ESSAY

Vietnam and Me at Yale

McKim, center, at Maguire Air Force Base, NJ, returning to duty in Vietnam. Photo courtesy McKim Symington.

By McKim Symington ·

It was Faustian. I didn’t know this when I was there but realize it now. My war record got me in. It was my “bagpipe,” that quirky difference that separated me from other applicants and made me sufficiently different to be interesting. The fact of my serving in Vietnam was Faustian in that it might have gotten me past Inky Clark, a self-hating WASP who had it in for people of our ilk, but also it was a point of empirical departure that interposed itself within my entire experience at Yale. It got me there but made being there difficult.

My first night in Welch Hall, I walked across the hall and joined a few other guys who apparently had just met and were settling in. It went like this:

“You’re Symington?

Yes.

You were in Vietnam?

Yes.

How many children did you kill?”

Wow, just like that. The mark of Cain. I had nothing to say. I recall nothing else of that evening. I think forgetfulness like that is called trauma.

There were other vets who were friends. Bill Wiltschko from the Navy. Ben Works, who had been a door gunner on Choppers when he wasn’t analyzing overhead photo intelligence. And Vic Corcoran. Ben and Vic are dead, but I am grateful to have my brilliant, quixotic pal Wiltschko still in my life. Speaking of brilliant, there was also Mason Barge. We did not talk much at all about our service among ourselves. I think we all buried it.

For me, Vietnam was an enormous thing (upon reflection, at 76, I have to say it was the biggest thing in my life) that I had come through, a bullet I had dodged, a time whose memories would cause involuntary shudders coming and going over the years. I would gradually come to understand and enjoy the grace needed to make my own peace with it. But at Yale, I put it all on hold, worked, studied, loved, hated, and probably drank more than I should.

A DUH doctor once told me about something new they called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The term is commonplace now, but not so in 1972.  He tried the idea on me to see whether I thought it fit. So let me see — I dedicate myself to an endeavor which could cost my life, which generations of my kin have done with honor and grit, but I return and I am either a criminal or a fool. And I am pissed? You bet Doc. I’d be crazy not to be pissed. So, yes, I was angry. But to what end? Anger was without point, but not without meaning.

“Sym, see that guy? Shoot him.” Just like that. Verbatim. I look and I see a half-naked peasant in shorts, sandals, and a conical hat running away from us as fast as he can. No gun. No threat. What’s the Lieutenant thinking for Christ’s sake?

In 1972 I recall how lonely it was to realize that we were destroying the NVA’s “Easter Offensive” utterly. No one talked about it.  On three occasions the North Vietnamese tried to beat the South by cutting the country in half, moving southeast through the Central Highlands out of Cambodia. The North tried this in 1965, an action that caused LBJ to bring in the big battalions — bringing in the US big time. The third offensive would be in 1975 when the North would finally overwhelm the South. But in 1972, the South Vietnamese alone repelled the North’s massive second attempt to cut down from the Central Highlands to the South China Sea. At An Loc and Loc Ninh, South Vietnamese soldiers with American advisors, so few in number that they were like the Maytag repairman, so damaged the NVA that they would not be able to try it again for three years! With American air support the ARVN decisively repelled the communists. I knew this, but I doubted anyone around me did. My guys triumphed, but Walter Cronkite had consigned them to feckless perdition after Tet of 1968. South Vietnamese gallantry was invisible at Yale in 1972. Cronkite was settled science.

And so, for my forgotten Welch Hall examiner, indulge me as I tell you two war stories.

My Vietnamese and we advisors teamed with an American Mechanized Infantry company on a sweep operation through sparsely populated terrain. A VC shot at the lead APC with one of those ubiquitous Soviet rocket propelled grenades. I say the RPG was ubiquitous because it was the pocket artillery of insurgents and guerrillas for most of the 20th century. Still is. We turned from column to line and assaulted the treeline in which the shooter hid. Once through the cover, we came upon surrendering civilians and I saw one really messed up old woman who had been hit. Suddenly, from over and behind my right shoulder an American on top of an armored vehicle shot the wounded woman dead and congratulated himself for ending her pain. He saw a ten-year-old boy standing near the woman’s body with an expression of sheer horror on his face. The GI looks down at me and asks, “What’s wrong with the kid?” And I answered, “You stupid son of a bitch, you just greased his grandmother.” “Oh. Well now that he’s an orphan, I’ll put him out of his misery.” “The fuck you will. I may be able to get him relocated to a refugee center, but you will not be shooting him.” The boy was alive when we left and I guess he’s about 65 now.

One day we were patrolling in column through a remote semi-agricultural area. Just rifles. No armor. My boss sees someone and thinks he’s a threat. “Sym, see that guy? Shoot him.” Just like that. Verbatim. I look and I see a half-naked peasant in shorts, sandals, and a conical hat running away from us as fast as he can. No gun. No threat. What’s the Lieutenant thinking for Christ’s sake? No time for deep thinking. I ain’t arguing, but I am not gonna shoot this guy. I turn, shoulder my M16, get a sight picture on the small of his rapidly disappearing back (for verisimilitude, you know) and then raise the muzzle just a bit and fire three times. Over his head. Total miss. “Hey, L-T, just not on my game, today.” Nothing else is said and we get back to walking. I was glad, but I think the Lieutenant was gladder still, wondering what the fuck he had been thinking.

When I am judged by Providence, I hope He will balance these two tales against all my other, many peccadillos. Ave atque vale. Ich Dien.


McKim SymingtonAfter Yale, McKim Symington [BR] worked in international sales at Colt’s Patent Firearms and other overseas business, then domestically at Merrill Lynch. In 1980, he found his home as a military analyst at CIA, focusing on small wars then in progress; he moved into the operations Directorate at CIA where he would remain until retirement in 2005.  “I am what I have always been, a happy man, witting of his good fortune,” he says now.  “As it was with all of our ilk, Yale was a great terrain feature for me. I am the fourth gen Sym to attend her. Like most of us Yalies, I believe in the aristocracy of Merit. But Luck trumps Merit by a long shot.”