Harry W. Haines on The Vietnam War Forty Years Later – W.D. Ehrhart on Today’s Unlearned Lessons

[Harry W. Haines is a Professor in the School of Communication & Media at Montclair State University. He was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey and was drafted in 1969, one day after he completed his last requirement for his bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After his military service, he worked as a reporter and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Communication at the University of Utah. For twenty years, he taught a very popular course on the Vietnam War, and he has written critical analyses of films, television series, memorials, art works, etc., that help give meaning to the American experience in Vietnam. He is writing a memoir about his experience as a gay anti-war draftee in Vietnam during 1970-1971.  Here, he explains the impetus for the memoir.]

Two self-disclosures revealed Mitt Romney’s sense of self in the last presidential campaign. The infamous “47%” recording, made by a bartender at a fund raising event, clarified Romney’s sense of social class privilege and his apparent contempt for the American middle-class, struggling under the economic policies imposed on them by his social class since the Reagan Administration. The other self-disclosure failed to get the extensive media play that the surreptitious video received, but it should have. At least, many of my fellow Vietnam vets agree with me that it should have. It was Romney’s bizarre statement that he “longed” to go to Vietnam as a young man but, for some reason, was compelled instead to go to Paris on his Mormon Mission.

As a follow-up, his wife added a few days later that missionary work is very much like military experience, because both assignments offer young men an opportunity to find themselves, to become mature adults. “Unless they get sent home in a body bag,” my Army buddy Thomas Jeffrey Roberts, deceased, would have said. Cue the sniggers of aging vets.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, it’s still weird being a Vietnam War veteran in this country. To respond to the insulting statements by Romney and his wife, even if a veterans group or, as in my case, a mouthy academic with a chip on his shoulder, could find a media outlet that might regard a response as newsworthy, would have risked the label of whiney old fart, still crazy after all these years. It’s over. Let it go. We have a new cohort of vets to worry about. And a sizable percentage of young Americans now believe that the sacrifices we made in Vietnam were actually worth it, even necessary. “How many times do we have to say ‘Welcome Home’ to you guys before you shut up?”

In this postmodern revisionist environment, in which we are often thanked for what we did in Vietnam, the public memory of our actual lived experience begins to lose political currency. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been told, sometimes by well-meaning young vets of the current conflagrations, some of the most righteous men and women I have met in my life, that the Vietnam War was winnable, that we were robbed of victory by craven politicians, that we were betrayed by the same Congress that betrayed the South Vietnamese army, that civilian anti-war activists harassed us at airports and spat upon our uniforms as we returned to The World. And slowly the Vietnam War as a cautionary tale of hubris, corruption, and imperialist aggression begins to evaporate like one of those circular fade-outs in an old silent movie, replaced by myth.

I fear that the public memory of the Vietnam War has been hijacked to rationalize a new phase of aggression that began with our action in Kuwait and was heightened by the invasion of Iraq, the event that destabilized much of the so-called Middle East and determined that another generation (actually, a very small percentage of another generation) would have long-term deployments and redeployments in wars that might easily go on for decades. And, unlike the Vietnam War era, the enemy may actually turn up on our doorstep. Curiously, the people who got us immersed continue to be interviewed on our television receivers as if they retained credibility. We don’t live in times that are simply dangerous; we live in times that are seemingly absurd.

When the Iraq invasion began, I was teaching at a fine liberal arts institution that attracted some of the brightest students in the country, many of them from families that would not have been offended by Romney’s “47%” gaff. In an attempt to silence what was then a very large anti-war movement, the slogan “Support Our Troops” was employed by supporters of the invasion, inferring that opposition to the invasion equaled denigration of our soldiers, harkening back to the supposed and utterly mythological belief that Vietnam vets were spat upon as we disembarked from the Freedom Birds. I happened to get caught up in an exchange of letters in the campus newspaper with a few male students, all of them hawks. Some of them visited me in my office. I suggested to a couple of them that they might support the troops by actually joining them. “No, sir,” one told me, “We can’t do that. We’re down for law school next year.” I immediately thought of this exchange when I first read that Mitt Romney had “longed” to join us in Vietnam and that other commitments prevented him from making the flight.

