Spending Your Christmas in a War Zone

Commentator Ed Palm spent two Christmases in Vietnam during the war. During the first, he got to go to the Bob Hope USO show. But despite the good cheer, Palm says he left sadder than he arrived.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Here's a story about another Christmas and another war from commentator Ed Palm.

ED PALM: Here's an in-country, Vietnam War Christmas carol.

(Singing) Jingle bells, mortar shells, VC in the grass, take your merry Christmas and -

Well, you can guess the rest. This is a family show, after all. That little jingle pretty much sums up the Marines in my unit felt about any and all attempts to make us feel better about spending Christmas in a combat zone.

Ironically, all the well Manchesters on the part of the command and even the folks back home only made it worst. Of my two Christmases in country, the first one was definitely the worst. It was bad because I was still in Danang, in the rear with the beer as we used to say, and I got picked to go to the Bob Hope Show.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful about that. Bob Hope was a wonderful man and I'm sure he and his entertainers meant well. Joey Heatherton braved the wet stage to dance her heart out. Nancy Sinatra was there, boots and all. I still remember one of the jokes. Bob told us that Congress was beginning to question the cost of the war.

So we should look next for coin-operated machine guns. But it was the finale that really made us all homesick. The cast led the audience in singing "Silent Night." I think we all left the show feeling worse than when we arrived. I know I did.

My second Christmas in Vietnam was a happier one. I was out in the field, living and working in a Vietnamese village as a rifleman and patrol leader with a combined action program. There was a Christmas truce, of course. So the day was pretty much a day off.

But in so far as celebrating the holiday went, command left us alone. I thought a lot about the differences between those two Christmases' over the years. And about whether it was just me? I don't think so.

I remember how in my day Bob Hope and company used to package the film highlights of all those visits to the troops into a television special. Eventually, that made me wonder who all those U.S. shows were really for? Were they really for us, the troops? Or were they finally aimed at assuaging the collective guilt of the country that sent us? And for all, life went on pretty much as usual back in the world, while we were sweating it out in Vietnam.

Now, far be it for me to be the grinch, who would steal Christmas from today's troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. I expect that this Christmas the troops would be treated to a highly publicized good meal, along with some well-covered celebrity and VIP visits.

And most of the troops would probably enjoy that, as far as it goes. But don't be surprised if like me some come home feeling ambivalent about Christmas forever more.

Ever since the Christmases of 1966 and 1967, I've had trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, especially the whole peace on Earth, goodwill toward men scene. And I suspect other veterans feel the same way.

SIEGEL: Ed Palm is a retired U.S. Marine major and the dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.