Article Overview:    Mo Duc, Vietnam--A reminder from thirty-five years ago of the price Americans are paying in Iraq to provide liberty's foundations, even if the shame and guilt of a few tarnish and taint our image of all those who believe their first mission is to provide freedom rather than torture and tyranny.


Saturday, May 8, 2004—Ground Zero Plus 969
Mo Duc--A Reflection On The Price Of Death In Iraq!

Cliff McKenzie

 GROUND ZER0, New York, N.Y.--May 8, 2004 -- It is easy to forget the role of America as the Sentinel of Global Vigilance when our newspapers and televisions are splattered with scenes of horror depicting young Americans dragging naked Iraqi prisoners by the neck with ropes and smiling at cameras for their "trophy pictures."

Misguided Americans with their "Trophy pictures"

       But these graphically ugly scenes are not what this or any American war has been based upon, at least not when it comes to the average warrior who risks his or her life to fight for a stranger's freedom and liberty.
        I know.  I'm one of them.  And perhaps my story about Mo Duc, Vietnam, some thirty-five years ago might shed a bigger brighter light on death pall that shrouds our view of our true mission in Iraq-- the mission of the "Warriors of Vigilance."
        Let me spin you back a generation ago to 1966.   The war in Vietnam was just being launched.  The hatred and angst that nearly tore our nation apart was fomenting, but hadn't yet turned into a pustule of venom that volcanically erupted into armed combat between anti-war protestations and a government bogged in a quagmire it couldn't escape.

I was one of the first US Marine Combat Correspondents to land in Vietnam

      I was one of the first U.S. Marine Combat Correspondents to land in Vietnam.  My first mission was an amphibious assault, the largest since the Korean War, in late l965.   It was followed by another landing with the First Marine Division to take command of Chu Lai.
       I volunteered to report from the front lines, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines where I set up my typewriter on a field desk in the S-1 tent and immediately began to pick out the fiercest fighting units so I could get a look at war's underbelly first hand.
       Marine Combat Correspondents, like all Marines, are first riflemen.   We fought and killed first, then we wrote.  We were not exempt from the role of "Warrior."  We all were trained to kill with efficiency, precision; even the cooks were killers first and culinary experts second.
       Like all Marines lured to the Corps with signs like "We Make Men!," I wanted to prove my valiant nature in war.  I frequently volunteered  take the point, to stalk ahead of the troops and forage into enemy territory.   I grew up in the woods in Oregon and imagined myself an Indian countless times.  Crouch-creeping through the jungle at the head of the pack was exciting, thrilling.   It also gave my ink on paper a deeper respect for those who were the first targets.  One cannot adequately write about heroism, I believed, until one has tasted a hero's fear, his anticipation of battle,  his fearlessness to die for what he believes is right, just.
        I, like the countless others who joined the Marine Corps, truly believed we were on a mission of liberation.  Our job was to free the oppressed people of Vietnam so that they too could have similar  rights and privileges to those we enjoyed, our children enjoyed, and our children's Children's Children could enjoy.   I was there to remove that shadow of tyranny and oppression of Communism that choked and strangled, and often tortured the Vietnamese's fundamental rights to choose their own destiny.

The Vietnamese were like any people ...

       The Vietnamese people were like any people ground down by the boot heel of tyranny.  They hadn't advanced beyond the rice farmers of hundreds and hundreds of years past for their social structure had been dominated by dictators, conquers and dynasties that cleaved them into two classes--serfs and lords.
         Most were farmers, living in grass hooches on bare dirt floors with old black cooking pots brewing noxious mixtures of fish heads for an oily sauce they put on everything.  There were no televisions, radios, newspapers, roads for the majority--just paths that wandered throughout the land leading from one village to another.   A few cities existed, bespeaking of power and culture such as Saigon and DaNang, but the land was fertile, the rice the gold of the country, lusted by a hungry world and to till the soil and reap the crops meant the "slaves of the earth" must not be disturbed.
          In the most primitive villages in the heart of V.C. territory the children ran half-naked with few schools except those the Viet Cong ran, teaching them to hate Americans or the French, to defy liberation and to accept the power and might of a central government that "knew best for them."
         I remember seeing many pictures scrawled on the walls of these "schools" showing American tanks, cartooned as machine monsters, crushing children under their treads with the American flag flying atop the "monster."
        I also knew that Vietnam had been at war for over 300 years--the French, the Japanese, and countless others seeking to command the fertile rice belt and its precious shipping ports that served as the crossroads to Asia.    Vietnam could help feed the world with its rice, a treasure that made many nation's mouth drool.
       But we weren't there for the rice, at least not the average grunt Marine sweating and swatting mosquitoes.  Just as in Iraq the average GI Joe or GI Jane isn't there to seek low-priced oil, but is more concerned with a young girl not being raped and tortured, or that veils may be dropped without the feminine faces being beaten in the streets for the exposure, or that a young boy might realize that he could one day become the President of Iraq by winning enough votes rather than marshalling an armed coup to take over one tyrant to replace him with another.
       We were fighting for the rights of the Vietnamese, fundamental rights, not lofty ones.         

