In the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces launched coordinated, simultaneous attacks against more than 100 towns and villages throughout South Vietnam, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 of the 6 autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district towns and the nation's capital, Saigon. US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces were taken completely by surprise by the strikes, known collectively as the Tet Offensive since they occurred on Tet, the first day of the Vietnamese lunar new year.
This writer was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia at the time, completing his Army training in radioteletype (RTT) school before deployment to .... you guessed it, the Vietnam War. Hearing about Tet was one of those events in life which etch themselves in your memory -- you always remember where you were when you first heard the news, much like the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, or the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The news sent paradoxical shivers of uncertainty and anticipation through those of us headed for the war. Little did we know what awaited us.
Tet was a turning point in the war. It demonstrated to the world that US forces fighting a conventional war strategy were no match for local VC iinsurgents fighting guerrilla warfare, nor for NVA forces organized in more traditional units -- simply because our Vietnamese opponents were motivated by their perceived defense of homeland against a foreign intruder, much like American rebels were motivated against the British during the American Revolution. Further, Tet tipped already-wavering American public opinion against the war over the edge. Mass public protests, riots and marches against the war were staged on a scale we haven't seen since. People from all walks of life, all economic and social and racial backgrounds, were united in their opposition.
I turned 21 two weeks after arriving in country. At that age, I was an old man compared to most of those around me -- the average age of the American GI in Vietnam was 18 or 19. Naive when I arrived, I was radicalized against the war within weeks, in spite of the inundation of propaganda received during my training. I take no pride in having served in an unjust war. My pride lies in having done my job well, in connecting with a small number of South Vietnamese civilians, in overcoming my upbringing and making friends with blacks and Latinos, and in surviving. I was rocketed, mortared, and (as one of four types of soldier with a bounty on his head) was sniped at as well. I slept outdoors in monsoon rains and in underground bunkers, narrowly missed being bitten by a cobra, and worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week -- except when I was in the field, when I was on call 24/7. I came home physically intact, but with PTSD which lingers to this day.
And yet, perversely, I would not trade that experience for anything. A year in a jungle war zone changes you forever. You learn that it is not patriotism or country that matters most, but helping the men beside you to survive. You learn that what you once thought to be your limits were illusory. We can adapt to all manner of physical and emotional hardship. We can unlearn the crippling racism with which we grew up. Most critically, we can learn that it is not only permissible but mandatory to question authority. Even in war. Sometimes especially in war.
Forty-two years ago today.