--Interview: Lt. Col. John K.
Interview with TEACHER
VN. This is not well edited, nor is it Gospel. It is just my
opinions on the war
in response to a student who asked good questions for
his research paper.
ended up taking second place."
with John Swensson, Lt. Col. U.S. Army, (Ret.)
by Paul Cwick, EWRT 1A (circa 1992)
Vietnam War. Even now, after all these years, the mere mention
the deepest emotional reactions in those who remember
it. Perhaps no other
conflict in the twentieth century has so sharply divided
a nation or has created
lasting sentiments of such profound bitterness. Not
since the Civil War has
America found itself so violently torn asunder by a
conflict. Even now, people are
still trying to assess the full impact of the war and
its aftereffects, and to put it
into an historical perspective. If we were to look at it
from a purely objective
viewpoint, such an assessment would be easy; we know
when this happened or
where that happened, and this took place because of that
condition and so forth.
But to more fully understand what the war really meant
to the people involved,
we must take into account the thoughts and feelings of
those who experienced it
first-hand: the men who were sent overseas to a distant
country to fight an
unpopular war, the men who had to do the actual dirty
work that so many others
opposed. For too long, these men have had to keep
silent, as they felt compelled
to keep their involvement In Vietnam a secret from their
recently have they begun to speak openly about it. The
thoughts, feelings and
recollections of these men hold file key to a better
understanding of the impact
that the war had on the individual human being.
Swensson is a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the United States
which he served from the age of seventeen. He is a
graduate of West Point
Military Academy. He served two tours of duty in
Vietnam: in January, 1966, he
went over with the 25th division and returned in May of
1968. He has worked for
General Westmoreland and General Abrams, among others.
He is currently an
instructor of English writing and military history at De
Were you the only member of your family in the service, or did
brothers or sisters
in the service?
No, my father was in the service, and I grew up in the Army.
And I never had
any question but that I wanted to go to West Point. So,
that was how I ended up
in Vietnam. When I was a sophomore, my father was an
advisor in Vietnam, a
headquarters logistics advisor, in '62 or '63. We really
didn't know much about
Vietnam. When I was a senior, in about February of 1965,
I had lunch with
General Nguyen Khanh, the deposed premier of South
Vietnam. We were sitting
up in the poop deck, up over the Corps of Cadets. He
looked out and he said to
me, "All of the members of your class, all those
cadets will serve in Vietnam.'
And I thought he was nuts. But he was right.
Were your friends and family supportive when you went
Early in '66,
early in the war, when I first went over, we were making
"Camelot" contribution. John F. Kennedy. I was
a Private in 1961, standing there,
freezing, at the inaugural ceremony of John F. Kennedy,
when he said, "Ask not
what your country can do for you; ask what you can do
country." So, we
were well-motivated. We were over for God, Mom, apple
kill-the-communists-for-Christ. I mean, it was a
crusade. There were a lot of
idealistic reasons. We were stopping Communism, we
believed in the "Domino
Theory"-that if we didn't stop the Communists
there, Southeast Asia would fall.
So, early in the war, people went for idealistic
reasons. And we were sure that
our cause was right, and we were sure, based on our
mythology, that we would
prevail. And we ended up taking second place. Although
there is some argument
that there were some positive things that came out of
it... I think I accept that
we..took second place.
went overseas for the first time, what were your thoughts?
was real simple. We were on the boat from Hawaii to Vietnam,
and I had forty-two, forty-three soldiers, and I
wondered, as Henry Fleming does
in THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE how I would do under fire.
But I was not so
concerned for myself, I was fairly confident about that. Oh,
there were questions.
I mean, I had a sergeant who'd been in Korea, and we'd
ask him, "What's
combat like?" because he was the only guy who'd
been there. But my concern
was to keep my troops alive. So, I remember going over
in the boat. That was a
major concern. We were doing training. And I had been
to ranger school, which
was a nine-week Army school, in which I'd been leading
patrols. And that
leadership experience of being out, leading patrols
really was that stood me in
good stead. But I won't tell you I was very confident
going over. I mean. there's
this big question; "How am I going to do?"
Not as an individual soldier under fire,
but "How am I going to do as a platoon leader? Am
I going to be able to lead my
troops? And keep them safe?'
Were you in combat?
The first six months of my tour in 1966, 1 was an infantry
leader, engaged in close combat. We were living over
the Cu Chi tunnel complex,
although we didn't know it. Even when we left (and I
would guess the 25th
division pulled out in '72 or '73), we didn't
understand the full extent of that
tunnel complex. So. we moved in on top or it, and we
going primarily against the
local-force VC (Viet Cong). But they'd been around for
quite a while and you
didn't see them very often. You got sniped at a lot.
