College Student at War
Profilers: Rashid Binnur, Mia Poynor, Timothy Woodson
My name is Michael Rank, and I’m an associate professor for the USC School of social work.
What was your life like before Vietnam?
I was in a small state school in upstate Pennsylvania. And actually this is the late sixties and the times were kind of crazy, politically as well as individuals protesting against the war, people supporting the war, and it was difficult to really discern what the reality was. I was majoring in accounting and actually I was a senior, had a semester left to go to graduate. I was really frustrated with thinking about myself as an accountant for the rest of my life and I was really fascinated–not fascinated, but interested in Vietnam. And I did the craziest thing, I dropped out of school, withdrew from school and I volunteered for the draft.
What was your family’s opinion about doing that?
My father didn’t like it at all. Actually my father was a World War II veteran. He was airborne, jumped on D-day and interestingly enough he became antiwar, and anti guns later on in his life, but I never really discussed with him the fact that I was going to join the army or volunteer the draft. Once he found out that I did that, he was disturbed to say the least, but ultimately supported my decision. I mean there’s nothing else he could do because once I signed up that was it. And I couldn’t take back the signature so he was disturbed but supported me. My mother was really distraught and she cried for hours for days before I left.
Do you have any brothers of sisters?
I have one sister that’s five years younger and she was disturbed as well. Actually I had a number of friends that had gone to Vietnam before me, a set of twins. And at that time only one of the twins could go into combat and the other had to stay home state side. So I knew both of these guys and one was a marine and he stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. And 2 weeks before I was to go into the army, he showed up at my house with his brother, kind of wishing me well going into the army. It really disturbed my mother that he was hobbling around and that he was on painkillers and it was really just an awful sight and it broke my heart to see him that way. And also the twins, who I knew so very well while I was going to college. So that was my sendoff.
There were a lot of polarizing views, so what was it like being directly in that kind of environment?
Yeah, they had a lot of comments like, “You know, you’re a college boy, what are you doing here? Why are you here? Why did you make this choice? You know you don’t have to do this, why did you do this?” And I did a lot of back pedaling and justifying. And after a while I scratched my head why I did it as well. I mean I’ve come to understand it subsequently. But a lot of individuals once they knew what my background was, I mean I had three and half years of college, a semester left to graduate and people are saying, are you crazy? What are you doing here? But I never really felt bad about the decision. I never said I should’ve never have don’t that. Even to this day the best decision I ever made. And we’ll get to this later but it really defined my career and the trajectory of my career. It was a hallmark experience, which is unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
When were you in Vietnam and how old were you, and you kind of already touched upon this but what were your beliefs and values at the time?
I was in Vietnam during 1970. It was the post-Tet Offensive. And also Nixon at that time had talked about drawing down the troops. So 1970 was the really pivotal point where we are starting to bring massive amounts of troops home during that time and we were deescalating. So there wasn’t as much action as there had been previous to that because up until the Tet Offensive, it seems like Vietnam is defined by the Tet-Offensive, everything up until the Tet really escalated and since then it deescalated. And I think for whatever reasons, the United States wanted to be out politically, wanted to go out as well, and there is no more support at home. Individuals, families, and the population in the United States just were fed up with it because it got nowhere, it was getting nowhere and no one could really give a good solid reason for why all of these individuals were dying and why we continued to be there. When I was there I spent time at LZ Professional, which was by the Laotian border. And was just south of the DMZ. I was in Chu Lai. I was with the 196th Infantry with the Americal division. It was in Chu Lai which is right along the Eastern sea board next to the South China Sea. And it was south of Danang, south of the DMZ. And actually had a dubious distinction because 196th Infantry and Americal Division is where the massacre occurred at My Lai. I was in the same company as the individuals. Lieutenant Calley, who had been adjudicated and court martial-ed as a result of the My Lai massacre. I came on the heels of that and I went to the same company that had committed those atrocities.
What did you learn about the culture while you were there?
I knew nothing about Vietnam before I went there. I knew we were at war in Vietnam and I knew geographically where it was located. And I knew the politics, the contentious politics like North Vietnam and South Vietnam. I knew a little about that because I’ve done that research that I wrote for that paper. And also you read what you read from the newspapers as well as the nightly news. But I really had no idea what it was like to be there. And I was caught by how beautiful the country is. I can remember walking through mountains and valleys and no evidence of human beings at all. It was just beautiful mountains and valleys and streams and wild life. You’d encounter a wild boar and actually there were tigers. I never encountered that, one of my friends actually encountered a tiger. I wasn’t in the South, I was in the North and it was very much jungle.
