War and Peace Corps: from a Volunteer perspective

    Two Corps, Peace and War: A Memoir
    by Jim Jackson (India 1965–67)

    I AM LOOKING AT a black and white snap shot taken in 1969 of me, a twenty-seven year old U.S. Army SP4 in jungle fatigues, squinting into the bright Vietnamese sunlight. Dog tags hang from my neck. Behind me are sand-bagged bunkers which guard the company’s perimeter. Beyond lies concertina wire separating the bunkers from a road.
         The year before, during Tet 1968, the road was littered with Viet Cong bodies. When the picture was taken only a few bullet and RPG holes remained. One of the dead V.C. was a barber for my company. As a result, I never felt at ease getting a haircut when the Vietnamese barber used a straight razor.
         I look at my picture and wonder what I was thinking. I can’t remember, but now I’m grateful to still be here, breathing, feeling the keyboard as I write this, and seeing sunlight through the blinds.
         The seeming contradiction of serving both in the Peace Corps and in the military in Vietnam was not unusual. In my Peace Corps group, two others were drafted after Peace Corps and one also served in Vietnam. Considering all of the PCVs from that time, there must have been many who did double duty. Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74), an army nurse in Vietnam and author of Don’t Mean Nothing, said it also worked the other way: she and her husband and others were in the war first, then were PCVs. To my knowledge no one knows how many served in both capacities. There is no list.

    The times
    To understand the contradiction of warrior and promoter of peace, one must try to understand the 1960s. For me, this is what they were like. In 1960, the NAACP Chapter in Oklahoma City conducted sit-in demonstrations at downtown department stores. I participated because I was in favor of civil rights, but I was afraid.
         The sit-ins at the John A. Brown Department Store were not as bad as I feared. I was merely spit on, called a “nigger lover” and cursed.
         Besides the sit-ins there were marches, one led by Charlton Heston star of “The Ten Commandments.” There was Moses, minus the beard and long hair, marching with demonstrators down one of Oklahoma City’s main streets. Now some disparage Charlton Heston because of his NRA connection, and his politics. But I will always remember him — as I see him now in memory’s eye — on that autumn day in 1960 marching for civil rights.
         Later, when I decided the war in Vietnam was a mistake, I demonstrated against the war.

    The Peace Corps
    Out of college, I volunteered for the Peace Corps. My training group — India 20-B — began with 95 people, mostly singles with a smattering of married couples, for a project in rural health, sanitation and nutrition. About a third of the group were registered nurses, so although most of us were stereotypical A.B. generalists, we had some genuine experts. Three other PCVs and I were assigned to the Health Training Centre in Ramanagaram, Bangalore District. The centre, similar to a county public health facility in the U.S., also served as a training site for health workers.

    All the time I was in India there was a cloud over my head as two attempts were made to draft me into the armed forces. FDR had appointed the chairman of my local draft board during World War II and he took the position that the war in Vietnam was not just against Communism but also against the international Jewish conspiracy. I have no idea what he thought about the Peace Corps. Following my return to the U.S. from India, and a job helping train India-51, a family planning project for Bihar State, I was drafted.
         I had considered leaving the U.S., as many draft dodgers did, and relocating to Canada, or even Europe. There were several reasons why I did not. Leaving would have driven a wedge between me and my family. And once a person left the U.S. there was no coming back. In effect, you renounced your citizenship and faced imprisonment if you returned. I figured probability was on my side, that if I went to Vietnam, chances were mathematically good that I would survive and return.
         I also considered the future. I had successfully taken the Foreign Service exams and looked forward to that as a career. I believed I could have a positive influence on U.S. foreign policy, perhaps keeping us out of future situations such as the one in Vietnam.
         But my choice was not clear and I was not sure I was doing the right thing. What if I came back maimed or in a body bag? What if I had to kill Vietnamese? I did not want to, but if it were kill or be killed, I might not have a choice. I had to choose, but for years afterwards I second-guessed my decision.
         After I was drafted, my company’s first sergeant tried to talk me into going to OCS because I had a college degree, but OCS meant additional time in the army, and I decided not to apply. What a stroke of luck! Later in Vietnam I learned that many OCS grads were infantry platoon leaders, commonly known as canon fodder.

