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Author's Name: Thomas P. Knoten

Title: "Making Sense of Vietnam: When Life Imitated Art"

In 1902 Joseph Conrad wrote "Youth". I identify with the protagonist, Marlow, who was British, 20 years old and bound for Bangkok. In 1967 I was American, 22 years of age and bound for Vietnam.

Marlow cherished his position as second-mate on a cargo ship. I cherished my position as second lieutenant in the Air Force.

We each gave ourself a passing grade on our performance during the defining moment of our youth, his being on a ship that ignominiously sank in the South China Sea and mine being a junior officer in a war that America did not win.

Marlow, on a burning ship when its captain refuses help from a passing steamer is philosophical: "I thought it fine; and the fidelity to the old ship was fine. We should see the last of her. Oh the glamour of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea - and like the flames of a burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night." 

In the life-imitates-art department, like Marlow, we admired fidelity, followed the good example of the Korean War vets and military academy graduates among us and tried to see our duty out to the end.

Marlow reflects: "...I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more - the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys,to perils, to love, to vain effort - to death...." Hundreds of thousands of American youth came of age in Vietnam where life did imitate art. Joseph Conrad's story adumbrated the crises of war for all of us who found out what we were made then and there, something being lost, but something gained.  

Respectfully submitted, Thomas P. Knoten , July 12, 2017


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 27, 2012, page A22

Making the best of a bad situation

Memorial Day – Remembering a wartime commander who was more than a leader

By Thomas P. Knoten

Earlier this month, the mail brought news of the death of a friend from my tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-1968: John David Smith, Major, USAF (Ret.). Everyone knew him as "J.D."

Once on a sultry day in Saigon, a new colonel visited our intelligence unit’s office at Headquarters 7th Air Force. In his command voice from across the bullpen room, he addressed our supervisor, "John!"

Every head turned and all conversations ceased. The colonel had marked himself as a newcomer. I have a faint recollection of whispering to the colonel, "Sir, he likes to be called J.D."

The tension was relieved when the colonel intoned, "J.D., compliments on this morning’s commander’s book!"

In those days, J.D. was a 40-year-old, mid-career officer, with combat experience in Korea and the Bronze Star medal for an anti-Fidel Castro mission. He wore his dark hair cut very short and kept his uniform impeccable. He was a man of great work habits, a strong leader of people who lead by example.

He had a nice way of correcting me in public, in front of the enlisted men, by striking over a word that I had used in a report and, without a remark aloud, editing in a more precise term to improve the meaning and to make the general officer want to keep reading to last syllable.

He took me under his wing, taught me a few intelligence analyst tricks of the trade, stiffened my spine if it needed it, showed me (modeled for me) how to make the best of a bad situation. He did it through his character, through his sense of humor, through his knowledge of human nature, through his veteran’s experience of a prior war and through, not least, his prodigious reading and memory. Were I to intone an opening line of a poem J.D. would drown me out and complete it.

"Much as wine has played the infidel," I would say, "And robbed me of my robe of honor, well. . ." would be completed by J. D.: "I wonder what the vintners buy, One half so dear as what they sell."

J.D. was such a good boss for me, the youthful, inexperienced, book-learned junior officer. But J.D. saw more than that when he looked at me. I am not sure what exactly it was. But J.D. told me once that he was Phi Beta Kappa from Michigan State and then lamented that everything that he "most despised in life was present in Vietnam: noise, dirt and stupidity."

J.D. had wanted me to make a career of the Air Force like he was doing. He even set up a job interview for me with a field grade officer in a specialty that I could pursue once on my next assignment.

And, as wide as this world is, as many air bases as there are in it, I had the good fortune to be assigned from Vietnam to the same stateside air base as J.D, in Langley, Va. We continued where we’d left off in Vietnam.

Time rolled along and I sat for the bar exam and began a law career that took me away from military life to civilian life. J.D. and I kept in touch through long-distance telephone calls. Even though I had left the Air Force as a captain, I was always described at the other end of the phone line as "Lieutenant Knoten calling for Dad."

All that is his legacy. J.D. was part of the defining moments of my life. His influence for the good has exceeded that of everyone who came later, in peacetime.

His influence on me overshadowed that of so many of those who came later, the law professors, the litigators and general counsels, the judges and justices, the teachers of philosophy and the chancellors.

On Memorial Day, I think of J.D. and think, "I sometimes think that never blows so red . . ." and wish that he were here to conclude, "the rose as where some buried Caesar bled."