I didn’t pick the infantry, the infantry picked me. The DOD picked me to be in the infantry. And so infantry training for the most part is learning how to fire weapons. Your job as an infantryman is a ground pounder or grunt. It’s cannon fodder, what many people call it. I mean you’re the first line of defense. Now, there’s different weapons that you could choose. I served with this one guy who’s a really good friend of mine from Hawaii, we called him Pineapple. He carried an M-60. And there’s grenade launchers and machine guns and various other kind of light weapons infantry. So I was trained in light weapons infantry, but for the most part what I carried was an M-16. The training, and I trained in Fort Jackson, which is in Columbia, South Carolina. There’s nothing they could have done to prepare us, as I look in retrospect. Sure, you learn how to fire a rife, you learn how to low crawl, you learn how to endure certain kind of things. But there’s no way that you can simulate real combat in the jungle. That’s completely different because you never know where the enemy is.
One of the pictures I gave you shows me standing on a log, and it says VC log. Now that VC log was placed at the end of a sandy pit, that is about 50-60 feet long. What we had to do, by the way that sandy pit there was urine, feces, all kind of stuff that ran through that, and also run off from trains and the kitchen. Our training was to low crawl through that with a knife in our mouth. And so we’re low crawling through it, and that’s probably where I got the cellulitis, an infection, from that stuff, but once you got the end from the 50 or 60 foot track, we were supposed to take our bayonet out of our mouth, which we carried in our mouth, and stab the VC log in a violent frenzy. And the idea was that we were transferring our angst and anger, from having to low craw in all this sewage on to the VC log. But we got it, we understood what they were doing. We understood that what they were trying to do is get us angry at the Viet Cong. But we were really angry at them for making us do it. So the psychology didn’t work as far as that concern. So that was some of my training. That was the most hands on training I got in terms of combat.
How did you feel about your position and doing those actions?
Hated it, absolutely hated it. Made me sick to my stomach just seeing what it was that we were doing. This guy in my squad, we called him Doc. He was a conscientious objector but nevertheless he carried a .45. So he walks up to the guy’s body and this is kind of graphic but this tale needs to be told. He opens up his mouth and he sees that he has gold teeth. So he starts stomping on the guy’s body, his face, trying to dislodge the teeth. And after a while he would just reach in there and wiggle the teeth but couldn’t get it out. So he took his surgical scissors, and I’ll never forget this sound. It’s like the sound of scissors cutting through a carrot. And he literally cut the gold teeth out of the guy’s mouth and put them in his pocket. And I was in absolute disbelief. I mean this is defacing, defiling the body and I thought “Wow, the enemy does this, we don’t do this!” But here I am witnessing this first hand. And I’m looking around and of course one thing that you learn is you keep your mouth shut.
What was your post war experience?
At the end of 1970 I immediately, I didn’t waste any time, I was home for three days and I went straight back to my college and I said “Look I want to get back in,” and they embraced me with open arms. As a matter of fact it was probably the best experience that I had and I was really received very well by the department. I changed my major and went from accounting to sociology. So my time in Vietnam really changed me as far as that was concerned. I was struggling about what to study, but sociology just seemed so rich to me. I thought about that during the time. And I always knew that I was going to back and finish my degree. I just didn’t want to do it in accounting. But when I came back the United States was contentious but it seemed like the whole world had changed in the two years I was gone.
I had a completely different perspective on man’s inhumanity to man and the terrorism of war. It’s unlike anything that anybody could, you could read great books about it and I know there are a couple really good books that’s about killing and combat and it really nails the existential experience being in war. And keep in mind that there’s a philosophical piece. There’s an existential piece, other’s a spiritual piece. Because when you start engaging in life or death, you start questioning your beliefs and you start questioning the way that people live life and how easy it is to take a life, which is just horrendous when you just think about how easy it is to take a life. But why is it that we need to take lives in order to propagate political ends. And I think that’s what I came out of it with. Was more of a distaste for politics and for the misuse of young individuals to fight wars for reasons that really weren’t clear about and still aren’t clear today.