Commentary on The Invisible Vietnam Veteran
In the summer of 1976, James Webb, a 1968 Annapolis graduate and decorated Marine veteran of the war, was named the year's "Outstanding Veteran" by the Vietnam Veterans Civic Council for his work in behalf of fellow veterans. In his acceptance speech, reproduced here as a Washington Post op-ed piece, Webb sounded one of the first calls for Vietnam veterans to take pride in their service and to assert that they had an important role to play in American society.
To the degree that they were acknowledged at all in the years immediately after the war, Vietnam veterans were generally regarded either as among the war's victims or perpetrators, to be pitied or reviled, but in either case to be pushed into the background. Webb, who had returned from Vietnam and embarked on a varied career that would make him a successful attorney, best-selling author, and secretary of the Navy, decried the fact that American society had written off the Vietnam veteran. Most Vietnam vets had come home and tried, not without difficulty but for the most part successfully, to start their lives again. Instead of being supported, their sense of duty and sacrifice honored, Webb said, it was those who fled from that obligation whom American society now held up as "prophets and moral purists." He blasts the hypocrisy of how "the very institutions . . . who only a few years ago called for us to bleed, have now decided that we should be ashamed of our scars." "Well, I'm not ashamed of mine," Webb declared, words that served as a clarion call for millions of Vietnam veterans to come out of the shadows.
The Invisible Vietnam Veteran, by James H. Webb
The most important part of an award such as this is its symbolic value as notice to the community. I don't need to elaborate in front of this assemblage about how incredibly difficult it has been for the Vietnam veteran. His anonymity and lack of positive feedback about himself and his fellow veterans have intensified all the other difficulties he has faced, including those shared by non-veterans. With the exception of a few well-publicized disaster stories, he is invisible.
To my mind, the roots of this problem go back 10 and 11 years, when the veteran suffered the irony of having people who directly opposed both his views and his acts become accepted as his spokesmen, in the name of the "generation gap," since he and they were from the same age group. But it's obvious that it wasn't age that separated views on Vietnam, and especially on what to do about it. It was culture. And the cultures that fought Vietnam have traditionally lacked access to the media and power centers of this country. As a result, their views have gone unheard and it has been presumed that, on the whole, "youth" embraced the views of the anti-war faction.
The tack of positive feedback persists. A Vietnam veteran looks for success stories within his own age group and finds that, by and large, they belong to people from one of two subgroups. Either the person managed to avoid the war altogether, with no stigma for doing so, and was able to devote full time to his field without the interruption of being in the service, or he actively opposed the war and has now converted his anti-war activities into credentials—much as the veteran of world War II did with his campaign ribbons.
The anonymity persists. I recall my most frustrating moment as a Vietnam veteran. The day after Saigon fell and it was finally over, a local newspaper ran what was tantamount to a special edition on "What Vietnam Did To America." On the front page were two human-interest stories. One detailed the frustrations of a draft resister. The other was about a person who had quit his civil service job because he had "lost faith" in the American system of government, and then sadly, had to become a lawyer. The center of the front section had two full pages of interviews—at least 50 of them—with people from across the entire spectrum of American cultures.
With one exception. There was not one interview with a Vietnam veteran. It was as if he had ceased to exist along with the government of South Vietnam—or perhaps was merely considered irrelevant in determining the effect on the rest of society of the very issue that had touched him the most directly and intensely.
And the whole notion of invisibility persists in other forms as well. We read repeated editorials and articles urging amnesty for the ones who fled. I realize that there is much room for differences of opinion on the issue, even among veterans. But no matter what a Vietnam veteran's position on the amnesty issue, he cannot help but feel the knife twist every time he reads articles that evaluate the ones who fled, collectively, to the level of prophets and moral purists. The phrase that sticks on my mind, used quite often, is that they "obeyed a higher law, that of their own conscience, and fled."
The unwritten implication, again and again, is that the Vietnam veteran, who merely obeyed the "lower law," that of his country, did so out of immorality or lack of conscience. Or, to be blunt, we seem to have reached the anomaly where the very institution, and the same newspaper, who only a few years ago called for us to bleed, have now decided that we should be ashamed of our scars.
Well, I'm not ashamed of mine. And I will always believe that the individual who agonized over the incredibly complex moral and political issue of Vietnam and then went there, displayed an equal level of conscience, and a hell of a lot more maturity, than his counterpart who fled. To go required an acceptance, sometimes conscious and sometimes visceral, of the premise that he was living in a nation of laws and not specially privileged people. It also required a sublimation of self to what, at least them, was perceived to be in the public good. The person who fled, no matter how great his agonizings, finally decided the issue in his own self-interest. If he had been a true "moral purist," he would have gone to jail for his beliefs.
The Vietnam veteran has a lot to be proud of. If the anti-war elements in this country had opposed the war with the same maturity and patience that he displayed in fighting it, perhaps 10,000 more of his contemporaries might be alive today. People being what are, and emotions what they are, Vietnam would have been a less volatile issue, and the war would have ended sooner.
I earnestly hope that awards such as this will encourage the community to accord the Vietnam veterans with dignity and respect. He has always deserved it.