So ... What Was Vietnam REALLY like?
Vietnam and the American Fighting Man
by Mike Rice (June 1967)
Viet Nam, to the American fighting man here, half a world from
home, the name means many things — almost none of them
good. It means the farthest place from those he loves. It means
the CLOSEST place to death. It may mean a rice paddy where he
lost his best friend. It does mean a war in which he most surely
and quickly lost the last remnants of his own boyhood.
It would be cruel enough without war. For Viet Nam is stagnant
rice paddies, red clay gumbo, prehensile jungle vines, bamboo
thickets and 12 foot elephant grass. It is weeks of 120 degree
heat and 95% humidity, or drought and monsoon and flood. It is a
country of two seasons, hot and dry, and hot and wet. Or mixed,
for as one GI complained, "This is the only place in the world
where you can be shoulder deep in mud and have dust blowing in
your face at the same time".
It is the residence of the inch long red ant, the Malaria
mosquito, the bamboo flea and the bamboo viper, the Russell
viper, pit viper, cobra, banded krait, four inch long cockroach
and a couple of snakes that perform under the aliases of Mr.
Two Foot and One Step Charlie. Needless to say, ALL
poisonous. Spiders, lizards, flies, rats, bats, leeches and a
million other insects — no two alike, thrive here. So does
Malaria, Jungle Rot, Typhus, Fungus, Immersion Foot, Dysentery,
Pneumonia, Sunburn, Heat Prostration, Tuberculosis, Leprosy and a
couple of Asiatic ailments we haven't quite put a handle on yet.
They thrive, all of them. But, miraculously, so does the spirit
of that amazing being, the American Fighting Man. Every day he
meets the challenges of the cruel and agonizing war. He survives.
He even triumphs. And what he has to go through, few civilians
know. And NO ONE knows who has not been to Viet Nam. General
Eisenhower, in another war, once exploded to a war correspondent,
"I get so eternally tired of the lack of understanding of what
the infantry soldier endures ... I get so fighting mad because of
the general lack of appreciation of real Heroism which is the
uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions ...."
The uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions
... the statement could have waited for a more appropriate war.
This one. The numerous muddy front lines in Viet Nam may
complain, but it is the healthy, time-honored fashion of the GI
gripe. And the GI here DOES accept the unendurable. He accepts 18
hour workdays with no women, booze or overtime pay. And he
accepts the million other little bitternesses of Viet Nam ... the
Halozone tablet in a canteen of rice paddy water, the bites and
stings of insects, the grime, the dirt, the dust, the mud, the
kind of sweat you bleed. He accepts the facts of rotting
wrist-watch bands, a "Dear John" letter, reconstituted
milk, canned meat, three salt tablets a day, last choice at the
C-rations, and when he can even find it, WARM beer.
He hears Hanoi Hannah reading our casualty reports each night
over Radio Hanoi. Sees his friends fall in battle, and he
endures. And he endures the sight of a mortally wounded child,
the cries of pain and "MEDIC" and "CORPSMAN", the smell of DEATH
and the taste of FEAR, the prospect of the next patrol, the
RAWEST emotions of the battle, and his own dreams.
For Viet Nam is these. And it is mumbled prayers under the sounds
of incoming artillery, and learning to laugh at things that
aren't really funny. It is the fears and doubts about yourself in
battle, because you know if you stop to think about them during
battle it could get you killed. It is wanting a WAR STORY without
having to live it, and then living it and not wanting it. It is
the PHONY war story every man despises and the war story too TRUE
to ever be told. It is the fear of cowardice and fear of courage.
The American Fighting Man endures all of these, and performs
everything his country asks of him. For the task, he fuels
himself on Courage and Selflessness and Dedication and a
Camaraderie that no one who shares will EVER really find anywhere
else again, and he gets along on the most simple and pathetic,
most God-awful seemingly unimportant pleasures. The sweat
wrinkled photograph of a loved one, the sight of a saffron yellow
mail bag and a letter from home — or mail addressed simply
to "A fighting man in Viet Nam", a clear stream with no leeches,
or a night's sleep in a real bed. He cherishes hot chow, cold
beer or a cool breeze. Or the reminders of home, a USO show, a
circled date on a Short-timer's calendar, a favorite tune over
Armed Forces Radio, or a week old copy of Stars and
Stripes reassuring him that America still exists.
His satisfactions are a burst of insect repellant on a leech's
back or a dry cigarette. And there IS humor, even here, not side
splitting humor, but humor that fights the grimness and makes it
bearable. "Didja' hear? A couple of mosquitoes landed over at
DaNang Air Base the other day and Ground Support pumped 50
gallons of AVGAS into them before they realized they weren't
F-4's", or "Hot Damn! Only 300 days and a wake-up, I'M SHORT".
"It must be Sunday, they're feedin' us Malaria pills again". And
humor sprouts in the signs which GI's brand their whereabouts,
"No one would DARE mortar this place and end all the confusion".
