Sunday, February 3, 2008

To The “IVAW Idealists”...

...and in my mind that very probably includes Army Sergeant. I do not use the word ‘idealists’ disparagingly. I recognize that there are members of IVAW, veterans, and even those who may not be members of IVAW but who may ‘testify’ at the upcoming WSI, who are genuine in their beliefs, concerns and as they see them, their principles.

Yet, idealists of many stripes all though history have found themselves used or involved in a cause that ultimately did not reflect their idealism. It happens.

One thing that strikes me over and over is how people talk past each other, not knowing of what the other is speaking about, or more apltly, riled up about.

I have been watching relatively young (certainly from my advanced perspective) members of the IVAW receive broadsides from those who are obviously their elders, and they seem at a loss to understand the depth of feeling that seems to target them.

I am going to show in full an editorial written nine years ago this month, by a Marine Vietnam veteran, Mackubin T. Owens.

About that, and before you read it, if you do, a few points.

When this was written, a goodly number of the members of the IVAW were in high or even middle school.

It was written years before 911, or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was written years before Bush became President and more years before John Kerry sought the Democratic nomination in 2004.

It was written years before a group of Vietnam veterans formed the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth in 2004.

It was written eight years after Gulf War I and almost as many years since we had been flying the No Fly Zones over Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein from slaughtering his own Iraqi people.

Lastly, it was written a quarter of a century AFTER the Vietnam War had ended, a time period that may equal the entire age of many IVAW members, and note what the author says of how long and what effect for all that time things done in the early seventies had on what followed and how if effected - veterans.

IVAW members, this is in large part why you no doubt see from many quarters a resentment and deep concern and even seemingly barely controlled hostility about what it is you are doing, and whose footsteps you are following in. Many of you no doubt have elder voices around you giving you their perspective, and no doubt some of them were involved in incidents three and more decades ago, with VFP and VVAW. You may not, however, have come across this perspective in this detail.

From the Asbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, an editorial by Mackubin T. Owens:

NBC’s :
Slandering an Entire Generation of Warriors
February 1999

by: Mackubin T. Owens

There is plenty to criticize in the recent NBC mini-series "The Sixties." But for my money, the worst aspect of this dreadful contribution to the popular culture is the fact that it slanders an entire generation of fighting men: those who put their lives on the line in Vietnam.

There is an undeniable orthodoxy associated with the Vietnam veteran. According to the conventional wisdom, those who served in Vietnam were largely young and poor. Minorities were disproportionately represented. They suffered unspeakable trauma. Many, if not most, committed or observed atrocities. The horrors of the war led many to turn to drugs and a life of crime. As many as half of those who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than died in the war. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was and is a time bomb waiting to go off. Brian, the brother in the mini-series who goes to Vietnam reflects this orthodoxy, returning as the burnt-out, drug-addicted, Traumatized Vet.

Will Rogers once said that "it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so." This applies in spades to Vietnam veterans. The fact is, most of what people "know" about them "just ain’t so."

For instance, the war was not fought primarily by reluctant draftees, predominantly composed of the poor, the young, or racial minorities. The poor and the minorities fought and died in Vietnam, but so did the middle class. The record indicates that 86 % of those who died during the war were white and 12.5 % were black, from an age group in which blacks comprised 13.1 % of the population. Two thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers, and volunteers accounted for 77 % of combat deaths.

Statistics indicate that the suicide, homelessness, and drug abuse rates of Vietnam veterans are no higher than for non-vets and non-theater Vietnam era veterans. The incarceration rate is lower. And while PTSD is a real phenomenon, it is not nearly as widespread as the press portrays it. The press regularly claims that PTSD continues to affect 500,000 to 1.5 million Vietnam veterans, i.e. nearly one sixth (18 %) to nearly one half of the 3.3 million men who served in theater.

These numbers, derived from the flawed National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study, are implausibly high, especially given that fewer than 15 percent of those who served in country were assigned to combat units. A much better designed study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that 15 % of Vietnam veterans experienced some symptoms of combat-related PTSD at some time during or after military service, but that only 2.2 % exhibited symptoms at the time of the study.

But most tellingly, a comprehensive 1980 survey commissioned by Veterans’ Administration (VA) reported that 91 % of those who had seen combat in Vietnam were "glad they had served their country;" 80 % disagreed with the statement that "the US took advantage of me;" and nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again, even knowing how the war would end.

