I have pancreatic cancer. If it is Agent Orange, it's not the
first time this damned war has tried to kill me.
Let me tell you about the first time. In fact, the whole and
true story of my journey home from Vietnam. But before I do,
let me set the scene for you.
It is November 1965. The Ia Drang Valley. The nearest town,
Pleiku, a remote Vietnamese province capital. And west of
town, beyond the stilted long-huts of the Montagnards, flat
scrub jungle cover the hills by the Cambodian border. A
smugglers' haven, and now the infiltration route for the first
North Vietnamese regulars to invade South Vietnam.
American regular infantry, the first sent to Vietnam as the
war escalates, have come to this border country to hunt the
People's Army of Vietnam. They are the men of the First Air
Cav, the first Army infantry division to ride into war in
helicopters. The leading unit is Lt. Col. Hal Moore's 1st
Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Driving their choppers into a
landing zone designated X-ray, a few miles from the Cambodian
border, on the
14th of November, 1965, they land on top of a North Vietnamese
Army base. A ferocious battle ensues that lasts three whole
days. Hal Moore's battalion several times comes within inches
of being overrun. In the end, reinforced to brigade strength,
the U.S. troops destroy the better part of a North Vietnamese
division at X-ray. Seventy-nine Americans are killed, 121
woundeda total of 200 U.S. casualtiesthe highest toll of the
war till thenbut there are roughly two thousand North
I came in on the last day of the battle. I remember the NVA
bodies were piled so thick around the foxholes you could walk
on them for 100 feet in some places. The American GIs were the
same color as the dirt and all had that thousand-yard stare of
those newly initiated to combat.
The next day, after a restless night, my battalion, the 2/7,
walked away from X-ray toward another clearing called LZ
Albany. Around lunchtime, we were jumped by a North Vietnamese
formation. Like us, about 500-strong.
The fighting was hand-to-hand. I was lying so close to a North
Vietnamese machine-gunner that I simply stuck out my rifle and
blew off his head. It was, I think, the only time during the
war that a U.S. battalion was ever overrun. The U.S.
casualties for this fourth day of battle: 155 killed, 121
wounded. More dead than wounded. The North Vietnamese suffered
a couple of hundred casualties.
The fight at LZ Albany was largely overlooked as an
aberrationpoor leadership, green troops. In this first
encounter between their main force regulars, the two sides
focused instead on X-ray. Interestingly, both drew the same
conclusion: that each could win using the tactics of
The ferocity of the fighting during those four days was
appalling. At one point in the awful afternoon at Albany, as
my battalion was being cut to pieces, a small group of enemy
came upon me, and thinking I had been killed (I was covered in
other people's blood), proceeded to use me as a sandbag for
their machine gun. I pretended to be dead. I remember the
gunner had bony knees that pressed against my sides. He didn't
discover I was alive because he was trembling more than I was.
He was, like me, just a teenager.
The gunner began firing into the remnants of my company. My
buddies began firing back with rifle grenadesM-79s, to those
of you who know about them. I remember thinking, "Oh, my God.
If I stand up, the North Vietnamese will kill me; and if I
stay lying down, my buddies will get me." Before I went
completely mad, a volley of grenades exploded on top of me,
killing the enemy boy and injuring me.
It went on like this all day and much of the night. I was
wounded twice and thought myself dead. My company suffered
about 93 percent casualties93 percent.
This sort of experience leaves scars. I had nightmares. For
years afterwards I was sour on life, by turns angry, cynical,
Then one day I woke up and saw the world as I believe it
really is, a bright and warm place. I looked afresh at my
scars and marveled, not at the frailty of human flesh, but at
the indomitable strength of the human spirit. This is the
miracle of life. Like other Vietnam veterans, I began to put
the personal hurt behind me, and I started to examine the war
itself and to make sense of it.
When I went back to Vietnam a few years ago, I met Gen. Vo
Nguyen Giap, the man who engineered the defeat of the French
at Dien Bien Phu and then commanded North Vietnamese forces in
the war with South Vietnamand us. He conceded that because of
the Ia Drang his plans to cut Vietnam in half and take the
capital had been delayed ten years. But then, he chuckled, it
didn't make a difference, did it?
We won every battle, but the North Vietnamese in the end took
Saigon. What on earth had we been doing there? Was all that
pain and suffering worth it, or was it just a terrible waste?
This is why Vietnam veterans often have so much trouble
letting go, what sets them apart from veterans of other wars.
