War is one of the most constant of themes in human history. It is one of the greatest paradoxes in our human story as well. It is, on the one hand, the height of foolishness, the pinnacle of our human failure to grow up, to mature enough to transcend our selfishness, our various forms of greed and lust for power. On the other hand, war is all too often forced upon us unjustly by another, and the defense of the innocent is one of our highest duties toward one another. Hence the paradox. But both are connected and related to one another. The latter would never have to be necessary if the former was not a constant, undealt with, unresolved reality in our common humanity. We just seem to refuse to grow up.
But therein lies the reality. War has plagued us forever and continues to do so to this day. This story is about the kind of men and women that take on the ultimate duty of a citizen of this country, that is, “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” They do not want to go to war, but when they are called upon to do so, they do so with commitment and great courage.
You will see that in this video, both on the part of the speaker, Medal of Honor recipient Harvey “Barney” Barnum, and on the part of the Marines and Corpsmen he ended up leading on that terrible day, December 18, 1965. It is chock-full of heroism, not the foolish Hollywood kind of heroism but the kind of heroism that arises out of both training and the deepest human sense of duty toward those you are with in the middle of battle.
Then Lt. Barnum had just arrived in Vietnam a few short days before the events he describes here in the video. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines when the battalion was sent out on a mission as part of Operation Harvest Moon. He was leading Hotel Co. 2/9 in the rear of the battalion. They were the rear guard, commonly referred to as “tail-end Charlie.” They were crossing an area when the enemy struck with a well-planned an executed ambush. It was a vicious, well-coordinated, and overwhelming attack.
In the opening moments, the company commander was severely wounded, and his radioman was killed. Lt. Barnum had hit the dirt along with everybody else when the ambush began, but he became aware of the fact that his Marines were all looking at him for leadership. He had only been with them for four days, and he was new in country, but he knew what his responsibilities were and he took them.
Lt. Barnum describes what happened moment by moment, telling of how his Corpsman, Doc West, went out to help the commanding officer who was down out in the open and was shot a couple of times. Then his sniper sargeant went out and was hit as well. They had a heavy machine gun pinning them down with withering fire. You will hear him detail every moment of the battle as he remembered it, including how he went out himself and retrieved his company commander, carrying him back under fire in his arms, how they talked, and how the C.O. died in his arms. Then he was ordered to get his men out of there, and he did not have support because the other units were in their own messes. He called in artillery and directed a couple of armed helicopters in the effort to suppress the enemy fire. He himself lead his Marines on a frontal attack against that machine gun, taking it out. And, ultimately, he had to lead his men out of the trap of the ambush.
In the middle of telling his story, his voice rises, and he speaks a philosophical truth to us all: “War is horrifying, not glorifying.” That is the truth of war. In the midst of battle, you find yourself in the closest thing there is to hell on earth. Yet, and here is the paradox again, he worried, as any properly humble leader should, whether he made mistakes. Did he make the right decisions? Did he do the right things? And he does not ask those questions out of concern for himself but for the men he had so suddenly and so violently been obliged lead in the horror of battle, men he had only known for four short days.
Lt. Harvey “Barney” Barnum led them heroically, but he was leading truly heroic Marines too. We honor him and the 2/9 Marines of Hotel Co. who were there with him on that terrible December day in 1965. They modeled the virtue of their Semper Fidelis motto to one another and to us. OooRah!