Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2017  
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  Ken Burns' Vietnam War and My War
October 2, 2017

Like many of you, I slogged through the 10-part, 18-hour Ken Burns  documentary of 30 years of war in Vietnam.

One thing for sure, of those who experienced Vietnam at any level, it was like feeling the elephant. Ken Burns covered 30 years, from 1945 to 1975. Of that 30 years, I was there for one year, exactly 3.3 percent of the time covered by the documentary. What was formerly South Vietnam had 46 provinces, and I worked in maybe a dozen at one time or another, so that’s less than 16 percent of South Vietnam.

Of the almost 3 million Americans (2,709,918 to be exact, 9.7% of their generation), only some 20 percent, or about half a million ended up in front-line combat units where most of the 58,000 deaths occurred. The rest were involved in the herculean day-to-day task of logistically supporting an expeditionary force halfway around the world with food, shelter, transportation, infrastructure, communications, fuel, air-support, health care, ammunition, religion, beer and entertainment. The logistical challenge, successfully met, is one of the great untold stories of that era, and Burns’ documentary also failed to touch on it.

Burns spent a lot of time on anti-war demonstrations. I entirely missed the anti-war demonstration activities of the 1960s. During the late 1960s I just wasn’t around the locations these were taking place. I was in school at the University of Arkansas in the particularly intense architecture program, Arkansas being a place more in line with the “silent majority” than the resistance. I spent summers working in national parks, and even in late 1967 when I moved to San Francisco, I don’t remember a lot of anti-war activity. From March 1968 to March 1970, I was in the Army away from any major ant-war activities. So, the magnitude of anti-war activities shown in Burns’ documentary, mainly on the east coast and mid-western states like Ohio and Wisconsin were certainly not news to me, but I they were not a part of my experience.

Most of those who served in Vietnam were neither super-patriotic volunteers nor hyper-reluctant draftees. Most just got sucked up in the draft or joined up to avoid the draft. They just went along because it was the path of least resistance, and once in Vietnam, they just wanted to do their job and go home

Burn’s focus on the dramatic, including politics, gunfire, explosions, the VC and North Vietnamese and atrocities, had to be included to tell the whole story and make 18 hours of it interesting, but it did not represent the experience of most who served. Most soldiers serving in Vietnam had little understanding of the geopolitical aspects of the war, or even strategies and objectives beyond their small units. For most of these 18-22 year olds, life was their squad or company, the road they were building, the route they drove every day to deliver supplies, or the bombs and ammunition they loaded onto planes. Most didn’t have a clue what was going on even a few miles away, in Washington, DC, Paris, over the hill, around the corner – or even next door. The single most important thing to them was DEROS (Date Expected to Return from Overseas Service). The universal theme song was “I gotta get out of this place.”

As an engineer officer in the S-3 (Operations) Section of an engineer group with some 3,000 engineer troops and as many civilian contractors, I probably saw a much bigger picture than most. One of my jobs was a weekly briefing of the 20th Engineer Brigade commanding officer, which gave me a more circumspect view than most, but it was still a tiny part of the big picture. The job of my unit was primarily building infrastructure. Although I was always armed, I never fired a shot. As the  commanding officer of the 20th Engineer Brigade wrote, my job was mostly “improving facilities for the people rather than contributing to their destruction.”

The presence of an engineer unit in an area which is not secure or which has been isolated in the past, contributes significantly to the security of that area and to pacification. Vietnamese entrepreneurs follow the American soldier wherever he goes. American associations with the Vietnamese people are mutually productive and in turn counteract Communist propaganda. The Engineer is particularly effective in this role because he is building and improving facilities for the people rather than contributing to their destruction. This is the most significant direct contribution that the Engineer makes in a counter-insurgency environment. (BG Edwin T. O’Donnell (

I left Vietnam on March 7, 1970, visited Angor Wat in Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, and finally the USSR.  I was as in Cambodia when Prince Sihanouk was overthrown and got caught up in the coup. On April 22, 1970, some six weeks after leaving Vietnam and seven days before the Cambodia “incursion,” I wrote my parents from Vienna, summing up what I had learned about the war ad what I projected for the outcome:
Which bring up the new “Indochina” war …, which we are now involved in and makes me absolutely sick. The recent events in Asia have created a situation which almost no one has any control over – and could go on interminably. I think the U.S. would be extremely well advised to stay out of Cambodia, to dissolve the army of mercenaries in Laos and to continue the “Vietnamization” of Vietnam as expeditiously as possible. No one in Laos has any interest in defending himself from the North Vietnamese, and they should therefore have the place if they want it. The Cambodians will defend themselves if they have the means to fight, which we should supply without the benefit of “advisors.” The South Vietnamese have developed an interest in defending themselves only because it’s now easier to be on “our” side than “their” side due to efforts in that country which have been amazingly successful lately – but everything considered – hardly worth the cost. I think this whole thing will end within a year if we will allow the North Viets to have Laos, part of Cambodia and maybe a little of South Vietnam. The fighting will stop for a while – if there are concessions made – and then the situation may stabilize if the governments of the free countries are smart enough to appear to their citizens to be a better alternative than any other possibility – which is doubtful considering the nature of the southeast Asian in a position of leadership (.e., corrupt). If the United States, however, continues to fight the half-clandestine, half-open war and trying to teach the will to resist as well as the means of resisting to a bunch of people who don’t give a damn, it’s going to be a long ball game.

The way it looks now – Nixon and Fulbright might turn out to be strange bedfellow type co-heroes of the Vietnam era. Fulbright, because he turned out to be right all the time that it wasn’t worth it, and Nixon because he got us out of it. The co-anti-heroes, or maybe villains, turn out to be Johnson, his advisors and generals – who all seemed to be ill informed and incapable of rational planning and execution of their adventure. In the incidents involving My Lai and other such “massacres, atrocities, etc.’” I fully support anybody below the rank of general – and fully condemn anybody on up – nothing personal, you understand, Dad, I deference to your rank!

As near as I can determine – not having been directly involved – the publicity about an obsession with body counts is quite true – and the encouragement from higher up to compete on this is also. We had the same thing in the engineers as applied to almost any statistic – the pressure to accomplish anything which would make the line on the briefing chart rise was fantastic – while the concern for quality and actual fulfillment of any long term goals was brought up only occasionally and soon forgotten. While the U.S. forces should have been “Vietnamizing” years ago, they were to busy counting bodies and competing for rank and publicity – training doesn’t make as good headlines as combat. Even in the engineers, we wouldn’t even associate with the Vietnamese when I came to “Nam, but when I left, we had whole units integrated within ours, and there was tremendous pressure to train them and do so successfully, which I think was the most important single policy implementation of the whole conflict. Amazing that it took some 6 years to think of it!

My younger brother, Martin was a Marine, serving in Vietnam in 1967, This is his story.
For my personal story of military service, see “Before and After Vietnam, Military Experiences of Thomas K. (Tom) Butt.”
My films of Vietnam are not nearly as dramatic as those from Ken Burns’ documentary, but they provide a glimpse of what my 3.3 percent of the 30-year war looked like:

For films of the long trip home, 1970, see: