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Chapter 1: Home Alone
You couldn't easily find a more marginalized group of men. Even many of their former comrades dismiss them as "the losers of the lunatic fringe." "What makes you think that the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans share anything with the misfits and malcontents who decided that they couldn't cope with life in America and choose instead to live in a third-world country where the women are subservient and the work ethic is virtually nonexistent?" So asks a former Vietnam tank commander.
There are close to a thousand expatriate veterans living in Southeast Asia. If their brethren disdain them, the rest of their countrymen simply do not care about them. They constitute an awkward, out-of-the-way fringe group of veterans of a war that most of us would just as soon forget. As a student put it to her professor, "I had the feeling you weren't supposed to ask questions about Vietnam. It's like some dark family secret that nobody wants to talk about around the children."
Certainly there are moments that force us to remember. Bob Kerrey talks of a long-ago mission that went awry. Robert McNamara offers an apology twenty-five years after the fact. Although the Reagan and Bush (senior) administrations engineered an apparent national reconciliation between the public and the veterans, in retrospect it may have been cynically aimed at galvanizing support for military interventions that carried the whiff of Vietnam. Whatever its purpose, it had that effect. Endorsed by two-thirds of Americans a year after it ended, the Gulf War was still deemed worthwhile by a statistically identical proportion on the tenth anniversary of the coalition victory in February 2001. Yet many Vietnam veterans felt slighted yet again when soldiers of the Gulf War -- an incomparably less bloody engagement -- received the festive homecoming and won the vicarious esteem that the Vietnam vets were denied.
For them the home front of cultural memory remains one of domestic betrayal lamented. Soldiers were castigated upon returning home in the sixties and seventies, and that was only the beginning. When they went to a movie theater or read a novel, they saw themselves depicted as sad sacks or nut cases. If they had few job skills, they found traditional heavy industries depressed and jobs hard to come by. The counterpoise of strife and respite -- a comfort, if not a salvation, for a generation of British men after the Great War and American men after the Second World War -- was rendered difficult by the roiling protest at home, then by the cultural amnesia that healing was deemed to require.
Vietnam has become the antihero's war. Having served there confers not so much a patina of dutifulness as the unhealable scars that come from staring into a moral abyss. For some men on the edges of society, lying about soldiering in Vietnam has become a popular way to glom the prestige of hard experience, made all the more credible by the fact that it was not necessarily even something to be proud of. In the 1998 book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley compiled thousands of instances of homeless men and others purporting to be Vietnam veterans traumatized by the war. They turned out never to have set foot in-country at all, lied about their experience to get government benefits, or were never even in the military. A guy in Central Park wearing a fatigue jacket tells you he's a Nam vet and asks you for subway fare; you flip him a token before you realize he couldn't have been more than two years old when Saigon was evacuated. A convict on death row for murder convinces three networks and a parole board that Vietnam War trauma made him do it when he was never in combat. Acclaimed historian Joseph Ellis lies to students and journalists about having served in Vietnam and then protested the war, apparently to enhance his claim to have participated in history. These anecdotes, more than any admirable exploits of actual Vietnam soldiers, have bored deeply into public consciousness.
There were, of course, plenty of American heroes in the Vietnam War. Will they ever get their due? Hundreds of expat vets have given up hoping. Some of their stateside fellows have simply stopped talking about the war, and have reached an uneasy truce with the hostile attitudes that pop up unbidden from even the kindest of strangers. For those several hundred expats, however, such obscure and unanswered doubts are unacceptable.
Strategically dubious and morally ambiguous, Vietnam remains the hard case. Whereas World War II made the twentieth "the American century," Vietnam jeopardized that tribute. Intervention in Vietnam did not clearly enable either Americans or Vietnamese to live better lives. As a consequence, nobody's "good life" can vindicate the deaths of those who perished. Perhaps World War II has forced an unfair burden on Vietnam veterans. After all, murky moral purpose and senseless violence have been the rule of war, not the exception. Slightly redrafting the map of Europe hardly justified the idiotic carnage of the First World War. The U.S. Civil War was organized suicide. From the Iran-Iraq War back to the Hundred Years War, millions of men have died for dubious reasons. With Vietnam, war merely reverted to moral ambiguity. The Cold War geopolitics underlying the Vietnam War was far harder to understand than Hitler's evil.
The Worst War in History?
