Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Coming home: Vietnam (and other) vets

"Coming Home"--it was the title of a 1978 movie about returning Vietnam vets, starring (of all people, adding insult to injury) Jane Fonda. I saw it and don't remember it very well, but I thought of it when I heard of the following event: Operation Homecoming, a large celebration in honor of Vietnam vets that will be happening this week in Branson, Missouri (hat tip: Michelle Malkin and Third Wave Dave). The "Operation Homecoming" website refers to the event as, "The homecoming you never received."

I was recently watching some TV footage of the celebratory homecomings of several Iraq war veterans, and I was struck by the differences between their experiences and those of returning Vietnam vets. I certainly remember the latter, from my own personal history--I greeted my boyfriend alone, with no fanfare, and he came on a regular commercial flight. Of course, this wasn't his initial return flight from Vietnam, the details of which I don't know (it occurred base-to-base), but that certainly wasn't a public event, either, and family were not present. If a band was on hand, I didn't hear about it.

Why the difference? I'm not an expert on this, but one explanation that readily comes to mind is that there were far fewer National Guard members fighting in Vietnam than in Iraq. National Guard units are, by their very nature, geographic, and they usually stay together as they serve. They leave in units and they return in units, so the families tend to know each other and to live nearby and form a sort of support group. Obviously, in that situation, the homecoming can be unified, and it most certainly will involve a ceremony of some kind.

I think it's similar with the regular military in today's all-volunteer army. There is a great deal of solidarity compared to the typical Vietnam vet, although in the case of the regular military of today (as opposed to the Guard of today) it's not initially geographic--they come from different areas rather than a single one. However, there are a larger number of men and women with spouses and children who live near the base, and who know each other; and the return tends to also be in a unit, to that same base.

In Vietnam it was different for the draftees, who constituted a huge portion of those who served. As best I can recall, they were drafted one by one, trained with people they didn't know, and were then plugged into fighting units that already existed when they went to Vietnam. Service there was time-limited: one year, virtually to the day. There was a revolving crew of people in a unit, all (or at least most) with different beginning and ending dates for their own personal tour of duty.

If you could survive that year intact, it was over for you--you went home and you were safe. Of course, there were people who flew with you on the transport plane back to the States, but they weren't necessarily those you had known you and served with you. You came back to a base (as I recall, usually in California--Fort Ord perhaps?) to be debriefed. Then you were given leave to see your parents and other relatives and friends. Usually there were only a few months left of your service--my boyfriend spent them training new draftees.

It was all very quiet and individual. Returning vets usually wore their uniforms to fly (they got huge discounts if they did), but they flew on commercial aircraft, and they flew alone. I met my returning boyfriend in New York at Kennedy Airport (or was it still Idylwild back then?) in July of 1969, almost exactly thirty-six years ago. Our reunion was emotional, but it was solitary. No brass bands--not that, at the time, we wanted any, and I didn't even notice their absence. After all, by that time the war was considered a tragic mistake, nothing to be proud of. My personal experience does not include anyone making rude remarks or gestures to us, but I remember getting some funny looks in the airport as we walked through it with my boyfriend in his uniform.

But he was only too happy to take off that uniform, both physically and metaphorically--although, in a larger sense, he never did take it off completely; the experience affected him greatly, probably for the rest of his life. He didn't want to talk about it, either. We broke up some months later over different issues, and we never really did talk much about his Vietnam experiences, expect for a few incidents he described to me. But I know that, at the time, the lack of a big celebratory homecoming didn't seem worthy of note to either of us.

World War II was different from Vietnam, too, as were other previous wars. These were wars in which the military, including the draftees, were in "for the duration" unless they were wounded or shell-shocked. There were many people who returned as virtual strangers to their families, because of the length of the separation as well as the terrible and intense experiences they'd had.

Today's volunteer and career military have far more contact with their families while overseas, as do the Guard (e-mail, for example, rather than the terribly inefficient--although more easily saved--snail-mail of yesteryear). Tours of duty are no longer for the duration ( I believe the turning point was Vietnam in this respect). They are long, but not endless. But the "for the duration" rule had an important aspect that affected homecomings--it meant that, when homecomings did occur, they occurred all at once, and in the context of a celebration: VE Day, general jubilation. No lack of brass bands on that day!

