MY NAME'S Dean Phillips. By profession, I guess you'd call me an attorney. I was in Vietnam from 1967 to '68. I volunteered to go, mainly in protest to the way the draft was going. I didn't know anything about the international aspects of whether Vietnam was right or wrong. I just didn't like the draft, which is just about the most classist, racist thing I'd ever run into head first.
Since I returned I've spent most of my time working on issues involving veterans and lawsuits against federal agencies, things like that. Right now I'm an assistant to [Max] Cleland over at VA. The reason I moved to Washington from Colorado was that he told me that I could deal with certain issues. One is judicial review of the VA. The other issue was veterans' preference. Six years ago I assumed that the women's groups would probably attack veterans' preference in civil service hiring now that the war was winding down. Veterans' preference discriminated against women as a class because so few women were veterans. They never really howled about it while the war was on. But when the war ended, I heard a big onrush of crying because they weren't veterans. So an important cause was decided by the Supreme Court last June on this matter and I was involved in the government preparation.
WHEELER: What unit were you in?
PHILLIPS: 101st Airborne. I enlisted in the airborne in '66 and got the hell out in '68.
WHEELER: So you were a trooper?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I was with a LRRP [long-range reconnaissance patrol] team for six months. I got nicked a couple of times but nothing like other people sitting at this table have gotten hurt. I will say that I came out pretty strongly against the war when I returned. Very loudly and publicly. I think you were in Vietnam Veterans Against the War in '71, Bobby, and I joined it. But I was in Denver trying to get through law school, I didn't come down to Washington when they raised all the hell. Now that there's discussion of resuming registration for the draft, frankly, I'm in favor of that. I didn't think I'd come to that 10 years later, after my feelings in '71 and '72, but I'm taking some action of my own life, in my own way, to make my commitment to the 18-to-20-year-olds. I'm trying to get into the reserves at least. I used to hate the reserves, it used to be a way to duck active duty.
If I've readjusted at all, it's been because of my wife. She just passed the Virginia Bar. Now she's a lawyer. I met her when she was an emergency room nurse. She took care of me pretty well, I guess. If there's any stability in my life, it's mainly because of her.
MY NAME is Bob Miller. I started an organization that is now called Vietnam Veterans of America. It started almost 2 1/2 years ago. Its purposes are many. Most simply stated, it is to try and provide the still needed measures of assistance for the Vietnam veteran, to meet their needs that are attributable to their military service. It is to try and provide a measure of recognition and appreciation for what their experiences were and still are. It is to try and go beyond those two basic points to try and help America by our being the catalyst in the process of coming to terms with the experience of Vietnam.
Insofar as my Vietnam experience, I joined the Marines when I was a senior in college, which was back in May of '67 when I was sworn in. I was born in Geneva, Switzerland, with the name of Olivier Robert William Muller, Olivier for peace. It was in 1945. I came here as a young child. We grew up in a middle-income family in New York City and subsequently on Long Island. I went through junior high and high school in Great Neck, which is an affluent, liberal community. I went to college originially to become a coach. Physical education major for a couple of years. Transferred to Hofstra University and became a business major.
When I was a senior and I was on Dean's list consistently and I was very go-go in business, my professors advised me that I had better have military experience on my resume lest people would think I was a funny duck, and I was well advised of the fraternal nature of Wall Street firms, etc., and it would be a leg up and, my God, if I ever had any combat, as leadership experience that was yet another couple of points. Walked on campus one day and there was this Marine in dress blues looking real sharp and I said that looks good, let's do it. And with that, went in. Became honor man in my platoon and while I went in with basically a willingness to serve, I came out of Marine Corps training a basic lunatic. I demanded infantry, demanded Vietnam as my duty station and I got what I wanted. I lasted for eight months, served as a platoon commander, then company commander.Then I worked with MACV -- Military Assistance Command -- as an adviser to ARVN. [South Vietnamese army] units for four months. Subsequently, I did get shot, became a paraplegic. Came back stateside, spent a year at VA hospital, got out, thought that law was the way to affect society, went to law school, got a law degree, worked with the paralyzed veterans, left them to start a undertaking for the Vietnam veterans.
I'M JIM WEBB. I'm now the minority counsel to the Veterans Affairs Committee, House of Representatives. I grew up in a military family with my roots in the South, principally Kentucky and Arkansas. Went to the Naval Academy. Went into the Marine Corps after that. Once I left the Marine Corps, went to law school. I write, and there are times when I would like to think of myself as an attorney, although they're not very often.
I think the most veiled issue out of Vietnam, one that Jim Fallows is one of the few people to write courageously about, is that the whole nation of the generation gap during Vietnam was overplayed, and that the real story is the cleavage within the generation, the polarization, almost culture by culture, within our age group. And we must be very careful how we define culture. Culture keys on geographic area, it keys on ethnic background, it keys on profession, it keys on education, but the accumulation of those things probably were a greater determinant as to how people felt about societal duty during Vietnam than any other area. And for the most part, the generation, I think, has been maligned with respect to its beliefs about societal duty. I think that this is in many cases was furthered by institutions that did not understand how you deal with the war. We had an accumulation of people on college campuses during the war. They were readily available. They were grouped. They made good media and in my opinion they did not represent what was going on totally, fully, in our generation.
And this has been a concern of mine since I left the Marine Corps and went into Georgetown Law School. I went from an environment where Vietnam was the totality of our experience -- I went over with 67 lieutenants and 22 of them were killed -- to an environment where in three years, in a student body of 1,800 people, I met three people who'd been in combat in Vietnam. And it would not leave my head, and that is in effect, why I began writing.
My greatest concern is on the effects in a society as to how it views itself, as to what values are now going to be passed down by our generation. We came out of a period where dissent became probably the most legitimate form of dealing with government in that age. Not just through Vietnam. We fail to think in terms of the accumulation of the dissent issues when we try to pull Vietnam out. We had civil rights -- 1964: the Civil Rights Act was signed; 1964: the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was signed; 1968: the war peaked; 1968: Martin Luther King was killed. They intertwine. The effect, though, was that the primary way to deal with government in our age group as it was cutting its teeth was to dissent. And what values now are being passed down, either through our progeny or through the people that we deal with in any position of responsibility in a bureaucracy?
I look to military service, of course, as a societal duty. I feel very strongly about it. But I also wonder, given the confusions of that time period, which were legitimate for every individual, how a person who in the context of history committed an antisocial act, whether it was valid at the time or not, now deals with it when he has to look at his children and at the people that he deals with in any institutional sense and when they are confronted with the notion of whether they have a duty in some way to serve this society.
You can see that most clearly right now in the issue of the draft. We have right now probably the most inequitable draft imaginable. We have an economic draft. An army that by 1982 is going to be 42 percent black in its lower enlisted ranks, and that's not including the browns, the other minorities, and white enlistees have a lower educational level than the blacks. mAnd how are people dealing with it and why? What sort of self-image questions interfere in the logic of saying that we need a draft? These are the sorts of things that bother me.
I'M JIM FALLOWS. I now work for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. I've been a journalist most of my working life, about eight years or so. I grew up in a little town in California, in an upper middle class family.My father is a doctor. My father was, I guess, 15 when World War II started and 19 when it ended. His older brother was a foot soldier in Europe. My father enrolled in the V-12 [Navy college program] to become a doctor and was a Navy doctor during the Korean War. When I was growing up I was in high school in this town, Redlands, Calif., from '63 to '66 and there were the only first faint ripplings of complaint about the war then. This was a town that Goldwater nearly carried in 1964. Everybody that you knew was a Republican or of that bent.
So when I went off to college at Harvard in the fall of '66 I had no inkling at all that there might be reason to question this war that was going on at the time.I remember the first thing which stuck in my mind was a speech that Arthur Goldberg came to give at Harvard that winter, in January of '67. He was going to debate one of the Harvard professors about the war. So I heard the professor's case at length and I thought, well, now there'll be the answers from Arthur Goldberg. And Arthur Goldberg spoke for about an hour and there were no answers at all. None of the points were rebutted. And that sticks in my mind as the time when I began to wonder about the wisdom of the enterprise.
By the end of the four years I was at Harvard, by 1970, the conventional wisdom among everybody I knew, and me too, was that the war was a misguided enterprise and there was at that time a suppressed version of what has probably become a more deeply suppressed tension now, which is: How do you reconcile your sincere and deep opposition to a policy with your knowledge of what the class and social effects are of exempting yourself from what was going on? Now, the way that took place in college, which I've written about, perhaps to excess, is that almost everybody I knew from Harvard or similar colleges found some trick ways out of the draft, as I did myself, and everybody blinded themselves to the long-run consequences of this, of who was going when you weren't going yourself. There was a side of this which is explicable as the behavior of people under pressure. There was a side of it which was noxious, I think, which was the idea that the "war machine" would be brought to a halt if it were denied our bodies, and that this was the way to stop the war. And of course it is patent now that exactly the opposite took place: The more the burden of the war was shifted on families who had the least influence, the longer the war went on.