In his classic study The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell traces much of modern Western society's -- especially Britain's -- collective sense of irony to the immense discrepancy between what was expected of World War I (glory and heroism) and what actually emerged from the trenches (morbid attrition and anonymous death). On this criterion, Vietnam should be a comparably rich source of irony for Americans: they anticipated a military cakewalk and in fact got an agonizing defeat.
For Americans Vietnam marked the decisive termination of the tradition of romanticizing battle, the end of war's status as "the great adventure." In Europe, this cultural watershed occurred earlier, after the First World War. But during that war, nationalism, brotherhood, and perhaps a tinge of homoeroticism flourished, and perfumed the incomparable terror of trench warfare. The Great War in Britain's modern memory has remained an inspirational source of strength through another devastating world war and beyond. To this day nearly everyone in Great Britain wears a red paper poppy during the week of Veterans' Day, remembering Flanders fields. British television news broadcasts celebrate events that do not qualify as triumphs, like the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in May 1940. Not so with Vietnam. It produced no Blundens and no Graveses, no Owens and no Sassoons, to memorialize the finer aspects of national service in a cynical war.
This departure had plenty to do with the rise of realism in general, and with the trend, during the war-ridden twentieth century, toward de-romanticizing war, which is quite independent of what happened in Vietnam. The war also coincided with the dramatization of violence via the television camera. The result is that Americans regard Vietnam as uniquely tainted. While some (mostly veterans) respectfully affix Stars-and-Stripes pins to their lapels, they offer no gestures comparable to the reverence of the British for valor in victory and defeat alike. Any war is hell. Vietnam was not the first war in which the indigenous population, putative benefactor of the foreigners' intervention, in fact resented them. And Vietnam certainly was not the only war in which expeditionary combatants found conditions less than ideal.
Atrocities occurred in Vietnam, as they do in all wars. But thanks perhaps to the My Lai massacre in March 1968, when a U.S. army company killed 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in South Vietnam, as well as unprecedented television coverage, atrocity as an idiom of combat is peculiarly associated with the Vietnam War. Just ask Bob Kerrey. The picture of the crazed GI exterminating "gooks" has reached mythical proportions, and the imagery to emerge from Vietnam establishes a visceral semicriminality rather than anything like good old-fashioned American heroism. As a group, Vietnam veterans are too often misremembered by sheepish contemporaries as drug-addled basket cases, shell-shocked baby killers, or treasonous "fraggers" who deserved the jeers and taunts that some received at Travis Air Force Base on their Date of Expected Return from Overseas -- the once-cherished "DEROS."
A 1979 Harris survey conducted for the Veterans Administration indicated that 52.3 percent of Americans over eighteen believed that Vietnam veterans had more serious problems than those of other wars; among teachers and employers, the figures were 68.4 percent and 59.7 percent, respectively. In the twenty years since, public perceptions have softened little. Yet Department of Veterans Affairs statistical surveys completed in 1999 reveal that Vietnam veterans compare very favorably both with their nonveteran contemporaries and with younger veterans and nonveterans in terms of educational attainment and level of employment. The DVA also puts the number of suicides among Vietnam veterans -- which other popular, professional, and clinical sources have pegged at 60,000 to 100,000 -- at no higher than 20,000.
Vietnam veterans haven't done so badly, but they did miss the parade. They remain frustrated that their fellow Americans seem not to understand that the futility of that war does not necessarily diminish every man who fought it. Americans yearn for moral clarity that the Vietnam War, like most wars, cannot provide. Signally lacking strategic coherence and logistical definition from the start, Vietnam presents an especially daunting narrative. Even veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion at times have derided Vietnam vets as "losers."
Succeeding generations of nonservers -- at their most charitable -- consign Vietnam veterans to victimhood. Rarely are soldiers of the Vietnam War deemed to have had The Right Stuff. Positive lessons are silenced by the sentiment: never again. The helicopter crew who courageously stopped the slaughter at My Lai were decorated for their valor only in 1998 -- thirty years after the fact. American culture, it seems, conditions Americans to regard Vietnam in its entirety as a crowning abomination.
For Americans in 1972 as well as Brits in 1918, a wasteful war did have spoils, but these did not usually include a greater love of country, fortified piety, or the glow of victory. Instead both groups of men, if they were lucky, carried away an intimate knowledge of camaraderie and how it worked -- of what men can do to survive together when they have nobody to count on but one another. But in fact, in Vietnam the soldier's bond was at a premium. Says Nat Tripp in his Vietnam memoir Father Soldier Son: "In this murderous 'emperor-has-no-clothes' environment, soldiers made up their own rules, designed their own parameters of good and bad so that they could navigate through the jungle of conflicting experiences. Individual leadership, strength, courage, and humanity were more important than in any other war, because there was no guiding vision, no goal, no leadership at the top."
