Film poster for Hal Ashby’s COMING HOME (1978) one of the finest films to come out of the Vietnam War trauma, and, in terms of plotline, a collage of Bob Muller’s and Ron Kovic’s own personal experiences.
BY BOB MULLER, Vietnam Veterans Against the War
Presented at a meeting of the Student Assembly of Columbia University Student Assembly, July 23, 1971.
Vietnam is something you have to experience firsthand to believe. I know I didn’t believe what anybody told me about Vietnam before I went; it was something I had to go through myself.
Let me go back and tell you who I am and what I’m about. I’m a retired first lieutenant in the Marines — retired, because today, when you’re separated from service for a disability, you’re put on a retired basis; you’re not simply discharged as you were in World War II. [Mr. Muller spoke from a wheelchair, the result of a crippling injury sustained in Vietnam.]
In 1967, I was in my senior year in college at Hofstra University. And one day that spring, I went into the Student Union Building, and there was a Marine officer standing there. He looked very sharp: he had his dress blues on, and he had the old crimson stripe down the side of his trousers. I said, “That looks good! I’m going to be a marine.”
Right there, in that sentence, is really the tragedy of my life, as I view it. The tragedy of my life was not being shot in Vietnam; the tragedy in my life is one that has been shared by all too many Americans, and is still being shared today. For me, knowledge of the fact that my government had seen fit to involve us militarily in Vietnam was sufficient for me. I never asked the reason why. I just took it on blind faith that my government knew a hell of a lot more than I ever could, and that they must be right. My opinion has changed since then….
Still the fact is, I went. I went all the way, with no reservation. I said, “If you’re going to fight, you might as well go all the way.” So I joined the Marines, and then became an officer. I didn’t request the infantry, and I didn’t request to go to Vietnam; I literally demanded it. I was “the Marine’s Marine:” I could run faster, do more push-ups and more pull-ups. I had leadership capability and so on and so forth. I got what I was after.
When I was in the Marine Corps, as I said before, I never really asked “Why are we in Vietnam? What’s the history behind our involvement in that country?” I went in — boom! There’s something you have to understand about a system like the military: once you become a part of the machinery, it works on you. By the time it came time for me to go overseas, I was a fanatic; I was the epitome of John Wayne; I wanted but one thing: I wanted to kill.
You go through this environment of the military, and everything sort of works on itself. Your instructors, the guys you’re going through with, your peers, what have you — all the time it’s an indoctrination. “We’re out there, and we’re fighting the `gooks.'” You get a couple of hundred guys out in the field, and they put the old bayonet on the rifle. “Kill, kill.” Who do you kill? “Luke the Gook” and “Link the Chink.” You get psyched up on this stuff.
I was “Gung-Ho” as they say. And I went to Vietnam with this in mind: here is a country, South Vietnam, that is a freedom-loving people, that want their independence, their right to self-determination, and they are being subjected to a massive Communist invasion from the North. I had some close family friends who were fairly high in the military; they had gone to Vietnam, and their experiences sort of backed up what I was being told: that we were fighting to repel an invasion of these freedom-loving people from the North. I said, “Wow! That don’t go! I’m for the liberation of anybody who wants to be free.”
Ron Kovic, also wounded in Vietnam, and whose life was made into a film, “Born on the 4th of july.”
We get small-arms fire from a village, we get a sniper, and do you know how we return that small-arms fire? We return it with anything — and that goes from whatever’s organic to the unit you’re working with — your mortars, for example — to heavy artillery, to gunships to jets, to napalm, to big bombs, even Naval gunfire; we had the battleship New Jersey on station with the sixteen-inch guns. We’d come across villages where we’d take fire, and for the one or two people in there that might be V.C., we’d level that village. Now militarily, that might make sense; but you just stop and think for a minutes what it means when, to get two people, you kill 150.
