Published on Thursday, May 3, 2001 by Ted Rall
The Mythology of Vietnam
A Reality Check for a Clueless Nation
by Ted Rall
NEW YORK -- Historical memory has never done terribly well in this country, but our national case of collective amnesia over the Vietnam War surely sets a record for mass delusion.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (finally) admits that he led a commando raid on the village of Thanh Phong on the night of Feb. 25, 1969, that ended up with the accidental killings of between 12 and 14 unarmed civilians. One of the six men under Kerrey's command alleges that Kerrey ordered the Vietnamese lined up and shot. For all we know, both men may be telling the truth as they remember it. According to Dr. Frank Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the stress of combat "makes it possible to remember things in a part of the brain that causes you to focus on certain events and completely ignore others."
In an April 29 op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., wrote: "Many people have been forced to do things in war that they are deeply ashamed of later. Yet for our country to blame the warrior instead of the war is among the worst, and, regrettably, most frequent mistakes we as a country can make."
And so the lies live on.
Theoretically, soldiers were drafted for the Vietnam War, and soldiers suffer grievous penalties for disobeying orders. Reality was much different. If you were white and fairly well-off -- as was the 25-year-old Bob Kerrey -- there were countless alternatives to slogging around rice paddies carrying an 80-pound pack. You could get a college deferment, as did Bill Clinton. You could become a weekend warrior in the National Guard, keeping the cornfields safe for democracy, like George W. Bush and Dan Quayle. You could ask a liberal doctor to write your draft board a note saying that your asthma, hammertoes or whatever made you unfit for duty. If your dad golfed with a guy who belonged to the same Elks lodge as a member of the draft board, you were off the hook. And if all else failed, you could do what all the draft-eligible 18- and 19-year-olds from my rock-hard Republican suburban Ohio town did -- head to Canada.
No wonder that wall in Washington is black: African-Americans, along with some poor white folks with no cash and fewer connections, were the only ones who went kicking and screaming to Vietnam.
Films like "Rambo," "Missing in Action" and "Born on the Fourth of July" reinforce powerful and utterly fraudulent myths about the war: Naive, inexperienced idealist finds himself in hot, stinky jungle surrounded by hostile locals he's trying to help and hobbled by wimpy generals unwilling to let him win. The next thing he knows, he's being called "baby killer" by dishy hippie chicks as he retrieves his limbs from the baggage carousel.
First and foremost, the vast majority of reasonably well-off white guys like Bob Kerrey who went to Vietnam decided to go because they were right-wing wack jobs. They believed in the domino theory. They believed in Nixon's silent majority. They thought the tens of thousands of student protesters raising hell on college campuses were commies, wusses and commie wusses. Of course, no one sane believed that America would be saved from godless communism by propping up a corrupt dictatorship on the opposite side of the planet. But these were guys who enjoyed the prospect of blowing holes into slant-eyed gooks.
What happened next is well-documented. Even the most ardent backwater moron discovered upon arrival that the Vietnamese didn't want us there, that the South Vietnamese government was about as democratic as Stalin's USSR, and that we were getting our asses kicked fair and square by a bunch of short tunnel-dwellers in black PJs. A classic war documentary from the era depicts a lieutenant being advised over his radio that the V.C. are to his right. He orders his platoon to the left. They're on the move all day and all night, deliberately avoiding combat. When the sun comes up they've ended up where they began. According to many veterans, this experience wasn't uncommon -- service in the Vietnam War involved staying alive until the end of your tour of duty.
Guys like Bob Kerrey, on the other hand, were gung-ho. He was the commander of a unit in the elite Navy SEALs. Kerrey, and those like him, knew -- or should have known -- that they were fighting a dishonorable war for a dishonorable cause. They didn't have to be there, and once they were there they didn't have to do what they did.
Kerrey lost a leg fighting that war. According to his comrades in the war and in the Senate, he has demonstrated personal courage. Despite the fact that he may have done so for less than pure motives, his willingness to discuss what happened 32 years ago is admirable.
But none of that changes the truth: Everybody knew that Vietnam was stupid and wrong. At the time. That incredibly stupid, brutally wrong war could never have transpired without the enthusiastic participation of people like Bob Kerrey, who knew better and went anyway.
Ted Rall, 37, is author of two forthcoming books: a graphic novel, "2024," and a collection of cartoons, "Search and Destroy: Cartoons by Ted Rall." Both books will be published this month.
Copyrighted 2001 Ted Rall