An election is coming on November 3rd and it’s one laden with lots of angst and fear and hate and hints of the unknown and how bad the future will be if my guy isn’t the one and all of the roiled waters of political and cultural insanity. And that has me pondering elections in the past.
My first election participation wasn’t one I actually voted in: September 3, 1967. The South Vietnamese government held an election to choose a new leader and to embark on a system of government supposedly more representative than the four years of political chaos that followed the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.
At the time of the election, my Marine Corps unit, Bravo Company, 1/26, was stationed at Khe Sanh.
The monsoon blared in full ugly, soaking, running rampant, flooding trenches, everything sopping: clothing, gear, socks, your socks, your bedding. Your socks.
The local election was to be conducted in Khe Sanh Ville, a few miles away from the lines we manned at the combat base, and the Marine Corps chose our platoon, 2nd Platoon, to provide security for the polling site.
I haven’t, in the past, thought of the need for security at one of our elections until this year when images come to mind of camo-clothed, armed and angry people milling around the polls as if only they could save our republic. And then I think about them impeding voters from exercising their basic right, and hot fingers of rage scrape at my guts and I imagine if they try to stop me from voting what I’ll do to them: hand-to-hand, foot-to-groin, poke out an eye, crush an Adam’s apple . . . and then I say, “Calm down.”
Then I think, I didn’t lie in the damp grass and protect a polling place in Vietnam without the deeper need to protect my own rights to vote. I didn’t survive the Siege of Khe Sanh to then live to see the destruction of our republic. I think, don’t mess with my right to vote.
On September 3, 1967, after morning chow, the Marines of 2nd Platoon loaded into two six-by trucks and departed for Khe Sanh Ville.
Every time we loaded in the back of those trucks, the creeps sneaked up my spine and buzzed around the inside of my head. We’d been ambushed a couple of times barreling down the roads around Khe Sanh, a few rounds of small arms fire snapping, zipping overhead, some whapping the sideboards of the truck, sending splinters of wood slashing.
I don’t remember taking any incoming fire on that short journey on September 3, 1967, although there was a lot of concern on both the national and local levels of government that the NVA and the Viet Cong would try to disrupt the election process, and those concerns were born out when Viet Cong warriors attacked a number of polling places in the Central Highlands and set up ambushes to discourage voters from travelling to the polls.
Fear, I suspect, roamed through the psyches of the South Vietnamese voters. Danger lurked at every juncture. Phantom threats haunted everybody’s minds, or so I imagine, fed by gossip, rumor, news intended to frighten. Sound familiar to some of the election hubbub bubbling around in the news and on social media right now?
The election in Khe Sanh Ville was held in a school, or maybe it was some kind of other community building. The location was brick with whitewashed walls as I recall, and it sat away from other buildings and the back was bordered by a grassy lot edged by a tree line that would be a great place for the enemy to hide before attacking the polling place.
Being Marines, one would think that we’d have sent a recon patrol out there to sweep through that tree line and into the country beyond, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, we set up a perimeter around the building.
I lay in tall grass out back and sighted my M16 towards those trees and tried to figure out a field of fire from right to left and back to right, imagining what those bad guys would look like coming at us with grenades and RPGs and AK-47 fire. The smell of wet crammed in my nose like damp and rotting leaves, and the taste too, like the garden dirt I used to eat as a kid.
1968 was the first presidential election in which I could vote, and then there was Nixon’s second term and Ford getting whipped and Reagan crushing Carter and Mondale, too, and then the first George Bush and on and on, the list a map for me to view the more recent history of our country and my life.
Even before I voted, elections were big in our house. First one I recall is Eisenhower against Stevenson when my mother was for Stevenson and my father for Eisenhower. My parents supported different people for president and were vocal about it. Unlike so much of our present bitter electioneering, there was a mutual respect between them and for others, too, something about people having a right to vote for whomever they wanted without being harangued, harassed, cussed, and looked down upon.
My mom and dad were from the generation that whipped Fascism and voting was a sacred right to them.
When Kennedy and Nixon ran against each other, our house stood with the Democrats and with LBJ over Goldwater later, and then I don’t know who my parents voted for because voting became something I did and who I voted for was my business and who anybody else voted for was their business.
As I lay in the grass, trying not to be defeated by the leeches sucking my blood and boredom and the knowledge—the incessant insistence—that at any time I could be dead, I wondered about my role in the election going on behind me in the polling site. According to what I observed, which I have to admit was only from my lonely perspective in a far corner of Vietnam, was that a large portion of the South Vietnamese were for the communists, although who the locals around Khe Sanh—the Bru Montagnards—were interested in supporting was not known to me. Nevertheless, I saw myself as an agent of a government that in some ways was not all that popular and down deep in my innards that notion gnawed and gnawed and gnawed. It still does.
I don’t know if anyone actually voted in Khe Sanh Ville on September 3, 1967. The men who won that election, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, inherited a mess and ultimately their side lost the war, and even though a lot of my comrades don’t agree, I think we lost, too.
I know, even though I gained a lot of experience in the ways of war and humanity, I lost a lot of personal things, too: innocence, good friends, and my time.
Hopefully, on November 3, 2020, we won’t need guns and war to settle who wins our election.