“The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do.”
Soldiers and veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other wars are killing themselves, according to Sixty Minutes, at a rate of 22-a-day. For any fair-minded person whose mind is not locked into a dehumanized state of war-justifying numbness, that is both incredible and unacceptable.
The Sixty Minutes story focused on Clay Hunt, an otherwise strong and attractive 26-year-old Iraq/Afghan Marine veteran who shot himself. His devastated parents and his closest war-buddy were interviewed, each revealing great pain and the deepest of human bonds with the man. Agonizing self-blame was expressed along with the tears.
The question hovering over the story was: Why did he do it? He had undertaken important humanitarian work in Haiti following the earthquake there; he was smart, physically healthy and beloved by women; he seemed a guy ready to grab the world by the tail and accomplish important things.
To everyone from the reporter to the relatives and friends it was a perplexing mystery. Why did he do it? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was appropriately mentioned; survival guilt was discussed. Video of Hunt in Haiti showed him saying that as a Marine he felt he had done a lot of good in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he added that he had seen and done “horrible” things.
“But that’s war,” he told the person filming him on a truck in Haiti. In Haiti, he said, he felt he could do good without being shot at or having to kill anyone.
The elephant in the room no one seemed willing to recognize was the idea of moral damage. Asking bright, strong young men like Hunt to fight wars like Iraq and Afghanistan — and Vietnam before that — can be like luring an unsuspecting animal into a trap. The bait is the powerful call to do something good for your country, to sacrifice for a larger purpose. The trap, of course, is the fact wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam are never what the drumbeat of homefront-oriented propaganda says they are.
For the Claude Rains character in Casablanca an expression of shock that there is gambling going on at Rick’s nightclub is an ironic joke on the French officer’s corruption. But for some young Americans, the discovery that there is dissimulation in the corridors of power in Washington — that the war he or she has been sent to sacrifice in is not what it was billed to be — is a true shock to the moral system they may be unable to accommodate or escape.
With powerful historical forces behind them, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon sent us into Vietnam and George W. Bush sent us into Iraq and Afghanistan. The first Tonkin Gulf speedboat incident was provoked by secret US aggression against Vietnam. The second one never happened at all. Yet, they were used to dishonestly justify a war resolution that fully unleashed the dogs of war for a decade. Twenty-nine years later, Congress and the Media laid down again for bogus reports of weapons of mass destruction and the delusion there were Iraqi connections to those who knocked down the twin towers. Both wars were rooted in flat-out lies and delusions.
In both cases, young Americans eagerly signed up to do their nation’s bidding. For the Vietnam War, the number of suicides far exceeds the number of names on the wall in Washington. Chuck Dean, in his book Nam Vet: Making Peace With Your past, puts the number at over 150,000, based on VA and Disabled American Veteran sources.
It’s hard to know exactly what complex of stressors causes an individual soldier to kill him- or herself. But the incredible rate of 22-a-day suggests a powerful causal link, to the point it seems a case of pro-military loyalty, squeamishness or outright denial not to raise the question of untenable moral damage. That is, do wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam instill in some soldiers and veterans such deep moral damage of a nature no one wants to talk about that life for them becomes too painful to go on with?
I recall a panel of Vietnam veterans at a community college outside Philadelphia back in the early 1990s that debated the questions for or against war. The panel was evenly divided between pro-war, right-leaning Vietnam veterans and anti-war, left-leaning Vietnam veterans. At one point, several of the pro-war vets became very anxious and agitated, and it was the antiwar vets who calmly talked their brothers-in-arms down from their troubled state.
It was a powerful lesson. It seemed to me, a Vietnam vet, that the disturbed vets on stage were trying desperately to hold onto an inner belief that the Vietnam War they had participated in was an honorable enterprise. When confronted with fair questions about the nature of that enterprise, they began to boil over inside. Meanwhile, the vets who had by then long ago given up on their war as a morally defensible enterprise remained cool and detached.
I submit this sort of double bind plays a role in why so many soldiers and veterans are committing suicide at such an alarming rate. Trying to make one’s experience in a war zone accord with propaganda can be, for some, an excruciatingly painful task.
So it’s no accident the Pentagon is in the midst of a 13-year propaganda effort to clean up the war’s image. It’s called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project and it has been allocated $65 million over the next 13 years.
Charges of Stolen Valor
B.G. Burkett is a Vietnam veteran highly motivated by the idea that Vietnam veterans have not been given the honor they deserve. Driven by this, he painstakingly researched and wrote, with the help of Texas journalist Glenna Whitley, a 690 page book titled Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History. Burkett is also a political actor who was involved in the “swiftboating” of Vietnam veteran John Kerry when he ran for president.
For anyone on the antiwar side of the Vietnam divide, it’s easy to dismiss such a work. So I spent a full day gleaning through the book, reading not every word but trying to understand its message. One central trope is the idea that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an illegitimate “epidemic” noted for veterans looking for a “tax-free living.” In the same vein, complaints concerning Agent Orange are more “myth” than reality. In Burkett’s view, those critical of the war tend to be either entirely phony vets or at least not all they claim to be. Thus, Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) come in for pretty damning analysis.
