When One’s Duty and the Right Thing are not the Same

When One’s Duty and the Right Thing are not the Same

April 30, 2020 in Latest
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A Jewish Vietnam Veteran looks back 50 years on the moral journey that changed his life.

Like a distant thunderstorm, at first unseen and unheard, the sounds of a Southeast Asia war were only faintly in the background at first. That started to change with the commitment of American combat troops in the Fall of 1965. By then I was one year into law school at Columbia and was sharing an apartment with Bruce, a fraternity brother at Cornell, who, like myself, had graduated with an ROTC commission. We were second lieutenants. Sitting in the small living room of our West 119th Street apartment just north of the law school, the nightly TV newscast told a story we did not want to hear. Each night, it seemed, Lyndon Johnson was committing more and more combat troops to prop up the South Vietnam government. We started to become alarmed and anti-war. Bruce and I became more and more outraged and fearful, as war casualties topped the daily newscasts. With each passing month and then year, we felt we were being sucked into a war which seemed both ill-advised and immoral. It was a civil war. The French colonialists had been defeated in 1954. Why was this our business? I wrote anti-war songs. One, “Why Don’t You Believe Us Anymore?” was sarcastic and caustic, which began, “We seek no wider war . . .” and used bitter irony to attack the deception being used to build support for the war. I performed it at a Saturday night coffee house in front of a small group of students sitting at dimly lit tables in the basement of Columbia’s Sage Chapel during the winter of 1966-67.

Growing up, I had believed that serving my country and doing the right thing were one and the same thing. I was born three years to the day before the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending the Second World War. My early childhood was shaped by the popular culture that grew out of the American victory. Patriotism was in the air. I was six years old in 1948. In first grade at The Flower Hill Elementary School in Port Washington, on the North Shore of Long Island. Miss Tomashoff, my teacher, showed us a newsreel of the signing of the unconditional surrender of the Japanese aboard the Battleship Missouri, and she taught us a song about that signing on the Missouri. The tune planted itself in a small child’s head and stayed there.

As a young schoolboy, I proudly watched my father march in the Memorial Day parade, resplendent in his red and white fireman’s uniform, with brilliant gold buttons. My father was a strong and likeable businessman, who went out of his way to befriend and fit in to the Gentile world. He owned a gas station, Beacon Service, at the corner of Main Street and Mackey Avenue, where we lived, about seven blocks up the hill. His business partner, “Uncle” Augie, was a handsome and lovable Italian. There were not more than a few dozen Jewish families in Port Washington in those days. They owned businesses along Main Street–Siegel’s Furniture, Alper’s Hardware, Greenfield’s Pharmacy, and so on. My father had been president of Temple Beth Israel, a congregation that met in a plain, narrow one-story building near the train station. But my mother was the one who planted Judaism in my head. Sitting at her feet, I would listen to her as she sang sad Yiddish songs to me in the living room armchair and played songs like “If I had wings of an angel, over these prison bars I would fly” on the piano. She would take me to synagogue services and delighted in having her little boy sing “Av HaRachamim” to her girlfriends. But in my elementary school class I was the only Jew until fourth grade. Playing punch ball or on the street, I sometimes was called names. At Christmastime my class sang Christmas carols and my friends had their trees and presents. I tried to fit in. On days like Memorial Day, when the firemen had their picnic on the ball fields of Manorhaven Beach, we had a chance to be like everyone else. In school, and especially playing ball on the street, I felt I had something to prove. In that way, I think I was like my father.

I had a strong moral sensibility. When I saw something that was wrong, I tried to correct it – sometimes to my detriment. And when I had a platform, I used it. As president of the Roslyn High School Honor Society, I gave a speech at the induction ceremonies during the winter of my senior year. I shocked the audience of upperclassmen by challenging them about cheating that was going on in the school, leading into that theme with the example of the recently disclosed and then infamous scandal of Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren’s cheating to win the TV quiz show Twenty-One. I knew how my classmates would react. There were not a lot of people coming up to me afterward patting me on the back. One person who did was Mrs. Ramey, my English teacher, who said I would make a fine lawyer. But what mattered to me was doing the right thing. Still, I was not alone in believing in America and its symbols. We, the Class of 1960, were Kennedy’s “new generation of Americans.” Many of us joined the civil rights movement and were ready for “what [we] could do for [our] country.” Military service was prized in those days. The way I saw it, serving my country was the moral thing to do.

So, when it came time to decide whether to sign up for Reserve Officer Training Corps at freshman registration at Cornell in the Fall of 1960, I signed up. I was completely unaware that camouflage-uniformed United States military “advisors” were deeply involved in South Vietnam, trying to prevent a Communist takeover. For me there was no war, no Vietnam, not even Laos. I still could drop out of ROTC before the end of the second year. It felt like there were no consequences. I thought, I’m just keeping my options open. I had no idea this was the first of many dominos to fall.

By early 1967, with President Johnson raising troop levels close to half a million, Bruce and I felt compelled to get more involved. We decided to participate in the anti-war march that jolted New York on April 15, 1967. A huge crowd gathered in Sheep Meadow in Central Park. I can still hear the slow-motion roar, “PEACE NOW! PEACE NOW!” The enormous sound of 200,000 people shouting and reverberating off the walls of the Plaza Hotel and the skyscrapers lining Central Park South and Fifth Avenue sent shivers through me then, and now. It was like all of humanity breathing in and breathing out together. There was the hallucination that this was real power. That people acting together could stop the war. Bruce and I felt like at least we had broken out of our shells and done something.

Johnson with his law school roommate Bruce during meeting at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon in August 1968.

But with law school soon over, we faced active duty. We were both on the conveyor belt to Vietnam. It seemed that my prayers had been answered toward the end of training at the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, when on Halloween 1967 I was among 22 lieutenants selected for further training at the US Army Intelligence School for assignment to the Eighth Army in Korea. In early December, we arrived at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, for training in background investigations, typing, and report writing. We were told to bring our golf clubs! But all that changed on February 12, 1968. It was an unusually cold morning. Emergency orders had been posted on the school bulletin board. There was no mistaking the change to the Vietnam APO. My heart sank. Our orders had been switched with the class ahead of us, who were being sent to Korea instead of us to meet the crisis precipitated by North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo. We were getting their orders to Vietnam.

