Imagine a Columbus Day program about the Mafia, or a St. Patrick's day special on alcoholism, or a festival of Stepin Fetchit movies for Martin Luther King's birthday.
Imagine those, and you'll be ready for two segments of tonight's Veterans' Day programming on public broadcasting starting at 9 o'clock.
The segments are "Frank -- A Vietnam Veteran," and "Warriors' Women." Each does a technically astute job of perpetuating the stereotype of the Vietnam veteran as victim, criminal or both; as "walking time bombs," to use the popular phrase; as dope-dealing, wife-beating, alcoholic gun-nut suicide candidates who can't work because of the flashbacks and can't sleep because of the nightmares.
Frank -- we don't get his last name -- is a veteran of a tour in Vietnam with the Navy, riding on the river patrol boats. He won the Navy Commendation Medal and a couple of Purple Hearts, and ever since he came back in 1971, he's been in and out of mental wards, alcohol treatment units, homosexual flings, drug use, hallucinations that he's in combat, and his marriage.
All this might mean something if it weren't for the fact that Frank was a loser before he ever got to Vietnam. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and later "joined the Navy because I had to . . . I was wheeling and dealing in drugs. I got caught. I was given an alternative. It was either go in the Navy, or probably go to jail."
That was in 1962. He was in and out of the Navy until his third two-year enlistment took him to Vietnam. "I was a runner. Y'know, I couldn't stay in one place and face the problems in the situation . . . So I ran back into the Navy."
He has some peculiar things to say about Vietnam. He seems to have found it strange to be afraid. "I don't ever remember a time having any kind of contact at all, any kind of a fire fight at all, and not being fearful. And not being scared. Scared."
And, after describing how he robbed and mutilated corpses: "Yeah, I was not Frank. Y'know? I was John Wayne, I was Steve McQueen. I was Clint Eastwood . . . I was living a fantasy. And it became a reality when I got wounded the second time."
He was no 18-year-old glory hound just off the plane, keep in mind, he was 26 when he was "pulling their guts out and throwing it all over the place."
Somehow, Frank seems to have personally experienced most of the great barroom stories about Vietnam. (Neither the producer nor the director might have noticed this. Both had physical deferments during Vietnam, and had no Vietnam veterans on their staff.)
There's a collection of the gonads-in-the-mouth type of atrocities; there's Frank firing his .38 through the ceiling while conducting business in a whorehouse; there's a Vietnamese woman who, given the order to board a boat with only one item, drowned her baby and saved her pig; there's near-sexual ecstasy while killing people -- "This incredible sense of power in killing five people . . . the only way I can equate it is to ejaculation."
Just as he fulfilled the coarsest antiwar stereotype of a Vietnam warrior while he was there (assuming that these stories are true), he obliged by becoming the ideal victim when he returned. He became Therapeutic Man, a seasoned psychiatric interviewee skilled at winning our pity all the more by never demanding it.
And as of last March, he was employed as a social worker in Boston, thereby acquiring even more of a vested interest in the victim hypothesis.
The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America have objected to the program.
The second segment, "Warriors' Women," deals with several wives of Vietnam veterans. Except for the first case, in which the woman describes the difficult but successful readjustment of her husband, we get nothing but tales of loonies and losers, including one woman saying: "Most of the Vietnam veterans I know are in and out of jail, they drink all the time."
No one has ever denied that 20th-century combat has filled psycho wards and barrooms. But imagine: What if we decided to offer Vietnam veterans even half as much respect as we have pity? That would be a frightening situation for the onetime draft-card burners and atrocity mongers who've been living on self-righteousness and condescension all these years. Of course, there are more of them -- or at least they get bigger media coverage -- than there are Vietnam veterans, so it probably can't come as any surprise that these programs are on tonight as the public television contribution to the national celebration of Veterans' Day.
WETA has announced that it "will have volunteers standing by to take phone calls during the broadcast. The volunteers will include a psychiatrist, social workers, Vietnam combat veterans, Vietnam veterans' wives, and a drug/alcohol counselor along with Red Cross volunteers."