April 2000/May 2000
Rendezvous With War
By Marc Leepson
The three-day, April 6-8 "Rendezvous With War"
symposium--Vietnam Veterans of America's first foray into the world of
academic conferences--was an unqualified success. The nine-panel symposium
was cosponsored by VVA and the College of William and Mary and held on the
W&M Williamsburg, Virginia, campus. The journalist Wallace Terry
coordinated the event. The author of Bloods, brought an
accomplished group of veterans, correspondents, historians, and filmmakers
to the nation's second-oldest college to share their experiences and
knowledge of many aspects of the Vietnam War.
The conference opened at 4:00 Thursday afternoon, April 6, when a crowd
of more than three hundred people attended the first session, "No
Light at the End of the Tunnel," which focused on the origins of the
"It's a genuine privilege for William & Mary to be a
partner" with VVA, said university vice president Sam Sadler in his
introductory remarks. "We were especially proud to be chosen by
Vietnam Veterans of America for this important symposium." VVA
national President George C. Duggins also welcomed the panelists and
audience members, saying that he hoped the next two days "would be a
learning experience for all involved."
That first panel began the learning as each of the five panelists gave
their perspectives on the war's beginnings. The panel consisted of Stanley
Karnow, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning former war correspondent who wrote Vietnam:
A History; Ronald Spector, a George Washington University history
professor, author, and former Marine; Gen. Hal Moore, the hero of the
Battle of the Ia Drang and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young;
the distinguished historian William Conrad Gibbons, author of the
multi-volume The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, and Zalin
Grant, a former U.S. Army officer, Vietnam War correspondent, and author
of several books about the war.
After the panelists weighed in, the panel took questions from the
audience. The second panel looked at the end of the war through the
experiences of five eyewitnesses: the longtime Vietnam War correspondent
Peter Arnett; former Marine helicopter pilot Herb Fix, who was involved in
the Saigon evacuation; veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway, Gen.
Moore's co-author; Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, who
covered the fall of Cambodia; and Former Marine Russ Thurman, who took
part in both the Phnom Penh and Saigon evacuations.
In one of the conference's most riveting moments, Thurman played a
two-minute audiotape he made on April 30, 1975, in which the unmistakable
voice of a U.S. helicopter pilot unwittingly announces the end of the war
when he says: "All the Americans are out. This is it."
There were four panels the next day, Friday, April 7. The first was a
session on strategy and tactics moderated by retired Army Gen. James
Golden. The panel included Gen. Hal Moore, Herbert Fix, Zalin Grant,
Ronald Spector, and Peter Arnett. One highlight came from Gen. Moore when
he was asked to compare the French and American wars. "The whole
Vietnam War was our Dien Bien Phu," he replied.
The next panel may have been the most riveting. Called "The
Warrior's Story," and it featured the first-person testimony of six
Vietnam veterans. The group was made up of the moderator, W&M
professor James Griffin, who served as a Marine at Khe Sanh; VVA national
Vice President Tom Corey, a former First Cav rifleman; longtime VA
official Fred Downs, a former Fourth Infantry Division LT who was severely
wounded in Vietnam; movie director and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan,
who served as a 173rd Airborne Brigade trooper in Vietnam;
Marsha Four, chair of VVA's Womens Veterans Committee, who served as an
Army nurse in Vietnam; and Russ Thurman, who was a Marine combat
Then came a panel moderated by The VVA Veteran's arts editor,
Marc Leepson, on the media. Arnett, Galloway, Grant, and conference
coordinator Wallace Terry told their personal Vietnam War stories and
discussed the role of American war correspondents in covering the nation's
longest and most controversial overseas conflict.
That day's final panel looked at home-front issues and was moderated by
Everett Alvarez, the former U.S. Navy pilot who was the longest held
American POW in North Vietnam. The panel was made up of Stanley Karnow,
who spoke mostly about President Johnson; William Gibbons, who also
examined the Johnson administration's domestic and foreign policymaking;
VVA national Board member Randy Barnes, who gave an overview of Vietnam
Veterans Against the War's role in the late sixties and early seventies;
and Sydney Schanberg, who looked at the war in Cambodia and the POW issue.
That night the stirring POW documentary, Return With Honor, was
shown after which Alvarez and Grant, the author of Survivors, a
book about Vietnam War POWs, took questions from a large and appreciative
On Saturday morning a panel moderated by Leepson looked at Vietnam War
films and books. The panelists were Philip Caputo, the former Marine and
the author of the renowned memoir, A Rumor of War; Joe Galloway,
whose best-known book is the acclaimed We Were Soldiers Once and Young;
Pat Duncan, whose films include 84 Charlie MoPic and the HBO Vietnam
War Stories series; and Russ Thurman, who worked as a military
technical adviser on several Hollywood films, including Born on the
Fourth of July.
The final panel, chaired by Tom Corey, was called "Return to
Indochina: Recovering From the War 25 Years After." Philip Caputo,
Everett Alvarez, Fred Downs, Sydney Schanberg, and VVA Government
Relations Director Rick Weidman looked at different aspects of the war's
legacy today. Corey spoke about VVA's Veterans Initiative program. Caputo
told about the two trips he has made to Vietnam in 1996 and 1999. Fred
Downs talked about the 14 humanitarian missions he's made to Vietnam in
his role as the head of the VA's prosthetics division. Schanberg told of
his three trips back to Cambodia and one to Vietnam. Alvarez explained how
he came to visit Vietnam in 1993 to take part in a documentary about the
Hanoi Hilton and in 1999 on business. Weidman gave an overview of the
government's relationship with Vietnam veterans.
The symposium was a huge success. "Every panel discussion was an
education unto itself," said Paul Jean Hougen, who attended every
session. "I came away with a much deeper appreciation of, and respect
for, those who participated in the Vietnam War." Beginning in the
next issue, the "Rendezvous With War" panels will be serialized
in The VVA Veteran.