    At Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport my incoming group of replacements passed G.I.s on their way out who began to scream and curse us. They acted deranged, brought on by the relief of surviving. Again and again they shouted “you’ll be sorry!”
         I was assigned to the Headquarters of the 79th Engineer Group at Long Binh, a large U.S. Army base about 20 miles from Saigon. On my first day after processing and orientation, I retired with new acquaintances to a nearby E.M. for a beer. A movie was being shown outside, so we got drinks and walked over to the screen. The movie was “The Green Berets” starring John Wayne. I thought “This can’t be happening! How can they be showing that movie?”
         After the film began, suddenly there was WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! and cries of “Incoming!” Rockets were detonating inside the compound and everyone scrambled into nearby trenches. I landed prone with my arms outstretched, my two beer cans upright and unspilled. “This is a little more serious than I thought it would be,” I said to myself, “At least I didn’t spill the beer.” One person in the company next to us had been killed and two wounded.
         I worked in the personnel section of group headquarters, a desk job that was not too hard. I carried with me my helmet, flack jacket, M-14 rifle and web belt with ammunition. Usually, I just went from the “hooches” (barracks) where I lived to work and to guard posts. Occasionally, we made trips to the P.X. (post exchange), or to Saigon, and very occasionally we went to one of the group’s battalions in Cu Chi or Tay Ninh. From time to time we patrolled areas around the base. Nights were for the E.M and a movie if you didn’t have guard duty.
         My situation was like being on another planet compared to the grunts who humped the boonies and who referred to me and troopers similarly situated as REMFs. Most of them would have given anything to trade places. As scared as I was, I was in a relatively safe place.

    Our southern hemisphere allies
    For a while Australian combat engineers were stationed next to my company. In the morning they left in APCs and at night they came roaring back at full throttle, racing each other to the nearest E.M. Club.
         After a while at the club our southern hemisphere allies would take a few cases of beer and head back to their tents. Since our guard positions overlapped, they would drop by, hauling the beer with them and climbing onto the roof of our bunker, where they serenaded all within earshot, including V.C. They usually offered us some beer as they shouted their greetings.
         At some point each evening the first body would hit the ground as those on the roof became unsteady and toppled off. Their comrades, at least those who could, would jump down, grab the prone figure by his arms and legs, give a few heave-hos for momentum and toss the person back onto the roof. Then they would climb back up and continue the sing-a-long.
         Now drinking on guard duty was a bad idea, but we had to be careful how we declined so as not to offend. We had an M-60 machine gun, and one evening they thought we should allow them to have “a bit of fun and let us fire off a few rounds, mate.”
         The Aussies wanted to shoot our officers, who they did not like, although it was not personal. They didn’t like their officers either. I don’t think they liked any officers. The American officers knew it and kept a safe distance. The officer on duty, who would ordinarily visit our guard posts during the night, would not come near us if the Australians were present.
         One night I met an American soldier with the Australians. He had been AWOL for two months, an offense punishable by imprisonment at hard labor. The Australians befriended him, hid him in their tents in the day, and brought him out at night to party and enjoy their companionship.
         Unlike us, the Australians were volunteers and expected to be in Vietnam. They were friendly to us individually if we were white, but they ridiculed our armed forces because we had “wogs” in our army.

    Race was a continual problem, perhaps because Long Binh was relatively safe. In field units, because everyone depended on everyone else for survival, race was not as significant, or at least not acted on.
         Everyone was armed, and drugs and alcohol were commonly used. Those unfortunate ingredients, plus racism, produced tragedy. For example, down the road from my unit were several entrances into the Long Binh perimeter. M.P.s stationed at the gates to monitor traffic in and out used poles with mirrors to examine the underside of every vehicle because “Charlie” liked to stick bombs in under-carriages timed to detonate inside the compound. A jeep with three African Americans drove up and was stopped. They argued with two white M.P.s and things got out of hand. As the jeep drove away without permission, a grenade was tossed out at the feet of the M.P.s, who responded by shooting the men in the jeep just before the grenade exploded.
         Verbal and physical hostility were often directed toward the Vietnamese, including young men who were not in the ARVN for reasons besides racism. The American soldiers resented defending the country if the people who lived there wouldn’t defend it.

         There were hundreds of Vietnamese civilian employees at Long Binh doing everything from laundry to barbering to collecting trash. Some of them were V.C. who collected intelligence on the job and paced off distances to better zero in on specific targets. American soldiers, white and black, referred to the Vietnamese as “gooks,” “slopes” or “dinks.”
         The day before I left Vietnam, some of the men in my group were in a truck when another truck with ARVNs either passed them or was passed by them. Who tried to pass whom is not clear, but the trucks began racing and the men in both trucks began firing at each other. There were multiple fatalities.
         More common incidents were comparatively mundane because they resulted in fewer fatalities. One day at the mess hall, a driver of one of our ten-ton trucks got in the chow line. He said he had just had a little problem while driving his truck. A Vietnamese boy about ten years old on a bicycle was in front of him. Either because the boy did not pull over, or for some other reason, the truck driver ran over and killed him. It had just happened, so someone asked, “Are you upset?” He responded, “Nah, it was just a gook.”

