Vietnam: Thirty Years On
Mike Sulsona, a former Marine, called the other day, just back from his first trip to Vietnam since the war. He was excited because he surprised himself by liking it there this time and because he was pleased with the research he did for a play he wants to write about an Army tank driver. The tank driver, whom Sulsona did not know, was caught in an ambush between Kontum and Dak To just before the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Sulsona himself was in a Tet battle three years later, but it's the 1968 Tet that interests him now. Tet proved the Viet Cong could attack anytime, anywhere. Tet gave the Viet Cong control of the US Embassy in Saigon for a few precious hours. Tet, like a flash of lightning, illuminated the American peace movement and brought on demonstrations in city streets and on many college campuses. Tet drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Tet, paradoxically, was also a Viet Cong failure, because their fighters were soon routed and because the attack did not spur the spontaneous uprising against the South Vietnamese government and the Americans that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had hoped for. It took them seven more years to win the war.
Whether it is viewed as a country, an era or a war, Vietnam does not engage Sulsona politically, only personally. Was it a war for independence, a civil war, a Communist aggression, an insurrection against French colonialism in the first part and American imperialism in the second? Sulsona, originally a boy from Brooklyn and now a burly family man living on Staten Island, still isn't sure which it was and doesn't much care. What he does know is that, as the thirtieth anniversary of the war's end is marked--celebrated in Vietnam, briefly noted here in the losing country--the Vietnamese people have embraced him. Like most of the more than 200,000 American visitors each year, he found the Vietnamese genuinely friendly and determined to emulate the United States economically, if not politically.
Thirty years after the end of World War I in 1918 was already three years past the end of World War II. Thirty years after the end of World War II in 1945 was the end of the war in Vietnam when, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter pushed off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Thirty years later, in another war against both real insurgents and terror's phantoms, we can find some comfort in our increasing closeness, even friendship, with our former enemies. For Sulsona, his return journey was a revelation in terms of his personal acceptance. "I could hardly believe it," he said. "They not only treated me as a friend, they actually honored me as a former warrior."
The first time Sulsona was in Vietnam, as a Marine in Quang Nam province south of Danang thirty-four years ago, he left his legs there. When I met him not long after that, he was modestly dismissive of his loss as he practiced walking with his two new prosthetic legs. "There's really not that much to talk about," he had said then, smiling shyly. "We were walking on a patrol, and we ran into an ambush--about six, seven guys really got hurt. It was a battalion ambush." Sulsona stopped talking and looked down at where his real legs used to be, and then he looked back up, still smiling. "We called in two or three medevacs, and they got hit, so finally the last one came in and got us out." Characteristically, Sulsona did not mention the obvious, that he himself had been hit, but only that several helicopters coming to rescue his buddies and him had been brought down.
His return to Vietnam, Sulsona said, was not in search of the closure that many veterans seek. He has long since negotiated a peace agreement with his war, his disability, his abilities. Fifty-eight thousand of his comrades died trying to preserve Vietnam as two separate countries. Fifty times that many Vietnamese died--3 million soldiers and civilians, north and south--yet on April 30, 1975, Vietnam became one country. Sulsona considers he was caught in a trap between history and ideology. "The Vietnamese I knew then and the ones I met now," he said, "were good people. As for what happened, that was my job, that was the country, that was the time."
What Sulsona was searching for in Vietnam were details to fill out the story of Dwight Johnson, the Army tank driver who had been ambushed along Highway 14 midway between Kontum and Dak To in the Central Highlands. Johnson and the rest of his convoy were attacked at a point on Highway 14 where three hills overlook the road, providing perfect perches for the attackers. "With his tank immobilized," Sulsona told me, "Dwight Johnson climbed out and fought like hell." Armed with only a .45 pistol, Johnson killed several of the enemy. Returning to his tank, he found a submachine gun, came back outside and shot more Vietnamese. When he ran out of ammunition, he killed a Vietnamese with the stock of the gun. He carried a wounded soldier to safety and then rushed to his platoon sergeant's tank, from which he fired the main gun until it jammed. Again armed with only a .45 pistol, Johnson fought his way back to his own tank, which he climbed aboard. On top of the tank, he was fully exposed as he manned his tank's externally mounted .50 caliber machine gun, where he remained firing until, as the Army records later put it, "the situation was brought under control."
For his almost unbelievable valor and patriotic violence, Johnson won the Medal of Honor and lost, essentially, his mind. Out of the Army, Johnson couldn't find a job. Back in the Army as a recruiter--a living recruiting poster, actually, as an African-American Medal of Honor winner in Detroit--he went AWOL. In 1971, three years after his combat heroism, Johnson tried to hold up a liquor store and was shot dead by the owner.
Johnson's case became famous, and infamous, a war story other veterans recognized and shook their heads over. When Sulsona arrived at the site where Johnson's unit was ambushed, he found a war memorial the Vietnamese have erected to honor their own soldiers who fought a number of brutal battles in Kontum province. At the top of one of the hills overlooking Highway 14 is a monument, reached only by climbing 100 steps. These days Sulsona doesn't use his artificial legs anymore, because he finds they actually impede his movement, which is much more fluid with his wheelchair. A friend carried his chair up the steps while Sulsona, using his powerful arms as levers, pulled his 53-year-old torso upward. With the patience and persistence of a pilgrim, Sulsona repeated his hopping-hoisting motion 100 times until he reached the shrine his former enemies had constructed to their own bravery and patriotic violence.
Next to a huge urn at the center of the memorial, Sulsona placed a picture of Dwight Johnson and an American flag. Reclaiming his chair, he roamed around the summit for an hour, enjoying the peaceful vistas across the Central Highlands. The photograph and flag were undisturbed when Sulsona and his friend left. When I remarked on how hard it must have been to get himself to the top of that hill, Sulsona laughed. "Yeah, you might not get an Army guy to pull himself up all those steps," he said with his distinctive combination of pride and amusement. "Nope, it took a Marine. Ridiculous, isn't it?"
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon, Sulsona was rolling his chair down a crowded sidewalk before his return to New York. He almost collided with a Vietnamese man, also in a wheelchair, rolling in the opposite direction, trying to sell lottery tickets. Recognizing each other by their differentness from everyone else and similarity to each other, the two paraplegics stopped rolling. The Vietnam veteran and the Vietnamese veteran wheeled their chairs to face each other as they might once have done with weapons.
Neither knew many words in the other's language, but they spoke briefly, haltingly, enough for Sulsona to determine the other man had also been in the war. "Suddenly, we began laughing," Sulsona said. "Heavy belly laughs. I have no idea if he was in the South Vietnamese Army fighting for our side, or in the Viet Cong, or had come down with the North Vietnamese Army and stayed in the south after he was wounded. Does it make a difference? We were laughing and laughing and couldn't stop, couldn't help ourselves, just a couple of guys who got fucked up in the war. Now he's selling lottery tickets, and I'm trying to make a buck writing about a guy who got killed at home after he fought in the war. Neither of us could stop laughing. I mean, what was all that about, anyway?"