FIVE YEARS LATER, THE NIGHTMARE REMAINS POISON
Still Gagging on the Bitterness of Vietnam
By Gustav Hasford
LOS ANGELES TIMES, April 30, 1980
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. After millions of words have been written trying to determine the lessons of Vietnam, I can only share what I, as a Vietnam veteran, believe that I have learned. (I am not, and will never be, a spokesman for Vietnam veterans. I speak for myself alone.)
The very first thing that I have learned about Vietnam as a writer is that I am no longer talking to two-thirds of you. The word "Vietnam" in the first sentence of this article triggered a negative response somewhere, and most of you are about to turn the page. To those stalwart few who remain: Welcome to the world of the disenchanted.
The second thing that I have learned after 12 years as an unreconstructed Vietnam veteran is that, while I deeply respect, and would fight to preserve, the Constitution of the United States, I am now and must remain a devoted enemy of the federal government of the United States.
Talking about Vietnam, I have learned, is like talking about cancer at the dinner table. For more than a decade now, my friends have humored me in what they have called my "tiresome obsession" as I continue to work at understanding the roots and lessons of our involvement in Vietnam. It is difficult for them to understand what I mean when I attempt to explain that I cannot forget the war because there's gunpowder in my cereal bowl.
I write about the war in Vietnam in a more or less futile attempt to convince a dwindling handful of people that an important part of the American dream is dead and down there in the tomb with John F. Kennedy. When the battle is lost, the soldier attacks. When the cancer is malignant, the doctor operates. So do writers write. And I echo the words of Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, who said: "They should be glad that I came home from Vietnam and wrote a book. I could have bought a gun."
I am not an expert on the Vietnam War. All I know is what I read in the newspapers and what I observed as a Marine Corps war correspondent in Vietnam.
During the five years since the fall of Saigon, I have learned almost nothing about the longest war in U.S. history from television, except that the world is full of violent Vietnam veterans who have inconvenient memories of combat experiences and who subsequently shoot at people they believe to be Viet Cong. After a satisfyingly dramatic climax, the crazed veterans are captured unharmed and turned over to sympathetic social workers by compassionate SWAT teams. Recently, the TV executives who during the war cut from body bags to beer commercials have given us a new sitcom called "Six O'Clock Follies," featuring two GI reporters and a "cute weather girl" in the Armed Forces radio station in Saigon.
The most important truth that I have learned about Vietnam came from the Academy Award-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds, when Daniel Ellsberg, with tears in his eyes, said that when he heard that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated he suddenly felt that there was no longer any hope of changing America.
From politicians the verdict on our Vietnam adventure has been more encouraging. Jimmy Carter, the first political faith-healer to win the presidency, has granted the American people a verbal presidential pardon for any and all sins that we might have committed in Vietnam, and has officially designated Vietnam to be over and done with, case closed, blood under the bridge. Henry A. Kissinger, for whom no American ever voted, has called Vietnam a "mere footnote" to the great achievement of the new relationship with China. And former President Richard M. Nixon, ignominiously forced to leave the White House after the Watergate scandal, has assured us that Vietnam was "America's finest hour."
From my fellow citizens I have learned that people fear change more than they fear oppression. We Americans are like cancer patients who prefer to die before accepting the fact that we have sickness that requires treatment.
From my fellow veterans I have learned the most meaningful lessons of all. Vietnam veterans in America are the children of Frankenstein; you know that you are a Vietnam veteran when your sister won't let you hold her baby. I have learned that for many Vietnam veterans life is a flower without color. Vietnam veterans are often unable to transcend Vietnam, to build on the experience, to go beyond the war to other stages of their lives. For many of us, the Vietnam experience damned the American way of life as a lie from top to bottom. The war shot away our roots.
I've seen the quiet vets who work organizing rap sessions, who publish newspapers for veterans, who have marched arm in arm into forests of police batons. But I have met the casualties as well. I've met the closet veterans who deny that they served in the war at all, cowed vets who are intimidated by their peers' demand that they repudiate their true experiences and perform as dishonest mimics of themselves, touting the exciting fabricated war stories that everybody wants to hear. I've met the bitter veterans with "bad-paper" discharges who hate themselves and everybody else, too. And the maimed and the lame, the blind and the speechless, the victims of Agent Orange who love their deformed children fiercely, the multiple amputees who needed assistance when they came to throw their Purple Hearts and Silver Stars onto the steps of the Capitol, the apprentices at suicide, the angry and violent veterans who vowed to turn the guns around, who swore that "If we fight again it will be to take these steps . . . the Capitol steps . . . ." And then there are the endless ranks of psychic burnouts, the zombie veterans who were killed in action for all intents and purposed but who don't know enough to lie down and die. And I have met dozens and dozens of Vietnam veterans who tell me that they have been completely unaffected by the war, while it is obvious that they have pushed it down deep, that they have swallowed a whole continent of pain and sadness that remains undigested and is choking them one day at a time.
Hawks hate the Vietnam veterans for being a candy-ass who couldn't get the job done; those World War II boys won their war and didn't whine about how tough it was, either. Doves hate the Vietnam veteran because, in their view, each and every one routinely slaughtered helpless civilians, especially babies.
America's breast is a milkless stone, and she demands heroes from her sons. A recent Harris poll shows that 63% of the American people feel that Vietnam veterans "were made suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong place at the wrong time." Vietnam veterans probably will in fact go down in history as "suckers," but we fall from glory alongside the nation that bred us, because a country that degrades, stigmatizes and humiliates its young for committing the heinous crime of steadfast loyalty can no longer be trusted or taken seriously by anyone. Even animals protect their young.
What have I learned about Vietnam from the federal government? I have learned, for one thing, that politics is a ballet of devils, and that politicians, with paper roses falling out of their mouths, cannot conceal the blood from distant wounds that stains their neckties--but they do try, and millions do listen and believe, and choose not to see.
Vietnam, in my opinion, never ended. Peace is only a continuation of hypocrisy by other means, just as Watergate, for example, was a continuation of Vietnam by other means.
Now, five years after the last American soldier left the soil of Vietnam, the sum of our added knowledge is small. Smug in our apathy, few of us would take time to admit that today's problems might in some way be related to the war in Vietnam.
Our refusal to face our Vietnam experience honestly has meant that the national nightmare of Vietnam continues to poison this country's sense of itself, and that refusal postpones the needed reckoning with our own dark history as well.
Today, I talk to the 19-year-old children who will soon be dead in the Oil Wars (to them Vietnam is some kind of Chinese breakfast food), and their face-value acceptance of what the government has defined as their patriotic duty puts a cold chord of fear and helplessness into my gut that is not unlike Daniel Ellsberg's response to the death of Robert Kennedy--total impotence in the face of unbridled ruthlessness.
Recently I have been investigating the possibilities of living in Australia. Perhaps someday the survivors of America will come back and will build log cabins in the streets. At least, as Hemingway said, it's pretty to think so.
Meanwhile, I ask you to join me in celebrating the fifth anniversary of the final withdrawal of the United States from Southeast Asia with a degree of pageantry and excitement comparable to that we all enjoyed during Vietnam Veterans' Week--by popping open a cold can of beer and raising a toast: "Here's to the good old days, when we knew who our enemies were and were sanctioned by society to deal with them accordingly. Here's to the good old days."
Goodby, America. And goodby to Vietnam and the friends who died for nothing.