For years, many of us who served in Vietnam tried to make the case reflected in these figures: that the popular image of the Vietnam vet as maladjusted loser, dehumanized killer, or ticking "time bomb" was at odds with reality. Indeed, it was our experience that those who had served in Vietnam generally did so with honor, decency, and restraint; that despite often being viewed with distrust or opprobrium at home, most had asked for nothing but to be left alone to make the transition back to civilian life; and that most had in fact made that transition if not always smoothly, at least successfully.

But the press could always find the stereotypical, traumatized vet who could be counted on to tell the most harrowing and gruesome stories of combat in Vietnam, often involving atrocities. Many of the war stories recounted by these individuals were wildly implausible to any one who had been in Vietnam, but credulous journalists, most of whom had no military experience, uncritically passed their reports along to the public.

I always agreed with the observation of Harry Summers, a well-known military commentator who served as an infantryman in Korean and Vietnam, that the story teller’s distance from the battle zone was directly proportional to the gruesomeness of most atrocity stories. But until the publication of a remarkable new book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and the fine Texas writer, Glenna Whitley (Verity Press,, neither Harry nor I any idea just how true his observation was.

Mr. Burkett is best known to those of us who live in New England as the man who sent Joe Yandle back to prison. Yandle admitted to being the getaway driver during a 1972 liquor store holdup in Medford, Massachusetts that resulted in the murder of the store manager. Under Massachusetts law, even though Yandle did not pull the trigger, he was equally complicit with the gunman. Convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole, Yandle never claimed to be innocent, but contended that the hell of the Vietnam war had driven him to drugs and crime.

The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes did a segment on Yandle in which Mike Wallace told viewers that Yandle did two tours in Vietnam and "came home with a Bronze Star for valor, two Purple Hearts and something else--a heroin habit." The 60 Minutes report was instrumental in convincing then-Governor William Weld to commute Yandle’s life sentence to time served--23 years.

But Mr. Burkett discovered that although Yandle had indeed served in the Marines and had been honorably discharged, he had never set foot in Vietnam. He had manufactured the claim that he had survived the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. He certainly did not rate the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for wounds received.

What is striking about the Yandle case is the predisposition on the part of journalists uncritically to accept the claim that service in Vietnam was an indicator of, even an explanation for, criminal activity at home. How could hard-nosed, ace investigative reporter Mike Wallace and others like him be so easily taken in? Mr. Burkett’s answer to this question stands as a rebuke to American journalism.

The fact is that the media has peddled the "Vietnam vet goes berserk" angle for a very long time. A milestone of sorts was the 1988 CBS documentary "The Wall Within" which constituted a veritable caricature of Vietnam veterans: they routinely committed war crimes. They came home from an immoral war traumatized, vilified, then pitied. Jobless, homeless, addicted, suicidal, they remain afflicted by inner conflicts, stranded on the fringes of society.

This image had its genesis in the anti-war left of the 1960s and 70s. The war was uniquely brutal and unjust, went the argument, and brutalized those who fought it. At first the anti-war left vilified veterans as war criminals and baby-killers. But this approach evolved into the idea that the Vietnam veteran was a victim: he was victimized first by his country, which made him poor and then sent him off to fight an unjust war. Then he was victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer. All the Vietnam veteran had to do to receive the absolution of the anti-war left was to confess his sins.

Mr. Burkett demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that most of those who "confessed" were frauds. Nonetheless, the public confessions made for great theater: Mark Lane’s absurd Conversations With Americans, Paul Solotaroff’s equally disreputable The House of Purple Hearts, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the now-discredited "Winter Soldier" Investigation of 1970 all reinforced the image of the Vietnam veteran as victim.

At about the same time, anti-war psychiatrists such as Robert Jay Lifton claimed that since Vietnam was worse than earlier wars, returning soldiers would suffer severe psychological effects specific to the war. Mr. Lifton was instrumental in the development of PTSD. Finally, to justify its budget as the World War II veteran population declined, the VA came on board. (A National Academy of Sciences study commissioned by the VA had reported that 25 % of the World War II vets suffered from emotional and psychological symptoms similar to those ascribed to PTSD.) Ideology and the self-interest of bureaucrats constitute a powerful combination.

"The Sixties" illustrates that this image of the Vietnam vet prevails even today. But is it true? Mr. Burkett shows that the answer is no. In the course of trying to raise money for a Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Mr. Burkett discovered that reporters were only interested in homeless veterans and drug abuse and that the corporate leaders he approached had bought into the popular image of the Vietnam vet: not honorable men (and women) who took pride in their service, but whining welfare cases, belly-aching about what an immoral government did to them.

