There’s a scene in the film The Princess Bride in which Vizzini tells Westley, “You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia!’” Sage advice indeed. Unfortunately, U.S. politicians and generals took a different approach in the Vietnam War, leading to tragic results that would have a devastating emotional impact on the American psyche while demolishing much of Southeast Asia.
Almost from the start, the hopelessly tangled struggle was mired by misinformation, poor morale, and difficult terrain that made waging conventional warfare nearly impossible. The tenuous relationship with the South Vietnamese government and its Army (ARVN) only added fuel to the combustible inferno. Moreover, U.S. fighters encountered a battle-hardened, well-entrenched enemy determined to defend its homeland despite facing overwhelming firepower.
For the record, U.S. led forces won nearly every major battle during the decade-long conflict. The Americans, as they’d done since booting the British from the colonies, once again showed their mettle. It’s also worth noting that supporting troops from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and The Philippines all participated in what is known in Vietnam as “The American War.”
10. You Tonkin To Me?
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident served as the final catalyst for President Lyndon B. Johnson to commit U.S. ground troops in Vietnam. Although America had already been providing supplies and “advisors” to Southeast Asia since 1955, Johnson seized the opportunity in hopes of preventing communism from spreading in the region (aka Domino Theory). The move also escalated Cold War tensions as the Soviets and Chinese joined the fray.
The event actually refers to two incidents — one real and one completely fabricated. On August 2, 1964, while patrolling off the coast of North Vietnam, the destroyer USS Maddox detected encroaching enemy torpedo boats and fired a series of warning shots. A small sea battle ensued, resulting in four North Vietnamese sailors being killed. No Americans were harmed. Two days later, U.S. officials alleged the belligerents attacked another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, a claim that was later proven to be patently false.
Nonetheless, the ruse hoodwinked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Ten years later, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers were dead (along with approximately 2 million Vietnamese civilians) in a highly polarizing war that demolished much of Southeast Asia.
The term “fragging” derives from a standard military issue fragmentation grenade as a means of carrying out jungle mutiny, including frustrated servicemen looking to exact revenge on their superiors by rolling the explosive device into the tent of a commanding officer. Nearly 900 incidents occurred throughout the war — although the figure is undoubtedly higher due to the chaotic nature of battle and not-so-friendly “friendly fire.”
The prevalent attacks, designed to kill or critically injure, often targeted inexperienced junior officers (usually lieutenants), whose incompetence or false bravado endangered the lives of others in the unit. Similarly, stern disciplinarians hellbent on curtailing recreational refreshments were met with equal disdain.
Controversial Alabama judge and banned mall shopper, Roy Moore, claims to have put sandbags under his bed during his stint as an MP commander in Vietnam. Stationed near the stockade in Da Nang, Moore drew the ire of his charges by frequently issuing disciplinary action “Article 15s” for what he deemed wanton drug use and insubordination.
During a forced propaganda interview that aired in the United States, American POW Jeremiah Denton ingeniously blinked out the letters to spell “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code. The chilling message signaled for the first time that prisoners of war were being subjected to barbarity by their North Vietnamese Army (NVA) captors.
Commander Denton, whose A-6 Intruder fighter jet had been shot down in 1965 over North Vietnam, would endure nearly eight years of excruciating abuse in prisons and camps with nicknames such as “Alcatraz” and “Hanoi Hilton.” Jail officials subjected Denton and others (including fellow pilot and future U.S. Senator, John McCain) to various acts of torture such as having their legs strapped down by wooden stocks and irons and spending countless months in solitary confinement inside a rat-infested, 3-by-9-foot cell. Another preferred method, “The “Vietnamese rope trick,” involved binding the arms behind the back and rotating them upward until the shoulders and elbows popped out of their sockets.
Following his release in 1973 and return home, Denton wrote about his harrowing experience in When Hell Was in Session. He received the Navy Cross for his valor in combat, the United States military’s second-highest decoration.
