The Vietnam-American War was very different from the previous wars that America had been involved in. This war had no defined battle front, defied the use of conventional means of waging war, had allies whose commitment to the cause were in doubt, endured anti-war sentiment on the home front, returned soldiers to a nation who did not regale them as heroes, seemed to lack a clear purpose and obtainable objective, and plunged hundreds of thousands of America’s young males into an alien world with experiences that ranged from supreme boredom to the heights of terror and fear for life and limb.
W.D. Ehrhart’s story, Vietnam-Perkasie, offers vast insight into his experiences leading up to, during, and immediately following his thirteen-month military tour as a Marine in Vietnam. This intelligent, sensitive young man experienced personal growth that would have taken several years to develop had he not followed his patriotic sense of duty to his country. This time spent in Vietnam slapped him with decades’ worth of experiences in a very small frame of time.
Probably the most profound metamorphosis in Ehrhart was that regarding his views of reasons for the United States’ involvement and subsequently his part in Vietnam. Before his enlistment he strongly believed in the American ideology for the halt of Communism. He felt his duty was to contribute to this cause. He convinced his parents to sign for his enlistment in the Marines, as he was underage. “Is this how you raised me? To let somebody else’s kids fight America’s wars?” (Ehrhart, 10). Even the rigors of boot camp, with the caustic drill instructors, could not dissuade him from his commitment to his country. During his graduation from boot camp he stated that “I burst into a broad grin, barely able to control the pride struggling to get out of me in a mighty shout” (Ehrhart, 19). Upon his arrival in Vietnam, Corporal Saunders, who he would replace, informed him that he was indeed not in a country that would welcome him with open arms. “Better pay attention, kid. We get sniped at along this road all of the time. Half the people you’re waving at are probably VC” (Ehrhart, 21). Ehrhart witnessed harsh treatment of detainees and tried to get Saunders to stop it. He was informed that the “detainees” may very well be VC or at the least VC sympathizers. “There people know where those mines are and who’s planting ‘em and who’s doing the sniping” (Ehrhart, 26).
His perception of the ARVN as capable fighting partners began to decline when the ARVN did not leave their compound to assist the scouts who were being ambushed. The ARVN had even fired upon and killed two men with a .50-ciliber machine gun (Ehrhart, 30). Taggart’s torture of an old man to find out who had dug a bunker, was disturbing to him but soon he is telling a new recruit the reasons behind the cruel treatment of someone who appears to be too feeble to be an enemy. “Two weeks ago a God damned kid maybe eight or nine years old runs up and tries to flip a grenade into the jeep. A grenade! I had to blow ‘im away” (Ehrhart, 56). He describes Vietnam as Indian country and starts to vocalize that there is not light at the end of the tunnel and no end to the number of VC available to fight (Ehrhart, 61). As he becomes more and more immersed in the war he forgets the voices and faces of Jenny and his mother. By the time of his second kill he was charged with the excitement of it.
In his experiences to date, the first time that cold hard facts about the home front could touch this jungle, was when Calloway received a letter from his wife that informed him that she was pregnant by his best friend and wanted a divorce to marry him. Calloway’s swift suicide, in front of his men, shocks all and brings what is happening a world away right into that jungle. Ehrhart writes home that the U.S. is winning the war and this is a way for him to try to convince himself that his reasons for being there were just, as much as to keep the folks at home from worrying.
Ehrhart’s job of plotting the harassment and interdiction fire was done in a haphazard way. Due to the lack of reliable sources this seemed to be the only way to get a report out when one was required. He knew too much about the inner workings of the war to trust what the outcome would be. “But day after day and week after week and month after month of F/6s and F/3s and C/3s had proven the rating system to be as crazy as the rest of the war” (Ehrhart, 104). His distrust of the United States basis for waging attacks was rooted in knowing that often there was no legitimate rhyme or reason to the shelling and bombing strategy. Falsified body counts and slanted news coverage did nothing to bolster his confidence in his military.
