by Glenn Petersen
It’s there in the title of a Beatles’ song, of course. “I should have known better,” one of my generation’s purest reminders of the human tendency to do things we know we damn well shouldn’t. “Twenty-twenty hindsight,” we sometimes call it. I should have known better than to give into the fascination of the abyss.
I do know better, in fact, and the truth is that I’ve made all sorts of resolutions to stop doing it. That’s because I also believe, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, that “if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” And still I stare.
I’ve long assumed that 1968’s Tet Offensive—one of the crucial turning points in the United States’ war in Vietnam—had no impact on me. And then I listened to Prof. Lien-Hang Nguyen, a Columbia University historian, speak about it on the occasion of Tet’s fiftieth anniversary. Details of how the lives and ambitions of North Vietnamese leaders shaped their struggles over war policies—that is, about the hearts and minds involved in planning and executing the uprising—suddenly transported me back to the 1968 lunar new year.
I wasn’t in-country at the time, but rather with my squadron in San Diego as we scrambled to prepare for our next deployment back to Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf. We’d returned from Vietnam the previous summer, and the turn-around time for the Navy’s aircraft carriers was brief and the pace frenetic at that point in the war. It seemed as though we were nearly always at sea, training, overhauling equipment, and rekindling our fighting spirit. The only respite we’d had, in fact, was a few days lying on the beach at the old Barber’s Point Naval Air Station in Ewa (across Pearl Harbor from Waikiki), as we waited for one of the early Apollo missions to launch.
When NASA was finally ready, we took up station near French Frigate Shoals, where I handled the radar in the command aircraft as we tracked the capsule’s descent and splashdown, and vectored in helicopters for the recovery. Then it was back to the demanding regimen leading up to our Operational Readiness Inspection, the final step before we headed off for the South China Sea to rejoin what we called the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.
Fortunately for me, or so I thought, my hitch was set to expire just as we were about to sail, and I wouldn’t deploy with my outfit. But along came Tet. Though we were more than eight thousand miles away, my first thought upon hearing about the uprising was that I wasn’t going to be discharged—that Uncle Sam would send me sent back overseas for another tour. And I was nearly right.
I was only twenty at the time, but I was a second-class petty officer running an avionics shop, a fully competent repair technician, and an expert radar intercept controller/flight tech flying in the old E-1B Tracer aircraft, better known as Willy Fudds. (Our Fudds were the immediate predecessors of the E-2 Hawkeye AWACS planes still flying today, the ones with the flying saucers riding on their backs). I was skilled and I was tough. On Yankee Station I simultaneously controlled my own and a half-dozen other aircraft, assigning them patrol and attack vectors; kept track of all the sea and air traffic in the lower Tonkin Gulf; and solved nearly any electronics problem that came up during our missions (and with that 1950s technology, these problems arose every few minutes, it seemed).
And so it was that the concentration and stamina my job demanded of me, coupled with my youthful warrior spirit, shielded me from awareness of my fear in the moment. I had no way of grasping that my premonition that I’d be redeployed masked an intense fear of returning to Vietnam. As far as I knew, I was fearless. I was eager to get out of the Navy mainly because I wanted to get started on the rest of my life—I’d already been accepted at college—not because I feared for it.
Now, most of a lifetime later, I’ve allowed the shield to come down a bit, and I’ve gained some insight and access into the part of my young self that was, in fact, terrified. Sitting in that seminar room the other day, hearing about Tet and the conjunctions of war and individual motivations, and the North Vietnamese leadership’s struggles to decide whether to seek peace negotiations or to ignite a general uprising in the South, I was startled to find myself back on the flight line at North Island Naval Air Station, about to climb into one of our Fudds. And the sensation accompanying that flash of time-travel wasn’t nostalgia, it was raw fear.
Don’t get me wrong. I often find myself back on Yankee Station, heading across the flightdeck toward my plane and another sortie, with the hint of a swagger in my step. This, though, was the first time I’ve seen myself crossing the concrete apron back in the States.
I can now see that I had in fact been frightened by the realization that I might be going back to Vietnam. And going back wasn’t merely conjecture on my part. My squadron did everything it could to convince me that I wasn’t getting discharged as planned.