We were in a profound state of shock. I saw pale, drawn, worried faces. One fellow absent-mindedly kept bumping into things as he walked around the classroom; others tried to relieve or hide the tension with laughter or dark humor. We pondered the photograph in the morning’s Baltimore Sun of an intelligence officers’ billet in Saigon which had been destroyed by Viet Cong rockets. We concluded that we were to be the new cannon fodder.

The one thing that I carried with me, from the day I signed up for ROTC freshman year at Cornell until the day eight years later that I landed in the strategic rural district of Cu Chi (20 miles from both Saigon to the South and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia to the West) as the new intelligence “advisor,” was ambivalence. At each fork in the road, I had to make highly consequential decisions without knowing what those consequences would be. I thought I was “keeping my options open.” Every day of the 360 days I was in Vietnam I wrestled with what was the right thing to do. But in the end my ambivalence hardly made a difference. My decisions had consequences. The Viet Cong were now my enemy. My daily experience in Cu Chi District would be of Viet Cong mining the roads I drove on, mortaring the advisor house I slept in, and firing on me and the men I depended on. Doing anything but my duty was unthinkable. My opinions about the morality of the war were no match for my survival instinct.

Johnson, with Vietnamese military and civilian officials stationed in Cu Chi District, admiring arms cache captured from the Viet Cong.

Shortly after our arrival in Vietnam, in mid-May 1968, in the air-conditioned, tile-floored and paneled classroom at the Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam (CICV) in Saigon, the operation of the DIOCC – the District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center – was explained to our group of newly in-country lieutenants. Professionally prepared organization tables, flows charts, maps, and diagrams were used to paint a pretty fancy picture for us of what the DIOCC was supposed to be. Our task was to bring representatives of all the Vietnamese intelligence agencies under one roof, and to collect and disseminate intelligence reports from these sources for use by American combat forces operating in our area. There in the classroom, on the first large board in front of us, was the DIOCC in the center, with lines radiating out in all directions to little boxes, representing intelligence collectors–the national police, the military intelligence, the public works cadre, the census takers, the US-paid mercenaries–all feeding their intelligence reports and information into the central office. Another large board, with rectangular boxes with arrows leading around in a circle, showed what happened to this “intelligence.” In a circle, clockwise from the top, you could see in each box, “collection,” “translation,” “collation,” “recording,” “evaluation,” “dissemination,” “reaction,” “retargeting,” around and around. Another chart showed forces reacting to the intelligence along the bottom, “national police field force,” “district intelligence squad,” “Provincial Reconnaissance Unit” (known as “the PRU” – CIA-paid Vietnamese mercenaries), “Vietnamese Government regional and popular forces,” and “American combat units,” connected by lines up to the central DIOCC box at the top.

If the DIOCC was the skeletal structure of the intelligence collection and exploitation strategy against the Viet Cong, the then-secret Phoenix Program was the muscle, the idea that made it go. Phoenix was the code name for the intelligence program developed by the CIA in 1967, aimed at eliminating the Viet Cong’s political infrastructure. The charts and diagrams explaining Phoenix were even more complicated. Drawings of file cards, dossiers, file cabinets, interrogation forms, and target maps. The dossiers were connected by arrows to the file cards, which in turn were connected to target maps and file cabinets. The flow of information into the DIOCC box was designed to facilitate the flow of Viet Cong political cadre into the elimination box.

It was an exceptionally antiseptic rendering of what later would become a toxic program in the minds of many Americans, especially those against the war. Why did it become toxic? Because it targeted the civilians who made up the Viet Cong’s government apparatus that fed recruits, food and medicine, supplies, and financial support into the Viet Cong’s guerilla war against the South Vietnam government. Phoenix recognized the uncomfortable reality that in order to succeed, the guerilla war being waged by the Viet Cong required a civilian support infrastructure in the towns and villages. What in the minds of Americans at home seemed a clear moral threshold was a lot more murky in the minds of Americans fighting the guerilla war in Vietnam.

In those first weeks, I was not focused on the details of the Saigon intelligence briefings. My mind was on how do I stay alive? How safe was the outpost that I would be dropped into? Would I be little more than an infantryman? I was not focused on intelligence collection. I did not think about how uncomfortable I would be leading, or even giving assignments to, a squad of mercenaries tasked with finding and “neutralizing” the Viet Cong’s political infrastructure (VCI).

There was nothing that I learned in Hebrew School or as president of the high school honor society, or my inner self, that was consistent with my assignment. Yet, the PRU was the one group of soldiers over whom I was assigned some direct control and responsibility. During orientation in Saigon and upon my arrival at Cu Chi, the PRU were described as a counter-terror weapon organized by American military intelligence officials to find, turn, capture or kill the Viet Cong political cadre. The PRU had gained a reputation, as a 1968 Newsweek article asserted, of being armed thugs and assassins under the direct pay of the CIA. But it took a while for the problem to sink in. What was I supposed to do with a squad of 15 hit men under my control? The idea of directing and going on operations with them was more than I could handle. Was there a way to carry out my responsibilities to support the soldiers and civilians “on our side,” and still not have to kill anyone? I was in an impossible situation. But I came up with a solution. I split the squad of PRU into groups of two, assigned to each of the seven villages of Cu Chi, to operate as semi-clandestine intelligence agents around the clock. I hoped in this way to find out some details about what the VC were doing at night in the hamlets, perhaps some details on the political infrastructure personnel, and at the same time eliminate the assassin squad concept. What this meant in practice, however, was that the PRU lacked a day job. They had too much time on their hands. On one occasion, the former PRU leader and several other members were caught shaking down and beating residents in Tan Phu Trung village, in the Southeast corner of Cu Chi District, taking watches and jewelry, as well as ID cards and requiring the people to buy them back. Ironically, this had a salutary effect on my predicament. Part of the fall-out was that the District Chief and Province PRU Advisor took over a lot of the responsibility for their operations, leaving me responsible for intelligence collection. The PRU continued to operate as collection cells, with me receiving the information they brought in. But the result was something of a tug of war between me, who wanted them to focus on intelligence collection, and the District Chief and the Province PRU advisor, who wanted them for reaction operations.