Is My Lai an isolated incident? Hell, no! It may not have happened so often that one platoon commander, in an immediate situation, rounds up people as Calley did, and just summarily executes them. Granted, I had the same experiences Calley had. I had had guys in my platoon that were blown away by kids. We had a company set-up outside a village, and during the day, kids came by. And the guys were giving them C-rations and chocolate and they took them into the perimeter. And they were giving them cigarettes, what have you, and being real nice. And the kids were ten years old, eleven years old. They were manning the water-buffalo. I said, “Don’t let the kids in the perimeter.” That night the company got hit by a VC mortar and rocket squad, and they had our positions mapped out. They knew where the CP was, they knew where all our defensive positions were, and how they got the information was from the kids. And yes, you do have, among the kids, among the women, VC sympathizers. That’s the majority of what I came into contact with, anyway, in Northern I-Corps. But because you have people who are VC sympathizers mixed in with the population what’s the solution? What have we done in Vietnam? Actually follow a policy of genocide? And it is genocide, because of the nature of the war. It’s not a conventional war; it’s not the same as World War II, it’s not the same as Korea. We don’t have fronts, we don’t acquire land, hold it, and then move on and acquire more land. What we do is, try to win the minds of the people; and since we’re doomed to fail, there’s only one other answer: liquidate them. And that is what we’ve done.
I have a friend who spent four years in Laos. Don’t try to tell him what we’re doing in Laos is winding down the war; that’s hogwash. He can tell you about day after day after day in Laos — a country that we’re not even at war with — where our guys are going over and not limiting themselves to the Ho Chi Minh trail, but are going throughout the entire region of populated areas, and knocking out the villages. These stories about people living in caves and tunnels; that’s no joke; it’s reality. It’s what’s going on.
Perhaps you think I’m just a bitter person — and only because I got hit in Nam. I am bitter. You’re damn straight I’m bitter! There is no way I could give you the essence of what I’m talking about. I could sit here all night, and tell you a series of war stories. A lot of them would really make your hair stand on end — but I’m not going to do that. You had that with the film (“Winter Soldiers”).
They say that because we Vietnam veterans are called upon to kill, we’re dehumanized, we are callous. I will agree with that statement and disagree with it, too. While I was in Vietnam, and a combatant, I was very callous. One time I had the guy on the right and the guy on the left of me both get hit, and I didn’t blink an eye; it wasn’t me; I didn’t get hit, they did. They might have been my friends, but it wasn’t my ass that got blown away. As I said before, kill another person? You do it. You’re in that situation and you’re going to kill.
But there’s something even more to the fanaticism that led me. After I made up my mind that the war was wrong, I still fought. The last day I was in Vietnam, the day I got shot, I knew the war was wrong; but I still went up that hill, assaulting North Vietnamese positions, with only one idea in my head, and that was to kill — not for any ideological reason, but simply out of hatred. I’d lost friends in Nam, I’d gone through hell for eight months, these guys were the enemy to me, and I went out to kill them.
You might say I got caught up in an insanity. It’s very simple back here in the States to pass judgment on what goes on in the heads of the guys in Vietnam. It’s very easy for somebody to say, “How the hell can these things happen, that these guys are talking about? These guys should all be thrown in jail!” It’s very easy to just be here and say, “What a barbaric act!” But that’s the kind of war this is.
Vietnam is ten thousand miles away to you people. I don’t want to sound condescending, but it’s a reality! It’s going on today! Right now, there are guys out on ambushes, there are guys on “long-range reconnaissance inserts,” in Laos, in Cambodia. The killing is going on right now! The psychological pressures that are in these guys’ heads is going on right now. Don’t let this statistic of “eleven deaths last week” throw you. There is a full-fledged war going on, with all the horrors that go along with it. If you don’t physically see the horrors of war, it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to forget it. Maybe it’s something you try to forget.
But, dammit, I can’t. It’s with me every day, whether I like it or not, I cannot forget what is going on in Vietnam. Everybody in this country seems to be thinking, “The War’s over. They’re going to work out some great plan. They’re going to have a withdrawal of troops. Fine and dandy!” But that war is still going on. And until it’s politically expedient for Nixon to get a withdrawal out of Vietnam, and a negotiated settlement, how many more guys are going to have to die? And again, I’m not only talking about Americans.
