That's Vietnam, Jake
By Michael Uhl
This article appeared in the July 9, 2001 edition of The Nation.
November 29, 2001
Three million American soldiers—men for the most part—participated in the US invasion of Vietnam over the decade-long duration of that war for us—roughly 1964 to 1973. Recent events confirm why one might yet debate whether we who did the fighting were, to paraphrase Remarque, "fit" for soldiering; that we proved no more (or less) fit for peace than veterans of any other war cannot be seriously doubted. The road back—readjustment in psych-chat—from armed conflict to civil living has never been a smooth one. For topical proof of this, just ask a couple of chaps named Kerrey and Kerry.
Vets come home and the wars come with them, lying doggo sometimes for years, then popping up at the most inconvenient of times. Nonetheless, Vietnam veterans, in at least one particular of our postwar readjustment saga, are indeed "quite different from veterans of earlier wars," as Ralph Nader judged in 1973. No prior war, he argued, had ever "witnessed such moral dissent by soldiers and new veterans." On this singular distinction, progressive vets have proudly dined out for years. Two Vietnam vets who protested the war on their return—but not the system that spawned it—made it all the way to the US Senate only to see their shiny acts of combat heroism tarnish into a basis for war crimes accusations: Bob Kerrey's enemy body count suddenly unmasked as a slaughter, perhaps point blank, of unarmed innocents; and John Kerry, in a much less publicized revelation, described in an interview by one of his in-country teammates as having "finished off" a wounded Vietcong soldier. (The allegations are denied by both men.)
Well, that's Vietnam, Jake. A real historical twister that dumped the onus of war crimes responsibility not on those who planned and directed the US fiasco or who commanded the battlefield but on the shoulders and consciences of their youngest, greenest junior officers, like Bob and John, and on the citizen soldiers who filled the lowest drafted or enlisted ranks of the infantry. In this history, the Vietnam vet is indeed a standout. It is for the uniqueness of his exceptionalism, often absent deeper links of similarity with other generations of ex-combatants, that Homo vietnamveticus is the subject of a considerable literature, and now he reappears—as antiwar warrior and in his many other guises—in Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement.
Less by thematic design than sheer magnitude of detail, author Gerald Nicosia doggedly tracks each metamorphosis in activism and image that positioned Vietnam veterans—typically in problematic terms and often as stereotypes of our own creation—on the wavy periphery of public awareness lo these many years. Among the peak manifestations of Viet Vet Cult and Legend to which Nicosia's narrative devotes ample coverage are:
§ the "war crimes movement"—the multiplicity of public revelations by veterans throughout 1970-71 of atrocities routinely committed by their units in Vietnam, almost always against civilians;
§ Dewey Canyon III, the 1970 encampment on the Mall in Washington of 2,000 vets, many of whom returned medals won in battle by tossing them onto the steps of the Capitol;
§ two juridical extravaganzas bracketed by twenty years: the political trial of the Gainesville 8 and the groundbreaking product-liability suit concerned with health effects on soldiers exposed to battlefield defoliants;
§ and, in between times, every manner of emotionally charged but well-scripted mayhem in hospital wards, presidential nominating conventions, national monuments and politicians' offices—which vets staged to dramatize less and less our moral dissent but increasingly our grievances over allegedly shoddy reception on the home front and, most urgently, our war-induced maladies of mind, body and spirit that few (least of all those who sponsored and managed our oops-sorry-our-mistake slaughter of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese) wished to hear about.
And "what a long strange trip it's been" for most ex-GIs—a blue-collar sort of crowd—leading, ironically, back to where we started from (taking into account accommodations to a post-60s world). By the end of the 1970s, the vet noir as antisocial pariah or rebel politico had been gingerly transmogrified into the unappreciated poster child of the Reagan years who was said only to yearn for the "welcome home" he was denied (and who do you think is blamed for that?!). Now, after thirty years, it should come as no surprise that Vietnam veterans occupy all the perches of conventional vet culture left absent by attrition in the ranks of their dads from the class of '46. Guess who's sitting on that American Legion barstool now, playing old fart and flag-waver at the head of the parade on Memorial Day, not to mention wielding significant influence in policy-making throughout the vast Veterans Administration (VA) bureaucracy. And let's not forget Al Gore, the vet who would be President; a lot of good it did him!
Nicosia seldom synthesizes such points directly, but they can be assembled from the details of his anecdotal and personality-centered style of reporting—based on interviews with more than a hundred veterans—which captures quite faithfully the raucous Sturm und Drang that attended the ends Vietnam veterans sought and, in a variety of organizational configurations, ultimately accomplished. But a critical historical question about Vietnam veterans, overlooked in Home to War, remains for some curious scholar to scout and elucidate: Would Vietnam veterans qua Vietnam veterans, in the absence of widespread expressions of moral dissent by a strong minority of our comrades, have become a powerful enough force to out the submerged realities around readjustment difficulties, secure an unprecedented degree of recognition for postcombat stress, personify the effects of herbicidal poisoning on human health?
With few exceptions, American veterans of earlier wars endured their homecomings and re-entry pains in virtual obscurity—give or take a parade or two—and there is little in public record or popular expression that registers or examines their scars of war. The Vietnam legacy has clearly altered the ground rules of postwar readjustment for vets, but other dividends of the war's historical memory may be limited. A shifting political climate at some not so distant date may readily permit the Pentagon to commit ground forces in substantial numbers, perhaps under ambiguous circumstances similar to those of Vietnam, without tripping the level of public anxiety that restricts the easy exercise of such an option today. Institutional self-interest being what it is, of course, there will be no escaping an upfront calculation by military planners of the price tag for such heretofore disguised or unacknowledged disabilities as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD, suffered, incidentally, by more than 15 percent of all veterans who served in Vietnam) sure to plague that next war's crop of trauma victims.
If the Gulf War vets, and not without a tremendous, ongoing struggle of their own, are beneficiaries of this shift in how our society sees and responds to its postwar veteran culture, it is because Vietnam veterans—cued by unique historical forces—were freed and mobilized to act out our readjustment woes in a highly public manner, often as spectacle. But where our antiwar protests were, at least initially, ideologically disinterested and fueled by the horrors we witnessed in a war fought essentially against a civilian population, our movement's subsequent campaigns around PTSD and Agent Orange have largely traced the paths and objectives of veteran politics long sanctioned in the United States by statute and tradition: the quest and attainment of social entitlements that other disadvantaged members of our society, equally deserving by any reasonable moral measure, are routinely denied.
Continued on next page