Every Red-Blooded American Boy

Richard Smaby

My mother worshiped her 12 year older step-brother. She named me after him – Richard. He was still alive and in uniform the day she told him. He was flabbergasted. A year later he was no longer alive. He died flying 'the Hump,' as the Himalayas were called by the pilots who flew supplies to Chiang Kai-Shek’s army in China, who was fighting the Japanese in World War II. She shared stories about her brother with me – often. From her I learned about patriotism – "God, Country and Family, in that order." And yes, "Every red-blooded American boy must serve his country." She meant military service. She also taught me respect for the actions of others – "Don’t judge a man, until you have walked a mile in his shoes," a saying she attributed to the American Indian. She was my source of moral knowledge, patriotic and otherwise. My mother is where I started in my own journey to war.

So, when I went to off to college in 1959, I immediately signed up for Army ROTC, even though it wasn’t required at Yale, since it is a private college. By the time I completed my B.A. in 1963 I was married and the Vietnam War was under way. I received my commission as second lieutenant upon graduation. I did graduate studies for five years and by the time I went on active duty the Vietnam War was in high gear. As was the anti-war movement.

While I was raised as a patriot dedicated to serving my country to the extent of dying for it in war, my wife had a different background. She was inclined to pacifism. In fact, at the very beginning of our courtship she was brought up short, when I mentioned I was in ROTC. We debated the merits of the military and the need for war frequently. We never totally agreed, but she always saw us as a team and accepted our differences.

During my five years of graduate study I struggled with whether the Vietnam war was a just war.  Our debates about war and pacifism continued. I looked for guidance. I struggled with the sixth commandment – "Thou shalt not kill." My pastor refused to interpret this as a universal injunction against all killing, since it really refers to unlawful killing. So, was the killing in Vietnam unlawful? The assistant pastor, who had been on a ship bound for the invasion of Japan in 1945, told of his own conflicted moral sense about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He and thousands of other American servicemen would likely have died in the invasion. I was on my own morally – no authority would tell me what I should do. I read every book I could about the history of Vietnam and our involvement there, including The Pentagon Papers. We followed the news intently. We read about and viewed the horrible things happening there.

The soul searching was agonizing, but in the end it led me to work against our war in Vietnam. Sadly, I severely offended my mother, when we sent her a Mother’s Day card that simply said, "Peace."

My wife and I joined Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, an anti-war organization formed in 1965 by the National Council of Churches. Under its auspices I organized a seminar on the war. Each meeting was led by an invited speaker. I chose speakers to represent a spectrum of views on the war. A professor of Chinese studies sketched the historical enmity between China and Vietnam, but nonetheless supported the war as a way to contain communism. A machine gunner on a Huey helicopter shared his story of protecting himself and his buddies in the war– and by extension his country – and clearly viewed the debate about the war as an academic exercise. I hoped that the attendees at the seminar could make up their own minds about the war, as I had done. Local anti-war leaders were not pleased with this approach. For them the time for deliberation was over; it was time for taking action.

On February 6, 1968 my wife and I and our eight month old infant rode with our pastor from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to participate in a silent march and prayer vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and roughly 2500 others opposed to the war. The discipline of 2500 people marching to the Tomb in total silence and continuing their silence in prayer conveyed clearly that an idea can have great power. We then rode in the same bus as Dr. King to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to listen to his eloquent speech against the war, similar to the one he delivered at Riverside Church in New York. Two months later he was dead, assassinated.

Then came a decision point. I had finished my graduate studies and had orders to show up for Infantry Officers Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The theoretical had become real. My decision was to accept the orders – still hearing my mother's words that every red-blooded American boy must serve his country. I reasoned that if I refused to go, there would simply be another American boy carrying out my obligation. I was privileged. I attended top universities. I had received much from my country. All this increased my sense of obligation.

Then a second decision point. My orders for Vietnam were to take command of an interrogation battalion. By this time I had the rank of captain. My moral compass said this is not something I could do. I could have reasoned that I would rein in abuses in my command. But by then it was clear to me that I would not be capable of that.

My wife and I discussed the alternatives. We agreed that I would travel to Washington, D.C. prepared to refuse the orders. I spoke with the lieutenant colonel who cut the orders. I explained I could not follow the orders and gave him my reasons. He called in a captain who had had the same assignment earlier and who explained that it was not the way I was imagining. I made clear that I was not trying to avoid going to the war zone. I requested new orders assigning me to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam working at the village level and that I get training in the Vietnamese language. To my great relief he agreed to my request.

And then there was my brother, who was in the U. S. Air force, flying Caribou supply planes into Special Forces camps in the highlands among the Montagnards. The Army had a policy that no more than one family member would be assigned to the combat zone. When I arrived in Vietnam, he could come home. I argued to him that my job would be a lot safer than his, where the Viet Cong targeted his plane on his every mission – he had already lost friends who crashed on the supply runs. He argued that the minute I finished my tour he would be right back with another assignment. Neither of us could face using the policy to get out of the war zone. The unspoken thought in each of us was, "If my brother would die, I could have prevented it by taking his place." So, there we both were.

It was bittersweet. We managed to get leave together on a couple of occasions, once in Saigon and once on the beaches at Vung Tau. In Vung Tau we romped together, swam in the warm clear ocean waters and climbed on a beached shipwreck, reliving our shared childhood. But even there the war made itself felt – this infinite stretch of beautiful white sand of a formerly premier vacation destination was deserted except for us.

The war was hard on my brother. Losing friends grieved him, but what grieved him even more, if that is possible, was his next assignment – piloting a B-52 that bombed Hanoi. He said, "I felt dead inside, after that."

This was my path to war – a series of decisions, each one difficult and very personal. So, I did serve in Vietnam. My service there did not turn out as I expected. But that story has to do with truth in war. It will wait. Did my experience of the Vietnam War affect how I identify with my country? I lived through a tumultuous period of our history. I shared this time with people of diverse viewpoints that challenged and informed my own. The experiences, the people and the decisions I made strengthened my sense that we are all in this together. And, if I want a nation that values peace before war, I must be prepared to work for it.

"When we think of wars – whether it’s Vietnam or any other war – we think of it as a unitary subject … but there are millions of Vietnam Wars." - Tom Hagel, Vietnam Veteran - Stories from the Veterans History Project