Most of us who competed in the Greater Southeast Asia War Games during the 1960s and 70s are filling emotional sandbags and bunkering up for the flood of painful images that come roaring down on us every year at the end of April. This year will likely be a regular frog-strangler as it marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese Army troops on April 30, 1975. Our American media, looking as usual to fill an ever-yawning news-hole with items that trip emotional triggers, can be counted on to trot out all the lurid images from those dark days marking the end of a decade of American sacrifice in Vietnam.
This year, likely in greater profusion than usual given the anniversary hook, an aging block of Vietnam Veterans and a strident population of Vietnamese refugees who escaped to this country will be subjected to a day of print, TV and internet imagery without much depth or context concerning one of the most difficult and divisive conflicts in American military history. We’ll see the iconic shots of the helicopters lifting U.S. officials out of Saigon, the mobs of panicky South Vietnamese weeping at the gates of the American Embassy. There will be shots of overloaded boats and helicopters trying to reach the U.S. fleet offshore as the nation we fought to stabilize and free from tyranny crumbles into a bloody shambles.
You can bet that the final image on our screens during the coverage will be that specially preened and polished T-55 tank crashing triumphantly through the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace where NVA commanders smugly accepted the surrender of South Vietnam’s military forces. What we won’t get in the media coverage is much information about the inhumane and tyrannical treatment of former soldiers and civilians in southern Vietnam who were harassed, jailed, starved or worse under the triumphant northern regime. And, except for some veterans’ blogs and commemorations among the Vietnamese refugee population marking what they call Black April, we won’t hear much about what happened to a full 10 percent of an entire American generation who served in Southeast Asia during the war in Vietnam.
That’s a shame because there are some significant lessons to be learned and pitfalls that can be avoided with our new generation of American war veterans if we take the time to examine what happened during most of the decade that America was sending citizens to serve in Vietnam and bringing them home—dead or alive—to a nation that generally did not understand or appreciate their service and sacrifice. Unlike the veterans of earlier wars the brave men and women who went to Vietnam and survived had to endure two wars. There was that bloody one in the jungles and rice paddies and then there was the fight for respect and recognition at home. We fared worse in the second fight than we did in the first one because generally speaking during the long and turbulent commitment to South Vietnam, Americans made the terrible mistake of confusing the war with the warrior.
There are elements of that attitude in the American air today as we struggle to end other long and painful wars in the Middle East, so maybe it’s time for us creaky and cranky Vietnam Vets to opine publically about the perils of post-war life in America. We sure as hell know a thing or two about that and this occasion marking the end of our war seems like an appropriate time to sound off.
The way I see it, those of us who serve in America’s military really have no claim on our nation’s assets beyond care for our wounds—physical and mental—and perhaps a pension or a little support in hard times when we need money to survive, buy a house or pursue a higher education we put on hold while we did the nation’s bidding. None of us with any sense of reality got into the military for the big bucks or because we were looking for some kind of lifetime sinecure. It was really a matter of doing the right thing as citizens and the details were less important than the general concept of giving a little in return for all the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy as citizens.
That was good enough for most of us who served in Vietnam or supported the efforts elsewhere in Southeast Asia. We learned to ignore the idiots who saw us as a baby-killers or murderers due to our service in Vietnam. It was a little harder to ignore the misguided social scientists who insisted we must be damaged goods. Some of us fit that mold and more than a few who did not took advantage of the canard to claim disability benefits. The majority of us shrugged off the psycho-vet label and did what was necessary to get on with our disrupted lives.
We eventually came to understand that our wartime service—unpopular as it was for nearly two decades after the collapse of South Vietnam—was a seminal experience in our lives. Just because our war didn’t end the way we wanted it to on that day in April, 1975, on a personal level it did not demean our service. We knew in our collective guts that we did the right thing by serving. The rights and wrongs of Vietnam could be argued ad nauseum but we understood that the experience of war taught us some valuable and lasting life lessons.
