We couldn’t even decide in those days if the real Americans were Jane Fonda and Father Philip Berrigan or John Wayne and Cardinal Richard Cushing. There we were destroying a country in a distant war we chose not to win, being deceived by our leaders and given bloated body counts by our generals, so no wonder we were confused. “This used to be a hell of a good country,” the drunken lawyer played by Jack Nicholson said in Easy Rider. “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”
Kennedy’s idealism, Johnson’s Great Society—had they been just illu¬sions? Most people in my wartime generation were keenly aware of what they didn’t do, the road not taken. The grunt under fire in Tay Ninh was aware of the choice he didn’t make—to go AWOL or dodge the draft. Those who fled to Canada or stayed in the United States, having found any one of a hundred ways to avoid Vietnam—straights became gay for a day at induction centers, old leg injuries started hurting again for the first time in years, feet suddenly went flat, colleges were swamped with appli¬cations—were aware of the innuendo of cowardice and knew there might be a price to pay for their decision down the road.
“Nothing seemed more absurd and horrible and went against every¬thing you were taught in Sunday school and civics class [than the Viet¬nam War],” Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist with New York Newsday, told me some years ago. “But I couldn’t find any¬thing that felt right, that made me really feel comfortable personally. Even if you did object, you felt you should have gone to jail, that those who went to jail really had conviction.”
Marlette had avoided the war as a conscientious objector. Applying for CO status in his small Southern town in 1970 was, Marlette once wrote, “a first in my family, my church, my town, my ZIP code, and [it felt like] my planet.” His father, a retired Marine Corps officer, wrote the draft board and offered to serve in his son’s place.
MY RECOLLECTION OF THE GIS I KNEW and saw in combat during the war bore little resemblance to what Hollywood producers would have us believe. They weren’t a collective bunch of losers or a gang of psy¬chopaths. They fought well and bravely and for the same reason soldiers fight in any war—to survive and go home. On operations I covered, most commanders went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. It there were shameful incidents for the Americans, such as the massacre of nearly 500 civilians at My Lai in 1968, there were just as many for the North Vietnamese, such as the execution of as many as 3,000 civilians in Hue during the Tet Offensive. I was in Hue in 1969 when the victims’ bodies were exhumed from mass graves. There were men and women, many of them teachers, merchants, low-level civil servants. Their hands had been bound behind their backs with wire. Neither in My Lai nor in Hue, I feel certain, was any official order given to kill civilians. In each case, an individual unit under bad leadership had run amok. The results were tragic but were not an accurate reflection of either nation’s army as a whole.
Nearly 9 million men and women served in the U. S. armed forces dur¬ing the Vietnam War era, including 2,594,000 men and 7,484 women in Vietnam and another 600,000 on the offshore fleet and at air bases in Thailand and Guam. As research by MIT professor Arnold Barnett and others, published in 1992, and the book Stolen Valor, written by B. G. Bur¬kett and Glenna Whitley in 1998, have shown, they were neither under¬educated and ill-disciplined nor disproportionately minority in racial makeup. Nor as a group were they unable to readjust to postwar life even though society gave them the cold shoulder instead of a warm welcome home and no particular benefits. By any criteria the negative image they had to bear as Vietnam vets was a bum rap.
Ninety-seven percent of Americans who served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975 received honorable discharges—exactly the same percentage as for the ten-year period before the war. The use of drugs was no greater in Vietnam than it was among the same age group in the United States (and it was many joints less than in San Francisco’s flower-child Haight- Ashbury neighborhood where I lived before heading off to the war). Only 249 men deserted in Vietnam. As Burkett and Whitley point out, no U.S. platoon ever surrendered as a unit to the NVA or VC; in World War II, several thousand Americans not only surrendered, they ended up fighting for Germany.
The average soldier in Vietnam was nineteen years old—seven years younger than his World War II counterpart. In Vietnam 80 percent of the GIs had completed high school and 14 percent had attended college. In World War II, 35 percent had not gone beyond grammar school. Blacks made up 12.5 percent of the combat deaths in the Vietnam War at a time when blacks of draft age represented 13.5 percent of the U.S. population. Eighty-six percent of the men killed in action were Caucasian. After a statistical analysis of economic levels of ZIP codes where GIs had lived before entering the military, Barnett concluded that variations by income among Vietnam’s casualties were minimal.