Joe Barrera: My Motives in 1967

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.

Please Join us in Denver (FRI & SAT)

Hello, friends. Once again, we are headed to Denver this upcoming weekend for a couple of Literary Events. We hope to see you there. As always, any questions or comments, please email our Publisher, Joe Barrera at jjbarr46@gmail.com, or our Artist/Editor John Lewis at larevistaalmagre@outlook.com

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Both locations are easily accesible from I-25.

Issue 6: Live Reading

Thank you to all who attended and to those who read. We had a great time, and appreciate our participating contributors; Thomas Mowle, Marshall Griffith, Lucy Bell, Tom Noonan, Bill Stanley, Scott Lewis, and Bill Gessner. Thank you for your words and your shared experience. These contributors and more can be found in Issue 6: VETERANS, Part I.

For stories from the post-launch celebration at Phantom Canyon, contact the Publisher of La Revista Almagre, Joe Barrera. Our next event will be February 15 up in Denver. Please stay in touch for further details…

GI Forum vets book event

Issue 6: Submission Deadline

This is a quick update to anyone who might like to contribute to our sixth edition, the “Veterans Issue,” which is scheduled for winter.  We’d like to have all material in by October 25th. In past issues, we have reached out to writers locally and all over the world, but in this particular edition, we hope to really focus in on our Colorado community and those along the front range.

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We are looking for stories — fiction, essays, memoirs, poems — from those who have served. While it might sound like we are interested only in the military experience, we recognize that veterans are not only soldiers, but members of our community in every capacity. If one has served, she or he may send us a piece about their military experience…or anything else under the sun. And, if you are not a veteran, we still invite you to share, so long as the piece is relevant to the veteran experience. Many civilians are involved with veterans, are married to them, or are raised by them. Please continue to send us the high quality work we have been so generously provided now for two years.

We hope this clears the way a bit, and look forward to carefully considering each piece. If not, feel free to tug our sleeve with a question or two.

With Gratitude,
The Almagre Staff

Joe Barrera: Home, But Yet Not at Home

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We were on the big jet but then they told us to get off. Quickly, we filed out of the plane and sheltered in the revetment next to the runway. The Viet Cong mortars landed some distance away. Our plane was not touched. We ran up the stairs of the Freedom Bird and took our seats again. The pilots gunned the engines and we were airborne. The men cheered when the wheels left the ground. I sat in my seat silently. My tour of duty was over but I felt a strange emotion: I felt sad—I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I wanted to keep on fighting the war. For me it was not finished. I had come up against the wall, what every combat infantryman faces. I had stood there, pushed against that wall and overcome my fear, I had done my duty. But I had not done enough. I had not gone through the wall. Yes, I had stepped into it but I had not gone far enough into the other side. I had not finished my war. I had not been true to fallen comrades.The other soldiers didn’t see it that way. They were just glad to go back to “the world” but I felt differently. “There must be something very wrong with me because I am not happy.”

In Japan there was a layover. We went to the PX to buy duty-free cameras, radios, and, of course, liquor. The place was full of Marines on their way to Nam. Their uniforms were brand new, their buzz cuts very tight, their faces so young and innocent. “You’ll be sorry,” the other guys said to the youngsters.

It’s been fifty-years but how fresh the memories. We landed at Travis Air Base, late at night, the end of August, 1968. We cleared Customs, dumping the Cambodian Red and other contraband in the amnesty bins. Then they took us to a big warehouse and made us take showers. After that we filed down a row of tables and senior NCO’s dressed us in new Class A uniforms. They had to help us put on the Army insignia, lining it up properly. We didn’t remember how to do that but nobody cared. The sergeants offered us the obligatory steak dinner. I was hungry and wanted it. But all the others loudly refused. Then buses pulled up and we were on our way to the Oakland airport. By this time the sun was up. How different “the world” looked.