Fed up, Mr. Burkett did something that any reporter worth his or her salt could have done: he used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to check the actual records of the "image makers" used by reporters to flesh out their stories on homelessness, Agent Orange, suicide, drug abuse, criminality, or alcoholism. What he found was astounding. More often than not, the show case "veteran" who cried on camera about his dead buddies, about committing or witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat that led him to the current dead end in his life, was an impostor.

Indeed, Mr. Burkett discovered that over the last decade, some 1,700 individuals, including some of the most prominent examples of the Vietnam veteran as dysfunctional loser, had fabricated their war stories. Many had never even been in the service. Many, like Joe Yandle, had been, but had never been in Vietnam.

Stolen Valor makes clear why, intentionally or not, events like "The Sixties" slander all those who served in Vietnam. The fact is that Vietnam veterans have fared as well or better than any other generation of warriors, and it’s about time that the myths that have tainted America’s view of Vietnam veterans are put to rest. By unmasking the despicable phonies who have stolen the honor of the legitimate Vietnam veterans and exposing the complicity of the press in this theft, Mr. Burkett has done an immense service to his fellow veterans, and by extension to his country.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.

Can you maybe understand a bit better why a Jesse MacBeth rips the scab off wounds not healed, or why this repeated speaking of systemic atrocities and the dysfunctional vets hits a nerve on edge for decades? Can you understand why the NY Times piece on the 121 crazed and murderous veterans (via Powerline) is nothing new, and we've all seen this before, and what the result is? Can you understand that as IVAW makes plain that it intends to replicate the VVAW Winter Soldier Investigation, after what followed the first one (and continues!), that a great many people, including a great many Vietnam veterans are saying - no, not to another generation who have sacrificed and even given their all will you do this with impunity as your forebears did!


talon said...

You're right, Denis - the American people will not permit IVAW to defame another generation of servicemen and women with impunity. I admire your generosity concerning IVAW and its "idealism", but I see nothing idealistic about deliberately charging your former brothers and sisters in arms with charges of "systematic brutality".

IT'S NOT 1971 ANYMORE. IVAW will not get away with repeating the same lies their mentors told 37 years ago.

Denis Keohane said...

Hi talon,

"I admire your generosity concerning IVAW and its "idealism"..."

Just to clarify - I don't think the IVAW or its purpose is idealistic. I think individual members, some of them, may well be. Others may have other and varyinf incentives and reasons for what they do.

"...but I see nothing idealistic about deliberately charging your former brothers and sisters in arms with charges of "systematic brutality".

And that is the correct point. Even if idealists and idealistic, if in a bad cause, all intention of a noble purpose is lost and the grossly ignoble is done.

Idealists get used. Their idealism often makes them unable to recognize the users.

talon said...

Sad but true.

Their handlers and mentors should be ashamed of themselves - these kids have no idea what the future has in store for them.

Army Sergeant said...

I won't take offense to your characterization of me as an 'idealist'. I certainly strive for the ideal in everything I do-it's part of what I feel I've given my oath to do. I am genuine in my beliefs, concerns, and principles, and believe the testifiers will be as well.

However, I don't think that IVAW ultimately does not reflect that idealism.

I will grant that I've seen people talking past each other, and the article you quote is very interesting within that context. But I think it applies to both sides-both sides often have gaps of understanding.

There are a lot of people from previous generations that cannot understand why we are standing up and talking about things that they too experienced, but did not talk about. I'm told that healthcare for returning vets has always been atrocious, as has military malpractice. But many do not see why we would break the code of silence and expose these issues, expose the poor treatment of current soldiers and vets. That's a generational gap for many, and one that I personally admit I can't understand. I was raised by patriots, who taught me that one should always raise one's voice and fight like the very devil himself against injustice. I can't do otherwise.

Also, talon, no one is charging their brothers with systematic brutality. We are not saying that soldiers are criminals. If there is any crime, it is in how our country has prosecuted this war, and how it has treated the servicemembers who have done their best in its cause.

I can understand this gentleman's concern, but think that things aren't so black and white. Not every veteran returns damaged: but many do. And for everyone arguing that veterans are all just fine, there is another who is not all fine, who will be ignored if that belief is taken to heart.

It is not all 1s and 0s. It is not all black and white. Nothing is all good or all bad.

The polarization of this discussion, I think, hurts veterans and servicemembers far more than it helps them.

talon said...

Army Sergeant-

No one - most specifically IVAW - is charging their brothers with systematic brutality?

