On the way back from the 6th grade class trip, I saw our bus driver’s reflection in the rearview mirror, and in that reflection, I saw the word on his hat: Vietnam. This got me thinking about how horribly many people treated the soldiers returning from over there 30-odd years ago. It also got me thinking about why they treated them so horribly.
Vietnam was a different kind of war from anything that the American general public was used to. Our reasons for fighting World War I and World War II seemed very clear to most people. In addition, the people we were fighting tended to fight according to the “European” rules of engagement that we were used to. Both sides understood that it was about taking out the ball bearing plant, or the refinery, or all the bridges across a certain river so that the other side couldn’t fight anymore. Despite the fact that there was always collateral damage, the battles and the bombings were generally always about the people in uniforms and the supply lines to them. Both sides understood the difference between combatants and civilians. Both sides had a minimum age for combatants, and would never send a child into battle.
And when our soldiers came back from those two wars, they were treated like heroes.
Vietnam was much less clear. Not only was the average person not really sure what we were doing there, but we were fighting an enemy that didn’t follow our rules of engagement. When that last ball bearing plant, refinery, or bridge had been destroyed, they would send children, people we would consider innocent noncombatants, in to attack us, or use them as decoys.
But that could only happen so many times before we caught on, and regretfully changed our rules of engagement to match theirs. Not that we’d send our children into battle, but we would shoot at theirs. And not fully understanding what the other side was doing, many of us at home naively referred to our soldiers serving over there as “baby killers.” Unlike the heroic return we gave to our soldiers from WWI and WWII, we treated our soldiers from Vietnam like pariahs. They were so often spat at by people that many of them refused to wear their uniforms in public.
It’s been almost 30 years now, and I’d like to think that we’ve all grown up. I’d like to think that we understand just what a complicated situation Vietnam was. I’d like to think that we understand just what hellish conditions our soldiers over there often worked under, and that they weren’t happy about having to shoot at children carrying bombs.
The fact that our driver, and many others, could wear a hat that said “Vietnam” in public, shows that things have indeed changed, and that we quietly recognize them as heroes, even though they never got their parade.
I’d like to say that I stopped to thank our driver, not for the ride, but for serving, but I didn’t think about that until much later. But the next time I see someone with one of those hats on, I will.