Except for death, it would be much different from Vietnam

Joe Nawrozki

January 14, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki

SOME THINGS are different now, in this tense winter of our discontent. Oil, a new world order, Saddam Hussein, a plundered country, national pride -- they've all been mentioned from on high as the reasons or justification for our being on the brink of war in the Middle East.

There are no communist boogeymen like those in the jungles of Southeast Asia 25 years ago. No domino theory, no winning of hearts and minds, no search and destroy, no Doors or Wilson Pickett screeching into the black night, just to take off the edge.

Now, the kids in their "kitty litter" camouflage suits bop along the sand to Vanilla Ice, M. C. Hammer or Trixter -- and await destiny.

Even before hostilities might start in the Persian Gulf, support groups have formed around military installations in the U.S., and families and friends can meet and share deep concerns, unlike during Vietnam.

Our 400,000 men and woman on the ground in Saudi Arabia can be seen on the 6 o'clock news peering down the sights of their M-16s, riding tanks, drinking designer water and eating Meals Ready to Eat with a liberal splash of good ol' Louisiana hot sauce. Many in the front-line, grunt outfits say this waiting business has become unbearable in a desert filled with scorpions and disorienting sandstorms.

Isn't it about time we kick some ass, they ask?

If they only knew.

On the home front, people are not so certain what's right and wrong, what is truth and what isn't. They have been told of the potential of chemical, biological and massive artillery and tank warfare. The U.S. has absolute air superiority, and that would make the strategic difference in the first weeks of combat, the generals boast.

Both sides have these dandy airborne fuel explosives, heavy bombs dropped by parachute that disperse fine fuel mists that are detonated just above ground level. For hundreds of yards over troop concentrations, every atom of oxygen is sucked from the atmosphere. Imploded human lungs. Everything standing leveled. Perfect weapon for an imperfect world.

And there has been talk by the U.S. command group in the Middle East that -- just in the event hostilities begin -- the American Air Force could detonate a nuclear device high over Iraq that would create an electromagnetic pulse over the area and knock out all Iraqi communications. Other concerns, like radioactive contamination, are not public knowledge.

In Vietnam, men faced weapons like the "Bouncing Betty" land mine that exploded at crotch level and "Toe Poppers" that would shatter a foot, neither designed by accident. There were punji sticks, crafty enemy snipers, bamboo vipers that could kill you in five steps, diseases that drained your body, ambushes and a spooky, tropical climate that could rot your boots and your soul.

Doctors and nurses there toiled on a bloody assembly line, a maddening cascade of young Americans. After all of it, there came Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and a black granite wall off Constitution Avenue in Washington bearing more than 58,000 names.

But 1991, in many ways, will be different if war breaks out. The troops who went to Southeast Asia alone came home alone, dead or alive. The men and women who are in the Middle East went as complete units for the most part, with support at home and a dozen resolutions in the United Nations.

They have tons of mail -- the Kiwanis Clubs, third-graders from Springer, N.M., veterans groups all kicking in for the cause. There are no draftees, only professional soldiers.

Some things, sadly enough, will not change despite the years, the geography, the honorable intentions.

Military families will suddenly cling to every front page and newscast.

Parents will make a daily routine of dusting off the framed photo of their son or daughter, there on the mantel piece. The father, maybe retired, will walk to the mail box every morning holding the letter written by his wife to their son the paratrooper, their daughter the military policewoman.

Neighbors will become closer to the families, or more distant. In case something happens, it might be easier for some to peek from behind Venetian blinds.

And the sight that every wife, parent, brother or sister dreaded will reappear in America's villages and cities.

The military sedan.

Olive drab. It will move slowly down the side streets, dusty roads and boulevards bearing the news that Lance Corporal Martinez, Captain Scoggins, Sergeant Chang, PFC Rossi has been killed. The notification officer and chaplain will knock on the door, the family member will open it and the breath will go from them as they gaze into the uncomfortable eyes of the messenger of death.

The survivors will be told their son or daughter died honorably, in combat for their country, and insurance benefits will be forthcoming and the funeral will be handled, if they like, by the military.

We're very sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Martinez, Scoggins, Chang and Rossi.

Joe Nawrozki, a member of The Evening Sun staff, served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army combat correspondent in 1966 and 1967.

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