“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” exulted President George H. W. Bush after America’s swift and smashing victory over Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991. It was a reference to how deeply the debacle that was Vietnam–then some 16 years in the past–had scarred the American psyche.
Vietnam had, by all accounts, also scarred the veterans who served in it. Everyone “knew” that Vietnam veterans were drug-addicted, alcohol-addled losers who killed babies when they weren’t burning down villages with Zippo lighters. Back home, they begged for change on the streets when they weren’t beating up their wives and kids.
That’s what journalists and politicians told us, anyway. What apparently escaped their notice, when they were celebrating the routing of Saddam and the liberation of Kuwait, was that many of the soldiers who brilliantly executed these victories were . . . Vietnam veterans.
Tens of thousands of veterans stayed in the military once the Vietnam War ended, moved up the ranks and, by the time Desert Storm came along, they were serving as senior officers. Among them were Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, and Tommy Franks–men who had learned well the lessons of Vietnam: 1. Get the American people behind you; 2. Smash the enemy before he has a chance to finish breakfast.
Which is what our soldiers did, with very few Coalition casualties. Nice work for a bunch of losers, huh?
When I recently stumbled across the fact that Vietnam veterans had fought and won the Gulf War, I wondered if they were also fighting the war on Islamofascism. For answers (albeit completely unscientific), I sent questions to the editors of blog sites popular with soldiers on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families (including Blackfive). The editors were kind enough to post my questions. Within hours, e-mails began pouring in from around the world, from teenagers to retirees, from corporals to colonels. It quickly became apparent that Vietnam veterans are not fighting this war: Their sons are.
The Pentagon doesn’t ask new recruits if their fathers served in Vietnam, so there is no official tally. But my informal poll reveals that–despite the contempt expressed by so many Americans towards their fathers’ service and sacrifice, many of the sons of Vietnam veterans have eagerly stepped up to fight the war on terror. The fathers and sons who contacted me permitted me to quote from their e-mails, which reveal their views of both wars, how they were treated when they came home, and what they thought about media portrayals of each war. Most of all, the letters reveal the deep admiration Vietnam fathers have for their soldier sons–and the degree to which Vietnam veterans inspired their offspring to serve.
Charles Howard, 38, joined the National Guard when he was a 17-year-old high-school student in 1983, and has served as a regular Army infantry officer for 16 years. He arrived in Iraq in September of 2004, and fought in Fallujah, Mosul, and Baghdad. Howard’s father was a Naval aviator who remained in the Navy for a time after his Vietnam tour. Despite the way the soldiers of his father’s generation were treated, Howard had no qualms about a military career, but he did have misgivings about how he would be treated when he came home from Iraq. “I watched the protests on C-SPAN before I left, and read about the others later,” he wrote. When Howard did return home, to Dallas Airport, “There were lines of volunteers clapping and cheering us as we came in for mid-tour leave. Ordinary citizens, all ages, all races, many with no apparent connection to the military, thanking us for our service, handing us goody bags, and offering cell phones for us to use to call home. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dad’s generation had a part of ensuring that we would get a better reception than they did.”
Regarding his father’s Vietnam service, Howard wrote: “I’m proud he was a part of it. The strategic reason for Vietnam was (to steal from Reagan) a noble cause. Our troops were there to bring freedom and prevent the usual excesses of Communism, which we saw, after America abandoned our Vietnamese allies, in the killing fields of Cambodia, and the re-education camps of Vietnam.”
John Lucas volunteered for military service in 1962, later attended West Point, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1969. In Vietnam, Lucas commanded a platoon of airmobile infantry, a quick reaction force for special situations such as downed helicopters, fresh sightings of enemy forces, and the like. More than three decades later, Lucas remains “very proud” of his service. When he returned home from Vietnam, he writes, he was “Insulted, many times. Often times it was subtle-looks, tone of voice, etc. Other times it was more overt. But it was widespread and not confined to a few radicals. The theme of many “anti-war” rallies was “Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.” They wanted our enemies to win.”
Lucas is extremely proud of his son David, an artillery officer who until last June served with the 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad. “I did not encourage him to enlist; it was his own idea. In fact, when he announced it, I gave him all the reasons why he should NOT join the military in order to make sure that he wasn’t just romanticizing it and would be aware of the negatives as well as the positives.”
Twenty-seven-year-old John M. Atkinson served in Iraq as a Combat Engineer Team Leader and vehicle commander. His duties revolved around Improvised Explosive Device sweeps and patrols, along with raids on suspected terrorist hideouts. His father, who served in Vietnam, “absolutely” inspired him to join the Army, he says.
Atkinson directly links the way the Iraq war is reported with the Vietnam era. “For many of today’s journalists, the Vietnam/Nixon era is a highlight of their profession’s history,” he wrote. “Right or wrong, they credit themselves with ending an immoral war and bringing down a corrupt president. The reality of this perception is entirely beside the point. That is the framework they are viewing Iraq through. They spin stories to make as many explicit or implicit connections to Vietnam as possible. Obviously, to a real student of history, the Vietnam and Iraq wars have very little if anything in common. But the journalists are there to Tell A Story based on the script they have in their heads, not the truth on the ground.
Mike Rudzinski, is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the son of a Vietnam vet, and the father of Chris Rudzinski, who served in the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. His son’s time in the sand “was much more perilous than mine,” Rudzinski wrote. When asked why so many sons of Vietnam veterans saw their sons volunteer for service in Iraq, Rudzinski replied:
I believe Chris joined because he loved his country and he loved his family and he wanted to do something for both. I’d like to think that my dad and I were an inspiration to Chris: after all, my dad was the inspiration for me to join . . . My dad supervised the maintenance and repair of Army helicopter radios and avionics in the 101st Airborne division (Air Assault). While my Dad was in Vietnam, he used to regularly visit an orphanage in Da Nang with one of the Catholic chaplains,” from which his parents adopted a five-year old girl. “Dad told me it was his promise to God that he would take at least one child out of that miserable existence if he made it through his tour . . .
I was 11 years old when my dad left for Vietnam. He told me he was going to war in the hope that his children, my brothers and I, would never have to do this when we got older. I remember that moment and his words: I used them to tell my young sons (Chris’ brothers) why I had to go to Kuwait for OIF. Chris said something similar to me. He said that he wanted to do his part like me and my dad, so his siblings and any kids he might have, might never have to serve in the future.
Is the war in Iraq worth the cost in American lives and treasure? Every single one of my correspondents, fathers and sons alike, say, “Absolutely YES.”
“What would Zarqawi and crew be doing if we were not here? I do not think they would be farming, or searching for a cure for cancer,” one soldier noted.
David Lucas (the son of John Lucas), who narrowly escaped death in Iraq more than once when improvised explosive devices were tossed into his truck, put it best: “I truly see this as a battle between the forces of good and evil,” he wrote. “How can anyone not? Good brings hope to a whole people that have never known anything [but the kind of] evil that cuts the heads off innocent civilians on TV. I know that I can’t change the world but if I can rid it of some of this evil by taking down as many of these bastards as possible then I think that God will forgive me.”
– Anne Morse is a writer living in Maryland.