And so, admittedly, my decision to embark upon the writing of a Vietnam War memoir originates in the big chip that still rests on my shoulder, increased in weight by the current set of dangerous circumstances, brought about by privileged members of my generation who may have “longed” to join in our great adventure in Southeast Asia, but who were noticeably absent from the roll call. I have no delusions that my little tale will turn the tide against the revisionist onslaught against the actual experience and the lived politics of the Vietnam War, but I am certain that it will help shed some light on two aspects of the war that belong in the record.

First, the gay American soldier’s experience in Vietnam is practically absent from the war literature. I happily discovered that U.S. forces were simply loaded with gay guys, so my own story is hardly definitive. But it is a gay story, let me tell you! During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, I provided friends with amusing anecdotes about escapades from Nha Trang to Saigon. Quite honestly, I came out of the closet while a young man in a combat zone. In fact, I insisted on declaring my sexual orientation in Vietnam, because the Army had made me an honorary heterosexual just in order to draft me. At my induction physical, I checked off “homosexual tendencies” only because “homosexual orientation” wasn’t on the questionnaire. Warm bodies were needed in 1969, and I was drafted on the spot. And, to my delight, sexuality merged with politics in the war zone.

Second, by the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, command had broken down in several areas, not only where we REMFs* were located, but out in the field, where it really counted. For us, the breakdown meant the refusal of orders and the development of gangs in uncounted units, often along the lines that Oliver Stone accurately portrayed in Platoon. Recall the hooch where Wilhem Defoe teaches Charlie Sheen how to smoke dope using a rifle, the quintessential cinematic portrayal of a “shotgun hit.” That hooch was my address in Vietnam. There were other addresses, many of them quite unfriendly and potentially dangerous. I feared many of my fellow soldiers more than I feared the Vietnamese, even though we had much to fear from the locals as the war cascaded to victory for Hanoi.

The breakdown in command accompanied an amorphous anti-war movement among the troops that threatened battle-readiness not just in Vietnam, but throughout the world, including West Germany. The evidence is clear that Nixon’s decision to start pulling out U.S. troops was based, in part, on the conclusion that we could no longer be relied upon to follow orders. This is a major aspect of our country’s history in the Vietnam War, and it formed the context of my lived experience there. I want to give insight into this collective, oppositional consciousness that helped determine the outcome of the war.  At the age of 70, I want to bear witness to it.

[*The acronym REMF stands for “Rear Echelon Mother Fucker,” the term used derisively, and quite understandably, by combat soldiers to label the fortunate sons, including Haines, posted to relatively safe non-combat medical and support units.]

* * * * *

W.D. Ehrhart’s work is among the most important literature shaped by the American experience of the Vietnam War and the post-war struggles of his generation. He is a Marine combat vet whose early poetry appeared in the legendary collection, Winning Hearts and Minds. Although he never intended to be labeled a “Vietnam War writer,” critics—and his fellow veterans—regard him as a major voice in the ongoing attempt to make sense of what the Vietnamese call the American War. He is the author of several collections of poetry and of three memoirs, titled Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, and Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America. His many essays focus on contemporary political and social issues. The recently published collection of critical essays, titled The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart, edited by Jean-Jacques Mal, is available from McFarland & Company. Ehrhart teaches English and history at the Haverford School and lives in suburban Philadelphia. His work is widely used throughout the world in university courses about the war’s history and its aftermath. – H.H.]

Where the Dangers Lie

            The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is violent, fanatical, barbaric, brutal, intolerant, and . . . add whatever other adjectives you’d like to throw in.  I won’t argue that these characterizations are not true.  But over the summer and into the fall, I have watched and listened with increasing dismay to the shifting sands of the US approach to the situation.

            Not so many months ago, we were assured that the US would not get drawn into another war in the Middle East.  But all through the summer and into the fall came an endless barrage of stories about Yazidis being raped and buried alive by ISIS, and the horrifying videos of Americans and other Europeans being savagely beheaded by ISIS, and the failures of the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries to stem the advance of ISIS.

            The drumbeat for US intervention among US policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits began to grow louder and more insistent, and now the US is regularly sending airstrikes and drone attacks against the ISIS forces.  Airstrikes, but no more, we were assured.  This minimal military involvement, however, does not seem to be working, says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, who argues that we should put “boots on the ground” by embedding “teams of combat advisers with” Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.

