I have been asked my times about my reasons for fighting in Vietnam. This was especially true at Colorado College, the wonderful paradise of innocence in the early ’70s when I was a student there. My answer did not satisfy the anti-war people who made life hard for me, but this is what I would say: When I was a boy in Catholic school I would read books by Fr. Albert Nevins, the Maryknoll Catholic priest and unofficial spokesman for the Foreign Mission Society of America, as Maryknoll is formally known. Fr. Nevins was of a different time. In those innocent days of the ’50s and early ’60s America was still a light unto the world, a savior for oppressed peoples everywhere. There was truth in this and we are still a light unto the world, if we can live up to our ideals. As a young man I considered myself fortunate to be part of the effort to spread democracy and halt Communism, a sentiment reinforced by my father, a career Army man. But disillusion was inevitable. I understood later that there was also a dark, imperialistic side to U.S. foreign policy. I wasn’t the only one who realized that. As a country we learned about our own misguided decisions in the ’60s with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Vietnam drastically altered the world view of a whole generation and we have never been the same since. We behaved in less than an exemplary manner in Vietnam. One statistic is enough to bring this into focus. Over the course of our war in Southeast Asia we dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, more than twice what rained down on Europe and Asia during WWII. Imagine for a moment that you are an Asian peasant and a flight of B-52 bombers begins to carpet bomb your rice field. You run like hell, but you can’t outrun a bomb falling from 30,000 feet. I know about that. I saw it, felt it, and still live it. A 500 lb bomb from a B-52 fell right on top of my infantry company. Lucky for me I had dug a deep hole in the ground. Otherwise I would not be here today. That was some kind of “friendly fire!”
But back in 1967 I knew nothing about this. My world view was decidedly anti-Communist, influenced by Fr. Nevins, who had written about the atrocities committed by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after they routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and won their struggle against colonialism, at least in North Vietnam. The French, of course, were no paragons of virtue. They committed many crimes in Vietnam and later in Algeria, where they behaved even worse. But it was the Communists in Vietnam who frightened me. I vividly remember one episode in which Vietnamese Catholics had chopsticks rammed into their ears, recounted in detail in a book by Fr. Nevins, if memory serves me right. That was enough to make me a crusader against the Reds.
So, in 1967 I joined the Army and it was off to Vietnam. Influenced by my uncle, the eternal soldier who had almost been killed during the siege of Brest in 1944, I volunteered for the infantry. He called me a fool for doing it, but I had to prove that I was as tough as he was. Well, I did, but it was mostly because of sheer dumb luck that I survived. That, and my pious mother’s prayers. I went to war completely idealistically, like countless young men before and after me. My motive was to save the world from Communism, or at least South Vietnam. Communism to me was monstrous, the equivalent of Nazism and Fascism, twin evils the Greatest Generation who fought WWII had so heroically destroyed. I emulated that Generation in 1967, and contrary to Vietnam War myth, many of my fellow soldiers felt the same way. We were virtuous in our Americanism. I believed in that. I was motivated by that kind of selflessness. And then in one turn of fortune so many of us turned bitter and cynical. The Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and clinics are full of us now, not to mention the cemeteries. But, please, remember me and all of us for who were, “We were soldiers once, and young.”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.