President Donald Trump has the fake veteran story all wrong. The President attacked Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal as a “phony Vietnam con artist” after the Senator expressed support for investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election campaign. The President said Blumenthal had lied about having bravely fought battles Vietnam. There is merit to the President’s allegation because Blumenthal was outed during his 2010 campaign for having misrepresented his military record.
But the story is even more interesting than the tit-for-tat between the President and Senator that has occupied the news cycle for hours this week. In fact, the war stories spun by the Senator had more to do with the war at home during the 1960s and 1970s than the war in Vietnam, stories that fed the political narrative that carried Trump to the White House.
A May 17, 2010 New York Times story, “Candidate’s Words on Vietnam Service Differ from History,” catalogued the long trail of statements that Blumenthal had made to that point about his service in uniform. The Times acknowledged that he had joined the Marine reserves in 1970 but reported that he had never been to Vietnam. In a March 8, 2008 speech to veterans, however, Blumenthal, according to the Times had referred to “the days I spent in Vietnam.” According to the Times reporter, Raymond Hernandez, “In at least eight newspaper articles published in Connecticut from 2003 to 2009 he is described as having served in Vietnam.” None of those stories were true, but none were ever corrected by the Senator.
More troubling, according to the 2010 Times, was the “misleading way [Blumenthal] often speaks about that period of his life.” Sources for the story noted the “ambiguous language” the Senator used when speaking publicly about what he did as a Marine. Frequently, Blumenthal’s stories would actually be about coming home from Vietnam—where he had never been—thereby leaving the impression of having served in Vietnam without ever having to say he had. Jean Risley, chairwoman of Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., told the Times reporter of Blumenthal having described “the indignities that he and other veterans had faced when they returned from Vietnam.” “When we came back, we were spat on,’” she recalled him saying, “’we couldn’t wear our uniforms.’” He looked “so sad,” Risley said.
My research into stories of Vietnam veterans having been spat on finds them to be mythical but popular among a certain segment of Americans. The stories help form a face-saving alibi that the war lost on the home front to weak-kneed liberalism and traitorous anti-war radicals, not in Vietnam to the Vietnamese.
Blumenthal used the stories in his campaign spiels, not so much to burnish his masculinity, as Trump’s counterattack implies, but because they fit with Hollywood’s image of Vietnam veterans as damaged goods discarded by their countrymen when they came home, and to credential his support for benefits and services for veterans. Surprisingly, given that ersatz veterans can anger those who really served, a group of veterans hastened to his side when his dishonesty was exposed by the media during the 2010 campaign. Perhaps the promise of the material resources that the Senator could deliver had deferred the veterans’ skepticism about his war record, but the attractiveness of the betrayal narrative fed by his stories is the more likely explanation: here was a liberal politician who told stories endorsing their view that fifth-columnists had cost them victory in Vietnam. The rightist Connecticut veterans who had rallied to Waterbury to stop Jane Fonda from filming Stanley and Iris in the 1980s—and bumper-stickered her as Hanoi Jane—now, opportunistically, rallied to Blumenthal’s opportunism.
The irony of course, is that Blumenthal, the putative liberal, was feeding the post-Vietnam War backlash against the very political base he ostensibly sought to build. Trump’s campaign appeals to “forgotten Americans” and “Americas left behind” were riffs on legends that veterans had been forgotten and POWs left behind when intellectual and media elites forced their cut-and-run agenda on the military, themes supported by the tales that Blumenthal spun over the years about his supposed home-coming experience which remain vivid in right-wing imaginations to this day.
That real-life Vietnam veterans disregarded the Senator’s fakery in 2010 added to the irony, as did liberal’s loyalty to his campaign despite the militarist posture struck by his coming-home war story.
The irony in the new bout of embarrassment now being handed Senator Blumenthal by the President who was elected on a movement abetted by the Senator himself is matched, ironically, by Trump’s attack on the Senator, an attack which puts light, yet again, on the victim-veteran imagery in America’s lost-war mythology that Trump plied for political gain—enough irony abounding and rebounding through American political culture to make the head explode.