He reflects on how during his earlier years he had avoided personal confrontations. Perhaps he had come a long way from that little boy or teenager, but not really. He could still feel revulsion at the death of the old man on Barrier Island. He thought of the old woman that he had shot just because she happened to be running and then of his Quaker friend Sadie Thompson’s final words to him, that in essence said, “ do not kill anyone” and he could still feel sick with what he had done. He also realized that the South Vietnamese “democracy” that he is fighting to establish and maintain is a sham. There was continued mistrust of the ARVN troops and their apparent lack of enthusiasm and cooperation. After all the Americans had come over to their country to keep Communism at bay, and the least they could do was to fight along side the Americans.
The R and R to China Beach was not as much fun as was anticipated. There may have been too much time to think of what was going on in the “real” world plus the letters from Jenny had started to drop off drastically. Gerry and Bill did not choose to stay the full amount of time that they were allotted. What were they missing back at camp? Perhaps they had become too accustomed to the constant adrenaline rush. When the “Dear Bill” letter finally arrived, all of the previous traumatic experiences came crashing in on Ehrhart. His thoughts of his future with Jenny and surviving long enough to get back to the world had been his anchor during his trip on the turbulent, deadly sea of Vietnam. “A perfect chain, like a rosary, a lifeline, a beacon. Gone just like that?” (Ehrhart, 132).
Ehrhart had a discussion with Trinh about Trinh’s view on what the United States was doing to the South Vietnamese by supporting the current government of Ky and Thieu. “This is not America, Corporal Ehrhart” (Ehrhart, 146). Trinh said that the South Vietnamese did not want the Americans there, nor had the South Vietnamese people asked for American help. “Ky and Thieu and the rest of those fat bloated bandits who are getting filthy rich from this war-they asked for help (Ehrhart, 148).
Ehrhart’s meeting with Dorrit comes at an especially low time in his life. Jenny is gone; he has much anger toward her, the South Vietnamese, and himself. This new relationship came at a time when he needed the will to go on with his life. He almost deserted and stayed with her. This shows how much he had changed from the staunch supporter of his country and of the American involvement in this war. He expresses his frustrations about what he has seen and done during the previous months. He vocalized the wrongs that he could see with the waging of the war. He talked about what he had done and how he was no longer proud of himself. The apparent futility of what he was being asked to do. “Round and round and round, just chasing our own tail” (Ehrardt, 169). His anticipation of a future relationship with Dorrit helps to take some of the sting out of Jenny’s abandonment. In nine months he has changed from the eager new Marine enlistee to someone who would get out of the uniform as soon as possible. “I knew that once I left Vietnam, I would never again go anywhere that required a uniform and the forfeiture of my right to come and go as I chose” (Ehrhart, 184).
Ehrhart’s father was a minister but he had decided before going to Vietnam that he was an agnostic. His talks with Father Lignon became more and more strained until he tried to avoid contact with the clergyman. He had decided that he was not doing the correct thing by being in South Vietnam. He did not believe that he should continue to ask forgiveness for what he did, all the while knowing that he would just go out and do it again. “Either you are a Christian, or you’re not a Christian. There’s nothing ambiguous about ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (Ehrhart, 196). He refused the offer of the chaplain to write him up for a deferment as a conscientious objector. He would complete what he had started with his enlistment. When he reads that Dorrit has been murdered he immediately reacts to the news; he is upset, but seems to quickly adjust to her death. Her death seems to affect him less than Jenny’s rejection. He after all had seen others, whom he had known far longer, die in his presence.
