"You Can See A Lot Standing Under A Flare In The Republic of Vietnam"
Last Wednesday was Vietnam Veterans Day. I purposely didn't comment on it...mainly because I've pretty much written all I need to write about that war.
Then, on Thursday, to commemorate the day, a number of newspapers wrote about those war days. One news article mentioned the stir of protests across America when Nixon sent American troops into then supposedly neutral Cambodia.
The news article portrayed Nixon as the bad guy on those Cambodian excursions. However, one thing I learned from those three years in Vietnam was that hats are neither pure black or pure white.
Case in point. When I arrived in Vietnam in 1968 my base was a virtual "dart board" for North Vietnamese rockets and mortars. Those mortars and rockets came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a jungle road hacked out along the Laos and Cambodian border.
And we always knew how things stood just by looking west, over to the Cambodian border just 60 miles away. Over that way stood Nui Ba Dinh (Black Virgin Mountain). Throughout the late 60's control of that mountain changed hands constantly, by turn the U.S. holding the top of the mountain, then the North Vietnamese who, when owning the top, stored caches of weapons and supplies in the crevices and caves up top.
Our base in III Corp, the vast swath of rice paddies that extended out for miles beyond Saigon, afforded us a front row seat to the battles to control Nui Ba Dinh. Each night, as we sat in our bunkers or our towers we had our own 4th of July fireworks show. As soon as darkness fell across Vietnam we would see a slap flare fired up around Nui Ba Dinh, then watch the tracers, those red M-16 rounds fired to enhance concentrated fire toward the enemy. When the U.S. Army held the top the red tracers were fired downward. When the North held the top those tracers soared skyward. And each night we cheered when those tracers were headed downward.
Nui Ba Dinh was a strategic supply point because the very end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was situated only a couple of miles from that embattled mountain.
Most of those battles would not have been as fierce had Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia not pretended neutrality, while allowing the North Vietnamese to ferry their tools of death down through his country. No one, to my knowledge has ever calculated how many Americans and South Vietnamese died at the hands of North Vietnamese weaponry that flowed through Cambodia, but the numbers were many.
Then, in the spring of 1970, President Nixon ordered American troops into the Parrot's Beak region of Cambodia, just a few steps from Nui Ba Dinh. Our troops went in, battled the North Vietnamese, and destroyed thousands of tons of weapons caches prepositioned there, handy to kill as many of us as they could.
As soon as the press got wind of that Cambodian border excursion the headlines were filled with "U.S. Invades Neutral Cambodia!" And of course that led to college protests across America, the political left screaming "foul!"
And what did we see under those flares some ten thousand miles away? We saw an end to those fierce fire fights over at Nui Ba Dinh. We saw skies free of mortars and rockets coming our way. I can tell you that, as unhappy as the boomer college kids were, the troops in Vietnam were deliriously happy with Tricky Dick! We were dodging far fewer of those "death bombs" that were once plentiful over across the Cambodian border.
The Vietnam war will always be controversial. Millions of Americans thought we should never have been there. Millions of us who served only wished we could have fought that war without our hands being tied behind our backs. But there was one glorious moment...that glorious month in the spring of 1970, when America kicked ass and took names....and saved a hell of a lot of lives.
The war's over now and maybe we should stop talking about it. I just read that Nui Ba Dinh is now a mountain theme park. Probably brings joyful fun to visitors. It was not much of a fun place 48 years ago when that mountain rained only death.
A belated thanks to all the Vietnam vets...especially those who fought on the rocky ridges of that bloody mountain.