Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Philip D. Beidler's Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam (Georgia,2004)

Oct 10, 2004 2:37 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Philip D. Beidler's Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam (Georgia,2004)

Like many discharged Vietnam War veterans of sustained combat, Philip Beidler felt numb, drank like a fish, divorced, and wound up in the arms of women whose names he probably can’t remember.

I don’t imagine books by and about Vietnam are widely read and discussed anymore. Nor can they be found on best-seller lists even today, when we are engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Beidler’s recollections are different. What his book offers, some 35 years later, is a mirror image of the bitter and irreconcilable antiwar books composed by disillusioned and resentful ex-soldiers between the two world wars of the 20th century. Philip Beidler was and may still be an angry veteran. God knows he has every right to his anger.

Still, it’s more than a familiar retelling of the war’s outrages and crimes. Beautifully written, at times eloquent, Beidler, an ROTC lieutenant and armored cavalry platoon leader, has written this gem of a book perhaps, as he says, “to keep us from going insane with anger about efforts by people such as McNamara to say he’s sorry now. Or as we might have said it down in III Corps, ‘Sorry, Mr. McNamara, but dead is dead, and sorry don’t mean shit.’”

His contempt is reserved as well for the foreign policy elites, like Rostow, Rusk, and Bundy, who either cheered on the war or just couldn’t say no to LBJ. He mentions the two Tonkin Bay “attacks”—one a U.S.- South Vietnamese provocation, the second a lie to justify American military intervention which led to 58,000 GI deaths, hundreds of thousands wounded in body and mind, and three million Southeast Asians dead. He writes about battles between black and white soldiers away from combat areas. As an officer, albeit a junior one, he felt so threatened by fraggings or the killing of officers and NCOs that he began carrying a weapon in non-combat areas. He spends a chapter on the murderers of My Lai, one platoon of which “had already become known as accomplished rapists.” Its officers, except Lt. William Calley, were never punished, though Calley was cheered on by home front rightwing patriots and excused by Richard Nixon.

All the same, Beidler goes beyond these atrocious events, which in any event are barely remembered now by bewildered Americans who find it hard to believe that virtually all our many wars may not have been inherently just. He visits the Wall and spots the names of too many men from his unit. There are no names on the Wall for America’s other recent wars: Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Kuwait, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Were they merely cannon fodder for our new breed of chicken hawks in Washington or genuine patriots? 0r just ordinary men and women seeking adventure or cash? Now, he literally sneers, with the war in Iraq ongoing and no end in sight, yellow ribbons and flags are everywhere to be seen along with “Proud to be an American bullshit.”

Since his return home he’s remarried, adores his daughter, and teaches English at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. He remembers and honors the ordinary soldiers with whom he served. But he also honors a conscientious objector, John Balaban, now a close friend and “role model,” who chose to do his alternative service in Vietnam. In Beidler’s judgment, his recollection, “Remembering Heaven’s Face,” belongs on the same shelf as the finest memoirists of Vietnam, books by veterans W.D. Ehrhart, Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo and others. To Beidler, Balaban, now poet-in-residence at North Carolina State University, is a "moral witness in Vietnam,” the subtitle Balaban gave to “Remembering Heaven’s Face.”

So, with Iraq still burning, can Syria or Iran or North Korea and a revived draft be far behind? “Meanwhile, we can be getting the hoo-ah kids ready for the next American shoot-em-up,” he concludes. “ Go out and do the mission, we’ll say. Deal with the Charlies or the sammies or the ragheads or whatever. From where I stand, after all these years, I can offer only one sure lesson: Don’t come home expecting anyone to care.”

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Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Polner's review repeats the tired old misleading supposition that U.S. intervention in Viet-Nam lead to "and three million Southeast Asians dead." Doesn't anyone out there in Left field recall that when, in 1965, major U.S. troop formations were committed to battle in Viet-Nam the Soviet & North Vietnamese armed & advised Viet Cong were on the verge of cutting South Viet-Nam in two? As the war between the North Vietnamese led & commanded Viet Cong progressed more & more North Vietnamese Army soldiers were fed into Viet Cong ranks and the South Vietnamese leadership of the Viet Cong became supplanted by North Viets? Indeed, after Tet 1968, when the Viet Cong of South Viet-Nam had been destroyed as an effective fighting force, virtually all of its leadership became North Vietnamese, answerable directly to Hanoi. In other words, the war did not begin with U.S. ntervention. The war had been under way for years prior to U.S. intervention on behalf of the South Viets.

In short, soon after February, 1968 combat in South Viet-Nam was largely confined to North Vietnamese Army infiltraters and South Vietnamese forces loyal to the Saigon government. In other words, the Viets, both South Vietnamese & North Vietnamese, to die in South Viet-Nam were victims of Communist aggression rather than U.S. intervention.

One wonders how the Boat People in Westminister, California would react to a visit by Polner, during which he bleated all that was bad that happened in Viet-Nam was the fault of the U.S. rather than the Communists against whom we fought?

Because the Boat People of Westminister had erected in a park in Westminister at their own cost, their donations, with their own hard-earned dollars, a bronze monument depicting a heroic-sized American G.I. standing sid-by-side with an ARVN, a South Vietnamese soldier, had constructed in the park a kiosk listing the ARVN dead in the war AND another kiosk listing the U.S. Viet-Nam War dead it my guess Polner's typical Leftist, draft-didging academic's bleating in support of the murderous Communists wouldn't go over very well with the good folks of Westminister. Nor, one supposes, with any of the other Boat People who've settled in the U.S.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

The guy must have had a persional problem.

In contrast to his experience, never once in my two tours in 'Nam, which amounted to 22 months in-country, until I was seriously WIA & evacuated did I ever give the least consideration to the possibility of being fragged. My first tour, 15 Sept. 1966-14 Sept. 1967, was as a Lieutenant in the 1st Infantry Division in III Corps; my second tour was as a Captain with the 101st Airborne, early March, 1969- 22 January 1970, in northern I Corps.

Although there was a fragging of the hooch of some of our NCOs the second tour, as said, I never gave the notion of myself being a target of a fragging. Never once! But then, I'm an easy-going sort who likes people.
Nonetheless, had I not been hit in the 11th month of my second twelve-month tour, there's little question I'd gone back for a third yeasr-long tour of fighting in exptic Indochina. Easy-going or no I discovered it was a job that suited me, one at which I was pretty good.

If one looks at the stats for the war, one will notice that the 1st Division & the 101st were two of the three divisions with the most battlefield casualities (the other was the 1st Cavalry Division).