Reliving the horrors of war; The nightmare of Vietnam

One day in March of 2002, my wife and I were casually passing through the local big box bookstore when she saw something interesting in the imagery on the stack of Hamilton Spectator newspapers. Because the papers were folded and stacked this is all we saw spanning the fold:

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My wife asked if that was my dad…I had no idea. After unfolding it it quickly became obvious it was. It was timed to coincide with the release of the movie We Were Soliders, based loosely on the book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway

In the paper was an article on my father’s experience in war, as well as a few pics I had see an a child. The stories were always a blur because of the complexity and horror of it all. It was the first time I’d seen it documented in a way that also carefully described the difficulty experienced by the storyteller.

It’s not an easy read, nor may it meet your political comfort zone, but as long as I have known my father I’ve always known about the struggles that all veterans experience. There are many glories that await survivors of conflict, on both sides, but the private struggles of those soldiers matter more.

Take careful note of the fact that Canadians did serve in Vietnam. Possibly as many as 40’000 [citation – article author in a sidebar]. They also deserve some recognition from both sides of the border. My father was so affected by this disconnect that he only sought his military pension in the last few years. More on that later.

Hug your veterans, family or not. Hear them and understand them. Hug them again.


Reliving the horrors of war

Ron Bunston sounds as if he’s reading for the part of Willard in Apocalypse Now. The voice is flat, the tone sombre, the admissions startling.

“August 1965 I was on a ship headed for Vietnam, a long trip through time. Going to war as misinformed as generations of soldiers before me, I was Buffy Saint-Marie’s Universal Soldier. The war arrived, friends died or were maimed and I most certainly caused the deaths of others.”

He’s three blocks from the newly dark movie screen at Jackson Square, nursing a Hortons coffee and the afterglow of a hasty smoke.

“The war was bizarre. In Vietnam it was bizarre, in the U.S. it was bizarre and in Canada — the great nation of navel gazers — it was even more bizarre. America did not lose the war in Vietnam. We all lost. The whole planet lost.”

As wiry at 60 as he was as an Airborne/Ranger, Ron Bunston inhabits a face nearly gothic in gravity, drawn and wary yet somehow calm at the core.

“It was hard to leave the military, I was leaving a group of friends that only the sharing of intense experience can bring.”

The nightmare of Vietnam

“Everyone who was honest with themselves had to acknowledge that the brush with death was an experience that had no parallel. No drug can equal the high of coming out of a firefight alive, the parachute drops, the racing across the treetops at top speed in a gunship. The shocks. The deaths.”

The coffee cools and Bunston, the Fonthill native who joined the U.S. Army in 1962, struggles to parse Hollywood’s most recent take on the Vietnam War — Mel Gibson’s When We Were Soldiers, the narrow epic story of the vicious first battle between American troops and North Vietnamese regulars that was the curtain raiser on a decade of war.

The movie, with Gibson seemingly taking cues from John Wayne as unit commander Hal Moore, relies in the early going on a simplistic “defense of freedom” justification for the war. The movie equates the unquestionable valour of the individual soldiers with validity of purpose of those who directed and perpetuated this war.

The second half brackets in on a vicious three-day firefight in the Ia Drang valley of the central highlands. It pitted an elite AirCav (air cavalry) battalion — the cutting edge of American military technology and strategy in 1965 — against three battalions of battle-hardened, highly motivated North Vietnamese determined to deal the Americans the same thrashing they’d dealt the French a decade earlier.

It’s all energy, action, visceral. No politics. Just the primal elements — life and death and the guys on your right and left. Horrific images of napalm-broiled flesh, slo-mos of bodies literally ripped by machine gun fire. War is hell writ large, as if we didn’t already know.

When We Were Soldiers, notwithstanding the critical accolades and a strong box office, is a one-dimensional motion picture, bereft of context, strong on unquestioning patriotism.

In the end, the Americans won — barely — mostly because they were able to call on overwhelming artillery and air support. But not before they came perilously close to being overrun and wiped out. Ironically, the unit involved — the 7th Cavalry — was the same one George Custer led into the Little Bighorn.

The events depicted are the most concentrated and intense action of the larger 34-day Ia Drang Campaign of October/November 1965 when the entire AirCav division was committed to the jungle highlands to engage the North Vietnamese on their own turf.

Bunston spent three weeks on recon patrol in the Ia Drang Valley as a fire team leader. It was their baptism by fire. By the end of the campaign, his 44-man platoon had been reduced to 17 and he was the only survivor of his four-member team.

During the three terrifying days depicted in the movie, Bunston was close enough to monitor 7th Cav radio traffic as their situation in the clearing designated LZ X-Ray became increasingly desperate.

By the time the 7th Cav was able to safely withdraw, 200 Americans had been killed or wounded. Among the dead, Bunston could count 30 men he’d known well, guys he’d trained and chummed with for three years.

A friend wounded at X-Ray told him of “standing up against a tree, stunned by a mortar round, a North Vietnamese officer in front of him with a .45 pistol pointed at his forehead. That’s the last he remembers. When the round went off it skipped off the bridge of his nose and he lost an eye, woke up in the MASH unit back at An Khe. I’m just aghast, I’m just absolutely astounded.”