Demonstrators against the Vietnam War

        But as the pressure at home against the war grew, the value of an American death in Vietnam depreciated, as the deaths in Iraq today are depreciating.  Instead of seeing the deaths of Americans for liberty and freedom as a great sacrifice for the future of a people and their children, the nation began to see the deaths of Americas a political slaughter, about a power-hungry Administration shoving young men into the breech of canons and recklessly shooting them out in a vainglorious attempt to make an ill-fated war successful.
         There can be little question the 170,000 volunteers who fight and offer their lives as "liberators" of the children's future freedom aren't beginning to feel the same shame that we felt in Vietnam--that our deaths or those of our comrades--will be viewed more as a "waste" of human life than as an investment in the future of a people's liberty and freedom. 
          That's the horribly sad result of what we are seeing today as the pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse slam against the moral conscious of our nation, and fuel the critics of the world to point fingers at America as being nothing more than the same Terrorists and tyrants as those we deposed when we attacked Iraq in March of this year.
          But, as both a U.S. Marine Combat Correspondent of the past, a citizen of democracy, a father of two and grandfather of three beautiful free children,  I know that the flap over the photos of the prisoners is nothing more than a sore on the pure mission of liberation that the vast majority of American soldiers, airmen, Marines and coast guarders face each day when they ask:  "Why Am I Here?"
          Let me give you my small but important example of how I know this and that  what we did in Vietnam or are doing in Iraq was and is the right thing to do despite recent taint on our mission's credibility.

I know America did the right thing in Vietnam because of my experiences in Mo Duc

       My example is a place called Mo Duc, a story I have related many times over many of the thirty-six years since I first set foot in Vietnam.
         It was 1966 and the nation of Vietnam was conducting its first truly democratic election in history, not unlike the impending situation in Iraq where the people will be vested with the "right to vote" without a gun to their heads.         The election was planned to illustrate the importance of democracy, and to reinforce that America was there to establish freedom.
        Mo Duc was a small provincial village along Highway One that ran along the coast from one end of Vietnam to the other.
        I volunteered to go with the units assigned to protect Mo Duc from threats by North Vietnamese Regulars that they would attack and kill any villager who voted that day.    Communism and democracy don't mix, so our job was to serve as armed guards to keep the NVA and Viet Cong from stopping the voting process.
        En route to our position to guard Mo Duc, the Viet Cong had blown bridges and mined the roads to thwart our advance.   
        Engineers worked feverishly to repair the damage and we bounced and joggled in the trucks, ducking to avoid sniper fire along the road as we wended our way to set up one of many blocking forces around the country so people could vote without threat of being killed.
        It is hard for the average American to think about receiving a death threat on election day, and that its warning says:  "If you step foot out of your house to vote today you will be killed, your wife and children will be killed, and all your relatives."
        That was essentially the warning from the NVA, the rugged and tough North Vietnamese troops who wanted to strike Fear, Intimidation and Complacency into the hearts of all Vietnamese.
        And the message wasn't delivered over the radio, newspaper or television.   It was personally delivered, eye-ball-to-eyeball, for the villagers had no communication systems other than the cells the Communists established in each village.
        This led us to wonder whether anyone would vote.  Why would they?   Why risk the lives of your family and yourself to mark a ballot?
        We set up the perimeter. The V.C. mined the area and threw mortars at us to drive us away.    Around me on a high hill one of the explosions killed the guys around me.  I was left unscathed.  I held a dying buddy in my arms, trying to stop the bleeding from his jugular where shard of jagged shrapnel sliced it.  I could feel the warm wet blood of his life soaking into my jungle utilities as I rocked him to death.  He clutched my arm and looked at me, the eyes of dead man clinging to the last gasps of life and gurgled:  "Why me, why not you?"
          Then he died.