My strategy worked up to a point. The intelligence teams did operate in the villages (each made up of several hamlets), and in some weeks I got as many as 30 reports from them. But I rarely got the type of details needed for targeting particular individuals. Not only that, they never actually “got” the mission, which was to target the political cadre. More often than not the information they got would lead to conducting raids on night meetings of the VC guerrillas. In October, one such raid resulted in three dead and one captured VC guerrillas, but not the political folks the PRU were supposed to be targeting.
The paradox was that while I had split the PRU up into intelligence collection cells in order to end their role as hit men, if they succeeded in getting useful information this would lead to acting on that information. My nightmare was that one night they would come to the team house, not to the District Chief or to the Province PRU Advisor, and ask me to take them by helicopter out to some remote hamlet to capture some Viet Cong political cadre! That never happened. But I knew that when they came to me for help, it would be hard for me to say no.

On one occasion a member of one of the PRU intelligence cells spotted two 14-year-old boys talking to each other on bicycles in the Tan Thong school yard. The boys had been missing for several days, and the PRU agent knew or suspected that the boys had been recruited by the Viet Cong on one of their nightly visits to Tan Thong hamlet – about a mile south on Highway 1 from the subsector advisor compound. To his credit, the agent not only figured out what the boys were up to but had boldly gone up to them and searched them. He found a hand grenade taped to one of the boys’ legs. He brought them both back to the subsector intelligence office for questioning. Initially unaware of what had transpired, I was on my way out of my office next door to call in an unrelated report to the division. I noticed two boys in dirty white shirts and dark shorts being led in, but I continued into the TOC – Tactical Operations Center – bunker to phone in the report.

About a half an hour later, the PRU squad leader, Mr. Song, a dark, forty-ish Vietnamese man, with high cheek bones and eyes which seemed to glare and be squinting at the same time, came into the TOC, followed haltingly by Mr. Thieu, my interpreter. “Cap-i-tan John-sohn, Mr. Song would like you drive several men and Mr. Song to Tan Thong village,” Mr. Thieu managed. As I got up from my chair, Mr. Song turned and, before I could ask him why, was stepping out of the bunker. I followed him with Thieu. Outside in the afternoon sunlight, Song motioned toward the two boys I’d seen earlier and spoke to Thieu. “Capitan John-sohn,” Thieu translated, “he wants you take PRU squad to find many hand grenade.” “Okay,” I said. (Later, when I had time to get a fuller explanation of what was going on, Song told me, through Thieu, that the boys had been trained by the VC to throw hand grenades and explosives in market areas and restaurants where government employees were likely to be. They had revealed the location of four other boys from Tan Thong who had gotten similar training.)

Soon the two boys, hands bound behind them, and six or seven PRU men were squeezing into my Army jeep, and we were riding down a pot-hole dotted Highway 1 toward Tan Thong. Mr. Thieu stayed behind, so I would have to communicate, if necessary, with hand motions. Song motioned to make a right turn onto one of the Tan Thong hamlet dirt trails running perpendicular to the highway, between the rows of modest mud and thatched-roof houses. Another right turn and he motioned to stop. Suddenly all six or seven leaped out of the side and back, M-16s in hand and with the two boys in tow, surrounded one of the simple thatched huts, about four house rows back from the highway. Two men slowly approached the doorway, as I grabbed my M-16, not quite sure what I was going to do with it. I got out of the jeep but didn’t know whether to crouch behind it or stand up in the open. I compromised by standing behind the jeep. The PRU came out with two men, hands on their heads. Using sheet-like white material, the men were bound with their hands behind their backs, their legs tied together, and their eyes blind-folded. Mr. Song showed me a hand grenade he motioned that he had found in the house.

The PRU put the two new Viet Cong suspects in the back of the jeep. In Vietnamese that I couldn’t make out and with pointing motions, Song told me to guard them while the PRU ran off toward another house near the outer perimeter, leaving me holding my M-16 firmly at my hip, looking tensely at the prisoners. It was very strange. There I was, an American Army captain, guarding two blind-folded men (neither regular VC nor political cadre) while a group of mercenaries were running around Tan Thong hamlet trying to flush out more VC suspects. Part driver, part guard.

Left alone with the blindfolded men in the backseat of the jeep, a thought hit me. “What if they start to run away? What would I do? Could I shoot them to stop them? What would it look like if I stood by and let them run off?” I stood silently at the side of the jeep, M-16 now feeling a little awkward in my hands, watching the prisoners, who neither talked nor moved. “Oh, please don’t try to run,” I thought. I heard machine gun fire and grenades exploding at the edge of the hamlet but could only manage a split-second glance behind me. I saw nothing. I sighed with relief when the PRU returned with their bound teenage guides, without any new prisoners. The shots and grenades must have been put into a bunker to be sure it was empty.

Several of the PRU then went back to the first hut and started dismantling one side. After knocking out a wall they warned me that they were to detonate the hand grenade in the hut’s bunker. The original prisoners were put in the back of the jeep. I wanted to put my M-16 down to free my fingers to plug up my ears from the shattering explosion, but it didn’t seem what I was expected to do, so my ears, sensitive to sharp noises ever since I stood too close to a .50 calibre machine gun at ROTC summer camp in 1963, suffered the piercing explosion. With my ears ringing, but terribly relieved to have the Vietnamese around to guard the prisoners, we drove out of the hamlet and back up Highway 1 to the subsector compound.

Intelligence identifying suspected VCI sometimes came from my contacts at the US 25th Infantry Division. On those occasions, I was asked to bring the Vietnamese police to accompany the US intelligence officer and his “source” to make the arrest. This is what happened late in the afternoon, the day after our advisory team had celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey and all the trimmings. Lieutenant Forman–a lantzman as he put it to me (Yiddish for “fellow Jew”)–who was the assistant to the 2d Brigade’s S-2, came from the base camp to the subsector. “George,” he said in his South African accent, “We’ve got four Viet Cong cadre we want. They live in Tan Phu Trung. They are agriculture and propaganda leaders in the village. My man here can lead us there. Can you give me two policemen to help arrest them?” Another raid. With the national policemen in their own jeep following behind, I went in Forman’s jeep, with his source and three American G.I.’s, all well-armed.

