I did work to put Vietnam behind me. ...But you really can’t fool yourself completely. There is always something to remind you of Vietnam.
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A Vet Looks Back at Vietnam ― Finally
After Bill Lord (BA, Political Science, 1970; BA, Communications, 1971) returned from Vietnam in 1968, he rarely discussed his time in Southeast Asia. Many friends and colleagues never learned that he served in the military.
“I wanted to forget Vietnam and was busy suppressing every possible memory or connection to that alien place,” says Lord, a broadcast journalist who has been a foreign correspondent, news director in major markets including Seattle and Los Angeles, and general manager of WJLA-TV in Washington, DC. “I always looked forward and never looked back.”
Now Lord is finally looking back. After discovering a stash of letters he’d sent his mother from Vietnam, his wife Cyndee thought the letters could be the basis of a memoir and encouraged Lord to start writing. The result is 50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting, published in September 2018.
The memoir captures the mix of fear, boredom, tragedy, and absurdity that is a soldier’s life in a war zone. “We were so young,” Lord says of the soldiers in his squad. “Many of us, including me, did not even have to shave every day. We looked like kids dressed up in uniforms for a high school play.” The book also explores Lord’s changing views on the war, from supportive to resentful, even as he continued fighting.
Here Lord answers a few questions about the book and his Vietnam experience.
You volunteered to serve when you were 20 years old. What led you to enlist?
I was unemployed, out of school, and in some debt. Once I lost my student deferment it was just a matter of time before the draft notice would arrive. I didn’t embrace the idea of going into the Army, but I was just moving ahead to get the whole thing over with.
What was your role in Vietnam?
First I was a simple rifleman in an infantry squad. Then I was the radio operator for the platoon leader, reporting conflicts or firefights to headquarters. My third job, a promotion I guess, was to be the radio operator for the company commander ― a company is four platoons or roughly 200 people. It was something of an honor to carry the radio during battles because it required certain abilities. You had to be able to communicate clearly. You had to be cool under pressure because that was when precise information was urgently required. And you had to be smart enough and confident enough to anticipate what the company commander wanted to say if you were separated in any unusual circumstances.
There were times you had to speak for the commander?
In many ways I was the company commander’s confidante who was allowed to have input on our tactical situations. It gave me certain opportunities to look out for our team to make sure we didn’t do anything too dangerous or idiotic. I always opted for safety first. Not all the leaders in Vietnam took that approach.
Your early letters to your mother are upbeat, but in later letters ― especially those after the Tet Offensive — you began to criticize the war. How did your views change while you were in Vietnam?
Let’s just say I was not a sophisticated 19-year-old globalist when I entered the army. We were told the North invaded the South and we had to stop them or the same thing could happen in Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and other places. But when we got to Vietnam, we realized the Viet Cong were not from the North. They lived in the very rice paddies they were fighting in. They were highly motivated, while the South Vietnamese army we were there to support was not. The South Vietnamese army wanted us to fight for them rather than with them. None of this seemed to make any sense, other than we believed we were fighting communists. But the Viet Cong seemed to be fighting for their country, not some communist ideal. So we came to realize over time that we had been misled, the country had been misled, and that our leaders could not find a way to navigate out of the mess we were in. As I wrote in the book, nobody could tell us what we were fighting for and the American people increasingly were blaming us for fighting the war we were assigned to fight. By the time I got home, I was solidly in the anti-war camp. And I felt like I had the credentials to have my opinions.
Not long after returning from Vietnam, you enrolled at the UW and joined the staff at The Daily, the student newspaper. What are your strongest memories of that time?
We were a divided nation and on campus there was a radicalized version of that division. There were a few conservatives who loved Richard Nixon, vastly outnumbered by students who would speculate on things like burning down the ROTC building. I loathed Nixon but I wasn’t going to support Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a radical left wing group on campus. What I found at The Daily was that despite its very left-leaning editorial stance, I could carve out a haven for myself where I could be involved in the events of the day without having to be an advocate for any particular cause. I loved it. I found my calling, journalism. I prospered at it for the next 50 years.
Can you explain why you feel your military service gave you the confidence to make quick decisions as a journalist?
In the military, events required you to make rapid decisions with very little information. You had to roll the dice sometimes and hope for the best. In journalism, the same is true with one significant distinction. If you were wrong in Vietnam, people could get hurt. If you were wrong in journalism, you could always go back and fix your mistake and nobody gets hurt. Having seen the original allowed me to realize I could make rapid business decisions without too much angst. I also think that in both cases any decision is better than no decision. Once you start to waffle you are taking a much greater risk than even making a bad decision. And you lose the respect of the people who follow you if you ever let them see you wringing your hands. I have made many mistakes, but rarely was that mistake the result of indecision.
In the book, you write that after returning from Vietnam you always looked forward and never looked back. Yet you also mention that you can’t think of a single day in the last 50 years that Vietnam has not crossed your mind. Can you comment on that dichotomy?
I did work to put Vietnam behind me. I did look forward all my life. But you really can’t fool yourself completely. There is always something to remind you of Vietnam. I can’t hear the thumping of helicopter blades without feeling it in my bones. Diesel fuel smells. Dirty river water. Foods. People. Lots of things. These aren’t like PSTD memories, just little reminders. As I talk to more veterans after writing this book, I think the one thing we all agree on is this: Vietnam is always there.