Aug 27, 2004

Swift Boat Veterans for Themselves

There are actually two op-eds in the Times today from this side of the aisle concerning Kerry's record. What we're seeing in these attack ads and in the Veterans who stepped forward to say what the Administration needed them to say is the old-school "serve-thy-nation and ask no questions" mentality getting an opportunity to have the last pull in a supposed tug-of-war between those who served and believed that the war was unjust and those who served and still supported the government's decisions, perhaps because otherwise, they would experience a crisis in trying to reconcile all that they witnessed and did in Viet Nam with the true goals of the U.S. administrations in power at the time. This controversy now is their attempt to say "you blew the whistle and disgraced the soldiers who served and those who died in actions that we can't be sure weren't noble, and now we're gonna get you back." It's a sad day when someone's decision to dissent becomes the reason to vilify him.

New York Times
August 27, 2004

When Actions Speak Louder Than Medals

Chicago — When I came back from Vietnam, I always thought that the next argument was going to be between those who went overseas and those who stayed at home. But it turns out that the big argument now is between those veterans who thought the war was right and those who didn't. And further, it is amazing to me that the argument should revolve around medals and Purple Hearts and honorable service.

The plain fact is that in Vietnam medals were handed out like popcorn, right down to the Good Conduct Medal and the Rifle Sharpshooter Badge, particularly among career-minded officers and NCO's. Ticket-punching lifers, we called them with all the derision that the phrase implies; they seemed more interested in tending their precious careers than anything else.

I know officers who were given the Bronze Star for simply being in country (the ultimate in merit badges). An Air Force pilot told me that his commanding officer suggested that he write himself up for a Distinguished Flying Cross on no particular account, and that he, the commander, would sign it. To his credit, my friend did not do so. By the same token, a writer friend of mine keeps his Bronze Star to prove to his children and grandchildren that despite what they may hear about Vietnam, he acted the way an adult is supposed to act, with compassion and grit, and that if he is not especially proud of his service in Vietnam, he's not ashamed of it, either.

Regardless of career ambitions, there were officers and NCO's who understood the unvarnished reality of the war, and made no bones about it. When I left Fort Knox, Ky., for Vietnam in 1967, the sergeant (a full-blood Navajo Indian) called me into his office and told me flat out, "Remember, Heinemann, this is not a white man's war." After I'd been in country seven or eight months, a lieutenant with a degree in history took over our platoon. He gathered us young sergeants around him and said that our job was to make sure that everyone got home in one piece. We told him that his was a very good plan and how could we help.

The awards for Purple Hearts were mostly initiated by the medical staff. A wound is hard to fake, and you didn't put in for a Purple Heart, it was given to you whether you wanted one or not, or deserved it. And anyone who went looking for a Purple Heart was called "John Wayne," and avoided like the plague.

The veterans who seem eager to go after John Kerry remind me of the guys who thought, and perhaps still think, that the war was a right and righteous undertaking, and ultimately winnable. But to say that we could have won the war is the same as saying that we didn't fill our hearts with enough hate. Remember: we were not pleasant people, down where the rubber met the road, so to speak, and the war was not a pleasant business. John Kerry wasn't the only veteran to come back from the war spiritually exhausted and morally outraged - ready, willing and able to denounce his own government for its conduct of the war. Well before the end of my tour in March 1968, most everyone around me knew the war to be a fool's errand, but if there was any antiwar sentiment it didn't get much more sophisticated than the vast and colorful repertoire of curses you cannot repeat in a family newspaper.

But we knew what we saw, we knew what we did, and we knew what we had become. Soldiering, the downward path to wisdom to be sure. In 1971, when John Kerry sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the essence of his message was exact: many a mean thing was done, sir, from the Oval Office on down, and in the spirit of meanness. We love our nation dearly, but oppose this terrible war. Our country seems to have forfeited its moral authority, and that makes our hearts sore.

And all these years later - the name-calling and nitpicking about wounds suffered and medals earned and honorable service aside - the important matter is that, when push came to shove, Lieutenant Kerry turned his boat around and drove back into a firefight to fetch an Army Green Beret out of the river. I know that if it had been me in the water, I would surely remember the man's name, the look on his face, and the reach of his arm for the rest of my life; I would be sure to tell my grandchildren about him.

Larry Heinemann is the author of "Paco's Story," which received the National Book Award, and a forthcoming memoir about his experiences in Vietnam.

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