It was the first time that I’d driven around in the heavily vegetated inner reaches of northern Tan Phu Trung. There were narrow dirt roads between the houses, just wide enough for an oxcart–or a jeep. The huts were nicer than most, with red tile roofs, well tucked away in the shade of trees. It reminded me of what I pictured the interior of the Amazon jungle to be like. Forman was racing his jeep around the corner, stopping, everyone jumping out to surround a house just to the right. Forman and one of his men went into the house while I stood outside. Several children and old men gathered in front exchanging blank looks with me. I turned around and saw one of the G.I.’s standing tensely, rifle at the ready position “guarding” the little road behind the jeep. I asked him what he was pointing his rifle at. “You’re not going to shoot some old man if he starts running, are you?” I embarrassed him and we both laughed self-consciously, shrugging off the question. Nevertheless, I was uneasy. How ridiculous, I thought, running around with rifles scaring the shit out of people, barging into their houses!

An old woman was being led out of the house now, screaming and trying to get loose from the national police. Her family, sensing their grandmother being taken away suddenly started yelling to us and crying. She was a very old woman. I winced. Even if they were helping the VC, what were we doing running after old women? What could the old lady do either for us or against us? Forman’s man had identified the lady as a VC “agent” and she was led away by the police.

Vietnamese children whose families lived in the Cu Chi District government compound where Johnson was stationed.

During radio watch that night, when I had time to think about what had transpired, I reflected on the irony of two Jews, who for centuries have been victims of just such round-ups, now rounding up Vietnamese civilians that day in Tan Phu Trung. I could still see the fear, the terror, and the hate of that screaming woman. I found myself forced out of my psychological hiding place, looking myself in the moral mirror. I was carrying out my “mission,” but what was the price I was paying?

My unauthorized reorganization of the PRU into two-man cells to collect intelligence about Viet Cong political activities in Cu Chi’s villages caught the attention of Colonel Bernard, the Province Senior Advisor. One day in the Fall, Bernard came looking for me at the subsector. He wanted me to come with him to Saigon the next day and to bring my briefing materials.

It wasn’t until we were in the subzero air-conditioned office of Colonel William Greenwalt, at MACCORDS [Military Assistance Command Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support], the central headquarters for the military advisor program in downtown Saigon not far from the US Embassy, that I realized that Bernard had brought me down to show off my intelligence collection programs. Sitting on his sticky green leather couch and completely unaware that Greenwalt was the top military officer in charge of the Phoenix Program (the top man was a veteran CIA operative, Evan Parker), which I learned only years later, I pulled out my briefing booklet, with its acetate-covered charts and maps, and gave my briefing.

“Well, sir, in order to concentrate our collection efforts against the VC infrastructure, I split up the PRU into cells, operating in each of the villages . . .” and so on.

But Greenwalt didn’t have any questions, or much to say. Soon we were on our way out, when Bernard bumped into a Marine Colonel named William Redel, who could just as easily have been Kirk Douglas. I had no idea that Redel actually was a CIA officer “assigned” a military rank and the man in charge of the PRU program. This guy was not only handsome, but brilliant and witty. He charmed Bernard, who invited Redel to lunch with us. In the jeep, Bernard and Redel were in an animated discussion about whether the PRU should be controlled exclusively by American advisors or be given over to the Vietnamese. Redel argued the former, rather convincingly, I thought.

Bernard pulled up at a corner and Redel stepped out, saying he had to make a stop and would meet us at lunch. We drove past the Embassy, the posh tennis club across from it, by the Presidential Palace, off into a side street, and up the driveway of a fashionable French villa.

Bernard, with me tailing behind, walked into the large house, looking for someone. A portly, tanned, gray-haired man in casual slacks and a white open-collared shirt, invited us upstairs into a large room with sofas, a fireplace, charts and maps on easels, opening onto a screened second-floor porch, surrounded by large shade trees.

Again, I wound up pulling out my briefing book and discussing the PRU collection program with this man, as well as the other programs I was running in Cu Chi. My impression was that this man was the chief American advisor to the “Census Grievance Cadre” program, one of a number of government-run “civ-ops” programs. In the middle of this, another 40-ish American in a sport shirt walked in, and the gray-haired host suggested we break for lunch, which was served on the porch by waiters on a white cloth-covered table with fine china and silver. Our wine glasses were soon filled, and an innocuous toast offered. The first course was a French onion soup, with cheese and bread floating on top. I couldn’t believe how good it was, nor the style of living these people were enjoying!

“Captain Johnson, you really seem to know what’s going on in your area. You are to be congratulated for your fine work!” the gray-haired man offered. “You must be in line for Major soon I’ll bet!” he continued. I smiled gratefully but didn’t bother with the detail that I’d become a Captain just three weeks before.

The soup was followed by deliciously prepared fish and potatoes. After ice cream, it was back inside to complete my briefing. Redel had arrived for dessert and joined the discussion. He had some good questions about the PRU, showing, I thought, a good head for intelligence (again, I had no idea he was the national head of the PRU program). At about 3 pm, Bernard and I were back in our jeep headed toward northern Gia Dinh and Highway 1 back to Cu Chi.

“Johnson,” the colonel, turning his head partially toward the back seat, “what kind of lawyer are you?”

“Well, Sir, I haven’t practiced yet. I entered the Army directly after law school. I have been thinking perhaps of being a district attorney, some sort of investigative type of law.”

“I have a brother who’s a lawyer . . .” he went on, turning the discussion back to himself and his frustrations about war strategy. Then he turned to what Redel had been arguing, saying, “You know, those fellas in Saigon don’t know what’s coming off in the field. There’s no way of running the PRU program under the nose of Colonel Nhon (the Province Chief) and Major Sanh (the District Chief) without them feeling it a matter of personal integrity and face that they determine, or at least approve, what the PRU do. They can’t accept having their authority so openly flaunted. These Vietnamese are proud men.”
I didn’t respond, but remembered the much softer, deferential, line Bernard had taken with Redel in Saigon. I guessed that he wasn’t quite satisfied with the conversation and was finishing it with me.

Years later, I learned that Bernard was much more of a kindred spirit than I had imagined. In 1969, he wrote an after-action report that was so critical of the US war strategy that when he read it, US Ambassador William Colby had every circulated copy confiscated. Even more stunning, I learned that he was a very popular lecturer, even with anti-war folks, when he was head of the ROTC program at UC Berkeley – his last assignment before retirement.