I know and work with many veterans from these organizations, so I don’t give the thrust of Burkett’s attack too much credibility. Yes, there have been cases of phony vets in the antiwar movement. I personally recall one when I worked with Iraq vets. Once his phoniness was understood, he was purged. The fact is, there have been just as many phony vets — maybe more — on the pro-war side. It seems to be a natural problem in a culture that so values military service.
In the 1980s, I worked with the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia and encountered a number of phony vets. Assuming a veteran status meant instant sympathy and respect for a man adrift on a sidewalk steam vent. There’s also the case of Richard Blumenthal, a man who liked to speak of his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam. Actually, he had been in the Marine Reserves and passed out Toys For Tots at Christmas. When outed as a phony, Blumenthal apologized. This did not prevent him being elected US senator from Connecticut in 2010.
Burkett’s research utilizing sources like the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis is, indeed, quite impressive. In a preface, Whitley says Burkett taught her “to be wary of the seduction of a ‘good story.’” Burkett emphasizes checking even the smallest detail. All assumptions are to be questioned. He claims to have ferreted out that there are 25 names on the wall in DC of men who are actually alive — plus one apparently fictitious name.
The problem is all his prodigious research is aimed at shutting out history. Nowhere in the book could I find any questioning of the necessity of the war or any possibility the decisions to undertake and prolong the war were anything but justified by the assumed evil of the enemy. For someone so devoted to questioning the most miniscule assumptions, Burkett allows the really huge historical assumptions to go unquestioned. Ho Chi Minh and his communist minions were simply evil and everything we did to the Vietnamese was therefore honorable and justified. For 690 pages, Burkett drills this idea home. And anyone who questions it, ipso-facto, lacks honor.
In what may be a counterpoint of sorts to Burkett’s book, Nick Turse has just published a controversial book called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam that re-ignites revelations that the Vietnam War was, in fact, not an honorable affair at all, but one that devolved into a cruel and brutal “body count” war against the Vietnamese population.
“Matter-of-fact mass killing that dwarfed the slaughter at My Lai normally involved heavier firepower and command policies that allowed it to be unleashed with impunity,” Turse writes in his introduction.
At the end of his huge book, Burkett raises the question he says many ask him: “What do you want?” His answer: “I want an apology from America to every man and woman who served in Vietnam … for the indifference and disrespect heaped on Vietnam veterans, living or dead, after the war.”
This apology should come, he says, in the form of a “joint resolution of Congress” to be read by a US President at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. “It matters little if the president is a war hero or a draft dodger.”
This is essentially the actuality surrounding the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Commemoration Project, which very much echoes Burkett’s formula of emphasizing the honor of individual soldiers serving in Vietnam, focusing especially on those awarded medals for bravery. In appendixes, he lists the names of 232 Medal of Honor winners, 1,048 winners of the Distinguished Service Cross, 488 Navy Cross winners and 182 Air Force Cross winners. He also lists 665 POWs who returned home alive. It needs to be noted, here, no one that I know in the antiwar veteran movement would discount one bit the honor and bravery under fire such lists recognize.
Does History Matter?
The historian Howard Zinn published an essay in 1970 on the Vietnam War that still very much resonates today. He goes right to the molten core of the problem that induced America to invade Vietnam and, in cases like Burkett, still justifies the incredible brutality focused on the Vietnamese.
“We see every rebellion everywhere,” Zinn wrote in 1970, “as the result of some devilish plot concocted in Moscow or Peking, when what is really happening is that people everywhere want to eat and to be free.”
At this late stage in the game, the struggle over what the Vietnam War means may transcend the polarized debate between Burkett’s individual Honor on one side and Turse’s more institutional Shame on the other. It seems to me the real ore to be mined is to be found in the History of the affair and how that history reflects on current and future US foreign policy. The hurdle is that serious, responsible history is something leaders everywhere tend to want to shove aside or forget, since history can be very inconvenient to things political leaders want to do.
President Obama’s speech at the wall last Memorial Day officially kicked off the 50-year Commemoration of the war. This would seem to fulfill Burkett’s call for an apology, although in his speech Obama never actually employed the word. He did say this:
“[O]ne of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam — most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. … You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”
It was very much a politician’s speech, an effort to have things both ways. So Obama also said this:
“Let’s resolve that in our democracy we can debate and disagree — even in a time of war. But let us never use patriotism as a political sword. Patriots can support a war; patriots can oppose a war.”
If a national politician really gave a damn, he or she might ask those on the other side of the Vietnam struggle, those patriots who oppose the war, what do you want? The answer would not be an apology but for the nation to confront its real history. That is, what America really needs is to recognize what it did to the Vietnamese people who only wanted “to eat and to be free.”
Instead of a presidential speech, the call would be for a robust and constructive White House-endorsed national dialogue that would incorporate Vietnam veterans and the Vietnamese. Individual bravery would certainly be recognized. But the point would not be to emotionally focus on our pain and honor — or even our shame. The point would be to courageously and honestly engage with the history of what really happened — as Slavoj Zizek put it in the epigram at the top of this essay, not “the story we tell ourselves” but “what we do.”