The End of the Beginning
by Doug Bradley
My GI journal of April 30, 1971 has this entry: Operation “Caroline Hill,” the name reminiscent of a sorority girl I once dated in college, was launched today by the 196th Light Infantry Brigade west and south of Da Nang. No doubt we’ll be running stories about their accomplishments in future issues of The Army Reporter. Meanwhile, back at the Long Binh ranch, we’re celebrating the Year of the Pig tonight with pork chops courtesy of a departing Sgt. Wesley. The outdoor movie is “The Baby Maker” starring Barbara Hershey. Fucking Conway reminded me I still had 195 days left in country.”
I survived those 195 remaining days in Vietnam and came back home to a deeply divided America. Four years later, April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong took up permanent residence in Long Binh, Saigon, and everywhere else in Vietnam. And now, it’s another Year of the Pig, and I’m 50 years away from Vietnam, finally ready to acknowledge that the war in Vietnam is over.
For decades, I believed that so long as any of us from that generation were still alive, we would continue to argue, debate, and blame, clinging to Vietnam because it was the touchstone for our lives, the benchmark of who we were and what we became. Everything during our coming-of-age years orbited around Vietnam — did you stay or did you serve? Did you participate or did you protest? All of the above? Regardless, Vietnam always had you in its grasp and forced you to make a momentous decision each and every day.
But as I reflect and continue to readjust, I look around at where we are right now — an ongoing pandemic, vaccine doses and vaccine dodging, violent anarchy, a hemorrhaging economy, vigorous demands for racial justice — and I realize Vietnam will never again have the same kind of power and prominence.
In short, Vietnam is no longer relevant. It was over a long time ago for the Vietnamese, and now it is for us. Certainly, America still needs to come to grips with the war’s lessons and legacies, its miscalculations and misunderstandings, that still haunt us and shape us. But given the tumultuous events of the past fifteen months, Vietnam now is an afterthought, an anachronism. What I referred to as America’s “Second Civil War” has been eclipsed by the first Civil War, the one that never ended, and by our original sins of slavery and genocide, by an attack on the Capitol, and conspiracy theories that proliferate and poison.
And the pandemic…all of this happening at once.
So, join with me as I bid the Vietnam War a final farewell. “We got out of that place,” to quote a popular song by The Animals, but we’re now in this place and it’s hard to see that “there’s a better life for me and you.” To paraphrase poet T. S Eliot, “this is the way the war ends,” not with a reconciliation or a resolution; not with a healing or an end to moral injury…
Not with a bang but a whimper.
# # #
About the Author: Doug Bradley, a U. S. Army veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, served as an information specialist in Vietnam from November 1970-Nov.1971. He is the author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle, and co-author, with Craig Werner, of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine. His latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, was published just prior to the pandemic.