Podcast: “Not something you go home and be proud of” – John Ketwig
“I believe that the American way of waging war, since about the Korean War on up to present day, the weapons are so terrible, the tactics, the strategies are so brutal that American GI’s, guys from hometown, U.S.A. see this and can’t put it into perspective with everything they’d ever been taught about right and wrong and morality, and they come home and it churns inside them, and erupts as post traumatic stress damage.”
“The vast majority of guys who were sent to Vietnam were sent against their will. They were taken in a large number. Were taken into the army and coerced into the army and had a chip on our shoulders”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
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John Ketwig: I believe that the American way of waging war, since about the Korean War on up to present day, the weapons are so terrible, the tactics, the strategies are so brutal that American GI’s, guys from hometown, U.S.A. see this and can’t put it into perspective with everything they’d ever been taught about right and wrong and morality, and they come home and it churns inside them, and erupts as post traumatic stress damage.
Robert Raymond: This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. My name is Robert Raymond and we’re on the line with John Ketwig, a Vietnam veteran and author of two books, “… and a hard rain fell,” which is a memoir recounting his experiences in the Vietnam war, and “Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.”
Hey, John. Thanks for joining us today. So I wanted to ask you about your experiences during the Vietnam war in just a second, but first I’d like to start by asking you to describe the story of how you came to write your first book, “… and a hard rain fell.”
John Ketwig: Well, I had never written more than a letter or a high school term paper in my life. I had no intentions of anything. It became obvious in 1982, after I watched… it was a Saturday night and I was twisting the dial on the television to find something good, and I ran into this CBS documentary about Westmoreland lying about the number of enemy troops that were out there at exactly the time I was there, and it just really affected me. And my wife sat there going, “Oh my God. What do we got here?” And I pulled it back together and went to work on Monday and everything was fine, but I was aware at that time that I would have to deal with Vietnam.
When I came home from Vietnam and from Thailand, I put that whole experience in a box on the shelf. That was the past, like kindergarten, or the junior prom, or whatever. I had to look to the future. I had to figure out how to start a career, and before long I got very serious about a girl, and oh my God. I had no time to wallow in Vietnam, so I just made believe it never happened, until that night. And now it was, “Oh boy, I got to deal with this.” My wife was home with two kids, and when they walked in, the TV was on and there was an interview with a lady who had been a civilian nurse working with Vietnamese civilians in Vietnam, and she was saying some of the things that I had said. And Carolynn ran out and got a book, laid on the couch and went, “Oh my God, what did you find?” Well, they cut this lady open doing surgery and there were six foot worms inside.
Yeah, you know what I mean? There was nothing about Vietnam that was shocking anymore: anything was possible. But it opened a door for me, a little bit that, “Geez, I couldn’t imagine anybody writing about anything so huge and important.” So, I read the book, it was very good. Went down to the mall, to the bookstore and said, “Do you have any books about Vietnam?” And there were, I don’t know, 10 or 12, and I bought one of each. Went home with two shopping bags full of books, and I read one after another, after another and they were all valid. There was nothing wrong with them, but they weren’t the story that I wanted, I guess, my kids, my wife to know. And they were pretty classic stuff, but one day I went out and sat on the back steps with a yellow legal pad and a pen and started jotting down some things I thought were important.
And I worked at that project a while, to the point that writers cramp was becoming a problem. We had a little manual typewriter, and I started typing out the story of my time in Vietnam, and put on the old ’60s music and burned some incense after the kids went to bed, and every night I would work at this til 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning where I had a couple of hours of sleep and go to work. And I thought it would take 20 pages. And it took nine months and about 350 pages. And it got all done and we put it back in the box.
And at the time I was training technicians for Toyota, and a guy came in I had talked to on the phone many, many times. He came in and he had a Vietnam tattoo on his arm. I said, “Where were you? And when?” We started talking. It’s not something I talked about really freely at that time, but Bob and I got along well, and so we had a conversation and it went through a few weeks, talking to each other by phone and everything. And finally I said, “Hey, I have written about my experiences in Vietnam. Would you be interested in looking at it, and telling me if you think I got it right or whatever.”
