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“The man was General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military genius who had led his country to victory, first against France’s attempt to reimpose colonial rule in the aftermath of World War II, then against the unparalleled might of the United States when it subsequently sought to permanently divide Vietnam and install a client state in Saigon.”

“General Giap’s American opponent, General William C. Westmoreland, was certain that he had the formula for victory in Vietnam. General Westmoreland seemed to be everything one could desire in a commanding general. He was tall, handsome and articulate. He had led an airborne regimental combat team with distinction in the Korean War, and had attracted the attention of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite general, Maxwell D. Taylor, whose patronage had gained General Westmoreland the Vietnam command.

“Gen. Westmoreland boasted that he was going to bleed the Vietnamese to death with a huge killing machine he was deploying in their country. Superbly trained Army infantry and Marines would outmaneuver the Vietnamese as fleets of ‘slick ship’ transport helicopters shifted them swiftly from one battleground to another with unprecedented mobility. They would be protected as they landed by a second fleet of ‘gunship’ helicopters with electrically controlled, rapid-firing machine guns and pods of air-to-ground 2.75 inch rockets attached to the sides. They carried their artillery with them, 105 millimeter howitzers slung under the boxy CH-21 ‘Chinook’ cargo helicopters the Army had recently developed.

“‘Westy,’ as he liked to be called, was building airfields all over the place. Once on the ground, the troops could summon unlimited strikes by jet fighter bombers stacked overhead, laden with bombs and napalm and white phosphorous, which could burn its way through a man’s flesh. The eight-engine B-52 ‘Stratofortresses’ of the Strategic Air Command, created to devastate the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, would now blast the Vietnamese with the closest equivalent in conventional bombardment – 20 tons of 500-pound bombs dropped from a single aircraft flying at 30,000 feet. When the B-52s struck, the earth trembled for miles in every direction.”

“Studies showed that 80 to 90 percent of the time it was the Vietnamese who initiated combat or decided to fight another day. No one could endure all the violence the Americans could hurl at them and not get hurt, but the Vietnamese were prepared to accept these casualties. They were fighting for the reunification and independence of their motherland, while the American soldier served in a half-conscript, half-volunteer army fighting a war of empire thousands of miles from home.

“The ‘hill fights,’ as they were called, unfolded through 1967 as Gen. Giap lured Gen. Westmoreland into one battle after another. The most gruesome occurred in late November 1967 near the outpost of Dak To in northern Kontum Province in the Central Highlands.”

– DAVID AND GOLIATH IN VIETNAM, by Neil Sheehan, pg. 9, The New York Times, Sunday, May 28, 2007

The Vietnam War has always held a powerful fascination for me, and it is because while I was safely reading textbooks in a college dormitory in New Hampshire between 1965 and 1968, young men my age, including Belizeans, were killing and being killed, crippled, and traumatized in Vietnam. Vietnam was thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia, but this was a war being fought on the television evening news in America, so to speak. The Pentagon allowed video of the body bags of the Vietnam War casualties arriving in airplanes to be shown on American television back then, but that policy was changed after Vietnam.

I had arrived in the United States in late August of 1965, a time when the war had begun seriously escalating a few months earlier. I spent the summer of 1966 in Brooklyn, New York, and came into personal contact with a young Belizean by the name of Eugene Jex who was headed to Vietnam. I was alarmed because his Belizean friends and acquaintances did not seem to think this was that big a deal, whereas American students on the Dartmouth College campus were doing everything they could to avoid the draft (and Vietnam), including running across the border to Canada. I believed that the Belizean community was not aware of how absolutely deadly the war was in Vietnam, but I also realize, looking back, that I did not understand in what light most young Belizeans had to consider their options back then.

I had been very fortunate in young life. My mother had decided that I, her eldest child, would not be caught up in the evils and dangers of the streets, and she used physical force to make sure I obeyed her. After falling out of favor with the Jesuits at St. John’s College, I was lucky enough to secure a university scholarship from the State Department of the United States.

You have to understand that back in 1965 all of us Belizean young men (and women) were focused on going to the United States. Because of my airplane phobia, I’ve never been to the Caribbean, and I had friends such as the physicians Leroy Taegar and Neil Garbutt, who had studied in both the United States and the Caribbean, who explained to me that I had missed out big time by not having spent time studying in the Caribbean. Back in 1965, however, I thought Belize itself had enough that was Caribbean in it, and America was the place to go.

The immediate stimulus for this particular column came from a name’s being casually mentioned to me by Jeff Scott, who probably knows more Belizeans and more Belizean stories than anyone else alive. He mentioned the name “Gerald Patten” to me, Gerald having been one of his classmates at Wesley College in the early 1960s. He said that Gerald had fought in Vietnam, and that kinda blew my mind, because I had had a brief conversation/encounter with Gerald Patten back around 1958/1959, when we were both primary school students, he at Wesley and myself at Holy Redeemer. We had competed for our separate schools in a quiz competition the British Honduras Broadcasting Service (BHBS) used to organize on an annual basis. Gerald was very bright. But, circumstances apparently became such that he felt he could not see his way forward in life without joining the United States military. It should not have been that way, but life is real.

I know Howard Tillett, who was shot and crippled for life in Vietnam. I knew Vernon Alcoser, who was shot twice in Vietnam. I know Ronald Sainsbury, who was shot in Vietnam. Young Belizeans named Clare, Neal, and Dillett were killed in Vietnam. I knew Mike Bouloy, who served in Vietnam and was traumatized. I believe Gerald Patten may have also been traumatized. I would guess there are many, many Belizeans who were in Vietnam whom I don’t know.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are more Belizeans than Guatemalans, when you factor in the size of our respective populations, who served in Vietnam, and I think this should be a consideration in Washington when the superpower is deciding how they treat Belize and the Guatemalan claim. (Incidentally, most people say the claim is “unfounded,” but I think that when you have enough guns and artillery you can “found” just about anything. I think this way because I was a student of Vincent Starzinger, and his “road dog” was the one Raymond Aron.)

For now, let us consider the previous paragraph an aside, and let us examine more of the insanity that was Vietnam. I hope I can get our newspaper people to reproduce in its entirety the article from which I quoted at the top of this column. It’s an article by Neil Sheehan in The New York Times a couple weeks ago. Sheehan discusses the war tactics/strategies of the Americans as opposed to those of the Vietnamese, and he focuses on a particular battle in November of 1967 at a place called Dak To. Dak To was a bloodbath for the Americans, 287 dead and more than a thousand wounded. “And as always, when the fight was over, the Vietnamese disappeared,” writes Neil Sheehan. Vernon Alcoser had told me this: “We never saw the enemy.”

A few weeks after Dak To, the North Vietnamese launched the game changing Tet offensive against the Americans in South Vietnam, entering Saigon itself. This was January of 1968, and Tet was a game changer because Tet convinced the American public that their generals had been lying. The reality was that the United States was losing in Vietnam, and all the casualties were, at the end of the day, pointless.

I think the Vietnam War affected me personally more than I could have realized at the time, because Vietnam affected the psyche and landscape of the United States between 1965 and 1968 more than you could ever imagine. The society was violently polarized. The violence which America was inflicting on the Vietnamese people was returning home to the Americans in the form of a commitment to violence amongst American youth who were opposing a stupid and destructive war.

Today, I would say that the Vietnam War may have probably affected me more personally than the black power movement. But, there was more than that. In early April of 1968, “they” murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Later that month, Bethuel Webster released his Seventeen Proposals. I found myself in a boiling cauldron. In 1968, the world itself was on fire. It was in June of that year that I returned home to Belize.

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