Who really remembers the Vietnam War? In realistic terms, not too many. Two-thirds of today’s population in America was still waiting to be born when the war ended in 1975. Despite the fact that the controversial fight that tore America apart is now part of America’s distant past, Jeff Danziger felt that this was the perfect time to write Lieutenant Dangerous, a funny and engagingly insightful memoir of his rollercoaster experiences in the US army when Americans were forced to deal with their first real experience at total military defeat.
The real stimulus for this book was Danziger’s attempt to explain what the war was like to a group of young Americans who in less fortunate times might have been eligible for the draft. His book is well worth reading. Danziger is one of America’s funniest political cartoonists and happily, he is equally talented as a writer.
His book, which careens from political satire to wrenching personal history with a highly palatable dollop of social analysis, is as relevant today as it would have been when the events it describes were taking place. That’s because Danziger’s real subject is not just the war. It is about the defects in American society that made possible the catastrophic errors in judgment that resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 American GIs and possibly two to three million Vietnamese.
Towards the end of the book, Danziger asks Neil Sheehan what we got out of the war. Sheehan, who covered the early stages of the war for The New York Times and then wrote The Bright and Shining Lie, responds that at least we will never do it again. Danziger replies that he is not so sure. Subsequent adventures, ranging from Ronald Reagan’s pathetic invasion of Grenada and meddling in Central America to George W. Bush’s disastrous involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq, are proof of Danziger’s prescience.
The real villain in Danziger’s book is the corruption in America’s lack of a sense of civic responsibility that made the war possible, ultimately rendered military defeat inevitable, and in the process made patriotism suspect. Danziger makes it abundantly clear from the first page that he never wanted to be there.
For Danziger and for any young American just out of college, the draft, with its mandatory registration at age 18, was nothing less than a lethal game of roulette. The effect was to trap American youth in a pointless Washington policy blunder that they neither understood nor wanted to participate in.
Young Americans and the Draft
From the start, the system was both unfair and opaque. No one knew how draft boards were chosen or how they arrived at deciding who would have to go to Vietnam. Draft boards were local, and there was a natural incentive to pick candidates who lacked political clout. For Danziger, the mistake was to register in one state and then to move to another, Vermont, as the war progressed. Since he was no longer around, his original draft board risked no political fallout in selecting him.
In contrast to Danziger, others found the war relatively easy to dodge. George W. Bush, for instance, simply enrolled in an Air National Guard unit, created to shelter the sons of privilege and guaranteeing safe haven stateside. Bush never bothered to attend the fictional meetings. Donald Trump famously developed phantom “bone spurs.” Dick Cheney, later to rise to prominence as vice president and a confirmed chicken hawk, pleaded a weak heart. Danziger was clearly too much a straight shooter, too bright and too impressionable, to resort to that sort of deviousness.
My preference in reading Danziger’s book is clearly with the author. I was called up by the draft roughly a year earlier than Danziger. I could easily have dodged that bullet, but for a number of reasons decided not to. Instead, I enlisted to have some leverage, but, like everyone else, I eventually ended up in Vietnam.
In Danziger’s case, surrendering to the draft did not end his opposition to personal participation in the war. His major tactic, once he finished basic training, was to find new and imaginative ways to stall the Army long enough to keep it from sending him to Vietnam. His first orders were to study Vietnamese language at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX. It was not an auspicious assignment, but it at least entailed six months in a relatively risk-free environment.
Hope springs eternal, and Danziger deluded himself into thinking that even if he were sent to Vietnam, his language ability would probably secure him a cushy staff job at a command headquarters as an interpreter or translator. Just to be safe, he applied to Officer Candidate School (OCS) — another six months delay. A number of technicalities ruled out OCS, but under new rules, the fact that he had already graduated from a university cleared the way for a direct appointment as an officer. His instant transition from private to second lieutenant only served to convince Danziger that the US Army was really desperate.