You had a lot of booby-traps.
We had some fire-fights, we had some contact.
were you over there, altogether?
the first time. Because halfway through my tour, I moved up to
civil affairs officer. and worked for General Fred Weyand, who
got four stars and became chief-of-staff of the Army.
Fred Weyand was one of
two senior generals. along with Lew Walt of the Marine
Corps who in my opinion
were the smartest two guys there were in terms or
understanding what was
going on the ground. But they were not successful in
Westmoreland over to their point of view: that we
should take the American
troops and put them in the populated areas. rather than
running around the
woods, getting our butt blown off every day. So ...we
lost in Vietnam because of
major errors that the military made. Yes. our hands
were tied: yes, there were
proscriptions (prohibitions, things we couldn't do). We
couldn't invade North
Vietnam. We had a certain troop ceiling that we could
never go over. But do I
believe the military got beat by the press and the
politicians? No, I think General
Westmoreland's big war theory of taking our U.S. forces
and setting them out in
the jungles and the woods and attempting to attract the
VC main force and the
NVA (North Vietnamese Army) into set-piece battles was
a great waste of assets.
That the war really was for the peoples' hearts and
minds. so that's where the
troops should have been. And Fred Weyand understood
that. Lew Walt
understood that. But General Westmoreland didn't
understand that. I could not
tell you. with such great prescience, when I was a
young officer, the mistakes we
were making. I do remember, though. as a second
one-on-one with General Weyand and saying you know, 'In
my mind, we're doing
this wrong; we've got to put more effort with the
people'. Because I took my
platoon, and we'd go through the woods, and we'd get
blown up, and then we'd
go back next week, go through the same woods and get
blown up again. And I
didn't see that we were making any progress. And who
the Hell cared about the
woods, anyhow? Those were just trees. And Fred Weyand
understood that, and
Fred took and put nine maneuver battalions out in
populated areas for about a
six-month period, and Jesus, it opened up all the
roads, the rice farmers could go
out and harvest the rice, the VC couldn't come into the
villages at night.
Unfortunately, William C. Westmoreland...was not
brought up to understand
counter-insurgencies...sadly, he was very much a big
politician, he wanted good
press, but there, was no substance there.
How do you feel the media covered the war? Do you feel they
accurate picture of it?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. No question about that. It starts back with
heroes, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, in the early
'60's, when they were
reporting, based on what they were hearing from John
Paul Vann, among
others. They were reporting the problems accurately.
And that was going
against the line that the ambassador and General Harkins were
feeding back to
the Pentagon and back to the White House. It got so bad
that John F. Kennedy
(who was really an enlightened leader, if you look at
his prosecution or the war)
asked the editor of The New York Times to kick
Halberstam out of the country.
But Halberstam was telling it just like it was. And the
great book that Sheehan
wrote, A BRIGHT SHINING LIE was based on the
story of John Paul Vann. They
just weren't saying what Washington wanted them to say.
And those guys were
terribly courageous. I've never had a problem with the
press. And I worked with
the press. in one job. As civil-affairs officer, I took
a lot of newspaper reporters
and photographers around. Yeah, the press was fine.
you feel the current motion pictures about Vietnam compare
"Platoon" is the most real, although it is allegory.
You didn't have all
that good and all that evil all in one place, all in
such a short period of time. So,
in fact, it was allegory: it is the meta-story. It is
the young Charlie Sheen or the
young Henry Fleming from RED BADGE OF COURAGE...it
is the young man who
wants to go over and, in Sheen's case, he confronts the
forces of good and evil.
in (the character Elias, who's a Christ-figure..and the
character Sgt.Barnes who's
the personification of evil. So. it's an allegorical
story, but the texture, the ants,
the heat, the waiting, the terror. The texture of
Platoon--that's how infantry
combat is. And I worked with Dale Dye, who was the
technical advisor on that.
That's about the most realistic Vietnam movie that's
been made. Movies like
"Apocalypse Now" that's surrealistic, that's
taking [the] reality in Vietnam and
making it surreal, and then intermixing it with Joseph
Conrad's HEART OF
DARKNESS. The greatest movie, in my mind, about
the Vietnam experience...is
"The Deer Hunter". The Deer Hunter is about
America. We have, again as
metaphor, Russian roulette. I might compare that to
masturbation: it's an activity
that, according to the Bible, does nothing but waste,
and is the taking or human
life. Nobody played Russian roulette in Vietnam. When I
saw that movie in '79
when it came out I was a captain. I had already taught
in the English department
at West Point and I thought I was a liberal. I was
horrified, I mean I had a
terrible gut reaction to that movie. I said I'd never
see the piece of trash again.
