For those that will fight for it…FREEDOM …has a flavor the protected shall never know.L/Cpl Edwin L. “Tim” Craft, B Co 3rd AT’s, Khe Sanh Combat Base, February, 1968
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the Life & Writings of Benjamin Franklin
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Growing up, my parents had a battered blue photo album (remember those things?) that I loved to flip through. It had pictures of my father at various camps in Vietnam – including some men that my father would remember through tears, as they did not make it home. And pictures of my (very beautiful) mother playing on the beach in Southern California. I studied every detail of those pictures, the years when two worlds collided before they created me.
They met on a blind date to a Beach Boys concert (quintessential 1960s Southern California there) right before my father shipped off overseas (Oberammergau and then Nam) and wrote back and forth to each other during his tour of duty as a door gunner on a helicopter gunship with the 101st Airborne (life expectancy of like 30 seconds in battle). They were married when my father returned, with a Bronze Star for valor in combat, on Independence Day, in 1970. Today they are celebrating their 50th (!) wedding anniversary. It was a long-standing joke in our household that they chose to leave their personal independence behind on Independence Day.
The only other “souvenir” they have from that era is the bag of letters my father had written to my mother on red, white, and blue military stationery. He was not allowed to keep the letters she wrote to him. The soldiers would burn the letters from home so they would not fall into the enemy’s hands. (Communists were very much into psychological warfare. If they came across a soldier’s letters, they would write letters back home to tell their family or significant other that they had died or send lewd things.) To this day, they have refused to share the contents of those letters with us. Apparently some of them are pretty raw, which isn’t surprising, because my father was in some of the goriest battles of the war, including Dong Ap Bia, the Crouching Beast, Hill 937 (otherwise known as Hamburger Hill). And, honestly, I don’t think Hamburger Hill was the worst battle he experienced, though it seems to be the one most Americans know about.
On the inside of the photo album’s front cover, my father had written in calligraphy, “Freedom is a taste the protected will never know.” After that, he had written the dates when he shipped off to Vietnam (he was drafted) and the day he finally made it home. He told us growing up that he also had this written this quote on his helmet along with my mother’s name.
Those words have remained with me over the years. Until today, I did not know they were paraphrasing a 1968 speech from Tim Craft:
I graduated from High School in 1966, and all of my course studies had been academic. My main interests besides girls were Marching Band and Debate. Having won the Kansas State Oratorical championship in 1964 with a speech topic “Optimism Formula For Freedom“, my intentions were to become a lawyer. I was aware of the Viet Nam war, especially when it began to heat up in 1965. Little did I know that before the next year was over that I would take a journey straight into the pits of hell and see the heaviest fighting our country has ever experienced.
After high school, I enrolled in junior college. I paid my own way by also working at night part time for the H. D. Lee Company that made clothing. When I quit college to join the Marines my professors and especially the office tried to get me to reconsider by saying “But your grades are well above average. You will never have to go!” My reply, and my reason for joining, was simply “those guys fighting and dying over there are no more deserving to be there than me, and I can’t feel right letting them do something I would not.”
My goal was never to be heroic or gallant. That was the last thing on my mind. After joining, I was barely in the states nine months when I was sent to Nam. En route, we landed on Wake Island. It looked like a grain of sand in the middle of the ocean when our commercial flight United 747 Jet pitched downward and aimed at that grain of sand. My thought was “You’ve got to be kidding me”. All of the Marines that fought there became POW’s of the Japanese. Later, I met one of them and got to know him well. I spoke at his funeral. His name was Bob Eaton.
Next stop was Okinawa. The next day it was Da Nang, then Dong Ha, then Hell at Con Thien. My first day in the field I met a Marine who would be my Commanding Officer…a fine man. Thirty minutes later, Lt. Dallas Thompson would move in front of me and die from an explosion. He fell right across my lap and died looking into my eyes. We were taking so much incoming that our Platoon Sgt. ordered us off the hill, mainly because they had our little bunker zero’d in. When I found a hole to jump in, the Marine in it mistook me for a corpsman and called me “Doc”. He said, “’Doc’, that is some of the fanciest footwork I have ever seen. They were following you all the way down. You would go right and they would explode left, then you’d go left and they would explode right. You probably saved all of those guys.” I told him, “I’m not a corpsman. I’m a Marine, and I just got here. All I was is scared and following orders. I don’t know enough to plan anything!” He just looked at me for a long while and said, “That was still some run Doc!” (Jarheads!!!) Con Thien, by the way means “Place of Angels”. We were under siege there for several months and were cut off from food and water for much of it.