In those days you could walk up to any airline counter in any airport and pay cash for a one-way ticket and nobody took you for a terrorist. I paid $80.00 for a ticket to San Antonio. Finally, it started to sink in. I was going home. In the waiting area people were sitting in what looked like school desks, the fronts fitted with single curved arms. At the ends of the arms were small black-and-white televisions. You could put a quarter in a slot and get 15 minutes of TV time. Everybody was staring intently at the TVs. I stood behind one man and looked over his shoulder. Just then on the screen I saw a policeman in a white helmet with a raised club chasing a “hippie,” catching the long-haired young man and beating him mercilessly with the stick. It was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. The violence sucked me in. I didn’t want to but I was compelled to see it. The riot on TV was the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve been gone a year and the country is falling to pieces.”

Nobody in the airport talked to me. I was a soldier in uniform and I was invisible. I may as well not have existed. People looked right through me. Later on I realized something. The myth of spit and words in airports was invented by Vietnam veterans to deal with the deep wounds our countrymen gave us. Better to get spit on than to be completely shunned.

The small San Antonio terminal was full of people. I saw a tall soldier in Army green standing in a corner. Around his neck he wore the unmistakable broad blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor. Three or four other soldiers stood around him. The crown ignored them. I joined the soldiers. The man with the medal told us how he had saved the lives of other men in one of those forgotten Vietnam firefights, so bravely won but so uselessly fought. The profile of the ancient Greek warrior on the medal seemed to approve. The word “Valor” was inscribed above the face of the warrior. I turned away, looking for home. My fellow citizens ceaselessly rushed past me, past the tall soldier wearing his nation’s highest award for honor, for courage and devotion. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive

On Feb. 3, 1968 I was sitting on the banks of a muddy river in the village of Thanh Canh, or as we called it, Tin Can. I never learned the name of the stream. Reflecting on that time, Tet 1968, I see a microcosm of our misadventure in Vietnam. The situation revealed lessons we should have learned but did not.

Tet Offensive (Warren K Leffler)

Convoys of U.S. and South Vietnamese jeeps, APCs (armored personnel carriers), trucks loaded with troops, M-48 tanks, dusters (armored vehicles with 40mm cannons) crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. The convoys looked powerful but it was an illusion. On one side of the bridge there was a French fort, an enclosure surrounded by berms, mounds of dirt. The defenders burrowed into the mounds to make fighting positions. We called it the “mud fort” because it was just a triangle of muddy dirt, a relic of the French Army’s futile attempt to control Annam. The fort was a harbinger for us. Along the river, bamboo hooches (shacks) stretched for several kilometers. The fort was manned by the Regional Forces/Popular Forces, RF/PFs, trained by U.S. Green Berets, part of our futile effort to control Vietnam. We called them “Ruff Puffs.” They hid in the fort at this crossing on the road between Kon Tum and Dak To and never came out. We were out all the time. We walked up to the French mission. There were dozens of kids, Vietnamese nuns, an exquisite Catholic church, an ascetic French priest–the lone survivor. The mission, the church, the mud fort. I doubt that anything is there anymore. Shades of Beau Geste and the Foreign Legion.

A horde of villagers came running downstream and into the ramshackle fort. The North Vietnamese were advancing. They were a short distance away. Immediately, the U.S. tanks patrolling the road formed a defensive lager next to the fort. We infantrymen had to content ourselves with holes along the banks. But all was quiet. That night one of the tankers fired H&I (harassment and interdiction) up and down the river with his M79 grenade launcher, which fires a 40mm projectile. In the morning the Ruff Puffs yelled and shook their fists at the tanks. The H&I had sunk numerous sampans, boats the villagers used to fish in the river. There went their livelihood. So much for winning hearts and minds.

In the afternoon loin-clothed Montagnards filed into our perimeter. Their leader, a dignified old man, sat down with us. I gave him a can of Coca-Cola. He drew a map in the dirt. We compared our map to his. The others were disdainful but I insisted that he was telling us something: a concentration of NVA troops. I read the coordinates and convinced one of the tankers to use his powerful tank radio to call in an air strike. The jets came in. That took care of the imminent threat. The Montagnards melted into the forest. Did they escape reprisals from the North Vietnamese?

