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Ken Burns’ PBS series, The Vietnam War has been much in the news, and on many minds, this fall, 52 years after the war in Vietnam began in earnest.  The 18 hour, 10 episode series combines much footage of combat, from the air and on the ground, with a substantial skeleton of dates and events, including multiple admissions from national leaders, over many years, that they knew the war was unwinnable. Interview testimony from some 80 men and women about their experiences is sometimes wrenching and with few exceptions thoughtful and quiet, supporting the film makers core theme that the war was ‘tragic’ rather than ‘cruel’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘aggressive domination.’  To their credit, Vietnamese from both sides are included, revealing, apparently to some discomfiture in Vietnam, privation, sorrow and error there as well as among the Americans.

One of the Americans  featured is Roger Harris, an African-American private who enlisted in the Marines “because he wanted to be a gladiator, a killer of his country’s enemies.” As African-Americans early in the war made up 25% of the combat forces more of their experiences would recognize that.

A 1984 PBS Frontline documentary, available on YouTube, Bloods in Nam, is useful in adding to that picture.  Written and narrated by Wallace Terry, an African-American reporter for Time magazine during the war, it is a compressed version of his book of the same year, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984).  Both came from a promise kept not to let the black experience of the war go unnoticed, as it had in previous wars.

Thirty years before Svetlana Alexievich would win the Nobel Prize for Literature for turning interview personal histories of war and high social stress into what she called her “voice genre” of non-fiction, Wallace Terry was her forerunner in Bloods.  More lightly edited than Alexievich — we can almost follow from the order of the texts the series of questions he asked of each of them– they are not quite as “literary” nor as shaped as The War’s Unwomanly Face (1988) or Zinky Boys (1992 ) [my review here]  but the voices are genuine.  We hear not only details of twenty lives but recollections of younger lives and reflections of lives now being lived.

As in any group of veterans the memories run from the mundane to the terrible. Some returned proud, some ashamed. Some carrying both.

Five of the twenty interviewed were officers.  All thought the war could have been won –   “if we had fought … a total all out war,” or “…it was clear to me that the United States was not willing to win the war.”  One of them began to have doubts on his third tour as he saw the corruption in the south, but he still thought “the Communists were winning  … but not because we couldn’t stop them if we wanted to.”

Two of the five officers were fliers who became prisoners of war, Captain Norman McDaniel (2399 days) and Colonel Fred Cherry (2670 days) [John McCain, the best known POW was held 1966 days.] Both speak of their initial fear as angry peasants captured them, and of torture and deprivation during their imprisonment.  Interestingly, neither speaks bitterly about their treatment.  In fact they seem to have adjusted better than some of the enlisted men who did not suffer torture themselves but who witnessed it, or participated in it. As of the time of the interviews, both still voiced belief that the motivation for the war had been to defend U.S. allies against Communist aggression.  Neither speaks about Vietnamese casualties or the wider effects of the war.

Two officers were on-the-ground platoon leaders, one with the Marines and one with the First Cavalry Division of the Army.  Both experienced heavy fighting.  Neither claim to have witnessed torture though one remembers vividly a child being used as a human bomb against Americans.  Both supported the war after returning.  Captain Joseph Anderson, First Cavalry, U.S. Army, and his platoon, was the subject of a French made documentary, “The Anderson Platoon,”  which can be seen on YouTube, here.

The stories from the enlisted men, draftees or volunteers, are very different, though some, like the officers, thought the war could have been won. Twelve of the fifteen saw, or participated in, torture, and rape, and shooting civilians, and burning homes. Two of them, back in the U.S. when the My Lai massacre was revealed in November of 1969,  speak of being “scared” for months afterwards that they too, would be reported, that there might be photos of what they had done.

” A lot of us wiped out whole villages.”

says Gene Woodley, easily the most traumatized of all the soldiers.

“I went to Vietnam as a basic naive young man of eighteen.  Before I reached my nineteenth birthday, I was an animal . [When I came back] even my mother was afraid of me.”

He mutilated the dead and wore for some time 25-26 fingers and ears.  It was “a symbol of combat-type manhood … this man’s a killer.”  Not only did he torture and rape, he witnessed it. A nightmare he still lives with is coming upon a white man staked out, and flayed, still alive –a fellow soldier he then killed in wartime mercy. He saw others dead, with severed penises stuffed into their mouths, as he and his crew had done to the Vietnamese.  He played “Vietnamese Roulette,” tossing prisoners from helicopters until one of them talked.

