What Daddy Did in the War

JEFF STEIN

June 23, 1993|By JEFF STEIN

Fredericksburg, Virginia. -- The same day President Clinton faced a chorus of hecklers at the Vietnam War Memorial, I happened to be packing away cases of old books and files on Vietnam. As the president spoke, I began leafing through a few volumes, and hours later I was still sitting on the floor amid a growing pile.

As it turns out, the material was a timely reminder of what seems largely forgotten in the ongoing story of President Clinton's difficulty with the armed forces: How few GIs actually saw combat in the war they knock Bill Clinton for avoiding.

Of the 2 million men who served in or around Southeast Asia, only about 15 percent were regularly in combat at any one time, according to Pentagon figures. In other words, when over 500,000 troops were in Vietnam at the height of the war, only about 50,000 were actually out in the jungles fighting. When the children of Vietnam vets ask, ''What did you do in the war, Daddy?'' most of us should have the guts to answer, ''I typed.''

Mr. Clinton's decision to accept an invitation to speak at ''The Wall'' raised expectations of a dramatic confrontation between a draft-dodging president and resentful Vietnam veterans. When the president rose to speak, a wave of jeers rose from a group of beer-bellied protesters at the back of the crowd, many who had rolled into town in motorcycle gangs flying ''Don't Forget'' POW flags. Afterward the beleaguered commander-in-chief was credited with ''courageously'' standing his ground.

What's missing in this picture is a reminder that Vietnam was hardly popular with the troops. One of the prime reasons the United States had to get out was because the Army was crumbling from within.

GIs despised the war. They deserted in record numbers -- more than a half-million in all, according to Pentagon figures. As the war ground on they mutinied on a few occasions and even began killing their own leaders. In 1968 nearly 200 GIs were court-martialed for ''fragging,'' the grim term coined for the act of murdering an unpopular NCO or officer, usually by rolling a fragmentation grenade under his bed. In 1969, another 218 were prosecuted, a number which does not of course represent the many unprovable incidents.

AWOLs were unprecedented. By the late 1960s a ''Soul City'' had taken root in Saigon, where wayward GIs dealt in drugs, counterfeit money orders and stolen weapons. Corruption was as commonplace as heroin, as a few hours watching goods flow out the back gate of any PX would show. Even some of the Army's top NCOs had gotten into the act and were indicted for rigging Saigon slot machines.

In Japan an anti-war ''underground railway'' was helping smuggle anti-war sailors to Sweden by way of Moscow. In the states, anti-war coffeehouses and newspapers proliferated. A GI union was started.

All this seems forgotten. People remember students battling cops outside the 1968 Democratic convention, but how many recall that a group of soldiers at Fort Hood refused orders to serve in Vietnam the same week? How many remember the GI sit-downs at Fort Ord or Fire Base Pace, the race riots of China Beach and the Long Binh jail, the veterans' march on the 1972 Republican convention?

By the time young Bill Clinton faced the draft, about 15.5 million other young men, more than half the eligible males in the ''Vietnam Generation,'' had been deferred, exempted or disqualified from the draft, and often for bogus reasons. About 570,000 more were classified as ''apparent draft offenders.''

Many veterans themselves were sympathetic to draft resisters. In 1971 an ex-Navy lieutenant, now U.S. Senator John Kerry, beseeched Congress, ''How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?'' Outside on the steps of the Capitol, some 15,000 veterans threw away their medals.

Today, to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon, they're a ''silent majority.'' A campaign to endlessly re-fight Vietnam is being carried on by Republican partisans, Pentagon malcontents and direct-mail experts who stand to lose a bundle if the POW-MIA issue ever dries up. All of them defile the Vietnam Memorial, which was built to honor the dead and heal our wounds. That's why Jan Scruggs, the onetime Army private who led the campaign to build it, invited President Clinton to speak.

The war is over, fellow Americans. It's time to move on.

Jeff Stein is the author of ''A Murder in Wartime, the Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War.''

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