Tom Casey’s letters from Vietnam are not merely a historical artifact, but a bildungsroman, the story of a man discovering the limits of his duty and the faults of his country.
Here I am after having read so many articles and seen so many pictures and movies about this place. Flying over the country was interesting. I saw jungle canopy, fortified hamlets, and lots of crater holes, a few roads and lots of large hills. The weather is hot and humid. We are now in Bien Hoa at the 90th Replacement Battalion and will be here until tomorrow when we will get briefed. Then it’s a bus to Saigon for processing. The drive from the airstrip was revealing. Squalor, filth, people, kids, coolie hats, thatch covered huts. I heard one shell go off at the airport. It was much louder than the jet and helicopter background noise. I watched some TV at the officer’s club – a story about Minneapolis detectives. I am now in my bunk and am protected by a green mosquito net. I took a cold-water shower. I ran into one of the NCOs I knew in Germany at the club where I had a hamburger and a beer. So far it has been just like a boy scout camp. I hope soon to get into more permanent surroundings.
— Tom Casey, December 19, 1967
My mother’s father, Tom Casey, arrived in Vietnam on December 17, 1967, and served as an advisor to a battalion of Vietnamese soldiers until December 11, 1968. During that year, my Boppy wrote a letter home to his wife, Martha, my Nana, every day. Those correspondences include chronicles of life on the base, movie reviews from the era, and extensive predictions regarding the 1968 presidential election. Boppy wrote the letters as a way to document the war in detail, his goal to one day create something greater with the hundreds of pages of first-hand accounts of the American invasion into South Vietnam. The letters, yellowed with the decades, have travelled with the Casey family through countless moves, a primary record of a contentious period in American history waiting to be unsealed. Now, fifty-three years later, Boppy is revisiting the letters; transcribing them and editing them to create a book for his family.
Tom Casey’s letters from Vietnam are not merely a historical artifact, but a bildungsroman, the story of a man discovering the limits of his duty and the faults of his country. A deep-rooted passion for service, bred in his psyche and developed during his undergraduate years at West Point, led Boppy to believe his commanders when they told him that his service in Vietnam was vital. “My personal satisfaction is being able to help others,” Boppy recalls during a recent lunch between bites of apple slices and a grilled cheese sandwich. “I wanted to help my country, and my country, like me, wanted to help others in the world. I truly believed that our being in Vietnam was because the Vietnamese wanted us over there to help them prosper.”
Post World War II, the United States emerged as a global superpower intent on promoting political and economic freedom around the world amidst the rise of communism. During this Cold War era, American soldiers stood ready in Europe in the event that any offensive action might be launched against a “free-world” nation. In the early 1960s, when a civil war broke out in postcolonial Vietnam between communists in the north and western-aligned Vietnamese in the south, the United States determined that such an offense against the “free world” was, indeed, taking place. “We were told that what was happening in Vietnam was not a civil war to establish self governance in a former European colony,” Boppy writes in the prologue to his book of transcribed letters.
It was an ideological struggle by world powers who opposed democracy. It was believed that the countries in Asia were like dominos. If one nation fell, they all would fall. I was led to believe that the population was being terrorized by outside forces because of an ideology and that the people really wanted our help to protect their freedom. In no way did I feel we were pushing something on them like their French colonial predecessors had done. We would, as a nation, “…pay any price, bear any burden…” to advance our vision.1
It’s early 2021, and Boppy and I are together in the kitchen, combing through the letters. He has the same full head of hair as the 27-year-old in the photos, although it has become gray with age. The mustache that he sported in Vietnam, a frequent subject of the journals, was deserted years ago. “My mustache is one week old and growing rapidly,” he wrote on January 5, 1968. “I will look like a military hero, another captain (not Hook but Captain Kangaroo) who is idolized by millions.” Nana does not miss the facial hair.
Looking back on the war, Boppy is the first to criticize its flaws. In the prologue, he grapples with his initial thoughts on the invasion:
I now see that much of what I was being told was less than truthful. These deceptions raise the leadership dilemma of how to keep soldiers motivated if the truth is demoralizing, knowing that low morale can affect performance and poor performance can cost lives. Does the need for high morale justify lying? Is lying necessary to justify going to war to accomplish presumably noble and necessary goals?
How did he get here? What did he learn during his year in Vietnam, and what insights has he gained since? The answers lay in the letters. “I am struck,” says Boppy upon his return to the notebook, “by how much the person I am today was formed during those years.”
