Our Vietnam Veterans were called “Baby Killers”. Were they?

Karl Marlantes

Karl Marlantes fought in Vietnam, and came back to a divided America. In his book What It Is Like To Go To War he describes the reception he got:
“I was walking in uniform down M Street in our nation’s capital. I had been back perhaps a month. A group of young people, my age, began to follow me down the street on the opposite side, jeering, calling me names, chanting in unison. They were flying the flags of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

“I stood and looked at them across the chasm of that street, not knowing what to say or do. I tried to think of something that would allow me to make friends with them. I didn’t want to fight them too. I was sick of fighting. I wanted to come back home, to be understood, to be welcomed. I still see those flags, waving back and forth, insults in the cold wind, well-dressed people hurrying by, their heads down, eyes avoiding me, as the group continued to taunt and jeer me.

“I couldn’t get a date with any girl born north of the Mason-Dixon Line. There were signs at restaurants and bars saying “No military!” Two of my fellow lieutenants were murdered, gunned down from a passing car in their dress whites outside a hamburger joint on M Street. All this in our nation’s capital.

“Two months before I was discharged I boarded a train for New York at Union Station. Again I was in uniform, even though we’d had explicit instructions to avoid problems by not wearing our uniforms when around civilians. This put us in a bit of a bind. You could get half price on train and air fares, going standby, but only if you were in uniform, and we weren’t exactly paid like junior executives. I passed a nice-looking woman who looked up at me and quickly looked away. I sighed inwardly as I continued down the narrow aisle, too shy to sit in the empty seat next to her. I found a seat at the far end of the car and settled down to read but wished I were talking with her instead.
About five minutes later I saw her get up and come down the aisle. She was looking right at me, lips pressed tight. She stood in front of me and spit on me.
She walked back to her seat. I was trembling with shame and embarrassment, People hid behind newspapers. Some looked intently out dark windows that could only reflect their faces and the lighted interior of the car.

“I needed desperately to be accepted back in. I think I ended up assuming unconsciously that I must have done something wrong to have received all this rejection. To be sure, I had been engaged in dirty business. Somebody, usually the man, empties the garbage and turns the compost. But when he’s done, he comes back in the house, he washes his hands, and someone says thank you. War is society’s dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults. What I needed upon returning, but didn’t know it, was a bath.
“(I needed to…) bring my body back from the dead.
“That body had suffered. It was covered with scars from jungle rot. It had dysentery, diarrhea, and possibly a mild case of malaria. It had gone without fresh food for months at a time. It had lived on the knife-edge of fear; constantly jerked from an aching need for sleep with all the cruel refinement of the best secret police torturer. It had pumped adrenaline until it had become addicted to it. There were scars where hot metal had gone in, searing and surprising in its pain, and scars where a corpsman had dug most of it out. There were bits of metal still in it, some pushing against the skin, itching to get out. The eyeballs were scarred where tiny bits of hand grenade had embedded themselves. The inner ears rang with a constant high-pitched whine that ceased only in sleep, when the nightmares started.”
In his book, Karl describes the various moral situations he and others were in. After you read the book, you understand the horrible situations that war puts you into – which will be the topic of my next post. But as far as the “baby killers” description goes, that is not at all the impression I get from the book.

U.S. Soldiers

Karl does say that there is no such thing as a “surgical strike”. At one point he describes the Vietnam war as “napalming villages to stop Communism”.

It seems to me that any war you engage in is going to kill some civilians, including babies, no matter how much you try to avoid that outcome. In fact, the killing of conscripted soldiers in the enemy army should not be an occasion for happiness either, as Karl points out. It can be a sad necessity, but not something to be overjoyed about.

