Disremembering Vietnam

Then came the saga of Joseph Ellis. A hugely successful prestigious historian, Ellis was recently forced by the media to reveal a nether persona; a pathetically wistful Walter Mitty wanabee. In the 60’s, Ellis was studying history–not, as were some his age, making history. And so as the years went by, he told friends, relatives and reporters that he was on both sides of the incendiary upheaval of his time. He served in Vietnam and was active in the anti-war movement.

This in itself is not unique. Some who marched in anti-war protests, for example, ended up accepting their draft call, rather than head for Canada. More dramatically, many disillusioned soldiers returned to form Vietnam Veterans Against the War–including two of today’s distinguished political leaders, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his international efforts to ban land mines.

In the case of Ellis, however, none of it was true. Like millions of others who drifted untouched by Vietnam, Ellis was aided by prevailing demographics. Because of the vast number of available baby boomer cannon fodder, Vietnam was a war that asked everything of a few and nothing of most. Safe with his college and graduate student exemptions, Ellis joined by far the largest group–those who did not go. Of 27 million men, only nine million saw service and just three million were in the Vietnam theater. Disproportionately drafted for America’s greatest class war were the unprivileged who had no student deferments or doctors willing to attest to asthmatic inclinations or peculiar psychological tics.

Nor was it imperative to join the anti-war movement, a far smaller cadre than portrayed in media mythology; as late as 1970, the majority of draft-age college students remained conservative.

With time, a sea change developed regarding Vietnam veterans, once scapegoats for a lost war the country wanted to forget. Considered political poison for years, service in Vietnam is now viewed as an asset.. Former POW Senator John McCain told me in 1997, “I never thought there would be six of us here [in the senate.] Never.” (With the defeat of Senator Chuck Robb and the departure of Kerrey in 2000 there are now four.)

However, with this welcoming acceptance comes a disturbing inclination to glamorize the Vietnam war. Macho action seems attractive now to many who eschewed it yesterday. One prominent businessman and former draft dodger told me that he had faked a Vietnam military career on his resume. Those who once bragged about scams they pulled to flunk draft physicals are now silent about such actions. And for years, a certain Vietnam Guilt Chic abounded among draft dodging members of the media, who served up hand wringing confessions about having missed a rite of male passage. And here we have Mount Holyoke College professor Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winning author noted for impeccable scholarship, wishing that he, too, had been in the muck and mire of Vietnam. So much so that he made it up and related bogus personal war experiences in his popular Vietnam and American culture course. Ellis never got any closer to combat than the history courses he taught at West Point, but he wowed his students with first hand accounts of being near My Lai, shortly before that infamous massacre.

The consummate irony is that Kerrey, hailed as a war hero, feels guilt for having killed, while Ellis apparently feels guilty for not having had that opportunity to kill. Ellis and other would-be-warriors who want to cover themselves in blood and guts heroism should study what happened to those who participated in the real thing.

Had Bob Kerrey’s story of a village massacre been known 30 years ago, his political career would have ended before it began. Now there is less condemnation and more understanding of the horrors of fighting a war in and around civilians, but Kerrey still expresses shame and guilt. Such guilt more accurately belongs to the leaders who devised the war and invented such amoral rules of engagement as “free fire zones”, where, as in Kerry’s case, Vietnamese civilians including women and children could be killed. Teenage warriors received rations of beer and ice cream as prized rewards for high body counts. The only measurement of victory in a war of attrition with no fixed goals for winning was the grisly counting of dead bodies, stacked up like piles of cord wood.

Remembering their homecoming, when soldiers were spat upon, called baby killers–often by men their age who had conveniently ducked the war–Kerrey exploded in anger just before his role in the Mekong Delta massacre was revealed. “The country sends all these young guys over there,” he told me. “We’re not philosophers. We’re not religious leaders. We’re young kids. You send us over there, you put us there on a mission to kill and then we come back and you say, ‘what did you do over there? Kill all those women and children and all that terrible stuff?'”

When he came home, Kerrey marched to protest the war and still calls it a “terrible political and moral failure” That combat G.I.’s sometimes participated in actions for which they felt shame–even as they were praised and given bogus medals of honor by commanders who wanted to show they were “winning”–contributed to a corrosive sense of remorse as well as bitterness and betrayal that afflicts many veterans today, including Kerrey.

In fact, those who fought in Vietnam often provide more valuable lessons than any taught by scholars. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican conservative, was in fierce Vietnam combat. Although he argues that future wars may be necessary, he is the first to repeat the cautionary lesson that “war is not glamorous”.

Among that huge army of baby boomers now nearing retirement who dodged Vietnam, many seem to have forgotten this. Geriatrically safe in their mid-fifties, make-believe soldiers like Ellis seem motivated by a combination of reasons–guilt, longing for youth’s “missed adventure”, a need to glorify a misguided war or to embellish a personal life with something braver than what has been for many a headlong quest for fame or riches.

Whatever the reason, there is something as sad as it is odious about a historian, entrusted with teaching his young students the facts about Vietnam, needing to fake his own participation in that war, thus however inadvertently, glamorizing it for another generation.

Myra MacPherson’s award winning “Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation” will be republished this fall by Indiana University Press.

Myra MacPherson’s award winning “Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation” will be republished this fall by Indiana University Press.