By Peter Zschiesche
This year we have looked back on the U.S. of 1968, including the assassinations of Dr. King and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy. However, for hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops overseas or on the seas, we were not here. Those of us trained for combat were serving in the major duty areas of Vietnam, Germany, and South Korea for 12-month assignments or longer.
The lack of the internet, cell phones, or even U.S. television disconnected us from these events. We were immersed in military life, which was and is very structured, with defined duties and daily accountability to one’s superiors and fellow soldiers. 1968 was the height of the Vietnam War and there was a military machine operating 24/7 with equipment to run, planes to fly, ships to sail, communications to process and with millions of people coming in, being trained, getting out.
I left the States in June 1967 at the beginning of the “summer of love” for some and urban uprisings for others. In my last days stateside, I saw the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform in Golden Gate Park. They remade an old English play to create an anti-war message – I did not have a clue.
I flew into the Republic of Korea (South) as a Second Lieutenant Tank Commander but with great luck landed an assignment in the Korea Military Advisory Group (KMAG) and stayed in Seoul, the thriving capital. By interacting and befriending some of my Korean Army counterparts, I gained an appreciation for their culture and language, which for a young white guy from upstate New York was a big deal.
In 1968, I did not see Walter Cronkite give his evening TV news commentary that the Vietnam War was not winnable nor hear President Johnson announce his decision not to seek re-election. I missed the ongoing civil rights struggles, the assassination of Dr. King, and the urban uprisings in so many U.S. cities before and after that. I missed the assassination of young and energetic Bobby Kennedy, the chaos surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the subsequent election of Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon. I heard about them but did not live through them as those at home did.
In early 1968, I learned first that a neighbor, Kevin, and, next, a good friend, Russ, from college lost their lives in Vietnam. I felt the loss and then heard career officers in my group shrug off these deaths as part of the job. That was a wake-up for me as to the facts of military life … and death that I had not confronted before. Even so, I was fully engaged in my own military life in Korea and did not reflect on the meaning of the war yet.
In summer 1968, I flew home on leave for about three weeks. On my flight to the U.S. I sat with a young soldier from Cleveland who was more afraid of going home that continuing duty in Vietnam. That blew my mind and for the first time I got a feeling of becoming a “stranger in a strange land.” While home, I visited the young widow of my college friend and started to feel the anger of his death. Many anti-war activists knew it was better to give us their leaflets than their spittle!
On my return flight to Korea from the states I sat with an Army sergeant who bemoaned the deaths and ruined lives of so many young soldiers, whose average age was 19! He was a 20-year career soldier who added up the cost of war in the most human way possible – in the lives lost and injured. To think what we asked these soldiers to do in Vietnam and what devastation we brought to the Vietnamese people.
I returned to Korea with a new attitude – less respect for the military mission in Vietnam but not for my assignment in Korea. I extended my tour there to early 1969 so that I could continue the work there that I liked and avoid the option of combat duty as a trained tank commander. I showed my attitude by growing the mustache I have today, 50 years later, and shining my brass as little as possible.
Then it happened. A good friend from the states who was drafted at age 25 was assigned to the Eighth Army in Seoul. His barracks were only 200 yards from my own quarters on the Yongsan Army Base He brought along the anti-war politics he learned in the peace movement’s first coffee house,“UFO”, outside Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Activists organized similar coffee houses outside many large U.S. military bases, including the “Green Machine” and others around San Diego.
During late summer and fall of 1968, we spend many hours listening to the music of the day like early Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Marvin Gaye. We spent many more hours discussing the Vietnam War – its history and rationale. I hit the U.S. Army library on base and read Bernard Fall’s two- volume history of Vietnam and the autobiography of Ho Chi Minh. I learned that their struggle was for independence from colonial rule and that the U.S. not only supported French colonialism’s war against their independence but also continued the war on its own after the French were defeated in 1954.
These facts are better known now but not then, before the Pentagon Papers were released in 1971 and decades before Ken Burn’s recent 10-part series on Vietnam. How many Americans even now know that five U.S. Presidents lied to us about the war knowing that it was not “winnable”? They knew that, but continued to send U.S soldiers to suffer death or injuries and to subject Vietnam to great destruction.
I am indebted to those coffee house organizers for offering me and others in the military another way to view the Vietnam War that so many of us supported without thinking more about it. San Diego had its own G.I. anti-war movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM) in Oceanside and Vista; the Peace House on Market Street with Non-Violent Action (NVA) and the Concerned Officers Movement (COM); and the Center for Servicemen’s Rights (CSR) on 5th Street in old downtown San Diego. My patriotic salute of thanks to all of them!
With all this in my head, I still volunteered for temporary duty in Vietnam with KMAG in November 1968. Was I crazy? Not exactly. Was I a young man oblivious to the risks? Somewhat. Am I glad that I went? Most certainly. I saw some of the reality I had already “studied” from afar, including how we were bombing the country until it looked like the moon in many places. I experienced the juxtaposition of U.S. culture and Vietnamese culture and the craziness of a war where even rock and roll bands that toured the countryside to entertain our troops got shot. I recommend Ken Burns’ TV series as the most complete visualization we have of the war from different angles (despite no mention of the GI movement).
My short tour in Vietnam only confirmed what I already knew and felt. I returned home in February 1969 to leave active duty. I soon joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and our country’s growing anti-war movement. I took more control over my life, began to relearn our history, and became an organizer for the social justice I had come to believe in. For me it started 50 years ago in 1968 with the Vietnam War.