So, these present-day homecoming celebrations for Iraq vets are a way to redress what is now recognized as a huge and unique problem (one of many) that occurred in the conduct of the Vietnam War and the treatment of its returning veterans. In a conscious effort, people are trying to recognize the sacrifice of the troops who served in Iraq, even though the war isn't over and we're not celebrating the equivalent of VE Day. That's what the proliferation of yellow ribbons and car decals and all those "Support Our Troops" signs are about. Even though some of it may seem self-serving and hypocritical--especially coming from those who are strongly against the war and who may even seem at times to be doing everything in their power to sabotage it--I think it comes from a good impulse, and that impulse originates in the memories of those strangely muted Vietnam vet homecomings.

"Operation Homecoming" is an even greater attempt to redress the absence of a homecoming celebration for Vietnam vets. It may be too little, too late; but it is something nevertheless. Ever since the 2004 Presidential campaign and the nomination of John Kerry, we seem destined to rehash these old battles. Perhaps this time we'll get it right--and, if so, it's something we can actually thank him for. The wheels of justice may indeed grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.


At 4:36 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger gatorbait said...

My Homecoming parade consists of two people, one 17 and one 15 . I just joined up, as did the majority of us were , enlistees, not draftees. The was a job to be done, we did it. We got treated like crap by those who should have known better, which was worse than the ugliness of those who planned to be traitors.

That's 3 plus decades ago, now. We have blogs and other information outlets. We have people like you and Horowitz who saw the light, no matter how long it took to do so. Am I bitter? Not really, although I feel a mixture of pity and contempt for those who shate upon us, literally and figuratively back then and those who are trying to relive the past inglory.

Ah well, we were right then, we are right now. Thanks for letting me ramble here.

At 5:03 PM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are right, we deserved a better homecomeing then, but that doesn't mean we were right then. We fought hard in Vietnam, but we were let down by our leadership as much as we were by the Jane Fondas. And as much as I think we are right this time, that doesn't convince me we were right then.

At 5:09 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger gatorbait said...

Anon, I think we were, but I agree our leadership, starting with JFK, failed terribly.

Bottom line, we were better soldiers than our "leaders " deserved.

We were right and when we pulled the rug from under the RVN, the direst predictions were borne out.

We, the nation, were wrong to not honor the commitment after pull out. The Kerrys won that round, obviously we learned something in the interval.

At 6:02 PM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that one result of the Vietnam experience was that we came to a consensus as a country that we would never treat our soldiers that way again, no matter what the political circumstances were. And I believe we are living up to (or trying to live up to) that promise in our treatment of the soldiers we've asked to go to Iraq and other places in our name. And, to the extent we can, we are also trying to right the wrongs of the past in that regard.

At 6:23 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger 74 said...

The overall number of draftees serving in Vietnam was probably not as high as most believe. The percentage varied a great deal from unit to unit within the Army. If I remember correctly, the 9th Infantry Division down in the Delta had a much higher percentage than most units. Other units were pretty much draftee free. Air Force and Navy units were essentially without draftees and the Marines only accepted draftees in their service in small numbers and only when necessary. A large number of draftees ended up in places like Germany and Korea rather than Vietnam.

I agree that the biggest difference is that in this war, we rotate units as a whole, rather than rotating individuals as we did in Vietnam (though there were some whole-unit rotations back then as well.) The morale advantage in rotating the unit as a whole is probably greater while in Iraq and Afghanistan than when they get back home. In Vietnam, many people were just concentrating on themselves. In today's environment, people are much more concerned about protecting their buddies.

At 7:06 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger THIRDWAVEDAVE said...

Gatorbait: You were better soldiers than your "leaders" deserved. Welcome home.

At 9:36 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Gatorbait, thank you for all you've done.

My parents were old-school liberals (not moonbats, and not communists) who opposed the Vietnam War for what must have seemed good reasons to them. If they were alive today, I believe they would find Neo's analysis very enlightening and perhaps healing.

