Recovering the reality of ‘supporting our troops’

Scott Laderman

WWith lies and distortions a daily staple of George W. Bush administration pronouncements, it’s little wonder the phenomenon has become contagious. In the staid halls of the United Nations, the fibs have become so outrageous that even U.N. officials – normally models of diplomatic propriety – have felt compelled to start publicly correcting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush and other masters of deceit purporting to represent the United States. But White House officials are hardly alone in their misrepresentations. Voices in the media, students, pundits – indeed, nearly all those vehemently calling for war – have abandoned basic evidentiary standards and decided a world of fantasy is easier to inhabit than the one in which we actually live.

Consider the slanders directed at the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists today are accused of numerous offenses: lack of “patriotism,” hatred of the United States, ignorance, even a failure to “support our troops.” The charges are generally absurd, but what’s perhaps most frustrating – at least to those of us who believe that history matters – is the falsification of past realities used to buttress the claims. The level of distortion has become so widespread that, bizarrely, even those somewhat sympathetic to the movement have at times been guilty.

Take, for example, the editorial writers of The Minnesota Daily. While their intent was by no means manipulative, twice in recent weeks when contextualizing developments in the Iraq crisis they have succumbed to popular myths that have little or no basis in established fact. On Feb. 19, the editorial “Demonstrators deserve Bush’s respect” contrasted the current antiwar movement with that of several decades ago, claiming the latter “was largely comprised of college students and activists” while recent “marches (have) contained a remarkable diversity of people.”

Then, on Feb. 24, a second editorial, “The war at home,” counseled “support(ing) the troops” and warned that the movement “shamefully forgot this lesson in Vietnam and, sadly, some veterans of that war never fully recovered from the disorienting effects of returning from hell to a nation that viewed them as monsters.” “Americans must challenge policy where appropriate,” the editorialists wrote, “but support troops as called for.”

Both pieces attest to the success of efforts to reconfigure collective national memory, particularly as it pertains to the war in Vietnam and the massive social movements it helped engender. Tragically, intellectual discourse in the United States has become so debased that, as one cultural historian recently observed, “Myths, celluloid images, and other delusory fictions about ‘Vietnam’ … have come to replace historical and experiential reality.” So while Hollywood movies and television programs have convinced countless Americans that demonstrators against the Vietnam War were mostly spoiled college students or cowardly “draft dodgers” more interested in getting high than engaging in serious political analysis and opposition, an impressive body of historical scholarship has fortunately salvaged the actual composition of the movement from its many popular culture distortions.

It is, of course, impossible to argue with the tautological observation that the movement of 30 to 40 years ago was made up of “activists,” but the suggestion that it lacked diversity is nonsense. Those who opposed U.S. aggression in Vietnam represented a fairly broad cross section of U.S. society. This is true even when one considers that minorities – many of whom intensely opposed the war – often did not join in student- or pacifist-organized demonstrations due to the heavy cost paid for such public opposition. The examples are everywhere in history, from Julian Bond being denied his seat in the Georgia Legislature in 1966 to Muhammad Ali’s criminal prosecution and revocation of his heavyweight title to the Los Angeles police attacking the 25,000 persons staging the Chicano Moratorium in 1970, killing journalist Ruben Salazar and two others.

The latter fantasy is perhaps the more pernicious of the two. It is difficult today to trace with any precision the origins of the belief that the anti-Vietnam War movement displayed widespread hostility to returning soldiers, such as treating or viewing them as “monsters.” Perhaps for some people it was Rambo’s emotional monologue at the end of “First Blood” in which he recalled being spat upon by antiwar demonstrators – an enduring myth for which not a shred of contemporaneous evidence exists. Or maybe it was allusions to the “longhairs” throwing bags of “dog shit” at stateside soldiers in “Hamburger Hill”; it was in this same film that protesters were said to telephone the parents of soldiers killed in action to celebrate the deaths of their sons. Or it could have been “Forrest Gump,” the winner of six Academy Awards, in which, as one critic recalled, “the leader of SDS (Students for Democratic Society) at Berkeley is such a vicious bully that even Tom Hanks as lovable Gump feels compelled to thrash him.”

Whatever the source, the actual history of Vietnam veterans and the antiwar movement has, remarkably, been turned on its head. Although there were certainly isolated exceptions, in reality the movement might have been the only organized sector of mass society that consistently “support(ed) our troops.” The reason was simple: Apart from the fact that many of those serving were the children, siblings, partners, friends and neighbors of civilian protesters, the movement as a whole viewed them as natural allies. As such, large numbers of active-duty soldiers and veterans became involved in antiwar activities and resistance; indeed, one 1975 study found that 75 percent of the veterans interviewed by the authors were opposed to the war.

Yet for reasons that have been explored elsewhere, the close relationship between the movement and U.S. troops has been re-imaged in the intervening years as somehow hostile or antagonistic. Fortunately, we can turn today to scholarly literature reminding us of historical reality. One wishes, therefore, that those pre-emptively and sanctimoniously advising antiwar protesters to “support our troops” would avail themselves of the opportunity to crack a few of these important texts. We are, after all, the ones working to keep thousands of young Americans from killing and being killed in the interests of imperial folly.

Scott Laderman’s biweekly column usually appears alternate Tuesdays. He can be reached at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]