Today 70 and in retirement in Prague, Mirko Dolák can claim to be one of the few Czechs to have fought for the US in the Vietnam War. Indeed, his buddies in the Marines gave him the nickname “Czech”. He later spent nearly three decades working for the Government Accountability Office, which uncovers waste and corruption in US federal agencies.
“At that time, all immigrants, male immigrants up to age 35, I believe, were required to register for selective service, to register for potentially going to the military.
“I did register and within a few months I received a letter to undergo a physical exam and induction. Although I didn’t speak English, they gladly accepted me as, as the Germans say, tauglich, ready for service.
“The American army at that time had a very bad reputation: a lot of drugs, fragging, all kinds of nasty things. I really didn’t want to go to the army, so I joined the Marines.
“That was a three-year commitment. It’s a voluntary organisation. People don’t get drafted into it. So I ended up in the Marine Corps.”
Tell us about when you went to Vietnam. How did the reality of war compare to what you might have imagined before you went?
“I really didn’t imagine what war looked like, although my impression of what war really looked like was from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or some of the classic movies. But that [WWI] was trench warfare, it was totally different war.
“Or some of the World War II movies, but they were mostly propaganda movies made from the perspective of the victor: the Americans were always the good guys. Probably some of the best war movies were some of the Russian movies – not all of them, but a handful.
“But Vietnam was totally different. The strategy was essentially of killing as many as possible.”
Unlike many of the Marines, for you it was personal, because you were fighting communists.
“Yes, of course. One of the primary reasons why I wanted to go to Vietnam was that at that time I had a bone to pick with the communists. I truly hated them. And I still don’t particularly like them.”
Tell us about the language aspect. You were saying you couldn’t speak English when you when to the States, so I guess as well as learning how to be a Marine you were also learning English, during the war?
“Yes. If you think about the way you learned Czech, primarily what you learned very quickly were common words like, I would like a beer. Then you learn a supply of swear words. That’s what people fairly commonly learn. As you go on you learn more and more, and eventually you can function.”
Are there any particular moments from the war that remain with you to this day, any particular incidents?
“Yeah, one particular incident which sort of cured me of this idea that I’m going to kill communists occurred when I killed a Vietnamese – one of the few times that I knew that I actually killed a fellow.
“I was searching his body and I found a wallet on him and in it was a letter, written in Vietnamese, from his wife, and with the letter was a picture of his two-year-old son.
“Then I realised that this whole thing is total bullshit, and that what the Vietnamese were really fighting for was to get the foreigners out: first the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans.”
You were telling me that your buddies called you “Czech”. Did you meet any other Czech soldiers?
“No, I did not. I met a Dutch guy, and a German.”
“There were a number of Czechs in the French Foreign Legion. And I believe that there were a number of Czechs early in the second Vietnam conflict, but I didn’t meet any of them.”
You were in Vietnam for 13 months. Was that the typical term?
“That was the term.”
Did you have a choice about going back? Or did they try to send you?
“You could do an additional 13, but I would have had to extend my service in the Marine Corps, and I didn’t want to do that. There were other things to do besides being shot at.”
We hear a lot today about post traumatic stress disorder. Was that something that was spoken about much in your day? And did you experience it?
“I did not. It was just the beginning, when people were beginning to realise that the experiences from the Second World War and the Korean War – especially people who underwent extensive shelling – that it left permanent psychic damage, to the extent that people were not able to fully function: drugs, alcohol, they couldn’t hold a job.
“It wasn’t fully understood and they weren’t quite sure how to treat it. The Veterans Administration’s answer to this was to have group therapy sessions. Which was a bunch of crap, in my opinion.”
Did your experience change you in some other way, though?
“Yes, it changed me in two ways. The first was like any other man, if you go to the war, you never know how you’re going to behave under fire. You have no idea, because you never experienced that.
“And one of the great fears that men have is that they will fall apart – and it’s a great relief when you discover that you can handle it.
“The second one was the recognition of the importance of small units, cohesion, how friendships in a small unit are tremendously important, how you can survive virtually anything if you function in a small group that is tremendously loyal to each other.
“Also despite all the political problems with the war and whether you agreed or disagreed with it, the Marine Corps is a professional organisation, a premiere small fighting force. They’re exceptionally loyal, and they don’t ask questions, which maybe good or bad, but they don’t ask the question why? They just do it.”
So after the war you’d learned English and you went to study.
“Yeah, I did several jobs and studied at night. I got bacherlor’s degrees, I got two masters degrees, and finally I got a PhD and I started working for the federal government.”
This was the Government Accountability Office. What exactly were you doing in that job? It’s an auditing and investigating organisation?
“It’s q premiere federal organisation that is usually listed as the first, second or third best place to work in the federal government. It’s extremely well run, a small group.
“The work is extremely varied. You never know what’s coming down directly from Congress. It ranges from the mundane to the extremely bizarre and exciting. You work with small groups, small teams.”
You were investigating other government agencies. Did that make you guys unpopular?
Could it be described as a kind of intelligence agency?
“Not quite, because we were never allowed to enter or audit in any way the intelligence services. Although we did at the edges, but that’s a world of its own.”
“American corruption is massive, big scale, very sophisticated. There are no envelopes or boxes of wine. Czech corruption is truly kocourkov. Small crooks.”
So the Americans are better at it?
“They’re at it longer. With much more money!”
I read a previous interview with you in which you had told your mother by phone that you would only return to Prague on a tank. In the end, that wasn’t the case.
“No, that wasn’t the case. The interesting thing was that when my mother escaped to Germany in 1968 and I was finally able to meet her in 1990, she told me that the StB agents, who were in her apartment and made her make the phone call, they told her, he will come back when he retires.”
So the StB were right in something at least?
“That’s true, they were right in that.”
Jana Ciglerová: Americans say their lives are fantastic, Czechs say everything is terrible – neither is true
Study: Demand for new flats in Prague set to keep outstripping supply
“There is good, better and then there is the USSR.” – New book depicts life in communist Czechoslovakia through memories of people who experienced it
‘The fat lady sings’: Prague’s State Opera marks restoration to former glory with gala concert
CzechTourism head hints attracting tourists no longer agency’s main goal