Five years after the time I had gotten out of my draft I wrote an article in The Washington Monthly called "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" which was trying to go into some of these things. I guess I find myself in a very awkward position talking about these things, because on the one hand I feel that there is a point to be made about the cleavage within our generation that all of you have talked about. I've gotten a little tired of making that point myself for a variety of reasons, the least of which is hate mail, which is sort of a daily staple in life. I think the more serious reasons why I'm tiring of this are first, one's aversion to sounding like a scold. That is a pose that nobody wants to take and I don't want to take. Second is, there is an overtone in this of wearing the hairshirt and guilt, which is not the point that I think to be brought out. There is not a necessary stage of everybody purging their guilt. But the real thing that needs to be done, I think, is at least to face what-all went on and try to reconcile the different camps of our generation, because otherwise I think there is a sometimes deeply and sometimes not so deeply suppressed resentment and grudges of one sort of another of all of these different parts of our vintage for the other parts. And unless those are examinded and brought out, I think we'll be in trouble in the long run. I fear a blacklash if these things aren't talked about fully enough. People will become big militarists to try to prove that this part of their background is not something to be ashamed of. So that is why, while I am personally tired of talking about these things, I think it is crucial to have some venting of them among our people.
I'M JACK WHEELER. I was born while my father was in the Ardennes getting his tank company taken apart by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. I'm an Army brat and I spent 20 years growing up traveling around the world with my pop and our family. I went to West Point. I graduated in '66. I got good grades so I went into artillery. I think that I learned a little bit at West Point about war. I think I picked up enough to know that this war was not well guided. At any rate, I took an opportunity I had, as an academy graduate with high enough class standing, to go to Harvard Business School for an MBA.
I then went to the Army general staff in Long Binh in Vietnam and worked on logistics matters and I lived in the "M*A*S*H" subculture. You know that "M*A*S*H" is about Vietnam. That's where I lived. The helicopters coming in every day. The dead men and the wounded men and the crazy ladies and all the doctors. That was Long Binh. In subsequent service, I worked in the office of the secretary of defense. I studied biological warfare and other matters of strategic analysis. And then I worked on the Joint Staff for a year as a "hired Russian," assuming the role of a Soviet nuclear strike planner to test our defense. I went to law school after that and decided it wasn't a soldier I wanted to be for the rest of my life. Went to Yale, graduated, clerked for a year and practiced law.
My main concern is the one that we're putting our finger on here. There's a fracture in our generation and it was struck by the Vietnam War. The demographics, I think, are that there were 30 million men in our generation, roughly, who matured, say, '63 maybe to '70. Out of 30 million men, there are 3 million who served in the combat zone.
WEBB: As I understand the figures, there are 27 million and 2.7 million.
WHEELER: The reason I bring it up is, you say, "the Vietnam War" and the period defined 3 million men who went into the combat zone. I think that when you talk about a fracture in our generation, it would be tempting to say that the older 27 million men and roughly 30 million women were perhaps not so formidably affected by the war. But I just don't think that's true. And the way I phrase that question is to wonder if, to pick a name and with all respect for his courage, was Tom Hayden defined politically by the Vietnam War? I think the answer is yes. The war was amold and to understand our generation, if we look at the mold we can see how the different pieces got broken.
WEBB: If we're going to talk figures, we should say that there were almost 9 million people who wore the uniform during that period and many of them who were here stateside were as affected by having to wear the uniform as someone who was in some of the areas in Vietnam.
WHEELER: Thinking about a fracture in these terms, where I've come out in terms of suspecting a result is that the men who served in the combat zone have something distinctive to offer and that there are some barriers to letting us do that. And I'd like to put my finger on what it is distinctive we have to offer, what can be done about enabling us to do that. And I suspect the mainspring of that for us would be the process we went through in getting to the war zone and of a sense of allegiance to the men who are dead.
I'M LUCIAN TRUSCOTT. I was born in Japan, raised in the Army. By the time I was 18 I'd lived in 30 houses or something. Went to West Point, graduated in 1969, went into the Army, got kicked out of the Army a year later for writing for The Village Voice and at the same time didn't go to Vietnam because to make a long story short, I had a conversation with a lieutenant general on the telephone from my trailer in Colorado Springs, was threatened to be sent to Vietnam punitively if I didn't withdraw an article I had written for publication and I threatened to sue him if he did anything like that. I never went and I got kicked out. And then I went to work for the Voice for five years, then I free-lanced for awhile, then I wrote a book and now I'm writing books.
My interest is in these demographics: 27 million people coming of age during the war. And if you got 27 million who came of age and 9 million who served, that's 18 million who didn't. That's twice as many that didn't serve. Now to mention 30 million women that didn't serve. The way that I look at this thing is to look at it sexually, basically from the standpoint of the war betweeen the sexes. Now what went on during this whole time, when there was also the civil rights movement, the women's movement came of age. But it wasn't just the women's movement, it was all kinds of things going on in the work force: 49 percent of the women between the ages of 18 and 45, I think, work now; 49 percent have jobs, full-time jobs. And if you go back 10 years or you go back to 1964, the beginning of the war, I don't know the figure, but I would imagine it's well below 20. So all kinds of things have happened between men and women during these years and I think that the most profound difference between men and women, aside from the obvious sexual one, is that during those 10 years every single guy who came of age in this country, who didn't just up and go to Canada immediately, had to make an extraordinarily profound moral decision about that war awfully quickly: whether or not they were going to register for the draft, go to jail, dodge the draft, continue valid or at least legal ways of getting out of the draft -- we can all remember what they were.
And my interest is in what's really becoming more and more, not less and less, a deep division between men and women in this country, because it really centers around the war. I can recall back in those days, having short hair and being at West Point, you were damned if you did and damned if you didn't. Every woman that you ever went out with thought you were going to be completely screwed up if you did go to Vietnam, on the one hand. But then there was always an undercurrent that if you don't go to Vietnam, then there's going to be something wrong with you as a man, because we all know that civilizations have constantly over the course of history called upon people to go and fight wars whenever wars have come along. And the people they've called upon have been men. And I think that the fact that women were not confronted with this decision that everybody had to make that was a guy back then, and were left free during those years to pursue the kinds of careers that make 49 percent of these women now part of the work force and to increase the number of their enrollments in law schools and whatever, I think that too little attention has been paid to that as an issue in general.And I think that too little attention has been paid to the 18 million guys who didn't go into uniform.
WEBB: It's not just a question of the battle between the sexes. It's a question of sexuality and just as important is: What about those 18 million men?
TRUSCOTT: That's what I came here to talk about, because if you want to do anything from now in this country you can't depend on the Vietnam War veteran vote. You know, you can't get five Vietnam veterans together to agree on which was a better unit, much less who to vote for, or what kind of hat was better to wear, or anything else.And so you've got to come to grips with this extraordinary number of people who didn't go into uniform.
I think a lot of guys are now in a position where they're questioning not so much whether they did their duty to their country and so forth, but whether or not they did their duty as a man. And increasingly during those years, and even more so today, I think that guys are walking around wondering: How are you supposed to act as a guy? Nobody really knows how to act anymore. Macho became a dirty word during these years.
WHEELER: Have you been reading Betty Friedan lately?
TRUSCOTTY: Yeah, I had a long interview with Betty Friedan. But here's a perfect example. When we were growing up, macho was when you were playing football, when they hiked the ball if you knocked over the other guy and he went down and you were still on your feet, the coach kicked you in the ass and said "Hey baby!" That was macho. Now these guys go out and run 20 miles, which is absolute masochistic self-punishment, and they brag about it. And thats macho! They're not knocking the other guy down, they're knocking themselves down. There's a perfect example of 180-degree flop of self-image.
WEBB: You mentioned Betty Friedan, Jack and she, had a comment that was quoted in one of the papers a couple of weeks ago that the 1980s are the period of males in our society to redefine what their role is. In the '70s the women did it and now in the '80s the men are going to do it. And she said, and this a pretty straight quote, "Machismo is dead. It died in Vietnam." And my reaction to that is no, it didn't die in Vietnam. If it died at all in this society, it died among the people who have to question who they are as a male because, through one way or another, they avoided what is the quintessentially male function in a society, and that's going into uniform. They're having to deal with that.
FALLOWS: What's the quintessentially male thing again?
WEBB: Defending your society. Taking up arms and defending your society.
HARWOOD: You guys are all very successful and intelligent and articulate. To what extent can you speak for the mass of your fellows, the other 8 or 9 million people who put on the uniform during those years or the 20 million who didn't?
WEBB: I keep up with nine or 10 people out of my platoon, people who served under me, and a number of them are very close friends of mine and I get some pretty good feedback from them. The final scene in my book is a scene where a guy goes back to Harvard. He just got his leg blown off and he says some very angry things to a crowd, after having been pushed into speaking at an anti-war rally after the cambodian incursion. And the reaction to that final scene within our age group is almost completely split. I have literally a hundred letters from people who were former grunts saying, "Dammit, somebody finally said it." At the same time I can look at reviews from people -- you know, a professor of English at such-and-such a college -- who will say, "Webb's book is really good until the final scene," because it was very obviously where they were coming from. So I think the issue really is defined and there are some objective ways to show that.
FALLOWS: I had a professor-of-english reaction to the final scene, because it did not resemble what I remember from my time at that school. But I think the reason it has touched off the kind of emotions that you talk about is that is the explicit laying down of the glove. It is where you make the accusation, and that is opening up the suppressed wound or the partially closed wound.