Nevertheless, he still hoped for something connected to intelligence work in a cushy and relatively safe office. No such luck. In classic military fashion, he found himself assigned to work as an ordnance officer — essentially a glorified mechanic, servicing worn out artillery pieces, ammunition, and bombs and, as it turned out, repairing aging truck engines. After wasting just enough time to forget most of the Vietnamese he had learned, he was finally shipped off to Vietnam and assigned to replace the barrels of howitzers that tended to wear out after repeated firings. He soon realized that no matter where you were in Vietnam, no matter what job you had, there were no front lines. You could just as easily get killed anywhere doing nothing.
Vietnam: Nowhere Was Really Safe
Before long, despite his best efforts at procrastination, Danziger found himself in the thick of it. When the commander of his ordnance detachment rotated back to the US, leaving Danziger in charge, his advice to Danziger was to look authoritative, say as little as possible, and let his sergeants run the show. All that was fine, but it didn’t make Vietnam any less dangerous.
It did not take long to realize that the war was going nowhere fast. The ultimate objective, creating a viable government for South Vietnam, seemed farther off than ever. The main reason for keeping the enterprise going was that while American GIs and Vietnamese were dying, some people were making a great deal of money. The war was definitely good for big business, whether you were selling equipment, uniforms, ammunition, or an assortment of bizarre weaponry which often seemed flat out ridiculous.
Before shipping off to Vietnam, Danziger had already encountered a giant machine designed to dig instant trenches by injecting fuel into the ground and then detonating small explosions thanks to a sort of spark plug contraption. The downside was that the repeated explosions eventually tore the machine apart. It looked good on paper. The chances of it working in combat were next to zero.
Likewise, Danziger encountered the infamous M113 armored personnel carrier, better known as an APC, which for some reason the Pentagon had bought in massive quantities at around $300,000 a pop. Inexplicably manufactured by the Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation (MPC), this mobile metal coffin was ostensibly designed to shield soldiers from gunfire and shrapnel. The only drawback was that a North Vietnamese B40 rocket grenade with its shaped explosive charge could easily pierce its walls and eviscerate anyone dumb enough to be inside with ricocheting shrapnel. In fact, an M16 bullet could also go right through the APC’s walls.
Not surprisingly, soldiers refused to shelter inside the thing. Instead, they sat on top and tried to take cover behind strategically placed sandbags. Other weapons were even more bizarre. Danziger reports that the army experimented with a heliborne device that was supposed to detect the sweat from enemy exertion. When a troop concentration was detected beneath the jungle canopy, B-52 bombers would be called in to annihilate the enemy forces. As soon as the North Vietnamese realized the trick, they hung plastic bags of urine from the trees, and another million dollars worth of ordnance was dropped where it could do the least damage, except to the American taxpayer.
Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the War
After he had been in Vietnam for a while, Danziger’s spotty knowledge of Vietnamese finally did get him assigned as a liaison with South Vietnamese troops, and he began to have a deeper understanding of the real reasons why the war could never work. If the Americans had been pressed into military service against their will, the ordinary South Vietnamese soldiers were even more reluctant warriors. The Vietnamese who worked with Danziger began calling him Lieutenant Dangerous. It was easier to pronounce than his real name, but it also captured his readiness to expose himself in risky places despite his sentiments against the war.
Danziger clearly felt sympathy for his Vietnamese counterparts, but he soon realized that the only glue holding the whole show together was corruption. If he had tried to steer clear of useless combat, he was not alone. Everyone else was simply trying to stay alive.
Towards the end of his tour, American GIs began letting their officers know that they would no longer attack the supposed enemy aggressively. American officers who failed to get the message were “fragged.” A fragmentation grenade was tossed in their direction. Initially the pin was left in the grenade so it didn’t go off, but if the message still didn’t get through, some of the most aggressive officers were simply killed in action — no one could say by whom. The war was doomed, not by a communist victory but by the fact that US soldiers had let it be known that, for the most part, they were no longer prepared to fight.
The culmination came when the US tried to get the South Vietnamese to launch an offensive, dubbed Lam Son 719, which was intended to go into Laos and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran supplies into South Vietnam. The badly conceived operation constituted a suicide mission for helicopter pilots, and many South Vietnamese pilots refused to fly. Soon a growing number of American pilots refused to fly as well.