Leatherneck Magazine called the siege for Con Thien “Time in the Barrel”. We received a minimum of 200 incoming rounds a day, and it was a small place. It felt like they hit every square inch. One thing I quickly learned was how to know the difference in the sounds of incoming. That knowledge was literally a matter of life and death. Mortars made a high arch and the initial blast in the distance was a muffled report. An artillery round has a bassier sound. It gave you slightly more time to find cover, but if it was on you, then you were in deep trouble. The other one was the most terrifying. It was the rocket, and it screamed as it came in. You could not tell where it might come down, and it came fast. They also had recoilless rifles that fired large shells. They went off almost at the same time you heard them fired at you, and they had a flat trajectory.
My second day in the field another Marine and I wiped out an artillery section that had us pinned down. The Phantoms that flew over reported we had killed 162 of the enemy. This was L/Cpl Arthur Kennedy and myself. We went out under direct fire and had to get out and make sure the grunts (infantry) were down before we could fire our Ontos. If we had been in any other branch both of us would have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The truth I learned over and over is the Marines were too small an outfit to allow its members to go to receive them, and many of the Marines I knew were cheated out of them. During 1967 and 1968 the Marines bore the brunt of the war, and that is a fact. World Book Encyclopedia reported that fact. Don’t get me wrong. I am not medal happy and I wasn’t then. When I returned I had at least four rows, and the Marines make you earn theirs.
After months of carnage we had a cease fire on Christmas Eve of 1967. I arrived there about the second week of August and saw many good men die. All of us lived with death every second of every day. On this particular Christmas Eve I heard a broadcast on Armed Forces radio and learned the “Clintonites” were marching on our Capitol protesting against us! I could not believe what I was hearing. Here we were fighting for freedom and these low life commies back home were fighting against us. I was dazed. I just could not understand it. I was hurt to my soul, angered, and disgusted. (This motivated me to write a message on a C-Ration case.)
Not very long after that night we got the word that we were going to a resort area called Khe Sanh. It had not seen any of this type of action. It actually had a mess hall and a laundry, and they marched to chow. Wow!!! What unfathomable luxuries. Also, during this time I was on an operation with B Co 1/9 called Kingfisher, where we got the name “Walking Dead”, and a new phrase was coined “Thousand yard stare.” One of the Marines started cussing one night, and there was a big commotion. The next day we found out a tiger had grabbed him by the arm and was just carrying him off. He was punching it in the snout. It got as far as the Ben Hoa River and didn’t know what to do with him, so it just let him go. That story was in Stars and Stripes. (I was afraid to write back home about that one for fear they would think I was nuts.) The Marines just kidded him about being too grisly for the tiger and that it wanted a softer cut of meat.
When I got to Khe Sanh, sure enough, they were marching to chow, had on starched utilities, and what really blew my mind was that all of their bunkers were built above ground!!! What was wrong with these people? We were met by our new CO, whom I had met at Con Thien. I didn’t know who he was, just that he was a big wig. Captain James Lea told us in no uncertain terms that we would fall out in the morning clean shaven and in freshly starched utilities, because special arrangements had been made for us. The Junior Officer took over after Captain Lea left and asked if we had any questions. Being an old salt by now I told him, “Sir, with all due respect for your rank you can go —- yourself, because me and my men are not going to live in any of these above ground bunkers.” He said “Fine, Corporal Craft” (Actually, I was only a L/Cpl, lance corporal). He said “See that wire over there? You just take your merry men and go right out there and pick out any real estate you want because that is enemy territory and they will be glad to have you. But, as long as you are here, you will comply. Is that clear?” I said “Yes sir, perfectly.”
When he turned away and went back to the HQ, we beat feet for the wire and told them we were going to be an LP (listening post). You can bet we would be too! They said “And you’re taking an Ontos to an LP?” I just said “You never can be too careful!” We went out and started digging in. We were the diggingest bunch of guys you ever saw. We just dug and filled sand bags. I think they knew they had been had because they ignored us for nearly a week. Then, our Lt was sent out to read us the riot act. En route, the siege began. The enemy hit the ammo dump, and it sounded like Volkswagens flying past us. It was Con Thien all over again. The next day I was sent for and they wanted me to work with some Seabees to show then how to build the new bunkers. (I wonder why?)
This siege lasted for 77 days and was the most intense fighting of our history. Some reports say there were 1,000 of us and as many as 400,000 of the enemy. Other reports show 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh, but this was not the Combat base. This figure had to include the surrounding hills and supporting units. Khe Sanh Combat base wasn’t that big! Essentially, it was a runway. We were taking some 1,600 rounds of incoming per day every day on this tiny piece of real estate. Someone calculated that we had an explosion from an enemy device every 30 seconds day and night for 77 days. I had been called away from my safe hole when they found out my secondary mos was Ammo/Tech. It was during this time that I spotted a reporter and asked him if he would please mind getting a message back to the world for me. He asked “What is it?” I told him and he looked shocked and asked if I would mind writing that down. I said “Sure” and wrote it on a C-Ration case. That message is: “For those that will fight for it…FREEDOM …has a flavor the protected shall never know.”
