This book ‘To Bear Any Burden’ by Al Santoli, is subtitled ‘The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath In the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians’ and that’s exactly what it is: a series of accounts, descriptions and narratives from people who actually experienced on the ground the horrors of that war. There is no fiction or, as is the fashion these days, ‘fictionalised accounts of actual fact’. The facts are allowed to speak for themselves. And speak they do.
There had been some American involvement in South East Asia from the time the French pulled out in 1954, but real involvement began in 1960 when North Vietnam imposed universal military conscription and Eisenhower increased the number of military advisors to 685. From then on there was no looking back until the ignominious scramble to escape by helicopter from the roofs of Saigon in 1975.
I have lived my life without war and at the same time my mind has been heavily marked by war. This was my first war. I remember having vehement arguments with a friend of mine in school in 1966 over the right of America to be in Vietnam at all. He was full of the ‘Domino Theory’. I wasn’t. Had I been an American youngster I would most probably have been part of their anti-war movement, though given the peculiarities of my sense of duty I also probably would have gone to the jungles as my country required. Of course Vietnam had already experienced about a 1000 years of war before the Yanks arrived, as this book reminds us, but American involvement changed everything: the whole idea of what ‘war’ is underwent a profound recasting. They had the atom bomb, and had used it before, and so the threat was always hovering in the background. They had defoliant and carpet bombing. They had seemingly inexaustable resources. But … they were in someone else’s country and the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army knew it was only a matter of time that this alone would defeat them. And of course the growth of the anti-war sentiment back home steadily eroded whatever ‘idealism’ was there initially. Now when I follow the Afghan war from the comfort of my living-room couch it all seems so familiar.
All comments by me (and others who have enjoyed a lifetime of peace) have to be hackneyed and unoriginal on this matter. What this book does is remind us, in the words of those who suffered, how much our ‘hindsight history’ was a raw lived-in experience for them at the time. There are first-hand accounts in this book from every type of participant: American soldiers of all ranks, advisors, Army wives, civilians, Viet Cong… Here’s a excerpt from Frank McCarthy’s account of how things went when he got home to California in March 1967:
“… I was spit on. This gang of kids walking behind me threw peanuts at me. I went into a bar and phoned my brother. I almost didn’t make it out of there… they wanted to kick my ass. Calling, ‘You kill any women? You kill any kids?’ … … We went out to a dance that night. All I had was my Class A uniform. And boy, it was such a shock. People looking at me like, ‘You scum.’ They’d walk by and spit on the ground. And I had this tremendous feeling that I had done something wrong. It was like I wasn’t supposed to have survived.”
[Al Saltoli was born in Cleveland and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division, receiving three purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valour]