Vietnam Myths


March 04, 1991|By MICHAEL R. LEVENE

Theirs was fought in a dry, brown place. Mine was fought in a wet, green one.

FTC Theirs began with a rapid buildup. Mine grew incrementally, over a period of years.

They were volunteers. I was not.

Yet many comparisons are being drawn between their war, in the Persian Gulf, and mine, in Vietnam. Some seem far-fetched, some on the money. But two in particular run so against the grain of my experience that I have long suspected they are in large part myth.

In September of 1969, only days removed from my two years as an Army draftee, half of that time in Vietnam, I returned to the campus where I had not quite acquired a bachelor's degree. It was near the height of the anti-war fervor: The Moratorium was a month away, the largest anti-war demonstration in the nation's history two months away and Kent State eight months away.

Yet, on this basically conservative campus (earlier in the 1960s, when I first attended the university, dormitories and intercollegiate athletics were still racially segregated, policies that had the support of much of the student body), I was never spat upon, called a baby-killer or otherwise abused.

On the contrary, the most common reaction to learning that I had been in Vietnam was to earnestly solicit my opinion of the war and listen intently when I offered it. (I never told my audience that, having been cut off from most sources of news for the year I was overseas, I was very likely less well informed about the war than they were. I had been there, and that was enough for them).

No other veteran I talked to in those next three years on campus spoke of any abuse, nor has any I have talked to since.

Somewhere, probably, veterans were spat upon and called baby-killers. But my own experience and the fact that those two forms of abuse are almost always summoned up when the maltreatment of Vietnam veterans is mentioned leads me to believe that a scattering of such incidents has given birth to a myth.

During my year in Vietnam -- which encompassed the Tet offensive, an event that thrust into combat many of us who until then had been far behind the front lines -- anti-war protests back in the States were becoming larger and more numerous.

Stars and Stripes did not give a great deal of coverage to the demonstrations, but, to its credit, neither did it ignore them. Most of us, therefore, were able to follow the news fairly well.

Yet I never saw any indication that the protests were undermining morale, either among support or combat troops. The simple truth is that most of my compatriots were at heart concerned mainly with making it through each day and, when the day was over, crossing it off their ''short-timer'' calendars.

Among the minority who were interested in home-front developments, many actually welcomed the anti-war sentiment. In any case, though morale was often a problem, the news from home seldom seemed to have any effect on it.

If even one Vietnam veteran was abused in any way upon his return home, it is one too many. And if any soldier's morale was damaged by anti-war protests at home, it is unfortunate. But whatever the number of veterans involved, reducing their experiences to catch phrases trivializes any wrongs done to those who were abused and misrepresents those were not.

Michael R. Levene is a copy editor for The Sun.

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