When I think about all the absurdities that have happened in our country so far this year – people losing their livelihoods because state and local governments have arbitrarily and capriciously decided to put them out of business, people losing their livelihoods because these governments will not protect their property or staff from obvious criminal behavior, kids losing their education for all practical purposes, governors issuing mandates that people cannot buy seeds for their garden or sing in church while allowing thousands of others to parade and riot – I think, man, can it get any worse than the total depravity we are seeing in state and local governments now?
Then I think of my father at 20 years old. Drafted into a war he did not want to be in, to fight for a political position he did not agree with, against people he did not grow up wanting to hurt. And all the thousands of men put into the same position as him whose lives were snatched away from them before they ever really began, all by government fiat. And how that situation was replicated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and numerous other “conflicts” in recent years that the people back home can’t even locate on a map because they are too busy staring into their phones at the outrage du jour.
Can there be a more acute loss of freedom than politicians manipulating health care to sow chaos and disorder? Yeah, actually, there is.
My father was sent to Vietnam by President Lyndon B. Johnson, also the architect of the modern welfare state and the person who absolutely destroyed black and brown nuclear families. (Did you know that upwards of 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock now? And those are the ones who didn’t get aborted. I read recently that black homeschoolers score over 40 points higher than black kids in public schools on standardized tests. Is that a story about homeschooling or are black homeschoolers the ones most likely to have strong and intact families? The legacy of LBJ, and people are still trying to overcome it.) LBJ was the machine politician par excellence, and he scarred my father (and arguably my entire family) for life.
Through the lens of my father’s post-combat suffering, I came to understand why machine politicians are such monsters: the last thing they appreciate is the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Your entire existence is nothing but a means to an end for them. And that is what we are seeing now. Your job, your hard-won savings, your safety, your kid’s education, are all just means to an end for politicians that want to snub Trump in an election year. They’d destroy you in a heartbeat if it served the theater they are participating in or are desperate to participate in back in DC.
Governments have the power to be absolutely ruinous, and it certainly doesn’t start and end at the federal level. You’d be surprised by the degree of tyranny even the local school board or zoning officials can accomplish when motivated. But that’s not something most people understand until they’ve been directly harmed. In fact, an astonishing number of people are perfectly fine watching other people suffer so long as it is not affecting their bottom line. That is one thing this pandemic has illustrated quite clearly – as the middle class digital nomads and retirees pooh-pooh the “lower class” Help as they struggle to survive. Can’t your child just do school on their laptop?
The consolation for people who worry about any institutions is that institutions tend to be much larger than a single generation. Not all of them, but most of them. The Catholic Church will survive a nutso Marxist pope who thinks he can invent new sins (and defines “sin” as disagreeing with his politics) in the same way it survived many other corrupt popes – by the faithful secretly keeping ancient rituals and creeds intact. Education will survive 1960s bullshit critical theory and staged race wars – perhaps in a new form, but it will survive, and probably improve as parents become more involved in what their children are learning. Great American cities will be destroyed and then they will be rebuilt. All by people strong enough to hold the line.
There has never been a great civilization without a period of Dark Ages, where the enemies were within instead of outside. Never. And Dark Ages tend not to be one long morass that people fall into and escape – like quicksand in 1980s pop culture – but a destination that people have to learn and re-learn to avoid. (We used to joke when our daughter was a baby that babies divide their universe into three categories: food, not food, and try again later. That’s more or less the trajectory of politics: civilization, not civilization, and try again later.)
One of the funny things about the American Revolution is that America was a great civilization well before the Declaration of Independence. A lot of school kids don’t know that, because textbooks treat the war as “okay we fought and won, now let’s start to figure this whole government thing out.” Enlightenment punks were fighting against the British decades before that famous fuck-you was signed, sealed, and delivered. By the time the Revolution was in full swing, it was the project of more than one generation. On the sly, our Founding Fathers had built a shadow country to preserve the values they held dear.
And that has happened several times in the course of our country’s history. Abolitionists built a shadow society. Industrialists built a shadow society. And now, whatever we are, the people who continue to believe in the American experiment, have a shadow society.
These do tend to prevail against the odds. But there is never an easy path to autonomy. So be glad for the brawl, because it means you possess something worth fighting for.
Happy Independence Day!