“If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there,” is a laugh line attributed to comedian Robin Williams (or maybe it was psychedelic rocker Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane). But of course, it’s not true.
For one thing, the Vietnam War – like the Civil War – probably won’t be over until the last vet checks out. And even then, it’ll keep being argued by the remnant of the baby-boom generation. For men especially, the question remains: “What did you do in the war?”
That’s happening now with the flap over Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s occasional assertion that he had served in Vietnam as a US Marine. In fact, as the New York Times pointed out in a controversial article this week, Mr. Blumenthal had gotten several deferments and then – when his draft board was closing in – joined a Marine Corps Reserve unit that kept him stateside.
Blumenthal – running for the US Senate – has since acknowledged that he misspoke, and his defenders point out that he usually described his military service as “during the Vietnam era.” At the same time, there is no evidence that he ever tried to correct the newspaper and magazine articles that mistakenly described him as a Vietnam vet, largely because that was the impression he had left.
In this case, whether one was for or against the war is irrelevant to most vets. (For the record, I was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam in 1968-69, later associated with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.)
What grates for many vets is the sense of entitlement and privilege the Blumenthal story evokes. Former vice president Dick Cheney had five deferments, former attorney general John Ashcroft six. Former president George Bush got into what was called a "Champagne squadron" in the Texas Air National Guard (as did the sons of former Texas Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower). Similar story for former vice president Dan Quayle.
In his autobiography, General Colin Powell wrote: "I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well placed and many professional athletes (who were probably healthier than any of us) managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to our country."
To be sure, serving in the Reserves or National Guard is fully honorable. A very high percentage of the soldiers fighting (and becoming casualties) in Iraq – especially in the first few years – were “weekend warriors” called to active duty.
Military service is very touchy for much of the political left. It's not really part of their culture, and yet they can't really acknowledge that. (This, despite the fact that many of the most highly-decorated members of Congress have been Democrats – including former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who won the Medal of Honor as a Navy Seal in Vietnam.)
It's also generational. Ted Kennedy and his brothers all served in the military (two of them in World War II, one of whom was killed in action); none of the next generation of Kennedys did.
What happened between those Kennedy generations (and for the rest of us, including Richard Blumenthal) was Vietnam – a 10-year war of dubious purpose that cost more than 58,000 American lives – and the end of the draft.
“Our privileged youth are no longer serving,” Professor Charles Moskos told me several years ago. The late Dr. Moskos, a renowned sociologist at Northwestern University specializing in the military, pointed to his own experience.
In Professor Moskos' class at Princeton University (1956), more than 400 of 750 in the then all-male school, including Moskos, either were drafted or took ROTC commissions. That included such notables as former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine, former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont, and R.W. Apple of the New York Times. Out of 1,100 men and women in Princeton's Class of 2003, by contrast, just seven went into the military.
But while far fewer Americans serve in the military today, there is still this ambivalence over the issue – especially among men of middle age. And it appears most sharply in the recurring stories of men who embellish (or flat out lie about) their military experience.
Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett, author of “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History,” claims to have revealed more than 2,000 men who falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam.
All of this is part of the response to Blumenthal. He’ll probably survive any political fallout from having “misspoken.” But there was something that made him want to say – maybe even want to believe – that he had “been there.”
And yet in retrospect (and for many Americans at the time), Vietnam was such a massive and tragic mistake that it can be difficult to judge those who figured that out early on and who did whatever it took to avoid it. For many young men, the world was fracturing in a way that resonates still.