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GyGsMailbag: Vietnam Veterans Aren't Victims...

July 13 2000 at 11:40 AM
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  (Login Dick Gaines)
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Wall Street Journal

July 13, 2000

Vietnam Veterans Aren't Victims

By Mackubin Thomas Owens

President Clinton has signed legislation authorizing a plaque
near the

Vietnam Veterans Memorial to commemorate veterans who died after
the Vietnam

War of maladies attributed to Agent Orange and "posttraumatic
stress

disorder." According to the New York Times, "experts estimate
that the

number of veterans who died from these conditions is at least
equal to the

number inscribed on the wall, 58,220."

There is, however, not an ounce of scientific evidence to
support this

breathtaking assertion. Worse, the addition of the plaque to the
memorial

reinforces the stereotype of the Vietnam War veteran as victim.
Indeed, the

Times made the connection explicitly in its headline: "New
Category of

Victims at the Vietnam Memorial."

The myth of the Vietnam veteran as victim had its genesis in the
antiwar

left of the 1960s and '70s. Initially vilifying the American
soldier as a

war criminal, the left eventually bestowed victimhood upon him:
He was

victimized first by his country, which sent him off to fight an
unjust war.

He was then victimized by a military that dehumanized him,
turning him into

a killer.

According to the conventional story line, those who served were
largely

young, poor and from ethnic minorities. Many, if not most,
committed or

observed atrocities. The horrors of the war led many to turn to
drugs and

crime. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among
the

homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was, and is,
a time bomb

waiting to go off.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial visually reinforces this view.
More than one

commentator has noted that the arrangement of the names of the
dead on a

black wall descending into the earth resembles nothing so much
as a list of

the victims of a catastrophic accident.

But as Will Rogers once said, "It's not the things we don't know
that get us

into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so." This
applies in

spades to Vietnam veterans.

Vietnam was not a "class war." Thirty percent of those who died
were from

the lowest income group, but 26% were from the highest. As for
the war's

disproportionate burden on minorities, 86% of those who died
during the war

were white and 12.5% were black, in an age group in which blacks
comprised

13.1% of the population. Two-thirds of those who served in
Vietnam were

volunteers, and volunteers accounted for 77% of all combat
deaths.

This brings us to the contention that posttraumatic stress
disorder and

Agent Orange continue to victimize Vietnam veterans. While PTSD
is real, it

is not nearly as widespread as the press insists. The claim that
PTSD

continues to affect nearly half of the 3.3 million men who
served in Vietnam

is implausible, especially given that fewer than 15% of those
were assigned

to combat units. A more reasonable figure comes from the Centers
for Disease

Control, whose study reported that 15% of Vietnam veterans
experienced

symptoms of combat-related PTSD at some time during or after
military

service, but that only 2.2% exhibited symptoms at the time of
the study.

If the PTSD numbers are too high, the claim that more Vietnam
veterans have

committed suicide than died in the war is outrageous. The
suicide rate for

Vietnam veterans is no higher than for nonveterans. This is also
true of the

drug-abuse, homelessness and incarceration rates. And while many
veterans

believe their health problems are the result of exposure to
Agent Orange, no

epidemiological studies support this belief.

The press has been complicit in perpetuating the negative
stereotype of the

Vietnam veteran. B.G. Burkett's incomparable 1998 book, "Stolen
Valor,"

explains how. Mr. Burkett used the Freedom of Information Act to
check the

actual records of the "image makers" used by reporters to flesh
out their

stories on homelessness, Agent Orange, suicide, drug abuse,
criminality or

alcoholism. What he found was astounding. More often than not,
the showcase

"veterans" who cried on camera about their dead buddies, about
committing or

witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat
that led them

to the current dead end in life, were impostors. Many had never
been in

Vietnam, or even in the armed services.

Vietnam veterans are not victims. A comprehensive survey,
commissioned in

1980 by the Veterans' Administration, reported that 91% of those
who had

seen combat in Vietnam were "glad they had served their
country." A healthy

80% disagreed with the statement that "the U.S. took advantage
of me."

Nearly two out of three said that they would go to Vietnam again
-- even

knowing how the war would end.

Those who served in Vietnam did so, for the most part, with
honor, decency

and restraint. Vietnam veterans have fared at least as well as
any other

generation of warriors. It's time to bury the falsehoods that
taint

America's view of Vietnam veterans. Unfortunately, the addition
of the new

plaque to the memorial will only perpetuate the old and ugly
myths.

Owens is a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval
War College

in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in
1968-69.

 

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