Having misspent my day staring at blogs, I found myself without an appropriate focus for tomorrow’s comp class. Reaching back into the hard drive for short exercises from our old text, I found an old one but realized I’d ignored its content.
These are the sentences to be revised for brevity:
1. Some Vietnam veterans coming back to the United States after tours of duty in Vietnam had problems readjusting again to life in America.
2. Afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological disorder that sometimes arises after a trauma, some of the veterans had psychological problems that caused them to have trouble holding jobs and maintaining relationships.
3. Some who used to use drugs in Vietnam could not break their drug habits after they returned back to the United States.
4. The few veterans who committed crimes and violent acts gained so much notoriety and fame that many Americans thought all veterans were crazy, insane maniacs.
5. As a result of such stereotyping of Vietnam-era veterans, veterans are included into the same anti-discrimination laws that protect other victims of discrimination.
Of course, this doesn’t take a stand on Vietnam. But it does fit John Kerry’s narrative (and those of countless others). When we used this text our students would have been seventies kids; only a small percentage of their parents went, but that was their parents’ war. Perhaps a parent happened upon this little assignment. What had they thought? Did they sadly assent or bitterly see themselves as “victims of discrimination”, cry out “right on” or become a bit angry?
I’m not arguing that this is scandalous or even all that bad. After all, some truth lies in those generalizations (as do some exaggerations). And it’s just a writing exercise. Last spring I substituted in one of the remedial classes, where the day’s assignment was to rearrange a series of sentences praising Dean’s positions on government funding for all students at 2-year colleges. I don’t know what the teacher’s motives were in preparing such a worksheet, but I have a pretty good notion. I don’t think these editors had any motives. They were just reflecting current wisdom. (They neuter the textbooks in high school enough in this state; we don’t need to start on the ones at our level.)
But looking at it now, I realize that definition was pervasive and how this whole, obsessive sixties thing has made me conscious – the stories about the Swiftees and Kerry’s responses and listening to the reruns of his 1971 testimony and the ongoing arguments. And that is why something like “Christmas in Cambodia” is actually a big deal. We’ve accepted (the media, ignoring that Nixon wasn’t president, etc. has accepted) a certain point of view. That history was given a certain proportionality, some facts were weighted, others were not. That was not in itself a “big” fact – what some stray guy was doing at one point in Vietnam/Cambodia; it became “big” because of how often and where the story was told. But it shouldn’t have been there – it wasn’t true. And we begin to realize our perspective had been inadequate, our arrangements about to tumble. Of course, Kerry’s testimony had some truth in it; the Swiftees have some. One of my fellow teachers (a Viet vet), argues that we’re not going to sort it out in our generation. Everyone with a dog in that fight may have to die (or at least retire) first. But we’re getting old and history is a series of revisions.
I’m grateful, in a strange sort of way for that about this campaign. Not that Lex isn’t right: “Here’s the only explanation that works: They want it to BE THE SIXTIES way more than they even want to win the election. That is so totally pathetic.” The media attention is seldom about Iraq or Afghanistan or terrorism or even what the hell we are going to do about social security or insurance. This isn’t a public debate that helps us understand what Bush did right, what he did wrong; what Kerry would do right, what he’d do wrong. Still, we keep coming back to Vietnam because Kerry takes us back: he wants us to take his perspective, to see his heroism as heroism, his protest as telling truth to power, his take on our country as a courageous stand in Paris, his take on our country’s history and essence as the appropriate take.
Analogies to Vietnam (or to Japan/Germany) become false very fast. But Kerry returns again and again. This seems to mean something to him beyond being a politician. Surely he isn’t so stupid he thought he’d win votes if he said his favorite gun was the one he’d used in Vietnam? He is obsessed. It doesn’t seem healthy, but we needed to know that about him. Surely those pictures taken of him in Vietnam long before he was running for president were designed to prove who he was to – to whom? Does he know?
So, Vietnam isn’t extraneous. He’s right – to understand him is to understand his Vietnam experience, why and how he needs to relive it. And I also suspect that coming to terms with Vietnam would help us fight this war. But I suspect the terms we need to come to (and the guilt we need to feel) are not those he “sees.” As all those years we ignored the terrorists (but we knew they were there), all those years we knew, and pushed from our minds, the knowledge that we had some unfinished business, some unfinished reckoning. I don’t think we’ve been much in danger of sugar coating our role there – but of course, we should be wary of that. Covering it in clichés and looking away, that is worse than sugar coating because it involves only looking inside us – not at it. It was a disaster in many ways (many people died and the country still rots under communism), indeed in most. We know that. But I’m not sure we know why. We are obsessed, but the obsessive often can not see the object except as an abstraction. The weight has dominated thinking. (A radio announcer used it to trump any argument for the domino theory. Mention Vietnam and down goes anything that can be associated with it. This speaker had the “lesson” she wanted; that was all she needed.)
Why and how it was a disaster is more complex. And rote allusions, clichés, trite thinking – these are ways (as Orwell tells us) of not thinking. Bob Kerrey argued that what went wrong was that it became about “us” and not about Vietnam. I suspect he is right. This is the twentieth century perspective (from James through Chopin and on)—it is all about us, but when it is all about us, we find we can’t understand ourselves at all. It is through our interaction with the world outside us that we begin to understand who we are. We can’t define ourselves floating in space, alone.
We have to look at what happened there if we want to understand ourselves. We’d accepted a perspective – one that was partial (in both senses). One of the active anti-war Viet Vets at our school tells his students of the tragedy of Vietnam, arguing that the divorce rate for returning Vietnam vets was higher than for World War II vets. Well, duh! And the earth is not flat.
I suspect that stigma led a writer to argue John O’Neill should “get a life”; his assumption was that O’Neill fit the description from our handbook, had spent his life stalking Kerry. I suspect that is not how O’Neill, his colleagues or his family see his life. Maybe Kerry wants to ignore his Senate years, but I suspect O’Neill is quite happy talking about law school and court cases and his family. And also, that he won’t. Because he is a lawyer and he stays on point. And perhaps (I don’t know) because he doesn’t confuse the personal with the public.
And in that jab, that “why doesn’t he get a life”, we see how we have accepted Kerry’s (and those of others) narrative of Vietnam. No wonder we turned from it, from the guys coming back, from the boat people. But no wonder the Swift Boat Vets are mad.