A Marine Corps veteran who earned two Purple Hearts during the Vietnam War, Scott Camil returned to Florida after two tours of duty and became a leading activist in Veterans Against the Vietnam War. This is an edited excerpt from an interview the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program conducted with Camil in 2005. To learn more about the project and access its thousands of interviews, go to oral.history.ufl.edu.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was taught by my parents that I lived in the best country in the world and it was the duty of all males to serve their country. I signed up for the Marine Corps in high school and about three days after graduation I was getting off a bus in front of Parris Island.
I graduated boot camp in September of 1965, requested orders for Vietnam and arrived in Vietnam on March 20, 1966. I remember a teacher in [high school] said, “There is a war in Vietnam and many of you are going to end up there and some are not going to come home alive. So it is important to know about it.” But in high school, all I was thinking about was how can I earn enough money to get some booze and what day are we going to skip school and go to the beach. My basic understanding was that South Vietnam was our ally. It had been attacked by North Vietnam. They are communists, and our job was to stop them before they came here.
When I got to Vietnam, I befriended a guy named Maines because we were both from Florida. My first duty was nighttime guard duty. In my third week, I was on guard duty and [the enemy] came through and destroyed our camp. They had explosives strapped on their bodies and they jumped into the bunkers and blew themselves up. [Others] had machine guns and mortars and rockets and they kicked our asses. It changed who I was. The day before I was a boy with Marine training and the day after I was a man. A man in the sense of how men were looked at then. Now I am not quite sure.
We covered up the dead Marines with ponchos. I pulled the ponchos off each one and one was Maines. I was 19, and I thought, “This is real. There are people whose job it is to kill me. There is not timeout and there is no second chance.” I decided while I was looking at Maines that I hated the North Vietnamese and I would kill every one that I could. If they were dead they could not hurt me or my friends. Then we followed the blood trails to find the ones that got away. We came upon an old guy sowing a field in a rice paddy. He had a long mustache, hair coming out of his chin and a white turban on.
I said, “Where did the VE [Viet Cong] go?” He said, “Cambiet,” which means “I do not understand.”
I asked him a second time, “Where did they go?” He said, “Cambiet.” I pulled out my bayonet and slit his throat. He was an unarmed old man, but I had just become a different person.
Let me just go back a second. I went to Vietnam without learning one thing about their culture, without learning the language, without learning the history. With no information, just like we have done in Iraq, no difference.
Technically, there are rules of war about what you are and are not supposed to do. But there are no referees out there giving you 15 yards because you clipped. Who is not going to cheat to stay alive? What is the purpose I am serving here? The purpose is to win. Those people were between a rock and a hard place. They lived there, they had nowhere to go, and we did not understand their culture, their language, or anything. We killed innocent people all the time.
We were taught we were going to a guerilla war, and in a guerilla war, [soldiers] need the support of the people. The people will hide them, the people will give them food, water, medicine and intelligence. If you remove the people, there will be no one to help the enemy and you will destroy the enemy. We burned down villages, we burned the crops so there would be no food for the guerillas, we threw the bodies into the well so there would be no water for the guerillas. You are not supposed to do that stuff.
A lot of Vietnam veterans say, “I did not commit any war crimes and I did not do anything wrong.” To them, they were just following orders. We were operating in places called “free fire zones.”
[Everything from homes to crops within that zone would be destroyed and anyone found there after that could be attacked and killed.] Now I know that anybody who operated in a free fire zone committed a war crime, whether they knew it or not. The idea was that you measure success by who can kill the most human beings. Now that I look back on it, that was extremely barbaric. What is civilized about that? But at the time I did not see it that way. At the time they were like bowling pins and I wanted to have a high score. That is the way Marines are measured and win medals.
A lot of the guys I know are pissed about what the Vietnamese did to us. I was wounded twice and was pissed when it happened. But now I think, what was I doing there? I was occupying their country, trying to force my will upon them by brutality. What would happen if someone did that to the United States? Let’s just say another country, who is powerful, says, “In the United States, the politicians are responsive to corporations. The tax code f***s the people. There are 45 million people without health care. We are going to go over there and have some regime change and give those people what they need.” Even though every fact they are saying might be true, I would fight them. Nobody wants to be occupied.
When I think about Vietnam, I think, what did we [soldiers] buy with the sacrifices we made? We got a black marble wall in Washington. The only way it would have been worth it is if we had learned from it and would not have done it again.
When you are in the service, you don’t really get any news that is contrary to U.S. policy. So I hated the anti-war people. I read that there was an anti-war concert and that Joan Baez and her friends were collecting blood and the blood was being sent to the North Vietnamese. I was outraged.
When I got out of the Marine Corps, I went to Miami-Dade [College] on the G.I. Bill. I had direct knowledge of Vietnam, but now I was reading newspapers and listening to radio and TV and they weren’t telling the truth about it. But I thought, the people in charge, they have access to secret information, you have to trust your government. But then, studying history, I learned things that blew me away. It started my brain thinking.
After I transferred from Miami-Dade to the University of Florida, I read in the school newspaper that Jane Fonda was coming to speak. I wanted to see what a movie star looked like, and some friends and I went. She said we were lucky to live in a democracy. And democracy cannot really function if people are not concerned. And that war was being carried out in the people’s name and the people’s money and they weren’t being told the truth. And that it was the duty of every patriotic Vietnam veteran to make the truth known. She struck a chord. I believed the public had the right to know the truth.
I agreed to participate in a forum called the Winter Soldier Investigation. They flew me to Detroit and I testified, and I met people from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which was based in the Northeast. After three days of testimony, they said let’s make this a national organization and let’s work against the war, and we agreed to do that.
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