When Paramount Pictures invited Bunston to a pre-release screening of When We Were Soldiers, Bunston told the studio rep: “Look lady, I saw the original play and it was lousy. Why would I want to see the movie?”

Likewise he has avoided the book that spawned it.

“Couldn’t bring myself to read about the historical details of their deaths.”

In the end, he agreed to go, then left halfway through.

This night, at the behest of a reporter, he’s agreed to give the movie a second chance. The frosty walk from the theatre up King Street’s been mostly silent, perhaps to let the searing images of violence and death recede and reassemble in some kind of pattern.

Witnessing a recreation of this long-ago nightmare — even a Hollywood recreation shot in California — has clearly been a trial. Bunston huddles over his cardboard cup and says in a voice barely audible: “I felt as though I had stopped breathing somewhere in the film. It’s a very gutty thing. It grabs you by the short and curlies. I put my feet on the ground and just breathed deeply to clear my head and get emotions under control.”

Bunston knows of what he speaks. Part of the first AirCav units sent in to kick over the North Vietnamese beehive at Ia Drang, he patrolled in jungle so thick it could take an entire afternoon to advance 100 metres. With green kids fresh out of basic training, he fought firefights against an enemy rarely seen beyond flashes of automatic fire. The Americans were always outnumbered, but the equalizer was artillery which could be called in within metres of a position. “When it comes in over your head you can hear the soft whoosh-whoosh but when it’s coming in really close, you don’t hear it. A couple rounds came in and then we didn’t hear anything.”

A 105-mm shrapnel shell landed right on top of Bunston’s fire team. A 17-year-old from northern Oregon, both legs blown off, died in his arms. Bits of the radio operator, a farmboy from the Midwest, were blown into the mike and stunk for days. Bunston had only a slash on his hand.

At night, the artillery returned to clear the perimeter long enough for choppers to get the dead and wounded out. The rest carried on the patrol.

In another firefight, Bunston’s understrength platoon stumbled right into the back end of an entire battalion of North Vietnamese regulars. In the ensuing free-for-all, Bunston experienced what’s sometimes called the Adrenalin Morph.

“You just slow down, like your actions are in complete slow motion, you feel as though you’re moving faster than the bullets. I’ve got one part of me fighting and another part reacting. I’m within screaming distance of a North Vietnamese machine gun. I’m peppering shots back, he’s got a .50 cal, he’s gonna tear my ass to shreds and I’m screaming at him … ‘You can’t shoot me, I’m a citizen of the Queen!’

“I was just, like … snap.”

In Ia Drang, Bunston would watch six guys from A-Company die.

At a Formica table 37 years later, the still-warm memories meld with the cinematic image like bookends on a recurring nightmare.

“I lived and walked just on the edge of this event. I carried it out of there within me. That the 7th experienced a hell few had to deal with is beyond question. And the film does accurately portray the intensity. They fought the big one. As a powerful story about the boys in that unit, it’s fine, but I’m looking for a bigger answer to ‘why that war?'”

In the end, he says, films like When We Were Soldiers are essentially futile, not so much because of what they show but because of what they don’t.

“We all know how much the Vietnamese have suffered, we all know how much the Americans have suffered — I don’t see any attempt to resolve it. Vietnam was, and is, a scar on the entire fabric of the North American mind. There’s no indication they’ve learned anything from war. In the U.S., they continually refer to the mistakes of Vietnam. They’ll point at everything from journalism to protesters, everything except their own policies.”

The movie carries a jarring element of dj vu, Bunston says.

“The message and themes are the very reason they failed in the first place. It’s like a continuation of the same myth — defending freedom against a dark and sinister force.”

Rather than liberty, he says, it was the interests of big oil and big banks. “It was a war fought for the interests of empire to which we all belong.”

The Ia Drang Campaign cost the Americans 305 dead and the North Vietnamese an estimated 3,561. It was the first act in a 10-year danse macabre that would kill 1.7 million, maim 3 million more and create 13 million refugees.

Bunston spent only six months in Vietnam — skirting the edge of hell, in his phrase — and came away forever branded by the war.

He regards the experience with a mix of grief and regret.

“I am retired from the wars of the planet. There were a lot of years of nightmares.” From a time when Ron Bunston was a soldier … and young.

You can contact James Elliott at jelliott@hamiltonspectator.com or at 905-526-2444.

GRIEF AND REGRET – A Fonthill native and Vietnam War veteran says Hollywood films about the conflict are essentially futile because of what they don’t show.

Credit: The Hamilton Spectator

Abstract (Document Summary)

Photo: Spectator File Photo; In 1965 Fonthill native [Ron Bunston] spent six months in Vietnam fighting for the United States army. He was forever branded by the horrifying experience.; Photo: Scott Gardner, the Hamilton Spectator; Ron Bunston fought for the United States in the Vietnam War. When he watched the movie When We Were Soldiers, ‘it felt as though I had stopped breathing.’; Photo: Scott Gardner, the Hamilton Spectator; Citations from Bunston’s tour of duty when he served as a U.S. Army Ranger.; Photo: Spectator File Photo; Time out from jungle warfare against the North Vietnamese to get a haircut.

Credit: The Hamilton Spectator

[Final Edition]
The Spectator – Hamilton, Ont.
Author: James Elliott
Date: Mar 23, 2002
Start Page: A.01
Section: News
Text Word Count: 1801