WEBB: To further define the cleavage, in May 1970 I was stationed at Quantico, at OCS [officer candidate school], and when the lid went off the enlisted people who were assigned to OCS, the instructors, aggressors on the operations and this sort of thing, most of these people were recently back from a tour in Vietnam and hadn't seen their family in a year. And while colleges canceled classes in order that people could go down on the mall and do whatever they were doing, large numbers of these guys were locked into rooms 25 percent the size of this room. We'd sit in there for an entire weekend, 30 guys in a room packed in with a PRC 25 radio, waiting to be called to go down to Washington or to the main gate of Quantico or whatever, and I never saw the bitterness in Vietnam that I saw in those rooms.
TRUSCOTT: The way I would describe it is the feeling of being discriminated against. When I was at West Point, people used to come up from New York all the time because it was 50 miles away and it was the closest uniforms around. Fort Dix was Jersey -- nobody wanted to go there. West Point was pretty. Vassar girls used to come over and demonstrate. And I put a thing in my book where I said, guys that were there resented the fact that they were coming down the steeet at West Point where all these people were being traineed to go and fight in Vietnam and they never went out and demonstrated at the Harvard Business School, where they were being trained to go down and sell war stocks, war profiteering. That was the boom-boom years -- there were guys who cleaned up and got out in those years selling Dow Chemical and every other damn thing. And people felt discriminated against and embittered.
I'M PHIL CAPUTO. I was born on the West Side of Chicago of Italian parents. In my case it was fourth generation, but it was a working class family. I came from that level of society that I would say supplied most of the enlisted men to the war, and it was just by kind of a freak that I was an officer.
I was in the Marines. Like Jim, I was a platoon commander for most of the time I was over there. About three or four months, I was on a regimental staff. I had gone over there when the shooting match started in 1965. And, of course, one of the odd things about that war is it was so amorphous, it had no concrete begining. There was no Pearl Harbor, no North Koreans going over the DMZ or anything like that. When I say it "started," it was with the first commitment of American ground combat forces, and that happened to be the brigade that I was with. And I was there a total of 16. months, which is three months over the normal 13-month tour. If you've read the book, you know why I was there for the extra three months. I was under investigation for what I kind of call a miniture My Lai, when a squad that I had sent into a village killed a couple of Vietnamese civilians whom we had thought to be Viet Cong and turned out not to be. And so there was this rather lengthy investigation that was leading up to a general courtmartial for five of the eight men who were involved and myself.And a lot of people have said, "What did you do in the war?" And I've said that I was recommended for a Bronze Star for heroism and recommended for a general courtmartial, and received neither.
When we went over in '65, when I think back about it, I feel as if emotionally, attitudinally, we were, all of us, much closer to our fathers' generation than we were to people who were, let's say, freshmen when we were seniors. the people who were only four to five years younger than I seemed totally different in the way they looked at the world than I did, at least at the time that I went over. Now I came back extremely embittered, but that was probably due to the peculiar circumstances and what happened to me over there. Obviously, that kind of investigation, while it was perhaps more common than we care to believe, wasn't anything like a universal experience. I was not only embittered but, I think, not healthy psychologically. It must have been five or six years before I began to feel mentally integrated again.
I used to get reactions of inexplicable anger, almost a fury, that would just come over me like that. When I was first going out with the girl who's now my wife, we were in a restaurant one night. I was shortly out of the Marines. I remember we were in a restaurant and I was looking at everybody, and I knew what was going on over there. I still had all sorts of buddies of mine who were over there, and in fact I had recently heard about one who had gotten killed, and I was watching everybody eating dinner, they were all well dressed and everything and she said, "What's the matter?" And I said, "Let's get out of here. In about two minutes I'm going to get up and start busting heads." And I said, "I don't know why." I wanted to go there and wipe that restaurant out. It was so strong in me. My whole body was tensing up.
And that was followed in about an hour or two by this black depression, almost like I felt guilty about feeling so infuriated that I got very, very depressed about the whole thing. And I was undergoing those kind of side waves, emotions going like this, all the time, to the point where there was a period in my life where it seemed like the only emotion I was capable of was rage. And I think that -- not to get ridiculously personal about the whole thing -- that the reason I married the girl I did was because she was the only person I could be around that I didn't feel like breaking her jaw.
And for a long time I thought, "Well, this is me, I'm crazy, I'm a madman." But after I wrote the book, I've received five or six hundred letters and almost every one of those letters that's from a combat veteran, as compared to the guy who ran the pizza parlor in Saigon, said the same thing: that they had these same, inexplicable, unstable emotions, of which it seemed that anger was the dominant one. And then they talked about how it became, in their own lives, a frozen rage, which I think creates a kind of depression, to the point where they can't even express anger any longer.
WEBB: I went through law school the same way.
TRUSCOTT: I would just note that while all this was going on and all these people were feeling rage, the women's movement had picked rage as their favorite word. I remember a story by Gloria Steinem, "What are We Going To Do With Our Rage?" When are we going to get our husbands to help with the dishes? I mean, that word was just beat to death.
CAPUTO: It's the same people that like to bandy the word "guilt" around. Guilt and rage -- you could pick it off your emotional supermarket shelf and say, "Well, I'll feel this now and then I'll put it back." But I don't think any of them know what it's like to feel the kind of rage that I think might motivate some criminals into criminal acts. That kind of destructive, antisocial feeling.
PHILLIPS: I felt anger because I had a platoon of 26 people and five of us came out in one piece.And I had the feelings you had, like I'd go into a public place where people my age, it was business as usual or it appeared to me to be business as usual. And I thought to myself Jesus Christ, you know, one of my best friends is blown in half and I keep thinking about that and here is this jerk sitting over here and the most important thing in his life appears to me to be whether the Dodgers win the penant. I don't really know what cross that person is bearing, but I felt an alienation. Veterans Against the War for six months, or whatever I wasd in, I didn't think that we spoke for all veterans. But I still felt that there was something to say there, and it was said in a few months, at least for me, and then I got out of it. I was anti-Vietnam War, I just thought the war was wrong. Fine. But there were other groups that were pro-North Vietnam. And I said, "What the hell's going on here? I'm not pro-f---ing North Vietnamese." We didn't get along. At least, I didn't get along with the other groups that were against the war. But I still had to make my statement, you know. And it took months to get my stuff together to say it, and maybe I still don't have it together because I feel strongly about it.
when I applied to graduate school, the admissions committee was three people. One of them was a professor who didn't want any Vietnam vets accepted at graduate school. Its incredible. They were blaming the war on the warriors. I know its trite, and all this, but it's true. And the point is, I thought to myself, hey, look, I didn't come here and say, "Hey, I'm a veteran. Here's a few rows of decorations and I want some." I wanted to forget it. I wanted to melt back into society. But the thing was, they wouldn't let me. Here I am, a supposed liberal, right? Yet people that saw themselves as liberals would label me a dam right-winger.
WEBB: I do not think that there has been enough recognition by society that this sort of thing went on. in the Bakke case, the reverse discrimination case, the Post did an interview with the one member of the board who had voted in favor of Bakke's admission, his initial application. And his comment was that the other two people had felt very strongly against admitting Bakke because he had been a Marine.
PHILLIPS: He was a captain in 'Nam, 10 months.
CAPUTO: Well, I had never run into any discrimination in my personal life after I got out, nor did I know anybody that happened to, personally, but I have come across cases in the press. It still angers me, because I still think there is a residue of that feeling among people who were ideologically committed not to the inhumanity of the war but who were ideologically committed either to some kind of national self-flagellation or ideologically committed to seeing the "agrarian reformers" take over. My heart was never in the antiwar movement. I didn't get into it until two things had happened. I had covered the Kent State massacre. And I was on the side of the students, because I interviewed the National Guard commander and I was saying, "Why did you guys ..."
PHILLIPS: Was this the major general?
CAPUTO: No, this was the guy who was on the ground; he was a captain or a first lieutenant. And I said, "Why did you just fire into this crowd? I know they were hassling you." And he made this description that sounded like something out of a Kipling novel -- the thin red line and here come the fuzzy-wuzzies -- and he says, "We had no choice but to, you know, 'First rank, kneel!'" And he's giving me this stuff and going on and on and I got PO'd at him and I said, "Look, asshole; I've been really shot at," and then he nearly threw a brick at me. And that started turning me around.
But the big thing was when that guy [John] Kerry got up and started making a speech. Now, whatever his personal motives were, his political ambitions, he did say a lot of things that echoed things I felt. And so, with him and the formation of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I felt, well the only people who have a right to say anything against the war, and I still feel that way, were the ones who were there, who had suffered through it.
But, again, when I was in that organization, you know, we did have contact with the other anti-war organizations and I had the same exact reaction to them. I didn't like them. And I used to get to some points where I would deliberately get outrageous. I recall that there was one meeting where there was a group from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and another group from the SDS and another group. I walked into the place wearing a supertight Quantico Marines sweatshirt. It says, "U.S. Marines, Quantico, Virginia." And I had that on and kind of walked in flexing and acting like I was going to go bust somebody up. And just to upset them, put them off balance. Almost like I wanted them to hate me.
