That clip above follows an extraordinary story of heroism in battle.
In a night battle against overwhelming odds — his company was badly outnumbered by the attacking NVA — Vincent Okamoto, a Japanese-American who had been born in an internment camp during the Second World War, did an Audie Murphy: He left cover to jump atop an armored personnel carrier, pulled aside the dead body of the machine-gunner, and fired the gun at the enemy until it stopped working.
Then he went to another APC, and fired its gun until it was out of ammunition. Then he did it again from a third APC. When all that ammo was gone, the was still coming, so he started throwing grenades at them. Twice, he threw back enemy grenades thrown at him. A third landed out of his reach, and peppered his back and legs with shrapnel.
Convinced he was going to die (“Mom’s gonna take it hard,” he thought), Okamoto lost all fear, and kept fighting. Eventually, the enemy slipped away into Cambodia, leaving a third of the American company as casualties.
“I killed a lot of brave men that night,” he says. And he tells himself that by doing so, maybe, just maybe, he saved the lives of a couple of his own guys. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for that night of fighting. By the time he went home, he would become the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.
But as is the case with so many decorated heroes, he shoves that aside rather impatiently, speaking of the “real heroes” with whom he served. That’s the clip above. I thought I should share what went before to enhance your experience of the clip.
It’s a pretty powerful evocation of the thing that those of us who’ve never been to war often misunderstand about those who have. We can talk about courage and sacrifice and heroism, and patriotism and causes and waving flags. But to those who have been there, that stuff is so often (if not always) beside the point. It’s about the guys next to you. Whatever you do, you do for them, in the context of the moment, and not for the stuff of Fourth of July speeches.
And I can say all that stuff in words, because I’ve read it so many times in words, and I think I understand it well enough to do that. But I don’t really know. How can I?
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that “veneer of civilization” that turned thin and frayed and was ripped aside at about this time.
At this point, Martin and Bobby have already fallen, and once again we’re reminded of how much was lost in those two men. (By the way, if you’ve never listened to the recording of RFK announcing MLK’s death at a campaign rally, and then going on to speak with an eloquence that puts everyone since him in the shade, listen now. It always gives me goosebumps.)
RFK, I believe, could have been the guy to pull his party together and not only win the election, but help heal the country. It had seemed that way since he had made his late entry into the race. He, perhaps, could have done what neither Humphrey nor McCarthy could do. Without him, and MLK, there wasn’t much of a chance for that.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago was one of the low points of American civilization — all those multifaceted freaks acting out in the streets, and all those Chicago cops brutalizing them. And what did they accomplish? Why, the election — just barely — of Richard Nixon. In the same sense that the Bernie Bros helped elect Trump, only more so. The Democratic brand was so damaged that HHH couldn’t overcome it, despite the prevalence of his party all through the decade up to that point.
I’ve heard a lot from Doug and others during this series about how awful JFK and LBJ supposedly were. It just makes me sad, because I know I can’t explain to folks with that attitude why they’re wrong to engage in such blanket condemnation.
It’s foolish for people with that attitude of monolithic negativity to think a series such as this would “open my eyes” and cause me to see things as they do. And it’s equally foolish for me to think the same experience would temper the views of those who are deeply cynical as a result of the way that war tore the country apart. (I didn’t have much hope of that, but I’ll confess to thinking “maybe…”)
But there is one point on which this series has affected my thinking, leaving me with a darker view of someone or something: I am repeatedly appalled by hearing those conversations that Nixon had with Kissinger and others.
Over the decades, my view of Nixon has softened somewhat. After all, his mastery of policy seems particularly worthy of respect in a time when we have a complete idiot in the White House.
But his cold cynicism and clamoring for personal political advantage is nauseating. How can a person, even speaking privately with his confidantes, say such nakedly Machiavellian things?
And remember, folks, this is the guy who kept his promise to get us out of Vietnam.
I’d still take him over Trump, for many reasons. But he was pretty awful. I’m reminded by this series that he was the worst president in my lifetime, until now. Worse than I had remembered…