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The Battle Over What Vietnam Means: Individual Honor or Unpleasant History?

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So it's no accident the Pentagon is in the midst of a 13-year propaganda effort to clean up the war's image. It's called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project and it has been allocated $65 million over the next 13 years.

Charges of Stolen Valor

B.G. Burkett is a Vietnam veteran highly motivated by the idea that Vietnam veterans have not been given the honor they deserve. Driven by this, he painstakingly researched and wrote, with the help of Texas journalist Glenna Whitley, a 690 page book titled Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History. Burkett is also a political actor who was involved in the "swiftboating" of Vietnam veteran John Kerry when he ran for president.


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B.G. Burkett and his book Stolen Valor

For anyone on the antiwar side of the Vietnam divide, it's easy to dismiss such a work. So I spent a full day gleaning through the book, reading not every word but trying to understand its message. One central trope is the idea that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an illegitimate "epidemic" noted for veterans looking for a "tax-free living." In the same vein, complaints concerning Agent Orange are more "myth" than reality. In Burkett's view, those critical of the war tend to be either entirely phony vets or at least not all they claim to be. Thus, Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) come in for pretty damning analysis.

I know and work with many veterans from these organizations, so I don't give the thrust of Burkett's attack too much credibility. Yes, there have been cases of phony vets in the antiwar movement. I personally recall one when I worked with Iraq vets. Once his phoniness was understood, he was purged. The fact is, there have been just as many phony vets -- maybe more -- on the pro-war side. It seems to be a natural problem in a culture that so values military service.

In the 1980s, I worked with the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia and encountered a number of phony vets. Assuming a veteran status meant instant sympathy and respect for a man adrift on a sidewalk steam vent. There's also the case of Richard Blumenthal, a man who liked to speak of his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam. Actually, he had been in the Marine Reserves and passed out Toys For Tots at Christmas. When outed as a phony, Blumenthal apologized. This did not prevent him being elected US senator from Connecticut in 2010.

Burkett's research utilizing sources like the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis is, indeed, quite impressive. In a preface, Whitley says Burkett taught her "to be wary of the seduction of a "good story.'" Burkett emphasizes checking even the smallest detail. All assumptions are to be questioned. He claims to have ferreted out that there are 25 names on the wall in DC of men who are actually alive -- plus one apparently fictitious name.

The problem is all his prodigious research is aimed at shutting out history. Nowhere in the book could I find any questioning of the necessity of the war or any possibility the decisions to undertake and prolong the war were anything but justified by the assumed evil of the enemy. For someone so devoted to questioning the most miniscule assumptions, Burkett allows the really huge historical assumptions to go unquestioned. Ho Chi Minh and his communist minions were simply evil and everything we did to the Vietnamese was therefore honorable and justified. For 690 pages, Burkett drills this idea home. And anyone who questions it, ipso-facto, lacks honor.

In what may be a counterpoint of sorts to Burkett's book, Nick Turse has just published a controversial book called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam that re-ignites revelations that the Vietnam War was, in fact, not an honorable affair at all, but one that devolved into a cruel and brutal "body count" war against the Vietnamese population.

"Matter-of-fact mass killing that dwarfed the slaughter at My Lai normally involved heavier firepower and command policies that allowed it to be unleashed with impunity," Turse writes in his introduction.

At the end of his huge book, Burkett raises the question he says many ask him: "What do you want?" His answer: "I want an apology from America to every man and woman who served in Vietnam ... for the indifference and disrespect heaped on Vietnam veterans, living or dead, after the war."

This apology should come, he says, in the form of a "joint resolution of Congress" to be read by a US President at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. "It matters little if the president is a war hero or a draft dodger."

This is essentially the actuality surrounding the Pentagon's Vietnam War Commemoration Project, which very much echoes Burkett's formula of emphasizing the honor of individual soldiers serving in Vietnam, focusing especially on those awarded medals for bravery. In appendixes, he lists the names of 232 Medal of Honor winners, 1,048 winners of the Distinguished Service Cross, 488 Navy Cross winners and 182 Air Force Cross winners. He also lists 665 POWs who returned home alive. It needs to be noted, here, no one that I know in the antiwar veteran movement would discount one bit the honor and bravery under fire such lists recognize.

Does History Matter?

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
 

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