Tet coincided with Congress’ early efforts to cut back on the costs of the war, which were bleeding the budget and hamstringing the economy. As a cost-savings measure, the Pentagon had announced at the beginning of the year that everyone approaching the end of their enlistment would be discharged two months early, on the dubious theory that troops exert little effort in their final days before separating. My unit, Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron Eleven (VAW-11), however, informed me they’d cabled Washington, telling the Defense Department that they couldn’t spare me: they weren’t going to let me out. (This is now called stop-loss, but I don’t think the term existed back in those days.) My suspicions were being confirmed.
I understood their perspective. There were only a handful of enlisted men willing and able to take on the radar intercept controller/flight technician role that kept our Fudds’ equipment functioning during those daily, seven-hour missions. Pilots and radar officers were a dime a dozen, it seemed, but the squadron didn’t have remotely enough techs to handle round-the-clock operations in the Gulf, screening the fleet, directing coastal shipping interdictions, and locating downed aircrews in the dense fogs. I was officially irreplaceable.
One of my favorite sayings is that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to get you. And that’s exactly the situation I found myself in. The squadron had verified my intuition that Tet meant I wasn’t getting out, that I was being redeployed, and that I was looking at another seventy or so combat missions.
It’s not easy to summon up what exactly was going on in one’s mind a half-century ago, and I can imagine some readers asking how I could possibly understand now just how afraid I’d been then, given that I seemed completely unaware of it at the time. Well, as I sat there listening to the lecture on the Tet Offensive the other day, feeling myself back with my outfit, I was grappling simultaneously with my bravado, my sense of duty and honor, and most of all, the gut instinct that I was being sent back, which had just been verified by my skipper—a pilot I flew with and who gave me the straight skinny (straight from the horse’s mouth, that is).
As these thoughts were unfolding, I flashed back to a scene I’d never paid a lot of heed to. Partway through my previous tour on Yankee Station, our ship, the Bennington, a veteran World War Two Essex-class carrier, pulled out of the line and steamed north to Sasebo, Japan, to have our crumbling flightdeck rebuilt. The intense pace of operations was battering the ancient deck into rubble, and our pilots were growing increasingly concerned, not about landing, but about what would happen once we’d hit the deck.
While in Sasebo, I stepped into one of the many small shops catering to sailors with months of pay in their pockets and had them custom-embroider a ballcap—the sort we were allowed to wear as part of our working uniforms—with our squadron’s insignia, a crowing rooster (symbolizing our early warning role) on the front. On the back, I had them write in katakana (Japanese syllabic writing) “I’ll never go back.”
My shipmate John Vega, a buddy I usually pulled liberty with, was born and raised in Spanish Harlem. He loved the music of Joe Cuba’s pioneering salsa band and especially Joe’s signature tune, “El Pito,’ with its refrain, “I’ll never go back to Georgia.” Vega sang it often, and it lodged in my brain. When I had that hat embroidered with “I’ll never go back,” though, it wasn’t Georgia I was thinking about. It was the Tonkin Gulf.
My youthful pride and lack of perspective, my sense of duty, my ambition and drive, and my “spirit” (what the ancient Greeks called thumos, the drive that animated Achilles) all worked together to keep me from acknowledging my fears. But they were there nonetheless. “I’ll never go back,” indeed. And when I got word that they were sending me back, all that discipline kicked in once more to keep me oblivious of just what it was I was feeling.
The Pentagon, though, didn’t take kindly to the squadron’s unilateral decision to hold onto me. Orders to release me arrived on February 10th. Late that morning I was told I was being discharged on February 12th. Hot damn!
And then I packed the whole story away. Until the other day, that is, when here at the university where I’ve been safely teaching for more than forty years, I was unexpectedly carried back to the flight line in San Diego. Back fifty years, to when every fiber of my being worked in concert to hide my fears while I was convinced, for a couple of weeks, that I was going back to war.
Lien-Hang Nguyen’s history of what the Vietnamese call the American War, told from the North’s perspective, is as much about the lives and ambitions of leaders there as it is about the bombing and shooting. She spoke of how life and death decisions about prosecuting the war were made within the context of lived human experience, amid love and anger and ambition and all the rest, and as she did so she ripped at the scar tissue disfiguring my humanity. This is what pushed me toward that startling state of vulnerability.
The war still has a vice-like grip on my imagination. The healthier parts of my brain warn me away from it, but like the abyss, its terror continues to fascinate me, and it’s hard to look away. This time I stared just a little too long, and it stared back into me.