Tomorrow is Veterans Day, of course. And perhaps the only good product of the modern day political climate is the way politicians trip over each other to be first in line to praise and thank our troops. It is only fitting that they do this, that we do this, and not just every November 11th. But they (the politicians) and we (the public) are hypocrites, complete and inexcusable HYPOCRITES, until we at least attempt to fix a decades-long injustice…one that harkens back to a time when nobody was tripping over anyone to welcome home or even passingly thank the troops.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the following quote: “Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”
Those words were spoken by President John F. Kennedy shortly after a disastrous meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June, 1961. See, Khrushchev, a schoolyard bully if there ever was one, had just pushed around JFK for most of their “summit” in Vienna. And Kennedy, in need of a face-saving course of action, set his sights on Southeast Asia. That same year, 3,000 military advisors were sent into Vietnam, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara actually recommended 200,000 troops be sent in not far behind them. Perhaps the proverbial Rubicon had been crossed a few years earlier when the first military advisors were sent in, or perhaps it came later when the massive deployment of troops actually began. But 50 years ago, the whole point behind the war was clearly defined…we were not going to be pushed around! Escalation led to escalation and so on, and on, for nearly a decade and a half, leaving behind it an immeasurable human toll.
Two and a half million American troops served in Vietnam. More than 58,000 died. And those who did get to come home weren’t welcomed with parades, yellow ribbons, or even a fraction of the gratitude they deserved. Instead, they were ridiculed and chastised by prominent political wannabes and now-apologetic celebrities. Their friends and neighbors often responded with pity, or treated them with a sort of hands-off confusion. And by many others, those amongst the protesters of the war who let their fury govern their emotions, the returning troops who had served in Vietnam were spit upon or called “baby killers”. Then they were left to re-assimilate into the world they had left behind, having only a grossly underfunded Veteran’s Administration to appeal to for any trickle of assistance in dealing with any physical and/or psychological fallout from all that they had been through. They were effectively told by society, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways alike, to be ashamed of their service.
We applaud the brave men and women who sign up to serve on our behalf today, and rightfully so. They are portrayed in popular culture as ordinary human beings placed in harm’s way and responding heroically by doing what they have been trained to do. That is as it should be. But thanks to the popular culture that educated anyone born after 1965 or so, those of us too young to remember anything of the Vietnam War itself, well, we’ve seen and heard something quite different. In movies, Vietnam Vets are portrayed as either reluctant draftees or crazed killers who volunteered out of some deluded sense of patriotism. When they returned home from the war, they became recluses, criminals, drug addicts or homeless, according to pop culture, anyway…certainly anything but productive citizens who raised families and lived “normal” lives. Think of the image of those who served in Vietnam as presented in some of the most popular movies on the subject: "Apocalypse Now", "Platoon", "The Deer Hunter", "Born on the Fourth of July", "Full Metal Jacket", or “Rambo” (for cryin’ out loud!)…just to name a few. And it matters, you know, that sort of cultural “branding”.
At the last school I taught in, we organized a student-run Veteran’s Day Tribute Dinner every year. There would be upwards of 50 or 60 veterans in attendance along with their families. And I could often see the difference in the reactions of the students to each veteran, those from WW II or Korea or The Gulf War or Iraq or Afghanistan were safer, somehow. The students felt more comfortable asking them about their experiences, more comfortable being around them, even. The Vietnam Vets were a different story, at least initially…until actual contact, actual interaction, disproved the “education” the students had received.
Well, it’s time to change what fraction of that might possibly be changed. It is time for the United States Federal Government, in some capacity, to issue a formal apology on behalf of the entire nation to those who served in Vietnam. It should be an apology for the way in which they were treated when they returned home…for the ingratitude, the misunderstanding, the lack of consideration for what they had done. Perhaps then we will remove the metaphorical asterisk somehow attached to those who served in Vietnam. And for once, FOR ONCE…to simply say, “Thank you”.
The time has come…for that much, at least.
(By way of putting this into action, I have written a statement below that can be cut and pasted into an email to your local U.S. Representative or Senator. I would encourage you to take a few minutes to do this much…or better still, to compose your own words.)
The time has come for the United States to offer an official apology to its Vietnam Veterans for the treatment they have received since returning home from service. It is an apology owed on behalf of the American people, but one that should be offered with the authority of the U.S. Congress behind it. I am asking you to introduce such a resolution into Congress as soon as possible. Thank You.
And for members of the House of Representatives: