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Flower Of The Dragon: The breakdown of the U.S. Army in Vietnam - Richard Boyle

Doctor Rock: You know you come off with this journalist bullshit all the goddamn time, you know that? I haven't seen one article
Richard Boyle: I wrote a book! "Flower of the Dragon"!
Doctor Rock: "Flower of the Dragon"? That was ten years ago, Boyle!
Richard Boyle: It was a big exposé!
Doctor Rock: Ten years ago! What have you written since?
Richard Boyle: Articles.
Doctor Rock: What articles?
Richard Boyle: I wrote for a right wing newspaper in El Salvador about guerillas.
Doctor Rock: [sarcastic] Oh the one in El Salvador? Oh yeah, I read that, my whole family read that! Everyone saw that article, Boyle!
From the movie Salvador (1986) directed by Oliver Stone starring James Woods as Richard Boyle.

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Photo by Horst Faas

One thing that everyone needs to understand about Richard Boyle is what a big pain in the ass he is. He is brash, undisciplined, drinks too much, hangs out with women of dubious virtue, and yet for all these character flaws the man has a sense of integrity that would not let him compromise a story even when to print it put his life in danger. He did three tours in Vietnam as a war correspondent, well... not always actually while affiliated with a news organization, but let's not quibble over paperwork.

”The war in Vietnam is measured not by ground taken, as in most wars, but by the number of enemy killed.”

The difficulty with a war like this is that the Viet Cong would often just melt back into the population. US soldiers had trouble distinguishing between the enemy and the civilian population. It seems like every conflict the US military has been involved in since Vietnam would fit this profile. This blending of combatants with civilians makes mistakes easy. It is also not difficult to understand the growing frustration that any soldier would have when most of the time he feels he is fighting phantoms.

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Photo by Horst Faas.

Not being able to really see civilians as noncombatants, but actually believing that they are part of the problem, leads to tragedies like the massacre at My Lai. ”For me and for millions of my generation My Lai came as the final punch in the mouth, the end of our illusions. We could no longer say we didn’t know. The day we learned of My Lai changed our lives.” As it turns out, My Lai was not the first nor was it to be the last massacre of civilians by American soldiers.

It isn’t any wonder that a large percentage of the soldiers in Vietnam elected to tune out and light up. Grass was a problem, but heroin and Binoctal were a bigger problem. Binoctal was frying soldier’s brains. Heroin was a difficult habit to break, and as guys were rotating back to the states, their main concern was making sure they could find a dealer to keep feeding their addiction. Just because soldiers were allowed to leave Vietnam they didn’t always leave the war behind them.

One of the bigger stories that The Overseas Weekly, the paper that Boyle worked for, broke was in regards to fragging. There were distinctive dividing lines between the Lifers, mostly officers who intended to make a career out of the army, and the enlisted men who were mostly draftees. Officers were responsible for carrying out the objectives usually passed down from higher ranking officers. The problem in a war of this nature is that objectives don’t always make sense. They weren’t marching across Europe, liberating people, with the ultimate goal of stopping a madman. When a soldier in WW2 was asked to risk his life to take a hill or take point on a dangerous advancement, he did so convinced that what he was doing was helping to keep his sweetheart and family back home safe, and on a larger scale that he was actually helping to save the world.

By 1969 most of the rank and file soldiers in Vietnam were convinced that they were dying for absolutely nothing. They were absolutely right.

So what started out as occasional incidents where inexperienced or bad officers were being taken out by disgruntled troops quickly became an epidemic. Typically a grenade would be rolled in with the officer or he would be shot in the back while on maneuvers. (There were 600 officers confirmed murdered, but over 1,400 more that died under mysterious circumstances.) What I didn’t realize until I read Boyle’s book, but it actually makes perfect sense, was that the Lifers were also fragging enlisted men sometimes as a preemptive move against a potential assassination. There were bounties being raised by whole units sometimes as high as $10,000 that would be paid to the soldier who performed the murder. The Lifers were seen by the average soldier as more dangerous than the VC.

An army at war with itself.

Revolts and outright mutinies were becoming common. Boyle flew into Firebase Pace to cover an incident where a whole company elected not to participate in nighttime maneuvers. They asked Boyle to carry a message to Ted Kennedy because he was the brother of John and Bobby, and they couldn’t believe that, if he really knew what was going on in Vietnam, he wouldn't put a stop to it. “Do you think, if anyone back in the world really knew what was going on here, they’d let this madness continue?!”

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The men of Firebase Pace. Photo by Richard Boyle.

Ted was a powerful man in Congress, but he wasn’t John or Bobby, and he certainly wasn’t going to burn up political capital on an issue so large that there was no way for anyone to wrap their arms around it.

Boyle spends most of his time talking to ground troops. He was looking for truths, not sound bites. He was searching for ways to bring enough attention to what was really going on, to hopefully start moving the needle towards shutting this unwinnable war down.
He always had his nostrils in the wind, and whenever a whiff of something foul came to his attention, he was never afraid to catch the next chopper there. Although as the Pentagon became more and more aware of his journalistic endeavors, it started to become harder for him to get clearance to visit those situations of embarrassment that the military would rather see swept back into the jungle. I couldn’t help admiring his tenacity. I’ve read several books on the Vietnam era, and still Boyle revealed things to me of which I was not aware.

This book is compelling to read and is filled with Boyle’s own pictures of the soldiers who were asked to do an impossible job and of the civilians who were living in a war zone that probably made little or no sense to them. Boyle’s passionate personality comes through on every page as he tries to make everyone understand that it was long past time for our boys to come home and for the industrial war complex to start making their money on something that didn’t require the blood of our children.

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