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Idealism runs head-on into reality during wartime

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Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 12:00 am

Most veterans don't talk about their combat experiences. There are obvious reasons for sidestepping the horrible memories of what mankind is capable of doing. For many, it was the first-time clash between the real and ideal. It was like two full-throttled steam locomotives meeting head on. That's why soldiers usually don't come back from a combat situation the same way they went into it.

When I was five, I lived on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. The Korean War had begun. I remember acting out battles with my little plastic soldiers. My dad bought me a kid's uniform and took me aboard a docked Naval destroyer on the Potomac River. I still recall the odor of diesel exhaust and the constant hum of generators. Additionally, I was impressed by the respect my ranking father received from the ship's dedicated crewmen.

At that point, I wanted to be part of this great American tradition. My dream continued throughout college. That's when I worked part-time at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. I remember in the cafeteria, an Army officer's cap rested on a cloakroom shelf. It had been there for several weeks and was obviously abandoned. I took it home as a reminder that someday, I would wear it proudly.

That day came in August 1968, when I graduated from the California Military Academy officer candidate school in San Luis Obispo. Several months later, I was assigned to a Selected Reserve Force (SRF), which was activated by President Johnson.

Although my time with this unit was quite short before being reassigned to Civil Affairs, it did not take long to make a realistic assessment of the Vietnam situation.

It was different from my fantasies of Admiral Nimitz, General Patton and Audie Murphy. In this conflict, there was no military objective other than to kill the enemy. Somehow, Washington politicians got the idea that if enough "bad guys" were killed, the other side would eventually give up. Of course, that never happened.

Our soldiers often fought for a small plot of land. Good men and teenage boys died or were seriously wounded trying to maintain this mindless objective. But too many times, a victorious bloodied landscape was ordered abandoned. We did not have enough troops to occupy all of the conquered territories while trying to fight elsewhere. Within a few days or weeks, the enemy would once again, control the same plot.

The ground troops soon realized that the ideals of fighting communism and "making the world safe for democracy" were no more than hot air. Their primary goal, of course, was not political idealism, but basic survival for themselves and their fellow soldiers.

It wasn't long before the only things that mattered to architects of this war were "kill ratios" - i.e., how many enemies were killed versus the number of losses on our side. As long the ratios remained high 10:1, 50:1— even 200:1, the upper military echelon could convince the politically powerful that the war was being won.

If the game was going to be "body counts," our guys could play it as well as anyone. There was no way of verifying any of these statistics. The troops simply came up with the numbers that the command wanted to hear.

Every week news reports back home would provide these inflated figures to the American public. This worked well until the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. It was a coordinated attack in dozens of places throughout South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy.

The Americans were able to beat back the assailants and decimate much of the enemy forces. However, the psychological damage on the home front was irreversible. "Body counts" were no longer much use for selling the virtues of the war to the American people.

Historians have called Tet the turning point of the war. That's when most of the media became negative. President Johnson was reported as saying, "If I've lost (Walter) Cronkite, I've lost the country."

When I left the Army for inactive status, it was quiet and uneventful. I remember my duffle bag filled with uniforms and equipment — including the prized officer's cap that I had obtained back at the AFIP. It and most everything else went to charity or were tossed in a Dumpster. Much of my paperwork was destroyed as well. I regret that impulsive move, but at the time, it reflected my emotional state. Being called a "baby killer" by some inebriated Bay Area college punks at a Monterrey restaurant didn't do a lot to help my image of military service either.

Between the two perceptions, there's no doubt that the reality train won the symbolic head-on collusion. Even today, the locomotive of idealism still remains in shambles.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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