There are a lot of things about Vietnamization, but the tragedy of it is this: that it continues the war. Now you can sugar-coat the rest of it any way you want to: “We’re not doing the fighting anymore. We’re only giving them air support.” But the fighting continues! And if it’s not obvious now — after how long we’ve been there, after having over half a million American men totally committed to trying to seek a military victory — that this war cannot be won militarily, short of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons — then I don’t know when it will be. But if you consider wiping out North Vietnam a victory, and rubbing out major sections of South Vietnam a victory, then I say, “Well, that’s your definition; to me, that’s no victory.”
Vietnam did something to me, it shook me out of the rut in my life. There’s this whole thing about the Pentagon Papers and the need to make yourself knowledgeable. This is the essence of what I try and say — specifically when I talk with high school students. But I don’t limit it to that.
I was going on with blinkers through my whole life. I graduated from college with a very high average. You’d think I was intelligent; I was a dummy. I was all set to go into the Marines, spend three years as an officer, get the leadership credentials and all that garbage; come back and go into a major corporation, in its management training program, right up the scale, and so on and so forth. Vietnam pointed something out to me, that I was derelict, I was negligent in my responsibility as a citizen. I don’t mean delegating all my responsibilities as a citizen to whoever I voted for, or whoever was my congressman or senator. All right, they’re the ones who are making the policy; who am I? I’m Norman Nobody. “Even if I know something, what good is it going to do?” I think it can do some good. I say that there is going to be a revolution in this country. And it won’t be born out of violence or bloodshed.
The revolution I’m talking about may be one reason why you’re here tonight: an increased sensitivity on your part, a greater awareness of your function as a human being, and of your responsibility, as a citizen of this country, to be held accountable for, and to try to direct, what the United States of American is doing in your name. That’s the revolution I’m talking about — a social revolution, a change in thinking, one that says, “Throw out `kill ratios’ as the logic for continuing the war.” Our commanders are happy; they say, “We will continue. We’re winning in Vietnam, because we are getting fifteen `gooks’ for every American killed.” It is that that I want to see a total rejection of. I want to see people recognize that a Laotian, a Cambodian, a North Vietnamese, a Viet Cong, has got as much right to live — and live any way he chooses to — as any American. The day that we really incorporate that into our thinking is the day that we’re going to change.
You ask me, “What can I do for peace?” I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of suffering, and I’m aware because I saw it. I hope you can become aware, because then you will take on your responsibility as a citizen to know what we’ve done in Vietnam, and to broaden our horizons. Look at what’s going on in Pakistan, with this Administration still wanting to send military aid to Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of Bengalis have been slaughtered. This is what I’m talking about, this sensitivity. Look at us supporting a military junta in Greece, in Athens, or having Spiro T. [Agnew, the Vice President under Richard Nixon] going around to all these fascist countries, saying “Right on! Right on!” That’s what I oppose. And that’s why I say, “Open up your heads and be aware.”
Be aware of the racist policy that we have followed. I hardly even touched the racist nature of [the war in] Vietnam, but it’s there. I can go on and on and on. But the whole thing winds down to this: I’ve seen a lot of hate in this world; and all I have left — all I try to keep in my head and convey to others — is love. And I mean that, because that is all I’ve got left. Thank you.
Source: The Fight for the Right to Know the Truth: A Study of the War in S.E. Asia through the Pentagon Papers and Other Sources (monograph). New York: The Student Assembly of Columbia University, 1971.
Bob soon after his return from the War, as a young activist.
Robert O. “Bobby” Muller (b. Long Island, New York, United States, 1946) is an American peace advocate.
He grew up in Great Neck, New York and attended Hofstra University. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967, during the Vietnam War. His commission with the Marines began the same day he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Hofstra University in 1968, and by September of that year he was a combat lieutenant leading a Marine infantry platoon. In April 1969, while leading an assault in Vietnam, a bullet severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
After returning from Vietnam, Muller became a staunch advocate for veterans’ rights and Peace activist. In 1974 he earned a second degree from Hofstra, this one in law. He founded Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) in 1978 and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) in 1980. The VVAF co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2004, Muller founded Alliance for Security. He is currently serving as an advisory board member for a new group called Operation Truth.
READ OTHER BIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNTS OF THE WAR BY VIETNAM WAR VETS AT THE “SIXTIES PERSONAL NARRATIVE PROJECT”