MULLER: Rage is something I continually work at to control. Were it not for the fact that I met the woman who is my wife, I'd be dead today, I am convinced. Because I would have taken a rifle and just made very public my sentiments. My wife literally has saved my life through finding the love that we've developed in our relationship and the ability to temper what's in me and give it practical and effective application.
When I came back, I had been the officer, I had been normally in charge of everything that there was going in the field, because I was senior man and, in the Marine Corps especially, I was God. All right? When I said, "Go left" or "Go right," it was done, and there'd be no questions asked. Plus, there's a very strong sense of power when you can call in jet strikes, artillery and the battleship New Jersey. You know: massive ego trip. To come into the VA hospitals and become the veteran and literally have a GS 5 who's got 20-something years perhaps in, slow-stepping guy, who balks when you ask if he would get you a pitcher of water because you can't get out of bed, and you've got to ask him three times.
It started to build, the sense of anger. When I was summarily dismissed, as I was, by the doctors and by other people in the VA system, I, who had always been very dutiful and very respectful of authority, made a decision. Very quickly. That if I was to survive, I had to fight back and I had to go against the people that I was naturally inclined to be very deferential to. gNamely, doctors. Foremost. And I started to speak up. Literally, for reasons of survival. Borne out by the fact that eight of the guys on my spinal cord injury wards have committed suicide since I was in the hospital. Including my closest friend. Life magazine came in and did a cover story, right at the time of Kent State, on my ward and I was there. And it was the largest selling issue Life ever put out. Cover story on the neglected wounded, I was the spokesman for the guys. So I started doing some media, some television, etc. I had guys from VVAW come by and talk to me because of my visibility. And I gravitated toward VVAW and I became a spokesman, although never a member. I couldn't surrender my very individual sense to anything, including VVAW, as much as I could agree with a lot of it.
Every single Vietnam veteran that I knew was a member of VVAW. I did not know a Vietnam veteran who was not in great sympathy with what we were going through collectively, most notably in public here in '71, with throwing the medals back. Every one of my friends went through the antiwar process, eventually flipping out, freaking out and going to the woods, going away or whatever. Some for a period of years, to settle within themselves their experiences. And basically all of them have put it together and are doing something with their lives in one way, shape or another. I realized, as I started with this Vietnam veterans' organization that we got going here, that my experience, which I thought was the predominant experience of Vietnam veterans in this country, is clearly the minority experience. What I found was those of us who gravitated toward VVAW -- and who did so, by the way, mainly not for the politics of the organization, or opposing the war, as much as for the opportunity to have a peer group, to have guys that you could relate to. It was a forum to meet other guys, to share experiences and to rap it through. That is what the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans across the country have never had.
When you compare the statistics that you have come in, saying close to 80 percent of Vietnam veterans have never really talked about their experiences, you then realize how fortunate, I think, and unique the Vietnam Veterans Against the War experience was. But this all goes to the whole thing: Where is the Vietnam veteran, and are we represented? The activists in the Vietnam veteran community that relate to veterans' organizations, to veteran issues and forums and symposiums, are, by and large, clearly left-wing, anti-draft, anti-military, angry guys. But that is not the whole population. What will be the consensus amongst the majority who we haven't heard from, I don't know.
What I'd like to say is that Vietnam -- the experienced and the issues -- is too often looked at in terms of black and white and, for me, clearly, you cannot deal with any of this stuff in a superfcial way. It is the gray. It is my roommate from basic school in the Marine Corps who served also as an infantry platoon commander and when I said, "Kevin, why don't you join me in speaking out against the war?", he said, "Bobby, I agree with you but I wrote to 26 mothers whose sons were killed under my command and I cannot publicly acknowledge that their deaths were for nothing." It's that kind of push-pull that makes any simple reduction in the statement of where these guys are coming from the wrong thing to do. I think it's remarkable that VVAW still stands to this day, in my opinion, as the only viable representation of the Vietnam veteran community. There has not been another organization that has been able to say that it represents a broad base of Vietnam veterans.
WEBB: You know, I never met a member of VVAW until I came up on the Hill in '77, and I've been around an awful lot of people that I served with and classmates of mine, etc. In talking to people who had active positions in VVAW, as near as I can figure, there were never more than 7,000 Vietnam veterans in the organization totally. And what they said, although they had the right to say it, never represented my emotions about Vietnam. And again, I think, when you're talking about how representative are we, perhaps we should also talk about how representative have been the issues that have been addressed over the years, and these symbolic events.
We talk about Kent State. One of the great ironies to me when we look at Kent State is that for years people in Ohio, in that area, have been attempting to get a monument erected to that accident. Four people died at Kent State in an accident and a community wants to use that as a symbolic event that represents what went on in Vietnam. And the proposed monument is an older person with a dagger pointing at a younger person who is dying. That supposedly is Vietnam. The generations gap. And I just wonder how many of Ohio's citizens died in Vietnam and I wonder how many monuments there are, either existing or recommended, to the people of Ohio who died under other conditions.
WHEELER: I think that the war was unique. I think that by the same token we are unique, because of the pressure. A lot of men were chewed up by the war experience, some were killed, but if the heat in the oven was higher, the steel that comes out has got to be better. And I want to affirm something: that out of that process, and out of eating our own death -- and we're doing it by outselves, frankly, betrayed by the generation ahead of us -- I think the challenge that lies before us is not to get ourselves set up as some kind of superminority, one more special interest group, but, instead, to figure out what it is we have to offer. And I think the heat was higher and we do have something special to offer out there.
And there's an example and it's you, Bobby Muller. When I met you -- do you remember the night? -- what did I say? Three years ago. I said, "Bobby, you're going to be a leader." And what did Time magazine do a year ago? Out of 50 young American leaders, how many vets? Who? Muller! See what I'm getting at? Chop off his legs, you know, and you bring him back and the rats crawl over his bed, OK, and what do you get? You get a sign. The sign is that there is unique leadership capability. Our job while we're up on the cross, and we are, every one of us, is to eat the death all by ourselves . . . There's too many guys in [the older] generation that walked away. And there are too many guys in our own generation who don't understand how the war shaped them, unlike Jim Fallows. We, who were in the combat zone -- especially you who were in the bush for more days of engagement with a hostile force than has ever happened since the First World War -- we have to get over that and eat it ourselves and give what we've got to our country because I think the damn country needs it. And not only that, we've got to convince the other 57 million people in our generation of what it is we have to offer and get somebody to give us a chance to start carrying out our mission. There's a lot of positive that can come out of the experience.
CAPUTO: There certainly is. But there is a reluctance that borders on a kind of retirement about Vietnam veterans, it seems to me, becoming leaders. a
TRUSCOTT: A reluctance to reembrace leadership.
CAPUTO: And I don't know how that's going to be overcome. Jim's got a perfect background for it: He's a lawyer, lives here in Washington, lot of medals. If he had been in World War II, at the age he's now at he would be in the public limelight, he would be running for some office. And his decorations, his war experience would be great pluses. Tomorrow, if Jim declared his candidacy for some office and he got up and he said the things that he said or implied in his book, "that I was there, that I served and I'm proud of what I did," I maintain that he wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell. The only way right now that a Vietnam veteran can become a leader in the political sense of the term is that he does the self-flagellation number: "Oh, I was there and it was so terrible and so awful and I'm so sorry for burning the villages and please forgive me."
And that attitude still prevails, I think, within the "establishment" within this country, and until the time comes that somebody does analogously what we've done here . . . I mean, these books broke the ice. Until these books were published, that subject was as anathema as pornography was in the Victorian era. I'm not kidding you. My editor told me that when she first got the manuscript, she wouldn't look at it for two weeks. Wouldn't even read it. And until this kind of thing happens on a national political level, we're going to see that leadership because these guys are going to be afraid of being, if you will, hurt again.
WHEELER: Well, there's one thing about leadership that Lucian put his finger on, and it's the thing I treasure in his book. He says one thing about leadership, he says it's the f---ing secret: You've got to be willing to die for your men. Now, that suggests sacrifice and an intimate knowledge of what sacrifice means. And if you can think analytically about what it is that we would carry out of the furnace of our experience, I think one of them is that kind of gut-level knowledge of sacrifice and how you weave it into the fabric of policy. And maybe, to give you a precise answer, there are two kinds of politics -- there's elected politics but there's also something just as important, called appointive politics. And maybe the shrewd senior presidential appointee or the president himself can figure out that there's a line of attributes that runs among certain men like Jim that says, that's the right man for the job.
CAPUTO: I think that the veterans of the war do have a lot to contribute to the country and on a political leadership level, and I think that it is sorely needed right now. It's probably dangerous to speak in such generalizations, but I tend to think that people who were in Vietnam are much more clearheaded about what needs to be done to get this country, which I feel -- it's the conventional wisdom now -- is in a mess.
And I think there's another qualification, and that is that Vietnam veterans, having served in such a brutal and futile conflict, would be -- despite the public image of them being warriors and bloodthirsty -- actually would be much more reluctant and much less cavalier about saying, "Oh well, let's send a battalion into Lower Volta" or something like that. I think they would be much more clearheaded about what to do. I think they would be much more judicious in making that decision, because they know what it was like. They didn't, like Carter, float around in a nuclear submarine in peacetime. But I think that, once having made that decision, they they wold say to themselves, all right, now what can we do to make this operation successful? In other words, let's win it. Which obviously, as far as our foreign policy goes right now, is absolutely crucial.