    G.I. vs. G.I.
    Arguments between G.I.s were also common. One involved a card game dispute. Both men were drinking or had been smoking dope, or both. Suddenly, one pulled out a .45 pistol, just like a cowboy in the movies, and shot the other.

    The proximity of weapons
    I am convinced the reason most of these things happened — the truck-bicycle incident being an exception — was the proximity of loaded weapons. That was brought home one night when we were taking mortar and rocket fire. That night my duty assignment was runner in the TOC Bunker. During attacks, the TOC Bunker was our command post. It was well protected, underground with layers of sandbags supposedly able to withstand a direct hit by a 107 mm rocket.
         The group commander, a white-haired colonel, strode in nonchalantly, smoking a cigar. His demeanor was intended to put us at ease. A shell had hit one of our hooches and there were wounded. The medical attention that should have been available was not, but we didn’t know why. There was no field phone communication, so the other TOC runner was dispatched to find out what was going on and report back. I didn’t want to leave the bunker because a continuous barrage of rockets and mortar shells were detonating outside. We expected a ground assault and I was thinking “I’ll never see the sun come up!”
         We didn’t hear back from the runner, and the wounded were still not being treated. In anger and exasperation the colonel called for a medivac chopper. In spite of the confusion and pressing concerns, the colonel assigned his orderly to make sure all weapons inside the bunker were unloaded. Even then I realized “Oh! That’s what we need to be afraid of!”

    We chaffed at polishing boots and brass, wearing pressed uniforms and having fresh haircuts. These requirements ebbed and flowed as our first sergeant changed. But other NCOs took delight in “screwing with us.” One sergeant major on his way to a field unit was particularly unbearable. When he got to the field with the same attitude, someone tossed a grenade into his tent. Fortunately, he was not in it, but his tent was Swiss cheese. It got his attention. He transferred and was lucky he lived.
         When bullets were flying, there was general confusion, and some people with grudges used the situation to get even.

    Before I went to Vietnam, I knew we should not be there, and being there did not change that, but knowing it before was an intellectual proposition. Knowing it afterward became an indelible part of me. Because I couldn’t support what we were doing in the war, I told the Foreign Service “thanks but no thanks.”

    In 1985 I attended the Peace Corps 25th Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C. and visited the newly completed Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I approached it in turmoil. My first impression, besides the sight of the memorial itself, was how quiet it was. There were lots of people but the only sound was an occasional squeaky foot step or bird chirp. A sense that it was a sacred place was inescapable. Something in the air, something I could feel against my skin was also touching the wall, the sidewalk, and the statute of the three soldiers at the near end of the memorial.
         As I slowly walked along in front of the black, granite wall with its 58,000 names, I began sobbing, which shattered the silence and caused people to turn and look. I saw things people had left: a can of beer with a note, a pair of jungle boots, and a hand-lettered placard —

    At the going down of the sun
    And in the morning,
    We will remember them.

         The people whose names were sliding past felt so near I could almost see them. I also felt the presence of the Vietnamese who died in the war, especially the children. Although they were not included on the wall, I felt them along with the American soldiers as if they were all together. My grief was for the loss of all of them, for the utter waste the war had been.
         As my weeping subsided, the silence returned, but now it is only a memory. I returned to the memorial in 1997 and again there was a large crowd but they were not quiet. There were loud conversations and yelling. Children were running, playing tag and throwing a frisbee. A park policeman giving a tour was almost yelling so he could be heard over the din. And it was twelve years later, and twenty-four years since we pulled out of Vietnam. Memories were fading. The pain was fading. That is natural and to be expected. Sadness comes because the lessons we learned, if we learned any, may also be slipping away.
         For many years I thought about the war almost daily. I suspect for those whose experience was much worse than mine, the memory of the war will stay as long as they live. Even for me it is never far below the surface. Nor do I think about the Peace Corps as much as in the past. Gradually, the 1960s recede.

    Since his time in Vietnam Jim Jackson has practiced law and currently works as a law school librarian.