The Vietnam war, which seems so unnecessary now, was fought against an enemy that deserved to lose. For instance when the Communists were forced to retreat from the city of Hue, which they had captured for four weeks, mass graves of opponents were found. These victims had been tortured (some were buried alive.) The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum, including anyone friendly to American forces in the region.
In the neighboring country of Cambodia, the Communists under Pol Pot killed at least 1.7 million people.
If the U.S. had won in Vietnam, those 1.7 million plus people might be alive today.
This is not to say that the war was worth it. It’s just to say that it was unfair of some in the peace movement to paint our soldiers, who did try to do the right thing, as evil. If we had won that war, South Vietnam might be like South Korea – a economically flourishing Democracy where free thought and free speech are allowed.

Sources:
What It Is Like To Go To War – Karl Marlantes

(A caveat: Karl says that his friends did not report being spit at, so it may have been a fairly rare occurence.)

Napalmed By Accident
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11 thoughts on “Our Vietnam Veterans were called “Baby Killers”. Were they?

  1. Mr. Marlantes – I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service. Reading your story of what you went through, what you endured and ultimately found the strength to somehow survive – is nothing short of heroism. You were never given the credit that was deserved to you – You never asked for it, nor expected it, and I can only imagine that what you came home to must have been on a level of crushing grief that most people couldn’t possibly even imagine the pain of feeling… I feel so strongly in that that it’s the Vietnam Veterans who are God’s chosen Warriors – No soldier before you – or after you has ever endured what you all have. I want you to know that I honor YOU and appreciate YOU more than words can describe. God Bless You – and THANK YOU.

  2. I know to all the veterans that it is hard for you to leave your family and go fight. That is why I want to give a big thank-you to every single person who has or is serving. Not in just Vietnam. My grandfather served in The Vietnam War, and he doesn’t like talking anything about the war and time he was there. I can understand that, even though I really want him to tell me more, I will understand if he won’t. He is my biggest hero on earth!!! To all my secondary hero’s who spend or spent there time serving and fighting for our country, THANK YOU!!!

  3. Yes american soldiers are baby killers, rapest sadist you name it they did it all. American soldiers in My lai. That should sum up what american Vietnam vets did in Vietnam. Cut out tongues, hands feet cut open womens vaginas after raping them!! These men are not hero’s they are just soldiers with no morals following and doing the deeds of ruthless leaders who where desperatly trying to fight a war they had no clue how to tackle. After raping and killing babies and the elderly, defenseless people they expect to be labeled war hero’s! The reasons why they don’t like to talk about it because they know their actions are shameful they went beyond what their duty entails and killed for pure joy and sport, took out their frustration on innocent victims because they couldn’t tackle the NVA tactics. Disgraceful excuse for soldiers they are. The US had no buisness in Vietnam. They did more harm once they entered and left it in worse distruction, children are still born with deformities from agent orange! That’s a bloody war crime genocide of many civilians. And all for what was it worth it? Did communism stop? You want to tackle communism go to the big guns like Russia and china if that is the true concern. There is never an excuse to rape and militate women and children in any war! It’s very different from casualties in a cross fire or victims of bombs being dropped on them. The soldiers went out to intentional murder, rape, militate innocents who are defencless and not armed. No wonder these soldiers where treated like shit when they return what goes around comes around. Karma is a bitch! These men hide behind their uniform and bages from the blood of innocents, they may pretend to hold their head high but I hope guilty and disgrace is eating them alive they will go to their death knowing the deeds of evil they committed and thou some soldiers did not join in all the killings standing by and not doing anything is just the same. To the whistle blowers who exposed the truth now they are truely the deserving hero’s and they didn’t have to kill or rape to get their honors. I wish peace for all victims of war.