WEBB: I think one of the clearest manifestations of that is the recent interview with [Col. Charles] Beckwith on this aborted raid. We all have our opinions about whether and how and why and everything else, but when Beckwith was asked, rather patronizingly, I thought, "Couldn't you have been just a good soldier and taken those five helicopters and gone on in," he looked at the guy who asked him and said, "With all due respect, you don't know where you're coming from." Anybody who has pointed his finger and seen somebody drop at his behest, that will never leave him. And it is a very good thing to have.
But I would like to be just a bit more optimistic, I think, than either of you are. Some of these things have a way of working themselves out. We are in a watershed time in this country, and I think that people are starting to look around for new answers, and when they look around for new answers they're going to be looking for new role models. I think what the people are going to be looking for is individuals who have manifested a sense of country. We are advancing out of this notion of dissent being the only way to deal with policy, and we're getting into looking for more affirmative approaches.
Again, without being patronizing, I think that Jim Fallows has manifested an enormous sense of country and of attempting to come to grips with these things without regard to putting ego first or self-image first. Those sorts of people are just as important as our sorts of people.
TRUSCOTT: What you've been talking about has been a process of rebuilding. And I think there's more personal rebuilding going on, and more success at it, among Vietnam veterans than there is among the 18 million guys who didn't go. I'm beginning to see guys coming back around and saying, "Man, I'm going to go ahead and be a leader," and breaking off from the law firm and starting their own law firm and doing it. There's a lot of it going on among veterans of all stripes, and I think that the people that need that kind of leadership and experience the most are the 18 million that came of age and didn't go. They need to hear what it is that Vietnam veterans have to offer so that, to be trite, each side can sort of stop hating the other one.
The other thing that I'd like to address here is that there's an extraordinary amount of responsibility for what goes on in the military leadership in this country itself. If you go back and look at people's careers and where people are now -- who are the guys who are running the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Marines? Who's the chief of staff? Who was the last chief of staff? Who was the one before that? Who's DCSPER [deputy chief of staff for personnel]? Who are all these guys? They made a conscious decision as far back as 1966 and '67 that that war was going in the toilet, and they started grooming guys who had one year over there as a whole colonel and kept his ass stateside. Bernie Rogers is a perfect example. He was an assistant division commander over there and then came back and was statesided and cushioned and protected along, so that by the time the war was over and so forth he could become a decent chief of staff that nobody was going to get real upset about, because he wasn't going to be some no-neck gorilla in there that says, "Now, I did 40 tours and I'm going to chew nails and eat tacks and fire the hell out of you." No, they needed Clean-for-Gene types, and they started grooming those types, and they started grooming those types back that far and, as far as I'm concerned, that's reprehensible.
MULLER: What we're talking about is today. And who's running the military today is a continuance of who was running the military back then.
Part of the rage was: Vietnam offered many different kinds of experiences for the soldiers. I went through a large number of them. It differed as to where you were geographically and when you were there. I was there in '68. I operated primarily in northern I Corps. And I did go from the Highlands, through the villes, and so on and so forth. And I also worked with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese. Part of my sense of rage was: Any guy who was in the field had to know that a "McNamara line" was concept generated thousands of miles from where we were. An electronic barrier to prevent infiltration where we were was absurd. And yet they tried to perpetuate the farce that this is a technological barrier that's going to win the war. The writing was on the wall. I served as an adviser to three separate ARVN battalions, every one of which, every time we were in combat, split. Knot most of the time, every time! Godammit, the day I got blown away, I had a suicide squad left of NVA (North Vietnamese) that were dug in on a hilltop -- 16 to 20 guys max, and they held off me, 5000 f -- ing ARVN, 10 U.S. Marine tanks, an hour and a half heavy artillery prep, two flame tanks, everything! All right. They're tough. The Vietnamese, South, didn't want to fight. The writing was on the wall.
All right. I knew in 1968, as we were even starting to get out, there's no way, without us being there in a very heavyhanded way, that we're going to turn that thing around. The eventual settlement of the Vietnam question was resolved. And yet, when we come back and we spoke and we gave testimony to what we'd experienced and what the reality of Vietnam was, as opposed to the crock the politicians and the media were generating about what the reality of it was, we got infiltrated, we got called "the home front sniper," and it was allowed to continue through '73 when every one of us knew that were there, that were in the real fighting capacities, that it was going down the tube. We gave our ass, and we continued to give our ass, to save Richard Nixon's face. All right. And that's the cavalier manner that they used us, again, as the pawns as opposed to the fighting men.
WEBB: As you said, though, Bobby, realities varied.
MULLER: Yeah, but history proved me correct.
WEBB: I'm sure history has proven anybody correct.
TRUSCOTT: History has a way of going on and on and on.
MULLER: But the questions that were raised by that are the questions that are still there today. We had, in my opinion, admittedly, a systemic failure with Vietnam. We had a failure on the part of military to properly assess the situation and to implement the conduct of a war policy that could lead to a success. The failure of the military, added to the abdication of the Congress, the excesses of the office of the presidency, the effect of the media on the public and what that does to continuing the base of support for a war effort, are questions which have not been, I don't think, objectively looked at, with the lessons understood and appreciated by the public. What is to prevent, however well intentioned it may be, for our involvement in another part of the world at some point in the future, those same systemic failures from repeating themselves?
WHEELER: Bobby, they repeated them selves eight days ago. In the Iranian desert.
MULLER: What have we done so that we know that the officer is not going to give the report to his senior that his senior wants to hear, instead of giving him a report about what's really going down?
The response to us, when we said all of that, was a continuing sense of rage. The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis -- Always Faithful. In Vietnam we went back for the wounded, we went back tof the dead. There was a very heavy sense of responsibility for our the part of each of us that are here. Where are the leaders? Where are the politicians that sent us to war? I can't get in to see Clark Clifford, Robert McNamara. I can't see these jokers. They don't even want to even think about hearing what it is that I'm trying to say on behalf of Vietnam veterans. I cannot raise money. I cannot raise support. I cannot even get in to see the Clark Cliffords, the Rostows, anybody. The total f -- ing abandonment of those people that sent us the f -- ing war is unbelievable!
All of this has come together with the Harris survey that shows America has repudiated the Vietnam war, that the majority of the public considers the Vietnam veterans, the majority of the public considers the vietnam veterans, to use Harris' phrase, "to have been made the sucker for their having served."
Truscott: An even more shocking point would be, you can't get those people who were the leaders of the soldiers during the Vietnam war, who were themselves Vietnam veterans, who know, like the chief of staff or guys that were division commanderrs, you can't get them together. How come the chief of staff of the Army or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, how come he wasn't recognized by Time magazine as the leading advocate for the Vietnam veteran in this country? Those guys commanded them. They were the ones who led them. Or why not, just like you said, why not Clark Clifford, why not the secretary of defense? Why have the leaders of the recent past, the leaders during the war years, why have they deserted their duty to lead?
CAPUTO: I can tell, Bobby, you've got something of a temper, and I don't want to incite it any more. Why do Vietnam veterans need to be organized in this formal way to begin with? I mean, isn't it true that some of these problems, whether individual or collective, will work themselves out by themselves? I don't understand. Don't take this the wrong way, but frankly, you're starting to sound to me like a union organizer. And I don't see why we've got to say, quote, "the International Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans." I mean, what is that going to do?
MULLER: I'll give you a simple answer . .
WEBB: Wait a minute, you've given a half hour of simple answers . . . Well, go ahead, then. But don't take a half hour this time.
MULLER: When Carter came into office, Joe Zengerle [a Vietnam veteran, now an assistantant secetary of the Air Force] was the law clerk to Chief Justice Burger. He did a survey. Carter had 700 policy-making appointments in the Civil Service Commission list, this "plum book." Five went to Vietnam veterans, out of 700. At the same time, hundreds of our nonveteran peers, the activists, if you wish, of the '60s, are represented in the Carter administration in a very significant number. Well over a hundred at least. OK. In politics, networking is the key. Who you know. You give each other a leg up. You factor in your sensitivities and your concerns into the decision-making process. In the Bakke decision, we didn't have Vietnam veterans in policy-making positions in Justice or whatever to argue the point: "Hey, this guy is as old as he is because he spent four years in the Marines, because he was there beause of the Vietnam war." You've got to be able to factor into decision-making, into policy-making, the sensitivities and concerns of your constituents. When we are not represented, it's hard to do.
HARWOOD: I was interested to hear Phil's comment about: sitting in the restaurant, because I remember when I cane back from the war in 1946, I felt the same way. A uniform was a dime a dozen and all I felt particularly when I landed, in San Diego, is all those people wanted to do was get me drunk and roll me or use me in-some way. So the rage I don't find unique to this bunch. Out of every war, people are injured badly, and a lot of them kill themselves. That's not unique. But I do have a feeling there is something unique about this, and I'd like to throw one little thing out that I read, that in World War II you went in, number one, for the duration. Number two, you were assigned to a unit -- I was with the same unit virtually during four years. Number three, when you came home, you came home on a boat. And you had a couple of months and all you could talk about with your pals that you'd been with for four years was what you were going to doand what a bunch of asses everybody in the service was, and blah, blah. Whereas in Vietnam, everybody in the officer class went over there and got his ticket punched in 13 months and then came home. The troops only served 12 months. They came over, as I understand it, in replacement battalions or something like that.
