longer interested in merely protesting the war; we are out to stop it.”

“At that time,” Zimmerman remembered, “people who supported the war were fond of saying, ‘My country right or wrong’ or ‘America, love it or leave it’ or ‘Better dead than red.’ Those sentiments seemed insane to us. We didn’t want to live in a country we’re going to support whether it’s right or wrong. We want to live in a country that acts rightly and doesn’t act wrongly. And if our country isn’t doing that, it needs to be corrected. So we had a very different idea of patriotism. So we began an era in which two groups of Americans, both thinking that they were acting patriotically, went to war with each other.”

WHERE DOES IT ALL END?

ON APRIL 28, 1967, thirteen days after the Manhattan protest, General Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress—the first general in history ever to be ordered home from a battlefield to do so. His task was to rally flagging support for the war. “As I have said before,” he said, “in evaluating the enemy strategy it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles’ heel is our resolve. Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission….Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coastguardsmen are the finest ever fielded by our nation….Those men understand the conflict and their complex roles as fighters and as builders. They believe in what they are doing. They are determined to provide the shield of security behind which the Republic of Vietnam can develop and prosper for its own sake and for the future and freedom of all Southeast Asia. Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination, and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor.”

Behind the scenes, neither Westmoreland nor the administration that had called him home was confident the United States would prevail. Westmoreland reported to the president that according to the latest statistics, the crossover point had finally been reached, except in I Corps, the military sector just south of the DMZ, but overall victory was still elusive.

Ellsworth Bunker, the latest American ambassador in Saigon, summed up the problems the United States faced after a decade of deepening involvement. “Much of the country is still in VC hands, the enemy can still shell our bases and commit acts of terrorism in the securest areas, VC units still mount large-scale attacks, most of the populace has still not actively committed itself to the government, and a VC infrastructure still exists throughout the country.”

To change things, Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs now wanted to wage an even more ambitious war. They called upon the president to call up the reserves, and provide another 200,000 troops with which to step up the land war.

But “when we add divisions,” Johnson asked, “can’t the enemy add divisions? Where does it all end?”

Westmoreland had no satisfactory answer.

There was more. The Chiefs wanted the president to permit American bombers to hit targets still closer to Hanoi and Haiphong and the region just below the Chinese border—and to mine North Vietnamese harbors to keep Hanoi’s Soviet ally from resupplying her by sea, as well. They also wanted permission to send troops into Laos in search of enemy sanctuaries, and some among the president’s advisers called for a seaborne invasion of North Vietnam itself. If all those requests were met Westmoreland believed the United States might be able to hand the war over to South Vietnam in two years.

Meanwhile, Robert McNamara, the chief architect of American strategy in Vietnam, had grown less and less confident in its ultimate success—and in the repeated calls for more men and more bombing made by the military he oversaw. In a private memorandum to the president, McNamara told Johnson that “the picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”

He urged Johnson to limit troop levels, not expand them, and to declare an unconditional end to all bombing north of the 20th parallel—a suggestion that so angered the Army chief of staff, General Harold K. Johnson, that he considered resigning in protest and urging the other Chiefs to join him. McNamara was unmoved. “The war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped,” he wrote. “[D]ramatic increases in U.S. troop deployments…[and] attacks on the North…are not necessary and are not the answer. The enemy can absorb or counter them, bogging us down further and risking even more serious escalation of the war.”

Antiwar demonstrators circle the White House while President Johnson, General Westmoreland, cabinet members, and congressional leaders lunch inside following the MACV commander’s speech to Congress, April 28, 1967.

The debate within the administration went on, but McNamara was now privately convinced that something had gone terribly wrong with the war he had helped to plan and oversee. He wanted to understand what had happened, and placed a call to his executive assistant, General Robert Gard.

“My phone rang,” Gard remembered, “and the little light showed it was the secretary on the line. I picked it up and said, ‘Yes, Mr. Secretary.’ And Mr. McNamara said, ‘Bob, I want a thorough study done of the background of our involvement in Vietnam,’ and hung up the phone.”