Danziger found himself in the middle of a chaotic situation in which no one seemed to know what they were doing or why. By then he had served his year in Vietnam and was technically authorized to leave. With his time up, he received orders to leave both Vietnam and finally the Army. He received a Bronze Star and an Air medal for his service, but he had the conviction that the war had not accomplished much of anything, except that he was now more serious and mature than when he had first landed in the country.
My own experience in Vietnam had an uncanny similarity to Danziger’s. Like Danziger, I had gone through basic training at Fort Dix and was then assigned to Fort Bliss in Texas. Instead of Vietnamese, I had studied how to maintain and repair the computer systems that control the US Continental Air Defense. Through an accidental series of events, I transferred into military intelligence, and went through six months of training and then another six months at the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute just outside Washington, DC.
While Danziger studied Vietnamese, I studied French. One of the students in my class was an Army colonel who was about to be assigned as a military attaché to an African country. He had just finished a tour managing communications for the White House, and he was plugged into developments in the Pentagon. We had lunch together most days. It was early 1967. “Westmoreland can’t hack it,” the colonel told me confidentially. “We’re going to replace him with the current Army chief of staff, Creighton Abrams.” It was almost a year before the 1968 Tet offensive.
More Than Just a Misguided War
My military service in Vietnam ended in February 1969 just as Danziger was about to begin his. Once out of the army, I stayed in the US for a few weeks and then went back to Vietnam to work as a freelance journalist. I had made too many Vietnamese friends to simply let the matter drop. I worked first for Metromedia, a broadcast network, and then for NBC News. I remember calling the US command on a story. “We’ve been told not to talk to you,” the colonel at the other end of the line said, “They say you’re dangerous.” I laughed, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all week,” I said.
Returning to the US, Danziger tried to put the war behind him and taught English for a number of years. In the more than 40 years since the war ended, Danziger began working for newspapers, and today he is one of America’s most successful syndicated political cartoonists. It’s hard not to think that his frustrating experiences in Vietnam played an important role in sharpening his critical eye when it comes to deflating political folly.
None of my experiences in Vietnam advanced the war effort by an iota, but what I learned from the experience proved invaluable in an eclectic career in journalism that followed. In 1994, I went back to Vietnam as Time’s bureau chief for Southeast Asia. I interviewed the North Vietnamese generals who had organized the final occupation of Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. When I asked the generals what they had thought about Westmoreland, their response was surprising. “We thought he was honorable,” said a general. “They would,” a Time editor told me. “We lost the war.”
I traveled the length of Vietnam from the Chinese border to the southern delta in the late 1990s. When people asked my nationality, my answer was “Ngoui My — American” which also means beautiful people. Americans were extraordinarily popular — much more so than Russians, who pretended to be American but were casually dismissed by the Vietnamese as “Americans without dollars.”
When I had talked politics with Vietnamese friends, the invariable response was “Well, it is and it isn’t.” In the Asian view of history a thing can be simultaneously bad and good — it depends on your point of view. Today, Vietnam has opened its ports to ships from the US Navy and looks to America for support in guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
No one doubts that we lost the war, but in losing it and letting the Vietnamese take control of their own country without us, we secured a future victory of sorts. By defeating the world’s most powerful military power, the Vietnamese gained the confidence they needed to create their own country.
“Don’t be fooled,” an American who lives in Hanoi told me recently. “This may be the nicest police state in the world, but it is still a police state.” Vietnam today is by no means perfect, but for most Vietnamese, it seems good enough. For much of the West, Vietnam has emerged as something of a capitalist manufacturing powerhouse with some surprising advantages over China.
None of that is much consolation to the 50,000 Americans who died in Vietnam or the hundreds of thousands who were horribly wounded and maimed during the war. Regardless of where Vietnam is today, the war was a folly brought on by ignorance in Washington and fueled by the greed of profiteers who saw the war as a golden opportunity to make some quick bucks.
That formula has not changed. Danziger’s book is a note to the wise. You can forget about the Vietnam War. Certainly, the past cannot be recovered. But it pays to be on guard not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. Danziger has written a fine book and it is well worth reading.