7. Puff, Puff, Pass
The face of battle in Vietnam saw many changes from previous conflicts. Conventional tactics and strategies gave way to guerrilla warfare, television crews became commonplace, and the prevalent use of drugs created an environment which historian Lukasz Kamienski labeled as the first “pharmacological war.” In his book, Shooting Up, Kamienski illustrates how drugs have frequently played an integral role in combat, citing a wide range of wasted warriors such as the Incas (coca leaves), Nazis (meth), and Vikings (shrooms).
But ‘Nam was different — especially in the unprecedented consumption of psychoactive substances. Marijuana, LSD, and heroin all contributed to the mix as military personnel smoked, dropped, and injected copious amounts of top-notch, Golden Triangle goods at bargain basement prices.
Military brass at first tolerated smoking weed but then began making arrests and destroying vast fields of the so-called hippie lettuce. The backlash, however, would soon have dire consequences; many G.I.s swapped bongs for needles because heroin was harder to detect — thus creating a sharp spike (sorry, cheap pun) in cases of soldiers becoming addicted to smack.
Although space consideration prevents a full psychological analysis on the motivations for getting lit, a general consensus points to the counterculture movement, escape from the stress of combat, and the constant reminder of violent death. Pvt. Peter Lemon, who received the Medal of Honor for his conspicuous gallantry in 1969, admitted later he had been stoned at the time of his heroic actions.
“You get really alert when you’re stoned because you have to be. We were all partying the night before. We weren’t expecting any action because we were in a support group,” the soft-spoken Lemon recalled. “All the guys were heads,” Lemon said, using a slang term for marijuana smokers. “We’d sit around smoking grass and getting stoned and talking about when we’d get to go home.”
Surprisingly, the biggest drug dealer on the block turned out to be a pusher named Uncle Sam. A 1971 report by the House Select Committee on Crime revealed that American military officials supplied troops with 225 million “pep pills” (mostly Dexedrine — aka amphetamines) from 1966 to 1969 to ensure alertness, stamina, kill ratios, body counts, etc. were kept up to snuff.
6. Tunnel Rats
A unique breed of soldier emerged during the Vietnam War, requiring a small build, keen awareness in dark, narrow spaces, and remarkable bravery. Being a little nuts didn’t hurt either. Known as “Tunnel Rats” these American and ANZAC volunteers were tasked with entering a vast labyrinth of enemy tunnels stretching hundreds of miles and depths up to 60 feet. Furthermore, the perilous challenge typically found these daredevils descending into Hell armed with only with a small caliber pistol, knife, and flashlight.
Heeding to their tongue-in-cheek motto, “Non gratum anus rodentum” (“not worth a rat’s ass”), the men clearly possessed a sense of humor that belied the dangerous subterranean work. NVA forces utilized the tunnels for a variety of purposes such as hospitals, training areas, storage depots, and barracks. The elaborate facilities contained sophisticated ventilation systems, allowing a large number of VC guerrillas to launch surprise attacks and vanish just as quickly.
In order to neutralize this tactical advantage, tunnel rats descended into the ink black, claustrophobic passages on routine search and destroy missions. Not surprisingly, casualty rates ran alarming high (33%) — even for ‘Nam. In addition to confronting the enemy, “diggers” faced several other potential threats, including trip wires, mines, punji sticks, bats, rats (the four-legged variety), spiders, scorpions, and deadly pit vipers and banded krait snakes. And if that wasn’t treacherous enough, tunnel construction also featured U-shaped configurations that could be quickly flooded to drown the intruders or filled with poison gas.
But that was then and times have changed. Today, visitors can re-live the thrilling underground adventure at the government-run sites — sans the aforementioned lurking threats in the darkest, deadliest rings of Hades.
5. Uncommon Valor
For all of its unbridled insanity and horror, the Vietnam War also produced astonishing acts of bravery. The heroics of Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, however, transcends courage under fire to a higher realm that simply defies comprehension. In fact, when President Ronald Reagan presented Benavidez with the Medal of Honor, the former actor turned to the press and said, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.”
