It did not matter if a veteran had served in another theater. Anyone in uniform during this period suffered the same indignities. The sight of a uniform, any uniform, during the Vietnam War, justified any insult or assault. Servicemen had to disguise anything that might betray their identity so that they could move freely in the civilian community. Unfortunately, their haircuts, their farmer's tans, their very bearing gave them away, even when they were out of uniform. They had to wear their uniform on occasion, such as when traveling by air to enjoy discounted fares. They could not pay full fares on their meager pay. Thus, dissenters often congregated at air terminals where they found a target-rich environment. There were some who would attempt to defend them, but doing so made these good Samaritans equally targets.
Even the Boy Scouts suffered during this period and membership declined. Scouting leaders during this period downplayed the traditional uniform in an effort to stem the exodus.
Families of servicemen and women during World War II proudly displayed Service Flags on their homes to honor sons and daughters fighting for their nation. Few would dare to announce their involvement in the Vietnam War. Protesters would harass relatives of servicemen and women going so far as to send counterfeit death notices.
Why did this change come about? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably no more popular than the one in Vietnam. Pundits argue that the justifications of all three were equally contrived. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that served as the basis for the Congressional approval to escalate the war in Vietnam is dismissed just as fervently as the WMD's in Iraq.
Is it partisan politics? The Democrats own the beginnings of the war in Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East, at least their initiation, fell on a Republican watch. Thus, it does not appear that either party is immune to criticism. Unfortunately, there are many extant instances of politicians of both parties abusing their positions and authority for personal gain – money, sexual favors, personal advancement, etc – and all politicians are tarred with the same brush when these few are caught. It is also true that we can find historical periods wherein political corruption becomes all too common as when Mark Twain was prompted to write, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Thus, the press has had an audience willing to believe the worst in their political leadership when both the wars in Vietnam and the Iraq were instituted.
It is not my intention to enter the debate as to the justification for either of these wars, not in this posting. However, I am deeply concerned with the fallout of that debate inasmuch as it affects the service men and women who fought them, and I fear that the support being voiced for those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today is not sincere. I fear that they will be reviled one day, just as we who fought in Vietnam were.
“Reviled” may seem too strong a word to those who did not experience the era as an adult. It is not. Indeed, I would offer “despised,” “vilified,” and “abused,” without any qualms. I know that teachers regularly expose their students to evidence of war crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Vietnam. Simply Google “Vietnam war crimes” and you will be supplied with thousands of links. I would never suggest that there were none. The incidents at My Lai and others were heinous crimes, and the perpetrators justly punished. There were other incidents that were either successfully covered up by commanders or simply went unreported. The perpetrators of these too should be held accountable as well as any who helped them avoid prosecution. However, is it fair to tar all service men and women with the crimes of a few?
Amazingly, despite the fact that the enemy employed the civilian population as cover, that they often attacked from the homes of non-belligerents, and that they placed American soldiers, sailors, and airmen at great risk and forced them to make impossible decisions, there were relatively few incidents of war crimes. Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam, few were guilty of war crimes while, on the other hand, the Communists murdered tens of thousands intentionally and with impunity.
Had there been no war crimes, would the dissenters of the Vietnam War still have been active? Were they really protesting the injustice of the war or were they simply protesting their own potential involvement? Considering that dissent began long before any reported war crime, I suspect that the latter is closer to the truth. It appears that the level of dissent was closely related to the rate at which people were being ordered to register for the draft. Thus, it may be assumed that the primary motivation for their dissent was their unwillingness to serve or to have those they love – sons, brothers, cousins, friends – serve. Interestingly, this has been true in every war. The fairly leap to mind.
Some may argue that the dissenters were willing to fight for their country, but unwilling to fight an unpopular war. Really? Why then were almost three-quarters of those who served in Vietnam volunteers while almost three-quarters who served in World War II, a popular war, draftees. Whereas those who do not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not at risk of being drafted, the lack of overt attacks on veterans of these unpopular wars seems to support the contention that most dissenters during the Vietnam era were responding solely to the fact that they might be called to serve.
You may point to returning servicemen who joined the ranks of the dissenters as proof of the legitimacy of their protests. However, it may also be argued that they were possibly seeking cover. They lost themselves in the confusion of dissent to escape persecution. If they joined the dissenters because of guilt for things they did during their service, then we should investigate the grounds of that guilt.
However, all the foregoing sidesteps my ultimate concern – the treatment of the men and women who serve in wars. Most veterans up to and including those who fought in World War II have received the thanks of their nation, but little actual support. The wounded and disabled especially are treated in substandard facilities. Those who are discharged face a job market glutted and exploited by those who stayed behind. Beyond this, the veterans of certain wars – Vietnam and Korea – have received neither the nation's thanks nor their support. And, Vietnam veterans have received their nation's enmity. Despite protestations to the contrary, they have not yet seen those who assailed and assaulted them prosecuted or even chided. Celebrities who instigated much of the assaults on Vietnam veterans continue to enjoy great popularity and success. News people who fabricated false stories continue to bask in the respect of their peers.
Now, here's the dirty little fact that teachers and news writers like to avoid – crimes were committed by dissenters and they were committed with impunity. Indeed, the celebrities and political agitators who instigated these crimes also avoided prosecution. What crimes am I referring to? Assault and battery for starters.
Assault is an act that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent, harmful, or offensive contact. The act consists of a threat of harm accompanied by an apparent, present ability to carry out the threat. Many returning Vietnam veterans were met by hostile crowds demonstrating great temper and potential to cause harm. Obviously, a mass of protesters had the ability to inflict great harm to individual servicemen as they arrived home, and the vitriol of their "attacks" is unquestionable.
Battery is a harmful or offensive touching of another. Throwing paint and pig's blood on returning veterans is just about as offensive as it gets. How many punches were thrown? How many homes and vehicles were pelted?
The truth of these crimes committed by dissenters is long forgotten in today's classrooms, but the veterans are slandered with crimes they never committed. I do not believe that Vietnam veterans will ever be vindicated unless these persons are called to answer for their acts.
- A demonstrator putting flowers in the muzzle of a rifle is "...showing a more peaceful purpose for weapons?" Or, creating a visual oxymoron.
- "Make love not war?" Yes, I'd love to see you try that in a combat zone.
- Vietnam was not "a moral war." A slogan is a poor substitute for a thoughtful discussion.
- America was practicing "imperalism." That was true during the Spanish-American War and the Mexican-American War. Vietnam? Not so much.
- "This man was shot by an American soldier without a fair trial." That is my favorite. The man holding the gun is the police chief of Saigon. The man being shot was apprehended murdering Vietnamese civilians during the Tet Offensive. And, no, he did not receive a fair trial.
- "Many went to Canada." Yes, that's true, and Canada is welcome to them.
- "Over 1.5 million men were drafted during the Vietnam War." And? Most who served in Vietnam were volunteers. I was a volunteer. Many volunteered to serve second tours. I did.
Did the excess of war protesters during the Vietnam era shame today's protesters? Despite the popular support for our troops, the virulence of today's anti-war protests is just as strong as during the Vietnam era, possibly stronger. However, except for a few fanatics such as the Westboro congregants, its expression is directed solely at the politicians who support the wars and that portion of the population who support them. If the treatment we received is in any way responsible for the protected status of today's servicemen and women, then we suffered it for good cause.