Front-row view of Tet offensive A Vietnam veteran recalls a turning point in the war

January 25, 1998|By Michael R. Levene

A movie poster might have called it "a front row seat to history."

For years, what impressed me about my "front row" view as the Tet offensive began 30 years ago this Friday (I was on guard duty that night) was the surrealistic feeling that I was, literally, nothing more than a spectator. The orange billows and rumbles of the exploding shells had nothing to do with me, it seemed, and would vanish when I turned off the set or left to go to the concession stand.

A year earlier, I had been in college. A year later, I was back in college. That night, I was at the Long Binh Army base about 20 miles northeast of Saigon and was assigned to guard duty. I thought that meant nothing more than trying to stay awake from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in a sandbagged bunker with three other unhappy young men. I was wrong.

The first clue that it was not to be an ordinary night came when the sergeant of the guard arrived for the customary briefing shortly after we had gone on duty. He was accompanied by a colonel, and even with my draftee's ignorance of military protocol, I knew that was an unusual duty for such a high-ranking officer.

The colonel, obviously fresh from a trip to the officers' club bar, determined that as a private first-class I outranked my fellow guards. With an arm around my shoulder, perhaps to heighten the drama, he told me in hushed tones to be extra alert because "we expect the balloon to go up tonight."

I was suitably impressed when "the balloon" did go up a few hours later and I was watching the Air Force base at nearby Bien Hoa being shelled. I had no idea at the time what the significance of the attack was, however, and only a vague idea until well after I returned to the United States seven months later.

We were close to the war geographically but not nearly as well informed about it as people back home who read the the newspaper or watched Walter Cronkite.

Most of us were draftees, and the political and social turmoil of the time barely touched us. We were on duty 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and we had no privacy. The scant time we took to think about anything beyond our immediate circumstances was devoted to the one thing that mattered more than anything else: the number of days before each of us would be going home.

That was true even through the King and Kennedy assassinations, even as the anti-war protests built toward the chaos of the Democrats' Chicago convention, and even as the impact of Tet became more apparent.

We soldiers must have had conflicting opinions about politics and the war, but I cannot recall that we ever discussed them.

So, although I had a front-row seat, it was accompanied by only the slightest understanding of the importance of what I saw from that seat.

What impresses me 30 years later about the night Tet began is the "history" part of "front row seat to history." The series of battles that was Tet, although not a military defeat for the United States, planted doubts in the minds of many Americans and proved to be a turning point in the war.

Even so, to most Americans under age 40, Tet is likely to be little more than a page in a history book or a topic for rumination by graying members of an older generation.

The famous dates of World War II, my father's war, occupy a similar place in my mind. I try to remember that for those a generation younger than I am, Tet has no more personal meaning than, for example, D-Day has for me.

Thirty years have passed since Tet, and more than 20 have passed since the war ended. Not only that, the most famous memorial to the dead of that war, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, is 15 years old, as sure a sign as any that the war has passed into history.

The Vietnam War is still a sporadic topic of political rhetoric, usually in an admonitory way: "No more Vietnams," "the lessons of Vietnam." It is no longer on our heels, however, no longer visible over our shoulders at a glance. Rather, it has receded around a bend in the road, to be seen only by those willing to retrace their steps and look back around that bend.

But this is no lament, and certainly not nostalgia. I remember fondly - and more vividly than I remember many subsequent acquaintances from classrooms and work places - the soldiers who were on guard duty with me that night, the others I served with and the Vietnamese I got to know. I have never looked closely at the names on the wall in Washington for fear of seeing a familiar name. Mostly, though, I remember boredom, punctuated by danger, and a year of my life slipping away.

So let Tet fade on the pages of the history books. And when it is hauled out of mothballs for its 40th and 50th anniversaries, let there be no battles of the late 1990s, the 2000s or the 2010s to commemorate along with it.

Michael R. Levene is a copy editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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