I was digging into the batter’s box one Saturday morning in San Pedro a couple of years ago when the catcher behind me muttered, “I’m a Vietnam vet, and I’ve been waiting for twenty years to say you should be dead or in jail for being a traitor.” The umpire said nothing. I flied out to center. Later we talked. Then we became friends.
It turned out that his hatred was toward my ex-wife, not me, because he believed certain website fabrications about Jane Fonda that circulate among veterans. Twice the Republicans in the California legislature tried to block my seating because of my trips to Hanoi. But I was never a target of opportunity like my ex–more like collateral damage.
While most Americans, perhaps including that former Yale cheerleader and elusive National Guardsman George W. Bush and, I suspect, most Vietnam veterans, would like to forget the past, the Vietnam War is about to be relived this election season.
Senator John Kerry, a veteran of both the war and the antiwar movement, is causing this national Vietnam flashback. The right-wing attack dogs are on the hunt. Newt Gingrich calls Kerry an “antiwar Jane Fonda liberal,” while Internet warriors post fabricated images of Kerry and Fonda at a 1971 antiwar rally. Welcome to dirty tricks in the age of Photoshop.
The attempted smearing of Kerry through the Fonda “connection” is a Republican attempt to suppress an honest reopening of our unfinished exploration of the Vietnam era.
Neoconservatives and the Pentagon have good reason to fear the return of the Vietnam Syndrome. The label intentionally suggests a disease, a weakening of the martial will, but the syndrome was actually a healthy American reaction to false White House promises of victory, the propping up of corrupt regimes, crony contracting and cover-ups of civilian casualties during the Vietnam War that are echoed today in the news from Baghdad. Young John Kerry’s 1971 question–“How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”–is more relevant than ever.
Rather than give these reopened wounds the serious treatment they deserve, the Republicans substitute the politics of scapegoating and sheer fantasy. Most centrist Democrats, in turn, try to distance themselves from controversies that recall the 1960s. There are journalistic centrists as well, who avoid hard truths for the sake of acceptance and legitimacy. Such amnesia, whether unconscious or not, lends a wide respectability to the feeble confessions of those like Robert McNamara, who took twenty-five years to admit that Vietnam was a “mistake” and then, when asked by filmmaker Errol Morris why he didn’t speak out earlier, answered, “I don’t want to go any further…. It just opens up more controversies.”
The case of Jane Fonda reveals the double standards and hypocrisies afflicting our memories. In Tour of Duty, the Kerry historian Douglas Brinkley describes the 1971 winter soldier investigation, which Fonda supported and Kerry attended, where Vietnam veterans spilled their guts about “killing gooks for sport, sadistically torturing captured VC by cutting off ears and heads, raping women and burning villages.” Brinkley then recounts how Kerry later told Meet the Press that “I committed the same kinds of atrocities as thousands of others,” specifically taking responsibility for shooting in free-fire zones, search-and-destroy missions, and burning villages. Brinkley describes these testimonies in tepid and judicious terms, calling them “quite unsettling.” By contrast, Brinkley condemns Fonda’s 1972 visit to Hanoi as “unconscionable,” without feeling any need for further explanation.