We rightly revere “the greatest generation” of soldiers and sailors who fought in World War II, then built the modern economy after the war was won. Their wartime bravery, sacrifice, and service can never be fully repaid, and should never be discounted. Put simply, they saved the world from evil.
But now, we should be paying special recognition to America’s Vietnam veterans, while there is still time to honor them. Vietnam veterans, who are now in their golden years, should be given the nation’s most fulsome, focused tributes. Let us embrace this chance to focus on this great generation, by celebrating the uniquely selfless duty they performed.
Their task seemed thankless at the time, and for too long a time after the war ended. Those who fought in Vietnam lived a degree of loyalty to country that went a measure beyond. Their sacrifices were, in a sense, more sacrificial. North Vietnam posed no direct threat to the United States. It launched no attack on U.S. soil, and possessed no significant oil or mineral riches on which America depended. It was of no real strategic importance, economically or militarily. Viewed with the detached objectivity afforded by time, and without the prevailing anti-Communist anxieties of the Cold War era, Vietnam was just another country’s civil war. In hindsight, most would agree that it would have been better to let those competing forces work things out amongst themselves. The end result would have been the same, but 58,220 American lives would have been spared, along with an unknowable number of Vietnamese men, women, and children.
At the time, our government viewed Vietnam as a moral crucible, pitting the ideals of freedom and democracy against repressive dictatorship, with global geopolitical implications for similarly situated countries in Southeast Asia and beyond. Despite the manifest corruption of South Vietnam’s leaders, that is how the war was pitched to the 2.2 million conscripts who were drafted into service during the period of U.S. involvement.
To their credit, those who served in Vietnam did not need to be sold. They were not arbiters of whether the war was wise or right, so they did not shirk their obligations based on personal reservations or popular opinion. They did not avoid their duty, even though the nation’s internal debate over the war was intense, sometimes even violent. They simply did what their country asked. They answered the call of duty. Vietnam veterans gave of themselves, and sacrificed themselves, in service of country. How many of us have done the same? How many of us can say we would have done the same?
A few weeks back, my former law partner and decorated combat infantryman Ed Chapin observed the anniversary of the fall of Saigon in a Facebook post, writing: “Over the years since I left Vietnam, the fall of Saigon has caused me to feel deeply about the futility of that war. It upsets me to think about the 58,000 lives of my brothers and sisters together lost in that futile effort. We served with honor and distinction, risking our lives and bodies in a cause that our government seemed to come to disregard as insignificant.”
The service of soldiers was not insignificant. Quite the opposite.
Theirs was a messy, awful undertaking, full of terror and mayhem, tedium and drudgery, adrenaline and boredom, frustration and relief, noise and stench, discomfort and death. As Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient Lance Wickman described his experience as an Army Ranger, Vietnam was “miserable anxiety,” with “heat, humidity, insects, snakes, snipers, punji pits, booby traps, the ever-present threat of ambush, mortar and rocket attacks.” But through it all, they did their jobs, with purpose and brotherhood. Whether for love of country, or fealty to the country’s institutions and laws, these brave Americans forged through the perils of a miserably unconventional war, fighting an elusive enemy, even as public support for their effort crumbled, and despite their government’s equivocation and ultimate surrender. They were asked to give all, in a doomed cause, and they did.
Young and wiling, they deserved better. But they went anyway.
In my field of litigation, I’ve been inspired by a generation of Vietnam combat veterans who have been leaders in the San Diego legal community and lions of the trial bar. They include Bob Brewer, Ed Chapin, Vince Bartolotta, Mike Neil, Dan White, Denny Schoville, Lance Wickman, Mickey McGuire, Gary Bailey, Tom Dymott, and my former boss and mentor – the late Joseph J. “Jay” Wheeler. I’ve been fortunate to try cases with and against some of them, and I’ve dealt with many of them in other settings.
I have found them all to exhibit common traits: moral courage, wisdom, determination, a commitment to craft, civility, good humor, fairness, common sense, devotion to justice, and healthy perspective. I suspect the quality of their character was forged in large part by their Vietnam experiences. Or perhaps they just brought inherently sound character to their military service. I’ve always wanted to learn more about their time in Vietnam, but have never felt it appropriate to pry. I always feel honored, and somewhat small, to be around them. I know they acted with a level of physical courage that I will never be asked to match.
Jack Walker, the retired chairman of my former law firm Latham & Watkins, wrote a compelling memoir about his time in Vietnam, called “Eye Corps, Coming of Age at the DMZ.” A deeply personal and candid account of his combat experiences, it is a frank confession of lethal acts, moral minefields, and spiritual loss as a young Marine Corps recon officer trying to do his best in truly trying times. Although the book chronicles this one man’s specific experience, it shines a far-reaching light on the larger war and the toll it inflicted on American’s political institutions and a generation of American youth. It is a gripping read.
There are countless such stories to be told, by veterans who would likely benefit from the catharsis of telling them. We would do well to listen. Those who don’t offer their reflections still would surely appreciate knowing that Americans of every age value their experiences. Our aging Vietnam veterans should know that we all recognize the importance of their memories, and the nobility of the service they gave to form them.
Iconic heroes of the war, like Senator John McCain, Admiral James Stockdale, and Green Beret Benny Adkins, have passed away, and their less famous brothers in arms are leaving us in greater numbers. As a volunteer with Bugles Across America, I was playing Taps at an increasing number of military honors services for Vietnam veterans before the pandemic put an unfortunate end to these services. Now is the time, while there is still time, to pay our greatest tributes to these patriots.
What Vietnam veterans did was singularly selfless, and profoundly courageous. My hope is that they are made to feel how much the country reveres them, a greatest generation all its own.
Ken Fitzgerald is a Coronado resident and trial lawyer practicing business litigation. A former professional musician, he plays principal trumpet in the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra and volunteers with Bugles Across America, playing Taps at funeral services for military veterans.