Nothing is so precious to a nation as its youth. And so, to
squander the lives of the young in a war that, depending on
one's point of view, either should never have been fought or
we were never prepared to win, seems crazy. Yet, that's
exactly what happened in Vietnam. However justified the war
seemed in 1964 and 1965and, remember, almost all Americans
then thought it wasit no longer seemed that way after Tet in
1968. And no matter what you may remember of the war, we never
really fought it to win.
When I was wounded it caused a minor sensation at home. My
father was Howard K. Smith, the anchorman and TV news
commentator, who was then at the peak of his career. That the
son of a famous person should get shot in Vietnam was, in
1965, news. When I returned to the United States after my tour
in Vietnam, President Johnson, who was a friend of my dad's,
invited me to a dinner party at the White House. I remember a
tall, smiling man who thanked me for my service and
sacrifice. I liked him then; I still do today. Yet no one
bears as much responsibility for the conduct of the war as he
In the Gulf War we took six months to put half a million
troops into the war zone. In Vietnam, it took more than six
years. We were too timid to carry the fight to the enemy until
the end, and we triedimpossiblyto keep the war contained to
The result was that our enemy, a small country waging total
warthat is, using all its resourcessaw a super power
fighting a limited war and concluded that if it could just
sustain the 10-to-1 casualties we were inflicting for a while,
then we would tire and leave, and it would win. Of course, Ho
Chi Minh was right. The war also changed character. The
Sino-Soviet split made it seem less like a war of national
liberation and more like a civil waran internal squabble.
After the Tet Offensive in 1968, we quit and began the longest
and bloodiest retreat in U.S. history. Dean Rusk,
then-Secretary of State, many years later ruefully told me,
``They outlasted us.''
The fact is, democracies don't fight inconclusive wars for
remote goals in distant places for very long. Pham Van Dong,
Ho's successor, said that.
Whether the war was right or whether it was wrong, it was
fought in such a way it could never really have been brought
to a conclusion. That now seems clear with time. What a waste.
It's why so many veterans of Vietnam feel bitter.
Well, we finally did get our parades and we finally did build
our memorial on the Mall in Washington. These helped. But so
many veterans were still haunted by the war, and I was, too.
Fourteen years ago, I watched the Berlin Wall come down and,
as an ABC News correspondent, I witnessed first hand the
collapse of communism. I remember thinking, ``My God,
containment worked. We won the Cold War.'' And however
meaningless Vietnam seemed at the time, it contributed to the
fall of communism. Hardly justification for what we went
through in Vietnam, but at least it was something.
Then ten years ago, an event changed me. An opportunity to go
back to Vietnam. With ten other Ia Drang veterans, I traveled
back to the jungle in the Central Highlands and for several
days walked the battlefield. Did I find the answer to my
question? No, I don't know if what we did in the war
ultimately was worth it. But what I did find surprised me.
North Vietnam may have conquered the South, but it is losing
the peace. A country that three decades ago had the fourth
strongest army in the world has squandered its wealth on
fighting its neighbors and is poor and bankrupt. You look at
Vietnam today and you wonder why they fought the war. Many
North Vietnamese wonder, too.
What struck me was the overwhelming peacefulness of the place,
even in the clearing where I fought, LZ Albany. I broke down
several times. I wanted to bring back some shell casingssome
physical manifestation of the battleto lay at the foot of
The Wall here in Washington. But, do you know, search as I
did, I could not find any. The forces of nature had simply
erased it. And where once the grass had been slippery with
blood, there were flowers blooming in that place of death. So
pressed some and brought them back. Flowersthat's all that I
could find in that jungle clearing that once held terror and
now held beauty.
What I discovered with time may seem obvious, but it had
really escaped me all those years on my journey home from
Vietnam: The war is over. It certainly is for Vietnam and the
Vietnamese. As I said on a Nightline broadcast when I
came back, ``This land is at peace, and so should we be.'' For
me, Vietnam has become a place again, not a war, and I have
begun letting go.
I have discovered that wounds heal. That the friendship of old
comrades breathes meaning into life. And that even the most
disjointed events can begin to make sense with the passage of
This has allowed me, on evenings like this, to step forward
and take pride in the service I gave my country. But never to
forget what was, and will always be, the worst day of my life.
The day I escaped death in the tall grass of the Ia Drang
Valley. Thank you.
Jack Smith gave this speech November 3, 2003, at the I
Drang Survivors Banquet in Crystal City, Virginia.