Given these handicaps, Vietnam veterans arguably should be appreciated all the more for their accomplishments as soldiers and as people. In Vietnam there was, observes novelist Tim O'Brien, "no valor to squander for things like country or honor or military objectives." Soldiers needed "the kind [of courage] you dredge up in the morning, knowing it will be a bad day." Such courage had no moral reward, no triumphant culmination. Per military convention, soldiers would develop from callow newbies into seasoned short-timers. They would learn how to save their own lives and to protect others, but also to be callous as required for battle. War, of necessity, makes you crazy. The pathological aspect of combat is not something that Vietnam inaugurated. Rather, the uniqueness of the Vietnam experience is captured in the mantra that grunts in Vietnam repeated more and more as they gained experience and got closer to DEROS. What they said -- about death, about missions, about life -- was: "Don't mean nothin'."
The phrase and its partners, "Ain't no big thing" and "Sorry about that," connoted precisely the opposite of what they denoted. In the immediate circumstances of life in the field, they were a soldier's ironical means of defusing tension, and of steeling himself to horrors. But as the underlying attitude insinuated itself into the soldier's worldview, it portended the disaffection he would feel when he returned home. This connection accurately reflects the singular, and singularly disturbing, feature of Vietnam: too many soldiers, once they got to Vietnam and registered both the ambivalence of the indigenous population and the hesitancy of the military strategy, were not sure what they were doing there.
"It is too easy, as a part of the healing process, to look back with a sense of victory when all I really felt at the time was defeat," says Nat Tripp. "It is too easy to forget the incredible suffering inflicted on so many. It is too easy for fathers and sons to goad each other into war....Our children speak to us in hushed tones about the war, and what it did to us. There is talk of redemption, of honor, of returning to Vietnam and finding something there, something beyond the shattered bone fragments and vertebrae, something that perhaps might still be alive, that could even speak and say, 'Thank God you came back for me, now there can be peace, now justice is done.'"
Simple valor, then, does not seem enough to vindicate one's participation in Vietnam. Vets no longer press the case. They have grown tired of repeating that they won the war on the battlefield, that they fought bravely, that the politicians didn't allow them to finish the job. Vietnam vets are denied the traditional payoff of military service: the alluring posterity of a middle-aged war hero, who no longer had to prove himself and could live the rest of his life securely bolted to a venerable past. Despite that privation, they have a psychological need to fashion their war experience into something acceptable. To do so, the vets have several options. They can turn their valor in a bedeviled war into something better. Or they can deny it altogether. They can admit it had no place. Or they can simply ignore the war. The fifth alternative is to defend their part in the war and damn those who disagree.
Compromises though these are, the historical stigma that Americans attach to Vietnam makes any of these dispensations an extraordinary intellectual and emotional challenge. According to a November 2000 Gallup Poll prompted by Bill Clinton's official visit to Vietnam -- the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1975 -- 69 percent of the American people still believe that sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake (compared to only 34 percent with respect to Korea, America's other "limited war"). But only 60 percent, and less than half of those between eighteen and twenty-nine, know that the United States supported South Vietnam during the war.
Against this combination of disapproval, ignorance, and apathy, a fair number of veterans have chosen to forsake the United States in favor of the very scene of the controversy: Southeast Asia. Yet expatriate veterans face the same dilemmas as stateside vets about what to do with pride in service that is underappreciated, and have isolated the same set of options: to transform, deny, desert, ignore, or defend their valor.
The key difference between expat vets and their stateside counterparts lies in the enduring prominence of their Vietnam experiences in their contemporary lives. Those experiences have not been muted or diffused by the exigencies of living in a society that purposively wishes to forget about Vietnam. Memories remain closer to the surface of their lives. For that reason, their stories illuminate the grievances, demons, and virtues of the Vietnam veteran all the brighter. Now is a fitting moment to listen to those stories. Despite the generally low level of interest in the Vietnam War as history, the 2000 Gallup Poll also recorded that 72 percent of Americans acknowledge that the American people have not treated Vietnam veterans well since the war -- up ever so slightly from 69 percent in 1990. A satisfying national reckoning is long overdue.
Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Stevenson