Raul Perez “Roy” Benavidez was born on March 25, 1935, in Cuero, Texas and fought his entire life, battling systemic racism and bureaucracy, and eventually, a hostile foe in a faraway land. The son of a Mexican-American sharecropper and Yaqui mother, Benavidez lost both his parents to tuberculosis when he was five; he then lived with relatives and sporadically attended school before dropping out at 15 to help support his extended family. He eventually enlisted in the Army and became a member of the vaunted 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets) whose fighting spirit is defined by its motto, “Strength and Honor.”
During a patrol in Vietnam, Benavidez stepped on a landmine during a covert mission; doctors at the time told him that he’d never walk again. But the wounded warrior viewed the setback as just another challenge to overcome. He tirelessly underwent a year of rehab (sometimes crawling only on his elbows and chin) and true to his steely resolve, returned to active duty.
On May 2, 1968, Benavidez heard a desperate plea of ”get us out of here” over his unit’s radio at a base in Loc Ninh, South Vietnam. A 12-man Special Forces team — 3 Green Berets and 9 Montagnard tribesmen — had been ambushed by over 1,000 North Vietnamese troops and needed help. Quickly.
The sergeant, armed with only a knife and carrying medical supplies, hastily jumped aboard an evacuation helicopter and rushed to the location. ”When I got on that ‘copter, little did I know we were going to spend six hours in hell,” he later recalled. As expected, the fight proved brutal — and at times, utterly futile. But the NVA had no idea they were dealing with Roy Benavidez, a fiercely determined one-man fighting machine who makes Rambo look like Gumby.
By the time the siege ended, Benavidez had saved at least eight men while being shot seven times, stabbed with a bayonet, and hit by 28 pieces of shrapnel. His mangled, bullet-riddled corpse had been placed inside a body bag, but before medics could zip it up the barely conscious soldier spit blood onto a doctor’s face, letting him know that this tougher-than-a-coffin-nail Texan was still alive.
But anyone who thinks the story could possibly end here clearly hasn’t been paying attention. Two years after receiving his nation’s highest military decoration, Benavidez found himself in a hotly contested battle with the Social Security Administration. A cost-cutting scheme planned to cut off disability payments to veterans, including those of one particular MOH recipient named Roy Benavidez. Naturally, the Green Beret strapped on his boots and marched up to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. There, on behalf of thousands of combat vets, he convinced Congress to abandon the ill-conceived motion. In other words, Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform.
4. Starve and Expose
U.S. planes and helicopters sprayed a dioxin-laden defoliant called “Agent Orange” over 4.5 millions acres of jungle, stripping the Viet Cong of defensive cover and destroying food crops. While the potent herbicide (sometimes mixed 13 times to its usual strength) successfully did its job, the chemical has been conclusively linked to several health ailments such as cancer.
The missions, code-named Operation Ranch Hand, rained down a gentle mist with a thundering toxic impact. But like a lab-manufactured tornado, a total of 11 million gallons helped wipe out farms and forests in its path. As a result, lethal side effects occurred in humans on both sides that included babies born with horrific mutations.
An estimated 1 million Vietnamese people currently suffer from exposure to the poison. Many of these victims live in hospitals called Peace Villages, where according to a charity worker there, the remains of other hideously deformed bodies are preserved as a painful lesson.
“Some have two heads; some have unbelievably deformed bodies and twisted limbs. They are kept as a record of the terrible consequences of chemical weaponry.”
3. War Trophies
In the PBS documentary The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, a veteran attempts to describe the unimaginable atrocities he witnessed by young American GIs, stating “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” One might argue that the very nature of war requires combatants to shift from civility to “kill or be killed” survival mode, thus turning a God-fearing Boy Scout into a cold-blooded killer seemingly overnight. Nonetheless, the shocking war crimes committed by a blood-thirsty platoon called “Tiger Force” underscores the warped mentality and detached cruelty of the war.
