We Should Honor Our Fallen Vietnam Veterans by Properly Understanding Their Living Comrades
By Warren Wilkins | May 28, 2010
Thirty five years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War remains a profoundly misunderstood chapter in American history. More troubling still, the courageous warriors dispatched to wage that divisive conflict--America's Vietnam veterans--remain equally misunderstood.
For years, the cultural portrait of America's Vietnam veteran revolved around two crude caricatures: the murderous misanthrope who relished despoiling Vietnamese villages and butchering babies; or alternatively the psychologically shattered, maladjusted wretch shuffling about the fringes of polite, civil society. The latter is a creature to be pitied. Outfoxed and out-fought (or so he has been told) on the battlefields of Southeast Asia, he returns home of sound body but not of sound mind. He is supposedly prone to addictions, psychoses, and criminal behavior. He cannot hold a job or raise a family, tormented as he is by the psychological wounds of war. Deserving of sympathy not praise, he is a victim of America's soul usurping military-industrial complex. The other caricature is a victimizer, however. Too cowardly to meet and defeat the North Vietnamese Army on the field of battle (or so we have been told), the murderous misanthrope terrorizes the women and children of picturesque, pastoral villages. He burns huts for churlish amusement, rapes indiscriminately, and murders when the mood moves him. He is, in short, a baby-killing monster.
Encouragingly, the image of America's Vietnam veteran has improved and is no longer represented by the aforementioned erroneous caricatures. On the small screen, Tom Sellek's much beloved fictional character Magnum PI--a swashbuckling yet innately decent PI and Vietnam veteran-- helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Vietnam vet to a generation of television viewers. Studies published in newspapers of record or reported on in other, well respected media outlets revealed that, contrary to popular misconception, Vietnam veterans had achieved a levels of societal success on par with and in some instances greater than their peers who hadn't served in Vietnam. In historical circles, more balanced appraisals of the Vietnam conflict, tomes such as Guenther Lewy's America in Vietnam, offered a much needed corrective to some of the most egregious and slanderous allegations leveled against American Vietnam veterans. Together, and with the efforts of activist veterans, these influences have shaped the generally favorable reputation Vietnam veterans enjoy with the public today.
Yet, despite the appreciable and readily discernible progress made to date, the specter of being misunderstood, either unwittingly or maliciously, continues to haunt Vietnam veterans. The latest example surfaced in connection with the scandal surrounding Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a candidate to succeed Chris Dodd in the United States Senate, claimed, falsely as it turns, to have served in Vietnam. Blumenthal did in fact serve his country honorably in the Marine Corps reserves, but when Vietnam veterans objected to his Vietnam claims, a misguided editorial in a well known New England newspaper attempted to explain why they did so:
Blumenthal, in distorting his record of military service, touched a political a political third rail because troops survive the moral and psychological stresses of combat by accepting what might seem in other contexts an overemphasis on the question of honor. That Vietnam was a dishonorable war made the importance of individual honor paramount. That is why Vietnam veterans define their experience with special scrupulosity.
That very characterization--a dishonorable war--does much, ironically, to explain why Vietnam veterans do indeed guard their service with uncommon vigilance. Slandered by the radical Left and largely ignored by an inexcusably indifferent "silent majority," Vietnam veterans had for far too long too few fellow Americans, notwithstanding other Vietnam veterans, from whom they could expect appreciation and gratitude for their courage, sacrifice, and honor in the service of a war that was certainly ill-conceived but never ignoble. Is it any wonder then that now, when the stigma associated with having served in Vietnam is no longer palpable and veterans have a monument to commemorate (however imperfectly) their service, many Vietnam veterans resent sharing the recognition they sacrificed so much to earn and were so long denied with those who made no such sacrifice and know no such indignity? In fact, to the extent that Vietnam veterans harbor a "members only" mentality, we have only ourselves to blame.
As we prepare to observe Memorial Day, we ought to consider honoring our fallen Vietnam veterans by striving to properly understand their comrades still walking among us.