It All Seems a Waste

Hank Marsh was wounded there during Tet 1968, and half his unit of combat engineers got blown away, and when he sat with his grandmother in front of the TV screens seven years later watching Hue go under without a fight, he suddenly felt ill. Marsh, now 27 and serving out his time as an Army recruiter, remembers his grandmother asking him in puzzlement whether the U.S. shouldn't send the boys back in. "No," he answered quickly. "Well," she asked, "what does this mean, then? Why were you over there?" And Hank Marsh couldn't think of anything to say.

They were the ones who paid the heaviest dues for America's misadventure in Vietnam - the men who fought and bled there, the parents who lost their sons there - and they were the ones who felt the keenest sense of loss last week at the daily images of Vietnam disintegrating before their eyes. Some of the survivors, in interviews with Newsweek reporters across the nation, spoke angrily of the government for having got the U.S. into the war. Others wer aggrieved at "the politicians" for having contained the effort short of victory. Still others felt led down, even betrayed, by the incapacities and indifferences of the Vietnamese themselves. "For 31 of the 34 months I was there," said Fred Terhune, 28, an ex-Green Beret who came home with one elbow and both knees shattered, "I firmly believed in what I was doing - trying to stop Communist agression. But then I woke up one morning and said 'What the hell am I doing here?' We were fighting for people who didn't really give a damn."

Yet what bound them together most closely was a sense of the futility of the whole endeavour - the empty feeling that 55,000 American lives and billions of dollars in American treasury had been wasted. There was bitterness for some in that suspicion. "The mainspring in this country has been broken," said Ronald Radcliffe, a decorated black chopper pilot who was shot down and wounded in Quang Tri Province two years ago. "I want to take my wife and just sort of live alone." Others found only melancholy in the shattering pictures of rout filling the nightly newscasts. "Sometimes, over there, I didn' even realize what the cause was," said Steve Javier, 30, a Californian paralyzed from the waist down by a sniper bullet in 1967. "And now I see what's happened and I don't really care any more. I just want it to end so we can all forget it."

John Pollitt and Mark Senizaiz are among the angry ones. Senizaiz, then an Army Pfc. of 20, caught a burst of machine-gun fire in an ambush near Phu Bai and has lately learned, after seven touch-and-go years, that one ruined leg may have to be amputated. Pollitt was a baby Marince lance corporal of 18 when they send his assault company up some nameless hill near the DMZ. most of his buddies died; Pollitt, in a manner of speaking, lucked out, with a steel plate in his head, a rickety leg, and a ticket home. He tried college for a while, wearing his uniform like a badge of pride. But the courses were tough and the hoots in the corridor tougher - "How you doing today, baby-killer?" - so he fropped out and drifted along through several jobs, a ghost from a war nobody wanted.

Both men finally caught on as service officers with the American Legion in Chicago, and there, and with their desk space, they share their private bitterness. Pollitt believed in the cause and had felt traduced - "sold out by the people in Washington" -when the war was not prosecuted to victory. Seniziaz doubted that it should have been fought at all. "It was all those Ivy League dudes with great educations that thought all this bullshit up," he says hotly, "and then when it didn't work, they just went off to fancy jobs and left us with our dangling legs. It was an intellectuals' war, except 55,000 of us had to die. And for what? Nothing, man, nothing at all. And if you don't believe that, just watch what's coming down on television right now."

He was a general's son, and when he came out of the Citadel with his mint-new second lieutenant's bars in the middle 60's, Stephen Davis was first concerned that no one think he was getting special treatment. But he had dim eyes, and they threatened to disqualify him from what he wanted even more: an infantry assignment and a ticket to Vietnam. "So I pulled some strings," his father, Maj. Gen. Franklin Davis Jr., remembers with rueful irony. Bad eyes and all, Stephen was posted to the infantry, and to 'Nam, and in August 1967, while leading a platoon in combat in Quang Tri Province, he died at 23.

The general, himself on duty in Viet Nam, took his son home for burial. Two weeks later, he turned to his post; a few months thereafter, a Viet Cong grenade blew out both his eardrums and retired him reluctantly from the war. Today, in a Washington law firm, Davis still honors his son's sacrifice, and is sustained by something Stephen said two weeks before his death: "I couldn't live with myself if I had not come out here." But Davis has begun to wonder about the cost of the war, and if it had been his lot to size up the situation for President Ford, he knows what he would report: "Look, Mr. President, that set-up is down the tube. Let's cut our losses and get away from it."

His picture is one of the indelible images of the war, clad in his baggy POW stripes, bowing before his North Vietnamese captors. Richard Stratton is back in "the world" now, a Navy contract officer at a Lockheed plant in California, but he has not lost sympathy with the cause he served or with the Vietnamese, even in their panicky flight. "I don't know how I'd react," he says, "if someone gave me one bomb and one shell and one rifle and said 'There's no more coming, but go and fight for your country.' I hope I would drop the bomb and use the shell and rifle, and then get out of there, but I don't know." What he does know, for all his six years in the camps, is how he would respond if he had to do it over. "If they asked me to go back and bomb Hanoi again," he says, "I would."

[Section left out]

In the dusk of a late summer evening six years ago, Russell Ross took his boy Stanley, 20, to the Burlington railroad station near little Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and put him on a train to join the Army. In the moments before he climbed on board, Stanley talked about going, and about how maybe he wouldn't owe his country as much when he got back. Then he was gone, and Russell Ross stood for a long time watching the train lights twinkle into the darkness and feeling "just real proud for Stanley ... standing up for what he believed" as a time when kids his age in distant cities were picketing and rioting for peace. His heart full, he decided on the spot to do something nice for his boy, and settled on buying him a new motorcycle. He began laying away cash, saved up for a Harley-Davidson and wheeled it into a shed on the family's 160-acre farm to await Stanley's return.

Last week, a spring blizzard blanketed Mount Pleasant, and in Forest Home Cemetery, an icy wind knocked a plastic Easter wreath off the grave marked "Stanley Ross". They had sent Stanley home from the war in a government-issue casket, too soon after the night he had left; the Harley had stood long after in the shed until Russell Ross mustered the heart to sell it. And now he reads the dispatches in the Mount Pleasant News with a daily deepening sense of frustration and loss. "All it seems to come to", he says wanly, "is a waste of lives. All we've done is create a lot of homeless people and orphans. I feel terrible sorry for them people over there. But I feel terrible sorry for Stanley, too." He pauses for a moment, remembering their good-bys in the darkness at the Burlington station. "I guess he doesn't owe anybody anything now," Ross says. "I guess he done more than anyone had a right to expect."

		-- Peter Goldman with Tony Fuller and bureau reports


This article appeared in "Newsweek" on April 14, 1975 as South Viet Nam was disintegrating. At the time, something special about the writing in it, some timeless touch, caught my eye. It has continued to affect me; images from it are never far from my mind. Looking over it 20 years later, it seems to have weathered better than most. So, I decided to take the time to type it in for you all to see.

I do not agree completely with everything it says (such as the implicit analysis of the rightness and value of the war), but it captured the human cost as well as anything else I've ever seen.

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