Interview with Tim Hostetler—A Vietnam Veteran (2003)
The interview began with Tim telling war stories, at the end of the stories he had this to say: “I count my blessings…After a period of time I was disillusioned with the whole thing and it was just a matter of surviving. You did what you had to do on a regular basis, yah know supporting the Vietnamese troops and this and that. But when it was your guys down there you went all out to get them out because nobody wanted to be left behind, nobody wanted there bodies left behind or nothing. We always made sure we recovered our own crews any time that we could.”
Tim: Anyways go ahead with your questions. And like I said in the end I was disillusioned with a lot of the war. It was just a shame that we had created this public government, if that is what you want to call it, and then when they really needed us we just turned our back on them. Because American people were no longer supporting…and I understand how they felt about it because Americans were dieing for a lost cause. But yet at the same time we just left those people and there was a big massacre. Teachers, politicians, doctors, even the doctors they killed the doctors. But now when I look at it now there country [Vietnam] has peace that there country hadn’t known since the French colonized them. They finally got peace over there in Vietnam and I am glad to see that.
Josalyn: Many of the questions that I had you have answered while telling your stories, so thank you for those. But one general question is how would you define war, if you had to do so in one sentence to another person?
Tim: Well. I would say even in WWII it is 90% boredom and 10% pure terror. It was strictly you were going to die you just knew it. I mean it was the end of the world all around you. It is like hell on Earth, nothing you have ever seen before.
Josalyn: You have already commented on the fact that you were not drafted but, in fact volunteered for the army. What attracted you to the military and/or war?
Tim: It was to prove to myself that I could be a man. I mean you know go over there and not pee in my pants or anything. That is not to say that the person who does is a coward either…that does happen to people and I have seen it. Some of the more realistic movies will show a guy soiling himself. I was just proud of the fact, that is something… personal pride you know. The fact that I was able to face combat and come out in one piece…at least I knew how I reacted and that I didn’t do anything in a cowardly fashion. But that is a hell of a way to prove yourself.
Josalyn: Did you ever have any non-combat encounters with the enemy?
Tim: We had Vietnamese civilians contracted to do work at our base. One day they caught this kid; he couldn’t have been more that fourteen years old, pacing off the distance between buildings. A lot of times when they mortared our base they always hit our offices and things around the tower down where they had the power generators and stuff. Anyways there were certain targets that were zeroed in. I know I met him [the kid] before I seen the Vietcong out there and not knowing it then you find out that one of them are accused of this because you see them dragging him off after they are found pacing off the steps from building to building. On one kid they found a map on him that he was drawing. Going downtown Vietnam, going off base get a haircut. Letting a Vietnamese guy cut you hair, you think to yourself you know he had got this razor and he is trimming you up and stuff. You are just thinking, God if he is a Vietcong I am dead. He can cut my throat. So I never got my hair cut off base again. There was this orphanage just outside our base, now this was pretty bad. This was run by French nuns…a lot of the French people were still in the southern part of Vitenam after the French got out. This orphanage was run by the French nuns so a lot of the guys were getting pretty close to the kids there. I didn’t because of my duties. I just didn’t have the time. They had a swimming pool there, which a lot of the guys would use and stuff. During the offenses of 1968, the Vietcong had gone in to this orphanage, at gunpoint, and took a bunch of these kids…the older kids that were a little bit bigger. They forced them to carry weapons and ammunition and they had to go in front of the regular Vietcong troops as they were attacking our base. Now when our guys are getting shot at, you don’t see these as kids. Usually it [the attacks] were at night…you see guns flashing at you, you see movement out there you are going to shoot everyone. Some of the guys from our base, when they went out there to recover the bodies, they saw the kids there and recognized that some of them were from the orphanage and a number of these guys just freaked out…they just lost it totally. So you know that kind of stuff is hard to deal with.
Josalyn: You sort of touched on this earlier, but with the modern technology came the stigma of modern war, depersonalization. Despite this depersonalization of war, did you ever feel for the enemy?
