Armchair quarterbacks are nothing new, and it turns out it’s even easier to be an armchair pundit. The NFL’s willingness to kneel and unwillingness to yield has moved the national pasttime from the football stadium to the political arena.
Complaining from the comfort of a couch carries little weight with those whose service to their country includes crouched in a cage in a Vietnamese jungle, and it’s why you shouldn’t mistake Columbus’s George E. Smith for the familiar stereotype of a crusty old vet disconnected from the debate of day.
He’s outspoken, articulate, and offers no apology for either. With more social media savvy than those half his age, he confesses the most moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner he’s probably ever heard was from Lady Gaga. There may even be a bit of Bernie Sanders amid his outrage, tempered by optimism. Smith is the street-smart septuagenarian whose hip, political acumen defies his age, one by which many of his peers are less concerned about current events than a hip replacement.
His story is so singular, Smith wrote a book about his experiences in 1971—one that ruffled enough feathers that the publisher cut their own name out of the front page of every copy before its release after being threatened with violation of the National Security Act.
Smith was raised in a loving home of limited means in Steubenville, Ohio, and joined the Army on his seventeenth birthday to escape the cycle of poverty common among those who enthusiastically enlisted rather than fearing the draft.
“I actually quit high school because I didn’t have the proper clothes. I was embarrassed to go to school,” Smith recalled. “I knew the Army would clothe me and feed me.”
He ultimately enlisted in the Airborne, though his 120-pound frame was easily outweighed by his parachute and combat gear. “Getting up out of the seat was a the hardest part. Getting out of the plane was easy,” he chuckled.
After serving his time, Smith returned briefly to civilian life, yet struggled as many vets still do. Minimum wage jobs at a dollar an hour barely offered more opportunity than when he enlisted the first time.
“I’d been a photographer with the Airborne. I even worked with some of the movie producers by the end of my time,” Smith explained. “But when I reenlisted I just ended up repairing film projectors.”
Working in the combat film archives, Smith saw lots of footage, including some from Special Forces—which as he put it, “looked like a lot more fun than repairing projectors”. Training for more than a year, he became a Special Forces medic presumably destined for Africa.
“They had me scheduled for Swahili school, but they said they were changing their ‘area of study’ to Vietnam,” Smith noted. “I knew nothing about what was going on in Vietnam at the time.”
Assigned to a “hearts and minds” campaign, Smith was part of a 12-man “A-team” stationed in a small compound in the South. His role was largely making house calls to local farmers and their families, most of who had never seen a doctor before. Smith was on a 90-day extension but the whole unit was assured they’d all be home by Christmas given the direction of the conflict.
But all of that changed November 22, 1963.
Word of Kennedy’s assassination made it to the camp by radio. Special Forces were considered by critics to be the president’s private army, essentially outside the Pentagon’s control. Later that evening, the camp was overrun by guerillas.
“We played pinochle in the evenings to wind down,” he recalled. “But that night, our interpreter who used to play with us went home early instead.” Shortly thereafter, the bugle sounded and the compound was under attack.
“They were getting first round mortar hits. The only way that happens is if someone from inside the camp had paced it off,” Smith explained. He grabbed his gear and emerged to find white hot, tracer rounds reigning down on the compound. “They’d captured one of our machine guns on the corner of the camp and turned it around on us.”
A handful of personnel, civilian and soldiers escaped, including the lieutenant charged with gathering intelligence from the nearby villages. Within minutes, Smith was among only four survivors who were captured by a force of more than 400.
“They tied a rope around my neck and dragged us through the villages for people to come out and see,” he noted. “The Viet Cong had the support of the people. We did not, or we never would have been captured.”
Smith expected to be killed immediately, but was instead marched to what would become his home for the next two years. Though fed a minimal ration of rice and bush meat and often tormented, he was unwilling to describe his treatment as “torture.” He and his fellow soldiers were used as forced labor, but refusal to comply with making punji stakes and sweeping their captors quarters was dealt with harshly. Smith found himself on the wrong end of a rifle repeatedly, but maintained his will.
“There were times when I knew the guard wanted to kill me,” Smith said. “But they knew we were Special Forces and had to keep us alive. They probably needed someone else’s permission to kill us at that point.”
Only after additional POWs arrived and it was apparent the encampment was becoming more permanent did they risk escape. Smith helped the strongest soldier among them slip out under the cloak of darkness and the cover of rainfall on the jungle canopy, knowing that he and his fellow troops faced likely execution.