Between May and November 1967, a 45-man elite paratrooper recon unit (founded by highly decorated war-hero-turned-anti-war-activist, Colonel David Hackworth) routinely tortured and killed hundreds of civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. Additionally, Tiger Force collected scalps and cut off the ears of their victims, which the soldiers fashioned into necklaces. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. One of the men, Pvt. Sam Ybarra, killed a crying baby and cut off his/her head after the infant’s mother had been raped and killed.
An official inquiry into the matter later confirmed these and several other deplorable acts took place. But the Army chose to turn a blind eye and kept the truth hidden for decades. Then in 2003, a team of journalists from The Blade newspaper in Toledo, Ohio broke the story that would win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The authors also presented a comprehensive account in the book, A Tiger Unleashed, about the grisly rampage and the subsequent failed efforts by Army investigators to prosecute the men for their war crimes.
Among the plethora of disturbing details, Sgt. William Doyle recalled killing so many civilians that he lost count. “We didn’t expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live,” he said. “The way to live is to kill because you don’t have to worry about anybody who’s dead.”
2. Border Wars
The NVA utilized a network of supply routes dubbed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” that ran through parts of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. In an attempt to disrupt these movements, the U.S. began bombing the neutral countries as early as 1964 and didn’t stop until nearly 5 millions tons of ordnance had been deployed — more than twice as many bombs that had been dropped during World War Two on Germany and Japan combined.
Shortly after taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon, without the knowledge or approval of Congress, ordered the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia, accelerating the devastation. The B-52 led missions, code-named Operation Menu, indiscriminately obliterated the countryside and is believed to have killed over 1 million non-combatants. The attacks also helped give rise to the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot; the despot soon orchestrated a tyrannical reign of terror, resulting in the deaths of at least another million Cambodian civilians.
Another former French colony, Laos, is widely considered to be the most bombed country in history. Not exactly a #1 ranking to help boost tourism these days. Approximately 580,000 sorties unloaded on the ancient Buddhist nation as part of a relentless 24/7 campaign in which roughly 80 million bomblets failed to detonate. Based on U.S. military strike data, one-third of the country is still contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO). Although the war has been over for over four decades, bombs continue to kill and maim scores of Laotians yearly, of which approximately 40% are children, who are drawn to the “toy-like metal objects.”
1. My Lai Massacre
On the morning of March 16, 1968, a watershed moment occurred that would forever tarnish public perception about the Vietnam War. A company of U.S soldiers led by Lt. William Calley slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians on a routine “search and destroy” mission in an area suspected of harboring VC called My Lai.
Men from “C” Company (“Charlie Company”), a unit of the 23rd Infantry Division, had expected to find robust enemy activity in the Quang Ngãi Province, a cluster of small hamlets located equal distances between Hanoi and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). But instead of engaging communist guerrillas, the Americans only found a gathering of terrified villagers consisting mainly of women and children.
Calley, a junior college dropout from Palm Beach, Florida, spearheaded the assault with a barrage of gunfire and encouraged the others to follow suit, sparking a chain reaction of carnage. As for kill ratios, casualties tallied one injured GI, who shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol — possibly self-inflicted.
When rumors about My Lai gradually turned into hard, cold facts more than a year later, the worldwide response was both shock and anger. At first, the U.S. Army tried to cover it up, saying the fatalities occurred during an airstrike. Reports matter-of-factly claimed 128 VC and 22 civilians had been killed during a “fierce firefight.” General William Westmoreland, head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) even congratulated the unit on the “outstanding job.”
Following an investigation, details revealed how the company raped the women, and mercilessly killed children and babies. Some victims had been mutilated with the signature “C Company” carved into their bodies. At his trial, Calley stated he was merely following orders handed down by his superior officer, Captain Ernest Medina. The disgraced lieutenant was eventually found guilty and given a life sentence. But in the end, apparently the whole thing had been one big misunderstanding and Calley served only three and a half years under house arrest.