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Muck ado about nothing

By Terry Graves
web posted July 12, 2004

It's no treat to beat your feet in the Saigon River mud, and those who nowadays passionately seek to preserve wetlands likely never had to slog through them. At high tide much of our rural district was under water, and after it ebbed the slate gray muck left behind was a sticky, hip-deep putty. But the muck had its uses, and by wallowing in it water buffalo, the same slate gray in color, created natural foxholes that provided some concealment and cover in that flat countryside – once you got past the smell. It did not do to reflect on what else the buffalo might have done in the wallow.

Sharing my wallow that night were half dozen of the Vietnamese militia whom I was supposed to be in some sense advising and a squad leader and his radioman from the American 9th Infantry division. Other militia and infantry were scattered nearby, hunkered down in their own wallows, forming an ambush focused on where a small stream fed into a canal. The Vietnamese were not regulars, drawn instead from Regional Force or the Popular Force, whom we advisers lumped together as the RF/PF. Ruff Puffs. Whenever they thought the enemy might be near, the militiamen quite sensibly tended to steer clear of us advisers, knowing we drew fire. That night, though, I did not expect any VC to approach our ambush, because the Ruff Puffs were instead clustered around me, hoping thereby to reduce the chance that their American allies might shoot them. In the daylight they all looked alike to the Americans, and at night they all looked like VC.

It was early 1968, sometime after the January Tet offensive and before May and what we called the Mini-Tet offensive, or Son of Tet, would roll through where we were proned out that night on its way to being splattered all over Saigon's Precinct 1. It was still long before midnight when the American squad leader must have sensed that, with my Ruff Puffs huddled around me, it was safe to talk, so he whispered to me, "All that light over there: are those the northern lights?"

As I looked to where he was pointing, I was surprised by his question: he and his battalion had been our neighbors for months.

"No," I told him, "that's Saigon. We're about eight or ten clicks due south of Cho Lon."

"No lie? That's where the main PX is, right?"

I relate this story because, since a second Iraqi war became probable and especially since John Kerry became a serious candidate for President, we Vietnam veterans, long used to playing second rifle to veterans of more respectable wars, have somehow earned a strange new respect from certain political celebrities and some members of the popular media, and with it an unwonted attention interrupted just long enough for Tom Brokaw to jet over to Normandy. For example, Teresa Heinz Kerry recently told the AP that "… anger, not ideology, prompted her to become a Democrat…" saying "… her emotion stemmed from the way the Republican Party… treated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia in 2002…" During the Vietnam War Cleland lost both legs and an arm to (as he had explained in an earlier interview) an American grenade, possibly his own. Heinz Kerry went on to say that, quoting the AP, that "… Cleland's status as a triple amputee is enough to prove his patriotism."

Senator Kerry's wife must be slow to anger, because she did not announce she was switching parties until January 2003, two months after Cleland lost his Senate seat and, as it happens, after her husband began to openly seek the Democratic nomination. On this occasion, the GOP's treatment of Cleland, which Heinz Kerry now calls "[u]nscrupulous and disgusting" – this party-changing, life-transforming event that had happened only two months before – completely slipped her mind, and she did not mention Cleland. It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind, but it takes one who's a half-billionaire to do so retroactively.

However, it is Mark Shields, the syndicated columnist and CNN commentator, who serves as the poster child for this liberal charity towards veterans. (I hate to pick on Shields, who as a pro-life Democrat must feel as lonely as the Maytag repairman in the Gobi or, to choose a more fantastic example, Governor Bob Casey at that party's 1992 convention.) In Shields' columns, "Charlie" Rangel and every other partisan pit bull who ever donned a uniform are assumed to have been vested with, as well, a mantle of special knowledge and moral authority to speak of war, at least if opposing the current one in Iraq.