    1. First, to grant you a point, there was at least one woman raped and then killed by American soldiers at My Lai, and perhaps 300 people, men, women and children, killed, according to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/trenches/my_lai.html
      However it should be remembered that William Calley, who was in charge that day, was court-martialed.
      In other words, the massacre was considered by the American public and justice system to be a crime. (though there had been an initial coverup). Contrast this with the reaction of the North Vietnamese public to their soldiers crime of burying people alive. (I haven’t heard of any reaction. If they did have one, they would know better than to express it to their leaders).
      A few personal points:
      Yesterday, I was talking to an old guy who runs a bike shop, and he was the nicest person you might meet, he was telling me of a bike ride he did in Laos, Vietnam, China, etc. As an aside, it came out that he had fought in Vietnam. He also told me that on his bike ride, he found that the South Vietnamese are very friendly (but the Vietnamese from north of what used to be the DMZ – were noticeably more tense and less friendly) But he did not pour out a list of atrocities that his friends had committed during the war – probably because they didn’t commit any.
      In addition, a month ago I was talking to a father of a friend that I met walking on the local walking path, and he is also a really nice guy. After chatting about his relatives in Ireland and other topics, it turned out that he too, had been in some battles in Vietnam. He also did not pour out stories of atrocities.
      Kerry, our secretary of State, who did accuse his fellow vets of committing all sorts of atrocities, was challenged by the “Swift Boat vets” when he ran for president. Their website is still up, and you can read their book, if you are truly interested. There is no question that he lied about several important parts of his biography, for instance. If you don’t have time, then watch this one minute reply by them:

      Here is another very short video. In it, an American officer, David Hackworth, addresses the baby killers allegation – and note – he feels the Vietnam war wasted the lives of 58,000 soldiers in vain, and he blames the military, not the American public, for losing the war. He pulls no punches. That gives him more credibility on the “baby-killers” question:

      A good documentary series by Ken Burns has come out (as I write the episodes are being shown) and you can see it at: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/home/ It interviews soldiers and others on both sides of the conflict. Its a very sobering documentary. At the moment, I’ve just gotten as far as episode #2.
      You can see that it was not a war of baby killers.
      The Marlantes book does go into massacre at My Lai, and in fact, the book is mainly about soldier behavior under trying conditions. I’m sure the documentary goes into that as well.

    2. (Reply to Cin) Believe it or not, you do not know everything and the media does not always give an accurate depiction of what happens. What you’re speaking of is the 1% and it does not apply to the vast majority of soldiers. My grandfather served and he did none of those things. It sounds to me like you didn’t serve in the war. I don’t know how old you are. I don’t know if you didn’t serve because your family was affluent and circumvented the draft, or if your family fled the United States to avoid it. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t even know if you are an American. All I know is that you’re falsely accusing all american soldiers of this and that you’re wrong in doing so. You do not understand. As John F. Kennedy once said, “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” To superimpose those characteristics onto every soldier, including my grandfather, is wrong and ignorant. They served and did what you couldn’t. Think a little.

      1. nice reply thanks for stnding up for the Vietnam vets I believe the 1% thing you are talking about man so once again thanks Ringo

    3. Cin, you say that: “Yes american soldiers are baby killers, rapest sadist you name it they did it all. American soldiers in My lai. That should sum up what american Vietnam vets did in Vietnam. Cut out tongues, hands feet cut open womens vaginas after raping them!! After raping and killing babies and the elderly, defenseless people they expect to be labeled war hero’s!” LOL you are not eyes witness and further more no proof of evident regarding to every thing you accused American soldiers!!

      I don’t care much for Vietnamese Communist, not pro or con, I rather live away from them between an Ocean far.

      Cin, you said: “The US had no buisness in Vietnam.” Of course they do, with their Domino Theory since 1945, and the free world supported American soldiers, who fierce fought, and died on the line of duty to defend/save South Vietnam against the oppressors – North Vietnamese Communist

      Cin, you said: “American was desperately trying to fight a war they had no clue how to tackle. The US couldn’t tackle the NVA tactics. You want to tackle communism go to the big guns like Russia and china if that is the true concern.”