Reflecting on the trip with Bernard to Saigon at the time, the conversations and the day had been a sort of confirmation of everything I had been doing at the subsector. I had no clue that our conversations in Saigon might have played a role in the decision made shortly thereafter to transfer responsibility for the Phoenix program from the CIA to us military folks in MACV.

Something was changing in me. I pondered my mother’s remark in a recent tape she sent me, how good and cheerful and adjusted I sounded. She had expected me to be very unhappy and depressed. And I guess she was right! I was in fact a lot happier than I had been at any other point in my life. The three years of law school emotionally had been very difficult. I could never get used to the anonymity and isolation of living in New York City. Studying continuously without much break made life incredibly dull. I had felt lonely and isolated. I didn’t have a clear reason for being there.

But I did not feel that way anymore. Even though I had fought so hard not to be in Vietnam, my life was now on the line, and for the first time in my life I felt important. For the first time, what I was doing mattered and affected lots and lots of people. For the first time in my life, I really felt like I was living, not just getting ready to live. The DIOCC was the center of intelligence coordination not only for Cu Chi District, but for the US 25th Infantry Division, the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, and other American units. Three major generals and one lieutenant general and one brigadier general had sought my advice. I was continually briefing operations and intelligence officers of various subdivisions of these units, transmitting intelligence, planning and setting up combat operations, not to mention coordinating outpost defense, medical care for the Vietnamese, and protecting the lives of those I was in contact with. There could be no more vital connection to living than being directly involved in matters of life and death. Whether it actually was true or not, I felt that what I was doing affected the safety of thousands of people. Their lives could hang in the balance as a result of each intelligence report or operational reaction. It was not just my imagination that Cu Chi, the DIOCC, Phoenix, and yes, Officer George Johnson, were important!

Also, I was never alone. Even though I was not really close to anyone on the team, there was a kind of fraternity among us. Even though I was 12,000 miles from my family and friends, I was not pining away. I felt more self-confident and self-sufficient psychologically than ever before.

One day, as I was driving my jeep out of the US 25th Division headquarters building, I was astonished to see flying above the camp-style base camp chapel a blue flag with a white Star of David. Could there be a Jewish chaplain in Cu Chi, South Vietnam? I thought.

Members of Saturday morning minyan in front of the Cu Chi base camp chapel, 1968.

A Jewish soldier, Michael Gladstone, a doctor with the 25th Infantry Division, whom I found at the chapel, said there was a congregation of Jewish soldiers that met for Friday night and Saturday morning services, and I was invited. Major Pearson, I knew without asking, would not permit me to spend the night on base camp. There were only seven of us in the district compound, and we all had to be there to share radio watch and in the event of an attack. So, I thought, perhaps I’ll be Jewish on Saturday mornings! Suddenly, Saturday mornings became something to look forward–an oasis in the sands of Cu Chi. The following Saturday morning I experienced the strangely familiar sensation of picking a black wrinkled yarmulke out of a box at the rear of the chapel, taking a prayer book from a small stack on a table, and wrapping a tallis (prayer shawl) around my green jungle fatigues. In the front, about 15 soldiers were davening–chanting–the morning service. Seeing them, and praying with them, was another world. It was not Vietnam. To my disbelief, there was a Torah scroll, containing in hand-written Hebrew calligraphy the Five Books of Moses, and two young officers were reading from it! Who would have believed?

After the service, there was wine and challah egg-twist, freshly baked by a Jewish private in the base camp bakery, mandelbrot (a kind of Jewish biscotti), kosher bologna and salami. We said the blessings over the wine and challah and talked while munching on bologna and salami/challah sandwiches. The two fellows who read from the Torah scroll were from Brooklyn, one a dentist, the other a psychiatrist, who together observed the kosher dietary laws in their quarters. How incongruous! In the midst of the never-stopping artillery bombardments, helicopter-borne assaults, guerrilla attacks on outposts and convoys, assassinations, ambushes here was this small island of holiness.

After that, I looked forward to Saturday mornings. I did not understand why I needed to identify as a Jew in that environment, but I did. Perhaps somewhere deep in my subconscious, I was yearning to reunite my actions and my conscience, which I had buried and separated deep within me as I went about my daily routine of monitoring, reporting and coordinating the war in Cu Chi.

The juxtaposition of the holy and the profane hit home several weeks later. It was 9 am Saturday morning. I was about to leave for the chapel service when one of the Vietnamese soldiers in the district intelligence center motioned earnestly that I follow him. He led me out of the compound, down Highway 1, past several groups of shops and cafes, about one hundred meters, to a section of Tan An Hoi village across from the school yard. I followed him a short way along a dirt path, off the road, behind the shops to a house surrounded by onlookers. I stepped forward through an opening in the mud and straw structure. A blanket was pulled away, revealing two blood-spattered bodies–a man and a woman. They were shot in the head and genitals and were lying in a coital position. The Viet Cong had pinned a note on them. It was a Viet Cong sentence of execution. It declared them guilty of informing on the VC and sentenced them to death. The man, I was told, had recently defected from the VC. He and his wife had been summarily executed during the night. This was in some sense our doing. Those of us in the district compound, and in the outposts, allowed the VC access to the hamlets and villages at night. We did nothing to stop them.

I looked, but I said and did nothing. When the bodies were covered, I walked out of the hamlet, back to the compound, reported the assassinations, and then jumped into my jeep and drove up to the base camp for services as if nothing had happened. What I did then was even more jarring, in retrospect.

The doctors from Brooklyn had by this time rotated back to the States, and a minyan, a prayer quorum, was more difficult to come by. No one there could lead the service, so I volunteered to be the prayer leader. I went through the service picking out my favorite readings and melodies. Occasionally, the roar of chopping helicopter blades would drown us out. I cannot explain how I was able to push out of my mind the brutal assassination I had just witnessed or the death that was all around me. But, engaged in prayer, I actually felt a peace and solemnity envelop me. I was moved to recite the mourner’s prayer for the American G.I.s who had given their lives. Somewhere deep inside me, I had found a comfort zone protected from all that death.