 Medevac chopper ferrying the dead and wounded in the Vietnam War

        I wondered, "Why any of us?" I touched the blood soaked fabric of my jungle fatigues as the medevac chopper ferried the dead and wounded away and wondered whether the price of freedom was worth the cost of the man's life who clutched my arm and sought that eternal answer: "Why me, why not you?"
         We were on high alert through the night, anticipating a dawn attack.   Vietnam sunrises are some of the most beautiful in the world.   The sun ignites the underbelly of low-hanging clouds, washing it in a palette of colors that are rose blush, light pinks that streak across the gray canvass, the rosettes seducing the mind into believing that peace and tranquility ruled rather than chaos and death the earth below.
        Slowly, the sun's tidal rays washed  away the night.   I stared down at the ribbon of Highway One, an empty dirt arrow slicing through the verdant jungle and coastal green that served as the main route from North to South, from freedom to tyranny.
          It was empty.   As the sun inched along its elliptical arc I squinted at the road, my rifle resting on the parapet we formed to defend ourselves the night before.   The blood on my jungle fatigues was dried and caked, a rust-colored reminder of the man whose body grew cold in my arms, wondering in his final moments why he had been chosen to pay the final price rather than I.
          I clenched my teeth.   Why?   Why?
          Then I stiffened, my finger sliding to the trigger housing of my rifle.   Out of the green lush jungle appeared a black dot far away, moving slowly toward the town of Mo Duc.   Was it a villager or a Viet Cong strapped with a pack of C-4 who would run wildly at our positions below and blow himself up as he sought to take out as many of us as possible.
         Suicide bombers are not new.   Even young children were used to carry satchel charges in Vietnam and hoped as they rushed toward us that someone wouldn't shoot, and the child could leap into a foxhole and pull the cord to send us to our Hell.
         I watched the black dot grow in size and form.   The villagers wore the black pajamas of their trade, and conical hats to avert the sun, with no shoes.   The figure was nonplussed, moving at a soft pace.
         My eyes flicked up the road.  Out of the green more black dots appeared, small ant-like shapes appearing magically from the dense green, embraced by the stark nakedness of Highway One.
       Eventually, the road was filled with the figures, men and women, old and young, some with children, marching toward the voting polls, defying the Beast of Terror who held Damocles' Sword over their heads.
       I was numb at first.    The road was pregnant with the figures, a thick black undulating sea of people who were choosing an ultimate sacrifice--their mark for freedom.
       The day went by without event.   The NVA did not attack.   The people voted that day for democracy, and I sat atop the hill feeling a strange sense of purpose welling within me.

Witnessing the people of Mo Duc voting, I understood the power of freedom

       For perhaps the first time in my life, I understood democracy.  I understood the power of freedom.    It was the willingness to risk everything for that precious right to give yourself and your children the right to chose their own destiny, and to remove the onerous yoke of others who tried to suppress that fundamental right.
       I reached down and touched the dried blood on my leg, the blood of my buddy, who had wondered "why."
       "You died for them," I said, as though he was still in my arms, bleeding.  "You died for their right to vote."
        When I seen the pictures of the Iraqi prisoner mistreatment, or read the horror of war splashed like buckets of worthless blood on television news reports or read slanted news that seeks to demean our mission in Iraq, I think of Mo Duc.
         I think also of June of this year, when the people of Iraq will be handed the rights to freedom, the right to vote for beliefs they alone hold true, without guns to their heads.
         Then I know that all those who have died rise above the few who have tainted our mission by inhumane actions toward Iraqi prisoners.    I know the bodies of those who died left this earth to answer the question:  "Why me?" and that answer is "For the freedom of others."
          That leaves the question of Iraq.   Are those dying in Iraq dying for a "reason" that will last their lifetimes, as my experience in defending Mo Duc has served me for more than a generation?
          Obviously, I can't answer that for it is an individual decision one makes to feel the "worth of war" or the "shame of it."
         However, I can speak from wisdom, from annals of time and burden of being reminded by the events of current Iraqi "shame" unveiled by the horror pictures, that the answer to "Why we die with honor" will always be vested in the pure pursuit of liberty and freedom for the oppressed, whether or not we are victorious in that goal or not.   

Hopefully, Mo Duc serves as a reminder that liberty overrides shame

        As one individual who has lived his life wondering "why" I have one thin thread of justification that supports what many may call the "senseless death"  of Americans in Iraq, Vietnam or any other war we fight to free others--and that thread grows stronger when I see or hear of a person having the right to vote for his or her liberty, and that is about to happen in Iraq despite the "shame" being shed on the thousands of Americans risking their lives for that right.
         May my Mo Duc be a reminder to all critics that liberty overrides shame with time, at least for those of us who carry its blood on our sleeves and soaked into the fabric of our souls.

May 7--The Thin Moral Box Guarding Iraqi Prisoners

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