HARWOOD: And one day you're at Khe Sanh and the next day you're on a 737 flying back to San Francisco and in a week you're back home in civilian clothes. The theory of this was that there was no opportunity for the kind of comradeship, the deep friendships and therapeutic conversations that you mentioned, Bobby, that you'd never found anybody you could talk to.
MULLER: There is, I'm sure, a factor there. But if you want to know what the rage is in me, let me just give you a sense of it without having brought my thoughts on this together. I'm just going to run it right through.
Marines were used like f -- ing cannon fodder in Vietnam. There were more U.S. Marine casualties in Vietnam than there were Marine casualties in the entire Second World War. When I was in training, they told us that 60 percent of enlisted guys in line units were casualties. Officers, it was 85 to 95 percent. I went into the field with five other lieutenants, all of whom were medivaced before me. In Vietnam, I was on a patrol during the day or an ambush at night -- every damn day I was in country, with the exception of a couple. It was a war that was grinding in how they inflicted casualties on us. I took over a platoon on the same day that it just had five huys killed and a whole shipful of guys wounded. I was out in the middle of f -- ing nowhere, and we needed three choppers to be able to come in and get our company out. They said, "We can't spare the choppers. Walk out. Be advised, there are two NVA battalions sweeping through your area." Three days, morning before the sun rose till sunset, we marched down a river, because it was the only way you could negotiate the jungle. We marched, waiting any second for the banks of the river to open up and just take us all out. We use to patrol and see a big garrison NVA flag flying right, over the DMZ. Couldn't touch it. I used to watch truck convoys at night coming down from North Vietnam. We used to have rules that were this thick about how we could fight the war, about when we could put a damn magazine in the weapon.
WHEELER: Or couldn't fight the war.
MULLER: We had the people that were supposedly there to help being the same people that were messing with us in ambushes and sniping at us. The frustration in fighting the war is a very real source of rage.
To come home . . . I remember my first time out of the hospital was to go from the naval hospital to the veterans' hospital. They took me by ambulance at 8 o'clock in the morning in New York, and I was stunned with the rush-hour traffic. I said, "Holy cow, it's business as usual." And I'll never forget how I wanted to just scream out of that ambulance, "People! There's a war going on! Right now, guys are dying in fire fights! Ambushes are being triggered!" Business as usual.
I get a society that cavalierly dismisses the war and deals with it as abstract rhetoric. It wasn't an abstraction, it wasn't an intellectual reasoning process -- we're right or we're wrong. It's real. You took me out of my life. You destroyed my fiance. You put my parents through turmoil. You caused my brother to have an almost emotional breakdown in dealing with everything that happened. And you were very cavalier about the whole thing. Business as usual.
This is not just another concern. This is the concern. To have leader who sent us to war abandon us, all those policymakers, all those politicians. Where were they to champion our cause? 1972: Richard Nixon vetoed the Veterans' Medical Care Expansion Act, the week before the election, as inflationary. "It's fiscally irresponsible," to quote his veto message. I called in $100,000 a day destroying whole villages and killing people. And now, to get me in that crappy VA hospital where I was put in bed with drunks and derelicts and degenerates and old has-beens, to call it "fiscally irresponsible" and inflationary to give us two sets of parallel bars instead of one? A set of graduated steps? Some sense of privacy in the f -- ing enema rooms? You want to talk about a sense of fage?
FALLOWS: When you were going through the rush-hour traffic and you wanted to tell the people there's a war going on, what did you want them to then say? Did you want them to stop the war? Did you want them to recognize your experience? What?
CAPUTO: Recognize that something was happening. I think that what Bobby's talking about is some sense of acknowledgement of the reality that all of us experienced out there.
There is a kind of myth that has grown up, mostly within military circles and certainly within those veteran circles from, say, World War II, about this limited tour business. "We're in there for the duration. You guys were in there for a year." Like we were off in day camp. When I was writing "Rumor," I was looking at old unit diaries, and I asked a friend of mine in the Marine historical archives to give me a list of Marine casualties in Vietnam. And I looked at it and total casualties came to 105,000, which is 15,000 over the total casualties in World War II. And I said , "Jesus," you know, because I grew up -- you hear "Iwo Jima" and you see all these battalions falling down like wheat. And he said, what few people realized was that the only valid comparison was the trench warfare of World War I.
And what Bobby said was damn true, that when you went out in the bush, you stayed there and you would go out, say, on a major op, battalion-size or something, you'd spend five or six days slogging around out there and maybe one operation we're on we hit a really hot LZ [landing zone] and we took 75 or 80 casualties right off the bat. Then we got a dribble of casualties for the days after that. slogging back, you went right back to the outpost that you'd been sitting on before you went on the operation. You went back to the godamn patrol and the next day you go out and patrol and, boom, Tremendous tension for as long as you were in the bush.
And I think, in a sense, it was worse on junior officers, even though junior officers would only spend eight or nine months in the bush. Some did their whole 13. But you had a responsibility, if you were a platoon commander or a squad leader, that was much greater than in previous conflicts, because the war was so individual. I remember when I was on this outpost forward of what we used to call "the main line of resistance," which was just a bunch of other outposts with huge holes between them. We were out there 2,000 meters forward of anybody. And all alone -- to the point where we used to look at the other platoons in our company like they came from some strange tribe in New Guinea. You almost didn't even have a sense of connection with them.
You would have this sense of responsibility. Every night that I was on that outpost I'd look at that damn thing and I'd say, "This position is untenable." And I remember there was a bush growing almost right up to the wire. I used to call back and I'd say, "Can I get some flames out here to burn this stuff off?" I said, "I have zero fields of fire, because I've got infiltrators that can just come right up here and throw a golf ball in the post." And I always got, "No, we can't, because that little patch of jungle surrounds this old Cao Dai temple which is sacred to the people of the village" and all that. And, sure enough, it happened one night. I was sleeping in my bunker and wham! Off goes the grenade. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. And it was that kind of experience that began to develop that anger in me. That feeling of not being a soldier serving a cause but a pawn serving a policy -- and a policy which seemed to change every day. Or which not even the leaders could articulate themselves.
And when I look back on it, the incident when I sent those guys out into that village and I had said, "We've got this info that they're VC sappers," and I said, "Capture them and if they give you any trouble, waste those mothers." Which is what they then did. But there was that rage doing it. There was that feeling of, I'm out here trying to save my own life and trying to save the lives of these 33 guys who are under me and I'm serious about this war. I'm really serious about it, because it's my young ass that's on the line. And in a way, that was sort of showing them how serious I was about it. And I think that that anger carried through and then became aggravated by all the things that Bobby talked about.
WEBB: I think all men who undergo combat feel alienated when they return to their society. The difference is that previously there has been a form of catharsis once you come back. It has been a catharsis that was generated from your community to the individual. When I was in Vietnam the 1st Marine Division, on any given day, had a thousand activities going, and all in a different direction. The sort of responsibility and pressure on the squad leaders and platoon commanders was really enormous. That also created a byproduct, once a person had gone through this, of great pride. He felt like he had done something very meaningful. When he came back, he had expectations.
Again, some distinctions between World War II and Vietnam. In World War II, people enlisted for the duration. Even when I got up on the Veterans Committee in 1977, the feeling about people who had served in Vietnam was, "Well, they were draftees, they did their 18 months, they got out, they did not suffer a very severe interruption." The average Vietnam-era veteran served 34 months -- in the period when we were talking about future shock and also in a military system where he was a minority of his age group being pulled away from his community. So he suffered severe disruptions. The average World War II veteran served 30 months.
And we have never recognized the nature of Vietnam service. Two-thirds of the people who went in during Vietnam were volunteers. Two-thirds of the people who went in during World War II were drafted. The nature of your peer group, too: 16 million people during World War II were in uniform. So when you were coming back, your expression that a uniform was worth a dime was very true. Less than 9 million people out of a much larger group over an extended period wore uniforms in Vietnam, and uniforms were not only worth a dime, they were not worth a damn.
The nature of the war itself. To give you a direct analogy, the 2nd Marine Division -- the Battle Cry Division, which was on Tarawa, which was on Saipan and which I admire greatly -- was in the South Pacific a total of three years. They were in combat a total of six weeks. When they were in, it was brutal. Tarawa was a 79-hour mad moment. But when they got away from it they could go down to Australia. They could get drunk, they could get laid, they could refurbish, they could become human beings again. They could work this out as they were going through it as well. In Vietnam the Marine Corps, as Bobby and Phil both made clear, operated continually. We didn't see barbed wire for 80 days at a time. And what they would do because of manpower constraints was enormous. I had one guy who was shot between the eyes. It went in right here as a dime and came out here as a quarter. He spent three months in a Japanese hospital and they sent him right back to us. Can you imagine what that guy's mental state was by the time he got back to us again?