So, I gave it to him, and shortly after that, he called me and said, “Oh my God, you really got to make it a book.” I said, “How do you make it a book? Come on, yeah.” So, he gave it to his wife and said, “I want you to read this. You can get up and go to the bathroom. I’ll bring you meals, but I want you to read it from one end to the other, so you’ll understand.” And she said, “You got to make this a book.” “Okay, fine.”
So, that’s how my story became a book. And with very minor editing changes and so forth, today, 34 years after it was first published, it’s still very, very much the story I typed out on that little typewriter long ago. 34 years and 27 printings and another printing about to happen.
Robert Raymond: Yeah, so you mentioned that you’d been reading a few books on Vietnam, but felt like none of them really captured something you felt aligned with your personal story. I’m wondering, how was your story different from the other accounts that you were reading? Could you describe your experiences going into Vietnam as a young 19 year old? What was missing in those narratives that you read later? What was missing from your experience?
John Ketwig: Without going into great detail, I was looking at some of the really classic books. First of all, nobody ever talked about, oh my God, trying to not be drafted. I had absolutely no interest in going into the military and going to Vietnam. I had long hair and a set of drums, and I was absolutely guaranteed that one of these days I was going to be discovered, and we were going to be [America’s] answer to the Beatles, and I’m still waiting for that to happen. But anyway, being in the military was the last thing in the world. But it became inevitable I was going to be drafted. There was nothing to keep me out. And not being real bright, I enlisted to beat the draft. It took three years instead of two to get my choice of training and so forth, hoping that by going to school to be an auto mechanic, wheel and track vehicle mechanic, that I might miss Vietnam. Well it didn’t work.
From the first day from basic training, we had a drill sergeant that was brutal, that hit us with a closed fist in the mouth. It was ugly, and I came from a fairly middle-class background. Tree lined street in western New York, suburb of Rochester. All of a sudden, here I am at Fort Dix in the winter, right? I arrived there December 30th. And the brutality was something I had never been exposed to. The demeaning… “You’re all a bunch of pussies” and “shit for brains” and on and on, and all this stuff. And then, you do something wrong, and the guy gets sent out to dig a whole six feet by six feet by six feet. It’s frozen ground out there and he’s got a little foxhole shovel.
We had one night when there was about 18 inches of snow, a major snowstorm. And in the morning, the uniform of the day was your boxer shorts and combat boots, and as we went out of the barracks, we were handed dustpans, and we shoveled the parking lot for hours. If you got sick, you were punished. And it was like, “Jesus, we’re not the enemy, guys. What is this?” We had a young man who had Downs syndrome and was the son of a general. And the general came around constantly to see how his boy was doing as if there was absolutely nothing wrong with the young man. We were all somewhat friendly with him, but he gave him a hard time. But it was obvious that boy, he had some real handicaps.
And at night fire— I think everybody that’s been to basic training remembers night fire. He went down to change the targets and did not come back. He stood behind the target and committed suicide. I’d never been exposed to suicide before. Give me a break.
So, by the time I got to Vietnam, I had seen a lot of things I just couldn’t imagine. And when I got to Vietnam I saw more. Soon after I arrived there I was put on garbage detail. I went around and gathered up all the garbage in the back of the deuce and a half truck. Went off to the landfill, which was a big gully, I guess you would call it, cut out of a hill with bulldozers, and you backed up to the edge and dumped the garbage over the edge. Down below there were 20, 30 Vietnamese peasants going through the garbage looking for anything to eat.
And this one young man, I took a picture of him just before all this happened. Had on a white shirt. He found two like gallon-cans, probably tomatoes or something like that, and he had one under each arm, and he was heading for the barbed wire at the edge. And the Vietnamese soldier there, an ARVN soldier, told him to stop, and he didn’t. And he told him to stop again, and he shot him in the back. And here’s this guy, running now, running for the fence with this big red blotch growing on the back of his shirt, and he went down on his knees and through the barbed wire like it was not even there, and off into the bushes. I had never seen anything like that! It was like, what is this all about? If they’re shooting themselves, what do we do? What are we here for?
