Vietnam Vets Without Hollywood, Without Tears
by William K. Lane, Jr.
(From the Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1988) Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal, 1988, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Movies about Vietnam are the latest phase in Hollywood's non-stop assault on the American spirit. The films are often accompanied, in the print media and on TV, by advice from Vietnam veterans groups, "outreach" organizations, and the like, that we who fought in that conflict should see these movies only with a "support group." One organization advised us not to see "Platoon" alone; another cautioned us to spend time "decompressing with friends after it." We've been told about the danger of "nightmares" and warned of the ultimate horror: "flashbacks." Jane Fonda, our dart-board version of World War II's Betty Grable claims she and a group of veterans "wept" in a theater lobby after seeing the movie.
Excuse me while I barf.
This ludicrous blubbering and psycho-babble has puzzled me for 17 years. Every unveiling of a Vietnam memorial on TV news seems to star the same two central-casting vets. It's embarrassing.
The other image is created by the cultural termites in Hollywood: the American soldier in Vietnam as racist, neurotic, drug crazed, feral, a hopeless pawn of a rotten society sent to fight an unjust war. Even the cartoonish Rambo is a societal misfit, a mumbling killer exorcising his demons in a revenge ritual.
The vast majority of men who fought in that war people like me simply do not fit any of those images. Many of us are embarrassed by them, especially in the presence of veterans of Iwo Jima and Midway and Pork Chop Hill most of whom saw much more horror than Vietnam soldiers ever did and managed to continue their lives without whining, acting nutty, or looking for a free ride.
This is not to say that Nam was not a searing experience. Indulge me as I present some images I dredged up in an attempt to stimulate a few "flash-backs."
I arrived in Vietnam in early 1968, as green as the beret I wore, and was assigned to the Special Forces "A" team that had the dubious distinction, two weeks later of being one of the first attacked during the Tet offensive. My memories of that battle are of the incredible roar and chaos that occurs when two rifle companies open tip on each other: of a day and a night pinned down behind tombstones in a Buddhist cemetery; of picking up a terrible sweet smell for the first time and knowing instinctively that it was death.
I remember an old French priest who insisted I follow him during a lull in the battle because he wanted me to see a "bullet" in his church. The bullet turned out to be a howitzer shell that had come through an open window and embedded itself in the steps of the altar without exploding. We got the "bullet" out for him when things calmed down a week or so later. But I do remember genuflecting as I left the church in awe, and then going back to the grim work.
I can still see the terror in the eyes of the North Vietnamese prisoners brought before me. I was the first American they had ever seen, tall and blond (then), and undoubtedly going to kill them. They nearly collapsed in relief when I handed each of them a few of my Luckies and told them: "No sweat."
I remember the exhilaration brought about by extreme fatigue and our victory over the North Vietnamese regiment that had invaded our area. And I recall the curses, the hatred we felt when the New York Times clips arrived claiming the Vietnamese and American victory in the Tet offensive was actually a defeat.
There were other vignettes that haven't faded: a boy in a nearby village with a twisted foot caused by a badly-healed break. We begged his mother for months to let us take him into Nha Trang and have it fixed. Finally, she relented, tearfully, not quite trusting us. Our medic sneaked the boy into an American hospital under care of a doctor who was part of our conspiracy. We gave him back to his mother, in a cast, with a leg as good as new. The whole village got drunk with us.
We got drunk on Thanksgiving day as well, after the giggling Vietnamese told us the "deer" we had eaten with them for Thanksgiving dinner was actually a dog.
I remember trying to cram a year of good times into a week of R&R in Singapore. and then landing back in Vietnam at the air base, hung over and depressed, only to be mortared in the terminal.
But many of the starkest of memories are the bad ones. A newly married lieutenant dead after less than a week in the country, a sergeant killed in a fire fight when another American shot him accidentally, piles of dead North Vietnamese, dead South Vietnamese, dead Montagnards, a dead old man in his bed in a house wrecked by battle; heat, fear, concussion, the frenzy of fighting out of an ambush.
Bad things, but no worse than many other had things in life: car wrecks, the death of loved ones. Being fired probably can be as traumatic as being fired upon. And besides. Nam was a long time ago.
I still know where a few of my teammates are. I get a few cards at Christmas. Sometimes I see one or two and hear about others. Some did a few more tours in Nam after I left. A couple are still in the Army. Some have done better than others, but I'll bet you this: None of them would need a "support group" to go see a movie. None of them would indulge in prattle about "post-traumatic-stress disorder" and how it caused them to beat up their wives or wet their beds. None of them would be a party to the Agent Orange hustle.
The men I knew in Vietnam didn't hate each other because of race. We weren't on drugs. We didn't murder civilians. We didn't hate the Army or LBJ or our country. We didn't feel America owed us a free ride because we spent time defending it. We were our own "support group" over there. We don't need one here.
I've met hundreds of Viet vets over the years, and I've yet to encounter one who fits the prevailing stereotypes. There are veterans from all our wars who are sick or depressed or drug addicted, and by all means they deserve our help and comfort. Those who were legitimately disabled deserve a special, revered status in our society. But can't we stop the fictional stereotyping that simply does not fit the majority of Vietnam Veterans?
Some of the bravest and best men that ever wore an American uniform fought in that war. They deserve better than to be caricatured by Hollywood and represented in the media as a legion of losers.