Not all tours in Vietnam were alike or even similar. If you were an administrative officer or clerk in an air-conditioned trailer in Saigon, your war might be a lot like peacetime duty. You could put in your year in Vietnam and never be close to combat. Sailors and aviators were in a different world too, with perils and problems of their own. Of the 2.8 million Vietnam veterans, about 15% were in direct combat roles and at most one million were ever exposed to hostile fire. The Army or Marine infantry -- ground troops, the Grunts -- on the line had a special experience that should be understood and remembered.
U.S. Army photo of unidentified soldier holding M-16 rifle, Vietnam.
U.S. Army photo of soldiers on a patrol during Operation Crazy Horse, Vietnam, 1966.
The Grunt's story can't be told in a few words. Ultimately, only those who lived it can really understand how it was, what happened and why. Some excellent books have been written by those who were there and have the talent to tell the story -- a selection of their books is at the bottom of the page. All we can do here is point out that Vietnam ground combat was an experience that took away youth and innocence, changed men forever, and left some of them alive but incapable of ever truly coming home.
Vietnam was not uniquely horrible. There was much in common with hell holes in other wars -- World War II in the Pacific or Italy comes to mind. But Vietnam did include the fact that while men there were out facing death day after day, others at home where not only enjoying civilian life, they were denouncing the war and the soldiers fighting it. In the latter years of the war, when news came from back in the U.S.A. it was hard to swallow indeed.
Trying to Say How it Was
Fear, all the time. Can't trust anything or anyone, the slightest lapse -- yours or the guy next to you -- could cost your life. You saw it happen in front of you -- another Grunt just like you, you were just talking to him -- gets shot up or blown up in an instant. You can try to make excuses -- he was dumb, I am lucky -- but you know better. Every next step can trigger an explosion -- every wrong turn, too soon, too late, who knows -- you're dead.
Sometimes its worse not to die. You saw guys blown to pieces but still alive. Parts gone, parts mutilated, blood everywhere but living, sort of. How many years of agony before an early death? Maybe its better to go all at once.
You are forced to make choices between living and dying, helping or hurting, that leave you a dehumanized shell no matter how you choose. You shoot a moving shape. He was a harmless peasant. You hesitate on the next one, his grenade kills. Soon you just shoot and feel rotten about it. Later you shoot and don't feel anything at all.
It's way too hot all the time, way too sticky humid, and insects are biting. In the bush you are wet through and through, sitting in a hole full of water, leeches are on you, and you're sick from some damn thing half the time. Your skin is cut from elephant grass and rotting from fungus and your feet are infected.
Everything hurts or has a problem. Your gear is crap, the boots rot off, the uniform tears, the pack cuts your circulation. Food is late, boring, too little and awful. You live in an improvised shelter, near exhaustion all the time. Sniper shots come at any time -- rifle fire, explosions -- you can't ever sleep. Someone yells "Incoming," you're gripped by instant terror as you eat dirt trying to find a bit of safety, knowing there isn't any.
Between terrifying, life is very boring. You're eager for mail call, but fear the letter from your woman who couldn't wait. After a while you are numb, withdrawn, just enduring and counting the days left in your tour, the 1000-yard stare all that's left of your eyes.