Specialist 4 Charles Strong, U.S. Army, started to get a psychological high from killing.  He “started to love seeing someone dead.”  Back in the U.S., to the time of his interview, his continuing nightmare is of a North Vietnamese soldier who held out against his platoon in a tunnel for two hours. Like several of the men, he got involved in black study groups after the war; several joined local Black Panther groups.  He suffered PTSD rages and was incarcerated for a time, and finally found a church that redirected his life from the violence he had grown to love.

One of the men lost a foot, and later became a medal winner in the para-olympics.  Another was burned so badly he spent two years in the hospital and after release, even with an accounting degree, could not find work.

If the war in Vietnam was the first “fully integrated” American war as has been reported, and if several black soldiers saved, and were saved by, whites, some even becoming strong friends — Col Cherry’s story of being nursed in intimate detail for months by the white southerner put in his cell to create racial troubles, is particularly moving — there was plenty of harassment.  Whites made up something like 85% of the troops.  Confederate flags were painted on, and flown from vehicles.  Crosses were burned in front of black hutches.  When the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr arrived, confederate flags appeared on hutches and in barracks windows –one an enormous 8’x10′ flag hoisted over the American flag– until ordered down by the command.


Why do we tell these stories about ourselves?  It is not simply to speak of a chain of events that we were part of — “there is a desk, next to it is a chair. Over the chair is a lamp.”  We tell them because they are about us, they are a virtual part of each of us.  I am not only who you see but what my stories have made me – to you and to me, myself.

So I read these stories of war and the men and women who were part of it, supported it, or came to oppose it,  to try to understand what they have understood — about the war, their part in it, and of themselves: am I a good person, or a bad person?  What have I become? Am I OK with that?  What have I done to others?  Is it what I would have had them do to me? What do I want to pass on to others? Can my story-self have a place in the world?

Many of the men speak of being infected with ‘the John Wayne thing’ –a national story many shared in– when they signed up, or went over, a thing the soon lost under fire. Several speak about how afraid they were. Many about the comradeship that was formed, with blacks and whites.  Several returned to, or found, religion after they came back … The wild man, Gene Woodley, seems to feel repentance as strongly as he felt his immersion.

“My moms, she brought me back ’cause she loved me. ,,, She made me really get ashamed of myself for doin’ the things I had done.  You think no crime is a crime durin’ war, ‘specially when you get away with it. And when she made me look back at it, it just didn’t seem it was possible for me to do those things to other people, because I value life.”

Specialist 4 Stephen A Howard, whose story is one of the most intense in the book,  ends this way.

“Vietnam taught you to be a liar.  To be a thief.  To be dishonest.  To go against everything you ever learned.  It taught you everything you did not need to know, because you were livin’ a lie.  And the lie was you aint’ have no business bein’ there in the first place.  You wasn’t here for democracy.  You wasn’t protecting your homeland.  And that was what wear you down.  We were programmed of the fact as American fighting men that we were still fighting a civilized war.  And you don’t fight a civilized war.  It’s nothing civilized about –about war.

“I think we were the last generation to believe, you know, in the honor of war. There is no honor in war.

My mama still thinks I did my part for my country, ’cause she’s a very patriotic person.

I don’t.”

The cumulative effect of Bloods is another reckoning of the tremendous cost of war.  Some of the men found lives of normalcy after the war.  The officers, in particular, were welcomed and promoted to high professional status.  But even they lost years, in prison or in readjustment.  Others interviewed have not done so well, still beset by nightmares, broken relationships, lack of work. Even if, as some claim, the war “could have been won” with a savage increase of firepower, none of them speak of the additional costs. They weren’t asked and they didn’t speculate.  Even if there is pride in standing up under fear and fire, the testimony of their lives does not continue the old manly story of the making of men, the honor of fair combat, the glory of war.


Good portions of the book are reprised in a Frontline documentary made in 1986, with a very young Judy Woodruff, after the book was published.  Terry is shown walking and talking to some of the men of the book,  Not all are included, and a few not in the book are added.  One who will stay in your memory, in both book and video is Gene Woodley.  Another, new for the video, filmed as an intense ‘talking head’ is Charles Strong, a machine-gunner. Four vets are filmed talking to a high school class – as powerful as you’d want to see.

The Bloods of Nam on “Frontline”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQOfaemI18

One of the men he interviewed, Dwight Edwards, wrote Wallace Terry a note after seeing the Frontline piece.

“I saw you today brother, oh man it was a fine reunion, you that gave the true Bloods an identity, Bloods bonded for time on the front line in combat but were in the back of the line for everything else, you that shared the front line with us, and was seen on Frontline, you that wrote and spoke so well, you that told our story and challenged false history.”


I’d like to thank Eva Jefferson Paterson, with whom I shared a public forum about the effect of the war and the PBS series, for introducing be to the book. Education available every time we take a breath!

For more reviews of Vietnam and the War in Vietnam try this link