Tim: Yes I did. I honestly developed a lot of respect for the Vietcong. Not so much the atrocities, I mean I think that was totally wrong…it didn’t have to happen. But the conditions they were fighting on. I mean they came down from North Vietnam into Laos and sometimes into Cambodia. These people walked from the North and they carried their combat boots tied over their soldiers. They walked from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, I can’t believe anybody would be that dedicated to do that…and the reason we knew these were NVA was because they had regular uniforms on. So we knew we weren’t just fighting the Vietcong anymore. There theory was on that [them carrying their boots tied over their soldiers] was that these men were soldiers and they wanted to die with their combat boots on. If they had walked all the way from the North to the South with their boots on they would have worn them out. Most of these people [the Vietnamese] were used to walking bare foot or in sandals so they saved their combat boots and tied them around their shoulders because they wanted to die with their boots on. I had respect for them in that way and because they were fighting for there own countries…for what they believed in. So, yah I did have some sympathy for them. And we helped Vietcong that were wounded too. We always treated POW’s well. Never, in the time that I was over there did I hear of any Vietcong prisoners or wounded being mistreated. I will be honest with you; I disrespected the South Vietnamese mainly because I felt that we shouldn’t have been over there fighting their war. Our guys were dieing for them…so it was almost like a racial thing, like blacks and whites here in the states. I actually looked down on the South Vietnamese because we were supposed to be helping them and I considered them to be inferior even though they could do the things we did. I did look down on them enough to have a guilty conscious about it for a long time.
Josalyn: Were the Vietnamese not fighting in a way you anticipated them to?
Tim: They weren’t fighting or doing their job to fight for their country. We had guys that were shot down and trapped out in the rice patties. The Vietnamese were told to go in there and help rescue these guys, but they wouldn’t advance because the rockets were coming and the rockets could take out the personnel carriers. So we looked down on them because they wouldn’t fight the way the U.S. was fighting. We hated the Vietcong but at the same time I had respect for what they were doing because what they were doing was incredible.
Josalyn: Did you find any similarities amongst the enemy and yourself?
Tim: There way of life was a little bit different due to the customs of their cultures. When you see the little kids and you see the families you find similarities. But their culture was completely different and their sanitary conditions were terrible. Their respect for human life was just…they didn’t care. They would torture people and they liked doing it. That is about all I could say on that.
Josalyn: Because of the war, did you find it easier to relate with the enemy than with the civilians back home?
Tim: Initially I believed that our government was right, but then I realized that what we were doing in Vietnam was wrong. They had been lying to us and the government we were supporting was corrupt. Over in Vietnam the blackmail was terrible; we were fighting for their country yet we had to bribe them every time we wanted to bomb something. We had to kiss their ass in order to go in and blow something up. Go ahead and repeat that question to make sure I answered it.
Josalyn: It was, did you relate more to the enemy than with the civilians at home?
Tim: The civilians at home were either protesting the war or draft dodgers that really did not know anything about it. Even though I didn’t believe our government was right in our approach to the war or what we were doing, I still didn’t think the average civilian back home had any reason to shit on the soldiers. One of the first things I did back home was get out of my uniform, but with a short GI haircut it was pretty obvious you were military. One of the worst things for me it to hear about all the soldiers being spit on and all that when they returned home. Some guys were actually shot when they got home. They were killed by civilians…this happened out in California. Some guy’s son had been killed and he wanted to blame this other guy for it [so he shot him]. Why would you kill somebody that comes back and survives? The people back home, its just like the movie actors right now… there is so much against the war in Iraq I think maybe our motives weren’t quite what they should have been…he [Sadaam Hussein] needed to be taken out obviously, but this is the first time this country has ever been the aggressor. In Iraq we actually attacked a country without being provoked first. 9-11 comes from the Saudi Arabian people, people in Afghanistan; none of it was directly related to Iraq so I am bitter about that. But again it is these politicians doing a lot of this pretending…when I hear the TV actors out there saying well you can’t do this, you can’t do that…well you can’t let this guy slaughter 30 or 40 thousand of his own people either. Let’s face it somebody’s got to do this and soldiers over there now are being treated a lot better than Vietnam veterans were. So it was tough, it was tough coming back and when people treated us bad I really got upset about it. Even my own relatives, they knew I was in a helicopter and they knew I was a crew chief tour gunner and they asked me if I was near the front lines…I said didn’t you ever read the paper? Don’t you know what was going on over there? Front lines were wherever the damn helicopters landed. All we did was trace the ground troops; we put them in wherever we found the enemy, on the front lines. Like I said before there is no place to hide in the helicopter and if somebody starts shooting at you they can hit you anytime any day. They can get you in places where you least expect it. It was either you shoot back or they will get you. When the TV actors start protesting and they don’t know what is going on over there… I mean in Vietnam there weren’t many educated I mean your officers were educated and a lot of our pilot’s had college but not all of them did. In Vietnam you didn’t have your Middle American you had the lower runs. College deferment would get you out of the draft and some people even started families to avoid the draft too.