In Vietnam we learned the true meaning of concepts like freedom and human dignity. We learned that courage is not the absence of fear but rather the ability to conquer it for just a few vital seconds. We came to understand in a very visceral way that there is no higher calling than to serve shoulder to shoulder with people united in common cause. Unlike others who never served or who purposefully avoided it, we learned in a very tough school that there are some things in life more important than ourselves and that those things often call for suffering and sacrifice.
So here we sit, 40 years after the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, plowing some of the same ground as thousands of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan began to return home. Like most of the surviving Vietnam Veterans, I’m gratified they aren’t getting the cold shoulder that we got when we returned from our war but it looks like much of what I presumed to be an outpouring of support and gratitude is really a form of sympathy or pity. We need to halt that crapola right now or we’re doomed to repeat some of the worst aspects of the American post-Vietnam experience.
There’s a tendency among well-meaning Americans who have no experience with military service; much less combat experience, to label returning veterans as hapless victims. Americans did it to us after Vietnam and they’re doing it again to this new generation of vets returning to society after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s just as wrong today as it was at the end of the war in Vietnam. We still see the Support Our Troops bumper-stickers and hear the patriotic slogans at Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day events but the nation has gained enough breathing room from the post-9/11 gut-checks for the partisan political assessments of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to begin. Caught in the middle are the veterans who are now being told they might be the victims of service in unjust and poorly-executed wars. As Yogi Berra so wryly opined, it’s like déjà vu all over again.
It’s also BS of the most redolent kind; the same kind of hyperbolic nonsense that spawned a lucrative industry to deal with supposedly damaged veterans of the Vietnam War. In those days, the anti-war left grabbed at the victim narrative like a ravenous school of piranhas. They set about selling their social and political agendas by claiming that service in Vietnam brutalized any and all who were there and threatened society with a mob of criminals and baby-killers in its midst. When they won their political fight and convinced Congress to abandon our gallant allies in South Vietnam, the image of the Vietnam Veteran devolved from drooling killer to helpless victim. Suddenly anyone who had come within sniffing distance of a burning crapper anywhere in Southeast Asia was afflicted with soul-sucking PTSD.
And here we go again with anyone who has been deployed to one or another corner of The Great Sandbox. It may seem like good-hearted compassion to label our current crop of returning veterans as victims but it’s as wrong today as it was forty years ago. A lot of our countrymen who have never worn the uniform—and that’s most of them today—may believe these new veterans are damaged goods, but I don’t think us old vets should ever allow that to stand as a common denominator. In fact, we are better men and women for our experiences in uniform and at war back then and right now.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I know from personal experience that Post-Traumatic Stress is real. I also know that it’s not a disease or necessarily a disorder. Those who have experienced war can never be the same as they were before it. Anyone who has witnessed the standard brutalities of combat has suffered some damage to his or her soul. We’ve experienced the psychological and moral disconnect between what we’re taught is appropriate human behavior and how we are expected to behave in combat. That’s a heavy burden and most of us will bear it for the remainder of our lives. Along the way, many of us will have to deal with the moral guilt we feel at having survived when others we consider more deserving than ourselves did not.
There’s nothing new in all this. Many of us who fought in Vietnam experience this angst and we have learned to deal with it the best we can over the years. The way I see it, Post-Traumatic Stress is a natural phenomenon that occurs in any rational human who experiences combat in any of its modern varieties. I see that as a stimulus to growth and not as a disorder. Our veterans are not damaged, they are experienced. And in a lot of important ways that makes them better people than they were before they went to war. They don’t need sympathy or massive doses of meds to zone them out. They need support and nurturing so they can grow, exploit their experiences at war and expand into our next generation of leaders at all levels of our society. And a great deal of that support and nurturing needs to come from those of us who have been through it before them. If anything good comes from the inevitable post-mortem that we will be experiencing on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, let that be it.