My parents and I straddled the proverbial "baby boom" generation; Dad served in WWII, and I was entering high school about the time Vietnam ended. (I was a "late baby", born when my dad was 42 - the same age I am now.) So no one in our family wholly identified with the "hippie" generation, but none of us was far removed from it either.

At 9:44 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Our unit (1st Light Armored Infantry Bn., 1st Marine Division) returned from Saudi Arabia / Kuwait together, but soon afterward we were sent our separate ways. It was a source of bitterness for the Marines that we were not kept together.

One thing the leadership needs to understand is this: Immediately upon returning from combat, fighting men and women may not want to talk about their experiences, or think about them, or even hang around with each other. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be kept together, and it doesn't mean they shouldn't be given the chance to talk ... whenever they're ready.

The nature of the military lifestyle - even in peacetime, and much more so in war - is such that it's almost impossible to even begin to talk about one's experiences to civilians. There's just no frame of reference. When you go through the gates and pass the guard shack to enter a military base, you're in a different universe. What happens after that is nearly impossible to explain.

Yeah, I'm rambling too.

Neo, it's great that these fighters are finally getting the welcome they deserve. I hope today's warriors will be given the chance to maintain their bonds with one another, and to talk about their experiences - in their own time.

At 9:51 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

One last post and I'm done.

Anon pointed out that "we came to a consensus as a country that we would never treat our soldiers that way again, no matter what the political circumstances were."

I'd say yeah, it's true in that it's no longer politically correct for the left to call you "baby killers". And the anti-war folks are trying to walk a fine line with this "support the troops, bring them home" business.

But at the bottom of it, there's still a profound contempt for the fighting man and woman, and a vast ignorance about what we do and why we do it. After listening to enough condescending bullshit from well-educated liberals about how "these young nineteen-year old guys don't have many choices, and someone tells them this is what it means to be a man" and all this patronizing crap ... honestly, I'd almost rather you just spit on me and call me a baby killer. It'd be more honest.

At 10:47 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

You have hit the facts pretty well dead on.

My friends about him the movie, We Were Soldiers, was made had trained together for two years before going to Vietnam in 1965. They had a very tight community, in the field and at home. And still do. We'll be going to the 40 year reunion of the battles in the Ia Drang that the film is based on this year in D.C. The participation at these reunions is exceptional.

In contrast, by the time I went to Vietnam in '71-72 units were a hodgepodge of troops coming and going which affected not only morale but unit effectiveness. I did not make one permenant friend from my 6 months there..mostly by design I think.

Having stayed in the Army for 3 years after my Vietnam service I didn't have to experience the "negative" homecoming that others did. However I remember vividly how I was mustered out of the army after I resigned my Regular Army commission with 6 years service. After filling out the requisite forms at the Oakland Army Depot, I was led back into the rear of a warehouse by a WO1 and sworn out with a "thanks for your service.....see ya".

At 9:00 AM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Minh-Duc said...

I returned from Iraq earlier this year and the homecoming was elaborate and big. Everybody who were anybody came out to greet us. I could not help but to think that there are many Vietnam war veterans, who are far more deserving, did not get a similar treatment.

At 12:44 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:06 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Alex said...


Sorry everyone for the unrelated comment, but I just wanted to say I just read the "Village Voice" thread in which you take on that pernicious idiot calling himself Ho Chi Minh. Thanks a lot for doing that, and thank you for offering up your own history as evidence!

At 4:08 PM, June 16, 2005, Anonymous mytwocents said...


Hate the name calling. I find Ho Chi Minh's posts quite interesting even though I don't agree with him. Who wouldn't want to see him go at with the likes of Minh Duc? This is what makes blogging great! It's the name calling that devalues the whole genre.

At 5:53 PM, June 16, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

my two cents: I'm curious what you meant by "the likes of Minh Duc." I agree with you about name-calling as a rule, but "the likes of Minh Duc" sounds perilously close to name-calling to me (unless I'm misunderstanding your meaning, which is certainly possible). But name-calling is going to happen on blogs, and as long as it doesn't really degenerate, it's an inextricable part of the blogging genre. Emotions are very high about these topics, and though we're just reading words on a computer screen, we're discussing deep life and death issues.