Josalyn: You really already answered this but did the anti-war movement back home weaken your morale?
Tim: Right, yeah it did, it hurt.
Josalyn: Were you wounded in any way during the war?
Tim: Just what I consider to be scratches, and like I said I was more embarrassed about it than anything. I mean the guy who had arms and legs missing and the guys who had his nuts shot off over there because that happened over there too. Guys who had serious injuries, those are the people who deserve the purple hearts. I consider myself to be fortunate.
Josalyn: When you get together with the people you had the experience with, what sort of things do you talk about and what sort of things do you leave out?
Tim: We talk about the good times mostly and the funny things that happen over there. We talk about what we used to look like. We talk about how lucky we are to have survived. It is good to renew some of these memories but for the most part we try to leave some of them behind us. We tell the horror side of it and we also tell the good side of it.
Josalyn: In closing can you comment on a quote by Walt Whitman, “The real war will never get in the books”?
Tim: The real war will never get in the books. I don’t know if he was referring to the horror and the tragedy that the individual feels. That is something that is inside of you that you can’t explain. Some people write about it and explain it but unless you have felt that…there is another thing in the army I think it might have been Eisenhower…he said that the people in this country will never experience know the terror of being a POW and they will never appreciate freedom and know what that freedom really means unless they put their life on the line and actually taste death and smell it. This could also pertain to the politicians and what they hide from us. Our intelligence in Vietnam screwed more stuff up than they did good. Being an American has got its bad connotations.
The Webster dictionary defines war as a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations. This is the definition that perhaps the average American citizen would give. However, people who experience war first hand may have a different definition. Tim Hostetler, a helicopter crew chief during the Vietnam War, defines war as “90% boredom and 10% pure terror.” According to Tim, the 90% of boredom is nothing compared to the 10% of pure terror. Perhaps the terror that Tim encountered came from the fact that he knew the sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch of death. Every time he went up in the helicopter, he was facing a deadly situation while experiencing the death of others all around him. For this reason, he stated that “It [war] is like hell on Earth, nothing you have ever seen before.” This was just the introduction of the interview, and already the true experience of war was present.
Tim Hostetler was a seventeen-year-old boy when he decided not to wait around for his draft notice. He knew he would get one. He could feel it. For this reason, he decided to voluntarily enlist in the army. The feeling of the draft approaching him was not the only reason he decided to enlist. Tim sought the courage of manhood: “I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a man.” Like the speaker in Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled,” the aesthetic experience of soldiery attracted Tim to war. He wanted to put on the uniform and prove that he could be courageous. Perhaps, it was this personal pride that carried Tim through the war. He would not let his life drift away; instead he would come out of this war a survivor and “count his blessings.”
Tim counts his blessings every day as he remembers the lives lost in the war. The vivid image of the dead orphans shot by the men at his base is one he will never forget. Many of the men knew these orphans because they swam with them and played games with them during the extra time they had in Vietnam. One day when the American soldiers left the orphanage, the Vietcong went in and took all of the older orphans. The Vietcong forced these orphans to walk in front of them with weapons and ammunition as they attacked Tim’s base. The American soldiers did not know that these were the orphan children as they shot at them. After the shooting, the men ran out to recover the bodies, and as they saw the orphans lying dead on the ground, the true terror of war reflected in the eyes of these men. They were forced to realize that in war, anything is possible; one minute you can be swimming with orphans, and the next minute, you can be shooting at them. In war, your perception of things becomes fogged to the point that one can no longer see the enemy. This fog forces one to kill and keep on killing in order to live.