            A year ago most Americans had never even heard of ISIS, yet now the US is once again militarily embroiled in a war in the Middle East.  What if we send US advisors and they prove to be ineffective, as they have proved to be over and over again ever since 1961—including in Iraq in the past decade?  Will we then have no choice but to send in the Marines?

            Of course, we’re not doing this alone.  Secretary of State John Kerry says that 40 nations have offered to join our coalition, though he adds, “It’s not appropriate to start announcing” which nations will participate and what each will do.  One remembers G. W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” that included such nations as Albania, Latvia, the Fiji Islands, and the Dominican Republic, and can only wonder which nations belong to our coalition this time.

            Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of slant-drilling and stealing his oil, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the US “does not take sides in Arab-Arab disputes.”  What would you make of that if you were Saddam?  Only after he acted on what appeared to any reasonable person to be a Green Light from the US did the US decide that putting the Emir of Kuwait back on his gold-plated toilet was a moral imperative.

            We were told by a tearful young girl that Iraqi soldiers tore Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and threw the babies to the floor.  Only much later did we learn that the “eyewitness” turns out to have been the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, who was coached in her testimony before Congress by the same public relations firm that had handled George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election campaign.  Her testimony could not be and has never been corroborated.

            Meanwhile, the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be a bunch of rag-tag peasant draftees who were far more eager to run away than to fight Americans.  American audiences were never shown The Highway of Death by the American media, but the rest of the world saw it.  You want to talk bloodthirsty savagery?  Google “Highway of Death” and see what you get.

            And a year later, no less a person than George Will—no bleeding-heart liberal—admitted that the Kuwaitis had been doing exactly what Saddam had said they were doing: stealing Iraqi oil.

            Before the US started putting boots on the ground in the Middle East in August 1990, Iraq was a stable country.  Syria was a stable country.  Libya was a stable country.  Not happy places, to be sure.  But stable.  And secular.  Al Qaida didn’t exist.  ISIS didn’t exist.

            Almost a quarter of a century later, with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, US air bases in Saudi Arabia, and US army bases in Kuwait, how is the Middle East doing?  After eight years of US boots on the ground in Iraq, how is Iraq doing?  After thirteen years of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan doing?  How is Libya doing after being liberated from Muammar Gaddafi with significant help from the US?  Have we neutralized al-Qaida?  How can ISIS be so effective a fighting force with no air force, no navy, no Pentagon, and no assistance from any major world power while those on whose behalf we want to expend American treasure and American blood can’t defend themselves without our help?

            For that matter, where did al-Qaida come from?  Isn’t al-Qaida the direct descendant of those Afghan mujahideen the US so gleefully armed and funded against the Soviet Union back in the 1980s?  Isn’t ISIS a direct outgrowth of al-Qaida?

            Do we never seem to notice the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences playing itself out over and over again?  Do we not notice that the United States of America cannot make the world behave as we would wish?

            I am not arguing that what is happening in the Middle East is anything other than a disaster for those who are living in the midst of it.  I am not arguing that ISIS deserves a seat in the United Nations.  But I am asking: how much more damage are we going to do in the process of trying to fix the damage we have already done?  How many more enemies will we make trying to kill the ones we’ve already made?  Will the Middle East be better off after we have intervened once again?

            Finally, which is the greater threat to our national security?  Al-Qaida or a crumbling infrastructure of highways, bridges, and tunnels, leaking municipal water systems, and an ancient electrical grid.  ISIS or failing public schools, understaffed hospitals, and overcrowded prisons?  Afgan Taliban or a national debt of nearly $18,000,000,000,000 and rising every day by $2,450,000,000?  Islamist jihadis or a dysfunctional Congress gerrymandered beyond any possibility of compromise?

            We cannot bend the world into the shape we desire through military might, or by any other means for that matter, and our attempts to do so have failed time and time again.  Yet we seem to remain, as a people, as gullible as ever, once again stampeded into winless war by leaders so besotted by the hammer of American military might that they persist in seeing every problem in the world as a nail.

 

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