“We’d planned to go together, but we knew we could give him a better head start if we stayed. We were in the same cage, so I knew they’d hold me responsible,” he explained. “They were going to execute me, but I talked my way out of it. I told them he didn’t trust me and didn’t tell me about his plans to escape—that he was the one who left me behind.”
The iconic photo of the execution of a Viet Cong captain by a South Vietnamese police chief is infamous, but hardly the first. Such summary executions were common for years. One night, one of Smith’s fellow prisoners who had mouthed off to a guard was marched further into jungle never to return. Only a shot in the distance. Told it was retribution for such executions by the South Vietnamese, none of the captives knew until long after whether he was executed, or if the whole incident was staged. It was not.
Unbeknownst to Smith and his sole remaining comrade, the antiwar movement in the US had become impossible for the press to ignore. A Quaker named Norman Morrison, a graduate of the College of Wooster, had set himself on fire just outside the Pentagon—an act likely inspired by a Buddhist monk who had done the same two years earlier in Saigon.
Hopeful that their camp’s location was compromised again, the two soldiers were surprised to find themselves being dropped in front of the Australian embassy in Cambodia. Allegedly in response to Morrison’s well-publicized suicide, they had been released, according to their captors, as a show of sympathy. But what should have been a relief became another kind of captivity.
“We thought we were going back to the United States, but they flew us to Okinawa and charged us,” Smith revealed.
Smith and his comrade found themselves accused of aiding the enemy—presumably for allowing themselves to be photographed as prisoners and being released in response to events of which they had no knowledge. “Propaganda” they said, with prison a real possibility, technically even the death penalty. The reversal seemed surreal.
After months of hand-wringing and legal wrangling, Smith received a general discharge—neither honorable, nor dishonorable.
“I guess you were on our side all along,” said a commanding officer at the hearing. “I always was,” Smith politely replied.
Though he openly calls Jane Fonda’s trip to North Vietnam “a childish mistake,” it didn’t stop him from appearing with her in the U.S. in opposition to the war—but not those who served.
“I was the only POW Green Beret willing to talk about my experiences in Vietnam. We traveled for six weeks across the country, mostly student unions,” Smith recalled. “We wrapped it up in California and all went home for Election Day.”
Though McGovern was considered “the peace candidate,” Nixon’s reelection was decisive.
“We weren’t just speaking out about the election. We were speaking out against the number of poor and black soldiers who were fighting and dying,” he explained. “Selective Service is ‘selective’, not a draft like WWII where an enemy was threatening our shores. We needed a draft then, one that took everyone, not just those who weren’t rich enough to get out of service.”
Somehow Smith managed to do all of this while ironically employed by the U.S. Postal Service. He was instrumental in the early days of the postal workers union, so much so, he was promoted to postmaster, thus making him a part of management—and thus, ineligible to remain in the union.
“When there’s a new president, we change out their portrait at the post office. The old photos are just discarded,” Smith explained. “But when Nixon was forced to resign, I kept it. It was my trophy.” (BTW: He still has it.)
It’s hard for younger generations to fathom fame before the advent of the internet, but Smith was that kind of celebrity—though the term would hardly be one of his choosing. He disrupted the narrative of who was and wasn’t sufficiently “American.”
He wasn’t a draft-dodger, yet he opposed the selectiveness of Selective Service.
He enlisted twice, and served among the mostly elite fighting forces of the US military, yet learned firsthand how lack of support from the civilian population, in Vietnam and the US, determines the success or failure of any military campaign.
Branded a traitor upon his release and even after his discharge, and unwilling to remain silent about his ordeal, he became a different kind of prisoner in a different kind of cage.
The entire experience remains fresh, frustrating, and haunting. That’s why it’s crucial, he says—regardless of where you stand, or kneel, when it comes to the National Anthem—to listen to someone whose patriotism has been both celebrated, and questioned.
“The government has co-opted the flag to the point that it’s no longer ‘our’ flag,” he noted. “Wrapping any issue in the flag is the reason we are so easily divided. It’s certainly not what the founding fathers intended.”
Though the term “identity politics” is relatively recent, its role in latter-day propaganda from both major parties isn’t overlooked either by Smith.
“It’s an effort to break us into smaller groups, isolate us, and pick us off one by one.”
“What does it mean to be a patriot? I don’t think it means you must agree with me or you’re not one,” he said. “If someone calls you un-American, how do you disprove it?”
Smith knows all too well how difficult that can be, even decades later.
Smith’s 1971 book P.O.W. Two Years with the VietCong, is available in hardcover via Amazon.com.