The Vietnam Syndrome

by on May 10th, 2004

Much has been made of John Kerry’s involvement in Vietnam, both as a soldier and subsequently as an anti-war activist. Admittedly, he has brought some of this attention on himself; while he criticizes his opponents for “using” his Vietnam-era activities against him, he simultaneously announces his status as a war veteran at virtually every appearance. Regardless, Vietnam remains a flashpoint for many Americans, and the wrangling over his behavior (or the behavior of the President, for that matter) during that time is very personal to a large cross-section of the populace.

One of the most enduring aspects of the Vietnam War is reflected in the debate over Kerry’s 1971 testimony before Congress in which he claimed a number of American soldiers engaged in war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam. Specifically, he said:

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the country side of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

At the present moment, the substance of Kerry’s testimony is less important than the overall cultural perspective it reflects. By 1971, Americans had clearly soured of the war. More importantly, many of them had at best a dim perspective on the American military. Returning soldiers were no longer greeted as heroes, but as murderers, “baby killers,” and the like. Images of graphic violence – and often seemingly senseless violence – caused many Americans to question not only the war, but also the morality of the soldiers themselves. Vietnam – and the soldiers who fought the war – became the elephant in the room, the topic no one was quite certain how to handle and which seemed destined only to cause division and dissention. Even today, accusations of atrocities reopen old wounds that the Pentagon would prefer to consider closed due to the passage of time.

Countless films reflect the alienation of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, from The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, or even Rambo. The same sentiments are echoed in more recent films like Forest Gump. By and large, the perspective was that society tried to shuttle their “soldier boys” aside. There were no parades, no tickertape for the survivors of Vietnam. Instead, they entered a political maelstrom that echoes to this day.

In response to this popular perception of abandonment, however, our culture has bent over backwards to try to “support our troops” in subsequent conflicts. Those who oppose war efforts routinely stress that they “support” the men and women of the military, and by and large there has been a concerted effort across the political spectrum to honor our troops with some token of appreciation for their efforts. One need only consider the outpouring of attention paid to the death of Pat Tillman, football player turned soldier, to recognize this fact. Yes, there are those who considered Tillman an idiot duped by a duplicitous government, but the majority of Americans regarded him as a fallen hero.

It is against this background that I wonder how the recent images from Abu Ghraib prison will affect Americans’ perceptions of their troops. The war in Iraq, much like Vietnam, has had a divisive effect on public opinion. The lack of the proverbial “smoking gun” in the form of the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction makes many question the grounds for the war while the incessant infighting of recent days makes others question whether the “war of liberation” can ever be successful.

The war was already quite unpopular in many quarters, not just in America but also around the world. Yet the majority of Americans still seemed to be committed to staying the course in Iraq, and regarded the war as the right thing to have done despite the ongoing casualties and bloodshed. These revelations may dramatically change all that. For many in the Arab world, the images from Abu Ghraib are simply confirmation of their already bleak assessment of America. But to many Americans, especially those in the post-Vietnam generation, they may bring about a dramatic shift in perspective.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated we haven’t even seen the worst of it:

In highly charged hearings before the Senate and House Armed Services committees, he also warned that evidence of even worse mistreatment of Iraqi detainees could emerge as U.S. investigations proceed. Appearing to be grappling still with the enormity and gravity of the scandal, Rumsfeld said he had finally been able to view much of the photographic evidence Thursday evening.

“Be on notice,” he said in a standing-room-only Senate hearing room. “There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist. If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse.”

Thus far, no videotapes of abusive treatment have reached the public. But photographs of U.S. military guards physically and sexually humiliating detainees have ignited worldwide revulsion, inflaming anti-American sentiment abroad and sparking a political storm at home. Pentagon officials informed senators privately this week that some of the videotapes show U.S. military personnel standing with corpses of Iraqis who may have been slain in prison, according to a senior Republican Senate aide.

This raises some daunting questions regarding abusive behavior by military personnel, especially as concerns whether it was confined to this one prison or not. But it also raises concern about whether American troops will continue to receive “support” at home, or whether they too will become pariahs like their Vietnam-era counterparts. Let’s go back to Kerry’s 1971 testimony for a moment: he told Congress that American soldiers had engaged in numerous war crimes in Vietnam. The assumption has long been that this was an overstatement, and that the atrocities of Vietnam were isolated and rare. Will Americans continue to “support our troops” in the face of shocking video footage depicting atrocious behavior in Iraq – and will we suspect that what we see is indeed but the tip of the iceberg?

Recently, I wrote that if military commanders (or military intelligence) encouraged this type of abuse in order to extract information from prisoners or to “soften them up” for interrogation, I didn’t think those commanders knew how to run a war – or, at least, this war. Not when this war is played out under such scrutiny and with so little margin for error in terms not only of public opinion here at home but with the many millions of Arabs who must “buy in” to American democracy in order for it to work in the region.

This war isn’t just about blowing up our enemies; it’s got to be about convincing others, most especially the Iraqis, to work with us instead of against us. Encouraging or condoning this behavior is inherently counter-productive. Indeed, the only logical action in the context of this war should have been to strive to do the exact opposite: to make certain that Iraqi prisoners were treated with the utmost respect in order to defuse complaints and win another battle in the war of public opinion. Regardless, the damage has been done. Now the only question is the extent of the harm – both to the cause of democracy in Iraq and in terms of our own willingness to stay the course.

The “support our troops” slogans of this war and the other conflicts since Vietnam were fueled largely, I think, by guilt. Those who felt that perhaps the soldiers of Vietnam were treated poorly in the court of public opinion were determined to avoid the same outcome by embracing the next generation of warriors. But to my generation, Vietnam is largely history, not a memory. To those younger than me, the atrocious images they see committed by their soldiers in Iraq are really their first encounter with the type of thing so many people struggled with while watching the Vietnam War play out on their TV sets. And I have to wonder whether public opinion will play out as it did then, with more people no longer treating the troops as heroes but rather as villains.

The result, I fear, is that these images will undermine civilian America’s respect for its military, erode our own faith in the cause of democracy, and only add fuel to the cries for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Already unstable, the country will descend further into civil war and ultimately be ruled again by some petty totalitarian dictator. I think that is the Vietnam Syndrome of the day, and I wonder, quite frankly, whether we can escape it. But we must try, because most of the troops stationed in Iraq and elsewhere are operating with good intentions and the objective – bringing democracy to the region – is a good goal. Now we must turn evil around for good and demonstrate that a democratic society works; we must break the cycle and not simply sweep the matter under the rug. Those who commit abuses, and the commanders who sanction or condone such conduct, must be punished. They must now be the example of how it is supposed to work when things go wrong.

Bill Wallo