I began looking at my life from a radically different perspective. Most of my life until then had been taken up with the future: preparing, testing, achieving, not for the now, but for what my life was to be. My primary preoccupation was with what I was going to do with my life. At 25, I had had almost no experience whatsoever outside the small world of school and summer vacations. I rarely looked at “now” as something in and for itself. I was busy trying to change, become something different. In Vietnam, there was no time to become something different. The now was all that counted. There was no future, no past. Only Vietnam. Every moment might be my last. With so many opportunities to be killed each day, it seemed pointless to think about the future. I wrote in a letter, “I’ve been here for 17 days now, and a year seems like an eternity.” It was one endless present filled with trying not to get killed.

It was the feeling that “now” was all I had that spurred me to write three or four letters a day to friends and relatives–recounting each moment and thought as if they had acquired infinite value. Perhaps consciousness of impending death invited a search for divine protection. Every night, I recited the Shma, announcing my belief as a Jew. I did not know if I believed in God, but I wanted my last thoughts, my last words to be declaration that I was a Jew.

But this fatalism was like a cataract descending over my moral sensibility. One might think that the more I was exposed close-up to the brutality of the war, the more would be my remorse and soul searching. In fact, the opposite was the case. The closer I got to real people being victimized and dying, the less I felt their humanity. Perhaps this was the greatest horror of war–moral anesthesia.

In the course of repulsing an all-night attack on Thai My outpost, in the far western reaches of the district, closest to the Cambodian border, our regular force soldiers wounded and captured a North Vietnamese soldier. I learned that he was in the 12th Evacuation Hospital on Cu Chi Base Camp. Trung Uy Le, the District intelligence officer, told me he was speaking Chinese when he was captured and suggested that I interrogate him. I took Sergeant Thong, the team’s best interpreter, with me to the 12th Evac. The prisoner was in the intensive care ward. The first doctor I talked to would not let us enter the long grey Quonset hut, which had beds lined up against each side. But a second doctor let us in. It was an eerie atmosphere of air conditioning, fluorescent lights, white uniforms, blue patient pajamas, and hospital smells. We were shown to the prisoner. The man was delirious. There was a tube in his nose; blood was spurting into it. There also was a tube in his stomach, and gashes in his skull. I couldn’t tell whether he was conscious, and asked Sergeant Thong to ask him something to find out. Thong winced and looked at me, pained. I asked Thong again to find out his name. The man did not answer. Thong said, “This man cannot talk; we go.” So, we left the eerie twilight world between life and death, back into the morning sunlight. Had I been interrogating a man on the verge of death with only the thought of what I could learn from him?

But it was a lot deeper than just about a dying man who, indirectly at least, was trying to kill me. Vietnamese soldiers, joining in the combat against the Viet Cong, were dying around me every day. The carpenter’s shed in the rear of the compound courtyard–a covered area with no walls just outside our washroom–was where dead Vietnamese soldiers were placed, temporarily in green plastic body bags, and later in heavy wooden coffins, painted yellow and orange. As I shaved in the morning, I could hear the wailing of the widows and mothers and the smell of burning incense. It became the smell of death to me. But while I could look out the screen window and see it all, I chose not to. I turned myself off to Vietnamese death. It did not seem to matter that I saw nearly every facet of Vietnamese life–mothers breast-feeding their babies, taking baths at the compound well, eating meals, washing their clothes, going to school, praying, working in their fields. If I felt this way, I thought, how could I expect American soldiers or commanders, stationed on isolated islands of American base camps or in barren woodlands, removed from the rhythms and flavor of Vietnamese life, to have any feelings of empathy or understanding of their predicament? Even if they did, did it matter? Almost every relationship between the American and the Vietnamese was exploitative or openly hostile. On base camps like Cu Chi Base Camp, Vietnamese were cheap labor–cleaning barracks, cooking and washing in mess halls, digging sewage drains. Outside the gates were the whores and the bar girls, to be bought for five dollars MPC [Military Payment Certificates]. On the road, they were the soda and ice cream vendors. In the brush, the Viet Cong. Racism, exploitation, and the fact that the “enemy” looked just like the “friendly” – it was a small step to viewing all Vietnamese as the enemy, to be treated as the enemy.

My moral compass was confused. As I looked beyond the daily doses of violence and death in Cu Chi to what was happening in America, I was seeing a collapse of the America I had swallowed my ambivalence to fight for. The assassination of Martin Luther King a month before arriving in Vietnam had been followed only two months later with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, gunned down in a similar way, just as he had accepted his victory in the California presidential primary. Two months after that the Chicago Democratic National Convention erupted in ugly violence. My world was turning upside down. I started feeling that the America that I was fighting for was destroying itself, much as we were destroying Vietnamese life with the blunt instruments of warfare. I compared the unnecessary war I was fighting with the war for Jewish survival represented by Israel’s Six Day War. It was largely musings in my imagination and a confused search for my own identity–piqued in part by my sense of kinship with the Jewish soldiers I had met at the chapel and the few lantzmen who were fighting with us side by side. The seeds had been planted. Perhaps the ethics and traditions of Judaism might serve as a moral path forward. But such thoughts were pushed down. I still had almost half a year of Vietnam to survive.

It was an impossible mission. Our primary purpose as advisors was to coordinate activities of the government and the US military to convince Vietnamese villagers that we were “on their side” and to reject the Viet Cong. That was the definition of “winning.” Unfortunately, the heart of the American “pacification” strategy was the “cordon and search” operation. It was a strategy tried by the French and, believe it or not, presented to us young first and second lieutenants during the Infantry Officer Course at Fort Benning in the Fall of 1967 as a failed strategy! The strategy was simply to secretly seal off an enemy-held or enemy-sympathizing hamlet or village before its residents rose in the morning and then very cautiously search the houses at dawn for guerrillas, VC political cadre and their weapons. This could be an effective tool if used with surprise in a VC-controlled area but had little point in government-controlled villages. The use of this tactic in Cu Chi District’s seven villages nominally under government control showed a misunderstanding of what the cordon and search could accomplish and of how the Viet Cong operated in Cu Chi District. I tried to redirect the focus of American military commanders to other ways to protect the villages from the VC. But I was just the man in the middle. There was little I could do to change the directives that came down from the likes of John Paul Vann, the head of the program in III Corp, which included Saigon as well as Cu Chi, who was celebrated as a strategic genius who understood the Vietnamese. Neil Sheehan recounted his story in the widely acclaimed book “A Bright Shining Lie.” He was directing implementation of the “Accelerated Pacification Program” across the board. But it was a strategy that would not work in the numerous areas in III Corps that we considered to be under government control.