Leslie Gelb, then a thirty-year-old member of the International Security Affairs staff, was tasked with overseeing the top-secret analysis of how key decisions had been made, going all the way back to the Truman administration, that would one day be called the Pentagon Papers. “McNamara gave us full access to his closet,” Gelb recalled, “the famous closet in his office, which was like a room. All his private papers were there. And I rummaged through the closet, picking out the memos, a lot of which I helped to write. But there were others in there that I had never seen. And in those memos you began to see Robert McNamara communicating with the president, alone, his doubts. It stunned me.”

CORDS

At MACV headquarters in Saigon, CORDS officials attempt to assess the latest statistics on NLF violence in South Vietnam’s villages. “There is no independent absolute criterion of truth about pacification,” one official admitted. In the end, “all we can measure is how the degree of pacification as it appears to advisers corresponds to the degree of pacification as it appears to other observers such as the villagers themselves.”

THE BUDDHIST CRISIS that nearly toppled Nguyen Cao Ky had been yet another setback for pacification—the painful, frustrating process of somehow controlling the countryside and gaining popular support for the government in Saigon. Pacification remained primarily a South Vietnamese program. Hamlet security was supposed to be handled by the Regional and Popular Forces—known to the Americans collectively as “Ruff-Puffs.” Separate American efforts were run by the military, the State Department, the CIA, and the United States Agency for International Development. Progress was slow, spotty, and hard to measure.

Hoping to streamline and somehow speed up the process, President Johnson appointed Robert Komer, an ex–CIA officer and member of the National Security Council, to head a brand-new coordinated program called CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) to consolidate and oversee the entire American effort, military as well as civilian. General Westmoreland made Komer one of his three deputy commanders; he was given the title of ambassador and the rank of a three-star general. Komer was tough-minded, aggressive, impatient—his nickname was “Blowtorch”—and close to the president. He began with a staff of 4,980 and within six months had nearly doubled it.

Pacification’s tangible results were impressive: 30,000 new classrooms and 40,000 newly trained teachers; U.S.-funded hospitals and clinics in areas that had never seen a physician; inoculations for some 2 million children; 2,500 miles of paved roads; “miracle rice” that boosted South Vietnamese production; and much more.

Accurately assessing pacification’s intangible results in forty-four provinces and thirteen thousand hamlets was something else again. To measure it, CORDS came up with the Hamlet Evaluation System. “Each province and district adviser had a series of questions,” recalled Donald Gregg, who worked for the CIA. “Does the hamlet chief sleep in the village? What’s the price of rice? Are the schools open? Has the bridge been repaired? How many people were captured or killed that week? These answers were computerized. Each hamlet had a red, orange, and green light. And according to the sum total of these answers you’d push a button and ta-da! Vietnam would light up with a series of either red, yellow, or green buttons.”

South Vietnamese farmers work their paddy beneath a vast South Vietnamese flag, flown so that ARVN and American troops conducting sweeps in the area harbor no doubts about their loyalty.

Soon, more than 220 overworked U.S. district advisers were required to produce some ninety thousand pages of data every month, far more than anyone could usefully analyze, and much of it gathered from Vietnamese sources less interested in accuracy than in pleasing Americans.

“Everything was supposed to be quantified,” recalled Philip Brady, who had survived the deadly battle of Binh Gia, served out his thirteen months as a Marine, and then returned to Vietnam to work for USAID. “So you could literally say, How pacified is this ville? It’s thirty-seven-point-five percent pacified. Well, what does that mean? Does it mean that the Viet Cong are still levying taxes? Yes. Does it mean that they’re still assassinating? Yes. Does it mean they’re still recruiting? Yes. Does it mean that they’re still infiltrating? Yes. Even so, an American would tell you, ‘We haven’t had an incident in this village. The incident rate’s going down. Therefore, we’re winning.’ Now, the reality was that the government presence was restricted to the barbed wire they were hiding behind. There is no conflict inside there because they already own it. ‘What’s the problem? We don’t have a war here anymore because it’s ours.’ ”

“Many people no longer like the Viet Cong,” the South Vietnamese minister for rural pacification said, “but this does not mean they like us. We must not try to force people to cooperate. We must convince them.”

That would never be easy.

