What a new president’s reflections on an old battle means to one Marine who was there.
On the morning of President Barak Obama’s inaguration I was busy at work preparing for a class, when I got an email from a Vietnam veteran friend who wrote excitedly: “It was great watching the inaugural with my students, and interesting to see him list a few of the battles to salute veterans and to include Khe Sanh. This was Barack saluting Peter and his fellow Marines at that siege. A great day today!”
Obama and Khe Sanh? My friend must have heard wrong. I immediately pulled up the text of the speech on the web. And there it was. President Obama reminding us our national greatness was something we had earned, and not something that had been given to us: “For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.”
It almost knocked me over.
In this historic inaugural speech, Khe Sanh, my Khe Sanh, was etched for the ages alongside the grand battles we all learn about in school!? Concord, with Paul Revere’s ride and the beginning of the American Revolution; Gettysburg, the battle with the greatest number of casualties and the turning point of the Civil War; and Normandy, one of the largest and most important amphibious landings in world history.
In front of 2 million on the National Mall, in one of the nation’s most historic moments, the new president’s inclusion of Khe Sanh with three legendary battles from the most important wars in American history, shook me, and had me rewinding time to exactly 41 years earlier when I was a 19- year-old Marine. I spent the night of January 20, 1968, on alert in the trench line of a heavy mortar battery at Khe Sanh combat base. We knew we were surrounded by many thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers. We thought a large-scale ground attack was imminent. What we did not know was that the longest, deadliest, most controversial and best-known fight of the Vietnam War was about to begin.
My first response was to email another former Marine and World War II veteran, my 85-year-old mother. Khe Sanh was a shared experience for us both. She at home, desperately worrying about the fate of her son; me there, wondering if my first battle would be my last—the same sad fate of my uncle, a Marine who died in his first battle at Iwo Jima. Obama’s words filled my mother with pride. I was so emotional, and probably visibly bursting with my own pride, that I found it difficult to stay focused as I taught my class a couple of hours later.
Why Khe Sanh? For the most part, Vietnam was an endless series of inconsequential firefights, ambushes, airstrikes, artillery attacks, booby traps and medevacs. These were typically fights-with-no-name; famous battles were scarce. A presidential acknowledgement of the sacrifices made on Operation Starlite, or at Dak To, Ia Drang or Con Thien would generate little recognition. Khe Sanh was different. It lasted for 11 weeks, long enough to make the covers of Newsweek and Life magazines. Khe Sanh was featured in the New York Times and Washington Post some 500 times before the end of the battle. Time magazine mentioned it at least once in every issue published during the siege. An Associated Press report dated February 2 described Khe Sanh as the “cork in the bottle holding back the communist tide.” CBS News featured Khe Sanh in almost half of its tele vision news programs during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Anchorman Walter Cronkite described Khe Sanh as “a microcosm of the whole war,” and in his CBS News Special Report from Vietnam aired February 27, Cronkite noted “Khe Sanh could well fall with a terrible loss of American lives, prestige, and morale.” Khe Sanh became such a focal point of the news media that the U.S. military command in Vietnam eventually limited the number of reporters permitted to visit the combat base to 10 at any one time.
Obama’s inaugural address was heard by tens of millions of people around the world. Although fleeting, probably millions caught his Khe Sanh reference, including Vietnam veterans, supporters of the war, those who opposed it and those who merely knew of it.
A Chicago Tribune editorial the next day concluded: “Obama as much as said: We’re past one generation’s long political divide over Vietnam. What we remember, what we honor, is the sacrifice of more than 58,000 American soldiers who died and tens of thousands who were wounded.” Since the wars in both Korea and Vietnam are but examples of the Cold War turned hot, I go one step further and say Obama’s salute to Khe Sanh veterans can be seen as paying tribute to all veterans who’ve served since World War II.
Further, many Vietnamese Americans were former soldiers, or have family ties to soldiers in the army of South Vietnam. It must be very satisfying for those Vietnam veterans to see this famous battle in their war for national independence associated with storied battles in our nation’s history, just as it is for American Vietnam War veterans.
Born in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy was sending American military advisers to Vietnam, Barack Obama is our first post-Vietnam-era president. Unlike George W. Bush and Dan Quayle, for him there is no issue about joining the reserves to avoid Vietnam service. Unlike Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, Obama received no student deferment. Unlike John Kerry, Obama cannot be accused of exaggerating his service record.
At the beginning of the fight for Khe Sanh, none of us there had any idea we were destined for the history books. Even when the battle was over, we had no reason to believe Khe Sanh would become a metaphor for Vietnam service. I’ve attended many Khe Sanh veteran reunions over the years and the focus of our personal conversations has always been about what we did at Khe Sanh—and what Khe Sanh did to us. I don’t recall ever discussing our contribution to our nation’s greatness, and certainly, any comparison to those other legendary battles never occurred to us. President Obama has ensured that this year it will be very different.
For four decades, the war in Vietnam has loomed large, casting a dark and divisive shadow over American politics. By comparing Khe Sanh with Concord, Gettysburg and Normandy, Obama has enshrined the service and sacrifices of Vietnam veterans into the most hallowed ground of our national history. As a Khe Sanh veteran, I am grateful, and in response I offer a salute to our new commander in chief.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.