Then, coming home, 95 percent of the people that I talked to felt good on a very personal level about what they had done when they were in Vietnam. But they had an inability to catharsize in their community because of the inundation of the media. This was the first real media war. People lost their curiosity about the experience. So a person was left to deal with it alone. The statistic that 80 percent of the people had never talked about it, I found that going around doing radio shows. I'll do call-in shows and I'll get people who for the first time ever are talking about it. You can feel it in their voice. There's a true sense of isolation. And I think it's the coupling that's been so important when you talk about the experience. It's not just the sense of alienation or even the sense of rage, it's having nothing, nowhere to vent it, no way to be brought back into the community on the terms of the experience. And so the rage sort of erodes from the inside out.
TRUSCOTT: There's an obvious point that we're missing here, too, and that is that every other war that this country has fought was identifiable collectively and individually as having been won, and this war was never identified as having been won. This war was lost. It wasn't won. It was lost.
FALLOWS: I want to try to explain a little bit of the things I think are on the minds of a lot of people like me who, unlike all the rest of you, weren't in the Army those days.
The first thing is, it seems to me that we have this flow chart of where people ended up. There are Vietnam veterans, 3 million or so. I think there are probably 3 or 5 million people on the other side, men for whom not being in the Army remains as emotionally significant a thing as having been in the Army was for all of you. I think there are probably 10 or 15 million for whom not being in the Army then was like not being in the Army now -- I mean, it's not a major, shaping part of their lives. So I think we're talking about not the preponderance of the people of our vintage but clusters on each side who felt and feel still shaped by the experience.
As I look back on those times, there are three different strands that seem to me present among the people I knew and the proportion of those things in different people I think affects the way you feel now. The first of those elements, which I still believe very deeply, was a sense of loyalty to country and exercising your duty to your country by opposing the war. There was that indisputable element of sincere opposition. I still think that it was the correct thing to try to oppose the war and that that is one point of pride, if you will, that people still feel that it was a correct thing to do -- not to oppose the people involved in it but to oppose the policy itself.
The second element was the way that first part got tainted and polluted by a sense of anti-Americanism and anti-servicemanism. And I think that those people who were most under the sway of this second element, of anti-Americanism and hating the serviceman, are the ones who are now most reluctant to think about these days, because they realize now, in general, I think, that that was an excess of the times, that it was wrong. One was out in Youngstown, Ohio. They were having a big debate about the draft, so I was up there supporting the draft and debating this Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan's wife, who had this 30-minute speech about "We won't die for your lies anymore," and . . .
TRUSCOTT: We, she said?
Fallows: Yeah, we.
FALLOWS: She seemed to represent this anti-Americanism and anti-serviceman in a pure, unchanged form. The people who were most like her in those years are the ones who are going to be most reluctant to make a peace with people like you, because they feel the most uneasiness about that. a
I think the third significant thing about people of my sort in that time was the convenient fact, rather than the motivating factor, that the pursuit of these critical opinions you had also meant not being in combat yourself. It was a fact that you didn't want people to go to the war, therefore you didn't want yourself to go to the war. And that meant that all the people who were protesting ended up finding ways to get out of the draft. As I say, it was a convenient fact rather than the causing fact. But the result is that you have a great preponderance of people who did not lay themselves on the line by resisting the draft formally, going to prison or whatever, or by being in combat, and who have very mixed feelings about that. And I think that, too, is another barrier toward getting these things talked about with some openness.
And, just to pursue this for a second, I think most of my college and graduate school friends are not happy talking about these things because they're afraid they're going to be yelled at. They're afraid that all of you are going to shake them by the lapels and say, "You f---ing coward! You weren't there with us." And that is why they don't want to talk about this stuff. They would then say, "Well, you f---ing war criminal!" I think that maybe the fear is partly unrealistic, partly self-inflicted, but I think I have some experience in this vein, having written about this and having a fair collection of letters. Most of it is not, from veterans. I find them usually less willing to judge than other people. There is a substantial constituency in this country who's going to say, "You f---ing coward!" I have letters from about 4,000 of them. About half of them are women, our parents' vintage. It's mainly the wives of veterans, their fathers, their mothers, and that's more or less it.
WHEELER: Why do the women do that?
TRUSCOTT: You know, women have been touched by the experience of the war, they've been touched in ways that I don't completely understand because there hasn't been enough dialogue about it. Every girl that went with a guy for those 10 years got touched by whatever kind of personal experience that guy went through -- whatever kind of torment each one of those 27 million went through to decide yes, no, or "I'm going to dodge," or "I'm not," or lucking out or whatever.
WEBB: I hope we won't lose one of the points that Jim made. The overriding question to me is the question of societal values and where you place such things as an obligation to a culture. One thing they used to ask us all the time at the Naval Academy was, "Are you bigger than yourself?" There are things that are larger than an individual, that he owes his allegiance to, or else a culture does not have any momentum. Is it your experience that the people who merely found a sense of convenience in this issue but, as you point out, are reluctant to address the issue, is it also your experience that they are reluctant to provide a forum? Is there an unwitting censorship, as far as even addressing these issues in a way that someone else will be able to come to resolution with them.
FALLOWS: I think there was in almost all the people at least a modicum of this feeling that they were doing their duty too, and the problem now is that, because there were also these other elements which most of them look back on with some chagrin, with some shame, that most people have not been able to honestly sort out the things they should be proud about and advertise as values to their children, to other people, and the things they should honestly regret. And so it is the unspoken and unanalyzed nature of these things which I think is the big roadblock to your knowing more of those people and their being willing to hear what you have to say.
TRUSCOTT: You know, one of the problems that we face here today is a problem that we faced much more profoundly 10 years ago, 15 years ago. When I went to West Point in '65, I was conservative and nothing I wanted to be more in my whole life than an Army officer. And these values that were held up to us as a guidon in those days, I've never seen anything wrong with an honor code that says you shouldn't lie, cheat or steal. So there's nothing wrong with "Duty, Honor, Country." But when you start to see those values perverted in a system -- when I was 22 years old I was pretty well convinced from having officer after officer after officer -- major, lieutenant colonel and full colonel -- come and tell me, personally or in front of a class, "You've got to go to Vietnam and get your ticket punched. The war sucks. It's full of it. It's a suck-ass war. We're not going to win it. We're not fighting it right, but go and do it." You know, "Duty, Honor, Country" had suddenly become "Self-duty, Honor, Country."
WEBB: That was an individual decision that everyone turned around and came to terms with on their own. We all come in from different referents and we all have different things that we cling to, and we're talking about a period that was filled with anguish and is gone with the exception of the leavings that are with us. And the key question, again, is: How are we going to resolve all these different sets of delusions, on the one hand, strong clinging feelings, on the other, in a way that is going to allow us to address very real issues today?
TRUSCOTT: The word "reconciliation" is really, to me, the word that ought to be used, because it really opens the door that it's about time was opened. Any kind of reconciliation or resolving these differences has to take into account two things, at least. Just for starters. One, it has to take into account the honor of guys who went to Vietnam and guys who went ahead and got drafted or were just drafted as victims of their own circumstance, and the fact that the serviceman was not a fool and an idiot but he was a man that served his country just like anybody ever did in any other year, and recognize their honor, whether the war was won, lost or just left hanging. And, two, I think that any kind of reconciliation or resolving of that question has to take into consideration the honor of those people who honestly and forthrightly and with a sense of honor opposed the war. I really think that those two feelings are very, very close together.
WHEELER: When you say "honor," it's not a fashionable word. Could you read "integrity" for honor?
TRUSCOTT: Absolutely. People's own sense of personal worth. To be able to look at yourself in the mirror. To be able to live with yourself day after day.
CAPUTO: I don't know what the methodology of reconciliation is or, for that matter, if there really is such a thing, but I know what I would like to do, for all the sarcastic comments I've made about those sort of people. I would like one day to put my arms around this Elizabeth McAlister or Philip Berrigan and even Tom Hayden, for that matter, and literally say that we -- all of us -- went through something together.
FALLOWS: That none of us caused.
TRUSCOTT: Went through different kinds of hell.
CAPUTO: But on our part, it would have to take an effort of will. I can think of a concrete example, of a very close friend of mine out west who is also a writer, who left the country to get out of the draft, to get out of the war, and who just told that to me one day. I mean, just about how desperate he was to escape the conscription and escape the war. And, as close as he was to me, when he said that my stomach just started to knot up. There wasn't even a moment's reflection and I just felt myself starting to tighten up. And that takes almost an effort of will, not to have that gut reaction. Having said that, I think that the burden of the reconciliation is more on the other side than it is on our side. Because they are the ones who were doing the criticizing.
WHEELER: My guess is that because everthing else you said is right, that when you get to the question of who is to reach out, I think it's the other way around.I just have this feeling that you've got to go to the person that's bleeding first to say, "I'd like to put my arm around you." And I think the reason that's true is because it's you who just said it. I didn't read Berrigan saying that.
CAPUTO: The way that this might develop, and I don't know that anything consciously could be done or programmatically could be done, but at some point in our history, within the near future, it is going to be realized that Vietnam was more than going to the war, just as Vietnam was more than a lot of people carrying signs of NLF flags in the street, that this was a watershed in American history, perhaps nearly as big a one as the Civil War, and that we, all of us, shared in that wrenching experience. That all of us, If you will, are brothers and sisters in that sense and we have that in common. But it would be at some point where maybe we'd get a national leader -- certainly one who is not on the horizon at the moment -- like Lincoln, who actually talks about charity toward all and malice toward none.