“There were many Vietnam wars,” recalled intelligence officer Stuart Herrington. “I saw a different war from my friends who were in infantry units. We lived in the villages. Our war and the infantry war canceled each other out. We worked to create a safe environment, with clean water, schools, etc. We advised the ARVN military how to protect themselves, got to know the people in the villages. We tried to insulate the hamlets from the VC, tried to help the government do things so the villagers would have a stake. We’d do that for a year. Then the infantry would come in and set up a bivouac. The VC would fire at them, and they would level the village. That ruined everything we’d been working on. We’d go through the adviser’s chain of command to complain. All the way up to MACV. We’d tell them this cavalry unit in our area is antithetical to what we’re trying to do—too much firepower, running over chickens. The infantry set us back from the day they walked into our province. This happened time and time again.”

A FAIRY TALE

IN JUNE, First Lieutenant Matthew Harrison Jr. got his orders to join the 173rd Airborne—the first Army unit to have landed in Vietnam and known as General Westmoreland’s “Fire Brigade”—ready to rush to any spot the commander felt it was needed. Harrison believed in his mission: “I thought the war was important strategically. Just as France had provided us with support during our revolution, we were providing the South Vietnamese with support during their revolution. I really felt as though I was uniquely qualified to lead American soldiers and that there was nothing more important than what I was going to be doing.”

Harrison’s arrival at the air base at Bien Hoa was a reunion of sorts. He and seven West Point classmates all found themselves serving in the Second Battalion, including two of whom he was especially fond: Rich Hood and Donald Judd. “As young lieutenants,” he remembered, “as twenty-two-year-olds, we really were idealists and Boy Scouts. I understood theoretically what it meant to be in a war. But, of course, no one can really understand that until they’ve done it.”

Within a few days, Harrison, Hood, Judd, and the rest of Second Battalion were helicoptered into the heart of the Central Highlands, where North Vietnamese regulars were said to be threatening a Special Forces camp at Dak To.

Harrison was assigned to Charlie Company as a platoon leader. His friends served with Alpha Company. They were all airlifted into landing zones hacked out of the steep, jungle-blanketed slope of a mountain named Hill 1338 on American maps for its height in meters, with orders to hunt down the enemy.

They walked for two days, following a well-worn enemy trail, constantly on the lookout for booby traps or ambushes. Low-hanging monsoon clouds yielded a steady mist punctuated by sporadic showers. The heat was intense, humid, enervating. Mahogany and teak trees eight feet around and lofty clattering stalks of bamboo shut out the sky.

On the evening of June 21, Harrison’s Charlie Company settled in for the night while his friends in Alpha Company set up camp a little less than two miles to the south, further along the same slippery jungle path. No one knew that an entire North Vietnamese battalion—perhaps five hundred men—was encamped on the other side of a ridgeline just a few hundred yards to the east.

A scout for Charlie Company sent out to survey the area was shot through the throat by an enemy soldier and killed. Then a nervous American sentry shot and killed a GI who had stepped outside the perimeter to relieve himself. Both corpses were wrapped in ponchos to be carried out at daybreak; the foliage overhead was too dense for a helicopter to drop in and pick them up.

At 6:58 the next morning, as most of the men of Alpha Company finished their breakfast, a patrol stumbled into a squad of North Vietnamese, opened fire, then pulled back to a small clearing. Within minutes, they were under attack by AK-47 automatic fire. Over the coming hours, the enemy mounted three attacks, drawing closer and closer each time.

Alpha Company radioed for air and artillery support, but the triple-canopy jungle blocked the spotter’s view. They called for “dust-off” helicopters to lift out the growing number of wounded, shouted coordinates for artillery, most of which exploded harmlessly in the treetops, and described the well-armed enemy as it closed in.

ALPHA 6: This is Alpha 6.

PARAGON 6: Paragon 6, over.

ALPHA 6: We have an extremely large force moving in the gully to the west of us now. We need airstrikes….Put something all around this hill, but stay off the ridgeline, over.

PARAGON 6: This is Paragon 6, you say you have large forces moving toward you from the west, over.

ALPHA 6: We’ve got heavy movement and firing on our left.

ALPHA 6: We’ve got some real heroes and I’m damn proud of them….But be advised that these people [the North Vietnamese] all got black berets on, they got AK-47s, every one of them, and they got so damn much ammunition. They got twice as much as I got.