Sample: "This story begins on Lenox Avenue in Harlem a half century ago. An 18-year-old high-school dropout, staring at a draft call from his draft board, joined the United States Army…" (I suppose we should be grateful there were no log cabins in Harlem half a century ago, else one would have housed its draft board.) Along the way we Vietnam veterans have morphed from fascist baby killers to another band of brothers, if not the second-greatest generation, then somewhere on the top-ten list.

Furthermore, those who advocated the Iraq war but who did not serve in earlier ones are vilified as "chickenhawks," complete to web sites and decks of cards devoted, if that is quite the word, to them. In effect, no one who did not serve in an earlier war is permitted to voice an opinion on a later one – thereby silencing everyone but a small proportion of the male population. If such a notion were to be generalized, then a senator born to wealth, as was as Ted Kennedy, should not vote on welfare issues, and a professional soldier like Wesley Clark could not urge peace.

The justification for this new status for anyone who served in the uniform services is assumed, but like any privilege it needs close examination. First, whether and how one served were decided by a host of factors, such as age and physical condition – but in most recent wars most men, especially those at the down-and-dirty level, were there because they were drafted or facing it when they volunteered. Of America's "greatest generation" of 1940-47, over 10,000,000 were draftees. It is plausible that draftees fear and dislike military service more than those who enlist, yet both have shown up and faced the risks. Congressman Rangel, for one, wants to reinstate the draft, but even Mr. Shields recognizes that "… there is an element of mischief in Rangel's advocacy of a new draft. He knows, as do his critics, that a major debate over who ought to fight America's war in Iraq will re-open debate over the war itself." Of course, Mr. Shields similarly uses the Iraq war as a stalking horse, to push for higher taxes – as if that war were the only thing the Federal government pays for.

I do not pretend that involuntarily joining the armed forces is on a par with, say, involuntarily paying income tax. Military service carries with it risks that no other civil obligation approaches, risks that I believe one cannot morally transfer to another. (This is why I favor, if cautiously, reinstituting the draft.) It follows that, as with any obligation, its fulfillment earns one no special merit; it is not fulfilling one that is special. Because we American both lack this ethic of duty and prefer to praise rather than punish, we laud anyone who puts in an appearance. (Perhaps this is why Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up.")

At present in the United States military service is not an obligation; how about those who enlist, voluntarily assume the obligation? Some of those who have enlisted do so for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with patriotism – out of boredom, for job training, or as an alternative to jail. And come Desert Storm, some of our all-volunteer military, or at least their parents, were vocally aghast at the notion that the all-volunteers might actually face combat. (All that training with weapons – fighting? Who knew?) And even having been wounded while serving is no sign of anything except of having been wounded: while an officer in the Revolutionary army, Benedict Arnold was wounded at Quebec and again at Saratoga.

Nor do I pretend that I approve of those who chose to sit out military service in a time of war, whether "chickenhawk" or Rhodes scholar. So what? I would like to sit out paying higher taxes to support the pet wealth-transfer schemes of Mr. Shields and other War on Poverty re-enactors, and he doubtless would disapprove of me on that account. Besides, it seems like only yesterday we were told character is not important, and there are times it is not: most politicians and commentators line up on one side or the other based on nothing weightier than party or personal ambition. So, while accusations of hypocrisy and recitations of the character and personal histories of various politicians may provide visceral satisfaction and pad out column-inches, they are no way to decide whether to go to war. When we do not see past such side issues, we risk turning this major issue of policy, and maybe national survival, into the sort of contest young men get into after drinking too much beer, on the order of fantasy baseball as an Olympic event.

