EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Most of the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia are too young to know it, but what the Gulf War was really about was Vietnam. It was about burying the past and feeling proud again to be a soldier. At last, the jungles of Southeast Asia belonged to another era.
Here on the desert plains of Arabia, a new generation of Americans has come of age on the battlefield, a generation of men and women older, wiser and better trained than any America has ever sent to war before. Yet in their expressions of faith and fear you hear the echoes of Normandy and Inchon and Dak To, reminding us that all wars are part of a universal passage and that, however different the terrain and mission, the faces are always the same.
"Look into the eyes of these soldiers for a few days," Lt. Col. Skip Baker said before leading his men into battle. "You will see a change, their eyes will change. I saw that in Vietnam. The name tags were different, but the faces became almost identical. I finally figured out what it was.
"Before they saw combat, their eyes were bright and clear. They saw McDonald's and Chevys. When they see battles, they become men who have seen things other men have not, and that shows in their eyes. They get that far-distant look."
Anyone who was in Vietnam will tell you that the men who fought there got a bum rap. Most didn't snort coke, frag officers or shoot at women. The vast majority fought courageously. Many believed in what they were fighting for. But their's was a generation of rock 'n' roll and protests and inner-city strife, and America's invincibility was being challenged for the first time. They came home wanting parades and embraces and instead they had to build themselves a memorial before anyone would acknowledge their sacrifice.
Vietnam was Bam Mi Ba Beer, bar girls on Tu Do Street calling, "Hey, GI, you buy me one Saigon tea," and Filipino bands lip-synching, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." It was also LZs (landing zones) and Medevacs and Hamburger Hill and the place where 58,000 Americans died. In Vietnam, everything was Numbah 1 or Numbah 10. Life was measured on a short-timer's calendar and all civilization beyond Vietnam was referred to simply as The World.
If Vietnam was the war with steam baths near every fire base and a lot of draftees who considered themselves "messed-up," this 42-day battle for a little country most Americans had never heard of back in July was the Square War, fought by clear-headed volunteers of single-minded purpose. No booze, no drugs, no venereal diseases, no GI babies left behind. Here the troops got their highs chewing instant coffee.
"Look at the late '60s. It was a draft army. Look at the racial strife. It was an unsettled time," said Col. Ted Purdom, sand and dust swirling around him and nothing around but mile after mile of empty desert. "All of a sudden, our country has changed. We watched it swing 180 degrees. Look at the support from home we're getting now.
"These are absolutely the best soldiers I've seen in my 22 years in the Army. It's an upper just to be around each and every one of them."
Many of Purdom's young soldiers were surprised to learn that during the Vietnam War nobody back home wrote letters and sent packages to "Any Serviceman." Here they did, and that mail poured into Saudi Arabia at the rate of 45 tons a day. At night, before the ground war began, you'd see the soldiers sitting on their bunks dutifully writing back, to school kids, civic groups, church organizations. One GI even got married, over the phone, to a woman who had addressed her letter to "Dear Any Serviceman."
America, too, it seemed, was expunging the last of its Vietnam guilt. It had sent the Pepsi generation to war wearing Walkman headsets. Instead of reciting the lament heard in Vietnam--"Why bother?"--its motto has been, "Somebody's gotta do it." The lights had been turned on at the end of the tunnel, and one young sergeant from North Carolina, Darrin Ashley, understood that, in some roundabout way, that meant that the nation had finally come to not only exonerate but exalt men like his father who had answered an earlier call to arms.
Ashley takes from his wallet a well-creased newspaper clipping and unfolds it. Five times, it says, his father, Spec. 1st. Class Eugene Ashley, lead a charge against enemy positions to rescue his trapped comrades at the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp in Vietnam. For his heroism, Ashley was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Darrin was two-years-old on the day, Feb. 6, 1968, when his father was killed at Lang Vei.
"I always wanted to be like my father, to be what they told me he was like," the younger Ashley says. "I can follow in his footsteps, but I can never fill his shoes. He's my hero. He was the kind of man who didn't give up. If he couldn't do something, he'd keep trying and keep trying. He just wouldn't give up."