So, it was a number of things like that, and I became very, very convinced that first of all, we had no business there. Secondly, we were told that we were sent to Vietnam to protect and help the Vietnamese people defend themselves against the brutality of the Communists. And I know some of that did exist. But what was so revolting and so damaging to our efforts over there was the brutality of what the Americans were doing to the Vietnamese. And I believe… I’m going to lead you off on a tangent for a minute, but I believe that the American way of waging war since about the Korean War on up to present day, the weapons are so terrible, the tactics, the strategies are so brutal that Americans GI’s, guys from Hometown, U.S.A., see this, and can’t put it into perspective with everything they’ve ever been taught about right and wrong and morality. And they come home, and it churns inside them and erupts as post traumatic stress damage.
I do not believe that PTSD is a disorder. I believe that seeing modern war and reacting to it with revulsion is absolutely a predicable, normal response. It is not a disorder. And I’ve been diagnosed with having severe PTSD. I do not believe that I am guilty of disorderly conduct. I believe that I was damaged by what I saw and what I experienced and…oh boy. So there we are. That’s my short answer. But the book came. It was a very, very antiwar telling and very different from some of the classic stuff, because I was a PFC. Who was I to say, “If they’d only done it my way, we would’ve won the war”? And a lot of those books were that way back in those days. So, it was a very different look at what was going on and how the war was conducted, and how it felt to view it as a PFC from the position of absolutely no authority at all, just trying to survive and get the hell out of there.
Robert Raymond: Would you say that you and the people in Vietnam with you shared similar feelings? Were these feelings something isolated to you and a small group of soldiers, or was this sentiment, this antiwar sentiment, more of a generalized story among those fighting in Vietnam?
John Ketwig: It’s a very general story, and I think that’s the story of Vietnam that needs to be told. I believe in all of my time in the army, in basic training, AIT, Vietnam, Thailand, 90-95% of all the guys I came in contact with and ever had any kind of conversation or anything, were there against their will and resented it. In Vietnam, the things we saw were revolting to most people—and to most Americans. And yet, you came back home, and nobody was talking about that kind thing. Now, after a while, they began to be aware of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. That was a long ways away. That was New York City or Washington, D.C. Man, I was in Rochester, New York. Six months out of the year you wouldn’t get in a car and drive down there in the snow storms.
So, the real answer to your question is, the vast majority of guys who were sent to Vietnam were sent against their will. They were taken in a large number. Were taken into the army and coerced into the army and had a chip on our shoulders. There’s no question about it. We weren’t about to like it there. But then when we saw what we were doing to people, and the MGR, the Mere Gook Rule, “The only good Gook is a dead Gook,” and all of that kind of stuff. And to see the… It’s a big word and people get all upset when we use it, but atrocities that were going on all around. See a B-52 strike, or see a mini-gun shooting this incredible display of tracers in the night and know how many rounds are going into this piece of ground. Anybody underneath there had to be just, not only killed, but totally mutilated! That man would treat his fellow man that way.
And there was civil rights movement going on back here in the States. This country supposedly believes all men are created equal. Well except maybe blacks and maybe women and maybe Vietnamese. You know, those slant-eye people over there, they don’t count for anything, either. So, you can kill them all, you can drop flaming napalm on villages. My God. And a great, great many of us, I believe a huge majority of us, that wasn’t an atmosphere where you could say it, but boy, we felt it, “This is revolting. This is wrong.” This is not something you go home and be proud of. So, it was a very traumatic time.
Robert Raymond: Yeah. I can only imagine these experiences that so many young people had that just really shaped them in so many ways. I’m wondering, maybe, could you describe your experiences after Vietnam? So, you spent some time in Thailand, and then you returned to the States. So, I’m wondering, what was that experience of returning back to the States like for you? You hear about all these stories of people spitting on returning soldiers from Vietnam in the airports and things like that. I’m curious what your individual experience was like and if you feel like it was more similar to the more general experience of folks returning from Vietnam at that time.
John Ketwig: Okay, I want to mention a couple of things, and I’ll get there. I promise you, Robert.
Robert Raymond: I’m sure. Of course.
John Ketwig: There was a young lady in nursing school in a hospital in Rochester, New York, and a lady came into the dorm one night and said, “I have a list here of addresses of guys from around this area that are in Vietnam. Would you girls please choose some names and write to these guys? Maybe send them a box of cookies or something?” And each of the girls closed their eyes, ran their finger down the list and picked three names. That girl, that one girl, picked my name, wrote to me the most fantastic letters. When I came home, I married her, and we’ve been hanging around together for half a century. That organization in western New York was called Operation Morale, and a historian up there has put together this story and gone on colleges and civic organizations and talked about the history of Operation Morale, the huge effort and the number of people that worked to support the soldiers in Vietnam, total strangers, but to support them.
