Vietnam vets, knowing best the costs of a wrong war, should be dissent leaders
Guest columnist Edward F. Palm argues his fellow Vietnam War veterans should be at the forefront pushing for the complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and a realistic assessment of what can be done in Afghanistan.
Special to The Times
BACK in the mid-eighties, an Army officer of my acquaintance succinctly summed up the mood of the post-Vietnam military: "It's OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today's military," he observed, "so long as you don't dwell on it or refer back to it."
He was right. He had intuited the largely unspoken but widely understood politically correct attitude toward our humiliating defeat: Vietnam had been an aberration. It was viewed as the kind of war we would never fight again. And the less said about it, the better.
Ironically, this same attitude now seems to prevail in American society in general. It's OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today's America, so long as you remember that war the way President Reagan once portrayed it — as a "noble cause" — and so long as you give unwavering support for our current crusades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Vietnam War I remember was anything but a "noble cause." It was a profoundly existential experience in which one's own survival too often became the only moral touchstone and the Rotation Tour Date the only objective. To be sure, the great majority of those of us who went to Vietnam served honorably, and the war's great saving grace was the way in which we looked out for one another.
But all the Marines I knew "in country" were profoundly skeptical of the official rationales for why we were there and increasingly embittered by the reluctance of the South Vietnamese to fight their own war. Later, of course, the Pentagon Papers exposed all the lies and half-truths the government had told in an effort to redeem the long history of misapprehensions about the nature of the conflict and miscalculations about our probability of winning.
My fellow Vietnam veterans seem to have forgotten the righteous indignation so many of us felt about having been subjected to enemy fire as the result of friendly folly. We have been mollified and co-opted, bought off with handshakes and belated, glib expressions of gratitude. We have been induced to remember a Vietnam War that never was, and we have forgotten what really occasioned all the bitterness and fueled the post-traumatic stress of our generation.
It wasn't that the country failed to welcome us home or to honor our service with parades. It was the discovery that our leaders had lied to us about the nature and the necessity of the war and that the conduct of the war put the lie to the ideals and truths in which we had all been raised to believe.
We were the great World War II "Baby Boom Generation." Raised in the relative prosperity of the 1950s and steeped in the hallowed myths of America's founding, we believed that "truth, justice and the American way" was a redundant phrase and that America had never lost a war and never would. That was because America had always stood on the side of right and always would — or so we believed. We, of course, woke up from this American dream to an American nightmare of body counts, free-fire zones and collateral damage.
Of course, we were hardly the first generation to be manipulated and lied to, but somehow we thought we would be the last. The generation now "locked in dubious battle" in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be more pragmatic, less judgmental and less inclined to act out — and maybe that's a good thing.
We, on the other hand, grew up believing that questioning authority was not just a right but a duty. It is past time for us — the veterans of that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" to reclaim our birthright. We should be in the forefront of those demanding an end to the overextension of our troops, a complete withdrawal from Iraq, and an open assessment of what we can realistically hope to achieve in Afghanistan.Edward F. Palm of Bremerton is a retired Marine officer turned academic. He served in Vietnam with the Corps' Combined Action Program. Semiretired, he now teaches full-time for Strayer University, an online university.