In my experience, over nearly an entire year, the guerrillas and political cadre of the VC were not around when the American units put in their seals or cordons. The VC often came into the villages shortly before or after dark or in the middle of the night, but rarely stayed until dawn. In order to avoid South Vietnamese and American forces, they slept during the day in tunnels or along canal or stream beds, returning to the people at night for food and supplies. Though the villagers may well have had ties to the VC, they had no choice but to make accommodations with the VC, who had largely unimpeded access and control of the villages at night. These operations were not only fruitless but counterproductive. Instead of finding VC and earning trust in the South Vietnamese government, they bred hatred of the Americans and distrust of the government. When a hamlet was cordoned off before dawn, the farmers could not work in the fields. When their houses were searched, their privacy and security were trampled. When they were detained for hours in the hot sun awaiting screening or interrogation, they were prevented from going to market to get food to feed their families. When the schoolyards were used for detention areas – the normal practice – the day’s school was disrupted. This continual harassment probably was as effective a tool for building the case for the Viet Cong as any the VC had. Sometimes I tried to point this out to American line commanders, but the usual rejoinder was, “General so-and-so wants us to cordon and search this village, so we’re doing it!” I even tried to redirect the generals I briefed to more productive strategies – to no avail. In my year in Cu Chi, no VC and no weapons were ever found in Cu Chi District during any of these operations. So, if the VC were there, and there was plenty of evidence that they were, there was clearly something wrong with either the concept or the execution, which, unfortunately, during my time there we never were able to remedy.

Closer to going home, the last few months, weeks and then days went slowly. I was no longer living in the “now,” but rather thinking only about home. The day finally came. May 6, 1969. The morning of my departure, Major Crowley, who had taken over as District Senior Advisor, organized a brief medal presentation ceremony. It was still cool in the early morning sun. The Major pinned the Bronze Star Medal on my uniform. “A job well done.” This was the echo. But it pained me a little to know that, unlike the other members of the team, who had received Vietnamese service medals, I received none from the District Chief – a snub, I thought. After all that work, setting up the DIOCC, planning operations.

Even so, I said goodbye to Major Sanh, Sergeant Thong, and the guys on the team–Crowley, Harris, Sizemore, Maps, Hernandez, Victor, Bowden. A last look at the buildings, the DIOCC, the District Chief’s house, the TOC, the “hootch.” It indeed would be the last time. Everything was in the jeep, packed days before (!), the duffle bag, the B-4 bag, it was all there. Hernandez driving, we waved goodbye. I didn’t look back. Only ahead. Only home; there wasn’t an ounce of me that wanted to be anywhere else.

At the first stop, MACV supply, at Tan Son Nhut, headquarters for all American forces in South Vietnam, I saw Arnie Feldman, the pudgy lawyer from LA, who had been a province advisor somewhere up on the coast, then Harold McFadden, who a whole year before had gotten drunk while we were waiting for the flight that would take us to Vietnam, ranting that we were going “to get the Bolsheviks,” then Mike Colby, my one-time carpool mate to Fort Holabird. One by one, the lieutenants from Fort Holabird – now captains – were assembling at the MACV replacement center. Stories began to flow. Different experiences. Bill Washington had been an operations officer as well as an intelligence officer, going on combat missions almost daily. How lucky I was, how lucky we all were! We ate together. We went through debriefing and processing, went out to the airbase officers’ night club for a show and to get drunk, in preparation for the early morning flight.

Next morning, guys were all wearing their newly awarded Bronze Stars, Vietnamese crosses, air medals; the air was buoyant as we boarded our flight. We were light enough to fly away on our own, it seemed like. A big green and black Braniff 707 was ready to take us on. Oh, my God, we were finally leaving. I couldn’t believe it. Each step felt lighter than the last.

We were inside, seated, strapped in, waiting. Looking out the window. Then rolling to the edge of the runway, waiting in line. A big jet and a smaller jet were ahead of us. We waited, rolling forward, slowly, then faster, and faster. My head pressed against the seat, I could see the concrete slabs fly by until they couldn’t be distinguished. Then we were off the ground. Finally, I was separated–we were separated–from our personal swamps of quicksand, before it was too late. Higher and higher. Everyone was quietly getting very high. We started to bank right, to orient to the East. I looked down out of my window on the left. There it was – Cu Chi Base Camp. Getting smaller and smaller. I clicked away with my camera. The last exuberant goodbye. And then we were into a cloud. Goodbye, Vietnam!

Aerial view of Cu Chi District town, center, with sprawling U.S. 25th Infantry Division base camp at top center.

Vietnam locked in a box. I didn’t pause even to catch my breath. It seemed that nothing had changed. My parent’s apartment, Long Island, my friends, everything was as I left it. As if I hadn’t really been away. I just picked up where I left off, and it seemed that everybody else had never even broken stride.

No one asked questions, hard ones or otherwise, or raised moral challenges. In New York, my friends were curious but polite. I was polite but guarded. I showed my slides of Vietnam, which showed only colorful scenery, playful children, festivities, R&R. I took no pictures of combat, death or bullet-riddled buildings. I had tried not to think about them while I was there. Why should I preoccupy myself with preserving memories that I had preferred never to have acquired? During the last three months of my remaining active duty at Fort Holabird, I was seldom in contact with anyone who had not been in Vietnam. The subject seldom came up.

As the weeks after Vietnam became months, the experience seemed to recede completely. I seemed to have locked it in a box. I wanted to forget. To pretend that I was never there. I looked in the mirror, and there did not seem to be any change. No one noticed anything different. Not exactly true. I recall my mother saying to me that I had changed. How? I didn’t ask. Other relatives, I learned later, thought I seemed lost. It was like there was a year-deep chasm between two precipitous cliffs. No one on the cliff could see the bottom, and few ventured to the edge to even chance a look – afraid to get too near. Inside that chasm, it was too deep to see anything outside. It had been the only reality. Now I was on the cliff. I knew what lay below, but preferred not to approach, not to see, and most of all, not to fall.

Despite the continuation of the War in Vietnam, I paid little attention. I landed a plum job in international affairs at the US Treasury Department in Washington, DC, thanks to a great recommendation from one of my professors at Columbia. I was settling in as a young government lawyer, concerned more with my love life and furthering my legal career than protesting anything the American government was doing in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. That lasted about six months.