The fighting when helping the MACV compound near Hue exhilarates him. This is the first time that he feels that he is allowed to fight back. He is free to fight with full force and in doing so acts out his frustrations. He had come to fight Communism and now could not think of a reason for him being there in the first place. His youthful aspirations and sense of patriotic duty had turned to self-doubt and questions of his purpose. He states:
And I fought back passionately, in blind rage and pain, without remorse or conscience or deliberation. I fought back at the mud of Con Thieu, and the burning sand of Hoi An, and the alien blank faces in the marketplace in Dien Ban; at the Pentagon generals, and the Congress of the United States, and the New York Times; at the Iron Butterfly, and the draft-card burners, and the Daughters of the American Revolution; at the murder of Dorrit von Hellemond, and the son-of-a-bitch who had taken Jenny flying in his private airplane; at the teachers who had taught me that America always had God on our side and always wore white hats and always won; at the Memorial Day parades and the daily Pledge of Allegiance and the constant rumors of peace talks and the constant absence of peace; at the movies of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and the solemn statements of Dean Rusk and Robert MacNamara; at the ghosts of Roddenbery and Maloney and Rowe and Basinski and Calloway and Aymes, and Falcone and Stemkowski…at freedom and democracy and communism and the monumental stupidity with which I had delivered myself into the hands of the nightmare; at the small boy with the grenade in his hand…I had no idea-had not the slightest inkling –what I was fighting for or against. (Ehrhart, 246-247)
As his time in Vietnam became shorter, he became more nervous about returning. In his war of bullets, mines, snipers, and bombs he has no trouble putting the eventual homecoming into the back of his mind. “The solid immediacy of survival made the turning easy” (Ehrhart, 263).
His return to the States was very disturbing. He justifiably came back with a heightened awareness of the generalized anti-war environment. He unexpectantly found that he did not hate the hippie that he met in the airport, but instead felt contempt for the two older men, one who was a World War II Marine veteran, who befriended him. Everything they said about the war just seemed to show how little they knew of what really was happening in this war. This war was far different than America’s previous wars. He had gone at the age of seventeen to fight in a war, but he was not old enough to buy his own car or to purchase insurance for it. He was not trusted to be with the high school students on their trip, but was asked to speak to them of his experiences. He faced hypocrisy everywhere he turned and he had experienced enough in the past months that he was not going to turn a deaf ear or blind eye to it.
These young men who came to Vietnam had lives that they had to put on hold. The ones who had families, wives, or girlfriends to return to used these people who remained at home as their anchors. Any change in the status of their relationships back home often times had cataclysmic results. From the day they arrived they counted down the days till they could again be home and safe from constant threats of death. When they returned home they were greatly changed by their experiences while those at home were seemingly unchanged and often unwilling to recognize the turmoil the returning soldiers felt. Some of the men went to fight the Communists and some just went because their number came up and they had no luxury of a deferment. The constantly revolving door of people into and out of the platoons often disrupted the fluidity of operations. These operations were often haphazard with little hope of accomplishing anything. Eventually as they spent more time in country they realized that the war was not nearing an end and that those in charge of their lives did not really care about them. They experienced the futility of taking a small patch of ground, often at great expense of life and wounded, and then leave to let the enemy come in again. Deep friendships were made and just as quickly terminated as they were killed or wounded and evacuated. They would often hear later that their wounded friend had indeed died. There was no time or way to say farewell at funerals and wakes. Their distrust of the ARVN became elevated as they witnessed their allies’ apparent lack of enthusiasm for the war. The Americans did not understand the South Vietnamese way of life. Some of the men reverted to the worst possible form of humanity when confronted with the fear of what the enemy would do to him if he did not do first to the enemy. They came from a world where they had been taught that to kill was a sin or against the law and were then thrust into one in which they often had to kill to survive or were even rewarded for killing. Often those who were sent to Vietnam were those who were the least qualified for the task.
Vietnam-Perkasie is an honest account of the feelings of a very young man. His patriotism in the beginning is contagious. His descriptions of incidents and his reactions to these various incidents give the reader the sense that he or she is the one in the story. It is easy to feel a great deal of compassion for this young man. There seems to be a lifetime that passes during the few months that this story spans. Ehrhart has every facet of his life traumatized and seems to be quite forthright in how these events make him feel. This could be the story of any young Marine who was in this war. The only weakness that this book has is that the reader, who has become very involved with the young Ehrhart, must leave him while he is in great despair. The “real” world, for him was no sanctuary and the “normal life” he longed for was not to be found there.
Author’s note: W.D. Ehrhart joined the Marines in 1966 after graduating from Pennridge HighSchool and served three years, including 13 months in Vietnam, where he earned the Purple Heart for wounds he received during combat in Hue City. Ehrhart, 69, a poet and memoirist, became an outspoken critic of the war and American foreign policy as an active member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Today he teaches history and English at the Haverford School in Delaware County and is author of 22 books, including “Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine’s Memoir.” Ehrhart was interviewed for the PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.