While reading Last Plane Out of Saigon, an opinionated but accurate memoir by Richard Pena and John Hagan, I did a lot of reflection and here are some of my thoughts.
During a war, the U.S. government has the power to draft—against their will—recruits who might end up fighting in a just or unjust war. Then there are those Americans who join voluntarily to serve in the military. It’s been 49 years since I served as a volunteer in the U.S. Marine and fought in Vietnam, and for the last several decades, after a lot of research to understand what happened and why the U.S. started that war, I have concluded that the war in Vietnam was wrong and it was based on lies. I think the same about the Iraq War.
There is a big difference between volunteering versus being drafted and forced to serve, and two-thirds of the U.S. troops who served in Vietnam were volunteers and about 70% of those who were killed were also volunteers and 62% of the troops killed were age 21 or younger.
For me, a few weeks before I graduated from High school, I voluntarily surrendered the freedom most Americans take for granted and joined the U.S. Marines on a delayed deferment. In fact, once you join any of the branches of the U.S. military, you leave your free choice behind, and you don’t get it back until after you are honorably discharged. The military is another world with its own courts, hospitals and prisons, and the troops are trained to serve and obey without question. Disobey and a recruit might end up in prison or even executed for the crime of treason.
In the summer of 1965, I was in boot camp at MCRD in San Diego when we heard that the U.S. war in Vietnam was escalating and once we left boot camp every recruit was going to be on his way to fight. That scuttlebutt turned out to be true, and I arrived in Chu Lai, Vietnam, about 90 miles south of Da Nang on March 28, 1966.
About halfway through my combat tour, the first draftees started to arrive, and one was assigned to the communications platoon where I was a field radio operator. To me, and the other Marines in that platoon, it was considered wrong that anyone should be forced to serve in the U.S. Marines and fight in one of America’s wars, and we went out of our way to shelter that draftee.
In Richard Pena and John Hagan’s “Last Plane out of Saigon,” on page 100, Pena wrote something that I agree with: “I submit that the true American patriots are those who see the faults of our country and do not hide from them but instead attempt to rectify them.”
I didn’t always think that way. As a child, I grew up in a totally non-political family, and at the same time I was also being brainwashed by patriotic films disguised as adventures, thrillers and suspense out of Hollywood—for instance, most John Wayne movies. My parents never voted and the one time I asked my father why, he said all politicians were crooks, and it was a waste of time to vote because it wasn’t going to change anything. When I was in college on the GI Bill 1968 – 1973, I would become more aware and today I disagree with my father, because I think that when we don’t vote, the criminals in the White House and Congress get away with their crimes, but active, knowledgeable voters can change that.
To understand the dramatic attitude shift of the Vietnam War in the United States, in August 1965, when I reported to boot camp at MCRD, 62% of Americans agreed with the war. By the time I flew home from Vietnam near the end of December 1966, that number was down to about 52% and dropping. In 1968 when I was honorably discharged from active duty, support for the war was down to 37%, and by 1971, during my third year of college on the GI Bill, support was down to 28%.
“Last Plane Out of Saigon” is Richard Pena’s story, and it roughly captures the nation’s mood at the end of the war. Pena was drafted—forced to fight in a war that was clearly wrong. His book is a journal of what he felt, thought and did in Vietnam where he witnessed the horrors of war working in the operating room of Vietnam’s largest military hospital in Saigon.
I served in Vietnam in 1966 during the buildup. Soon after I left, U.S. troop strength reached about a half-million. But by the time Richard Pena arrived near the end of the war as a draftee in the fall of 1972, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam was down to about 100,000 and dropping.
I think many of American’s troops—both volunteers and draftees—served honorably for mostly honorable reasons, but many of the leaders of the United States who supported the war and sent the troops to fight justified their criminal actions based on lies and deceit.
That leads to a question I have no answer for. How does one serve honorably in a dishonorable war? As for the 5-stars I gave this book, how can I justify loving a book about a dishonorable war? I awarded the 5-stars based on the honesty of the book that revealed the reason why more than 70% of Americans were not allowing themselves to be fooled by the liars who started the war.
Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran.
His latest novel is the award winning suspense-thriller Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was fighting for the other side.
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