WEBB: I don't even know if we should be talking about burdens. I do not feel that the generation that came before us let us down. I do not feel put on by them. I think that the whole Vietnam period, first of all, if it was an error in our society, it was an error of good intentions. The dissent that rolled of that rolled off for a number of reasons that were not peculiar to Vietnam. But I think that the bedrock, the one thing that we did get from the older generation, was a very strong sense of country. I think we all grew up with a very strong sense of country.
TRUSCOTT: I did.
WEBB: We all did. We started out with a sense of what this society's all about. In my opinion, this is the most creative society politically that has ever existed. We are a multicultured society, living side by side in a state of continuous abrasion. On any moral issue we are going to be at each other's throat, and that's beautiful, because it's creative, as long as we can sort of hold the outer fabric together. That's a starting point.
HARWOOD: Do you feel that your generation has been shut out of opportunity?
CAPUTO: Well, the group of us here, let's face it, is just different. Here we've got to think about the guys, Jim's guys like Snake and Bagger [characters in Webb's novel, "Fields of Fire"]. I am not altogether sure that those guys have not been shut out, or shut off from opportunities that, had they come up in another era, they would have been able to take advantage of. There does seem to be a certain amount of disenchantment, disenfranchisement, in the very loose sense of the term, among them. And a kind of an almost existential attitude.
WHEELER: That's right. Snake died to save somebody else's life. Sacrifice.
FALLOWS: I think that what's between veterans and nonveterans is the question of time lag. There's four or five year's difference in getting started, which can be a crucial difference sometimes. I think it eventually will even out 10 years from now.
WEBB: The people who were the enlisted troopers in Vietnam came from more narrow social strata than in other wars. They were younger, also. And I think you can pretty thoroughly document that for years they had major employment problems directly associated with service. Some of it intentional, some of it just by virtue of the nature of the draft. The average World War II trooper was 26 years old; he already had a profession. The average Vietnam trooper was 19; he was coming out of school. As a result he didn't have any reemployment rights, and they did exist in World War Ii, and they were utilized. The Vietnam guy came out of the war at a time when all this affirmative action stuff was kicking in, and he had employers reaching over his head for women and minorities in order to fill judicially sanctioned quotas, no matter what they called them. There was a certain amount of stigma attached to his service which has, thankfully, been evaporating. But it did exist.
One example. Jim, you met Mike McGarvey, who was one of my radio operators -- very motivated, good Marine, lost his arm -- who for years bounced around from menial job to menial job. He'd wanted to be a policeman, and of course that fell by the wayside. But I and another fellow out of my platoon, one of my squad leaders who lived in Nashville, were able to finally place him in a Harley-Davidson place, at least for an interview. And the first question that I was asked by the dealer --- after about five months of trying to get people just to interview him -- first question I was asked by the guy was, "Look, this guy ain't a dopie, is he?" First question, right off the bat. That did exist.
CAPUTO: One important thing, and it's a negative thing that we should not do, is ever create a myth of the war being responsible for personal failures. Which has occured. I'd like to call attention to what I think is probably the more representative experience, about those veterans who had tremendous obstacles to overcome when they came back, and overcame them. I think of one example, of one of my squad leaders who extended his tour, stayed over there, got wounded three times, lost his leg below the knee, came back to one of those gruesome VA hospitals like the one you described, where he got hooked on junk. Was on junk when he got out of the hospital. Cold-turkeyed himself. And then went on to become a high school football coach. And married a beautiful girl and raised a family and, really on his own willpower and own resources, completely patched his life together.
MULLER: I've got to tell you, I'm a little distressed by the tone of this conversation. I really am. Because I'm starting to realize how out of sync with the rest of you I think I am.
The point is, our generation came of age with a basic willingness to serve. Two-thirds of our guys in Vietnam gave of themselves willingly, voluntarily. There was no question. We do not have that same willingness on the part of people who are 18, 19, 20 years old today to render themselves to public service, to service to the country. I go to high schools. I talk to seniors and I'm telling you, I am getting very, very troubling signs.
I think we lost a generation. I think we lost a generation of people -- our generation -- that came of age believing. We remember. I remember with goosebumps John Kennedy's speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." I remember all of my classmates having been the Freedom Riders going down to the South. The civil rights movement -- what could be more righteous than that? The rise of the Peace Corps. The willingness. America was something that, when I stood at 8th and I, Marine Corps barracks down here, in the sunset parade, I had tears in my eyes as a lieutenant, because I was so proud to be an American!
To come back and be turned upon by the politicians and the institutions and the leaders, and being called "the home front snipers," and being dumped on, and never being able to rehabilitae the concept of service or rehabilitate the trust and confidence in the leadership in this country is what is at the heart. I am telling you, I am dealing with thousands of people who are so disgusted and turned off that they're lost.
CAPUTO: But what can be done about it? I think one of the problems we've got in this country is a tendency to view things apocalyptically. I don't mean to belittle the Vietnam experience, because I was the one who said that it was probably the most wrenching national experience we've had since the Civil War. But let us not forget that it was the first time that this country faced, not just a major test of its foreign policy which failed, it also had a moral challenge that it had to face that it never faced before. And it also faced what all great nations have had to face at one time or another in their history, and that is the limitations of what it can do, whether for good or ill. Absolutely every great nation, going back to the Roman Empire, at some point has finally come up against a wall. I think about the British Empire. When it lost the American colonies in the 18th century, that was a significant and traumatic loss, not just in a material sense but in a psychological sense. The greatest military power in Europe at that time was defeated by a bunch of clowns in buckskins. And yet the English went on, I think, to create a significant civilization. They went on to save Europe itself from Napoleon. They did not indulge in this recrimination, this self-flagellation, all this morbid. . .
WEBB: I don't share your gloom about the way that our generation is dealing with this. I'd like to give two small examples. I did two different tours on my book. I did a hardback tour in the fall of '78 and a paperback tour in the summer of '79. And the difference in one year was phenomenal. I was called a murderer. I was asked if I shot heroin, the whole bit. In 1978 in Milwaukee I was doing a call-in show and a guy actually stopped the show and broke for a commercial and turned around and said, "Do you realize you're the first guy who ever came in here without first apologizing for having been in Vietnam?" That was in 1978. That's a year and a half ago. Yet by 1979, the mood was different.The whole attitudinal referent was different. And I think that the arts and a lot of the general literature that had come out began to move people, began to affect comprehension.
WHEELER: But different people move at different paces, and I think there's a lot of grief that we put our finger on. If we did say goodbye to men we knew who were dead or if we said goodbye to part of our life or a part of our body, that grief, for all sorts of reasons, can take longer for some people than for others. And I think it's at least in direct proporation to the size of the wound.
MULLER: I think it's for us to call the question. We have got to promote, through public dialogue, through discussion, consideration of the very profound, complex issues that are there. Right now, our military manpower question is going to finally bring to a head what's been smoldering, in my opinion, under the surface about the Vietnam experience -- namely: Who serves? How do you distribute that burden of service?
What happens when you pass that draft registration and, let's say, 25 percent of the 19 and 20-year-olds say, "We ain't gonna do it." What happens when a significant proportion of the population blatantly and willingly disregards the law of the land? And that's what's going to happen.
CAPUTO: Ihad two young kids come to my door down at Key West who were organizing an anti-draft rally. And because they had read my book and interpreted it as a pacifist book, they thought I would support the rally. So I sat them down and said, "I can't support it, because I support the draft so long as it's relatively equitable. "So they said, "We'd like to hear why you do. We didn't think that someone who wrote a book like that would." So I explained to them what my expericences had been when I was Moscow correspondent for the [Chicago] Tribune. What I felt our society was up against vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
Then one of these kids said, "Well, I don't want to die for Shell Oil." And I said, "OK, that's a nice catch-phrase. It looks good on a placard." I said, "What you don't realize is that you are living in the post-industrial society whose entire economy, right from the shirt you're wearing to the pantihose your girl's got on, to absolutely everything you do, is based on this particular natural resource." And I said, "What you don't realize is that the other aspects, political and social aspects, of your life are dependent on the level of economic development. You're not going to worry about freedom of speech and freedom of the press and all that sort of thing if you're living the way they do in Upper Volta." In effect, I said, "What you'd be dying for is the preservation of western industrial civilization." I said, "If you think that entire civilization isn't worth a damn, in spite of all that it has achieved in the sciences, medicine, the exploration of the universe, then fine. Then don't go."
Well, it was interesting. They went ahead and held the rally, but both of these kids -- they were in the mid-20s -- told me that they very much appreciated that I sat down and talked to them, that I had shown them things and said things to them that they had not realized before.
That long preamble is to the point that you will lessen -- maybe you'll eliminate altogether -- that kind of danger of mass civil disobedience to the law of the land, when we get leaders, or even a leader, who can articulate what we are about and why. The problem that we now have is that the leaders no longer seem to articulate, particularly what the dangers are that we are facing.