That's Vietnam, Jake
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.
In Home to War, Nicosia lends credence to this point nicely in quoting the late Democratic Senator from California Alan Cranston's axiomatic raison d'état for veteran entitlements, one that other needy social castes may never appropriate: "Veterans' programs are an inseparable cost of national defense." Veterans' public clamor for compensation and relief must never be allowed to dampen morale among future recruits when next the empire decides to show its force. Vets are told, and most believe, that their basic complement of entitlements is a reward for patriotic service, for having--at least potentially--reduced their odds of personal safety in relation to civilian counterparts not similarly threatened. Few would impeach any society's humanistic obligation to care for those who actually bear the weight of battle. But veterans' entitlements in terms of social policy are a wash. It's a Catch-22: Wars screw people up, thus many vets become totally dependent on their medical and pension entitlements; to merit this range of benefits, most Americans would have to go to war. Well, there are other forms of service or servitude under the benevolent skies of capitalism in the late modern, as Fredric Jameson might say. Rewards for these services are perennially in arrears.
Since World War II, Congress has provided a benefits package of some kind for all its veterans, in peacetime and at war. A portion of that expenditure, following an older tradition dating to post-Civil War social policy, is automatically earmarked for the care of elderly and indigent veterans, who may or may not claim a disability connected to their time in service. By 1910, according to Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, 90 percent of the surviving veterans of the Union Army received disability and old age pensions. To determine the duration and generosity of their other benefits, like education and medical care, veterans, like any other special interest, must enter the lists of patronage (and sometimes protest) politics and, ultimately, roll their proposals Rube Goldberg-like through the arcane groves of the legislative process.
It is in his copious scoring of these labyrinthine pleadings for a few fat crumbs from the rich man's table that Nicosia establishes his strongest and recurring theme, his cry of hypocrisy in high places. He seems genuinely outraged to discover that a man like Ronald Reagan, whatever highfalutin blather he could toggle on command about "honoring those who served their country," found enlightened demands by veterans for readjustment counseling centers tantamount to mollycoddling. Reagan loosed his chief budget piranha, David Stockman, to slow the vets' advance. And still it's the hit man's snooty attitude (not, say, the institutional domination of his adopted class) that's really disturbing, as Nicosia cites the "disdainful curl" of Stockman's "Ivy League lips."