Vietnam revised: toppling myths about the war

It's among the most lasting images of the Vietnam War: the bedraggled and psychologically unstable veteran, racked by memories of the war and abjured by American society.

Over the years, the portrait has been enshrined in print and picture, etched into pop culture through films like "The Deer Hunter" and "Taxi Driver."

But, in truth, that portrayal may be more fiction than reality.

A quarter century after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops, a number of historians, scholars, and veterans are challenging the public's beliefs about Vietnam. While others say widely held views of the war should not be completely cast off as incorrect, the revisions are puncturing some of the biggest myths about the conflict.

Among them:

*That Vietnam was a war fought overwhelmingly by the poor and minorities.

*That it left a large portion of its veterans psychologically scarred.

*That it was an unethical killing ground, where massacres such as the killing of civilians at My Lai were common.

None of those ideas are accurate, says B.G. Burkett, a former Army officer and leading Vietnam revisionist.

Along with author Glenna Whitley, he wrote "Stolen Valor," a 1998 book that has become a sacred text for veterans who feel unfairly maligned. It challenges much of the conventional wisdom about Vietnam, including who fought and died there.

"There are so many cultural myths that have been passed down from the media - they get picked up a little bit at a time," says Ms. Whitley.

The book argues that popularly held notions have tarnished the reputation of Vietnam vets for three decades.

The authors contend, for example, that Vietnam soldiers were a representative cross-section of America, not an underclass Army. They argue that the rate of Vietnam veterans' psychological problems is greatly inflated by poor statistical work.

And the notion of the bedraggled Vietnam vet as life's loser? Not true.

Joe Dunn, a history teacher and Vietnam authority at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., says Burkett's book has galvanized many Vietnam scholars who've made the same arguments for years.

"Statistically, there is no question he is right," Professor Dunn says.

A war fought by the poor?

Yet while Mr. Burkett's book has been widely praised by Vietnam veterans and a number of historians, it has its critics.

Bob Buzzanco, a history professor at the University of Houston, concedes that dysfunctional Vietnam vets are probably the exception, not the rule. But he argues that Vietnam soldiers were not a representative portrait of America.

"I tend to think it was a war disproportionately fought by the poor," he says.

That's the way James Gillam sees it, too. A former Vietnam infantryman who served in 1969, Mr. Gillam teaches a course on Vietnam at Spelman College in Atlanta. He says there's no question that, early in the war, blacks had high casualty rates because they were more likely to be in combat roles.

Government statistics back up Gillam's assertion - but only in a limited way.

Early in the war, black casualty rates were indeed disproportionately high. But by the end of the war, total black casualty rates were proportional to the size of the black population in America.

So who did fight and die in Vietnam?

While college students were temporarily exempt from service in the 1960s, the Vietnam soldier was in many other ways typically American.

One study, released eight years ago to little media fanfare, challenges the idea of Vietnam as a "class war."

Arnie Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, compared per-capita income levels of soldiers in Vietnam with that of the US population. After examining hundreds of records, he concluded that combat deaths were fairly evenly distributed across all income levels in the US.

Wealthy cities such as Chevy Chase, Md., and Beverly Hills, Calif., for example, had generally the same distribution of combat deaths as other American cities.

Who didn't serve

Similar research led Burkett to debunk the notion of the dysfunctional Vietnam vet. After poring over thousands of war records, he concludes that many who claim to be traumatized Vietnam veterans either never served in Vietnam or never spent time in the military.

Burkett estimates that 70 percent of those whose records he's reviewed either lied about or exaggerated their Vietnam service. Because it's rare for police, or even the Department of Veterans Affairs, to check military records, Burkett says, there are thousands of impostors who claim to be Vietnam vets.

His findings in "Stolen Valor" have been liberating for some. Former Army officers Mike Dawson and Tom Faulds say the other veterans they know are well-adjusted members of society.

"I'm thinking of the guys I know - they don't seem traumatized," says Mr. Dawson, a retired Army colonel who is now leading riverfront development here in Columbia, S.C.

Mr. Faulds, an executive with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, says he doesn't know any dysfunctional Vietnam vets, either.

Several historians have found other inaccuracies - or at least overstatements - about Vietnam. One is the notion that Vietnam soldiers were routinely spit upon when returning from the war.

Though the spitting stories have been widely told, they are likely nothing more than urban myth, says Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and sociology professor at Holy Cross College, who recently wrote a book about the subject.

In that book, "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and Vietnam," he writes that he couldn't document a single case of a US servicemember being spit on.

"I actually thought I'd find some factual basis for this. But I have still not found a single piece of compelling evidence that it ever happened," Mr. Lembcke says.

Rewriting fiction

Still, many who challenge Vietnam stereotypes believe that ideas about the war will be difficult to challenge, even with strong data. Jim Reckner, director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, says he's been trying to modify Vietnam stereotypes for years, with little success.

"You've never heard many stories about the Vietnam veteran who founds Federal Express and becomes immensely successful," he says, referring to Fred Smith, who started the company in 1973. "However, if someone robs a 7-Eleven and claims to be a Vietnam vet, it gets to be a big headline."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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