      Cin, you are Vietnamese, so you know this quote: “Rựu Mừng Không uống mà uống Rựu Phạt.”
      What I mean is: “American offered filet mignon steak dinner to North Vietnamese communist, they refused to eat it, instead they chose to each Russian’s oatmeal for the next 20 years.” LOL

      In the 70s China was like malnutrition, hunger tiger drooling for that piece of steak in which the American offered to Vietnam to better Vietnam and to make Vietnam great.

      History showed: Mr. Nixon visited China in 1972, instead of help Vietnam to contain China. He has better use China to contain Communist Vietnam. For better economy, the PRC was desirous of rich American ally in its increasing tense relationship with Russia and certainly welcomed the possibility of increase U.S. – China trade.

      1973 Nixon offered to North Vietnam communist 3.3 billion dollars to sign Peace Accord in Paris.
      With the condition “(1) American will withdraw within 6 month after the Peace Accord signed in 1973. (2) United Viet Nam with peace and honor without foreigner involve. (3) South Viet Nam is a separate state, and do not invade South Vietnam.”

      Read it for better yourself in understanding why I gave you that Vietnamese quote.

  4. War kills babies…and children…and women and men…young and old. Of course, then, Viet Nam vets killed babies. It’s probably why there’s so much PTSD!! I wouldn’t want to live with that!! The poor bastards who were drafted had no choice. Following orders IS a valid excuse. I blame the upper echelon and, of course, LBJ. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

  5. Today’s (April 30) “Wall Street Journal” “Saigon’s Fall Still Echoes Today” says that Kerry retracted his accusations vs US soldiers in an op-ed by Robert F Turner, who says: “Four decades ago this week, in what was then Saigon, I was trying to facilitate the evacuation of orphans as North Vietnam’s armed forces approached the city. I had left the U.S. Army after two tours in Vietnam and had returned to do what I could to help as America fled a war—a fight for freedom—that it had shamefully chosen to forfeit…Perhaps the cruelest myth was that—in the long-ago words of the current U.S. secretary of state while addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971—U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were regularly committing “war crimes” and behaving in a “fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.” When Tim Russert questioned him about these charges on “Meet the Press” on May 6, 2001, then-Sen. John Kerry dismissed them as “the words of an angry young man,” declaring that our soldiers in Vietnam “served as nobly, on the whole, as in any war.” But he didn’t apologize for defaming 2.7 million fellow veterans, and relatively few Americans heard his correction.”
    My (the blogger) opinion is that the army we had in Vietnam was one of draftees, they would rather have pursued peaceful careers, and admittedly, as in any large group, there were some bad types, but there were also very good men.
    I talked to a relative recently who almost served in Vietnam, I forget what consideration had him skipped over, and he was hugely relieved not to be there. If he had been called he would have gone. Several days later he was on an airplane going to some vacation spot in Asia, and as it passed above Vietnam, he told me he realized he could easily have been in a helicopter thousands of feet below. There were many reluctant citizen-soldiers, who had no desire to harm civilians in Vietnam or anywhere else.

  6. Thank you for your service men and women across the land. Rest in Peace Stephen Dale Stone. I love you dad.

  7. I personally think American Press & Media are traitors to USA. Their press focus on to sell their fiction stories by telling vast pointless untrue information just about anything they think they can sell.

    All American Press and media that I remember all are basically dangerous enemies to their country, to US president, and most of all to US soldiers.

    During Vietnam War, American Press & Media without bullet, their pen helped the Vietnamese communist defeated United States in Vietnam War. The American soldiers fight for freedom and injustice for people of South Vietnam, to be called North Vietnamese baby killers.

    American Press & Media’s pen skillfully turned 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam as pointless wrong war (dead soldiers don’t’ have a voice). Million Vietnamese people died in vain and lost their free will country to communist China (VN People don’t have a voice here). The return home of US Soldiers, who fought for injustice were received shameful as Vietnamese baby killers (the US soldiers don’t have a voice).

    It’s sadly American people read newspaper and believe what they read.

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