The War in Vietnam: 50 Years Later

The following introduction was developed by Amit Shah, Managing Director of Green Comma, as a prologue to the chronological middle and high school text by Tom Barber. Tom is a veteran in education publishing and has been the publisher and editorial director for social studies at the nation’s leading US textbook publishing companies.

The material is being offered, free, as a teaching and discussion resource in middle, high school, and freshman college classrooms. WE REQUEST THAT CREDIT IS CITED FOR ANY REUSE.

All opinions are the writers‘ own.

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 This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

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PROLOGUE

In August 1967, Guy Ulinskas, age 23, was drafted by the US Army but elected to join the air force to stall or avoid going to Vietnam. The irony! He became one of the nine-plus million who served in Vietnam between 1964–1975. Guy was one of the 648, 500 draftees during that war. The escalation of the war in 1967 was pivotal. From 1967 to 1975, the war, fought by people like Guy, in their twenties, ground on. 58, 307 (the 2015 number at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC of all who died during and from injuries and illnesses attributed to the war) never made it back.

Guy Ulinskas, Binh Thuy, Vietnam, 1969–70. “Please note the spoon in my pocket for Spam or pineapple.”

2017 is the 50th anniversary. A few generations have grown up since then. The details of the war are receding in public memory. For Guy and the millions who served, it’s fresh and immediate. All wars are fought by young men (and now women) and commanded by old men (and now women). We are supposed to learn from history but rarely do.

On the 50th anniversary of Vietnam in 1967, Ken Burns and Public Broadcasting Service is airing a 10-part documentary starting September 17th, 2017. It is yet another effort to acknowledge the history of a divided time and of people like Guy Ulinskas who, as Tim O’Brien wrote in his masterpiece, The Things They Carried “. . . carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.”

After basic training and training in support services for the air force, Ulinskas arrived in Vietnam in February 1969 and stayed for 364 days. “They’d have to pay extra if it became 365,” he told me.

The place was Binh Thuy, in Phong Dinh province , on land reclaimed from the Bassac River in the middle of the Mekong Delta with the 632 Combat Support Group, a forward air control base for the Seventh Air Force. The base was right across from Cambodia with the river as the line of separation. This will give you an idea of the proximity to the North Vietnamese, Vietcong.

The guard post on the perimeter of Binh Thuy.. “ It’s the view as I walk out the door. How dismal it looks — it is. Notice the guard –disappeared, he’s asleep. The fence is our protection and you see the tiny fortification to the left. And there is the pond where they fish with their lines.”

Ulinskas was trained to “manage the airport” as he put it and he did till 1970. His first view of the base was “corrugated roofs and cockroaches. It was completely otherworldly.“ The Vietcong mortar fire riddled anything that wasn’t protected. One instance was an above-ground swimming pool that had been constructed for “recreation.” Perimeter guard duty was mandatory and unnerving. How many steps and leaps to jump from office room to bunker when the shelling started became a practiced afterthought.

“That was the reality. Catch-22 was the Bible. It was banned by the way. People smuggled copies in from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.” Guy, of course, was referring to Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, which is probably one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. In the novel, Yossarian, a World War II bombardier flying sorties over Italy is confronted with almost certain death and when he tries to plead for a mental health deferment, he is told that he’s perfectly sane as he understands the real possibility of death. This double-bind is what appealed to many who served in Vietnam.

Sergeant Ulinskas (standing) getting ready for perimeter duty. “ Notice how happy we look?”

The first six months or so, Ulinskas remembers as being the time he was getting adjusted to this uncertain life and then the next six months became what many brought back with them after the war. “. . . Nothing happened. Every day you thought was going to be the day of the attack and your last day.

You got more and more apprehensive.” The tension created enormous psychological pressure with physical repercussions.

And so, Sergeant Guy Ulinskas finished his tour and came home “sixty or seventy pounds lighter at 155 pounds and a 30-inch waist” to a country riven with division over the war.

It’s been fifty years and the ways of the world haven’t changed much. But people like Guy have. And through them I have learned that no matter what, “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior . . .. “ ( Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried).

So, go and read the chronological short history of the war in Vietnam, complete with inquiry-based assessments.

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