Psyops: Weapons of Mass Instruction

A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump.

A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump. (Courtesy Winston Groom)
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The colonel told us that he was interested in transforming his victory into a propaganda coup against the enemy, at least two battalions of which were lurking across a ridgeline visible from the dining table. He wanted to drop leaflets on them. I said I could have any kind of leaflet he wanted made up and dropped by the Air Force the following morning. Major Pak told me the colonel wanted to send the enemy soldiers a “friendly” message. “He has beaten them, and now they can honorably surrender, and will be well fed and well treated,” said Pak.

I spent the evening designing the leaflet. The colonel even wanted his name on it—“Colonel Moon.” I sent in the request to Nha Trang, asking that they put some “doves of peace” on the leaflet, and perhaps, in consideration of the colonel’s name, a full, beaming moon. I gave them the coordinates I’d taken off a map after the luncheon, and headquarters promised to have 40,000 leaflets and Chieu Hoi passes laid across the area the next day. I never found out if it got the desired results.


One of the pilots I’d become especially friendly with was a forward air controller, Air Force Major Mo Cotner, whom the other pilots jovially called the Old Gray Eagle because in his 40s, his hair had turned white. Mo liked flying gliders for sport, and he was going to teach me to fly them when we returned. It never happened. About three months after I left, in 1967, he was killed.

From the first concept, I had never liked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall—a black gash in the ground with the names of our dead on it; it sounded like we were supposed to be ashamed of the war. But one night about 15 years ago, while in Washington, D.C., my wife and I drove past it, and on impulse I stopped and we walked over to it. The memorial didn’t have a register then, just 58,000 names listed by year and date of death. I stood there in the middle, bewildered, and mumbled something about wanting to find Mo Cotner.

My wife, who is clairvoyant, walked up to one of the panels, put her finger to a name, and turned to me. “Would that be Morrison Cotner?” she asked. Indeed it was. I looked up other names. It was extremely moving, and I had been wrong about the memorial.

The war is long, long, past us now. We are old men, as the veterans of World War I were when we were young and brave. Among other things, I have written a number of military histories, and on one occasion several years ago, I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to speak to a large group about a book I had written on World War I. In the audience was the writer Charles Bracelen Flood, also an author of military history, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years.

Charlie Flood and I had become friends at the MACV compound while he was there researching his excellent book on Vietnam, The War of the Innocents, published in 1969. Charlie was the first real writer I’d ever met. After the speech, he and I went into the bar for some catching up, and toward the end of the conversation he asked, “Say, do you remember that helmet?”

“The one they used to put on the wall and the guy shot at it all the time?”

“The same,” he said, “and I have it. When our bunch was pulling out, I asked around and nobody wanted it, so I brought it home. It has six bullet holes and nine dents in it.”



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