That’s Vietnam, Jake

That’s Vietnam, Jake

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.


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.

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.”

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.

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.

Nicosia not only fails to improve the verisimilitude of his story line by consulting publications like those suggested above but inexplicably ignores a work that liberates the ageless condition of war madness from the private obscurity of psychiatric research and places the issue of postwar readjustment for veterans solidly on both the sociological and public agenda: Paul Starr’s The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam. Also overlooked, perhaps for being too openly progressive, are more recent works of high academic quality, like Hunt’s The Turning, in which the Vietnam veteran experience is never separated from the war or the other conditions that shaped it. Another such indispensable source would be Christian Appy’s Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (North Carolina), which correlates lower socioeconomic status with the high risk of dying in combat, thus contextualizing in class terms the apparent contradiction underlying widespread support for the war within blue-collar communities, as distinguished from the more impersonal interests of the war’s managers and their corporate backers, whose ambitions and bottom lines could only be fertilized with cannon fodder from the most dispensable stocks.

Indeed, there is much evidence in his text to suggest that Nicosia is somewhat spooked by things progressive–say, the presence of the left throughout the early episodes of veteran activism. Many Nation readers, I imagine, might find the author of Home to War a bit too quick on the draw to identify–with no leavening gloss or commentary–“Communist” and “Trotskyist” influences in the antiwar movement. The fact that Nicosia expresses many liberal sentiments and is a self-described pacifist makes it all the more curious that the red-scare atmospherics of the cold war seem to exercise such influence over his critical capacities.

When Nicosia’s text is left unclouded by such underexamined anxieties, it is at its most valuable. The chapter and verse account in Home to War of the protracted campaign on the fringes of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to establish and legitimize the diagnostic criteria for PTSD will be of interest to veterans and specialists alike. The author correctly locates the genesis of this campaign within the antiwar movement. It started when many vets who had already testified publicly about the heinous war crimes they or their units had committed sought relief from tormented memories through some form of group-oriented therapeutic intervention. Through their antiwar activities in 1970-71, the vets came into contact with psychiatrist and postwar trauma expert Robert Lifton, an active opponent of the war who worked to expose its atrocity-producing nature (a characterization understood fully by anyone who’d fought in Vietnam). Joined by his colleague Chaim Shatan, the two psychiatrists helped organize therapy sessions known as “rap groups” in the New York offices of VVAW.

Exploiting this radical initiative, several Vietnam-vets-turned-psychologists laid siege to the psychiatric establishment, energetically guided by Shatan and aided by the collaboration of a small but empathic cadre of mental health professionals working throughout the VA. Only by the end of the decade, when the clinical data had become so overwhelmingly unavoidable, did these advocates for treatment of what was initially termed PVS–Post-Vietnam Syndrome–finally see their unstinting efforts rewarded by the insertion of paragraph 309.89 establishing PTSD as a recognized illness in the revised edition of the APA’s diagnostic manual, the DSM III. A subsequent manual would describe as the “essential features” of this disorder “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury…or witnessing an event that involves death, injury or a threat to the physical integrity of another person.”

A most bizarre spin was put on PTSD and the history of its eventual acceptance within the world of establishment psychiatry by Holy Cross College sociologist and Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke, in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU). It’s an interesting sidebar, and one that Nicosia might have profitably addressed, but doesn’t, in Home to War. Professor Lembcke holds that the concern of doctors Lifton and Shatan with the postwar emotions of Vietnam veterans was, wittingly or otherwise, aimed at the depoliticization of the radical veterans’ movement. The two PTSD advocates are accused of no less than “the construction of a mental health discourse that would displace the political discourse that had, up to that point, framed interpretations of Vietnam veterans’ experiences.” Apparently Lembcke’s sociopolitical vision does not permit the “bad”–politically radical–and the “mad”–clinically neurotic, borderline or psychotic–to coexist within the same human actor. Thus he marks the inevitable demobilization of the radical Vietnam veterans’ movement as the outcome of a conscious conspiracy by meddling liberals, rather than as a function of the limited possibilities for expansion provided by an American culture so rapidly turning rightward. A much stripped down but still effective VVAW continues to exist, but then again, so does the IWW.

In drawing his account to a close, Nicosia devotes many pages to–though by no means provides the whole picture of–the legal and political wrangling that drove and energized the product-liability suits against Dow and other manufacturers of Agent Orange well into the mid-1980s. There is much as well on the protracted lobbying and legislative intrigues that endured the 1980s into the 1990s–and that are as yet unsettled–to win care and compensation from Congress through the VA for the many medical conditions that are now at least statistically associated with exposure to herbicides.

Omitted from Nicosia’s recasting of the Agent Orange story, among other things, is the political alchemy of a handful of New Left activists, some around Citizen Soldier, the organization founded by Tod Ensign and myself, that transformed a local exposé televised in Chicago into a national crusade. The feature distinguishing those players whose efforts are central to Nicosia’s reportage from those whose historically critical activities he ignores is the political agenda of the latter, who insisted that responsibility for Agent Orange-related illnesses could not be separated from responsibility for the war itself. Those vets, myself included, were struggling to keep Vietnam alive as the best means of preventing future Vietnams. We were–and continue–fighting for a historical interpretation that applies the word “aggression” to the US intervention in Vietnam, not the word “mistake.” But as Nicosia’s narrative quite accurately reveals, the potential for the Agent Orange controversy to embody that political objective for long was pre-empted by a litigation strategy against Dow and the major herbicide manufacturers. When settled, the class action did not come close to providing adequate compensation for those who required care, but the effort was by no means without value for political education on the effects of commercial toxins on human health. Nor did it lack historical significance, for attacking corporate prestige.

Home to War is voluminous and contains at least one version of everything you’ve ever wanted know about Vietnam veterans, and their/our high-profile exposure over the past thirty years. One would like to think that many of these accounts are more accurately reported than the ones of which I have, and have signaled, firsthand knowledge here. While Nicosia is clearly full of sympathy for his subject (if perhaps a trifle overfascinated), Vietnam veterans in this portrayal only rarely transcend their ambiguous status as tabloid curiosities or hallowed icons of patriotism: vets who act by acting out. As for a deeper probe into the explanatory realms of postwar readjustment and the veteran culture of entitlements in America–and the place of Vietnam veterans therein–the reader will have to look elsewhere.

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