We won every battle in Vietnam, including Tet, but lost the war. There are reasons why we lost in Vietnam and are bogged down in our present wars: We have good motives but our empire treads the path of older empires. We do not effectively engage the enemy. We are too road-bound, too inflexible. We build too many “mud forts.” We do not understand local cultures and alienate our friends. We dismiss nationalism, the impulse to throw out the foreign invader and recover past glories. Nationalism inspired by religion is what motivates our present enemies. It’s almost impossible to stamp out, and now it has terrible forms–the Taliban and the horribly twisted ISIS.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Book Chat: Along The WatchTower

In our next Issue, “Language & Music,” coming out December 26, we’re proud to feature an interview with award-winning Oklahoma author, Constance Squires, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Bayou, Eclectica, Identity Theory, New Delta Review, and many more.

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Along the WatchTower (2012) is Ms. Squires first novel. Set in the 1980s, on an American army base in Germany and then in an Oklahoma small town, the novel chronicles the growing up of young Lucinda Collins, following her from adolescence on into young adulthood. We get to experience the growth of this eager-to-please, yet strong-minded woman through the world of a military family — overseas and Stateside.

The setting is something we don’t really see in fiction, that of the military family. And it would take someone with Ms. Squires’ particular talent to truly color and people an environment that is often institutional and drab. But there is no doubt, this novel is vigorous and alive.

The book gives us a wishbone with young Lucinda at the vertex and her mom on one side of the V, her father on the other. What makes the story wonderful to read is the author’s ability to deftly and clearly portray the characters’ cosmic arcs, and from the start we sense the tension bending on the bone where we find young Lucinda.

Faye Collins, Lucinda’s mother, obviously has the artist’s soul, the Creative’s gravitas; her’s is a mighty intellect harnessed into the world of being an army wife. She is always the volcano under the bulk of crust…waiting for release. The manner in which she has arrived in this marriage, as illustrated by Ms. Squires, makes complete sense. The fact that she appears unfit for the life it provides is obvious, yet her world is bruised by the desperate and inescapable need for her husband and kids — by the things they can and can’t provide.

Jack Collins, Lucinda’s father, is a relentless contradiction; the consummate military personality who is lovable and impossible to love, both devoted to the family and completely remote. Every awful action or comment for Jack is followed by a moment of redemption, which is then followed by a cold indifference, which is then followed by utter selflessness, which is then followed by callous bravado, which is then followed by incredible warmth and so on. He can piss us off. But…he also has our sympathy. One thing Ms. Squires clearly conveys is a permeant awareness, as seen by the children, the damage to men and women in the military…before caring about that sort of thing had any public traction.

This wishbone creaks from the start. It is Lucinda, our young protagonist who has to figure things out inside this arrangement. To be in the military, to grow up in that kind of family inevitably means the lowering of expectations in our friends. It’s not that we need them less, or that they’re worse…we just have to replace them all the time. So, standards might be a bit more flexible.

Throw in Rock and Roll — Punk — booze — a touch of fascistic background radiation — devastating metaphors — and we have a wonderful, coming-of-age tale spread across the Atlantic, in a setting that is too little represented in literature.

We need this author, and we need her to tell us her stories. Regardless of topic, Ms. Squires has the gift for flesh and blood. It’s impossible to think of Along The WatchTower without the people in it coming alive. For instance, Jack Collins has one of the clearest voices I’ve ever read. His dialogue crackles in the head with the clarity of a Holden Caulfield. And Ms. Squires’ energies are not wasted there; the minor characters pop as much as any.

As part of the Almagre community, we encourage you to support creative thinking, Great Storytelling, and find your way to a copy of Along The WatchTower. It is a pleasure from start to finish.

John Lewis,
Artist/Editor
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