Monday, May 29, 2006
Memorial Day 2006: "Reviling the Veteran"
As a Memorial Day tribute to Gus and all the other vets no longer with us, I reprint here a selection from his 1987 editorial, "Vietnam Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry."
The phrase "reviling the veteran" was first quoted to me by Stanley Kubrick, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker, during the shooting of FULL METAL JACKET, a film based upon THE SHORT-TIMERS, my novel about Marine grunts fighting the battle for Hue City during the Tet Offensive. "Reviling the veteran" is a serviceable phrase...
The motivations that have made "reviling the veteran" a civilian hobby are complex. My theory is that civilians are jealous of Vietnam veterans because we can skillfully shoot up heroin, barricade the door, and adjust the scope on a sniper's rifle all at the same time--no easy feat, as we all know.
Another civilian alibi for branding us the children of Frankenstein and chasing us through newsprint villages with paper pitchforks with such neurotic intensity, for all these years, is because we are psychovets, trip-wire vets, walking time bombs.
Are we plain fucking crazy? Did we, in some black jungle, lose our grip on the burned edge of reality? Make no mistake, the civilians revel in painting us as crazy, at least in their own movies. Or is it because Vietnam was the education we never got in school? Do they hate us because Vietnam veterans are fierce witnesses to hard facts civilians lack the intestinal fortitude to confront, even second hand? Truth is stranger than fiction, but is has never been as popular. If we can be dismissed as Section Eights, we can be pitied and patronized, a civilian tactic to resist our expert testimony with a willful ignorance as hard as iron.
Do Vietnam veterans feel guilty? Only one individual in ten ever fired a shot in anger. Even Marines in the field rarely knew if they hit anything. Rambo has "59 confirmed kills," first tour, and scores another 90 during the film, for a total of 149, not counting blood trails, civilians, and water buffalo. My own score was perhaps more typical. In Vietnam I fired more rounds than the Stonewall Brigade fired at the Battle of Gettysburg. I was highly motivated, but my body count was a standing joke: I killed as many of them as they did of me. Looking back with flawless hindsight, I hope I hit nothing but trees, and I hope the trees lived. If I did kill a human being in Vietnam, it was a tragic accident or self-defense; I regret it, but I do not apologize.
Civilians, weaned on recreational gore, do not understand that unreconstructed Vietnam veterans are not misfits. We're the first team, the varsity; we may not have been the brightest (the trouble with real life is that it's all first draft), but we were the best. Maybe we didn't have the money to buy our way out, but we had the balls to go to war, just as others had the balls to go to prison or Canada. What hurt us was coming home to confront civilians who were pale shadows of--and poor substitutes for--our loyal brothers in Vietnam. Civilians will never understand that if Vietnam veterans have been tortured, it was not by the Viet Cong but by the wives who still don't know we were there, the parents who demanded that we not express our pain, the sisters who were afraid to let us hold their babies, and the girlfriends who believed that if they made us angry we would kill them, because that's what the Vietnam veterans on television would do in the movies of the week that have been manufactured like cheese to accommodate the most irrational prejudices of a civilian audience...
Fighting history is a ball-breaking hump, and it is not for everyone. But Vietnam veterans who get tired of sipping their beer will be forced to accept the bitter, insufficient truth: We were not G.I. Joes passing out gum to orphans. John Wayne never cried, Audie Murphy never died, and Gomer Pyle never dipped a baby in jellied gasoline. Being young is the art of survival without weapons, but we had weapons, and we used them to burn Vietnam alive. Why did we go to war? They've been trying to figure that out since Hitler was a corporal. We were young, and the young love to travel.
In Vietnam, we sometimes lacked grace under pressure, but we stuck it out, just the same. We died for Nixon's pride. We were an Orwellian army, it's true, but then in Vietnam nice guys didn't finish as all. It was Victor Charlie's land, and we were on it, and he made us get off. Not since my great-grandpappy was in the Georgia Militia have American soldiers been defeated. So the V.F.W. pretends that we're not veterans. And we try to pretend that Vietnam was an exceptionally noisy frat party in the hootch with warm beer, and not a cross between a gang-bang and a Chinese opera. Vietnam means never having to say you're sorry. We don't like to see ourselves as the last of the Keystone Kops. But there is no discharge from that war. We weren't Rambo, betrayed by C.I.A. spooks. It was a fair fight and we lost. That's some cold shit, man, but there it is.
Now pogue historians want to embalm us and put us on exhibit, more gargoyles for the museum, while Rambo fans in the White House, who think they are Wyatt Earp and that Russian is Ike Clanton, yearn to provoke another Vietnam, somewhere, anywhere; same song, second verse. It's amazing how brave some people are willing to be with other people's sons. It's time to stop sipping our beer and get wired and hit back at all these silly people who presume to define us, our actions, and our motives. It's time to throw off the leper's bell of the Vietnam veteran. It's not enough to touch the names on the Black Wall and remember. Our finest tribute to our fallen dead would be to convince their sons that we were not Rambo and neither are they.