And in the early 80's the first time I taught my
Vietnam class, I said, "Well, I'd
better look at that piece or garbage:' And I said,
"My God, what beauty!" Now
that movie never changed, but I did. So, that's the
great movie about America.
And that is a great picture.
documentary about the war is "The Anderson Platoon"
Schoendorfer, who is a Frenchman. And it almost took a
Frenchman to look at
the war. He said he discovered America. I'm not sure an
American could've done
that documentary so well. And it won an Emmy and an
Oscar in '68. It's about my
dear friend and classmate, Joe Anderson's platoon. And
they just went around
and filmed; dry-filmed for a week or so to get them used
to the cameras.
How do you feel about the Vietnam veterans finally getting
such as the memorial in Washington D.C.?
wanted to hear about Vietnam, nobody wanted to read about it.
We went through a long period from '75 until the day
Ronald Reagan was
inaugurated, and that, only because that was the day
the hostages from Iran
were released. That's when the Vietnam vets saw the
adulation that the Iranian
hostages were getting. they said, "Wait a minute,
we haven't gotten ours," and
so they began to come out of the closet, and began to
get organized. And they
great Vietnam veteran's memorial, which a plebe in my squad,
Wheeler, was one of the main organizers. That process
of building the
monument. raising the money, advertising it. and then
finally commissioning it.
and having a parade. That was the start of the healing
process, and the point at
which Vietnam Veterans began to come out of the closet.
didn't list Vietnam on your resume if you were looking for a
job before 1980.
And, you know, there was that thing that Carter had
given amnesty to all the
draft-dodgers. Vietnam split this country like nothing
had ever done before,
except the Civil War. So, that healing process
continues. And there's still a lot of
people, three million people, who served in Vietnam.
There's still an awful lot of
people with an awful lot of problems, who won't go to
they can't handle it; they can't deal with it. And
that's the sad condemnation.
So, one of the reasons I teach my Vietnam class, and
bring in a variety of people
from both ends of the political spectrum, plus
Vietnamese guest speakers, is so
we can deal with some of that.
thought I had that pretty well worked out, and I thought
everything was cool,
until last May or June, (when) I went to New Orleans
between quarters, and I
happened to be there accidentally for the "Welcome
Home Desert Storm" parade.
And when I saw what New Orleans, Louisiana did for that
parade. I really...I'd
been to the dedication for the Sacramento Vietnam
veterans' memorial. I'd
watched all those things on television, I had taught
Vietnam. But it was really
awesome to me to see what this country could do for its
soldiers. Which we did
after World War II, and we've all seen the documentaries
of the Desert Storm
which just reminded me that, yeah, we really never got
that closure-that closure
sailor kissing the girl in Times Square. But to see that
then happen for Desert
Storm was kind of unreal.
of treatment did you receive when you came back home?
mine was fine. Personally. I didn't have a big problem when I
from Vietnam, even the second time. There's a book
written last year...that
only on spitting incidents. There were people who
on, while they were hitch-hiking, or outside the gate
of Travis, or in San
Francisco airport. And so, somebody wrote a book, and
he said, "If you've ever
been spit on, I want to know how you were treated when
you got home." And it
turns out there was a lot of spitting, and them was a
lot of rejection of Vietnam
veterans by the American public. I personally didn't
see that; I was at West
Point. We had, I remember, some women from Vassar who
came up and gave
the cadets flowers, as a kind of peace gesture. But we
were isolated from that.
You really have to talk to some Vietnam veterans who
went from American
society to Vietnam and back to American society. The
book does establish that
the spitting did occur, and it occurred very
frequently, and it's not just a bunch of
wild and crazy vets who made that stuff up.
personally went into graduate school for a couple of years. I
sat there and
watched students with their Viet Cong flags, I watched
them burn the R.O.T.C.
building down; yeah, that hurt. But at the same time in
that graduate school
experience, I saw the right wing, the Virginia state
police close down the
University of Virginia. The left-wing anti-war
protestors couldn't close it down,
but I saw the police bring their dogs up, and saw the
moderates' reaction to these
dogs. It was a lot worse than the moderates' reaction to
the protestors. So I saw
the right wing in this country shut down a university
through their own ineptness.
and through their militarism. But then I went to West
Point to teach, and at West
Point. you're kind of hermetically sealed from life. But
for most of my
counterparts, my peers, my comrades who came back to the
active army, they
were supportive. The war was our profession; the war was
our business, and we
one another. It wasn't like the draftees, who came back from
and had to go back into society. and felt the rejection.
felt the turn-off. So, we
didn't really have that experience of being integrated
into civilian life into America.
