As an American male who might have served in Vietnam but didn't (like 92 percent of my male age cohort), my attitude toward Vietnam veterans is a mixture of respect, sympathy for those who suffered and a sneaking envy. Envy of the moral credential, and also of the "classic male experience," as William Broyles sardonically labels it in his new book, "Brothers in Arms."
But should I actually feel ashamed for not having served in a war I didn't support? That is the drift of a lot of recent commentary on Vietnam. I never dodged the draft. In fact, I was clear in my own mind that opposition to the war couldn't justify evading military service, though I left open the possibility of cowardice. Fortunately, thanks to a high lottery number, I was never put to that test. But I could have enlisted -- an idea that never crossed my mind.
James Fallows wrote a seminal article 11 years ago observing that the burden of the Vietnam War fell mainly on lower-class kids without the wit or connections to avoid the draft. If the sons of the decision-making class had been fighting and dying -- or going to jail in protest -- the war would have ended a lot sooner, he argued.
Fallows' point was that his Harvard classmates were morally culpable for not having made greater sacrifices to stop the war. Yet his theme has been taken up and twisted over the past decade by people with the opposite agenda. President Reagan said at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, "It was the unpampered boys of the working class who picked up the rifles and went on the march." The "boys of Vietnam," Reagan said, "fought a terrible and vicious war without enough support from home. . . ." The implicit message of remarks such as Reagan's is that it was somehow the anti-war movement, rather than the prosecutors of the war, who sent American boys off to fight and die in a dubious cause.
The notion that people who opposed the war were indifferent to the fate of American soldiers is absurd. That is what the protests were mostly about. In fact, a radical critique of the mainstream anti-war movement was that it was too concerned about the American body count, ignoring the cost of the war to the Vietnamese. It's this critique that rings somewhat hollow today, given what happened to Vietnam after we gave up. But the focus of most opponents of the war -- ultimately, a majority of Americans -- was that the cost of what we were trying to achieve was simply too high.
Public attitudes toward Vietnam veterans have been wrongly enlisted in a campaign to undo this historical judgment and its implications for the present foreign policy debate. The campaign has involved an interesting reversal of postures. The standard neoconservative "new class" analysis of liberal causes accuses liberals of instilling a sense of victimization among groups such as blacks and the poor in order to create work for cadres of professional liberals (the "new class") and promote the liberal ideological agenda.
If ever there was a group persuaded by ideologues that they could blame their problems on society, it is Vietnam veterans. Only this time it is conservative ideologues who have joined with the usual legions of media hypesters and "caring professionals" to encourage brooding self-pity. Most Vietnam vets actually "had a good war," as the British say. Ninety-one percent in a 1980 poll said they're glad they went. As a group, Vietnam vets have higher education levels and incomes than men of their age group who didn't serve. Of the small fraction who have had readjustment problems, there's no question that most are genuine victims of the war.
But thousands of vets are wasting their lives hanging out at storefront "vet centers." Sixty or so were reported recently to be living like wild men in the Florida jungle because, according to one of them, "Vietnam vets are square pegs in round holes." The defense of "post-traumatic stress disorder" has been invoked to beat raps from chronic absenteeism to murder.
Yet you don't hear conservatives suggesting that "liberal guilt" has created a "vet culture" of dependency and irresponsibility, because this culture serves their ideological purpose. The vets' grievance (nobody appreciates them) bolsters the conservative grievance (nobody appreciates the war). Obviously there's no logical connection. It's possible to appreciate the veterans' sacrifice without approving of the last war -- let alone the next one -- or feeling guilty about not having served.
In England during World War I, as thousands died pointlessly in the trenches, pretty girls went around handing white feathers -- a symbol of cowardice -- to men not in uniform. The one group who may deserve the white feathers are the so-called "war wimps" or "chicken hawks" -- prominent Americans helping to spread war fever today who avoided service during Vietnam, such as Sylvester Stallone and various Washington hard-liners. As for those of us who opposed that war, still oppose it and didn't serve, it's true we'll never know for sure in our hearts whether we'd have had the courage to answer the call when our nation really needed us. But so far, at least, we've gotten it right.