"In 1971, over one hundred members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) gathered in Detroit to share their stories with America. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions. The members of VVAW knew differently...

Over thirty years later, we find ourselves faced with a new war. But the lies are the same."

That's the problem when people start lying - they start forgetting the lies that they have told in the past, and then covering the trail of deceit becomes increasingly more difficult.

Credibility issues? I'll say!

"If there is any crime, it is in how our country has prosecuted this war, and how it has treated the servicemembers who have done their best in its cause."

I am not aware of any empirical evidence, such as a SCOTUS ruling, that would support the claim that the prosecution of this war (OIF,OEF,GWOT?) constitutes a criminal offense.

On the other hand, I will agree with you that the abuse that our men and women have endured at the hands of IVAW, ANSWER, Code Pink, etc., has been criminal. Like their Vietnam War predecessors, they have been physically and verbally abused by the so-called "peace" activists in this country. As if that weren't bad enough, this generation of "anti-war" protesters has gone so far as to vandalize their graves and the memorials honoring their service and sacrifices.

Now, THAT is behavior that constitutes a criminal offense.

Army Sergeant said...


I can see that you haven't taken a new look at the page. The last page focused more on the history of the Winter Soldier hearings. The lies may be the same, but the wars are not.

The Supreme Court of the United States, as you would know if you were familiar with Constitutional law, has a precedent of refusing to touch cases which it cannot enforce or which it fears may cause its powers to be checked or removed further. Thus, it has not ruled on the constitutionality of how the war was handled. However, it is clear that the law is violated or evaded in multiple ways-I'd be happy to comment further, but I think the space for commentary is far too short.

I will not speak to Code Pink or ANSWER, but IVAW has not physically or verbally assaulted its brothers-in-arms, nor has it defaced or dishonored the rituals or the memory of the dead. However, IVAW members have been physically and verbally assaulted by those who claim to support troops and veterans-how do you support that?

talon said...

Army Sergeant -

Judging from your comments, it appears that it is you who needs a lesson in Constitutional law.

The reason the courts have not ruled on the war and its prosecution is because they are MILITARY and POLITICAL matters that lie beyond the jurisdiction of the judicial branch. If, indeed, the war and its prosecution were either unconstitutional or criminal, I am confident that this matter would have been brought before the courts by some individual or group associated with the "anti-war" movement. However, since these matters do not involve constitutional or criminal law, the courts will NEVER hear them.

While I am unaware of any acts of violence being perpetrated against IVAW's members and property, I have never supported, promoted or condoned any such criminal activity. As for verbal abuse, IVAW has to live with that along with every other political action group in this country - it comes with the territory. If I had my way, the political rhetoric in this country would be much more civil, but that is a problem I am not responsible for.

Army Sergeant said...

Political matters are not beyond the jurisdiction of the SCOTUS, in fact, political matters make up some of its only original jurisdiction.

Many of these points involve constitutional law. For example, the President needs the approval (as written in the Constitution) of Congress to make and enact treaties. Yet he is claiming that somehow what he plans to do in Iraq will not be a treaty, because..he says so. Yet it walks and quacks like a treaty.

I do appreciate your statement that you do not condone violence against persons and property, and I respect you the more for it.

As for the currently political climate in this country, yes, it is something you can do something about. You can change only what is within the limits of your grasp, but that is something you can change. You can be the change you wish to see, and talk to others about becoming more civil.

As you may see if you read others' blogs, I am the first to call even fellow IVAW members out on incivility. It doesn't help anyone. Polarization only divides a country that should be united despite its differences.

talon said...

Army Sergeant -

I think we're getting our semantics crossed. Surely, the SCOTUS would consider reviewing a "political" matter provided that it involved a violation of criminal or constitutional law, but as you know, the judiciary is forbidden to get involved with "political" matters that concern policy disputes within the executive and legislative branches.

As for the US-Iraq military aid & cooperation agreement, I must admit that I have not researched this matter to the extent where I could determine whether or not this agreement conforms to the definition of a treaty. Either way, it seems that the controversy over this matter is a tempest in a teacup given the fact that, one way or the other, Congress is going to have the last say in this matter. If this is a treaty, then the Senate must ratify it, if it's not a treaty, Congress is not legally obligated to honor it.

I agree with you that our nation should be united, particularly during times of war, but alas, there are elements in this country actively undermining that unity in the face of an enemy that we made the mistake of ignoring until it visited its aggression upon our own shores. As was the case with the Vietnam War, our divisiveness will only embolden our self-declared foes, prolong this conflict and cost more Americans their lives.