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.