I Feel For Them All
Profilers: Shabina Rayan, John Wang, Curren Mehta, An Vo
My name is Kenn Miller and in 1967, 68, and 69, I was in the Republic of Vietnam in the United States Army. I was initially basically an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division Paratrooper and then went to Long Range Patrol, volunteered for that and got accepted.
And that was a special operation sort of thing, we would basically have six-man teams and we would be dropped in the enemy territory, trying to find what was there. Sometimes intelligence would come and say, “Okay there’s a communication site/radio site of the enemy in this place”, and we would go in and try to find it. “Go in there and tell us what you see.”
What made you decide to go to war?
I grew up in the shadow of World War II, and it seemed to me that each year obligation when your country is at war is to go. And you know, you assume that your side, the United States, is totally the good guys and the enemy is totally the bad guys. Even in World War II when you’re talking about individual people it’s not the case. It’s never the case. You have as many people – good people and bad people on any side. It’s about the same number, but I wanted adventure.
I wanted to go places and see things and do things. I wanted, I already decided I wanted to go in the military just for the trail and the war. I’m reading about it and this is where I have to be. And so that’s what I did. I often think that it ruined my life and it probably did. But I don’t think I would take it back and do it differently.
What was your first impression of Vietnam?
All I could see out here was Vietnam! I could see Vietnamese people doing things – working – working on the base or out there in the fields or something. What they thinking, what’s going on, what’s it like to be there. The whole time I was there if I am riding in a truck or jeep in the road and look at the people and all the pastel houses you know, and you know I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to get in the society. It fascinated me and I liked it. And I liked the people I met.
You meet some people who are sleazeballs, and you also of course meet people who are trying to kill you but I liked it, I liked the place. I liked almost all my contact with the people which wasn’t a hostile contact. I liked it.
Can you describe your feelings when you were in recon mission?
I loved doing it and I hated doing it at the same time. But you felt very alive. When you get on the ground, you open all your senses. You can hear the insects on the leaves, the birds over here. You’re listening to hear *BANG* *BANG* if there are gunshots signaling from one group of the enemy to the other that you came in. You’re worried about – you’re listening but you’re living while you’re on the mission. You’re fully alive. And that was addictive and the adrenaline rushes were addictive too.
Do you have anything that still bothers you from the war?
I… have things that bother me about the war. I had until recently a little plastic pic wallet that had family pictures of a guy that I killed in an ambush – trying to get documents because part of the job was getting information they can turn into intelligence. And all I found on this guy was pictures- family pictures of kids, and his parents, and apparently his girlfriend. I kept it all this time and I’ve built a real – that was one – that was the most personal feeling I had about somebody that we were fighting against and killed. And I had this all this time and I would just value this and just look at it.
Can you describe your last moment in Vietnam?
On the bus leaving to go to the airport to fly back for the last time, I’m looking out the window, and I have tears down my face. I didn’t want to leave. I liked Vietnam and what I was doing was the only thing I’d done since I graduated high school literally. It’s still the only thing I’ve done that’s made me feel alive.
What are your thoughts about the anti-war movement at the time?
I don’t have particularly good feelings about the anti-war movement at the time. there are lots of people who are in it who I really admire – their courage and honesty and so forth. But you know I went back to the American campuses when I came back and you know, “Ay man we are going to have the anti-war moratorium on such and such night. Hey there will be lots of weed and lots of women there.”
It was a party! They could get on TV – “End the war! End the war now!” The next day they got status on campus. You know people are dying and on all sides. All these different countries involved – it’s not just America and Vietnam- there are other involved and on all sides people are dying and you know these guys it’s just a party. That’s how I felt and I still – still have feel bad feelings about the anti-war movement.
You see all the anti-war things and you walk across campus and there are people calling ”You want to be a GI Nazi like that and all this” and I wanted to… *grunts and punches air* and just really wanted to violently take this guy down and smash his head on the curb who is saying this to a group of students who are cheering him. This happened to me one day I got a notice that my former assistant team leader was in a helicopter trying to drop ammunition to a team that was in trouble, and they got shot down and he was in bad shape. He is okay now, but at the time I didn’t know if he was going to live. I got that in the morning and go on campus and here is this stuff. I just start shaking and I just want to…you know.
I don’t have much respect for the average student anti-war demonstrator of the time’s sincerity about the war. I think it was a fun thing to do like tear down the goal post after the football game or something to them, and the meaning was much more real. And not – I don’t care what side. You know, it’s disrespectful to everybody that was in it.
How do you feel about the media coverage of the war?
