(Opinion) O'Rourke - View From the Couch: Thanks for Your Service


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One effect of July 4th was to get me thinking about soldiers, since there were so many tributes of one sort or another to the military over the weekend. Thinking of soldiers brought back the Vietnam war, because one of the few lessons learned of that war — if not the only lesson learned — is to praise the soldiers. It is the pernicious myth of the Vietnam War that returning veterans were spat on, yelled at, disrespected big time by the public. A few commentators have taken on this controversy before, but even they have left out the most important part of it. That this story of bad treatment was promulgated by the military, the government, rather than by the pubic, for their own benefit. The military and the Nixon administration fostered this "us versus them" position. But, first, some background.

Indeed, the Sixties (and into the '70s) was the generation of protests, so a lot of authority figures were attacked. There was the march on the Pentagon, pictures of demonstrators putting flowers in gun barrels, and, of course, Kent State. There the Ohio National Guard shot at and killed rowdy college demonstrators. The myth of bad treatment of GIs has these scenes as backdrop. But, the essential story, that of returning soldiers being abused by ordinary citizens has almost no basis in fact. And if it happened once (and even one story is hard to document) it is no basis for this "soldiers being spit on" myth that has been fostered by the right wing ever since. You still hear the odd conservative politician making the charge, even today.

One incident that has been documented, documented by me, tells the opposite story. I recount a story of a friend in my first novel, The Meekness of Isaac, which was published in 1974, while the war was still going on. Before my friend's plane-load of fellow soldiers flew back to "the World" (the US of A) from their one year of service in Nam they were told to watch out when they landed in their home towns wearing their uniforms, since there had been reports of returning soldiers being shot by people who opposed the war, or by grieving relatives of soldiers who had died in Vietnam. This admonition led to a scene I dramatized in the novel.

Over the years it became clear that the military was promoting the us versus them consciousness in the returning veterans. The Vietnam War, after it went on for ten years or more, was becoming hugely unpopular back in the States. It appeared to be in the government's interest to pit the veterans against the American people by filling their heads with stories that they would be badly treated when they returned home. And, of course, they were badly treated, but mainly by the government and, in part, by the VA itself. The stereotype of the drug-addled Vietnam vet soon became ubiquitous and one thing that hasn't much changed — though it has changed a bit — is how the military responds to metal illness of veterans, rather than the usual battle wounds.

The government's fears were realized when the Vietnam Veterans Against the War took center stage toward the war's end. Theirs was an effective protest, even though by the time they came to prominence the tide had turned on support for the war. But, the same mind-set of the us versus them dead-enders showed itself during the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign. The Swift Boating of Kerry was done by the same sort of folk who pushed the "spit on" stories during the Vietnam War.

For a host of reasons, this one sorry lesson of the Vietnam War has been absorbed by the population at large and everyone has something good to say about serving military personnel — except for the "bad apples" of Abu Ghraib, or other episodes of abuse and/or outright homicides. But even these episodes have not had the same effect on the general public — no My Lai type reactions this time around. Even in the case of Abu Ghraib, the public is more inclined to believe the fault lies with the upper-ups, all the way up to Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, than with the lowly soldiers. The fact that Robert McNamara's death at 93 has been reported today is pertinent. McNamara was that rare bad (flawed, if one is kind) man who admitted he was a bad man, one who made a number of deadly mistakes, not something anyone in the Bush II administration is inclined to do.

So, this July 4th, soldiers were honored. The wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, looking all-too-familiar to those who witnessed the long slog of our history in Vietnam. But, our new wars' returning veterans are being ostentatiously thanked this time around. That, if nothing else, is different than what most Vietnam veterans got more than three decades ago. They may have not been showered with spit, but they weren't showered with thanks, either.


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