The Forrest Gump complex

Forgiving a historian for airbrushing himself into history

We didn't even have time to call in air support. Pinned down on the banks of a marsh by ferocious enemy fire just three weeks into the Tet Offensive, the best my platoon could do was dig in deep and pray that the helicopter gunship would rescue us yet again. I couldn't move for two hours, and somehow I avoided even a scratch, but my buddy from Texarkana took a direct hit right above the belt. I still go to see his name every time I am at the Vietnam Memorial.

Just three months after coming home, I stood with close to 1,500 Vietnam veterans to protest President Nixon's renomination. Several of us returned the Army Bronze Stars that had become badges of shame. My parents were mortified, and it still gnaws at my dad that I didn't at least keep the Silver Star with Silver Oak Leaf.

Later, I waited for three hours outside the rally while Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. The small group I was with never heard a word of his "mountaintop" speech, but we cried the next day when he was gunned down outside the Lorraine Motel.

I often wonder how my life could have encompassed so much pain, so much loss. I wonder how all of this could have happened to one person. Even Confucius could not have had experiences like these in mind when he expressed his hope that we "live in interesting times." Interesting is one thing. Escaping death is quite another.

And then I remember: None of this ever happened to me. None of it. I am a veteran of nothing.

The closest I got to a rice paddy was the Chinese food we ordered the night we sat around listening to the first of General Hershey's draft lotteries, praying for a high number. Dr. King? Memphis? It was the place where Elvis was holed up, stuffing himself with peanut butter sandwiches. In fact, I did attend several antiwar demonstrations, but I watched in silence, panicked that even being in the vicinity might make me lose my prized college deferment.

I thought of these fantasies when I read last week that the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Joseph J. Ellis, had admitted that he misled his Mount Holyoke College students into believing that he served in Vietnam.

None of us will ever really know what might have led an eminent historian to weave a stint in the airborne into an already accomplished life. It would be nervy of me to speculate about his demons when I hardly understand mine.

But I do know the powerful feelings of shame and embarrassment that come from looking back at a time of agonizing moral choices and realizing that - as others faced down the Viet Cong, the Chicago police, the fire hoses unleashed by the Birmingham police - I chose nothing. Absolutely nothing but saving me.

I've never uttered a word to anyone about this, but I suspect that I am not the only veteran of nothing. Presented with a veritable bounty of opportunities to stand for something, we were afraid to risk our safety and security for something greater than ourselves. We can't even look back and say we chose the path of least resistance. We chose no path at all.

Professor Ellis, I have never admitted these fantasies to my students, most of whom were not even alive in 1968. And I have resisted the temptation to embellish on a glorious past when I never lived one. You should have also. It was wrong of you to lie. But I do understand the powerful pull you must have felt to imagine a past of bravery and heroism. Those who harshly argue that you have forfeited the right to practice your craft should also try to understand and possibly even forgive your horribly misguided, yet deeply-felt, fantasy of courage.

In the end, though, there is no getting around it: We balked when others didn't. We are veterans of nothing.

Steven M. Gorelick teaches sociology and media studies at the City University of New York.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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