More important than whether and how one came to serve in the military is what happened once there, and that is largely determined by the caprices of military personnel systems, which can send gung-ho infantrymen to cooks' school and counterintelligence agents to advise Vietnamese militia. In any case, the experience gives what a veteran says a certain verisimilitude, on the order of that tidal muck and water buffalo are the same color. Speaking of muck, by way of contrast I recall a journalist whose novel about the Vietnam War described an incoming artillery bombardment as "inbound." And then there was novelist Mary McCarthy, who after a visit to Vietnam declared that our nickname of Charlie for the Viet Cong must be racist. About this notion Ms. McCarthy never troubled to question anybody, let alone her presumptions; the greenest grunt would have told her the term was merely the second half of Victor Charlie, the phonetic alphabet's representation of VC. (Besides, how can the word be racist if a liberal columnist uses it to refer to a black Congressman?) But such experience, often little more than jargon, really, imparts no special knowledge of anything other than what the veteran directly observed. And in the case of Vietnam, that differs from what fighting men have experienced for the last five thousand years only in degree (day-to-day, we had it easier).

As in nearly any modern war, most of those who served in Vietnam were REMF – rear-echelon, uh, mission facilitators – who ordinarily faced less risk than a present-day Israeli civilian. Few of us had reliable interpreters (nor did reporters for a certain well-known news magazine whose name is a four-letter word and whose interpreter turned out to be a colonel in North Vietnamese intelligence). Still fewer of us spoke Vietnamese. And after we returned, not many of us studied Vietnam or the war, except through memoirs of front-line soldiering that tend to enhance our dimming recollections. These memoirs may be why, as Marc Leepson, a writer for the VVA Veteran and self-proclaimed former REMF, tartly remarked, "Sometimes it seems that 90 percent of the guys who fought in Vietnam were in the Airborne, Green Berets, or Special Forces." (Mr. Leepson must have been an REMF: "Green Berets" are the Special Forces, though the ones I knew hated that nickname and thought the beret itself, hot in summer and cold in winter, was none too practical. Even the French military have better sense than to wear them.) So, what do we veterans know that is so special? Not much, probably, more or less what Stephen Crane, who had not been in combat, nevertheless managed to impart in The Red Badge of Courage.

Our moral authority is also problematic. Courage is a sometime thing, not always transferable or repeatable: for example, Mark Shields chided, "When was the last time anyone heard Kerry use two minutes of his precious television time to advocate an increase in the minimum wage?" In any case courage of a sort is not uncommon: most soldiers perform at least adequately in most occasions of combat. It is a matter of probability: if most soldiers bugged out most of the time, we could not have wars. That is, if push had come to shoot, the odds are that most of the REMF's and "chickenhawks," as well as the most of the 570,000 who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War, would have performed adequately in combat most of the time. So what is left of our moral authority? I for one cannot confidently predict what I would do if ever again an armed enemy threatened me. (Probably get sued if, in the words of Pete Townshend, I happen to be left up alive.) As for those of you who can so predict, well, more power to you.

I hate to be the one to sneeze at our odor of sanctity, but we veterans are, when not ignored or denigrated, overrated as sources of information and as moral arbiters. For a nation, war is preeminently the big-picture, long-view question of survival; but for most veterans, the military experience was narrow, short-lived, and unique. (Unique in more ways than one: almost by definition, a veteran is one who will not have to serve in a future war.) That the veteran's experience may have been very intense makes it memorable, not universal. Nevertheless, we veterans do have our uses. For example, while we can seldom make reliable generalizations, we can help test those made by others, such as "All the South Vietnamese soldiers were corrupt and cowardly" or "War crimes were commonplace." And veterans can provide some continuity, help carry on a vital tradition in the intervals between one necessary war and the next.

So just what is this "nothing" we are talking about? It is the sudden infatuation with the veteran, especially those of Vietnam. This strange new respect for Vietnam veterans is temporary, only a brevet promotion, the result of partisan opportunity and media obsession. Those who hanker for that sort of attention should relish their fifteen minutes of respectability. We shall hold this rank only until after the election, at which time the same political celebrities and commentators will bust us back down to irrelevant embarrassment, first class. The divide formed by the Vietnam War still runs deep, and no amount of syndicated columns will paper over it. 

Terry Graves is a freelance writer working and living near Pittsburgh. His novel, Rain in Hell, is about original sin without, he hopes, being yet another example of it.

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