I will refer anybody to the book “The Spitting Image” by Jerry Lembcke. He researched all over America. Could not find one photograph of anyone spitting on a Vietnam Veteran returning. Couldn’t find a single news item in newspapers, in print, in TV, archives or anything. I won’t say it never happened, but it didn’t happen very much. I spoke to a lady when the book came out—had to talk to me. Her husband was an officer at Andrews Air Force Base. The Officers’ Wives Club realized that flights were coming in, bringing guys wounded and guys out of Vietnam to go to Walter Reed or Bethesda Naval Hospital. And these ladies, “Geez, wouldn’t it be nice— Some of these are still in their muddy fatigues and everything. Wouldn’t it be nice if we met them at the airport, had cookies and coffee or tea or whatever? If they were all muddy, we’d give them a robe and slippers and take their clothes and get them laundered and just welcome them back.”
And this went on and it was very successful, and then all of a sudden, it was not. They were not informed of the flights coming in! And they went to the base commander and said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “You will not be informed of any more flights, and you won’t meet any more of these guys.” And they said, “What did we do wrong?” And he said, “You didn’t do anything wrong, but we don’t want you to meet these guys anymore.”
This whole thing of people spitting on Vietnam veterans and calling them “baby killer” and all that, again, I’m sure some of it happened, but it’s been blown way out of proportion. It’s interesting that most of those stories emerged about 1991, when Bush sent another army off to Kuwait to chase Saddam Hussein, and, “Oh, we don’t want to treat those guys returning the way Vietnam Veterans were treated. Those stories are absolutely out of character with the American people. And if you stop and think of it, it just tells you that somebody’s trying to sell you a bill of goods. American people would never treat their guy next door, the kid that was quarterback of the high school football team, would never treat them that way. And those stories are an attempt by the government, I believe, to lay this big guilt complex on the American people. The American people weren’t guilty for what happened in Vietnam. That was the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, but it was not the everyday mom and pop at home. And that whole thing is blown way out of proportion and it’s a travesty.
Robert Raymond: So, it sounds like you didn’t really feel much hostility.
John Ketwig: I didn’t feel hostility. I will tell you, I didn’t know what to say, and people wouldn’t know what to say to me. You went on a job interview and they said, “Well you graduated from high school in ’65. Now it’s 1970. Where have you been?” “Well I was in the army.” “Did you go to Vietnam?” “Yeah, I did.” And immediately they think, “Well now, who’s going to feel comfortable around this guy?” I don’t know if it was so much hostility as it was anxiety, “I don’t know what to say to him. He doesn’t know what to say to me. Boy, that’s a pretty tense situation. There’s another guy coming in to apply for the job. He’s been working in the industry a while. We’ll give him a chance and let this guy go find something else to do with his life.”
My next-door neighbor did not rush over when I came home to shake my hand and say, “Thank you very much,” and everything. But one night, my dad was cooking hamburgers on the grill, and we were sitting in the backyard, and the next door neighbor came out to mow the lawn, and he waved with a big smile like he always had two years before. And it was okay. I didn’t expect parades and whatever. I was glad to be home, keep my head down, keep my mouth shut. Go see if I can, again, build a future for myself.
So, no, I don’t buy all of that. I hear it all the time. “Oh, man I was spit on in the airport.” “Gee, yeah. And what kind of trouble did you get in when you punched the guy in the mouth?” “Oh, I didn’t punch him in the mouth. I never got— I just came home.” That’s totally out of character, too. You come home from Vietnam and some guy spits on you, you’re going to take his freaking head off and beat him with a bloody stump of it. So, it doesn’t fly. The whole story doesn’t fly.
Robert Raymond: And you have some issues with the phrase “Thank you for your service” and I would love to know a little bit about why that is.