In South Vietnam you had the whole world’s media there, there’s a corruption case, there’s an atrocity, it’s all over the news. In North Vietnam, who’s covering it? Communist, propagandist, journalists. Now these guys might want to be real journalists, but you know if you’re from North Korea, or Mainland China, or Russia, or Chekloslovakia, you better tow the party line, and so you become a propaganda clown for the other side, and so the western intelligence and western media bought that, oh that they’re not doing anything wrong, and they would see all the dirty linin of Saigon of South Vietnam being washed publicly, none of it from North Vietnam, it was all covered up. I’m sure that the other side, the side that we were supporting, and us, did horrible and terrible things too. But our bad things were exposed to the world. One side, the nationalist, really talking about Vietnam or China, the nationalist side is more open, and so all the dirty laundry is out in the world. The other side is very closed, so none of it gets out. And then people fell for that. The academics, the intelligence, the media, in the West, fell for that.
That bothers me during New Years 1968. The City of Hue (which is the old capital) was occupied, the North Vietnamese just came in and it was occupied, and it was horrible fighting there. The Vietnamese 1st Division, some Marines, and part of the 1st Cav, fighting North Vietnamese. But the North Vietnamese, when they took that, their military was encouraged to do this, they got all of the communist agents, would come up, and say get them get them. It was a massacre. If you were a postman, or a teacher or something, they would come to your house when it was occupied and take you up the river and shoot you. And they would do the same thing along the beaches.
About the same time that this had passed, a couple months, the South Vietnamese and the Americans start digging up bodies, and we get sent out on a mission to go down and then up thee little rivers. We come around a break of bamboo and bang, just right in the nose, death. The stink. And we say oh shit, what is this, and there’s a canal over here, and we go up and here’s a pit, maybe a little bit smaller than this room, and about 8, 9, 10 feet deep, a square pit with a bamboo lattice or something or a grid on the bottom, an then there are all these bodies. And they had been exposed. So it looked like parchment on skeletons, but they’re on civilian clothes. And you can see the hair hanging on the skull. Blond hair. A brunch of West Germans, who had gone to Hue (and their wives), to set up a modern dental school at Hue University. Are these guys here to hurt anybody? Hell no, they were there to help. But when the North Vietnamese occupied the city these people were grabbed and taken up the river and shot, and killed. And you almost never seen anything about it in America.
Everybody in America, everybody in the world, heard of My Lai, the massacre in My Lai. But in America there’s almost no mention of the Massacre in Hue.
What is the most misunderstood thing about the Vietnam War?
There are two conflicting narratives among Americans about the Vietnam war, one of which is that we were there fighting for democracy and freedom. And, that’s pretty much what most of the troops that I know saw. I mean we were somewhat idealistic about it and somewhat cynical about it. The other one was that it was some horrible brutal genocidal war, which it wasn’t. I think the United States went in with some very stupid but very good motives. But it was very stupid. I think that the idea that it was a glorious something, I think that that’s wrong. It was a horrible evil thing. It’s far from our most evil war, in American history, by far, the one I was in was Vietnam’s Civil war. The idea that it was an American war, entirely, I mean, most of the fighting was done by Vietnamese not by Americans.
And another thing that I have to say that is a misconception that people have is that it was just the Americans fighting the enemy. No, it was the South Vietnamese fighting too. And that the South Vietnamese didn’t do anything and the Americans did it all for them, and that is total bullshit. That infuriates me. Because all these people suffered so much, the families died, and we pretend that they weren’t even involved, in their own Civil War. There’s a kind of arrogance and chauvinism in the way we look at that war, and you know, I don’t hold anything against anybody, except their own personal behavior. If you were in My Lai and you throw all these people in the ditch and you were hosing them down with your MK16, you know, OK your unit went crazy you went crazy you broke, but you should be in prison the rest of your life…the lieutenant should have been hung.
If you’re on the North Vietnamese side, doing all sorts of horrible stuff. If you personally, your conduct was honest and decent, you don’t have anything…you know, however bad the party you were fighting for was, however corrupt the government in Saigon might have been that you were fighting for, all of that doesn’t mean anything. Somebody who honestly served as a soldier on our side or on the other side, I feel from them all.
Mr. Miller, I have read all three books several times and enjoyed all three. I was interested in your several comments in your book about General Barsanti. I looked him up in Wicki and it notes that he was a highly decorated general officer, one of the most highly decorated. I noticed in the Wicki article that he received 6 or 7 Purple Hearts, that sounds kind of strange to me, what do you think? I didn’t get a feeling from your book that he was some kind of heroic general, or that he would ever put himself in a position to be wounded, unless these wounds occurred early in his career. Your thoughts or comment?