On a roadside, "Drive carefully, the life you save may be your
replacement". On the fuselage of an ancient C-47 transport,
"Trans Paddy Airways", or outside a Marine's tent in Chu-Lai,
"Chu-Lai Hilton, VACANCY", or on the side of a C-123 used to
spray defoliant, "Remember, only you can prevent forests", and a
much in evidence bumper sticker, "Support your Fighting Men in
There is a slang in his speech. Lots, every other word sometimes.
His dangerous, merciless adversary, the Viet-cong (VC or Victor
Charlie in military phonetics) becomes simply CHARLIE or OLD
CHARLIE. And every little Vietnamese street urchin becomes
CHARLIE-SAN though they usually rate the affectionate GI pat on
the head with the term, unless one has just run by and stolen
your wrist-watch. Then, you grab them by the neck. Even though
billets, hootches and tents are papered with Playboy
foldouts, the memory of American womanhood is distant in his
mind. To be referred to as Round Eye, Smooth Legged Woman who
exists in the Land of the Big PX is about all that is spoken. Air
mattresses become rubber ladies, Piasters become "P'Z", Military
Payment Certificates become Funny Money, replacements become
Turtles (because they take FOREVER to get here), and an enemy
infested jungle becomes "VC National Forest". Fighting Men are,
Jet Jockeys, Groundpounders, Grunts, Snuffies, River Rats, Stump
Jumpers, Straightlegs, and Saigon Warriors depending on their
unit, rating and/or assignment.
Vietnamese become Slopes, Gooks, Dinks and other assorted
epithets. Montagnard Tribesmen become Yards, and the enemy
becomes (besides Charlie), Congs, Gooneys, Ho's Boys or simply
"The Bad Guys", and Charlie gets either Greased, Zapped, Zonked,
Massaged or simply Blown-away. Jets are referred to as Birds,
Prop airplanes as Spads, Scooters or Tinkertoys. Snakes are Mr.
No Shoulders. And there is the Thousand Yard Stare in a Ten Foot
Room and the Million Dollar Wound (just serious enough to earn a
There is, too, a less imaginative Alphabet Soup of letter
abbreviations that lubricates the language and paperwork.
Samples: WIA (Wounded In Action), DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), LZ
(Landing Zone), FAC (Forward Air Controller), and so on ...
through VC, K's, PAVN's, ARVN, MACV, TAOR, MPC's, and a thousand
OTHER combinations and alphabetum. The war has a favorite phrase,
in Vietnamese "Xin Loi", which means "Sorry 'bout that".
It is employed for every stumble, oversight, injustice, burp,
blister or disaster. "Xin Loi", may be the LAST words
Charlie ever hears. And finally, everything succumbs to a GI
rating system of Number ONE (Satisfactory), and Number TEN
(UN-Satisfactory). There are no numbers in between. No GI wants
any. In a GRAY, confusing WAR — a Number TEN War —
It's nice to deal in BLACKS and WHITES again. So, WHO is this
remarkable American our country has sent to Viet Nam? Who IS this
guy we pay the lavish sum of $65.00 extra a month and even
forgive the trouble of filling out Income Tax forms, for what can
only be the most underpaid work in the world?
He is, of course, many men, many types, he is the Cool, Mature,
Professional Officer and he is the BATTLEWISE Non-Com on his
second tour of his third WAR. But MOSTLY, he's a YOUNG American
(some COMBAT UNITS average 18 years of age), who would prefer to
be back home doing other things, but who by chance of history is
here. He VOLUNTEERED or by lack of a deferment was DRAFTED, but
he is here because he LOVES his Country. By all accounts and
opinions, he is the SMARTEST, STRONGEST, BEST TRAINED, MOST
SPIRITED and COMPETENT Fighting Man our Country has ever sent to
war ANYWHERE. He is YOUNG but he is OLD beyond his years because
this war is a CRAM COURSE in Maturity and Survival. Experts
marvel at him. "In 60 years of Soldiering and watching Soldiers",
writes Military Affairs specialist S.L.A. Marshall, "I have never
seen higher morale than that of the U.S. men in Viet Nam .... The
American fighter here can outwit, out-move and out-game anyone
thus far thrown against him."
"Their main gripe is that the enemy is loath to come out of
hiding. Their aggressiveness arises from pride in unit. The bond
with their buddies. A wish to get the job over ... and an
unfaltering belief in the rightness of their task". General
William C. WESTMORELAND, Commander of American Forces in Viet
Nam, calls him flatly, "The finest fighting man our country has
ever produced". There is a Sacred Brotherhood among Combat Vets.
There does not have to be speaking or organized gatherings, there
is merely that look, when eyes meet, and you just KNOW.
Understand and LOVE you Viet Nam Vet ... after what he
has been through, he needs that above all else.