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The Tragic Mistake and PTSD are Facts
By Tom Gery
Fifty years ago, I graduated from college. Four years earlier, I "graduated" from Vietnam. I flew home with bad baggage and worse habits. The former was stuffed into a dark place, the latter on prominent display. In 2019, the VA determined I was disabled. I had written my account of war, shared my story with the psychologist, and described drinking and drugging out of control in my retirement years.
While in college, I gravitated toward other veterans. There was a club. We met regularly at the Red Velvet Saloon, which specialized in beef and beer. Some were married, most single, all men, all drank, some liked weed, and none shared war stories. It was not a hot topic. Some guys didn't have any, others had too many, and on campus, it was not a popular subject. I knew nothing of VVAW!
The two things we had in common were the date our GI Bill checks arrived in the mail and avoiding the subject of US foreign policy and military adventurism. The prevailing attitude was detachment. Our personal journeys focused on classes and cumulative grade point averages. The Vietnam War was in our rearview mirrors, or so we assumed. For me, there was baggage and habits.
W. D. Ehrhart wrote in Passing Time about the war that by 1973, no one cared anymore. The troops were coming home; conscription ceased, and America was moving on. But do we ever just move on, or does history hold us accountable? Is there a moment when we hold ourselves responsible or hide behind alternative facts?
Arnold Isaacs, in his June 19, 2023 Salon piece, How the Trauma of the Vietnam War Led to the Age of "alternative facts," described "perceptions and opinions on both sides of the argument" about the US role in Vietnam, offering reference points of "tragic mistake or noble cause." Was the war lost because Congress cut off funds, or did one side of a civil war never really have the will to fight? The writer closes his discussion by highlighting the current political environment in the United States: very divided; facts don't matter.
For me, at the center of any debate about Vietnam is the quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan from a Washington Post column on January 18, 1983: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
The US Government's 172 months of war in Vietnam is a fraction of the region's geo-political history. The French exercised colonial adventurism with accompanying economic exploitation and cultural domination. Depending on perspective, we cannot omit the Roman Catholic influence, which was potentially culturally subversive. China's imperialistic designs go back centuries. Japan, too, brutally dominated Southeast Asia.
Although facts matter in all histories, opinions too can have an influence. Our own Civil War, 1860-65, is an illustration. There is a controlling narrative. History offers slavery as the predominant issue. There is a counter-narrative. A dedicated student of Confederate history who holds overt or even implicit racial bias will say, "States' Rights, it was a war of Northern Aggression."
Much of the Vietnam War story includes first-person accounts by those who lived it. The categories are numerous:
- Active participant, one of 2.7 million who were in-country.
- The anti-war activist.
- The unaffected, ambivalent citizen.
- The living victim of jungle warfare or campus violence in Vietnam or America.
- The Gold Star Mother.
Over time, primary sources, many with strong opinions, cease to contribute to the narrative. The scholarly work of accurate fact-finding continues. The facts come out!
More than a century later, historians continue to bring revelations to the Civil War narrative. Public monuments and Federal military posts' names are understood to be forms of psychological domination and consequences of negotiations between political jurisdictions. Statues of slave owner generals placed for all to see during the Jim Crow period sent a message to Black Folk. Similarly, the bargaining between the Federal and State governments for land and honor resulted in military bases for one glorification of "The Lost Cause" for the other. Names like Fort Polk, Fort Bragg, and Fort Hood rendered credibility and honor to the South.
Individuals who lived through the Vietnam War are telling their stories. Motivations for writing are as varied as the authors. Self-discovery, reconciliation, legacy, money, and celebrity serve to inspire. All contribute to the narrative. The thirty thousand books include many facts and entitled opinions.
For me, an opinion in 1965 became a fact by 1975. Accepting the Domino Theory of Communist global conquest, in reality, was a judgmental error of enormous proportions.
Under Secretary of State George Ball said: "Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives—even after we have paid terrible costs. . . " - in Neil Sheehan et al., comp., The Pentagon Papers (Boston Beacon Press, 1971).
The national story of Vietnam is factually on the record. In conjunction with the various bureaucracies in government and corporate sectors, the US political leadership knowingly sent and supported the country going to war. Strong beliefs form national values: "Better dead than Red"; profits over people; ribbons, medals, and rank are woven into the fabric of American society. We portray ourselves as peaceful and freedom-loving while harboring war-like tendencies. US military involvement in other peoples' affairs is part of our heritage. I found 106 conflicts. Google: "List of Wars involving the United States."
My story is told through A.J. Moore's Warpath, previously reviewed in this publication. We were in the same Scout platoon. There are no alternative facts revolving around our own experiences in Vietnam. Those who saw the horrors know it was a fact, not an opinion. Counting bodies as if they were Friday night touchdowns is haunting. Requesting combat because it tested one's courage is a moral hazard. Emulating the comic book WWII hero, Sgt Roc of Easy Company, leads to guilt, regret, bad baggage, and worse habits.
My PTSD diagnosis made VA counseling available. The psychologist challenged me to remove the steamer trunk from the dark storage place. My self-medicating with Demon Rum and Devil Weed was a bandage on an ancient wound. I began unpacking, discarding the bad baggage and habits. Moral injury is real. In 2020, I started the sobriety journey, one day at a time. Now I think about Vietnam without war. Birth defects from Agent Orange and dangerous munitions are facts, not opinions. I am aware of VVAW's mission and success. I help a little when letters about the libraries arrive in the mail. In a way, it helps with the healing. And that is a fact!
Tom Gery served in the US Army from January 1968 to September 1969 with a tour of duty in Vietnam '68-'69. He is a retired social worker, married with two adult children and two grandchildren.