Then, the floor of complacency suddenly broke beneath me. It was the first weekend of May 1970. First came the invasion of Cambodia. It felt like Nixon had broken his pledge to end the war in Southeast Asia. It had a shattering effect. My whole frame of reference was built on the war being behind us, behind me. I can’t say what the impact of this alone would have been, because it did not happen alone. It was followed by two more shots, direct hits. That Sunday, the same weekend, I attended a wedding on Long Island. It was a typical Jewish wedding among non-religious Jews. But not to me. I was shocked and shaken by what I saw. Perhaps unrealistically, I had expected of a beautiful expression of Jewish tradition, I found nothing that was really Jewish. The centuries of Jewish inspiration, tradition and values had been almost totally removed, replaced by what seemed to me to be a drinking party. If this is what Jewish life had come to in America, I thought, I must do something to save it. The next day was May 4, 1970, a day imprinted on the mind of America by a single photograph of a girl, actually a teenager, screaming with her hands out, kneeling over a lifeless boy prone on the pavement. Members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded many others at Kent State University, using live ammunition to gun down unarmed students demonstrating against the war. Shock and horror coursed through me. This event changed the direction of my life. For two years I had successfully repressed my anger, alienation and disillusionment with the war and with the growing political violence in America. Now it came bursting out. My sense, felt in the Spring and Summer of 1968 from Vietnam, that the war was coming home in fact had come true. If there was any time to come out of my post-service reverie, it was then.

George E. Johnson, then a government attorney, addresses Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstration near US Capitol in April 1971.

Johnson, then a government attorney, addresses Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstration near US Capitol in April 1971.

I looked for a way to get involved. I found it in a group of Jews my age that was active in anti-war and anti-discrimination politics. It was called Jews for Urban Justice. I had never heard other young Jews connect being Jewish with contemporary political and social issues. It was the beginning of my pulling away from the path I had been taking. I became increasingly involved in demonstrations, civil disobedience, social and religious gatherings. I wrote articles for the JUJ newsletter, articles on being Jewish in Vietnam for Jewish publications, letters to the editor, helped plant a tree of peace on the Capitol grounds, which was stopped by the Capitol Police. The transformation was swift in coming.

It was little more than one year after leaving Vietnam in May 1969. I began to grow a beard. As it grew, it became both a physical and psychic expression of my alienation from the life I had been leading as a government attorney at the Treasury Department. I started thinking about the possibility of leaving my job almost immediately after that fateful first weekend in May 1970. I felt like I was working directly for Nixon, whose actions had so set me off. As the months went on, much like the internal struggle I endured in the Spring of 1968, I was tearing myself in two. But this time, I was not under orders to Vietnam. I really had a choice. Just as the beard grew fuller and longer, I increasingly felt out of place and outside myself. I no longer belonged in that world–the world of the Treasury Department and what it represented to me.

I pushed myself away from the “success” path I had so diligently cultivated in school, in college, in law school, in the Army, and at Treasury, and toward an alternative but undefined and uncertain path. It felt like I was about to jump out of a plane for the first time–not knowing if the parachute would open. After working so hard to graduate near the top of my class in high school, graduate from Cornell, and from Columbia Law with honors and awards, the first thing I did, was required to do by the Army, was to fight in a war I did not believe in. This discontinuity, this moral gulf, between the life I had prepared for and the first thing I did when I went out into the world weighed heavier and heavier on my conscience, making it more and more difficult to go any further. I could no longer work at the Treasury, across the street from the Nixon White House. I quit. I dropped out. It was a breath-taking step to take, I knew, but I just could not bear it anymore. I had repressed it all for two years–the moral compromise of fighting a war I believed to be wrong. But now, seemingly innocuous actions–writing speeches to justify Congressional appropriations, simply being a cog in the Nixon Administration writing international charters, letters of credit, and reviewing and signing off on loan documents to Lockheed, Boeing, McDonnell-Douglass—had become intolerable and unconscionable. I knew that I could not go on with part of me in the bowels of the bureaucracy and the other part in the anti-war Jewish counterculture. I announced my departure from the Treasury on the eve of Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. In my boss’ palatial office, with windows looking down Pennsylvania Avenue in one direction and to the Mall and the Washington Monument in the other, I stood there, and wrenched the words out of me: “Mark, I’m going to be leaving the Treasury. At the beginning of June.” It had taken me two months to build up the courage to say those few words. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my boss, the Assistant General Counsel for International Affairs, how much it had become an overwhelming moral burden to work for the government. Instead, I told him: “I’ve got to write my book about Vietnam, and I want to live on an experimental communal farm for the summer.”

And with that, I cut the cord of achievement that I had woven so diligently since the age of five. When my father learned that I had quit my job, he broke down crying. But the crushing blow that I was dealing to my parents was then the furthest thing from my mind. I had had enough. I wanted to reach back to the creative, idealistic, and energetic boy of nine, who wrote the words and lyrics to my summer camp’s original musical play, “Joseph and His Brothers” and had played the lead, Joseph, and to the young man who had composed and performed anti-war songs. I wanted to clear away the wreckage of Vietnam and find the moral direction of my youth. Vietnam had shut down my spirit, numbed the creativity and moral sensitivity out of me. I had turned off the faucets of feeling–to people, to art, to everything. My soul had been shut off. I had to find the faucets and try to turn them on again.

George E. Johnson, a retired Washington attorney and former research director of a Washington Jewish think-tank, currently is a senior editor at Moment.  The names of certain non-public figures mentioned in the story have been changed. The article is an excerpt from Johnson’s full memoir, When Doing One’s Duty and Doing the Right Thing Are Not the Same, which currently is unpublished.

© 2020 by George E. Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

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2 Comments
  • Bindy Bitterman 16:23h, 30 April Reply

    I hope you found yourself….and stayed yourself. I’d like to know how long the took, and how you made it happen.
    Bindy Bitterman, Chicago (subscriber to Moment) Bindy@eurekaevanston.com

  • Deborah Talley 16:57h, 30 April Reply

    (I am five years older than Mr. Johnson.) This is a beautifully written, searingly honest and deeply moving piece—maybe the most powerful anti-war piece I have ever read. Tears are flowing. Thank you, Mr. J.

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