Tim explained that even though he and his men were “freaked out” about killing these orphans, it was a part of war that could not be avoided. The killing of these orphans was hard to deal with, “but this sort of stuff happened during war.” Tim’s response to the killing of the orphans parallels Tim O’Brien’s story “The Man I Killed.” In this story, one of the characters reflects upon the true reality of war that causes one to keep on killing the enemy regardless of the pain and guilt it brings. The scene takes place after O’Brien has killed a man and is reflecting on his death. As O’Brien stands over this man, Kiowa asks O’Brien, “You want to trade places with him?” (O’Brien 126). Kiowa simply reveals to O’Brien that death is something that cannot be avoided in war, and in order to stay alive, you must keep on killing. This was the point Tim attempted to make when he proclaimed that in war you must either shoot or be shot at. In other words, Tim reveals that in war you must take the life of the enemy or they will take your life. In Tim’s story, however, what was thought to be the enemy turned out to be children that the soldiers made friends with and cared for. However, they did not know the identity of the enemy, and even if they did they had to shoot or they would have been killed. Events such as these were what made the image of Hell reflect upon Vietnam.
For Tim, the country of Vietnam was beautiful from the sky and it was not until he got down on the ground that he began to see the ugly side of the country. This experience parallels Jarrell’s poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” In this poem, Jarrell proclaims that the only reality he found in war was during the few moments he spent up in the air. Like Jarrell, Tim explains that he could not feel the reality or beauty of life in Vietnam unless he was up in the helicopter. He could not find reality on the ground in Vietnam because when he landed, he felt as if he was passing through a nightmare. There was too much death and fighting on the ground, and therefore Tim could not find beauty in Vietnam unless he was viewing the country from the sky. Like an angel in the clouds, Tim felt peace and serenity as he glared down from above.
Depersonalization has become a stigma of modern war due to the advancement in technology. Tim was a crew chief in a helicopter, and oftentimes he never even saw the enemy he was shooting at with his machine gun. His job was to keep firing his machine gun while dropping off and picking up foot soldiers. Despite this depersonalization of war, Tim still felt compassion for his enemy. In fact, Tim actually began to respect the enemy during the time that he spent in Vietnam. He did not respect the atrocities, however he did respect that they were fighting for their independence. After he had spent some time in Vietnam, he realized that the enemy was simply fighting for what they believed in, their freedom. Tim, however, did not find a familiarity with the enemy in which their lives mirrored each other. Unlike some of the literary works we have read, Tim did not find many similarities amongst the enemy and himself.
Tim did not find many similarities between himself and the enemy because of the cultural differences they had. When he saw the little kids and the families, he found similarities. However, when he saw the enemy, he found many differences. Perhaps, Tim did not project a mirror image of his life upon the enemies’ life because he was never put in that situation. Unlike the speaker in Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting,” Tim did not come face to face with the enemy. He was always in the helicopter, and he rarely ever landed to see what he had done to the enemy forces. Perhaps, he did not make a personal connection to these men’s lives because he never gave himself the time to.
Tim is a man who remembers the experience of Vietnam, but he also puts the war behind him. Upon returning home from war, Tim’s first action was to take his uniform off. He was now turning away from something he was once so eager to experience, war. Before the war, Tim had left with innocence, and upon returning home, his innocence was gone. His innocence was taken as he swept through the skies of Vietnam. This is the most important story to share with any person who wants to hear a war story. Regardless of what happens in war, the effect of war always takes away a piece of one’s innocence. Soldiers left their innocence on the battlefields in exchange for the guilt they carried home with them. Through my secondary experience of war, this fact is what I find to be the most important lesson learned from any war story.
Through Tim’s story, I learned that the tragedy and horror that one experiences in war is something that stays within that person and is never truly revealed. For this reason, upon leaving the interview I had a greater understanding of the Vietnam War, but yet at the same time I felt an even greater distance. I believe this feeling came from the realization that no matter how much I researched or tried to understand the Vietnam War, I would never truly understand it. Tim explained that men can write and speak about this tragedy, but “unless you have felt the tragedy you will never fully experience it until you put your life on the line and actually taste death and smell it.” It is important to realize that no matter how many people you speak with or how many books you read, you will never feel the true atrocity of war until you have been there. Possibly, if people realize this, they will not be attracted to something so vain and evil.