It was 1959, and the draft was in full effect. “If the Army says ‘we want you,’ you went, and you went in as a private,” Boppy remembers. “I didn’t want to go in as a private. I wanted to go in as an officer.” He was accepted into West Point, the most elite institution of the officer corps. Despite a tough first year, his father encouraged him to stick it out—the school’s prestige as well as its free tuition were too good to give up. After four demanding years, Boppy graduated and was deployed to Schweinfurt, Germany, acting as a defensive precaution during the Cold War in the event that Russian communists invaded Germany or Poland. There he met my Nana, who was working for the Department of Defense as a teacher for children of soldiers on the base. They locked eyes in the Officer’s Club, and haven’t left each other’s side in the sixty years since. The first years of their romance were filled with ski weekends in Bavaria, sightseeing trips across Italy and France, and a spring vacation to Florence, where they picked out an engagement ring on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. Looking back on those years, Nana remembers fondly, “We had the best time any humans could ever have.” Eventually they returned to the states, and in March 1967 my mother, Susan, was born. Nine months later, Boppy was sent to Vietnam.
Barely a month had passed in Vietnam when Boppy realized the invasion may have been a mistake. On January 9, he witnessed the aftermath of a brutal attack against ARVN2 soldiers, and he began to question why he was there in the first place:
I spotted two more VC3 bodies across the canal. The body of one was draped over concertina wire, his testicles having been mutilated by ARVN soldiers. Another body was picked up for a mass burial. Farther down the canal there were seven more bodies that had been killed by a claymore mine. I stood there next to the bodies for ten minutes examining the scene. It was not a pleasant experience—the stillness of death. The mud-caked bodies were blood stained and torn apart and covered with holes and were attracting insects. I couldn’t think of anything except “Why had they done this?” It was impossible to associate these bodies with living men with families. I tried but could not muster compassion for them. It was like viewing dead animals with human features. They were dressed only in shorts. Their weapons and ammo had been carried off by retreating compatriots or had been taken by ARVN soldiers. One of the VC looked like a young boy no more than 12 years old. I returned to outposts 1 & 2 and saw where the VC had initially tried to enter the platoon’s defenses and saw more bullet holes, blood-stained beds and two of the wounded … When our tour was over and the replacements delivered, we put on our convoy uniform and drove back at great speed. We slowed down only once for an honor guard that was saluting a fallen comrade in a flag draped coffin on one of the trucks. He had died manning the outpost on the bridge. His family was mourning their loss, crying and wailing loudly. Now I was brought back to the reality that real people are involved. Hearing body counts is so impersonal—just a measure of an operation’s success or failure. Being with them like this hits home … Once back at the team house I breathed a sigh of relief but realized I was developing a new take on the war. I was aware that I really am in this thing now and a war is actually going on around me. What I had just seen was taking place outside my door in many different geographic locations. I began to wonder what it would have been like to be there during an attack. I hope I never find out.
— January 9, 1968
“I got over there, and I realized they didn’t want us over there,” he tells me. “They wanted our money, they wanted us to stand and be the policeman so they can reap the benefits economically, which they couldn’t do by themselves. And when I began to realize that the so-called desire for our being there was just because they wanted our money, I began to realize it was a matter of, ‘Did I really want the Vietnemese, the corrupt Vietnamese, to have our money, or did I want the corrupt Washington politicians to keep our money?’ Both politics were corrupt.” With almost a year left of his deployment, Boppy found ways to pass the time and speed up his year in Vietnam: Scrabble, screenings of the newly-released Sound of Music, long lists of pros and cons based on Nana’s retellings of American coverage of the war.
For all of the frustration Boppy holds for the unnecessary American violence in Vietnam and the lessons that went unlearned, he still believes the U.S. Army has reasons to be lauded. Primarily, he asserts, for being at the forefront of integration. Growing up in homogenous Minnesota, the close relationship that Boppy had with Black sergeants throughout his military career was revelatory. “I think the army has to be commended for having been the initiator,” he says, “of putting Blacks and whites together and working together with a common goal. And I think that the army is doing some of that with women today.”
That common goal, that shared ambition to better the lives of the community, is sorely missing in America today, Boppy contends. A staunch liberal—his political ideologies having evolved during his year in Vietnam—Boppy believes every American should be required to commit to two years of service, whether it be in the military, the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, to give back to a government that gives so much to us. Today’s Republican Party, which he describes as evil, as well as the all-encompassing personal freedom that so many Americans feel entitled to, would make it hard for him to fight for his country today.
In 1968, though, those thoughts were still brewing. He made it to the end of the year, and was to return home to Martha, his infant daughter, and an ROTC teaching position at Stanford. His letters end on a solemn note:
My tour is over, the year is at an end, and I am alive. I am disillusioned with the war and our mistakes and I am happy to be on my way home.
— December 11, 1968
America withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, Nana and Boppy continued to grow their family, and 53 years later, his granddaughter, me, sits to read his letters, only eight years younger than he was when he wrote them. I have never lived in a world with the draft, and I cannot understand the fear present throughout those pages. By transcribing the letters, Boppy is bringing personal and collective history to life. What a gift Boppy has given our family. What a gift Boppy has given me.
- Tom Casey, Mission Accomplished—Advise and Dissent, unpublished manuscript, last modified April 24, 2021, Microsoft Word file.
- Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese military aided by the American government.
- Viet Cong, the revolutionary communist organization in South Vietnam and Cambodia