"CNN is Fonda Gas"

The Media's War on Vietnam Vets
by James Webb

Wall Street Journal Commentary, July 15,1998

Last week CNN founder Ted Turner issued a fervent apology to Vietnam veterans for his network's false report that the military had used sarin nerve gas in Vietnam. "Nothing has upset me more probably in my whole life," Mr. Turner said, adding that he "would take my shirt off and beat myself bloody in the back" if it would do any good.

Those who served in Vietnam should leap to accept this apology. But a long line of journalists and scholars should follow Mr. Turner's lead in making amends for the persistent defamation of those who served honorably and well in the Vietnam War.

This animus toward those who fought has now spanned a generation. It has deep roots in the elites among the old antiwar left, whose members not only avoided military service but openly derided those who went to Vietnam as either stupid or evil. Having placed their bets--and bet their place in American history--on the supposedly benign intentions of the Vietnamese communists, their response to the Stalinist reality that befell Vietnam after 1975 was to push ever harder to discredit U.S. involvement in the war.

Routinely Ignored

Thus negative stories about the war and those who fought it became de rigueur, particularly if one could tell them through the eyes of a veteran. But facts were routinely ignored.

Literally thousands of journalists have published lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations that fit a preconceived notion that made a story. I first became aware of the media's willing self-deception in 1981, when I was interviewed by Time magazine for what turned out to be a lengthy, negative piece on those who had fought in Vietnam. The veteran who gave the most damning testimony--including claims that he shot a pregnant woman and her unborn child--was later shown never to have served in Vietnam at all. It is a simple matter for any reporter to verify many aspects of a veteran's combat service by asking for a copy of his Form DD-214, a publicly available document. But the Time reporter did not do so, and the magazine offered no reaction after its story was disproved.

Repeated, conscious misrepresentations have become conventional wisdom. It is now axiomatic that the war was fought by the poor and minorities, dragged unwillingly into battle after being conscripted. The truth is that for the first time in U.S. history, the country's elites, who have inordinate power in the media and academia, did not show up. The poor and the minorities fought, but so did the middle class. Defense Department statistics show that 86% of those who died in Vietnam were white, and 12.5% were black--from an age group where blacks comprised 13.1% of the population. Volunteers accounted for 77% of combat deaths.

Another canard--frequently cited during the Persian Gulf War--is that Vietnam servicemen were overdecorated. In his book "National Defense," James Fallows claims that by 1971 the military had given 1.3 million medals for bravery in Vietnam, vs. 1.7 million for all of World War II. But compare actual gallantry awards from World War II with those in Vietnam: The Army awarded 289 Medals of Honor vs. 155 in Vietnam; 4,434 Distinguished Service Crosses vs. 846; and 73,651 Silver Star Medals vs. 21,630. The Marine Corps, which lost 102,000 killed or wounded out of some 400,000 sent to Vietnam, awarded 47 Medals of Honor (34 posthumously), 362 Navy Crosses (139 posthumously) and 2,592 Silver Star Medals.

A 1980 Harris survey commissioned by the Veteran's Administration, the most comprehensive ever done regarding those who served in Vietnam, revealed that 91% of those who served in combat were "glad they'd served their country"; 74% "enjoyed their time in the military"; and 80% disagreed with the statement that "the U.S. took unfair advantage of me." Nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again even if they knew how the war would end. The only national media report on the survey's results was an Associated Press story headlined "One in three would not serve again if asked."

In 1986 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that Vietnam veterans were 86% more likely to commit suicide than nonveterans. The study's authors, betraying their own political views, lamented that "men of low socioeconomic status may be less adept at avoiding military service." The study was junk science: a blind analysis of 14,145 men born between 1950 and 1952 who died between 1974 and 1983. By comparing their birth dates to the dates on the draft lottery, the study assumed--but never verified--who had served and who had not. Those with high draft lottery numbers had a 13% higher suicide rate, which the study then "extrapolated" into 86%--again without identifying a single veteran. The study ignored the fact that most of those who went to Vietnam volunteered for military service (among those born in 1952, 273,110 men enlisted and only 43,706 were drafted).

The media predictably embraced the study's flawed findings: "CBS Evening News" credited it with "documenting that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between having served in the military during Vietnam and problems later, including suicide." Mothers, hide your daughters--the crazy vet is at the door.

Hollywood, too, has manifested a historically unprecedented, ugly pathology when it comes to the Vietnam War and the people who fought it. If you want camaraderie, dignity, heroism and sacrifice, better check out a World War II flick, or "Star Wars." But what can one expect from the community that gave the producers of the vicious documentary "Hearts and Minds" a standing ovation at the 1975 Oscars when they read a telegram from Hanoi that announced the "liberation" of South Vietnam?

The extensive coverage of the 20th anniversary of South Vietnam's 1975 demise was rife with former foreign correspondents congratulating themselves on their courage under fire. But the coverage all but ignored the accomplishments of an American military that was transported halfway around the world where it met a determined enemy on its own terms. The coverage seldom discussed the many tragedies that befell Vietnam once the communists took over. And it ignored the most significant announcement of that anniversary period: Hanoi's admission that it had lost 1.1 million soldiers dead in the war, plus another 300,000 missing in action, compared with U.S. losses of 58,000 and South Vietnamese losses of 254,000.

Earlier this year, CBS's "60 Minutes" marked the 30th anniversary of the bloodiest year of the war with a feature on the My Lai massacre. Ostensibly designed to recognize the humanity of two helicopter pilots who saved several civilians during the killing, the piece was instead a gruesome rehash of America's darkest moment in Vietnam. In deciding to revisit 1968, CBS might have looked at the bravery of American soldiers under attack on battlefields across South Vietnam. If it was interested in ugliness, it could have examined afresh the systematic executions of more than 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue by communist cadres during the Tet offensive. But its intent was clearly elsewhere.

Shattered Lives

This unending agenda has shattered many lives, but there are indications that an accounting may be at hand. Today's best young scholars tend to question the dogma of an antiwar left that has grown gray without abandoning its animus toward those who served. As one example, Mark Moyar won the 1993 prize for historical research at Harvard University by peeling away the shibboleths that have surrounded the Phoenix Program, an effort directed against Vietcong leaders. Mr. Moyar's book, "Phoenix and the Birds of Prey" (Naval Institute, 1997), is a product of that research and a groundbreaking piece of revisionist history on the war.

Of equal import, next month B.G. Burkett, a Dallas businessman and Army veteran of Vietnam, will self-publish one of the most courageous books of the decade. "Stolen Valor" (Verity Press, www.stolenvalor.com) looks at the cases of more than 1,700 people who have distorted or lied about their service in Vietnam, often distorting the public's understanding of the war. His book constitutes a damnation of the major media so great that the CNN-Time story on sarin will take its rightful context as a rare moment when the purveyors of dishonesty got caught, rather than as the journalistic aberration many would like to term it.

Mr. Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, served as a Marine in Vietnam.


From Grenada to [the present], nothing has gone right for the press in its relationship to the U.S. military, but the name of that disaster is not Grenada, or Panama, or the Gulf War. It is Vietnam, and it is the result of the press's refusal to frankly assess its own role both in creating that catastrophe and in using Harry Summers's On Strategy to avoid making the necessary corrections.

THE MILITARY and The MEDIA: Why the Press Cannot Be Trusted to Cover a War by William V. Kennedy