We were still living in our own military corner. and it
was different, particularly at
West Point. It was just like a monastery. Jim Ford, my
dear friend, who's Chaplain
of the House of Representatives, said (in those days.
there was a "God is dead"
movement going on) "The Church and the military are
two sinking ships in our
and I have a foot in each." [laughs]
While overseas, did you have any close friends or bitter
go over for God, Mom and apple pie, but the thing that
combat unit is people looking out for each other. I
remember...the day that Sgt.
Binion was killed. I was pinned down by a sniper, and he
was killed trying to get
me out of (them); he was trying to get the sniper, and
the sniper killed Binion.
And Rick Clark, my fellow platoon leader in first
platoon, was Binion's platoon
leader. [He] told me that he would never be able to
continue if I were killed or
Binion were killed, and I said, "Rick, that's
crazy." And the next day, Binion was
killed trying to save me. I couldn't deal with the
Binion incident...the working out of
the death of Binion hurt me for a long, long time. I
couldn't sit there and talk about
it for ten years. Now, I go to the memorial, I look up
Binion's name. I've been
trying to find his family. But do you take care of one
another? Listen, B.T. Collins
...says it right: it is the only profession where you're
willing to sacrifice your life
for your friends; and your friends are willing to
sacrifice their lives for you". So,
there's a terrible amount of taking care of one another.
And again, "Platoon"
shows that very well.
you relate your own experiences with an historical perspective
the war? And what have we
learned from Vietnam?
that the military screwed it up. And I was a part of that
I believe that William Westmoreland's big war theory
was wrong-headed. I think
that's the central lesson of the war. It's not the press
and the politicians. Although
I gotta say the political (forget the press-- they
weren't important) strictures, and
this thing of Lyndon Johnson's selecting the targets in
the White House-that's
crazy. I was convinced about that when I got back that
second year. I knew we
were in trouble, that it was over: I mean, the game was
over, the war was lost,
probably in '66, '67; certainly by '67. And it was lost
politically. You know, recently,
if you follow this stuff, this "L.B.J." series
on PBS. Wow. You want to understand
where we screwed up in Vietnam...I think that's a
thesis-ridden document - but I
think L.B.J.'s pride
[was the problem]. The thing I got out of that [piece] was
the conversion of Robert Strange McNamara really
occurred earlier, and that
McNamara knew, and a lot of people knew-that George Ball
may not have been
only dove in the pile. But Lyndon Johnson wasn't going to
change his mind.
So I knew, when I got back in '69, the war was over and
that we had lost.
I suspected that very strongly.
appear, based on Desert Storm. that we learned our lessons. As
example, I would go to Panama, and I know a great deal
about Panama. And
General Thurman is my dear friend. We used massive
force: 27,000 troops went
to Panama to take out the top tier of the PDF
[Panamanian Defense Forces]. The
senior officers, because they were all corrupt. That
system had gotten terribly out
of kilter. So, we didn't want to kill the PDF soldiers,
but we wanted to take out the
leadership of the PDF. In order to do that, we used
stealth fighters: we used
27,000 troops. That's the massive application or combat
power to get in, get the
job done quickly, and get it over with, which we did. I
think that was a good
operation. So there's where we learned a lesson from
Vietnam. That's just one
example. Letting Norman Schwarzkopf have his head. Thank
God it was Norman
Schwarzkopf. I don't know any four-star general who had
the patience of Stormin'
Norman. And you can read C.D. Bryant's book FRIENDLY
FIRE and you can listen to
Norman Schwarzkopf and see why he had the patience, why
he was willing to let
those air guys keep going. But the final history lesson
about Desert Storm, the
thing that scares me is this: To the American public,
Desert Storm appears easy.
It appears like a cakewalk. In fact, it was the
technology. It was preparation, it
was learning from Vietnam that allowed us to be
successful in Desert Storm.
And my concern is that the American public then thinks
that war is cheap, that it's
easy. And I don't think it is. You're always going to
have some adversaries: you've
got to be prepared. And we've cut the Army back from 18
to 12 divisions, so
we've lost a third. Well, there's members of Congress
who say "Well, we need
to cut more than that" I think we're going about as
low as we can go. And I think
that the price of not being prepared is young American
soldiers, both men and
women, their lives.
© 2000 John K. Swensson. All rights reserved.