As far as Ho goes--I respect his right to "go at" whomever he wants, even though I disagree with him, as long as he doesn't cross over into troll territory (he borders on it, but so far has not entered it). But I actually found the incredibly condescending manner in which he treated Minh Duc quite disturbing. Although I choose to be polite on my blog, I don't think that terms such as "pernicious idiot" ("pernicious" meaning "exceedingly harmful," and "idiot" as in the phrase "useful idiot," meaning "a person who makes excuses for totalitarian leftist states and is thus passively complicit in their wrongdoings) is very far out of line at all.

Minh Duc has in fact had experiences in the areas about which Ho spouts some incredibly naive and relativistic verbiage. The thread in question is here. I wonder why Ho decided to use Ho Chi Minh as a nickname; I assume it's because he's some sort of hero of his.

Ho (the commenter, not the historical figure), is the sort of person whom David Horowitz was describing when said the following, if [they] were to pause for a moment and then plunge their busy political minds into the human legacies of their activist pasts, they would instantly drown in an ocean of blood.

As for the caliber of Ho's arguments, I'm with this commenter on another thread.

At 8:13 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Minh-Duc said...

To both Alex and Neo-Neocon

I usually do not respond to someone like Ho. And I apologize for taking over Neo-Neocon post. But I could not help but find that Ho Chi Minh (the commenter) exceedingly annoying and arrogant. He simply brushed off grave injustice as an acceptable cost - part of the process toward socialism. The absense of humanity and compassion is simply shocking. Of course my respond is intense because it is a issue of great emotional value to me, something that Ho simply cannot comprehend.

At 10:26 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger THIRDWAVEDAVE said...

I think Minh put everything in perspective with his last comment. Yes, it seems to be the price of doing business in the world of socialists.

At 12:50 PM, June 17, 2005, Anonymous mytwocents said...

First, let me say that I meant no harm in saying ‘the likes of.” I wrote the post rather quickly, and now that you point it out, “the likes of” does have a rather negative connotation. I apologize. My point in the post was simply to point out that I appreciate witnessing the kind of exchanges we see between “the likes of” Minh Duc and “the likes of” Ho Chi Minh (sorry, couldn’t help myself). The name calling doesn’t add any value for me. I appreciate your blog for it’s central premise, which I understand to be about how your beliefs have been transformed, at least with regard to national security issues, and the process it took to get to that place. To simply shoot down oppositional voices with insults seems so far from what you are about, at least to me. I imagine it took great effort on your part to tune out the insults hurled by your liberal friends regarding voices from the right. Ho Chi Minh doesn’t seem like a complete wacko (oops, there goes an insult). He seems educated, informed, and articulate, despite having very different views from most folks who post in your comments, including myself. “Pernicious is a great word, but “idiot” connotes ignorant, mentally deficient, inferior, foolish, stupid. Now, I may scream this word at my television or people in traffic all the time, but I like the important stuff to be smarter.

At 10:23 PM, June 17, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

I understand your point, mytwocents, but you might want to consider this historical use of the word "idiot" to describe leftists who sympathize with totalitarian states. The term was supposedly coined by Lenin (or perhaps that's apochryphal).

At 3:28 PM, June 18, 2005, Anonymous Bob said...

the Stockholm syndrome and the useful fool (aka useful idiot) syndrome are both prretty common. Though the latter is not often thought of as a psychological syndrome I think it is anyway. It shuld be called the naive useful fool syndrome.

At 1:12 AM, July 04, 2005, Blogger Kalroy said...

My belated two cents. I think a part of it is a "never again" attitude on the part of veterans and people who failed to speak up during the Vietnam war.

You've got veterans who refuse to allow today's GI's to suffer what they suffered. You've got veterans who refuse to allow today's GI's to suffer what their fathers suffered.

You've also got civillian non-veterans who were quiet during the vilification and demonization of the military during the end of the Vietnam war, and I think that they have decided to speak up this time and refuse to be cowed or be quiet.

I don't think those are the only reasons, of course, but I do think they have a large part of this picture.


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I started posting some pictures I had taken in 1968 while in Vietnam and added some captions. I'm not selling anything and came to your site for some ideas. Nice job and unique to say the least. Take a look if you get a chance. ---Jack--- vietnam war history

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