“The Lies They Tell, And The Stories They Leave Behind”
by William F. Owen

Let me tell you, it’s tough being a novelist, writing about the Vietnam War, when you weren’t there and you’re not even American.

It’s not as tough as being there was, but it’s tough in other ways. You have to put up with the fall out from all the lies that are told about the war. I say lies because they aren’t myths. Myths have some element of truth, and the lies are just what people prefer to believe.

These days I seem to spend my time correcting just about anyone who thinks they have an opinion on the Vietnam War, or US foreign Policy in general. Needless to say, my girlfriend is pissed, because the number of people who invite us to dinner parties seems to be shrinking. So who the hell cares about dinner parties? Well if you’re a new novelist, living with an actress, then smooching with the arty folks is pretty much what you do, but arty folks seem to take fright easily.

“But hundreds of US soldiers died at Hamburger Hill,” some guy told me once. “Not true,” I told him. “70 dead and 372 wounded, depending on which unit’s figures, and dates you include. Not a bad figure. Look at Dak To”

“Dak what?”

“John Kerry is a War hero,” some Lady once told me, but my girlfriend stepped in before I could put her right by talking about Robert Howard, Doug Miller and Roger Donlan.

TV, Hollywood, and books like Bright Shining Lie have shaped people’s perception of the Vietnam War far more than the facts or history ever could. I have to admit to never having read “Lie”, but I seem to know a heck of a lot more about John Paul Vann than those who have.

“What do you think of ‘Apocalypse Now’” people ask me. “It’s a good movie, but it’s nothing to do with Vietnam,” I tell them. “Nothing you see in that movie even comes close to the historical or factual reality of that war.”

“What about the little girl running down the road all burnt with US napalm,” someone else asked me. “She was burnt by a South Vietnamese napalm strike, not an American one. Next Question, please.”

The cold hard facts of the Vietnam War are uncomfortable for many people in the arts. Facts like Vietnam War veterans earn more, and commit less crime than any other major group, or veterans of any other US war, and hard to reconcile with the story telling.

Pacino’s or DeNiro’s portrayals apply to only a tiny percentage of War veterans and an even smaller percentage of Vietnam Veterans, and I know what PTSD looks like. I grew up with a father severely traumatised by World War Two, and that same man sat nuclear alert for 3 years as the Captain of an RAF V-bomber, so PTSD is not the life ending condition it is often portrayed as. It is unpleasant and distressing but it doesn’t mean you’ll go out and rape folks. 5 years after returning from Vietnam veterans are no more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the US, and let’s face it. If you’ve put up with 200 days of combat in a year, then a bad day at the office doesn’t really count.

All the veterans I ever interviewed for my novel, were sane, reflective, intelligent men, bar one and apparently he was know to be nuts when he was on Okinawa and long before he went TDY to RVN in 1969!

People are even more surprised when I tell them that in the Vietnam War only about 30% of those who served in US Army was a conscript, but 70% of those who died were volunteers, and averagely aged just over 22, and not the 19 of myth or lies.

As an outsider looking in, I can tell you, without reservation, that the best of the US nation served honourably in Vietnam, without complaint, and didn’t whine or bitch about it when they came back, or play being a vet for social or political advantage. What I can also tell you is that the Vietnam War sits as large as the Cowboy in American artistic iconography, and perhaps larger. That means that the .45 Colt, both revolver and automatic, and John Wayne are powerful symbols.

I don’t find John Wayne a figure of fun. Let’s face it, if the chips were down, and the Hueys are still a long way out, which would you want by your side? John Wayne or the cast of ‘Friends?’ Statistically, Joe volunteered, Chandler was drafted and Ross stayed home.

The end of the Vietnam war pretty much marked the point were US TV shows stopped being about cowboys, cops, caped crusaders and men with guns and became about Lawyers, Doctors, and young people. In a nutshell, it became about people looking for fulfilment and happiness and not about hero’s who risked life. Make no mistake, heroes risk life and kill people. You can’t be hero any other way.

Perhaps that, more than anything else lead to Vietnam being a lied about war, rather than a forgotten one. War was bad, so all about War had to be bad, and that included heroes, so popular culture set out to alter the facts to suit the products, by making it all about young people dying in an evil war.

Conflict with the enemy was obvious, so let’s make it all about conflict with ourselves. This infected other wars as well, be it Kelly’s Heroes, in WW2, about a bunch of criminals, or MASH, in Korea, about a bunch of whiners who need to grow up… but hey! It’s comedy!

The other factor worth noting is that Heroes are most widely regarded by those who have been in a war, and have seen what it involves close up. Statistically this puts Vietnam at a disadvantage.  Approximately 8.7 million US servicemen served in Vietnam, of which 70% volunteered, while in the same time period approximately 15 million, avoided the draft by student or occupational deferment. If you’re a writer there’s a greater than average chance that you’ll encounter a 55-year-old publishing/TV/Studio executives who found somewhere else to be, when the war was on, and frankly doesn’t want to understand much about the military or war, except that it was a bad thing, and by the way, isn’t Jane Fonda adorable!

This one has come back to bite me in the ass. 14 agents turned down my novel in the UK, and that was OK, because I sent it to two publishers, both of whom wanted to publish it and it was. To date, no US publishers have brought the rights despite the fact that it is about the US in the Vietnam war and it sold 10,000 in hard and trade paperback before going into paperback in the UK after a year. Actually, you can get it on the net, so who cares, and suddenly my publisher wants a sequel!

The Net, gods bless it, and sites like this one, made the novel possible. 99% of research was done from Veterans located on, or by contacts made through the World Wide Web. It also makes all the information available to rebut the lies told by those who didn’t serve or those who did and having been found wanting,  and couldn’t live with it. But beware, they’re still out there and as capable of lying in HTML as they ever were at peace rallies.

William F. Owen is the author of Blackfoot is Missing.


The generation that was forced to ignite enemy cities, send billions in aid to a mass-murdering Stalin, bomb French rail yards, and deploy soldiers who sometimes fought with obsolete equipment, felt that they did not have to be perfect to know that they were good -- and far better than the enemy.

For them, war was never an easy utopian alternative between the perfect and the bad, but instead so often a horrific conundrum of bad choices versus those far worse -- victory going only to those who had greater preponderance of right, made the fewer mistakes, and outlasted the enemy.

Victor Davis Hanson