A Vietnam Grunt Looks at Iraq

It is as if I am in a nightmare that never ends. The nightmare is about Vietnam, but it is also about Iraq and Afghanistan. I seem to be in a time warp, and over and over every day and night I see not Iraq, but Vietnam. I see the same kids dying the same way all over again. I see the distance between the reality of the war and the American people. I hear the same lies. I see the same callous disregard for the troops in the midst of the battles. It is not a nightmare I experience; it is terribly real.

In Vietnam, the Marine grunt lived a life of constant deprivation. We had shoddy equipment, little food, no shelter, and unrelenting demands. We carried a poncho and a half blanket. We slept on the ground, carried a little food, and hoped we could find water, and only every few months did we get the chance to shower.

I once was assigned by a newspaper to interview James Webb, then the undersecretary of the Navy. Webb had been a Marine in Vietnam. We joked about the uniform, Jungle Utilities, we wore in the field. We were issued one pair. After several months, the thin material of the uniform became saturated with our own sweat, oils, and a variety of other excretions. It was if we had soaked the uniform in oil. The joke was that, since we were never given a change of clothing or a chance to launder what we had, we just got an oil change. It was funny as we sat in Webb’s comfortable office, but it really was not very funny in Vietnam.

The uniform was the least of the problems. I carried a pack that had been first issued to other Marines in the Second World War. Sort of a tradition, I suppose. The pack was old and frayed and only minimally useful. We carried M-16s but had only two magazines to hold the ammunition because there were no more to issue to the grunts. That meant that in a firefight we had to reload the magazines from little cardboard boxes of ammunition we carried in the World War Two packs.

The cardboard boxes would deteriorate in the clammy jungle, and the rounds would be loose in the bottom of the pack. So we had to take the pack off, fumble around for the rounds in the bottom, and try to load the magazine under fire. That is not an ideal situation when someone is trying to kill you. That someone trying to kill me was a North Vietnamese soldier or Viet Cong guerilla who had better equipment than I did.

In our distant outposts far from the headquarters, where they lived with hot meals and showers and clean clothes, we lived a most primitive existence. We were always under the threat of imminent demise. We had only rudimentary shelter. We were always close to complete exhaustion, and we relied largely on just hope and a little luck to get us the hell out of there someday.

We got our water from streams, or little concrete cisterns the Vietnamese villagers kept outside their straw-and-grass hooches. There were always worms and a variety of insects floating around in the water. It was water, however.

Once during the monsoon season when we were very, very, far out, we ran out of food. Helicopters were not flying in that weather, so they sent a tank to re-supply us. The tank forgot the food and delivered ammunition instead. A little cross-communication mix-up. We sat in holes with water up to our knees in a constant downpour of unimaginable ferocity, the little cardboard boxes of ammunition falling apart in the rain, and waited for an attack or starvation.

We had no communication with the outside world. We did not know about the protests against the war, we did not know how many people we were losing, we did not know of the Tet Offensive until we became caught up in it. We knew only that every day we wanted to live to the next.

We had no body armor; we had no armor of any sort. We had a steel helmet that we wore in the oppressive heat, which raised the body temperature to triple digits. We had boots that fell apart in the humidity so that there was not much left but the laces. We had tears and holes in our filthy Jungle Utilities, and we stank, I am quite sure, very badly. However, we had to remain clean-shaven, with a proper haircut.

That was a very long time ago, but for most of us who were there – those who did the terrible work of the grunt – it is still now. It is an experience impossible to shake however hard we try. I learned of the lies the government told of our circumstances and our glorious success only after I returned from combat to a hospital in the States. That is when I finally understood fully the hopeless futility of our lives, as cheap as they were, in Vietnam. We were not heroes by any measure; we were fools.

Now I see it happening all over again. The lies from Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, all of them.

The troops in Iraq have no body armor. The troops have no armor for their vehicles. Rumsfeld signs letters of condolence with an autopen. Bush tells us repeatedly of our success. He said our mission was accomplished. Can it be? How can it be? How can it happen again? Why doesn’t someone tell the truth?

I feel like screaming, but I am too far out in the jungle for anybody to notice. I dream and I despair.

Morgan Strong is a journalist who served in Vietnam as a Marine grunt from 1966-68.