That's Vietnam, Jake | The Nation


That's Vietnam, Jake

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What you won't find in Home to War is even the smattering of historical annotation offered in this review to set and analyze veteran status within the American context as an evolutionary phenomenon of our social history. There are, unfortunately, even deeper flaws in Home to War, a work that Nicosia has cobbled up in large portion from scores of personal interviews conducted--mostly circa 1988--with those who played key roles in the vet movement during its most dynamic years. But perhaps Nicosia was overwhelmed by the din of disparate, feuding voices he collected, which make his reportage read at times less like history and more like hearsay. When, for example, Nicosia lingers on the minutiae and infighting in the veteran movement's antiwar and radical left-wing phases in the 1970s, his chronicle far too frequently suffers in its respect for accuracy.

About the Author

Michael Uhl
Michael Uhl served with the 11th Infantry in Vietnam, co-founded Citizen Soldier and is a charter member of Veterans...

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Will the "unpredictable" nature of this war lead to the kind of malaise in the military that was so costly to troop morale and discipline during Vietnam?

I base this charge on my firsthand knowledge as a full-time organizer within the Vietnam veterans' movement from 1970 to 1981. Typical of Nicosia's failure to serve the Vietnam veteran story more reliably, or to approach the standard that writers like Todd Gitlin, Kirkpatrick Sale and Fred Halstead achieved for SDS and the antiwar movement, is the following attempt to recreate an episode from the "war crimes movement" mentioned above:

Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) assembled an ad hoc panel before which COM [Concerned Officers Movement--a formation of antiwar officers still on active duty that emerged publicly in late 1970] members and a few vets could testify. The panel was scheduled to meet four days, beginning Monday April 26, in the House Caucus Room of the Cannon Office Building. An immediate fear arose among the VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] leadership that if they let themselves be associated with these ad hoc hearings, they would again share the discredit Mark Lane brought with him.

Nicosia has the venue and the scheduling right. But here's how it really was: John Conyers and at least twenty other members of Congress attended some portion of the four days of ad hoc hearings, which were sponsored solely by Ron Dellums and organized by the Citizens' Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes (CCI)--where I was veteran coordinator--in cooperation with Dellums's Congressional staff. Mark Lane--with whom CCI had fought bitterly six months earlier about the planning of another war crimes event, the Winter Soldier Investigation--had absolutely nothing to do with the Dellums hearings. COM played no role, nor did any active duty officer appear before the panel. The majority of those veterans who did testify were, like myself, card-carrying members of VVAW, and no one that I ever heard of was discouraged from participation in the Dellums hearings by the leadership of that organization, most of whom I spoke with frequently and knew quite well.

If an author is off by a couple of points, hey, not to worry, writers are only human. But in this case, factual peccadilloes, though often trivial when taken one by one, add up too rapidly to be ignored. Other examples: Nicosia states that in 1970, CCI coordinator Jeremy Rifkin was an investigative reporter recently kicked out of Vista for left-wing activities. Neither characterization is true. My own name appears several times in this book; I confess that I was never interviewed, but still I wonder how I came to be a platoon leader in Vietnam when I was actually a counterintelligence officer. Nicosia's version of the founding of the CCI, the war crimes commission, is even more convoluted than his account of the Dellums hearings. (And let me emphasize that I am not quibbling over matters of interpretation but contesting errors of fact that could have been corrected.)

As for CCI, the New York-based committee was founded by Ralph Schoenman in November 1969, just after the revelation in the US press (twenty months after the fact) of the infamous My Lai massacre. Schoenman had been a principal organizer of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal--an unofficial panel of prominent world figures who assembled on two occasions in Europe, heard testimony and judged as "genocidal" the US conduct of the war in Vietnam. By early 1970, CCI had come under the sole direction of two New Left activists, Tod Ensign and Jeremy Rifkin, who refined and implemented the strategy originally conceived by Schoenman, to organize veterans and publicize their firsthand knowledge of the routine and widespread nature of US atrocities in Vietnam, thus arguing that My Lai expressed the logical epitome of such practices and was not merely the isolated, aberrant act of a few deranged GIs.

Reliable accounts of these events are readily available. A colorful appreciation of Ralph Schoenman, onetime kibitzer extraordinaire of the American left, now quite forgotten, is offered by Tariq Ali in his lively antiwar memoir Street Fighting Years (Collins). Tod Ensign's retrospectives on CCI's origins and political objectives, in Big Book: Nobody Gets Off the Bus (Viet Nam Generation) and in Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists (Syracuse), are precise and illuminating. A rival to Nicosia's history, covering some of the same subject matter, but more sparingly and with greater finesse, is The Turning: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (NYU) by Andrew Hunt.

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