PARAGON 6: We’ll be there as soon as we can, over.

ALPHA 6: Appreciate it. Just do the best you can.

At around noon, Harrison’s unit was ordered to go to Alpha Company’s aid but to avoid contact with the enemy: “Don’t throw good money after bad,” the battalion commander told them.

“It was mountainous,” Harrison recalled. “We were carrying the two bodies along with a bunch of engineer equipment.” The going was steep and slippery. The distant shooting died down. North Vietnamese troops, now entrenched along both sides of the trail, prevented Harrison and his men from reaching Alpha Company. At dusk, Harrison and his men dug in at the top of a ridge and did their best to sleep. “We lay there on the night of June 22nd and we could hear the screams of the wounded down the hill as the North Vietnamese went around and shot them,” Harrison remembered.

First Lieutenant Matthew Harrison Jr. in the field, 1967. “We just could not conceive,” he remembered, “that the army that had won World War II, that had had a two-hundred-year track record of success, couldn’t defeat a guerrilla movement in a backward country in Asia.”

By dawn, the enemy had melted away. Once again, they had chosen the time and place for battle—and then vanished. Harrison and his platoon crept down the hillside and reached what was left of Alpha Company. Out of 137 men, 78 were dead, sprawled along the path. Forty-three had been shot in the head at close range, executed by the enemy. Ears had been cut from some; eyes were gouged out; ring fingers were missing. Twenty-three more men were wounded.

Harrison found his classmates, Don Judd and Rich Hood, among the dead. “This was my introduction to war. This was my welcome to Vietnam. We spent the rest of the day putting those bodies into body bags and getting them out of there. Getting killed is forever. That was something that I had known theoretically but I now understood, particularly when I put my two classmates in body bags—guys that I had gone to school with for four years. Just the week before we had been drinking beer and ribbing each other and now these guys were gone.”

The paratroopers found just nine or ten North Vietnamese corpses, half buried nearby in shallow graves. Harrison and his men were ordered to search the nearby hillsides for more enemy dead, presumably fallen to U.S. artillery. “We never located them,” Harrison remembered many years later, “and I believe today that we didn’t locate them because they weren’t there. I think we just took a terrible loss on June 22nd. For reasons of morale, for reasons of prestige, to admit that a rifle company in the 173rd had been wiped out by the North Vietnamese was not something our leaders were prepared to say. So we had to sell ourselves—and we had to sell the public—on the idea that we had inflicted casualties on the North Vietnamese as severe as those they had inflicted on us.”

An officer told a reporter in Saigon that the shattered rifle company had somehow killed 475 enemy soldiers. When another officer suggested to Westmoreland that the figure seemed too high to be believable, the general replied, “Too late. [It’s] already gone out.”

A few days later, Harrison recalled, “Westmoreland came up to speak to ‘his brigade.’ He hopped up on the hood of a jeep in very crisp fatigues, looking every inch the battle commander. And he gave us a pep talk and told us how proud he was and what a magnificent job we had done.” A sergeant who had survived the fighting leaned over and muttered to a friend, “Wonder what he’s been smoking?”

“A pep talk after we’d spent the day putting dead bodies into body bags was not something that appealed to my soldiers,” Harrison remembered. “By then, I had more than just a suspicion that this was a fairy tale, that Westmoreland was wrong, and I didn’t know whether he knew he was wrong or whether he believed what he was being told and wanted to believe it. But this was the first time that I had to come to grips with the fact that our leadership was either out of touch or lying.”

A VERY DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

IN SARATOGA SPRINGS, Mogie Crocker’s family continued to struggle with his loss. He had been the first local boy to die in combat, his sister Carol recalled, and his death had forced others his age to begin to think for the first time about their own vulnerability, about whether the war was worth fighting. “I remember a very difficult conversation I had with a girl who had really been a best friend of mine. She and I were sitting on the front steps of our home on White Street as we always did. And the talk turned to Vietnam. And I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘My father says that you can’t listen to people who’ve lost someone in the war because they’re going to support it to justify that person’s death.’ I felt like she’d hit me in the stomach. But I knew at that moment that factions were developing, that this wasn’t going to be an easy path to walk; that people were going to have opinions about my brother’s death that had nothing to do with his death for me.”

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!