Definition #165 Vietnam War

John Steinbeck in helicopter

What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon

by Walter McDonald

So what do you want? he growled inside the chopper,
strapping me roughly to the stretcher
as if I were already dead. “Jesus,” I swore,
delirious with pain, touching the hot mush of my legs.
“To see my wife. Go home, play with my kids,

help them grow up. You know.” His camouflaged face
was granite, a colonel or sergeant who’d seen it all.
He wore a parka in the rain, a stubby stale cigar
bit tight between his teeth, a nicked machete
like a scythe strapped to his back. He raised a fist

and held the chopper. He wore a gold wrist watch
with a bold sweep-second hand. The pilot glanced back,
stared, and looked away. Bored, the old man asked,
Then what? his cigar bobbing. I swallowed morphine
and choked, “More time. To think, plant trees,

teach my kids to fish and catch a ball.”
Yeah? he said, sucking the cigar, thinner
than he seemed at first. Through a torrent of rain,
I saw the jungle closing over me like night.
“And travel,” I said, desperate, “to see the world.

That’s it, safe trips with loved ones. Long years
to do whatever. Make something of my life. Make love,
not war.” I couldn’t believe it, wisecracking clichés,
about to die. He didn’t smile, but nodded. So?
What then? “What then? Listen, that’s enough,

isn’t that enough?” His cigar puffed
into flame, he sucked and blew four perfect rings
which floated through the door and suddenly
dissolved. Without a word, he leaned and touched
my bloody stumps, unbuckled the stretcher straps

and tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.
And I sat up today in bed, stiff-legged, out of breath,
an old man with a room of pictures of children
who’ve moved away, and a woman a little like my wife
but twice her age, still sleeping in my bed.

“What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon” by Walter McDonald from Counting Survivors. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission.

The last United States combat troops left Vietnam on this date in 1973. Troop strength in the country had peaked at over half a million soldiers in 1969, which was also the year when war protests at home were reaching their highest levels. In the early 1970s, Nixon began to withdraw troops to aid the transfer of the responsibility over to South Vietnam. At the same time, he increased U.S. bombing of the North and expanded American troops into Cambodia and Laos to try to cut off supply lines. In January 1973, the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris. Although this agreement ended the United States’ direct involvement in the war, the cease-fire didn’t hold; within weeks, it was broken by North Vietnam, and the war was back in full force by 1974.

The war was so unpopular, and the anti-war protests so widespread, that returning soldiers were advised to change into civilian clothes before getting off the plane, for their own safety. One soldier, Howard Kern, blamed the public hostility on the media for focusing on the negative. “[They] showed the bad things the military was doing over there and the body counts,” he recalled. “A lot of combat troops would give their C rations to Vietnamese children, but you never saw anything about that — you never saw all the good that GIs did over there.”

After the U.S. ground forces withdrew, 7,000 civilian personnel remained in Saigon to help South Vietnam with the war effort. The last Americans were evacuated in 1975, when Saigon fell to the communists.


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