Out of 9 million U.S. veterans who served worldwide during the Vietnam War, 7 million are still living. It’s retired Maj. Gen. James Jackson’s job to make sure the country honors them during the war’s 50th anniversary.
In May 2015 Jackson was named director of the Defense Department’s Vietnam War Commemoration, which began in 2012 and ends in 2025. The main mission for Jackson’s organization, the former Army Ranger says, is to “find ways to offer thanks and appreciation” for the service of the surviving veterans and the families of all those who were on active duty from Nov. 1, 1955, when Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, was formed, to May 15, 1975, when the war’s last battle took place in Cambodia.
What role does your organization play in the commemoration? We’ve been recruiting commemorative partners across the country. We have about 9,000. Almost any organization can sign up. We ask them to conduct events twice a year to recognize the veterans. We can put teams on the ground to make their events better. We make it easier to thank veterans, and we do that with lapel pins and materials about the commemoration.
Some critics say the commemoration is overlooking the significance of the antiwar movement and the mistakes of military and government leaders. We’re not into refighting the war. We’re not into politicization of the war, and we’re not into rewriting history. We’re into recognition of those who served at the nation’s request and the families that supported them.
You were a junior at Kent State during the May 4, 1970, shootings of protesters by National Guardsmen and the burning of the ROTC building two days earlier. Your thoughts on those events? It was a real tragedy. There was really no reason for it. Kent State was not a radical campus. There was a series of bad decisions on both sides, and it led to a confrontation. A change in any one of those things might have prevented it. We don’t know.
What is the legacy of the Vietnam War? If you’re going to commit the nation’s young people to an event overseas, the country must get past the decisions made [by leaders] and support them. The country asked them to do this. Some were drafted and had no choice. When they came home, the country basically said: “We’re not interested in what you did. We don’t like what you did.” That’s what we’re trying to fix. Also, the families that remained behind had to deal with the loss of a spouse, for a time or potentially forever, and we had not built the structures to support those families. From a legacy perspective, that’s one thing that has been pretty well addressed.
Any other positive outcomes of the war? One is the National League of POW/MIA Families [formed in Washington on May 28, 1970], which grew out of the Vietnam experience with the missing in action and POW families. These people, with sheer collective horsepower, were able to change a government’s policies and ultimately affect how our people were treated in POW compounds. Additionally, their actions prompted legislation dealing with the recovery of those missing in action.
What impact did the Vietnam War experience have on the military? When the military came out of Vietnam, there was a clear indication it needed to change, adapt, reformat, reorganize and readdress its problems. The people who built the plans for this change were Vietnam veterans. The people who executed the changes were almost all Vietnam veterans. The work these people did to rebuild the military in the ’70s and ’80s made it into a force that is probably the best military ever formed. I don’t think Vietnam veterans get enough credit for that.
Any books about the war that stand out in your mind? There are two books. One is Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall. It covers the Vietnam experience under the French in Indochina and the transition into a U.S. conflict. It’s a very insightful book. The other is Fields of Fire, by Jim Webb, a great story about his time in Vietnam as a young Marine Corps officer. I found it extremely poignant and interesting from a small-unit action perspective.
What can individual citizens do to honor Vietnam vets during the commemoration? We want American citizens to thank veterans where they live and work—Hometown USA. We want them thanked by people who live next door, work with them, shop with them and know them. We encourage people to sit down and say, “Tell me about your time.” Help get the message out that there is a national commemoration. If they are interested in participating, they can go to our website, www.vietnamwar50th.com.
Residence: Arlington, Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s degree in aerospace technology, Kent State University, ROTC graduate,1971
Military service: Major assignments include battalion commander, 82nd Airborne Division; regiment commander, 75th Ranger Regiment; commanding general, Military District of Washington
During the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam is interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the war and asking for their reflections on that era in American history. You can read more of this interview at www.historynet.com/Vietnam.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2016 issue.