John Snively was a noncombatant air intelligence officer on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in 1969 during the Vietnam War.
At the same time, Snively's brother had volunteered for the Marines, and served with a unit in Vietnam.
Snively wasn't necessarily planning on going to war when he graduated from college. During his time in the Navy, however, he appreciated the people in his squadron as the best group he could have encountered at that time in his life.
As a veteran, Snively also came to see the devastation one war can bring to an entire culture, and to families and friends, a story he believes is powerfully told in "The Sorrow of War."
"I don't think most Americans understand the grave consequences it had for the Vietnamese people," Snively said.
Here's how the retired Missoula dentist ended up participating in the conflict, and here are the ways Vietnam shaped his views on U.S. involvement abroad.
Q: How did you end up in Vietnam?
A: During my high school years, I was part of a Sea Scout group where I learned a lot about boats and ships. When I was leaving college in 1966, I really didn't have a clear vision of what I wanted to do. So at a friend’s recommendation, I submitted my name to the Navy and took the test for Officer Candidate School. Then, I just kind of forgot about it and spent that summer working. In September sometime, I got a draft notice, and I thought, I will make my own decision on this. So I joined the local Naval Reserve unit and went through initial training and boot camp as an enlisted man. At the end of that period, I was notified I had been accepted for OCS in Newport, Rhode Island. One of the naval career options was to become an air intelligence officer. So I went through a year and a half of training in various naval schools and the Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, and then joined my squadron. Just after the Christmas of '68, we left for Vietnam on the USS Kitty Hawk.
Q: What was your job?
A: My squadron's mission was to do reconnaissance using a multi-sensor RA-5C aircraft. This aircraft had a special radar and electronic listening able to pinpoint radar emissions from ground sites, as well as many different photographic modules. It was ahead of its time, but really, the technology was pretty bad compared to today's standards. I was a photographic interpreter and was attached to my squadron as one of its PI officers. We worked closely with the ship's company, and we helped to plan missions for the Kitty Hawk’s aircraft to go over South Vietnam.
Q: How did the war shape your views of U.S. foreign policy?
A: I saw things that made me scratch my head when I was there, such as wide swaths of B-52 craters which did little to stop the flow of weapons and supplies from north to south. It wasn't until later when I got out, and I started understanding more and more of what was going on. It gave me perspective as to how ineffective it is to bomb people to bring about democratic change in a country. I marveled that Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations so soon after the war and wondered how things would be different absent the great loss of American and Vietnamese lives. Also, after I became a civilian again, in '71, I began to see from the outside our soldiers in America who had been seriously affected, either mentally or physically, by their participation in that war.
Q: Did your experience make you an activist?
A: I belong to Veterans for Peace. I'm active in writing letters and politically supporting people who reflect my goals, but I have not been an earth-shaker in that movement or an activist as many people would define it, aside from talking to people and trying to get people to see. I have also been active in Missoula’s community affairs and assisting my wife, Carolyn, in distributing her book, "The Smiling Photo," which is a collection of haiku poems describing the effects of war.
Q: How is your life different because you were in Vietnam?
A: Being a veteran, it gives me a kinship, although a more distant one, to combat vets. The struggle my brother had for 30 years after he got out and what I've seen with close friends here in Missoula makes me think, if there's any other way that we could do this without putting our men, young men especially, who are so fragile at those ages, into those experiences and changing their lives forever, we should do it.
Bao Ninh, in his excellent book “The Sorrow of War,” described the incredible loss of family, friends, culture and infrastructure during war. We fail to foresee these consequences in our rush to military action or brutal sanctions against countries we disagree with and then fail to pursue other options.