John Ketwig: I don’t want anyone to… I mean, people say, “Thank you for your service.” Again, being in character as the American people, trying to say, “Yeah, we appreciate that you went through some difficult times, and thank you very much.” And I understand and appreciate it from that point of view. And I usually say, “Well, I was taken against my will and made to see things and do things that contradicted everything I’d ever been taught about right and wrong. I know what you’re trying to say, but please don’t thank me for being there. I didn’t want to be there.” That pretty much wraps it up, Robert. It’s another indication of the American people trying to do the right thing, trying to welcome guys home, trying to show their appreciation. I don’t hate them for that in any way, shape or form. But I feel very uncomfortable if somebody is saying, “Thank you for watching innocent people being blown up,” and stuff.
Don’t thank me for that. I wore the uniform. I was there. I was part of it. It was horrible, and thanks are not due.
Robert Raymond: So, to wrap up, I’d like to talk to you about your latest book, “Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.” What inspired you to write this latest book, and what were you hoping to communicate in it? What differentiates it from your last book, too?
John Ketwig: The first book was a memoir: this is what I saw, this is what I felt, this is what I experienced. And I began to be invited to speak to different groups, and I found that what I really appreciated doing more than anything else, was going in and talking to high school and college students about my experiences and so forth.
Well in those days, 1982, ’84, Vietnam was this big gorilla in the room sort of thing in an awful lot of houses. And students would come to school, and I’d talk to them and they’d have… raise their hand and say, “Now, if my father hears the word Vietnam, he goes into his bedroom and closes the door and won’t come out for days. I have two sisters with terrible birth defects, and I know my dad blames something called Agent Orange—but what is Agent Orange?” And wow, you answer a question like that, and this big lump forms in your throat now.
So, over the years, 30, 40 years, I’ve heard a great many questions. The basic one is today, more modern times, young people say, “I know Vietnam’s important.” There’s Vietnam classes in high schools and in colleges in a lot of schools around the United States, 50 years later. And they say, “I know Vietnam is important, but I don’t understand why.” So, I set out to answer that question and a number of others. What was the background? What were the times? Bob Dylan gave me permission to quote the lyrics of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And oh my God, the war. We were the first American army that had portable radios, that had television, that had a car in the driveway at home. It just went on and on. Geez, there was the birth control pill and the sexual revolution and all these things. And most of them involved, “We were free.” We were maybe more free than any generation before us. And all of a sudden they draft you and shave your head and put you in a green suit and send you to the other side of the world, number one to be shot at, but number two, to see carpet bombing and napalm. And so, to try to explain to today’s young people— And what I discovered was, as this project was underway, that a hell of a lot of baby boomers got real busy with college and career and kids and dogs and mortgage and car payment, and got away from a lot of the feelings and the thoughts that made them very passionate back in the ’60s and early ’70s. And they were really open to a book that would discuss some of that and bring back to them what all the passion was about.
God knows we’re— America is in a very, very precarious state again. A little different in most respects, but just as turbulent as it was back then, and they wanted to review what the heck all of that was about when they were young and try to maybe regenerate some of that passion and enthusiasm. So, that’s what it is and at the end of it, it talks about, there are two ways people and countries can act:You can either be constructive or destructive. And America used to be very constructive. We were the first to invent the steam engine, and the light bulb, and all of these things. After World War II, a lot of that emphasis went away, and we became the country that’s got bigger, better bombs and weapons than anybody else, and we are “de-structive.”
And it hasn’t worked out very well. We’re at a point now where the Afghan War has gone on 17 years under 17 different commanding generals. And my question is, “What the hell are they teaching at West Point? And the other military academies?” This is not going well. It’s not going right. And somebody needs to say it. The newspapers don’t seem to want to do it. The talking heads on television don’t particularly want to do it. But we’ve got a military budget right now, if you take VA benefits and all of that stuff and add it in, it’s a trillion dollars a year. No other three countries in the world combined spend that kind of money. What are we getting for our money? I believe we should cut our defense spending in half and take all the money that we would save— We would still, by the way, totally outspend China and Russia combined at half of what we’re spending today. And take that money and put it into health care, and infrastructure, and education, and all those things that are being cut to the bone.
And you want to talk about “Make America Great Again”. Well let’s make America basically good again. And do things “con-structive,” help people, not hurt people. And I believe it would be our future and my grandson’s future would be a whole lot better.
Robert Raymond: Well thank you so much, John.
John Ketwig: It’s my pleasure, Robert.
Robert Raymond: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This here marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by myself, Robert Raymond. Special thanks to our executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.