A vet can't come 'home' from war Vietnam: He went to Southeast Asia 31 years ago believing in the cause and returned to live a nightmare that has not ended.

November 02, 1997|By JOE KIRKUP

BARBARA was probably the softest woman who ever lived. Everything about her was quiet and gentle. Her eyes were delicate brown orbs set in tiny pillows of alabaster, open portals to the most vulnerable of souls. They were filled with tears.

I was leaving, next stop Vietnam. We sat in my car watching our last hour together slip miserably past. She couldn't stand to see me go, I couldn't stand to see her cry. I felt so desperate to take away her pain, to make some sense of what had to be done.

Typical male animal that I was, I resorted to logic. I explained the domino theory of international affairs, the threat of socialism, the obligation we had to help all people free themselves from the tyranny of communism.

"This is a democracy," I said. "We elect the best leaders we can, then we have to trust in their decisions."

About a year before that, 32 years ago, we now know from the release of his White House tapes that the best leader we were able to elect, Lyndon B. Johnson, was engaged in a related conversation with his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy.

Despite Bundy's attempts to cut in, Johnson went on and on about the total fallacy of sending troops to Vietnam. He groused angrily about how there was no way we could win a jungle war 10,000 miles from home. And about the heartbreak of sending thousands of young soldiers, fathers and husbands, brothers and sons, to die in a conflict of questionable purpose with almost no hope of success.

But Johnson was trapped, as he explained to Bundy, if he failed to engage in what he clearly believed to be a totally hopeless and massive bloodletting, the pointless sacrifice of what would ultimately be 58,000 American men. His political career would be in jeopardy, the Republicans would cast him as soft on defense in the next election, he might lose some votes.

Barbara's moistened and loving eyes watched me go; they read my letters about the deaths of my friends, about my tortured dreams of killing and the paralyzing fear that gripped me from dark to dawn.

When I returned, her eyes gazed sadly into my own, into the nightmare, into the price I had paid for Lyndon B. Johnson's popularity. Then she closed them to me forever, knowing that the young man she had loved was never coming home.

I know I'm still crazy. But this is what I want. I want to take Lyndon Johnson from his grave and bury him somewhere far away from this country I love and nearly died for.

If I can never come home, neither should he.

Joe Kirkup of Mystic, Conn., served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. This article first appeared in the Hartford Courant.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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