When Larry Gwin ’63, a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Yale, fought in Vietnam after graduation, he saw combat at its harshest. A newly-minted infantry lieutenant, Gwin and his men were plunged into the first major clash of the war. At the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, Gwin’s unit suffered 70 percent casualties.
In his memoir, “Baptism,” Gwin illustrates the scene.
“Chaos, absolute chaos, from where we’d just been. Hundreds of small arms blasting away at each other, grenades exploding, men screaming or shouting hysterically. Worse than anything I’d ever seen, anything I could have imagined,” he wrote.
The potency of the Vietnam experience left Gwin shaken.
“I came back to Yale in 1969 and rejoined my buddies at the DKE house,” Gwin said. “It was sort of surreal … But I didn’t think wallowing in [Vietnam] was an important thing.”
For Yalies who saw the war zone, the life and concerns of college quickly faded to relative insignificance. The Vietnam War persists as one of the more politically charged events of modern American history. It has even become a factor in current presidential campaigns, though some wonder how much of an effect a war the United States left almost 30 years ago should have.
Decades later, as Gwin dealt with the cumulative effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which nearly drove him to the point of suicide, he reappraised his Yale experience.
“I was damaged goods,” Gwin said. “Nobody hates war more than the poor bastards who had to fight.”
Jacques Leslie ’68, who was in Vietnam as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, left the country with a different set of emotions but shared the same anti-war sentiment. He describes himself as having “the mark,” a peculiar phenomenon journalists use to denote an adrenaline-linked addiction to the war.
“It was such a big experience that nothing could ever touch it,” Leslie said. “When we were on vacation all we would do is wonder about what was going on in Vietnam. We were addicted.”
Though both Gwin and Leslie have moved on in their professional and personal lives, the Vietnam experience still defines much of who they are.
“This was a war where everything was laced with irony and nothing was as it seemed,” Leslie said. “The truth was buried beneath layers and layers.”
Vietnam’s continued effects on Yale and alumni, of course, are not limited to the American experience. Quang Van, a Yale professor of Southeast Asian studies, was born in Phan Thiet City, about 300 kilometers from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in South Vietnam. In 1975, when the war ended in defeat for the South Vietnamese, Van was 17 years old, one year away from military service.
“War was something we all had to anticipate,” Van said.
He recalled one Christmas during the war. As the Van family and friends gathered to celebrate, a rocket fell about 30 yards from the party. One of Van’s friends was hit by shrapnel and was paralyzed.
“It was part of life … The pain [of the war] was unthinkable, incredible pain,” Van said.
As a South Vietnamese and a Christian, Van and his family fled to the United States, where he has remained ever since.
“When people talk about the war in the U.S., people don’t talk about Vietnam,” Van said. “People talk about the pains the U.S. had to experience. When the topic is brought up we feel like we’re not part of the dialogue.”
Present in the subtext
Though the pains of the Vietnam experience have healed over time, politics, especially the ongoing presidential campaign, threatens continually to open old wounds.
New Haven is no stranger to hardened Vietnam frustrations. In the mid-1980s, New Haven established “Sister City” relations with Hue, a city in central Vietnam. Though the effort to establish the relationship eventually succeeded, the New Haven Board of Aldermen met with vocal protests from large numbers of concerned Vietnam veterans.
“There was a great debate, people traveled great distances to testify,” said Dick Lyons, who was a member of the Board of Aldermen at the time. “Some were saying that it was wrong to establish relations until all of the [prisoners of war] and [soldiers missing in action] were accounted for.”
On the current national stage, wrangling over the extent and meaning of the Vietnam-era military service of President George Bush ’68 and Sen. John Kerry ’66 dominates national headlines.
“Vietnam was a moment of humiliation for the U.S.; there is great power to a war that cost thousands of lives,” political science professor David Greenberg said. “Vietnam is very present in the subtext of American foreign policy and in the thinking of people who make the decisions.”
A war or a country
Despite lingering negative attitudes toward the war, major political actors are trying to argue the extent to which service actually confers legitimacy.
“Some want to think that this war earned them something, earned them a right to speak,” Greenberg, an expert on modern U.S. presidential elections, said. “Some ask if Bush has this authority, even as president.”
Though the current debate over Vietnam encompasses much larger issues of the direction of American foreign policy, many believe the reemergence of Vietnam in politics serves more localized and superficial goals.
“It’s all political,” Gwin, the soldier, said. “You heard similar arguments four years ago between Gore and Bush. Kerry just happens to have a few medals.”
Recent focus on the issue misses the point, Van said.
“Vietnam is a paradox,” Van said. “We want to see Vietnam as a war, but some say that we should see it as a country.”
Whatever the ultimate political motivations of continual emphasis on the subject, Vietnam remains an unfinished chapter of American history.
“It will never end until the whole generation dies,” Hubert Woodard, chairman of the Hue-New Haven sister cities program, predicted.
Van has a different interpretation: he believes that the trauma of the war should be incorporated into the history and consciousness of both countries and not simply swept under the rug. He quoted the first stanza of “The Tale of Kieu,” commonly known as the national epic poem of Vietnam. The poem is a metaphor for pain and suffering, but also for the human spirit, he said — it shows how those who have suffered are able to persevere. This attitude is a model for Vietnamese, Van said, and should also translate to people in the United States who experienced the war.
“A hundred years — in this life span on earth / talent and destiny are apt to feud. / You must go through a play of ebb and flow / and watch such things as make you sick at heart,” the poem reads. “Is it so strange that losses balance gains?”